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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Haruki Murakami - The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Tifa CosplayerHaruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was bought along with his two other books, Norwegian Wood and Elephant Vanishes last year, when, after hearing so many good things about him, I made a decision to hop onto his bandwagon as well, to witness for myself what Murakami's all about.

The result?

Flashforward. I was in a rather horrible mood earlier this year, and much of it was attributed to this book. A frustrating book to read, to the point where I wanted to just give up and read something else. (A rarity.) But because of my personal never-say-die, never-give-up attitude, I gritted my teeth and made my way through the book, all six hundred and nine pages of it, took a long gasp, wiped off the blood that were rolling down my cheeks from my eyes and shook my head in disgust, and decided to swear off Murakami books for a while. In the end, I lent Justin The Elephant Vanishes (check out his review here), while Norwegian Woods remains on my shelf, gathering dust.

'Toru Okada's cat has disappeared and this has unsettled his wife, who is herself growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has started receiving. As this compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada's vague and blameless life - spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table - are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell.'
My first impression after reading the summary on the back:

"Whoa, sounds pretty interesting, so, this is most probably about the increasingly distant relationship between two adult couples! And Toru's journey will be pretty interesting, I wonder what tales do those succession of characters have to tell? I wonder what's this whole deal about the cat? Maybe it's a symbol of... something! A reflection of contemporary Japanese culture!"

I'm pretty surprised to read the summary of the book again and realize how accurate it actually is. Yeah, it's about a guy looking for a cat (sometimes), and that his marriage is slowly crumbling. And that he did go for some journey of sorts and running into a succession of characters with stories to tell. But I was always made to believe that such premise can only work if the stories told by these characters This Tifa cosplayer is probably just as perplexed by the randomness of Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicles as I do.have to be interesting enough to keep you enthralled even though they may more or less deviate from the main plot (the whole deal between him and his wife), after all, I myself did attempt to write such a story during last year's Blogathon, where a guy was trapped in an abandoned cottage during a magical storm and had to kill time by interacting and engaging with the other people who were seeking shelter there (which includes a king of clowns, a badass barbarian with a cute name, a cheerful girl protected by the badass barbarian with a cute name, an old astronaut, a child entrepreneur who forsakes art for capitalism, a fortune-telling gypsy who knows the mysterious way of the world). Each story told by the characters was meant to develop the character or the settings, or both. No matter what, I thought such things were needed to generate some sort of mood for the readers, or establish a kind of link to engage them. Hell, even my upcoming short film, Girl Disconnected, is supposed to be like this as well (girl travels to the moon, seeking her lover, and during her journey, meets the denizens there, each with stories to tell).

When I went through the stories told by the numerous not-very-colourful characters Toru ran into (two fortune-telling sisters, random philosophizing teenage girl, a weird mother and son pairing, old war veteran, etc), the only emotion I felt was sheer annoyance, I didn't care for either of the characters, I didn't WANT to read their stories, especially not twenty to thirty pages worth of horrible war experiences being recounted where a guy being skinned alive was being described in graphic detail (yay for bloodthirsty sadists for me), nor letters about duck people (I visualize an army of Donald Ducks and Daffy Ducks tearing up the joint), nor some prostitute who felt nothing when serving her clients until the last client was so electrical with negative energies that she ended up claiming that the man raped her both mentally and spiritually and physically, or poor bishounen (pretty boy in Japanese) who turned into a mute after witnessing some seriously intense shit in the past, or evil brother-in-laws with aspirations to conquer the world. I wished all these random people would just get the hell away so I can know HOW Toru's going to deal with his wife. Isn't that the emotional core of the book?

Or maybe I'm completely missing the point of this. And that I should be EMBRACING the sheer randomness of the novel. To 'feel' its strangeness and alienation, to 'appreciate' the surrealism of it and regard it as 'art'. Some will start arguing that the pointlessness of Murakami's book is its beauty. That everything's meant to be so banal and flat that anything slightly weird will make me double over in amazement of its unconventionality and magic.

Is that so?

Hm...





Hmm...






Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm....


Nope, not feeling it.

Let me try again.


La.




La la la.





Tralalalalalala.




La dee daaa.




Whoopee do wop.


Nope, still can't feel it.

I shall walk to the toilet and meditate on this.


I got slowly off my feet, from my laptop computer.


I entered my rat-infested bathroom.



Then I urinated while my mind scattered to many different directions at once.


This cute Tifa cosplayer is just as frustrated as I am with Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird ChronicleI washed my hand, looked at the mirror, and marveled at my flawless complexion. Happy that no blue black stain had appeared on my cheek, nor any unexplainable mark that would taint my beauty. I trudged my way back to my desk, and stared at the computer screen and proceeded to continue with writing this review.

And no, I still haven't found anything I can like about the sheer randomness of The Wind-up Bird Chronicles. Perhaps I am not hip enough to understand the bizarreness of the story. The poetry weaved together masterfully by Murakami flew right over my head. Instead of praising what he did as art, I can only shake my head in disgust, declaring that Haruki Murakami was just being infuriatingly pretentious.

However, the ending of the book didn't drive me into some insane fury like I have initially expected as many loose ends were tied. Not all questions were answered. Not all questions were meant to be questions at all. They were just tossed in for the sake of randomness. Despite the ending's slight redemptive qualities, I must say that the journey there was pretty damned traumatic for someone with an untrained mind for random crap like me.

Postscript: Blurbs

I will do what Justin did by addressing the blurbs from the front and back of the book.

"Mesmerising, surreal, This cute Tifa cosplayer is just as frustrated as I am with Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chroniclethis really is the work of a true original" - The Times


Original indeed. I've never encountered a writer who angers me so much when trying to be mesmerizing and surreal.

"Murakami writes of contemporary Japan, urban alienation and journeys of self-discovery, and in this book he combines recollections of the war with metaphysics, dreams and hallucinations into a powerful and impressionistic work." - Independent
The book makes me want to traverse through contemporary Perth for a journey of self-discovery ("why the hell did I pay for this?") and alienating myself from everyone else ("I am tainted."). Perhaps I need recollections of war videogames, dreams and hallucinations of hot babes to fill the massive void that opened within me after reading this supposedly powerful and impressionistic work.

"Murakami weaves these textured layers of reality into shot-silk garment of deceptive beauty." - Independent on Sunday
I felt so deceived after reading the book that I wanted to cover myself with textured layers of my blankets.

"Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, Don DeLillo, Phillip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon - a roster so ill assorted as to suggest Murakami is in fact an original." - New York Times.
I'm feeling rather ill.

"Deeply philosophical and teasingly perplexing, it is impossible to put down." - Daily Telegraph
With my shallow mind, I was perplexed by its philosophy and teases, I wanted to put myself down instead.

"How does Murakami manage to make poetry while writing of contemporary life and emotions? I am weak-kneed with admiration" - Independent on Sunday
(This blurb appeared on the back of Elephant Vanishes as well and Justin has already addressed it). How does the Independent on Sunday manage to make such incredible hyperboles? I am weak-kneed with admiration.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'Failure To Launch'

I can never understand why I belong to the 1% of the entire male population in the world actually partial to romantic comedies and chick flicks. I'm a hopeless romantic, that's long established. After all, I AM a Piscean. But anyway, yes, I don't know what is it about romantic comedies that appeal to me. Fulfilling my fantasies? Hm. Perhaps it's caused by my years-long singledom. But anyway, what do I have to say about this sleeper hit starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker?

Um. Well, like Lune had said, MAYBE I've been bitten by the McConaughey bug or something. Despite never showing himself to be more than an above average actor, and never appearing in an actual great film that I can remember, I just can't make myself hate him at all. Maybe it has to do with the whole Sexiest Man Alive tag, which makes him totally immune from the jealousy and hatred of megalomaniacal bastards like me.

I mean, Reign of Fire IS a tremendous piece of shit. Every single time I hear this title being uttered, I cannot help but feel bile rising up my throat. Yet... yet McConaughey's death scene remains one of the most memorable death scenes in a bad film for me. (He leapt off from a tall building onto a dragon with a manly battle cry while holding his axe... and then gets eaten)

The Wedding Planner remains one of those rare JLo films which I can actually stomach (... more than Maid In Manhattan and Gigli, easily).

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days is totally forgettable, and yes, I can't remember a single damned thing in it at all, but I remember enjoying it when I first watched it.

And what else? Ah, last year's Sahara. Matthew McConaughey as an action hero? Er, the film didn't suck either. It's bad, sure, but it's one of those mindless entertainment which had me walking out of the theaters surprised that I actually enjoyed the damned thing!

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the guy is like Keanu Reeves. There's not much diversity or versatility, but you've gotten so used to his screen persona that you just don't mind seeing him sleepwalking through a film being his usual self. The guy pokes fun of his own image, which makes things fun. Yeah. That sly bastard.

As for Sarah Jessica Parker. Mmmm. Well, I have less than flattering things to say, but seriously, maybe it has to do with the makeup artist, or the camera person, or whatever. She really looked, ah, less than flattering in the film. Not having watched a single episode of Sex and the City, I never knew that er, she had a mole on her chin, and thus I ended up wondering why she had such a huge unsightly zit on her throughout the film. I was rather distracted, really.

Failure To Launch is a term used for guys who refuse to move out from their parents. Usually bachelors, and often with low self-esteem and bad social skills. Trip (McConaughey) is 35, and he still lives with his parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates). Whenever a girlfriend becomes too clingy, he brings her home and lets her know that he lives with his parents so that she can dump him.

And therefore, Trip's parents hire Paula (Parker), whose job is to coax such men out of their homes by making them fall in love with her, and once they are out, she will break up with them. So, yeah, it's one of those generic films where our two protagonists' relationship is just a lie, and where we have some brief angsty scene of guilt and separation when one party finds out the truth of another. If my parents actually hire such a person to do this to me, I think I'll be scarred forever. And I'll be so furious with my parents that I would consider cutting all ties with them.

But then, this is rom-com land, so I'm not supposed to pay attention to such details. I don't have to tell you more, because you can most probably guess what happens in this film. Yes, Paula falls in love with Trip, and accidentally breaks her 'no sex with client' policy. Complications occur. And we see how things will resolve for our two main characters.

No, I wasn't interested. There was some mild chemistry going on (...I think), but it's a generic romantic comedy chruned out by Hollywood, so like what I usually do when I watch generic Hollywood romantic comedies, I try spot things that separate it from the others. Hmm. Well, Trip has some interesting friends, likeable enough. Oh, and Trip has pretty bad luck too, geting bitten by a chipmunk, a dolphin and a vegetarian lizard throughout the course of the film. Hah.

The best part about the film? Two words. Zooey Deschanel.

Playing Paula's (possibly psychotic and rather manic-depressive... both characteristics that remind me of, well, myself) roommate, Kit, she totally stole the show from everyone else, making me wish that the film's about her instead of the two leads. I was struck by how familiar she looked, until a quick research in IMDB told me that she was in last year's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy film as Trillian. Sarcastic and prone to violent mood swings, Kit spent most of the film trying to kill a mockingbird and never having heard of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Yeah, she was interesting. And with her performance here, I'm definitely DYING to see her other film of the year, Winter Passing, which drew some major raves from Roger Ebert and Cinematical for her acting. Yeaah!

Right. My verdict. Film's nothing special. You won't miss much even if you don't see it. If you really want to see it, see it only for Zooey Deschanel. Yes.

Trailer of the film:



Watch a review of the film:



Watch Zooey Deschanel (YES!) speak about the film during my birthday (YES YES!):



Read other reviews of the film:
James Berardinelli | Hollywood Reporter | Slashed Seat Affairs | David Gagne


If you've done a review of this film as well, or you have any other reviews of this film you want to direct me to, just post it here.

Update (29/4/2006): How come not a single soul mentioned to me that I forgot to put up the videos?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'Scary Movie 4'

I have waited more than a week to review Scary Movie 4, because I felt that it's, er, pretty damned challenging to review a film like this. Seriously, when I look at the reviews in Rottentomatoes (39% in the Tomatometer thus far), I have to scoff at the negative reviews, were critics really expecting THIS to be a masterpiece? This isn't a film where you can give negative or positive reviews, the usual methods used to evaluate the merits of a film are useless with films like Scary Movie 4. Is it acted well? Is it well-scripted? Is it well-directed? How's the script like? Oh please, are you even looking for all these?

I went into Scary Movie 4 expecting some laughs, and that was pretty much what I got. Series of skits that parody well-known films since 2003 (when Scary Movie 3 came out) linked together, it's kinda like watching a long series of SNL or MAD TV, kinda like watching through a few funny skits you see in Youtube, but bigger-budget, and possibly less original and funny. The main films that get spoofed are The Grudge, The Village, War of the Worlds and Saw. Watching these four films are essential to understand most of the jokes here, and whether understanding these jokes will make you laugh is entirely a different matter. Of course, even brief parodies of award-winning films like Brokeback Mountain (how could they let this one slip away, eh?) and Million Dollar Baby (unexpected, but clever!) were tossed in as well. Oh, Leslie Nielsen returns as the Bush-like U.S president, his appearance a spoof of Fahrenheit 9/11. And in the end, even Tom Cruise's 'jumping on sofa during Oprah show' incident is made fun of. Hey, there's even a Myspace reference (that prompted me to explore around the site by signing into my long-forgotten account, I'll talk more about it some other time).

Why list out the number of films and things being spoofed? Because, like I said, if you don't get any of these, watching Scary Movie 4 would've been a serious waste of time (and money). There's not much pleasure you can derive from a film like this, and you wouldn't want to miss anything while everyone else is laughing. The Scary Movie franchise, since it's been taken over by David Zucker in part 3, isn't only about spoofing horror films anymore, all kinds of major films and latest events from pop culture are targeted. But since it's such an established brand, changing the name from Scary Movie to something else might not be a good idea (look at Date Movie earlier this year) What can I say? It's just like watching the stuff you see regularly online, albeit with bigger budget, and superstar cameos. Shaquille O Neal, Dr. Phil, Michael Madsen, Bill Pullman, Charlie Sheen and Carmen Electra made their brief appearances. Yeah, it has its gross-out jokes and toilet humour, but it's pretty much just some harmless (and rather forgettable) fun, unlike, say, Wedding Crashers, or 40 Year Old Virgin, which would have you talking about for months, or quoting their lines. To me, despite laughing and being thoroughly amused with some scenes, more emotions were generated from me when my friend who saw the film with me was laughing and uttering the N-word at some point of the movie, I was so afraid then that I wanted to sneak out of the theaters. Random, I know.

Anyway, I won't tell you whether you should see the movie or not. I'm just telling you what you will expect from it. I'm not even going to waste my time giving you a summary of that thing. If you've long decided to see this, go ahead and do so, otherwise, you ain't missing much. You might get more laughs surfing around Youtube for funny clips anyway. But personally, I wouldn't mind if the Scary Movie franchise continues.

And to do something really ironic, I'm going to post two Scary Movie 4 clips I found from Youtube which I think are the funniest scenes in the film. I'm evil.

Here's the much-talked about Saw spoof with Dr Phil and Shaq in the beginning of the film.



And here's the obligatory Brokeback Mountain spoof.



Now, here's a trailer of the film.



And here's a video review of the film via The Movie Blog.



Other reviews of Scary Movie 4:
L & N Line

If you've reviewed the film too, post your URL on the comments section. If there are some good reviews of the film you want me to check out, do that as well.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

My very first attempts at video editing + Kahimi Karie

Back in July-August 2004, before I made my very first short film called A Boring Story. The first video I've ever put together was what is now known as a mashup video featuring snippets from the Japanese film, Casshern, and the Jude Law film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and also music videos of Hiro, lead vocalist of the long-disbanded Japanese girl group, SPEED, object of my obsession for many of my teenage years. (whose latest video, as I've mentioned here, unfortunately sucked)



The background song I used is sung by Kahimi Karie, whom I discovered that year when I downloaded her 2003 album, Trapeziste, during one of my downloading sprees (and was then shocked to find out that instead of being a Jpop album as I've expected, IT WAS ACTUALLY IN FRENCH!) Intrigued by her breathy, childlike voice (which creeps Justin out), I tried to Google her back then, but to no avail. Just two interviews with her, this and this, and an article. Nothing more. Not even a proper photo. But then, that was 2004, before the time of Youtube, before the time of Wikipedia.

Of course, you can now read the Wikipedia entry about her easily. (I was surprised when I found out about her age!) So yes, basically, Kahimi's Japanese, but during the time when the interviews were conducted, she was living in Paris. And all these while, I had assumed that she had remained in Paris until the Wikipedia entry stated that she currently lives in Tokyo, Japan.

And thanks to Youtube, I managed to find some videos of Kahimi Karie too. (I was surprised that she's that good-looking!) Now, why the hell is a filmmaker like me introducing a crapload of music videos nowadays in this site? But my dears, sifting through these music videos IS a creative process for me, as music plays an intergral role in my creative endeavours. Music videos inspire me visually, but music itself can generate images within my mind too, though not as strongly as most others, but well, the surrealism of Kahimi's songs are pretty much what I needed to develop my Girl Disconnected screenplay, which is a rare Magical Realism short film. I mean, what else should I be listening? *scoffs* Linkin Park?

Anyway, being everyone's favourite vlogging filmmaker from Malaysia, I will now attempt to share with you folks a Kahimi Karie video.

A Fantastic Moment



Isn't she pwetty? Eh? Come on, she's totally unique! Too bad I only have two albums of hers thus far (Trapeziste and K. K. K. K.). Hmmmm. Oh, and I heard that she did a song, Blue Orb, for the game, We Love Katamari. Man, I gotta look for that.

All right, enough with my music videos, I'll try to whip up my Scary Movie 4 review soon. It's just that... it's such a difficult film to review. Speaking of Scary Movie 4, their Myspace reference prompted me to look around in that site (I actually had a Myspace account long ago, but never bothered to log in!). Hmmm. Will keep you all updated.

And on a totally unrelated note... man, even Dawn Yeo (or Dawn Yang? Jeez, Dawnie-poo, should I refer you as Dawn Yeo or Dawn Yang nowadays? Or it doesn't really matter for your name is nothing but a representation of a glorious idea that can appear in all kinds of manifestations and that Dawn Yang or Dawn Yeo is everyone, you, me, him, her, them etc.?) had nice things to say about V For Vendetta. Man... maybe Justin and I are really the only ones in the world underwhelmed by it...

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cultural Uniqueness or Stereotypical Caricature?

"But as I think of the many myths, there is one that is very harmful, and that is the myth of countries. I mean, why should I think of myself as being an Argentine, and not a Chilean, and not an Uruguayan. I don't know really. All of those myths that we impose on ourselves - and they make for hatred, for war, for enmity - are very harmful. Well, I suppose in the long run, governments and countries will die out and we'll be just, well, cosmopolitans." - Jorge Luis Borges, 1980
Whilst attending a seminar organized by the Sin Chew Jit Poh Newspaper last year, where two acclaimed Malaysian filmmakers, James Lee and Tan Chui Mui, were featured as guests, one thing that left the deepest impression for me was when they started speaking about how some people, both the authorities and the filmmakers, have been trying too hard to produce a film with a 'distinct Malaysian feel', thus limiting the boundaries of creativity. After all, must all Malaysian films feature people speaking Manglish? (to proclaim proudly to people of other countries our sheer ineptitude with the English language?) Must all Malaysian films feature mamak stalls and coconut trees? Why, because Malaysia is all about mamak stalls and coconut trees? And that without these, Malaysian isn't Malaysia anymore?

A couple of weeks ago, I received a DVD from my friend, Sebastian, which is about the Malaysian Night held in the University of Warwick. Of course, such a cultural event organized by patriotic students of my country would feature numerous attempts to highlight the special characteristics of our country's culture. It was, after all, meant to be a feel-good event where homesick students can remember and appreciate what they have in their home country. Yet their stageplay bothered me, as well-produced and well-acted it was, it bothered me because I saw people conforming to certain formulas expected from a 'Malaysian' play written by a Malaysian for Malaysians. People speaking Manglish (oh, how I utterly hate this term), a Malay guy whose two best friends are conveniently a Chinese guy and an Indian guy, an impossible romance divided because of differences between social statuses, oh, and one token white guy who is potentially an obstacle for the relationship between the main guy and the main gal, and numerous other things I cannot remember off the top of my head. Playing it safe means producing a predictable crowd-pleaser (I would've crapped in my pants if the Malay, Chinese and Indian guy turned out to be psychotic murderers and attempted to murder the main female character) where everybody loves. Oh wait, did I say everybody, no, I just mean everybody FROM MALAYSIA.

(By the way, here's a trailer of the Malaysia Night put together by Sebastian for the DVD)



I'm not sure whether this is a Malaysian mentality, or something that happens almost everywhere else (I used to think that it was the former, but I begin to realize that it's the latter these days), but why are people embarking in creative endeavours SO desperate in trying to showcase the cultures of their home countries? Is that a form of patriotism? "Hah! I love Malaysia, therefore if I don't write anything about Malaysia, I am UNPATRIOTIC!"?? I voiced out my personal distaste for this popular belief, that a good Malaysian film (or anything else creative) has to 'play it safe', has to conform with the expectations of well, Malaysian audiences so that it can be accepted, and then totally alienate and disregard the non-Malaysians.

I have mentioned before that during my editing assignment, some guy chuckled annoyingly in his self-congratulatory manner that he had just dubbed his video with Malay voiceover, inserting them with Malaysian jokes so that Malaysians will love it. Yet when I asked what about the non-Malaysians, he was incapable of answering. He seemed so proud of what he did that he didn't even notice that the actual editing he did was pretty mediocre. But of course, for him, as long as it's accepted by Malaysians, as long as it shows him being a 'patriot', it's a good thing, right? Patriotism over quality. Hell yeah. (Oh, by the way, watch what I did with my editing assignment if you haven't already). Or can we all just disguise our shortcomings by being nationalistic? Artistic merits? Screw that, as long as it accentuates the 'Malaysian-ness', it is fine?

I tend to feel that if a good Malaysian story cannot be that good when the 'Malaysian' is taken away, then it isn't even that good a story. I believe a good story has to be more universal, that it can be something appreciated by anyone from anywhere. Malaysia is more complex than Manglish, coconut trees and mamak stalls, Malaysia isn't just about racial harmony, where three best friends of three different races make shallow juvenile jokes with each other. Shouldn't we be thinking how good a story we are telling instead of how 'Malaysian' it is? Or are shallow works featuring caricatures more appreciated and easily accepted by the mainstream audiences?

I don't see Ang Lee desperately trying to sell the greatness of Taiwan when he was doing Brokeback Mountain, nor randomly insert some Chinese people into the film just so that he can show his sheer patriotism by displaying the creative liberties he took from Annie Proulx's short story. New Zealand's Peter Jackson has a crew from New Zealand, and often shoots his films in New Zealand, but I don't see him inserting New Zealanders into King Kong just to show his sheer patriotism. I think Lord of the Rings films are great films, but no one would call them a great AMERICAN trilogy (it is financed by Hollywood anyway), or a great NEW ZEALAND trilogy (director and his crew are from New Zealand), or a great BRITISH trilogy (Tolkien's from England), or great whatever the hell country that is involved in their production. So why are people trying so hard to make great MALAYSIAN films? Write great MALAYSIAN stories? Sing great MALAYSIAN songs? Why not just think of making GREAT FILMS, write GREAT STORIES or sing GREAT SONGS?

For the sake of warming up and practising my craft, and also sheerly because of my love for filmmaking, I volunteered to join a group of Malaysian girls (my intentions were definitely pure) for my screen production unit, so that I will be involved in the production of two short films. Although the initial ideas being thrown around were about doomed interracial romance (I am starting to get annoyed with the universally-loved Sepet for this wonderful little trend) and white men getting shot because the interracial romance was doomed, I voiced out my personal disdain for making films 'too Malaysian'. Why try so hard to make your films Malaysian? When due to your background and upbringing, what you will produce in the end will ultimately reflect your own culture in a subconscious manner?

I am in the process of developing two screenplays for them (yes, of course I volunteered to be their screenwriter, who else could it be?), one a horror film, another a romantic comedy (remember when I asked about whether height is an issue for relationships? I was doing research for this short film). I have finished writing the treatment. Neither of them are specifically about Malaysians, nor are they about Australians. It is up to the group of filmmaking gals to choose their cast, and they have the freedom to choose Malaysians if they want to, but it wouldn't really have mattered since both stories could've been about anybody from any place. Hell, it could've been in any language (just that it would give me a hell of a headache... since it means that I have to translate my writings into Chinese, which, admittedly, is my weaker written language).

Of course, we are still in the preproduction process, and I have yet to write the actual screenplays for both shorts, so I'm not sure whether they'll be masterpieces or not. But even if they are, I hope they will be regarded more as 'masterpieces created by a bunch of Malaysians', than 'Malaysian masterpieces about Malaysians that will only be regarded as masterpieces by other Malaysians while giving non-Malaysians a goddamn terrible headache'.

Pretty lengthy entry. It's been a while since I've written something like this (besides my film reviews). So, is this the part where I'll be lynched by the angry mob for being 'not patriotic enough'?



Oh, and since this entry begun with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, I'm putting two Borges-related videos as well.





Related Entry: Swifty Ponders The Concept Of A TRUE Malaysian Film

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Is height an issue In relationships?

Well, haven't been able to go online due to the fact that I can't reload my Internet quota (it's one of the biggest annoyances about staying on-campus, the lack of unlimited Internet connection). It's Easter weekend, and I assume everyone's probably celebrating by slaughtering bunnies for fun. Hah.

Anyway, I'm currently developing two screenplays for two short films that will be done by this all-Malaysian girls screen production group I've volunteered to help (oh, and Kenny Sia's cousin happened to be one of them, small world huh?). I've already written one called 'A Mother's Love', which deals with a man who is still dealing with the grief of losing his wife, and also trying to bond with his son, who seems oblivious to the death of his mother. And then, the man's asthmatic attackes are also growing increasingly violent. Since this IS written by me, the entire short film takes a pretty cruel twist towards the end which will leave people shaking their heads in disgust after losing their meals. Of course, it's a matter of whether it will be translated well onscreen.

I am now starting work on a second screenplay for the group called 'Vertical Distance', which I have to examine how important a role heights can play in a relationship. As in, will guys go out with gals taller than them? Will gals go out with guys shorter than them? If yes, why? If no, why?

After asking a friend whether he would go out with a chick who is taller than him, his response was 'preferrably no', and when I pressed on, he just said that he would feel like the girl in a relationship if he were shorter.

As for me, I wouldn't go out with a gal taller than me because I feel that it's rather awkward. Imagine looking up at my girlfriend while speaking, or have her towering over me when she wears high heels. I like taller gals, those who are near my height, but not taller than me, thank you. I am too egoistic to handle that. Tom Cruise most probably divorced Nicole Kidman because he was shorter than her, and despite being one of the most powerful actors in Hollywood, to have this happening to him can be a massive blow to his pride. But then, I do know men who are shorter than their wives (I think my grandfather was shorter than my grandmother, but both passed away before I was born).

Therefore, my dear readers, I need your opinions regarding this issue.

(UPDATED 31/8/2007): I ended up making the short film, VERTICAL DISTANCE, watch it below.


Vertical Distance


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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Koda Kumi's 4-part music video miniseries: YOU, FEEL, LIES, SOMEDAY

While speaking about using music videos to inspire myself when planning the visual looks of a film, I posted Koda Kumi's 倖田來未 beautifully shot 'You' music video because I was amazed by it. But most of all, I was really intrigued by the fact that it unfolded like a short film (I'm pretty into plot-driven music videos, actually), and when I realized that there are continuations to the 'You' music video. I went off to look for them, and I finally did, and arranged them into sequence so that you peeps can the music videos, and get the whole damned thing.

I think what Koda Kumi had done was pretty amazing. To release twelve singles in a twelve-week span, and then make four music videos that are to be viewed in order so that viewers can get an entire story that is being told is an ambitious effort. Have this ever been done in other countries? Where one music video serves as a 'sequel' of another? The only one I can remember was Madonna's Take A Bow and You'll See, which featured some Spanish bullfighter or something.

So, while other film sites and filmmakers are presenting to people the greatest films and short films they have seen, I will do something entirely different by introducing to you all, my dear loyal readers, these Koda Kumi music videos. Yeap, while I don't know Japanese, the SHEER EMOTIONS and poetic visuals are more than enough to make up for my lack of understanding for the language (cliched, no?). I believe there is no one else who would do something as wonderful as this. (and that's why she is now featured on my desktop wallpaper)

But before I can be corrected by someone who actually knows Japanese, I will now try to explain the setup of these music videos based on my personal assumptions. Three guys sat in a bar, angsting about their personal love lives, each music video will focus only on one guy's story, and each of them has a vastly different atmosphere and mood. While the woman in their lives are all played by Koda Kumi, I believe they are all different characters (duh!).

I am so utterly blown away this that I will now dub these four music videos the You Feel Lies Someday Tetralogy. Remember, I, Edmund Yeo, am the first person to give this a name, and this visual masterpiece MUST BE SPREAD AROUND THE WORLD!

Part 1: YOU


The You music video is about a love story between a photographer (Takashi Tsumamoto) and a fashion designer/model (Koda Kumi). Their love for each other, whilst beautiful and passionate at first, dissolved during the cold days of winter. And as they grew apart, both of them tried desperately to salvage what they once had. Alas, things weren't going to work well. This is a sad ballad filled with sheer emo-ness that would make hopeless romantics like me melt.

Part 2: FEEL



The Feel music video, on the other hand, is about a guy (Shugo Oshinari, who plays the evil Hoshino in Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou Chou) who is involved in a love affair with a sultry and sizzlingly sexy lounge singer (Koda Kumi again) whom he met when he was drinking by himself. Yet once again, things spiralled out of control, they both grew distant from each other, and the man, perpetually a loner, had to face the prospects of being alone again as the one woman who meant something to him was about to leave him.

Part 3: LIES



The Lies music video is a tale about a dagger thrower (Shogen) and his beautiful assistant (who else but Koda Kumi?). Being a rugged manly man he is (he makes his other two drinking buddies look like women), he never gave a shit about the faithful assistant who was genuinely in love with him. To him, she was nothing more than an object to sleep with, or to perform his dagger-throwing performances upon. Yet when the tables were suddenly turned against him, and he had to re-examine his personal feelings for his assistant.

Part 4: SOMEDAY



Someday concludes the stories of the three previous music videos (which all had open-ended endings), tying up all loose ends, answering all questions. Will these three vastly different men dealing with heartbreak find a resolution to all their problems? Watch this and you will know!

Personally, after watching these, I feel like doing a series of music videos that are connected like this one. I absolutely love the concept of these Koda Kumi videos, and I wish more music videos would do something like this.

Special thanks to Elle Wood for telling me which two music videos come after You and Feel. And to Shugo Oshinari Blog for the names of the actors featured in the three music videos.

Swifty Reviews 'Tsotsi' and 'L'Enfant'

Tsotsi, winner of 2005 Oscar's Best Foreign Film awardTsotsi, a South African film directed by Gavin Hood, is this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign film.

L'Enfant (The Child), A French film directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is Cannes Film Festival 2005's Palm D'or Winner.

Both films which I saw in the past week share some similarities. Which is about the protagonist's life being changed completely with the sudden appearance of an infant. Both films are character studies that deal with redemption. The protagonists are bastards engaged in numerous nauseatingly heinous deeds at the beginning, making it difficult for you to feel sympathetic for them, yet strangely, you would emphatize with them as the films progress.

However, both have vastly different stylistic approaches. Tsotsi is a highly-stylized film where the village resided by the protagonist, Tsotsi (which means 'thug' in their language) is tinged with golden light as if it was something from the Old West, while the protagonist and his underlings are like gunslingers (I would say cowboys, but nowadays, thanks to Brokeback Mountain, cowboys just ain't taken seriously anymore). It's briskly-paced, colourful, and beautiful to look at. And it's slightly more sentimental, but not melodramatic. 'Kwaito', which, I think is Africa's version of hip-hop, is used extensively throughout the film. The scenery and settings of the film are stunningly beautiful, steel skyscrapers of a modern city can be seen looming in the distance, far away from Tsotsi's village. Both places are divided by a wasteland which the hero crossed a few times. The city belong to the medium and upper class whilst the villagers languish in poverty.

On the other hand, L'Enfant is entirely devoid of MUSIC (which is most probably the first I've ever witnessed in a feature film), and is like a documentary because of the filmmakers' handheld camera-style and use of natural lighting. Languidly-paced, it is practically the opposite of Tsotsi despite their plot similarities. And thus it is in a way rather claustrophobic, as the camera tend to stick so closely to the characters that you do not get to really have a clear look of their surroundings. It is not a beautiful film to look at it, it draws attention not to the scenery, but solely the main character, as it became increasingly apparent that the child of the title is not the baby (who never made a single sound, being constantly asleep or offscreen), but himself.

L'Enfant, or the Child, directed by the Dardenne BrothersTsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae, who, notes a friend, looks like 50 Cent) is about a thug who leads a band of murderous petty thieves. On one rainy night, Tsotsi shot down a woman to steal her car, only to realize in horror that there was another passenger with him, a baby. Putting the baby in a shopping bag, he attempted to keep the baby alive by seeking the help of a young widowed seamstress in the village. The baby, innocent and pure, made Tsotsi revisit memories from a violent childhood, and thus began a journey towards redemption and taking the responsiblity on what he had done.

L'Enfant is about a very young couple, Sonia and Bruno (both either in their late teens, or early twenties), who just had a baby. Bruno is a petty thief (but not murderous like Tsotsi) who didn't bother to visit the baby and his girlfriend at the hospital, he also leads a gang of young thieves (not murderous like Tsotsi's gang either). Instead of finding a proper job ("jobs are for losers"), it was a path Bruno chose for himself, where responsibilities can be evaded with ease. In fact, he ended up selling the baby to an underground adoption ring without telling his girlfriend, leaving the baby in an abandoned apartment and returning shortly after to collect wads of cash. He ended up being surprised that Sonia would be so devastated by the news, and his journey to reclaim the baby would ultimately become a journey towards some kind of redemption.

Both Tsotsi and L'Enfant have ambiguous endings, but enough to leave viewers slightly optimistic about the protagonists' future (their fates in the end are similar). Ultimately, both films are not just about redemption, they are also about taking responsibility and facing the consequences of one's own actions. No one can escape from the cycle of karma, and ultimately, the protagonists have seemingly walked off from a path of self-destruction due to the fact that they were aware of the implications of their wrongdoings.

Personally, I liked Tsotsi more because it is way more entertaining. L'Enfant, while it may be lauded as a masterpiece by many, it just not my cup of tea as it does not deliver its message in an engaging manner (for me anyway). Perhaps its supposed coldness and minimalist style are meant to bring back memories of films from the French Wave, but then, I am one of those rare people who absolutely hated Godard's My Life To Live (despite you hearing me laud so much about Alphaville).

Tsotsi trailer:



L'Enfant trailer:



Other reviews of Tsotsi: Critical Culture | A Boy Named Goo | Dark Matters | Deborah Mitchell

Other reviews of L'Enfant: Daddy Types | New York Times

Once again, if you've written reviews for either films, post their URL here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Swifty And Justin's Minds Are Blown Apart By Sigur Ros' Perth Concert

Swifty: Sigur Ros' concert in Perth wasn't something I was looking forward to. After all, the price was rather steep (70 bucks!), and while I appreciated their two albums that I have, () and Takk for their unique-ness and weirdness (it adds to my indie cred), I just never bothered listening to them over and over again. Their stuff are spaced out, indescribable, the main vocalist sings in a language invented by himself, which makes things even more outlandish and crazier to get into.

So when Justin asked me to go to the Perth concert with him more than a month ago, I wasn't too keen, especially because of the rather steep price. But then, since I had just missed Broken Social Scenes (a band I genuinely liked, whose song I used for the Kenny Sia video I made last year. The video was so good that til this very day, I get marriage proposals daily), I thought I would just go experience something new. It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime deal anyway. So I agreed, though without much enthusiasm.

Sigur Ros' music had always been so spaced out that I thought the concert would probably be a pretty boring one, to the point which might lull me to sleep. The trauma I suffered from the Jolin Chai mini-concert two years ago remains fresh.

Here are the photos (click them for larger versions).

The following were taken while we were waiting at the cafe in the Perth Concert Hall (the very place where I had my graduation ceremony just a month ago). Mostly with my new mobile phone.

Sigur Ros Tickets

(via mobile phone) Justin waits for Sigur Ros Concert

(via mobile phone) I am posing before Sigur Ros concert

(via mobile phone) Excited about Sigur Ros concert


Yeah, I'm aware that I'm pretty adorable. Now, here are some photos taken after we entered the hall, and waiting for the show to begin.

Justin, just before Sigur Ros concert

Waiting For Sigur Ros Concert

Me, Just Before Sigur Ros Concert


And now, some photos taken when during the performance. Was difficult to get a decent shot with my digital camera, ended up using my mobile phone instead (and it fared better, I think).

Sigur Ros Concert Begins

Sigur Ros In Action

Sigur Ros In Action 2

(via mobile phone) Sigur Ros In Action 3

(via mobile phone) Sigur Ros in action 4

(via mobile phone) Sigur Ros In Action 5



Mere words can't describe how unique the experience was. Yes, it surpassed my expectations, Sigur Ros sounds entirely different live compared to CD (which I am currently listening to so that I know I'm not exaggerating). I mean, how can I articulate what I saw properly? I tried to today with a few of my friends, and here are what I managed to say:

"Holy shit, man. It's like, the main vocalist, he kinda has a high voice, sorta Michael Jackson-ish, right, Michael Jackson on crack! And he plays his electronic guitar with a bow, man! Like how people play violins and cello, it's insane!"


Or...

"You know, this Icelandic band, Sigur Ros! I mean, damn, I don't even freaking understand a single word said, cos' the language is invented by them! And you see, beside the four main guys in the band, they have these four girls, called Amina, who are their long-time collaborators, and what they do, beside playing the strings, is well, they just go around the stage picking up icelandic instruments to play during a song."


Or...

"And man, they don't speak at all, they just played from beginning to end. And bowed when we gave them a standing ovation."


Now you can see, that The Great Swifty has even lost his ability to string words together to explain about the concert.

Let's see what Justin has to say about this...




Justin: Sigur Ros on record did not accord with Sigur Ros in concert. The loudness of the crescendos was not to be underestimated. Jonsi warbled and trilled and screamed like a methed-out shoggoth. The 'glacial' shit co-existed with sheer shards of noise wrenched out of guitars, bass, and violins with bows, drumsticks, and whatever came to hand. Everyone wanted to mosh, but couldn't. We were frozen in place, forced to let it wash over us. No one was prepared - the records couldn't prepare us. Everything demanded precise attention. We couldn't even stand. Slowly, the universe crackled, swarmed into static. Sigur Ros was the sound of a tower falling, heard from an underground cave. It was the sound of tripmine shrapnel, newborn angels crying, the last beat of a dying heart. In the tornado, we huddled together in the dark. I don't even know what the fuck I'm saying. See them live or miss the train.




Swifty: Yeah, guess I'll have to post some videos so that you peeps can get some idea what we're sayin'.

So I'll begin with a music video of Glosoli. It's beautiful.



Now, here's a HALF AN HOUR LONG documentary about their last album, Takk, yes, HALF AN HOUR.



And finally, some videos of them performing live, but at random places (I didn't carry my camcorder with me during the concert, which is a shame!)











Sunday, April 09, 2006

Finding inspiration in J-pop music videos

Music videos tend to be one of the most overlooked sources of inspiration for aspiring filmmakers. While I tend to avoid those from Hong Kong (too uninspired, bad production values, very generic) and Taiwan (they occasionally have some hot babes, but still too bland for my liking).

I am expected to hand in a visual style report (which illustrates the stylistic approach, setting, design, lighting, wardrobe design and editing) for my upcoming allegorical (hopefully) sci-fi romantic (hopefully) short film, Girl Disconnected, within two weeks, thus I have spent the past two days poring over some films, like the aforementioned Eraserhead, Alphaville and Fellini's 8 And The Half (three vastly different films that use black and white to enhance their surrealism). Yet as my tale emphasizes more on the romance (like I said before, it's pretty much a love story with science fiction elements, because both sci-fi and romance aren't explored by anyone else in my screenwriting class... not surprisingly, considering that Crash's unjust Oscar victory had everyone shifting their attention to developing sociodramas with preachy messages), I need something more emotional for reference, something so lush and romantic that can make me melt whilst silently making mental notes that can aid me in my visual style report.

After all, Girl Disconnected is a tale of a girl who flew to the moon to look for the lover she has never met, and while the moon will be a cold and alien place, the emotions and people there have to be real to serve as a contrast. Lost In Translation, in my opinion, worked so well because you see two people bonding in an alien place that is very cold and foreign (to them). If they have bonded in a place more familiar to themselves, it would've been an entirely different story...

Enter Japanese music videos. While being a major J-pop fan back in my teens, when I was still obsessed with the now-disbanded girl group, Speed, circumstances have prevented me from keeping entirely up-to-date with Jpop news and the latest hits. I ended up collecting only Utada Hikaru and Nakashima Mika's (whose popularity I prophecized shortly after her debut four years ago) stuff. Ayumi Hamasaki has way too many CDs for me to keep up with. And... well, I wasn't aware of how to really get my hands on those music videos from Japan.

Of course, those were the days before Youtube. Now that this super video-sharing site is around, most of the problems I have once faced are becoming a distant memory, and today, I spent most of the day in the library watching Japanese music videos. And many of them were simply mindblowing. Here are the ones that leave the deepest impression for me (and no, I don't understand Japanese, but these music videos are so eye-pleasing aesthetically that you really shouldn't bother about not understanding the songs).

1) Ayumi Hamasaki - Startin'



This is a pretty funny music video from the queen of Jpop herself. Pretty much reinforces how outlandish Japanese music videos are. It's a parody of some American music videos, and Kill Bill. I giggled. Read the review of this single here.

2) Koda Kumi - you



I think this is the best video I saw for the day. It's intense, emotional, sad, and well, pretty damned romantic. Exactly what I want for my upcoming masterpiece. Koda Kumi was first introduced to the public for the songs she did in the underrated Final Fantasy X-2 (it's not such a bad game, it just has a shitty ending... and yes, I'm referring to the perfect ending). Read the review and some info about Koda Kumi's you single in this Channel Ai entry. And yes, after this music video, I absolutely believe that Koda Kumi is much more attractive than the chick in Justin's Haruki Murakami review.

3) Hiro - Hero



Hiro is one of the two lead vocalists of the girl group, Speed, and my first celebrity crush. This is her latest single, which excited me at first with her... outfit, but turned out that it wasn't anything special. Low-budget and uninspired, I feel that she should just marry me, or agree to appear in my films instead of churning these singles.

4) Commercial of Gackt and Parappa The Rapper???????



I can't even describe this.

But in the end, the one ultimate video that blew my mind away was the much talked about, controversial, Natalie Portman gangsta rap video. It was taken down by Youtube after the site was nastygrammed by NBC. But thankfully, there's still Vsocial, the place where I uploaded numerous of my own home music videos.



I laughed so hard that I almost pissed in my pants.

Right, after the Gackt and Natalie video, it's obvious that I'm moving away from what I've originally set out to do while, er, looking through the music videos for references, but hey, at least it reminded me that I should have Natalie, instead of Scarlett Johansson, in my dream cast, despite my minor disappointment with V Is For Vendetta. But seriously, I would aim for something as poignant as the Koda Kumi music video.

Tell me what you peeps think about the videos!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Haruki Murakami - The Elephant Vanishes

Swifty: In one of my numerous attempts to increase my street cred last year, I went off to buy Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood because I knew that the book's been very much talked-about and is sort of regarded as a classic. And although I didn't get to read that book, I was so confident that Murakami would be an interesting and good writer that I went off to buy two other books written by him, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles and Elephant Vanishes.

I started reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicles earlier this year and was mildly intrigued with its outlandish setup. But as I continued wading through the book, from when I was still in Malaysia, to after I've returned to Perth, I grew increasingly annoyed with its sheer pointlessness and well, randomness. Murakami started throwing one detour after another upon my face, with most of them have nothing to do with the main plot development, a tale about a man searching his disappeared wife would've been an intriguing tale, until telepathic sisters, tormented World War 2 tales, guitar-wielding thugs, duck people, superficially wistful letters from teenage girls, mute hunks and their mysterious moms jumped into the fray, I shook my head, and within my soul sprung forth an intense feeling of negativity directed towards Murakami.

Murakami annoys me with his sheer pretentiousness and his mediocrity. His sheer posing and his desperate attempt to be 'hip', which leaves his works very insincere and mechanical, and when such things happen, you might turn your attention towards his writing skills themselves, his use of language, his prose... maybe it stems from bad translation, but there is just nothing about them that dazzle me. I plowed through the book only because I didn't want to blow my cash away for nothing, and because after all the trouble I went through to read the book, I didn't want to give up on reading it despite the fact that I wanted to do it so desperately. I'm just a guy who doesn't like to give up. after all.

The ending answered some questions, which left me less angry with Murakami, yet my disappointment with him made me hesitant in reading the other two books I have. I went off to read George R R Martin's Feast For The Crows and (currently reading) Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, both really fine books that erased the bad taste in my mouth. However, I did lend Elephant Vanishes to Guestblogger Justin, and in the end, he became just as outraged as I was.

Now, sit back and watch him voice his opinions on Haruki Murakami. Feel free to disagree, go ahead and post your opinions, or direct me to anything that has anything to do with Murakami, whether it is positive or negative.






Justin probably thinks that looking at Hitomi Saito is more interesting than reading Murakami.
(reviewed simultaneously by Brent Peterson)

I first encountered Haruki Murakami through his Norwegian Wood, the novel that made him a household name in Japan. I found that book to be memorably well-written: subtle and precise, affecting without drifting into sentimentality. There was a kind of strangeness to certain scenes, but it wasn't overdone. The characters were believable, and Murakami wasn't straining to be deep where the material didn't warrant it. There were unexpected but perfectly believable developments like the college-age narrator sleeping with his girlfriend's middle-aged friend after the girlfriend's suicide, as a form of mutual comfort. I felt like Murakami was someone I wanted to read more of, but I didn't get the chance until now.

But the Haruki Murakami I encountered in the pages of The Elephant Vanishes seemed to be a completely different writer - and, unfortunate to say, in most cases a markedly inferior one.

For one thing, there's a kind of intentional blandness to the tone and setting. The protagonists are usually urban and suburban middle-class husbands and wives in their late 20's and early 30's, who do routine middle-class things like make spaghetti, listen to classical music (almost every other story has a reference to a classical composer), and feel a vague tension and distance while around their spouses. Much can be done with these mainstays, but Murakami drones, describing each fold of laundry, each trip for groceries. The quotidian details could be sketched rather than enumerated, and they enact the fallacy that banal existence requires equally banal writing.

So to make things 'interesting', Murakami inserts, well, random crap - I suppose his apologists would classify these intrusions into the mundane as 'surreal' or 'magic realist', but surrealism and absurdity result from precise spirals of logic leading to irrational but somehow appropriate conclusions; when implausible things have no cause, explanation, or purpose, there is no tension because anything can happen.

Consider 'The Second Bakery Attack', in which a husband and wife, suddenly overcome by an unearthly hunger, drive to a McDonald's early in the morning with a shotgun and demand food. Now, this is an example - one of many in The Elephant Vanishes - in which, having conceived a potentially rewarding idea, Murakami botches its execution.

For example, if the husband and wife were poor enough to actually need to hold up a McDonald's, there could be real tension and interest to this premise. But in the story, their hunger and eventual action result from a kind of curse hanging over the marriage, resulting from an earlier 'bakery attack' in which the husband and his friend held up a bakery to get a week's worth of bread. (not because they needed to, they just didn't want to work - the unexamined middle-classness remains firmly in place). Tellingly, both 'attacks' aren't seen as particularly stupid or unnecessary - the logic Murakami provides seems to be that a second attack was required to complete or finish the first. Once the couple have stuffed themselves with Big Macs, the curse - and the story - end. Again, think of all the ways this story could have gone right. All the possibilities of a couple holding up a McDonald's for food - them actually having reasonable motivations, other customers in the place getting involved (Murakami completely whiffs on this one, the only other customers are a sleeping couple) are bypassed. Everything goes off without a hitch; there's no tension, no suspense, no point. Now, again, you might be asking 'But does there need to be?' In answer to that, let's look at the actual level of writing and plot-construction and see how Murakami fares. Once the narrator has told his wife about the first attack, she insists they complete a second one. Murakami then describes them riding in their car, "stretched out on the back seat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun." Why this couple would have a shotgun in a country with gun laws as strict as Japan is never explained, but certainly strains the already attenuated credibility. Murakami passes this off with:


"Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn't explain and I didn't ask. Married life is weird, I felt."


This is not surrealism, magic realism, or absurdity. This is Murakami trying to joke off his laziness. Clearly, Murakami had the idea that "It'd be cool if a couple held up a McDonald's," but he couldn't be bothered to craft a convincing scenario. The above lines could work in the context of pure farce, but Murakami is going for something portentous, tossing in, in the same story, anecdotes about Wagner changing the protagonist's life and a menacing subconscious image of a volcano protruding from beneath the sea. What any of this means is beside the point - in nearly every story, Murakami evades resolution and passes everything off with a few rhetorical and leading questions - the old "What did it all mean? I couldn't tell. What does anything mean? Isn't it funny being alive..." trick.

In 'The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women', the protagonist receives mysterious phone-calls from a woman claiming to know him and demanding he come to "an understanding of our feelings." The phone-calls take a turn for the pornographic, while the protagonist's wife sends him on a mission to find their missing cat. En route, he encounters a teenage girl who lectures him on death. There is some mild flirtation between them, but nothing comes of it. The protagonist returns home without having found the cat, and when his wife returns, she accuses him of killing the cat through negligence. End of story.

Now - here's the catch - there is actually a Murakami novel called "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle". From what I can tell, "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women" is the first chapter. Well...okay. It might work as a first chapter. But it manifestly does not work as a stand-alone short story. I can think of no reason why this was included (as the first story in the book, much less) other than to get the reader to have to fork up more money for the novel to find out what happens. Weak, weak stuff.

Taken from the same story, this is how Murakami thinks sixteen year old girls talk out loud:


"I think about what it would be like to cut the thing open with a scalpel. Not the corpse. That lump of death itself. There's got to be something like that in there somewhere, I just know it. Dull like a softball - and pliable - a paralyzed tangle of nerves. I'd like to remove it from the dead body and cut it open. I'm always thinking about it. Imagining what it'd be like inside."


Real-life conversation can, of course, take turns for the bizarre. But the story fails completely to capture this happening.

In 'The Kangaroo Communique', a product control clerk sends a long, rambling tape to a woman whose complaint form sexually aroused him. The message, or 'communique' has no real structure, and is full of - again - random crap. Murakami tries to get all deep, rambling about the life-cycle of kangaroos and 'the Nobility of Imperfection', but the story itself is so disjointed, ill-written, and vaguely unwholesome (the clerk, although apparently meant to be funny or moving, is only creepy in his attempts to come onto the writer of the complaint form) that whatever insights were intended are completely lost. Even if the entire story is only intended to be the mental ejaculations of a madman, it still doesn't contain enough to warrant even a cursory reading.

In 'The Little Green Monster', the eponymous creature (a kappa, perhaps) burrows through a woman's garden and breaks into her house, confessing its love for her. The woman kills the monster by imagining herself torturing it. End of story.

Murakami tries very hard to come up with something like the prose equivalent of Twin Peaks, without much luck. Rather than suggest worlds of darkness and mystery beneath the surface, his 'odd' stories, while striving not to 'conclude' anything, nevertheless miss the mark of suggestive understatement - usually, this results from Murakami failing to connect his conceits with sympathetic characters. The protagonists are usually too generic for it to matter when Murakami tries to skew the mundane rhythm of their lives.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that The Elephant Vanishes isn't completely bad. At times, the Murakami of Norwegian Wood manages to break through, the one attuned to loneliness and detail and the actual randomness of life. It seems that in short stories, Murakami is best when heHitomi Saito is rather hot. Yes. sticks to brief, nice ideas and doesn't try to stretch them to depths they can't support. This happens when he restrains himself, when he forces himself to deal with human emotion and not merely dick around with his fabulist conceits. Throughout the unsuccessful stories, there is no especial joy in any of the language, no sense of urgency that would make the bizarre elements exciting. It's only when he narrows his focus, stops showing off, and reaches for the real that his writing succeeds.

"On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning," about what happens after you randomly meet your perfect partner on the street, is a success at only five pages. The story is little more than a conceit, but Murakami doesn't try to piss all over it with trite ruminations, and as such, it stands out nicely.

In "Family Affair," the protagonist is pushing thirty but still living with his sister, who is on the verge of marrying a man the protagonist finds boring. This story is nice - nothing remarkable, but well written and believable. True, the characters learn 'lessons' at the end, but the tone isn't unbearable and there's no evidence of dramatic life-change - just the gradual adjustments people make to accomodate other personality types.

"Lederhosen", in which a woman abroad divorces her husband after imagining him wearing a pair of lederhosen requested for a souvenir, actually manages to be convincing. The story's absurdity isn't forced, and arises from believable circumstances.

"The Window", a story of the loneliness of a woman who joins a letter-writing society just to have someone she can unfold her feelings to, is another success. Here's the ending, after the protagonist, who corresponded with the woman, visits her apartment while her husband is away, sharing a brief connection with her:


"Should I have slept with her?
That's the central question of this piece.
The answer is beyond me. Even now, I have no idea. There are lots of things we never understand, no matter how many years we put on, no matter how much experience we accumulate. [italics mine] All I can do is look up from the train at the windows in the buildings that might be hers. Every one of them could be her window, it sometimes seems to me, and at other times I think none of them could be hers. There are simply too many of them."


Even though the italicized sentence is a cliche and could easily have been deleted, the last line is effective, implying that not only are there too many windows, but there are too many lonely people - a reality Murakami could apply himself to more rigorously if he gave up on the dancing dwarves and little green monsters.

The most interesting story is "Sleep", in which a housewife, suffering from insomnia that leaves her with full energy, finds time for herself after her family has gone to sleep. Although she is initially troubled, the woman's sleeplessness is a catalyst for liberation, in that, finally given enough free time to indulge her passions for Russian literature and swimming, she comes to resent the blandness of her husband and son. The emotions generated here are more palpable Hitomi Saitoand unsettling than anything else in the collection, and I got the sense Murakami might actually pull off something awesome - but, tellingly, the ending completely fails to resolve anything, or even offer a glimpse of some future development or revelation. All we get is some incredibly cliched rambling about the unknowability of death, and then the woman's car being attacked in the night by strangers. Having thrown some interesting balls up in the air, Murakami shows that he doesn't know how to catch them with any reliability. Let's look at some of this:


"Perhaps death was a state entirely unlike sleep, something that belonged to a different category altogether - like the deep, endless, wakeful darkness I was seeing now.
No, that would be too terrible. If the state of death was not to be a rest for us, then what was going to redeem this imperfect life of ours, so fraught with exhaustion? Finally, though, no one knows what death is. Who has ever truly seen it? No one. Except the ones who are dead. No one living knows what death is like. They can only guess. And the best guess is still a guess. Maybe death is a kind of rest, but reasoning can't tell us that. The only way to find out what death is is to die. Death can be anything at all."


Even given the possibility of a bad translation, this simply isn't good writing. It's teenage angst, unoriginal and not particularly well-phrased. The same thing happens in most of the other stories. Having conceived an interesting idea, Murakami merely describes it, sometimes tacks on some cliched sentiments, and ends. Repeat. Halfway through the book, I was simply tired. Here's the narrator of "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon," on writing:


"And then to put these things out as saleable items, you call them finished products - at times it's downright embarassing just to think of it. Honestly, it can make me blush. And if my face turns that shade, you can be sure everyone's blushing."

Sadly, this is pretty much correct. The control isn't there. For most of this book, Murakami is just noodling. There were times during The Elephant Vanishes when I was very, very embarassed for you, Haruki.

Postscript: Blurbs

As usual, this got blurbed with a bunch of nonsense that has nothing to do with Murakami's writing in general, much less the actual contents of the book. Taken from the front and back covers:

1) "A remarkable writer...he captures the common ache of the contemporary heart and head." - Jay McInerney

Generic nonsense - completely meaningless.

2) "How does Murakami manage to make poetry while writing of contemporary life and emotions? I am weak-kneed with admiration." - Independent on Sunday

He doesn't make poetry. None of his prose can really be considered 'poetic', even in the broadest, most baseless descriptive sense. Even in the total effect of his best stories, they aren't particularly poetic, just realistic and recognizeable. It's nothing to get weak-kneed about.

3) "These stories show us Japan as it's experienced from the inside...Even in the slipperiest of Mr. Murakami's stories, pinpoints of detail flash out warm with life." -New York Times

Whoever wrote this knows nothing about Japan and probably didn't bother to read Murakami, either. None of these stories really describes a recognizeable Japan, not just because Murakami often detaches from reality (and quality) completely, but because he's too busy fellating the West (he never stops namedropping Western music a baby-boomer would find cool, while current j-rock gets a single dismissive paragraph) to really deal with anything like contemporary Japanese social issues. Not that there's any real necessity to do that - just saying he doesn't, is all. There's no sense of 'Japan from the inside' - if the names were changed, all the stories could easily take place somewhere else.

4) "Enchanting...intriguing...All of these tales have a wonderfully surreal quality and a hip, witty tone."

Read: Murakami name-drops Western music, not just classical but stuff like Miles Davis and The Doors. This makes him "hip." Or else, he writes sentences like "A long, flimsy tin sign arching its sickly spine like an anal-sex enthusiast." This is also very "hip." And he has story titles like "The Fall of the Roman Empire, The 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds." It's all very hip. Not. As for surrealism, I already explained why it doesn't apply here.

5) "Murakami is a true original and yet in many ways he is also Franz Kafka's successor because he seems to have the intelligence to know what Kafka truly was - a comic writer."

This would be ridiculous hyperbole under any standards, but Murakami is not particularly comic. If you think the above-stated anal-sex sentence, or the concept of a malevolent dancing dwarf ("The Dancing Dwarf") is funny enough to sustain stories without any real narrative heft, you might disagree. I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing it. Murakami doesn't do particularly well with humor: the attempts at it here are lame and juvenile. Nothing is especially surprising or cutting. There's no bite. You wonder whether sentences like "Alone in this funhouse, only I grow old, a pale softball of death swelling inside me." are ridiculous on purpose or not, and whether it makes a difference.



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