Monday, February 26, 2007

Lily Ho Li-li

When Lily Ho first appeared in Hong Kong in 1963 for some publicity shots for the Shaw’s home grown magazine Southern Screen, it was highly unlikely that anyone thought that someday she would come to epitomize glamour and style in Hong Kong films. At the time she was only 15-years old and was only one among a dozen new faces that the studio was promoting. She was also considered a bit plump at 5’5’’ and 120-pounds, but was described by the magazine as “an adorable student”. Born in Nanjing, China in 1947, her family like many others after the Communist takeover moved to Taiwan where she was discovered by director Poon Lui and brought to Hong Kong. Within a few years she would be a star.

In her first films beginning in 1965, she had smallish parts and often played spoiled haughty young woman or vamps in films like “Song of Orchid Island” and “Till the End of Time”. Then she gained a fair amount of notoriety when she displayed her naked backside in her fourth film, “Knight of Knights” and it appeared that this image would become her calling card – generally a short-lived one until the public moves on to the next sultry sex siren. Even in her well received performance in the popular “Hong Kong Nocturne” she plays the bad daughter who moves away from home and ends up singing in a sleazy bar in Singapore. But during this time she was also growing a bit taller and losing weight and in the process becoming enormously attractive with her sleek but shapely figure, crinkly dreamy eyes and charming dimples. All of a sudden she was stunning and the Shaws needed to get her the right roles.

Her big break came in 1967 when a number of top actresses had to bow out of performing in “My Dream Boat” and the studio handed the role to Lily. This was a big melodramatic tearjerker that became a big hit and she in turn a star. She began to star in all sorts of films that were primarily vehicles for her - action (the “Angel with the Iron Fist” films, “The Lady Professional”), martial arts (“The Jade Faced Assassin”, “The Golden Knights”), melodramas (“Sex, Love and Hate”), comedies (“A Time for Love”), capers (“The Venus Tear Diamond”, “The Singing Thief”), musicals (“King Drummer”, “The Millionaire Chase”) and sizzlers (“Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan”). The only thing these films really had in common was that Lily exuded style, elegance and beauty unlike any other actress in Hong Kong.

She was in a sense representative of a modern westernized Hong Kong coming of age with chic, sophisticated women who could look like a million bucks and still run circles around you. Her films were full of costume changes and one of the delights in seeing her in her contemporary setting films was just to see what she would wear – always using vibrant colors, floppy hats, oversized sunglasses, bikinis and sleek evening wear. She set fashions and was in her personal life a huge consumer of clothes. In an interview she is asked what her hobbies are, her simple response “Clothes”. How many furs did she have? “Full length, 9. Jackets, 5 and two stoles”. She loved fashion and opened a boutique that she promised would keep Hong Kong abreast of the styles from Europe and Japan. There was a common expression at the time that went "Even Lily Ho wouldn't look good in those clothes". She looked good in every fashion from mod to frilly and her films flaunted this. She also looked great in a sports car and many of her films had her sitting in some sporty expensive model behind the steering wheel and behind her sunglasses with her hair blowing in the wind. Lily Ho was simply very cool and one of my personal favorite discoveries with the release of the Shaw films on DVD.

She retired on top in 1975 with 40 films to her credit and married a shipping magnate named George Chao. Her entire ten year career was with the Shaw Brothers – a complete in-house creation and one of a kind. She had a few daughters but unfortunately her marriage hasn’t worked out so well – rumors of his philandering were rampant – and today she runs a restaurant in Shanghai.

Information for this was obtained from “The Shaw Screen” in an article by Edward Lam.

Picture above obtained from the Ivy Ling Po forum where other pictures of Lily and other Shaw stars are available to be viewed.

I went on a bit of a Lily Ho binge and watched these five films.

Tropicana Interlude (HK, 1969)

The Golden Knights (HK, 1970)

The Jade Faced Assassin (HK, 1970)

We Love Millionaires (HK, 1971)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

King Naresuan Parts I and II (Thailand, 2006/2007)

Miscellaneous Small Reviews

Here are a few very brief blink and you will miss them reviews of some films I have seen lately. I actually liked all of these. But maybe I am just a kind saintly person who can say nothing bad about anyone.

Ad-Lib Night (Korea, 2006)

Nada Sou Sou (Japan, 2006, Tears for You)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Hong Kong Romances

Not surprisingly, Valentine’s Day slipped under my radar this year. It thankfully isn’t that big a deal over here in Asia which may in itself be a good enough reason to move here some day. I think I read that if all the money spent on Valentine cards and chocolates were donated for research to the Mend a Broken Heart Foundation the period of depression following being dumped could be halved within five years. Though rather cheesy and obvious, I thought this would be a good time to list some of my favorite movie romances made in Asia.

First up are ten films from Hong Kong. Korea, Japan and India to follow when I get around to it.

Hong Kong:

Shanghai Blues (1984) – this Tsui Hark film is a rapturous, joyful, comic and romantic techni-colored splat in the face that will make you glow inside. Two strangers in Shanghai come together under a bridge during a Japanese bombardment and promise to meet after the war, but they are never able to see one another clearly in the darkness before they are pulled away. As fate would have it they move into the same building when peace has come but don’t realize it – but in a film that is full of misunderstandings, pratfalls and a call to our humanity, love and inevitability lingers around the edges leading to a frantic and astonishingly satisfying romantic conclusion. Starring Sylvia Chang and Kenny Bee as the would-be-lovers and Sally Yeh as the dizzy and delightful roommate. Magnificent classic.

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) – true love doesn’t always end at the borders of life and in this marvelous classic fantasy a roving tax collector falls in love with a sad-eyed lady only to discover that his object of desire is a ghost. This doesn’t stop him though and he willingly follows her into hell to save her soul. This film produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu Tung is a masterful and magical ode to romantic love; a movie full of visual poetry, stunning imagery and wondrous story telling. The film rushes by in dream like hypnotic fashion – and when it ends one can only wonder how so much was stuffed into a ninety-minute film. Both Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong were never as beautiful and endearing as in this film.

A Moment of Romance (1990) – a classic bad boy/good girl romantic collision with an iconic Andy Lau role as the tough motorcycle triad unable to follow orders to kill the beautiful and very young witness played by Wu Chien-lien in her debut. Instead swooning love erupts with the inevitable tragic results shadowing them through musical montages and brutal beatings.

C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie (1993) – unless you are made of stone, this tragic tale of love and Hong Kong will tear a small hole in your soul. Two everyday people fall in love in a small neighborhood full of nostalgic fairy dust and quirky charm. It is joyful and wonderful and then the lights slowly begin to go out in their lives and you feel like you have been crushed by a truck. The performances from Lau Ching-wan and Anita Yuen rightfully made them stars.

He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994) – this is a divine and delightful cocktail of a film that fizzes with warmth, humor and romance. It is full of cross-gender confusion with one woman dressed as man, a woman falling in love with her assuming she is a man and another man falling in love with her thinking she is a he and wondering if he is gay. In the end it simply doesn’t matter – love rises above all things so mundane. Leslie Cheung, Anita Yuen and Carina Lau play these three foils to comic and elegant perfection.

Chungking Express (1994) – one part deadpan comic heartbreak and one part romantic whimsy, these two tales of sly romance from Wong Kar-wai combine to make an enormously charming and joyful film full of hope and perseverance in all things love. With Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin and Valerie Chow in the cast it is a charismatic assault on your senses. A masterpiece.

Lost and Found (1996) – poignant and magical, this film evokes an enormous mix of emotions from the viewer as it trespasses on perhaps the final days of a woman’s life. It never dwells in sadness though but is instead a celebration of our short time on earth and of the people we meet and love. Not so much a romance as much as a lush romantic hopeful view of life. It stars Kelly Chan, Michael Wong and Taheshi Kaneshiro.

Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996) - as pure a romantic sock to the heart as one could want as it recounts the lives of two Mainlanders (Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai) who come to make it in Hong Kong and who connect intermittently along a path of ten years of struggles, failure, relationships and love for the both of them. The final few mute minutes set in New York City will leave you with a sense of wonder, joy and a big old fist in your throat.

In the Mood for Love (2000) – drowning in lush, textured tortured romance, this Wong Kar-wai film slowly envelops you in its nostalgic mood, elegant cheongsams and curling cigarette smoke. The film is more mood than narrative as it elliptically shadows two characters and their adulterous love in a crowded apartment house in 1962 Hong Kong. It is filled with enough longing and loss to cover a life time of hurt. Maggie Cheung and Tong Leung Chiu-wai play the doomed lovers in fragments of images over time as they walk and breathe in tempo to the rhythmic hypnotic soundtrack.

Chinese Odyssey 2002 (2002) - this is another cross-gender tale of confusion that almost feels like He’s a Woman, She’s the Man meets Ashes of Time. As in most Jeff Lau films it is filled with nonsense and parodies, but underneath all the silliness is a big slab of romantic yearning, humanity and love. In the final line of the film, the male protagonist reveals his utter love when he declares “It doesn’t matter who's the man and who's the woman” and it feels like all that needs to be said on the subject is just that. Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Faye Wong team up for the first time since Chungking Express and the magic is still there.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scourge of the World

As I sometimes do, I am going haphazardly off the tracks of Asian cinema with this posting to discuss a few things that continue to bother me of late. I know I shouldn’t but I am fairly confident no one ever reads them anyway and I understand that completely but I still need to voice my opinions from time to time on things not cinematic. Therapy I suppose. I haven’t had a chance to watch any films recently anyway, but am going to attempt to put together my favorite Asian film romances as a post Valentine effort by tomorrow or thereabouts.

Scourge of the World

Before I began spending a fair amount of time in Asia over the past six months I was simply indifferent to football (or what we Americans call soccer) in the same way I paid little heed to cricket, badminton or croquet – trivial sports for people with too much time on their hands. But after coming into contact with its pervasive and unavoidable presence in Asia I have truly come to loath this game. It is on TV everywhere – every bar, restaurant, hotel lobby, mall and street corner has a game of football showing on screens ranging from the miniature to the gigantic – and it doesn’t matter if the game is being played by countries that no one has even heard of – it is watched with rapt attention.

My head feels like it will explode if I see another game. It is globalization and technology run amuck when you can watch this tedium for 24-hours a day from every corner of this planet! I am forced on occasion to watch – but all I see are small men in smaller shorts running back and forth tripping up an opponent when they can and then whining when they get caught and carded by the referees. If one team gets ahead by two goals the game is as good as over because the winning team goes into a defensive posture that would not allow a tank through. So most games seem to end up with exciting scores like 1-0 or 2-1 – when not a draw - a thrill a minute. This is of course the game that the hooligans and miscreants of the world have adopted as their favorite pastime when not beating up minorities or policemen or puking their guts out – football is sort of a pre-puke exercise. There is a reason for this – it is simple enough for them to understand and so boring that afterwards they need to work off their primal rage. This needs to be stopped.

Thus I am proposing that the Bush administration switch course – instead of pushing democracy and free markets on people who don’t want it we should begin pushing our national sport of baseball on people who don’t want it. Baseball is such a perfect game of civility and discourse – a game of quiet reflection and momentary action in which every single pitch and every casual movement has a meaning and a connection to it – not an endless chaotic rush up one field and then back the next to only repeat it again and again. Football is a game of exhaustion not elegance as is baseball. Baseball is a beautiful game of long summer days in which speed, power, strategy, smarts, patience and desire are all combined on a chessboard of sorts as one team conspires against another. It is a slow game, it is a poetic game, and it is a game with a sense of history and honor. It is also a wonderful metaphor for life in which a game does not have a set time limit and one in which you literally have a chance to win until the final out is recorded. It is a team game but within that framework it is a series of individual match-ups that sometimes have the drama of Shakespeare and the poetry of Keats. Perhaps in these desperate violent times the world needs baseball more than democracy.

Not that I am against democracy and free markets mind you. Far from it. This is part of my heritage as an American and I believe that they are the best forms of government and governance. I don’t think it is mere coincidence that the nations who have adopted these ideas and held to them for lengthy periods of times have in general a higher standard of living, a higher level of education and have more personal freedom for individuals. Democracy can often be messy and slow – it can often make extreme mistakes in extreme times – yet no one will ever convince me that autocratic government and regulated economies are better over the long haul. But we have to remember that these beliefs form an ideology and ideologies (whether communism, fascism, democracy or bad comedy) are dangerous weapons when forced upon other people who don’t want them and who don’t believe in them. And this is of course the Bush tragedy – his arrogant belief that America can do anything – impose its ideals on any culture - and an arrogance that won’t admit to error. It is time for America to stop its cold war super power mentality and reassess what its role should be in a very different world than when it was going head to head against Communism. It is time to realize that we are causing more conflict than alleviating it. It is time to stop being the global bully and instead the good neighbor. Perhaps the age of super powers is coming to an end and it is time for us to become like every other country where sometimes you get your way and sometimes you don’t. That’s life and it’s time we face up to it.

Many of these feelings are reinforced in my travels as I meet people from all over the world. Usually the second or third question from them is "Where are you from?" and when I respond "The United States" I so often get a look from them of sympathy and pity as if I am a long time friend with cancer. It is so different from my travels after 9/11 when people almost wanted to hug me. Still as they say - this too will pass - some day Bush will thankfully be gone along with his armchair courage, Texan swagger and simplistic messianic view of the world.

I was forwarded the below speech given by the former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and I very much like what he had to say. It is long and you likely won’t read it but it lays out eloquently where I believe the U.S.A. has so sadly gone down the wrong path over the past six years.
==================================================================== Ambassador Freeman:

In 1941, as the United States sat out the wars then raging in both the Atlantic and Pacific, Henry Luce penned a famous attack on isolationism in Life Magazine. "We Americans are unhappy," he began. "We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous – or gloomy – or apathetic." Luce argued that the destiny of the United States demanded that "the most powerful and vital nation in the world" step up to the international stage and assume the position of global leader. "The 20th Century must be to a significant degree an American Century," he declared.

And so it proved to be, as the United States led the world to victory over fascism, created a new world order mimicking the rule of law and parliamentary institutions internationally, altered the human condition with a dazzling array of new technologies, fostered global opening and reform, contained and outlasted communism, and saw the apparent triumph of democratic ideals over their alternatives. But that 20th Century came to an end in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of the United States as a great power without a peer. There followed a dozen intercalary years of narcissistic confusion. Americans celebrated our unrivaled military power and proclaimed ourselves "the indispensable nation" but failed to define a coherent vision of a post Cold War order or an inspiring role for the United States within it. These essential tasks were deferred to the 21st Century, which finally began in late 2001, with the shock and awe of 9/11. Then, in the panic and rage of that moment, we made the choices about our world role we had earlier declined to make.

Since 9/11 Americans have chosen to stake our domestic tranquility and the preservation of our liberties on our ability – under our commander-in-chief – to rule the world by force of arms rather than to lead, as we had in the past, by the force of our example or our arguments. And we appear to have decided that it is necessary to destroy our constitutional practices and civil liberties in order to save them. This is a trade-off we had resolutely refused to make during our far more perilous half-century confrontation with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union.

There is unfortunate historical precedent for this, as the author Robert Harris reminded us last year. In the autumn of 68 B.C., a vicious league of pirates set Rome's port at Ostia on fire, destroyed the consular war fleet, and kidnapped two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff. Rome panicked. Mr. Harris comments that: "What Rome was facing was a threat very different from that posed by a conventional enemy. These pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with no government to represent them and no treaties to bind them. Their bases were not confined to a single state. They had no unified system of command. They were a worldwide pestilence, a parasite which needed to be stamped out, otherwise Rome – despite her overwhelming military superiority – would never again know security or peace." In response to these imagined menaces, Pompey (self-styled "the Great") persuaded a compliant Senate to set aside nearly 700 years of Roman constitutional law, abridge the ancient rights and liberties of Roman citizens, and appoint him supreme commander of the armed forces. With due allowance for a bit of pointed reinterpretation, if not revisionism by Mr. Harris, most historians regard this incident and its aftermath as the beginning of the end of the Roman republic.

The ultimate effects on our republic of our own slide away from long-standing constitutional norms remain a matter of speculation. But, clearly, our departure from our previous dedication to the principles of comity and the rule of law has made us once again unhappy about ourselves in relation to America and the world. It has also cost us the esteem that once led foreigners to look up to us and to wish to emulate and follow us. Our ability to recover from the damage we have done to ourselves and our leadership is further impeded by the extent to which we now cower behind barricades at home and in our embassies abroad. The current wave of anti-foreign and anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States also compounds the problem. A recent poll of foreign travelers showed that two thirds considered the United States the most disagreeably unwelcoming country to visit. There is surely no security to be found in surly discourtesy.

To fail to welcome the world's peoples to our shores is not simply to lose the economic benefits of their presence here but greatly to diminish both the vigor of our universities and the extent of our influence abroad. To lose the favor of a generation of students is to forfeit the goodwill of their children and grandchildren as well. And to fail to show respect to allies and friends is not simply to diminish our influence but to predispose growing numbers abroad to disapprove or even oppose anything we advocate. By all this, we give aid and comfort to our enemies and undercut the efficacy in dispute resolution and problem solving of measures short of war.

There has been little room for such measures – for diplomacy – in the coercive and militaristic approach we have recently applied to our foreign relations. Much of the world now sees us as its greatest bully, not its greatest hope. Self-righteous lawlessness by the world's most powerful nation inspires illegality and amorality on the part of the less powerful as well. The result of aggressive unilateralism has been to separate us from our allies, to alienate us from our friends, to embolden our detractors, to create irresistible opportunities for our adversaries and competitors, to inflate the ranks of our enemies, and to resurrect the notion – at the expense of international law and order – that might makes right. Thus, the neglect of both common courtesy and diplomacy fosters violent opposition to our global preeminence in the form of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and war.

With the numbers of our enemies mounting, it is fortunate that our military power remains without match. The United States' armed forces are the most competent and lethal in history. And so they are likely to remain for decades to come. Our humbling on the battlegrounds of the Middle East does not reflect military inadequacy; it is rather the result of the absence of strategy and its political handmaiden – diplomacy. We are learning the hard way that old allies will not aid us and new allies will not stick with us if we ignore their interests, deride their advice, impugn their motives, and denigrate their capabilities. Friends will not walk with us into either danger or opportunity if we injure their interests and brush aside their objections to our doing so. Those with whom we have professed friendship in the past cannot sustain their receptivity to our counsel if we demand that they adopt secular norms of the European Enlightenment that we no longer exemplify, while loudly disparaging their religious beliefs and traditions. Diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work any better than strategy-free warfare.

When war is not the extension of policy but the entrenchment of policy failure by other means, it easily degenerates into mindless belligerence and death without meaning. Appealing as explosions and the havoc of war may be to those who have experienced them only vicariously rather than in person, military success is not measured in battle damage but in political results. These must be secured by diplomacy.

The common view in our country that diplomacy halts when war begins is thus worse than wrong; it is catastrophically misguided. Diplomacy and war are not alternatives; they are essential partners. Diplomacy unbacked by force can be ineffectual, but force unassisted by diplomacy is almost invariably unproductive. There is a reason that diplomacy precedes war and that the use of force is a last resort. If diplomacy fails to produce results, war can sometimes lay a basis for diplomats to achieve them. When force fails to attain its intended results, diplomacy and other measures short of war can seldom accomplish them.

We properly demand that our soldiers prepare for the worst. As they do so, our leaders should work to ensure that the worst does not happen. They must build and sustain international relationships and approaches that can solve problems without loss of life, and pave the way for a better future. If we must go to war, the brave men and women who engage in combat on our behalf have the right to expect that their leaders will direct diplomats to consolidate the victories they achieve, mitigate the defeats they suffer, and contrive a better peace to follow their fighting. Our military personnel deserve, in short, to be treated as something more than the disposable instruments of unilateral belligerence. And our diplomats deserve to be treated as something more than the clean-up squad in fancy dress.

Every death or crippling of an American on the battlefields of the Middle East is a poignant reminder that, in the absence of diplomacy, the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, however heroic, can neither yield victory nor sustain hegemony for the United States. A diplomatic strategy is needed to give our military operations persuasive political purposes, to aggregate the power of allies to our cause, to transform our battlefield successes into peace, and to reconcile the defeated to their humiliation. Sadly, our neglect of these tasks, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has served to demonstrate the limits of our military power, not its deterrent value. This is, however, far from the greatest irony of our current predicaments.

In the competition with other nations for influence, America's comparative advantages have been, and remain, our unmatched military capabilities, our economy, and our leading role in scientific and technological innovation. We spend much, much more on our military – about 5.7 percent of our economy or $720 billion at present – than the rest of the world's other 192 nations combined. With less than a twentieth of the world's population, we account for more than a fourth of its economic activity. Almost two thirds of central bank reserves are held in our currency, the dollar – which, much to our advantage, has dominated international financial markets for 60 years. The openness of our society to new people and ideas has made our country the greatest crucible of global technological innovation.

The moral argument put forward by both left and right-wing proponents of aggressive American unilateralism is that, as a nation with these unexampled elements of power and uniquely admired virtues, the United States has the duty both to lead the world and to remake it in our image. But our recent confusion of command and control with leadership and conflation of autocratic dictation with consultation have stimulated ever greater resistance internationally. Thus the aggressive unilateralism by which we have sought to consolidate our domination of world affairs has very effectively undermined both our dominion over them and our capacity to lead.

The most obvious example of this has been our inability, despite the absolute military superiority we enjoy, to impose our will on terrorists with global reach, on the several battlegrounds of the Middle East, or on Iran or North Korea. But, in many respects, these illustrations of the impotence of military power are far from the most worrisome examples of policy backfire. After all, despite all the lurid domestic rhetoric about it and the real pain it can inflict, terrorism poses no existential threat to our country – except, of course, to the extent we betray American values in the name of preserving them. The more worrisome examples are the mounting effects of unrelentingly coercive foreign policies on our political credibility, economic standing, and competitiveness.

As distaste has succeeded esteem for us in the international community, we have become ever more isolated. Our ability to rally others behind our causes has withered. We have responded by abandoning the effort to lead. We are now known internationally more for our recalcitrance than our vision. We have sought to exempt ourselves from the jurisdiction of international law. We have suspended our efforts to lead the world to further liberalization of trade and investment through the Doha Round. We no longer participate in the UN body charged with the global promotion of human rights. We decline to discuss global climate change, nuclear disarmament, or the avoidance of arms races in outer space. If we have proposals for a world more congenial to the values we espouse, we no longer articulate them. The world is a much less promising place for our silence and absence.

Our recent record in the Middle East alone includes the six-year suspension of efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a seeming shift from the pursuit of al-Qaïda to the suppression of Islamism in Afghanistan. Although we seem belatedly to be improving, we have become notorious for delusory or self-serving assertions masquerading as intelligence assessments. Our disregard for treaties abroad and the rule of law at home is leading to the indictment of our operatives abroad by our closest allies. Our scofflaw behavior thus undercuts transnational cooperation against terrorists. The bloody consequences of our occupation of Iraq for its inhabitants are too well known to require mention. We continue to provide military support and political cover for Israeli operations entailing intermittent massacres of civilian populations in Lebanon and Gaza. We sit on our hands while wringing them over parallel outrages in Darfur. We are indifferent to the views of our friends and refuse to speak with our enemies.

Taken together, these acts of omission and commission have devastated American standing and influence, not just in the Middle East but more widely. There are examples of such policy backfires to be found in every region; I will not cite them to this audience. You've read the polls. You've heard the speeches at the United Nations and the applause with which they were received. You know how difficult it now is for us to obtain support from the international community and how often we need to exercise our veto in the UN Security Council. The point is this: every leader needs followers; with rare exceptions, we have lost or are losing ours. And even a superpower needs political partners.

This is true for the economic arena as well. Our ability to do business with others in our own currency has been a unique aspect of our global economic power. But our budget, trade, and balance of payments deficits have grown to levels at which some foreigners now have more dollars than they know what to do with. The value of our currency has come to depend on central bankers continuing to play a reverse game of chicken, in which they nervously hang onto dollars while watching each other to make sure that no one can bail out without the others' noticing and dumping the dollar too. No central bank wants to be the first to devalue its own and everyone else's dollar-denominated reserves. So every day, Arab, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian officials as well as assorted gnomes in the "Old Europe" lend our Treasury the $2.5 billion it needs to keep employment here up, interest rates down, and the economy growing.

Unlike central bankers, however, businesses and private investors are notoriously bad at "coordination games." They are not willing to wait for the dollar to approach collapse before getting out of it and into other currencies and places. As a result, there are now many more euros in circulation than dollars. The euro has displaced the dollar as the preeminent currency in international bond markets. In a few years, the Chinese yuan will clearly join it in this role. Hong Kong and London have overtaken New York in IPO's. The regulatory environment in our country, including the expensive annoyances of Sarbanes-Oxley and class-action suits, does, as New York Senator Schumer has claimed, indeed have something to do with this. But an equally important factor is our increasingly frequent resort to unilateral sanctions and asset freezes based on assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction over the dollar.

Over the past decade, we have adopted unilateral sanctions against some 95 countries and territories. Most recently, we have worked hard to shut down banking in the occupied territories of Palestine, severely curtail it in Iran, and prevent the use of the dollar in Sudan's oil trade. The nobility of our motives in each case is not the issue. But, if we assert the right to confiscate dollar-denominated wealth, and to do without due process or legal recourse and remedy, it should not surprise us that people begin looking for ways to avoid the use of our currency. There is now an active search on the part of a growing number of foreign financial institutions for ways to avoid the dollar, bank-clearance procedures that touch New York, or transactions with US-based financial institutions. Adding oil traders to the list of the dollar-averse increases the incentives for them to find alternatives to our currency.

Our ill-considered abuse of our financial power may thus have put us on the path to losing it. The dollar accounts for much of our weight in global affairs. American investors are now increasingly hedging the dollar and going heavily into non dollar-denominated foreign equities and debt.

You would think that growing disquiet about American financial over-extension would impel our government to make a major effort to boost our exports to rapidly growing markets like China. Our exports are in fact growing. But our government's present policy focus, judging from its hiring patterns, is not export promotion but an attempt to block exports of scientific knowledge and technology to China and other potential rivals. Export controllers want to require export licenses for foreign graduate students and researchers in our universities and to compel U.S. companies to conduct detailed due diligence on prospective foreign purchasers of their goods and services. These initiatives reflect the mood of national paranoia and the concomitant growth of a secrecy-obsessed garrison state that have made Osama Binladin the greatest creator of federal employment since FDR. They encourage would-be customers to buy un-American.

Along with unwelcoming visa and immigration policies, such export-suppressive measures are a small part of a much broader assault on the openness of our society. The increasing restriction of American intercourse with foreigners encourages the outsourcing not just of jobs but of innovation in science and technology, research and development, engineering and design services, and industrial production. Xenophobic policies and practices have begun to erode the long-standing American scientific and technological superiority they were intended to protect. Like economic protectionism, intellectual protectionism, it turns out, weakens, not strengthens one, and makes one less rather than more competitive in the global marketplace.

The last half of the 20th Century was, as Henry Luce had hoped, in many ways an American century. We became the preeminent society on the planet not by force of arms but by the power of our principles and the attraction of our example. The effort to replace that preeminence with military dominion is failing badly. There will be no American imperium. The effort to bully the world into accepting one has instead set in motion trends that threaten both the core values of our republic and the prospects for a world order based on something other than the law of the jungle. Militarism is not an effective substitute for diplomacy in persuading other peoples to do things one's way. Coercive measures are off-putting, not the basis for productive relationships with foreign nations. Other peoples' money can provide an excuse for continued self-indulgence; it is not a sound foundation for economic leadership. Obsessive secrecy is incompatible with innovation. Fear of foreigners and rule by cover-your-ass securocrats is a combination that breeds weakness, not strength.

More than anything now, we need to get a grip on ourselves. 9/11 was almost five and a half years ago. There has been no follow-up attack on our homeland. We are far from Waziristan and al-Qaïda's leaders are obsessed with matching, if not exceeding, their previous standard of iconic success, something even much more talented terrorists than they would find it hard to do. Perhaps in time they will succeed but our nation will endure. Meanwhile, Al-Qaïda's associates elsewhere have felt no such operational constraints, especially in Europe. Yet, despite all the bombings there by homegrown and al-Qaïda-affiliated terrorists, government offices in Europe are still accessible to the public, security measures at transportation nodes are respectfully efficient, the rule of law continues to prevail, and the rights of citizens remain intact.

The contrast with the situation here underscores the extent to which al-Qaïda has achieved its central objectives. It has unhinged America and alienated us from the world. We are apparently willing to sacrifice everything, including the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, to achieve absolute security from risks that others rightly consider nasty but manageable. Quite aside from the fact that absolute security is absolutely impossible, this is not who we were. It is not who most of us want to be.

America defines itself by its values, not its territory or ethnicity. The supreme purpose of our foreign policy must be to defend our values and to do so by means that do not corrode them. By these measures, what we are doing now is directly counterproductive. It must be changed. Let me very briefly propose a few principles to guide such change:

First, an America driven by dread and delusion into the construction of a garrison state, ruled by a presidency claiming inherent powers rather than by our constitution and our laws, is an America that can be counted upon to respect neither the freedoms of its own people nor those of others. The key to the defense of both the United States and the freedom that defines us as a great nation is to retain our rights and cultivate our liberties, not to yield them to our government, and to honor and defend, not to invade, the sovereignty of other nations and individuals.

Second, it is time to recognize that freedom spreads by example and a helping hand to those who seek it. It cannot be imposed on others by coercive means, no matter how much shock and awe these elicit. Neither can it be installed by diatribe and denunciation nor proclaimed from the false security of fortified buildings. We must come home to our traditions, restore the openness of our society, and resume our role as "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all ... [but] the champion and vindicator only of our own."

Third, credibility is not enhanced by persistence in counterproductive policies, no matter how much one has already invested in them. The reinforcement of failure is a poor substitute for its correction. Doing more of the same does not make bad strategy sound or snatch successful outcomes from wars of attrition. All it does is convince onlookers that one is so stubbornly foolish that one is not afraid to die. Admitting that mistakes have been made and taking remedial action generally does more for credibility than soldiering blindly on. The United States needs big course corrections on quite a range of foreign and domestic policies at present.

Fourth, we must recover the habit of listening and curb our propensity to harangue. We might, in fact, consider a war on arrogance to complement our war on terror. And to demonstrate my own humility as well as my respect for the limited attention span of any audience after lunch, even one as polite and attentive as you have been, I shall now conclude.

Guantánamo, AbuGhraib, the thuggish kidnappings of "extraordinary rendition," the Jersey barrier, and an exceptional aptitude for electronic eavesdropping cannot be allowed permanently to displace the Statue of Liberty and a reputation for aspiration to higher standards as the symbols of America to the world. To regain both our self-respect and our power to persuade rather than coerce the world, we must restore our aspiration to distinguish our country not by the might of its armed forces but by its civility and devotion to liberty. The best way to assure the power to cope with emergencies is to refrain from the abuse of power in ordinary times.

All the world would still follow America, if they could find it. We must rediscover it to them. That, not bullying behavior or a futile effort at imperial dominion, is the surest path to security for Americans.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Silk (Taiwan, 2006)

For a horror/ghost story that doesn’t really have a true scare in it, I thought this was one of the best in this genre that I have seen for a few years. It is really more a thriller that just happens to center on the supernatural and its fast pace, intriguing premise and moments of pathos kept me fully involved in the rapidly unfolding plot. It is very slick – quite commercial - very expensive for a Taiwanese film (the most expensive at the time) - directed by Su Chao-pin who scripted Double Vision – and was unexpectedly chosen to participate in the Official Selection at Cannes. It got a bit of a critical bashing by some such as Variety and disappeared from sight to some degree. The ending admittedly gets more than a bit soggy in sentimentality but until then it keeps you in chilly anticipation and on edge all the while.

Hashimoto (Yosuke Eguchi) leads a small team that is sponsored by the Japanese government and in co-operation with other governments to search around the world for ghosts. Whenever there is a rumor of an apparition he sends a gweilo photographer to try and capture it on film. He is able to do this with an invention of his – an anti-gravity device called the Menger Sponge. This not only allows him to see ghosts – which are pure protein by the way – by putting drops in his eyes but it also enables him to seal one off and observe it. The obsessive Hashimoto’s intentions are murky and suspect as he searches for the nebulous space between life and death. The photographer films a young boy ghost in a worn tenement building in Taipei and pays for the experience dearly with his grisly death – but the team arrives on time to seal the ghost in and watch it.

Where the ghost came from and who it was is an enigma and Hashimoto pulls in another team member – a Taipei police sharpshooter and lip reader, Tung (Chen Chang) – to help him unravel the mystery. The ghost thrives on energy and anger and they need to understand why. As they get closer to an answer, Tung begins to realize that in fact there is very much a link between the living and the dead – a fine long slender piece of silk that connects them – and he also begins to realize that all of their lives are very much in peril. As a seeming side story but one that eventually proves vital, Tung along with his hoped for girlfriend, Wei (Karena Lam), look after his comatose mother in the hospital and he searches for spiritual answers to whether he should let her live or die.

Much of this is obvious silliness, but the film never gives you time to doubt its story arc as it races from beginning to end in complete seriousness and though it contains no real scares, there is a fair amount of crawling tension. It also contains one moment of such utter sadness that it suddenly becomes much more than just another ghost story. Thankfully, the film avoids any of the recent Asian long haired horror tropes with this original and clever script of science perhaps intruding where it has no right to and of our never-ending need for answers about the other side of life. For those who are Karena Lam fans, you should be warned that her role is surprisingly small and very passive – this is really Chang’s film and he is terrific as a fast thinking problem solving cop with a steady shooting hand – sort of a modern day Wisely.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Two Bollywood Golden Oldies

I haven't been watching nearly as many Bollywood films as I would like to but hope to change that over the next few weeks. Here are two older ones that I have been wanting to see for a while.

Bullet (India, 1976)

Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?, India, 1964)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Valerie Chow Web Site

This new fansite on Valerie Chow was brought to my attention and I wanted to mention it to others. Her career never quite took off, but in the mid-90's there were not many more beautiful actresses in the world and her small performances in The Blade and Chungking Express still make me woozy when I see them. I think it's great that someone put this up. Here it is:

A Quick Personal Note of No Particular Interest to Anyone but Myself:

A little over a week ago I woke up in my New York City apartment and looked out on another dreary damp day where everyone looked as if they were extra’s on a Dr. Zhivago remake. Not snow, just lots of cold thrown at you like a good hard fastball. I hate the cold and I hate winter and so I thought to myself why am I here if I don’t have to be. Good question. So I magically transported myself once again to Asia and will be here for the next six weeks or so. I am not exactly sure what I will be doing but it was very nice lying by the pool this morning sucking up the sun like an over ripe melon. That alone is enough to make me happy to be out of New York right now. That and the nice curry I had for lunch. So hopefully I will get a chance to see a few Asian films in the theaters and report them back to you.

I’ve never read a Stephen King novel and have no intention of ever doing so, but I am definitely a fan of his. First, he is a fanatic Boston Red Sox fan and secondly he had this to say to Newsweek when asked what things he wanted to do with the rest of his life, “To live to see George W. Bush tried for crimes against humanity”. Amen to that. If Newsweek had asked me, I would have added Dick Cheney and a date with Hsu Chi to that list.

Reading right now:

Bedtime reading: The Shaw Screen – A Preliminary Study – a great series of articles on the Shaw films from the Hong Kong Film Archives. It’s informative stuff but for some reason after 5 pages I get sleepy but then that might be jet lag at work.

Pool reading: Jane and the Ghosts of Netleya Jane Austen Mystery. Wow – who would have thought that there was a series of Jane Austen mysteries in which she solves crimes and is told in the first person narrative? I’ve been on a small Jane Austen movie kick for a while and was reading Sense and Sensibility before I accidentally left it behind in New York. I bought two of these novels yesterday and hope they are good.

Poolside music listening: Belle and Sebastian – “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds”. For the past 8 months or so I have probably listened to Belle and Sebastian 50% of the time. I find their melodies and nasally vocals addictive. When not listening to them I find myself generally putting on either Neil Young or Saint Etienne. Odd how limited my musical choices have become as I have gotten older.

Odd Scene I came across today – a perfume fair with some 150 women of all ages and sizes lined up to smell loads of various perfumes as they jostled and pushed one another to get to the next odor. It made me realize just how different men are from women – the only thing that came to mind that could make men behave similarly was an autograph session with Pamela Lee Anderson.

To those who come to the New York Asian Film Festival: Just to let you know that we will in fact be back this year – something that was by no means definite but we decided to suck it up one more time and see if we could manage not to lose our shirts again! We already have a list of over 150 films that we want to take a look at and cherry pick the very best – or at least the ones that they let us show! Lots of movies to watch over the next three months and I wish I could outsource it. People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to get to see so many films that never show up on DVD or at festivals – I tell them there is usually a reason that they never show up – they are awful and at times you think your head will explode if you see another bad movie about teenage love or crazy serial killers. Nevertheless, we begin the long march.

Two More from the Shaw Brother's

Here are reviews of two Shaw Brother’s films from the 1980's that are thematically related and as socially relevant today as they were when these were produced.

Sex Beyond the Grave (Hong Kong, 1984)

Corpse Mania (Hong Kong, 1981)

Samurai Chicks (Japan, 2004)