District 9

This post was originally written on 6th September, 2009.
District 9 (official website: www.d-9.com) is about the problems posed by the unexpected arrival of an alien spaceship above Johannesburg, South Africa. When humans board the aliens’ hovering ship (which reminds me a little bit of Maggritt’s painting “Chateau des Pyrenees”), they find the aliens malnourished and in need of care. The officials set up an emergency camp for them which over the next twenty years (1990-2010) turns into a slum, ‘District 9’, the title of the film. Because the aliens look like crustaceans in the human eyes, they are referred to by the extremely derogatory term ‘prawns’. Eventually relationships between the aliens and the humans become so bad that the local government hires the multinational corporation and arms manufacturer, MNU (Multi-National United) to relocate the aliens to a more remote camp (“Sanctuary Park Alien Relocation Camp” aka District 10) far away from human contact.
This background is presented to the viewers in a mock documentary style complete with news footages and interviews with experts and MNU employees in the first twenty minutes. After this, the main section of the film begins to tell the story of the attempt of MNU to relocate the aliens. The lead character, Wikus Van De Merwe, is an MNU employee charged with leading the barely legal operation to move the aliens out of their shards where they have become comfortable. Through an accident, Wikus is exposed to some liquid which triggers his slow transformation from human to alien. Because he now has quality of both of the races, he is highly sought after by MNU, especially since he can now operate the aliens’ powerful weapons which were designed only to work with the creatures’ DNA. Some Nigerian gangsters (who sell the aliens cat-food, a product to which they have become addicted, in exchange for weapons) also want to capture Wikus.
The film has more to offer than the average Hollywood action film. Apart from the obvious metaphor for apartheid (the director, Neill Blomkamp, spent his childhood in South Africa during apartheid), it also features some Gothic elements. We see the distinction between Self (humans) and Gothic Other (aliens), onto which fear and anxiety of racial and class differences are projected. We also see some cannibalism. The gangsters have taken to eating alien flesh as a means of gaining their power to use space weapons. When the head of the gangsters sees Wikus’s alien claw, he becomes very jealous and wants to eat Wikus’s arm. Of course, the alien can easily be viewed as the ‘monsters’ in traditional Gothic stories. Generally they lead a fairly revolting lifestyle eating flesh and digging through garbage. But the film is more nuanced: the aliens have been forced into their current situation by the people. Mankind is also presented as monstrous within the film as the human characters are highly prejudiced, condescending, violent and even exploitative. This is suggestive of the Gothic tradition like Dr Frankenstein who creates his own monster and is thus part of the monster himself. The humans by putting the aliens into the slum have become a kind of monster themselves.
At the start of the film, it may be difficult to register any emotional attachment with either the humans or the aliens, since both of them are portrayed somewhat negatively. But towards the end, it becomes apparent where the director’s sympathy lies. As hosts, the humans’ patience with the guests understandably runs out after two decades. However, the humans’ policy of segregation and cruelty makes them even more unsavoury. Do you think the aliens voluntarily turn themselves into unwelcoming creatures? Do you think they don’t want to go back to their much more technologically-advanced home planet (which has seven moons)?

[from trailer]
Interviewer: Why did you come here?
Interviewed Alien: We didn’t mean to land here.
Interviewer: Why don’t you just leave?
Interviewed Alien: How can we go anywhere if you have our ship?
Interviewer: How do your weapons work?
Interviewed Alien: We mean you no harm. We just want to go home…

"Let x equal the quantity or quantities of x"

Reading Eddie’s poem “Country” reminded me of the following from the film Proof (2005), adapted from David Auburn’s play (2001).  

Let X equal the quantity or quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold, and four of heat, leaving four months of indeterminate temperature. In February it snows. In March the Lake is a lake of ice. In September the students come back and the bookstores are full. Let X equal the month of full bookstores. The number of books approaches infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future. The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite and so are never full except in September…


Moon is a great film. It reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972) and even Blade Runner (1982).
The film centres on Sam Bell (played marvellously by Sam Rockwell), a miner living alone in a space station on the far side of the moon. Here, he operates mining equipment which harvests helium 3, the source of much of the world’s energy. His only friend is GERTY (voiced by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), an overly helpful computer, who shows his empathetic responses through a series of emoticons ranging from happy to tearful. Imagine if HAL had been programmed to smother you with friendliness and sensitivity. But for Sam, a programmed friend is much better than none at all. The communication system has been broken for the duration of his stay and the only videos he gets from home appear to have been edited. As Sam approaches the end of his three-year contract, he is slowly losing his mind to loneliness and isolation. He even sees a series of visions reminiscent of those in Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
Sam eventually has an accident while going out on a mission to check the mining equipment. He wakes up back in the station, having been ostensibly treated by GERTY. When he gets a warning that there is a problem at the mine site, he drives out there only to discover an injured version of himself. The mystery is solved when we discover that there are in fact two Sam Bells, the surname ‘Bell’ suggesting a sense of lingering and repetitious sound: the first one was the victim of the crash at the mine site and the second one is his replacement who rescues him. It turns out that the company has been economically using clones, whose memories and life have been extracted from the original and real Sam Bell. Until the two cloned Sams encounter each other, the secret has not been discovered because each Sam dies at the end of his three-year contract. Indeed, the first Sam is visibly undergoing cellular senescence as he nears the end of his term.
Although the two Sams become friends, a complication arises when the company dispatches a rescue team to investigate the accident. Knowing that they will both be killed when discovered together, the two Sams must think of a solution to their dilemma.
The film addresses many philosophical, existential and metaphysical issues including the nature of the self, our responsibilities to others and the reliability of memory. Despite its exploration of serious themes, the movie still has strong emotional power. There were several instances in the film that moved me to tears, the first of which was when the first Sam realises that he is but a clone with false memories. Another moment was when he tries to communicate with his daughter and discovers that the real Sam is living with her on Earth. Finally, I felt the scene in which the second Sam is forced to carry the dying body of the first Sam very moving. How sad is it to be the pallbearer of your own corpse?
In one scene, the flailing Sam yells, ‘I want to go home!’ This scene should resonant with anyone who is living abroad. Even if we are not on the moon, being away from your family can feel just as isolated and helpless. Of course, the moon can also represent a kind of emotional wasteland, where we all might find ourselves abandoned. There, you are alone, you feel empty, you doubt your own existence, you yearn to return home.


Parts of this post were first written in March this year (9th March and 11th March). Revised on 17th November, 2010.
Recently, I read Melanie Benjamin‘s Alice I Have Been (2009), which is a fictional account of the life of the historical figure Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for the character of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s famous stories. I was interested in the book for two reasons. First, my undergraduate dissertation was on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) and I have long loved the texts. Second, my current research is on novels which re-imagine Victorian times and works.
I admired several parts of Benjamin’s novel, especially when the heroine is a young girl, who is often witty and rebellious,1 much like the Alice of Carroll’s stories. I also enjoyed the final chapters when an elderly Alice is believably and sympathetically depicted. I was very moved reading those chapters; the scene in which the old Alice meets the ‘real’ Peter Pan (i.e. Peter Llewelyn Davies) was particularly memorable. However, the middle (and large) part of the book, which deals with Alice’s adolescence and early womanhood, was not pleasant for me to read. I was indifferent at best to the heroine’s tiresome emotional turmoil and romantic relationships (there is one between Alice and Mr Dodgson (i.e. Lewis Carroll) and another between Alice and Prince Leopold). I was also offended by the exploitative and uninformed way John Ruskin is incorporated in the book, although the author admits taking ‘greatest’ liberty in his portrayal: ‘I deliberately made him a more important figure in Alice’s life than he probably was’ (351). Such a conventional and limited view of Victorian men we are presented with: if they did not have a ‘normal’ love relationship, they must be pedophiles.
1 For example: “When I was six, I had known nothing. Now that I was seven, however, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how very wise I was growing.”
I was also not completely enthralled by Tim Burton’s Alice in his latest Alice in Wonderland. The film tells the story of a 19-year-old Alice’s return to Wonderland, which is repeatedly referred to as Underland by the locals. Alice’s original trip is mentioned constantly within the film, although many of the characters doubt that she is the same girl. Whether she is the true Alice is important because it has been prophesied that she will defeat the tyranny of the Red Queen by slaying the Jabberwocky, who is a kind of WMD within Wonderland. As you can perhaps guess from this setup, Burton’s version is much more a Hollywood adventure story than it is a faithful retelling of Carroll’s tale.
Burton is above all a visual director2 and there is unsurprisingly much to admire in his vision of Wonderland. I felt that the use of 3D within the movie was even less intrusive and subtler than that in Avatar. One of my favourite images is when the Cheshire Cat, voiced by a suitably pompous Stephen Fry, disappears into a puff of smoke only to reappear in the moon. Another affecting visual is when a shrunken Alice is forced to jump from floating head to floating head (all those heads!) to cross the moat into the Red Queen’s palace. Apart from the visuals, I also thought the soundtrack was exceptional in evoking the atmosphere of the place.
Finally, I enjoyed a number of performances, especially that of Helena Bonham Carter as the arrogant and loud Red Queen. She steals every scene she is in with her enlarged heart-shaped head. I thought Anne Hathaway was also good as the flighty White Queen. I liked Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking Caterpillar as well (it’s Alan Rickman! My beloved Professor Snape!). But it is Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter that I found the most endearing. Although many critics have been saying the equivalent of ‘Off with his head!’, Depp’s turn as someone beset by madness and loneliness is very powerful. There are several heartbreaking moments when he realises that he is mad but cannot do anything about it. (Another blogger feels sorry for Depp’s Hatter as well.) It’s perhaps more torturous knowing you are mad than being mad but oblivious to the fact. (Yes, I feel strongly about ‘mad’ characters; their minds trapped. See here.)
Indeed, I was struck by a sadness running throughout the film. For example, Alice, uninspiringly played by Mia Wasikowska (what a shame — she is superb in HBO’s In Treatment), does not smile once. Although in the original story, the heroine is also faced with an absurd adult world full of politics and has to assert her own existence and authority, Carroll’s work is filled with wit, wordplay and surprises, which keeps the text charmingly light-hearted. Whereas Carroll’s work is full of twists and turns, which leave the reader as lost as the heroine herself, Burton’s film is a joyless and straightforward march to the end in which all this is lost. We are left with a prophesied mission, reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the ending of which we know right from the start. This prophesy also adds a seriousness and false weightiness to the story. The movie is additionally plighted by its feminism. One of the great things about the original Alice is that she is a strong independent girl and they have tried to keep this characterisation in the film by turning Alice into a modern feminist tale. Of course, this message is undercut by the fact that Alice’s story is foretold — even as she is asserting her own independence, she is merely fulfilling her fate. For me, all of this points to what I found so sad about the film: the difficulty of giving an afterlife to a much-loved character. No matter how good the execution, it just never lives up to the original.
2 My dear friend Cyril corrected me on this point: “It would be more accurate to say that he used to be a director concerned with contents as much as visuals, and that he has mostly given up on contents in the past few years.”

I’d like to mention Stephanie Bolster’s award-winning collection of Alice-inspired poems, White Stone: The Alice Poems (2006) as well. I found the poems mostly sensitively written and more evocative than Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been. Not only does Bolster imagine the fictional Alice in and out of Wonderland, she also explores the life of the real Alice Liddell and at times even identifies herself with the character in some of the most engaging poems in the collection.
There are many poems I enjoyed reading; some of the lines are beautifully crafted:
[…] This room is long and narrow, full
of longing. Outside, cups clink.
–from “Dark Room”, p. 14
Her blue eyes tight buds.
Her mousy thatch straight across
the forehead. Spring everywhere threatening
to open them both: tense in that unfurling
garden, during the long exposure.
–from “Aperture, 1856″, p. 15
What use in posing as a goddess
who would not be seduced –
when there’s no danger of seduction
now? Not all beloved girls grow up

to beauty. Your hair’s brittle 3
as last year’s nests; only your name
is worth a second glance.
–from “Pomona”, p. 26
Certainly Alice would have been tempted
by the fragrance of warm sliced apples,
the idea of something hard in there.
–from “Portrait of Alice with Persephone”, p. 46

[…] She wants to sway
to the beat of his heart in her ear, slow
as “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” In sleep
their tear-blotched faces could be anyone’s.
–from “Portrait of Alice with Elves”, p. 50

The first man to call me beautiful
wears the caterpillar’s manic
grin and breathes out the same
dazed smoke. We kiss by the river
within sight of luckless fishermen.

With him I find a patch of sky,
see tiny driveways bordered
with crocuses, backyards
with swingsets.

When he says goodbye I cry into the phone
for hours until he says he has
to go. I hang up first.
–from “The Poet as Nine Portraits of Alice”, p. 54

[…] I pretend she
understands, but she and many

of these stars are dead. Their light
is not for me and is not her.
–from “Portrait of Alice as the Poet’s Universe”, p. 56
Of all the poems, I guess “Portrait of Alice, Annotated” (p. 43) particularly touches my research. The poem contains the stanza below:
The critics overwrote each other
till all their words were tattooed black
upon her. Have mercy, she cried as they came
with the thousand-volumed weight of archives,
but those words were not hers either.
One can sense that Bolster believes the re-imagination of Alice in poetry is a better treatment of the character than having her analysed and dryly dissected. The metaphor of ‘tattooing’ is interesting: it makes one think of the ink that writes and the ink that dyes the flesh parchment of the body. Tattoos are often a form of art (I have seen some beautiful ones in my days), no more or less than poetry. But here, the persona seems to suggest that the black tattoo Alice receives from critics is like a slave tattoo; she is being written, she is branded for eternal life. Weighed down by the excessive volumes of academic work, the persona imagines Alice to be helpless: “Have mercy, she cried[.]” But I can’t help but think that this is somewhat hypocritical, for Bolster’s words in the poetry collection are not Alice’s either.
3 ‘Not all beloved girls grow up // to beauty’ — There is something universal, though: we all grow up old!
extra Listen to the song “Jabberwocky”, sung by Jennie Avila.

The Crimson Wing

This post was originally written on 20th September, 2009.
Today, thanks to Sunday Times, we got free tickets to watch The Crimson Wing, a documentary about the lives of a million East Africa’s lesser flamingos. The film will be released in the UK later this month.
The Crimson Wing centres on the yearly migration of the flamingos to the shores of the salt lake Natron in northern Tanzania. At certain times of the year, the lake turns red as microscopic organisms bloom. The flamingos are said by local tribes to get their colour from the lake. The film also explained that in Latin ‘flamingo’ means fire and that the birds may be related to the myth of the phoenix.
The flamingos come to Lake Natron in the rainy season. After it stops raining, the water in the lake quickly evaporates, forming a giant salt island in the centre. This is where the flamingos build salt nests and lay eggs. It is a harsh environment to raise the very young. For example, although most of the chicks survive, some die because salt dries on their legs forming heavy and irremovable shackles, making it impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the flock or making them easy prey for enemies. The film follows the plight and growth of the young flamingos in different parts of the lake until they acquire their own fully-grown wings and fly away to other lakes in Africa, only to return the next year.
The documentary was full of startling images, especially the courting ritual of the birds as well as the close-up of their beautiful crimson feathers. However, the narration at times could seem sentimental and lacking in substance. I guess this is not surprising from a nature film produced by Disney. For example, some of the narration featured fairy tale-like language and referred to predators as ‘witches’. Still, it was an enjoyable film and the orchestration was effective.
At the end of the film, we are told that this unique habitat is under threat from pollution and development. The film is part of an environmental campaign to save the lake from a salt mine which is proposed for the area.
2 Responses “The Crimson Wing” →
September 22, 2009
distant relative, in case you were wondering
September 23, 2009
Steve, your distant relative is so beautiful!

An Education

This post was originally posted on 31st October, 2009.
Tonight, we went to watch the terrific An Education, starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. The film was adapted by Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir, originally published in Granta (maybe one day someone will adapt a piece from Cha into a major motion picture?). The film is beautifully shot, and it is surefootedly directed by Lone Scherfig.
An Education, which is set in the early 1960s before sex was invented, as Philip Larkin has it, centres on the seduction of the sixteen-year-old Jenny (Mulligan) by the older and charming David (Sarsgaard). Jenny lives in a dull suburb where she is studying to go to Oxford University. Desperate to see the world beyond her narrow life, she readily submits to David’s advances. David introduces her to a sophisticated world of restaurants, art auctions and jazz clubs. The man turns out to be a fraud, a kind of conman, but he is likable, kind and worldly. He manages not only to seduce the girl, but also her parents, who allow her to go to Paris with him. Although Jenny’s future is put in jeopardy by David, she ultimately learns an important lesson.
The movie could have ended up being a dreary period piece but Hornby’s script is insightful and very funny. Alfred Molina who plays Jenny’s father gets a number of great lines and he makes the most of them. The scenes between David and Jenny’s parents are hilarious. The relationship between David and Jenny is also complicated enough to prevent the story from being a simple tale of predator and victim. David is immoral but also sympathetic. And Jenny, who although naive, knowingly allows herself to be taken in by the older man as it provides her the opportunity to broaden her horizons.
The performances are all strong (even Dominic Cooper, who plays David’s friend, redeems himself from his previous dreadful performance in the National’s Phèdre.) Mulligan is being hyped for a well-deserved Oscar nod. In the film, she has the kind of plain look that is harmless but is also capable of being transformed into something more glamorous. Sarsgaard captures the character, managing to be both charming and quietly menacing. We also enjoyed the few scenes in which Emma Thompson, playing the headmistress of Jenny’s school, appears. She seemed perfectly cast for the role.
The evocation of time and place in An Education is top drawer. The details of the time are recreated convincingly and the cinematography is very lovely. Finally, or should I say, firstly, the opening credit sequence is intelligent and entertaining. The artwork from the credits blended nicely into the actual film as the story began. All in all, terrific entertainment.
4 Responses “An Education” →
November 1, 2009
i look forward to seeing this!
November 5, 2009
Now I think about it – I flipped through this book in the Edinburgh Book Festival last summer! Not sure if it’ll be shown in HK though! http://living.scotsman.com/bookreviews/Book-review-An-Education-by.5445989.jp
November 8, 2009
What knocked me over about this movie was how mixed up my emotions/reactions were to the romance between the two leads, such a hodgepodge blend of disgust and excitement, understanding and judgment. To so effectively portray this kind of moral ambiguity, or rather, to make the immoral at least somewhat ambiguous is a feat in itself, not to mention how beautifully the director paints the era, place, and then of course the performances.
And I’m just getting started. That’s how much I liked this film. I’ll be seeing it again. Soon!
November 12, 2009
A good review and an even better movie; I only got around to seeing it last night and I was captivated right from the start. While I have a few minor criticisms (such as Alfred Molina’s character starting out to be too much of a cliché at first), the movie overcomes all of them (for instance with the lovely scene where Jenny’s dad brings her the cookies and reflects about life). Thanks for encouraging me to go!

Bright Star

, This post was originally posted on 7th November, 2009.

Last night, we went to watch Jane Campion’s luscious Bright Star, the story of the doomed relationship between John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and his muse, Fanny Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish). The film, which is made of hundreds of perfectly framed and composed pictures, is a stunning visual treat that captures the details of the period (the movie begins in 1818 and covers a few years until Keats’s death). Campion’s recreation of the time is authentic but never overdone; it has a lived-in feel that other period dramas do not. The characters inhabit the exteriors and interiors naturally. They gather in their dark kitchen and linger comfortably in the Heath and fields beyond their house.
Apart from this natural recreation of the time, Campion also manages to incorporate Keats’s poetry into the movie in an effective and believable way. Many literary bio-pics cannot quite mesh the need to include the writers’ words and the need to tell a story in moving pictures. In Bright Star, Campion skillfully overcomes this problem. The scenes, for example, in which Keats and Brawne show their love for each other by alternately quoting sections of Keats’s poems, are beautiful.
Certainly, part of the effectiveness of these moments is due to the actors themselves. Ben Whishaw gives a nice turn as the distracted and tubercular Keats; and Abbie Cornish is captivating as the emotional and dramatic Brawne. She capably portrays the youthfulness and heightened sensitivity of a young girl hopelessly in love. In one scene, she’s ready to kill herself just because Keats sends her a shorter letter than normal. It’s both hilarious and affecting. Everyone else in the picture is good, especially Paul Schneider who plays Keats’s self-loathing Scottish friend, Charles Armitage Brown. I also want to mention Edie Martin as Brawne’s younger sister, Toots. She is very natural and likable.
The movie was perhaps a little over long. But Campion’s skill and vision shines through. Unlike many movies which I forget as soon as I leave the cinema, Bright Star had a number of scenes which I think will stick with me for a long while. There is a beautiful moment in which Keats and Brawne are walking behind Toots who is acting as a kind of young chaperon. When Toots is not looking, the loving young couple engages in affectionate kissing. But when she turns her head to check on them, the couple freeze in silly or coy positions. During this game of statue, the footage seems to divide in two: Toots and the rest of the images on the screen remain in motion but the leads seem to be presented in freeze frame; a suggestion that their love is so engrossing that for them time has stopped. So much is said in this speechless sequence.
Also, a scene in which Brawne drunk on Keats’s recent love letters starts a butterfly farm in her room is simply stunning. I don’t think I have ever seen an image like it before.
I greatly enjoyed Whishaw’s recitation of “Ode to a Nightingale” played over the closing credits. Most of the audience stayed to listen to the poem. I, too, froze on my seat to listen to each syllable, word, and line.
Leaving the theater, I thought that Bright Star was a very bright star indeed.

See another post about Bright Star here.
6 Responses “Bright Star” →
November 8, 2009
I completely understand why you liked the film. There is so much to like. For me, though, it didn’t have nearly enough tension or narrative drive to sustain and become something great. The stakes weren’t high enough. The romance not uncertain enough…
November 8, 2009
Beautiful! I wonder what the ‘shorter than normal’ letter looked like. It’s so incredible that Brawne counted the tint of passion in every single words of Keats’s letters.
November 8, 2009
Oh Brawne is just being silly. She needs lots of attention from the man she loves — can’t settle for less.
November 15, 2009
hey tammy, funny thing. i had thought it was YOU in such a beautiful pic until i saw the poster of the film!
November 15, 2009
February 7, 2010
Now I really want to see it! Well written as always.

Coincidence — Campion copies Hopper?

This post was originally written on 1st September, 2010.

Read a review of Bright Star here.

Edward Hopper: “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”

Bright Star
“Morning Sun”

7 Responses “Coincidence?” →

Jonathan Mendelsohn [Link]
September 1, 2010

What a cool find! I can’t imagine there is a coincidence.

I can imagine if I were a filmaker having many a desire to copy Hopper paintings as still scenes in my movie. Is there a more gorgeous, if elegiac painter?
Hopper has had me dream of his gas station by the side of the country road at dusk many times.
September 1, 2010
I agree — it can’t be a mere coincidence: the bedroom, the morning sun, the bed, the lone woman, the oblong shadow, the gaze … there are too many similarities. Of course, our mind is very capable of seeing what we want to see….
September 1, 2010
I haven’t seen the film, but in general I would say the temptation to put beautifully composed still frames – especially when they are landscapes – are one of the greatest obstacles to the flow of the narrative of a film, even if a film is more poetry than a story. I don’t know what happened with this film, but I am always wary of films when cinema is treated like a visual montage or sequence of photos…
September 1, 2010
But I love ‘moving postcards’, as in the film Let The Right One In.
Words to ponder “…if [Hopper] were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.” Clement Greenberg
Much classier way of “copying” than the constant recycling of tracing paper/animation patterns (and subsequent auto-plagiarizing) you find in Disney movies, so that they can make their movies faster and cheaper: 
September 2, 2010
Remember Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Blue” and “Red”? That’s the idea. Two persons, a composer and a beggar, produced the same tune in different places at different time. A poster happens to be a real-life caption. I love coincidence!