2019年8月20日 星期二

For her slight comfort

I was going to the cinema one hot afternoon. In my hand was a small handy electric fan, which was a souvenir from a friend. I felt the excitement of using the cute lovely gadget for the first time. 

Coming out of the building, I noticed the old woman, who was a neigbour, sitting near the entrance looking into the emptiness with no expression on the face. In my hurry I walked past without greeting her. Feeling the scorching heat, however, I turned around and went back to her. I gave her the electric fan saying that it would help her cool off a bit and would also blow off the pollution from the passing cars. She thanked me again and again.

Later that evening I suddenly remembered that the fan would need recharging after a few hours’ use. I doubted if I had done the right thing as I seemed to have created problems for her. 

When I saw her again the following day, I told her to leave the fan at the reception and I would help her recharge it. But she looked at me with bewilderment; she did not seem to understand what I was talking about. She might even have forgotten all about the fan. In fact, I did not see her using it in the days that followed.

Somehow I felt sorry for not keeping the souvenir, thus heedless of my friend’s kind thoughts for me. I could have given the old woman another fan, a more easily manageable one. 

Last night, I heard that the old woman had passed away. She must have died peacefully and without much pain for she had been seen in her usual place just a few days before. While praying for the repose of her soul, I felt consoled at the thought of my friend's message expressing her gladness about having also contributed to her slight comfort with the fan, though for merely a brief moment.

2019年7月15日 星期一

How Love Survived Long Years’ Trials and Temptations – Movie Review : The Portuguese Woman

“The Portuguese Woman”, a film directed by Rita Azevedo Gomes, tells the story of a nameless lady from Portugal. The period setting is the age of war in Western Europe sometime in the 17th or 18th century. Lord von Ketten, a warrior, leaves his Portuguese wife one year after their marriage to join a decades-long battle with the Bishop of Trent in northern Italy. Instead of returning to Portugal, the lady takes up her abode in his family castle, a decaying mansion perched high on a rocky peak, to wait with her newborn baby for his return.

A large portion of the film is thus taken up with the description of the whirling vortex of unhappiness, loneliness and boredom the Portuguese woman is trapped in during what seems to be an interminable wait. How the lady rides out the agony of the long wait is shown in some trifling details of her daily life.

Missing her maiden home in Portugal, she is often seen holding a book which she never seems to be reading. She makes sketches and sculptures, too, from which she derives little joy, though, as can be seen from the casual way she handles the finished products. There is hardly any smile on her face except, perhaps, for the moment when she is bathing in a mountain stream, reveling in the freedom the practice affords her in contrast with the feeling of suffocation she endures within the confines of the mansion. Tormented by loneliness, she seeks companionship from the maid servants and slaves, laughing half-heartedly over their stale, childish games.  Besides, she must have been walking aimlessly around the vicinity of the mountains, exchanging pleasantries with the few rural dwellers who cross paths with her, for she seems very familiar with the sad story of an old woman with her face half hidden behind a thick veil.

Strangely, while a wolf cub and a kitten, both adopted, become her cherished pets, there seems a lack of communication between mother and child. The only time when she shows her motherly concern is when the child is almost choked on account of a slave’s negligence. The sporadic appearances of a teenager, obviously her son, later in the story only serve to indicate the years going by. Another teenager, probably the same boy but slightly more advanced in age, is seen responding to the bidding of the wheelchaired Ketten, whom he addresses as Lord. Why is so little importance attached to this character? It somehow highlights the fact that the mere focus of her life is to wait to be reunited with her husband. This probably accounts for the snail’s pace of the film with long quiet scenes to enhance the impression that time crawls on. 

Besides, plain colours also set the monotonous tone and mood of the movie. The Portuguese woman looks arrogant in her pale-coloured costumes of a silky texture, which, however, give no hint of her change of mood, if any. Even on the occasion of her husband’s return after a lengthy absence from home, there are no bright colours to heighten the long forgotten joy. On the other hand, the architectural decay and faded furnishings of the once-rich castle also reveal the dreariness of life and invoke a gloomy mood.

As the story drags on, however, the description of Lord von Ketten takes a sudden turn. Initially, his devotion to the never-ending war has taken him away from his wife for long years. In the few scenes of his brief appearances, he is heavily armoured like the rest of the warriors, always ready to get back to the battlefield. He shows no obvious interest in cultivating intimacy with his wife. But, quite surprisingly, he is later found to be capable of very passionate love, venting his anger on the pet wolf when provoked to fierce jealousy by Pero Lobato, his suspected rival. When Ketten lies in bed, nearly fatally wounded, whether the woman will finally fall for Pero keeps the audience emotionally engaged. And the depiction of Ketten’s strenuous struggles for survival is downright uplifting! These details add to the dramatic appeals of the otherwise stodgy film. They also give the impression that the film is a romance, though not a very tightly constructed one.

We are inevitably attracted by some artistic elements in the film, which can perhaps justify its languid pace. It begins with a singing narrator reciting the poem “Under the Lime Tree”. The narrator’s later reappearances between scenes, singing and commenting on the incidents, smack of something akin to visual poetry. Also artistically appealing are its painterly visuals. Each of the scenes is like a painting typical of those in the Middle Ages. One striking feature is the out-of-focus presence of gaping doors in several scenes, adding much to the mystery of the background spaces.

Overall, while telling about a woman of bravery, patience and tenacity, the film also shows how love can survive long years’ trials and temptations. Though there are moments when it seems a bit drawn-out, this is a film well worth our time and interest

The Elderly Can also be Cute and Lovely - GDP: Grandmas’ Dangerous Project

“GDP: Grandmas’ Dangerous Project” is a movie about the problems faced by the elderly, a global issue of increasing importance. Unlike most of the films with the related theme, it does not have a sad tone. Quite on the contrary, it tells a cheerful story and is, in fact, a product of out-of-the-box thinking.

The film’s funny name is an attraction in itself. The initials “G.D.P” hint at some serious undertaking, preparing the audience for the thrill and excitement of an action film. And it also arouses curiosity about the participation of “grandmas” in the operation. What kind of dangerous project are the grannies involved in? How is the project initiated? Is it within the capability of the old women? Will the project be accomplished? Such are the questions that keep the audience emotionally engaged all through. And it is only towards the end of the movie that the mystery is solved.

And the story is mainly dedicated to the question HOW. The old women, each with her own story, are somehow brought together. Through sharing about their problems in their daily lives, they become aware of the need to seek self-sufficiency as long as they are still alive. And in their attempt to achieve this goal, they conceptualize the project.

In spite of its short duration, this light-hearted story has a hidden message behind the scenes. Though described in a very casual way, even evoking occasional bursts of laughter, the incidents are reminiscent of the existing problems in current society.

Granny Hou behaves in a childish way in order to draw her grandchild’s attention. To her disappointment, however, her daughter-in-law gets annoyed with her and cautions her against such insensible behaviour. She thus feels lonely and uncared for. The story reminds us of the elderly deprived of their dignity and importance because the youngsters do not care much about their opinion and suggestions.

Granny Ying comes back to Macau to host the funeral of her sister. She discovers, to her dismay, that her sister had an unaccomplished dream about visiting her in England. Since then, the old lady has been dwelling on sad memories and regrets. The story raises concern about the problem of depression, which can be triggered by financial concerns, loneliness and ill health, among the elderly. In the case of Granny Ying, bereavement is obviously the cause.

Granny May is found to be messing up her household chores, forgetting her meals and over feeding her fish. Her reduced ability to perform everyday activities is the result of a decline in her memory. This is undoubtedly a call for greater attention to the problem of dementia.

The well conceived script enables the twenty-minute film to deliver a message of such thoroughness. It features brief scenes, each with only a few characters, or only one character, a limited period of time, a clear location and a single event that changes and moves the story forward.

In addition, even without much dialogue, the clarity of the message is enhanced with the use of a certain object as the focal point of attention. The audience will always remember the naughty pair of plastic eyeballs with which Granny Hou tries to bridge the generation-gap and curry favour with her grandchild. When she is complaining tearfully about her son’s negligence of her physical weakness, her only listener turns out to be the pair of plastic eyeballs! The diary in Granny Ying’s story is also memorable as she is seen turning the pages, losing herself in her sister’s secret thoughts. Regarding Granny May, there seems no need for any particular object to highlight her dementia problem, as her constant look of bewilderment and blankness is explicit enough.

For the main part, the film has a comedic tone with the use of irony and ridicule to showcase disturbing truths about the ageing population. And, as the film is nearing its end, the director heightens the comic appeal to ring the curtain up on the project. All fully equipped, and one with the pistol in hand, the three grannies make a pose like a hero’s, ready for action. While the audience are craning their necks in expectation of the actual implementation of the dangerous project, all the images suddenly vanish from the scene and only the grannies’ voices can be heard with police sirens in the background, thus setting the final impression that the long awaited questions are left unanswered. But this is exactly the effect desired; there is something more important than the result of the project, or even the project itself, that the director would like to impress the audience with.

The film is inspirational though there is no emphasis regarding a moral lesson. The audience leave the cinema happily, quite convinced that old people can also be cute and lovely as long as they are treated with  appreciation, dignity and respect.

2019年6月4日 星期二

A Forgotten Episode in African American History – Movie Review : Daughters of the Dust

Daughters of the Dust” tells a story about the Gullahs, a three-generation Peazant family, who have lived on St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast, since their ancestors were brought there in chains as slaves from Africa centuries ago.

The film is non-linear in structure and the story, told through glimpses of the past, present and future, overlapping and disjunctive, is not easy to follow. It is through careful attention to the dialogues between the main characters that we audience get some understanding of this forgotten episode of African American history in this forgotten place. In fact, the well-conceived dialogues in Gullah Creole help make the story more expressive. During the one and a half days when the members of the Peazant family meet, they pour out their minds, thus evoking bitter memories of the old days when the enslaved Africans toiled on the plantations and also casting light on the second generation’s expectation of resilience and potential in the unknown future.

What brings them together is a reunion dinner followed by a rite of passage to a new life in the North on the mainland. However, the Peazants are divided in their opinions about the migration, which accounts for the occasional bitter arguments. Nana, the family’s matriarchal figure, whose entire life has been built around the family, is determined to stay on the island, insisting that their cultural heritage and folklore should be maintained. Those in favour of embarking for the mainland include the two cousins, Viola and Yellow Mary, the former a devout Catholic and the latter a pursuer of freedom, both with recent experience of life away from the island. Haagar, another cousin, claims to be educated, often viewing Nana’s conservative mind with contempt, and is also hopeful of better opportunities on the mainland.

In spite of the divergences of their perspectives, the Christians, Muslims, and indigenous believers among the Gullahs get along harmoniously with one another. While some kids gather round Viola listening to her Bible stories, a few are seen kneeling in adoration on the sand under the guidance of Bilal, a Muslim. And a small group, adults and kids alike, show obvious interest in an indigenous “wish book”.

Though there are scattered details concerning the male characters in the story, the ones assigned most of the dialogues and most often filmed in close-ups are the females.  Assumedly, this is due to the fact that females have been the victims of unfair treatment over all those long years. Nana remembers how she, like the other maidens in the days of slavery, struggled to grow crops in arid dusty soil, hence the name “Daughters of the Dust”. Yellow Mary is rejected with scorn and criticized for having been ruined. In fact, rape cases still occur. Eli is in constant pain because he suspects that a rape predator is responsible for his wife’s pregnancy. However, there is a touch of optimism towards the end when Eula bravely asserts that the scars and wounds they bear have now hardened and can well serve as an armour protecting them from further abuse.

Though without entertainment elements, the film has been acclaimed for its lush visuals. Every outdoor scene is a stunning painting depicting Nature’s beauty at its best. I am most impressed by the presence of the sea in the background in almost every scene, probably to highlight the call to the islanders from the mainland. Somehow I think the director has set the sea as a stage where the actors and actresses go on and off. We see Yellow Mary strolling on one side of the seashore with her lover from Cuba, while on the other side, there is the cheerful laughter of the young boys and girls running about. And Mr. Sneak, the photographer, also chooses a few seaside sites for taking snapshots of the islanders. What is most captivating is that Eula’s dramatic assertion about females’ strengthened resistance against abuse also takes place on the seaside with a close resemblance to a closing speech on stage.

One remarkable point worth the prospective viewer’s attention is the voice-over narration by Eula and Eli’s unborn child, who, a character herself, travels back and forth through time. This and other unique features make the film dreamy and poetic with a special appeal for viewers looking for something different from the mainstream films.

2019年5月26日 星期日

When life gives you no reason to smile – Movie Review: Killer of Sheep

The movie “killer of Sheep” tells the story of Stan, a slaughter house worker, and a few families he is related to. While showing how his family’s endless routine intertwines with the interruptions of random events, the movie also casts light on the poverty-related problems among the African Americans in Chicago. 

The movie begins with a father blaming his boy for not doing anything to protect his brother. His mother simply slaps him across the face. It somehow suggests that children there are fed on the idea about having to fight for survival, and violence is accepted as a solution to problems. Schooling, on the other hand, is not an important consideration. In fact, boys are seen doing nothing all day but running wild about, causing trouble and playing war games. Girls, though seemingly more docile by comparison, are unguarded against adult conversations, resulting in their prematurity and lack of moral training.

The adults have their own problems. When somebody gets beaten up, triggering hatred and enmity, the result is often violence and bloodshed. The word “niggers”, still a racist insult, is now also used as a swear-word among the African Americans themselves, an indication of their blunt style, often sliding into coarseness and vulgarity.

In reality, several parallels can be observed in the description of the problems involving the two generations. There are scenes alternating between the two, thus showing that their problems are somehow related. There is a repeated scene showing a few boys cycling or street-surfing speedily between moving cars and no one seems to find anything wrong with it. And not to be ignored is the fact that there is no interference from traffic cops, either. In reality, I do not remember seeing one!

Unlike many of the other African Americans, however, Stan, the sheep killer, hates violence. He is intent on getting adapted to the life situation as it is, always reminding his boy to stop calling his mom “my dear”, a common practice in the rural south, which he refers to as "back home". He manages to stand firm in the face of moral dilemmas, declining a repeated job offer from an ill-intentioned white woman and also refusing to get involved in a planned murder in spite of the lucrative reward promised.

Sarcastically, it is his job is to kill! Imagine the agony he has to go through while working in the slaughter house! Probably, to put emphasis on his pain, there are close-ups of the innocent looking flock of sheep being driven to death. This is obviously a resemblance to the bewilderment of the African Americans about their future when they were moving to the north from the south. Then close-ups of the dissected parts of the slaughtered sheep, bloody and disgusting, hanging on hooks, are reminiscent of the bloody, violent scenes of the human world itself. 

He may have taken his sadness home after work, a probable cause of his unhappy marriage. He also laments his non-church-going life since his departure from the south. It is small wonder that even his wife remarks on his lack of smile.

The undramatic story aside, the movie captivates the audience with its beautiful background music and songs, mostly adapted, including songs of solace and west end blues. While enhancing the story, the songs get into the emotions of the characters. They work very well, too, to evoke certain emotions with the audience.

The song “The house I live in”, for example, accompanying the street scenes with the kids going wild, is representative of the African Americans’ lack of a purpose in life, their doubt about their own future highlighted with the lyrics “What is America to me? A name, a map, or a flag I see?” 

When Stan’s wife is preening herself with the expectation of a night of romance, the song “Reasons” with the lyrics “longing to love you, just for a night” well serves the purpose. But it struck me as unusual that the director has chosen to put the song in her little daughter’s mouth. Perhaps, the girl’s obvious familiarity with the song is intended to put emphasis on the long -standing unhappy marriage.

 “This bitter earth”, a melancholy song, is played while Stan is dancing with his wife. The lyrics “What good is love that no one shares” well depicts the absence of love between the couple. On the other hand, the same song is played towards the end of the film when Stan is seen going about his slaughtering job. His broad grin, in stark contrast with the sad look that he used to wear on his face, is well matched by the lyrics to show his ignited hope about life. 

The movie may not have strong dramatic elements to attract viewers looking for entertainment. Yet for those interested in a down-to-earth story in the city of Chicago, this is the right choice.

2019年4月28日 星期日

A life-long dedication – Movie Review: Havana Divas

I was not prepared for entertaining elements when I chose the film “Havana Divas”, knowing that it was a documentary. I found the Chinese name “古巴花旦” very inviting, though. The movie turned out to be very enjoyable for its own sake.

It is about two Cuban ladies, now in their late eighties, who have been singing Yueju (Cantonese opera songs) since childhood, first as a means of livelihood and later for their interest. Brought up in poverty, Caridad Amaran(何秋蘭) and Georgina Wong Guitarrez(黃美玉) enjoyed little material comfort, and Yueju probably gave them satisfaction which they would have been deprived of otherwise. Their efforts are appreciable, considering their Cuban ancestral origin; they had to struggle with practically every single Chinese character to master the lyrics. 

The film includes quite a few still photos carefully selected from the two ladies’ collections. While depicting their growth, they also cast light on the historical development of Cuba with glimpses of the political turmoil following the seizure of power by the Communists resulting in a closed-door policy for decades. It is fun watching old-fashioned cars still moving on the roads, and cracked walls and broken road surfaces are a common sight. However, the locals look happy and contented with their austere lifestyle, often smiling gleefully into the director’s camera. Caridad(秋蘭) talked about once sleeping in the street without sounding whiny while Georgina (美玉) happily shared about her encounter with the young Fidel Castro  (卡斯特羅) on his visit to her school. 

There are also pictures of well known Cantonese opera actors and actresses of the past generations. Some, still healthy and cheerful despite their old age, chat happily about their stage performances back in those days. It is surprising how they survived the Great Depression by acting nonstop day and night to keep themselves in employment during the post-war era. The songs accompanying the pictures or short video clips are reminiscent of the time when Yueju was all the rage in those days.

The film is known to have been shown in a number of places previously with the post-screening appearance of the two ladies on a few occasions. Seeing the two old ladies greeted with a standing ovation each time, I was moved to tears. Those were tears of joy and appreciation. Indeed, their life-long dedication to Yueju is worth our great admiration and has inspired us with a life lesson about striving hard to achieve a goal.

2019年4月17日 星期三

A Remarkable Lenten Experience

Time flies! In the wink of an eye, the Holy Week has arrived, thus drawing the Lenten season to an end. Am I satisfied with my progress along the Lenten journey?

In retrospect, while admitting to occasional failure to resist temptation in the forms of tantalizing food, mobile phone overuse and unworthy thoughts, I can also claim to have benefited from spiritual enrichment opportunities, the most constructive being my participation in our Parish Lenten Retreat. 

The retreat, which focused on the theme “ Learning from Our Lady’s Passovers”, was divided into five sessions, the first four taking place on Friday evenings and the last, also the climax, on a Saturday afternoon.

Each of the Friday retreat sessions began with the reading of a Bible passage related to the life of Our Lady. After that, the lector talked about her reflection on the reading for about fifteen minutes, inspiring us attendants with our Lady’s virtues, which could be put into practice in our own lives. The sharing was then followed by a brief moment of silence to allow the Bible verses to sink in. The rest of the time was dedicated to Eucharistic Adoration.

Frankly, I was a bit worried when the schedule of the Friday spiritual gathering was first announced as my experience of Eucharistic Adoration had never been promising. Actively engaged in one way or another almost every minute of the day, I used to find it impossible to be faithfully involved in the practice. I could not understand how the people around me managed to spend a long hour sitting or even kneeling in silence with the eyes fixed on the monstrance, containing the Sacred Host. 

Now, however, I can look back with satisfaction and pride on the change in my attitude. Everyone of those Friday evenings saw me sitting or kneeling in adoration, gazing upon Jesus, meditating or praying to him. There was no more fidgeting or frowning over the dragging time. What had brought about the change?

It was all due to the inspiration from the fifteen-minute Bible talk. The verses selected to match the main theme provided focuses to meditate on. Inspired by the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, I reflected on my failure to respond to God’s calls with humility and obedience as Our Lady did. Besides, the Holy family’s escape to Egypt from Herod’s massacre of the innocents showed us Mary’s ability to brave life’s challenges and turn risks into opportunities. My thoughts then drifted to the obstacles and hurdles in my own life and I wondered how I could overcome them with a peaceful state of mind like Mary’s. Moreover, we learned from Jesus’ first miracle in the wedding in Cana about Mary’s caring concern for her friends’ needs. Finally, the disciples’ being entrusted to the care of Mary reminded us to be faithful to our promise of companionship. I also talked with Jesus, communicating with Him the thoughts generated from my meditation, seeking support from him and asking Him for forgiveness of my failings. In fact, there seemed so much I would like to share with Him that I was not aware of the passing time. 

In brief, though my planned Lenten practices have not been fully implemented, I am grateful that I have gradually learned to appreciate the power and beauty of the intimate encounter with Jesus. Eucharistic Adoration will always be an important part of my faith and I will treasure the opportunity to fully embrace the silent moments with Jesus.