Koreeda, the Truman Capote of Japanese cinema

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Today one of the most renowned Japanese filmmakers abroad, Hirokazu Koreeda, already in the early 90’s, experimented his later narrative language in documentaries like 彼のいない八月が (An August without him) or 日本人になりたかった  (I wanted to be Japanese). The first one, from 1994, is a very personal document about the last months in the life of a Japanese man infected with AIDS and terminal ill. When openly declaring his illness and confessing that he had contracted it through homosexual sex, Yutaka Hirata broke with 2 taboos firmly established in Japan at the time (and probably still going on): first, the fact that there are Japanese homosexual men, something denied by a part of Japanese society in spite of evidence in the tradition of the country (see Gohatto) but supported by the discrimination suffered by gay people in a normative and homogeneous society, which keeps them very deep in the closet; the other one was AIDS, never thought by many to be able to reach Japan’s insular condition. Koreeda, even in his director’s role, erases the distance between himself and his study object, getting closer and more and more involved with Hirata as a person.

The other documentary, filmed in 1992, not so sad but with a more clear political line, deals with the rights of Japanese-Koreans -born in Japan but without Japanese passport or nationality- and the social rejection that they face if they don’t integrate completely, abandoning their Korean identity. The film’s main thread is the story of a Korean man, who in the times of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, is sent to Japan to fight along with the Japanese in the Philippines, but after the war and fearing discrimination, creates a Japanese identity for himself and manages to get married and have children without his family ever knowing about his origins for 50 years until he is arrested in 1985 for forging official documents and in suspicion of being a spy from North Korea. Koreeda, making a filmic narrative out of a journalist and legal case, in the line of Truman Capote’s Cold Blood, analyzes Park’s (that was his Korean name) case, interviewing his lawyer and even visiting his hometown in Korea. He also shows the controversial Korean schools in Japan, blaming the police and the media for the animosity that the Korean-Japanese issue generates in the Japanese public opinion.

Are you also a Communist old relic?

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Somebody said that one’s homeland is where one spends her childhood. In the case of Emilia, Sunt o Babă Comunistă’s main character, it’s her youth, when thanks to Ceaușescu‘s regime, she got a permanent job in a factory and even received an apartment for free. The film, from 2013 and opening the Romanian cinema festival at Cinema Doré in Madrid, depicts life in a provincial town far from Bucharest around 2010, when the ex-dictator’s body is being exhumed to check his DNA. Many years have passed after his fall and execution in 1989, but his name and controversial legacy are still on everyone’s lips, especially for the economic crisis, the exhumation news and a movie that is being filmed in town depicting a frustrated visit of the “First Romanian communist comrade” to the factory. Director Stere Gulea, famous in his country for his movie Morometii, a 1988’s adaptation from a popular novel from between Wars and being shown today in the cinema series, successfully contrasts the conflicting feelings and ideas of Ceaușescu’s supporters with their younger (and not so, like the teacher and seamstress) detractors’. Even Emilia, who still proudly keeps her Communist Party membership card hidden behind a religious image, recalls the nonsensical cult to the personality that the ex-dictator cultivated; images in black and white take us to her past, which is been observed by old Emilia as a black-and-white spectator, same as in another memorable film dealing with the end of the Soviet time in the Balkans, Ulysses’ Gaze, by Theo Angelopoulos. Ceaușescu’s anecdote is just another but related one of the stories narrated in the film, actually showing the daughter’s visit from Canada with her boyfriend, an unavoidable  childish and politically correct North American young man. Alice, played by Ana Ularu, an attractive actress with exotic facial features, is the one in the couple down to earth and strong enough as to face realistically their economic problems. And again, modern-time values are questioned when the crisis in the capitalist West requires help from the remainders of Communism for the former to survive.

P.S.: And surprising the resemblance of the Romanian “baba” actress with a Spaniard, the also actress Concha Cuetos.

Charlton Heston in Cisjordania: 5 broken cameras in the Planet of the Arabs

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To watch Chuck Norris in an 80’s B-series movie spitting food at and insulting derogatively the whole Arab and Muslim world produces a mixture of astonishment and embarrassment. It’s one of the 1000 films that director Jaqueline Reem Salloum, American of Palestinian and Syrian descent and resident in New York, has edited to create a short film showing the generalized negative image depicted by Hollywood when it deals with the Arabs. Out of those 1000 films, 12 of them projected positive images, 53 neutral, and the rest, an unquestionable majority, negative images associated with violence and inhumanity. Supported by a metal rock soundtrack whose noise gets confounded with the unavoidable terrorists’ bullets, it is a healthy and sarcastic critical approach to a Western consolidated mirage, understood this concept as “negative and distorted opinions of the Other valuing their culture as inferior”.

The former was the introduction (in the Palestinian film festival in Madrid) to a Palestinian-Israeli documentary about the occupation in a small village, Bil’in, in Cisjordania or West Bank, which shows the human side of a community, removed of their farming lands little by little by means of a wire fence, and the complexity of Israeli politics, where many factions coexist, some of them against the illegal –even by Israeli law standards- occupation of lands by Orthodox Jewish settlers. Emad shows 5 broken cameras, each of which represents a period in his life, distributed between family and the filmed denouncement of the soldiers’ harassment to the activists claiming back their lands. Although the community eventually manages to win the legal fight in court and the fence is finally dismantled, the future of those traditional communities in a growing Israeli population avid for land doesn’t predict a peaceful future. Maybe what is require the sooner the better is an agreed land “divorce”, as Israeli columnist and writer Ari Sahvit puts it, although he doesn’t hide the difficulties of the decision: “If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security.”

Mohammad’s summer

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For many people, Iran might mean the Evil Axis, a nuclear danger and Islamic fundamentalism. However, a big multiethnic society of 80 million inhabitants is much more than that. Film director Majid Majidi, in his 1999 prize-awarded The color of paradise, shows a traditional countryside community far from the geostrategic fight for natural resources and regional power. Mohammad is a blind boy of around 10 years old who, during school vacation, must leave his special-education school in Teheran to spend time with his family. The father, a hard-working widower desperate to start a new family, is confronted with the circumstance of having to choose between his son and a prospective new wife, and be ready for redemption. The universal theme of a parent abandoning a child to start a new family, so common in the Japanese cinema (Nobody knows, Kikujiro’s summer) also arrives at the Iranian film scene. Northern Iranian green mountains and customs are depicted poetically by Majidi, who creates the character of an imaginative and sensitive child with the ability of perceiving reality with his ears and his fingertips at deeper layers than “normal” people, a door to the sacred.  At the end of the showing, Madrid’s Centro Persépolis’s manager repeats for us the film director’s words: “To see things clearly, we need to close our eyes”. Maybe that’s what we have to do to get a proper perspective of politics, love, friendship, work and family.

ORANUS, the new Russia

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Does advertisement work the same way in all countries? Do publicity messages reach people regardless of nationality and culture? Are we just puppets in the hands of publicists? Victor Pelevin’s hilarious novel Homo Zapiens (Generation п) deals with the matter in a creative way: a post-Communist Russia is entering the Western world of consumism through TV commercials that must be adjusted to the Russian zeitgeist, as a way of approaching Uncle Sam to Lenin. Babylen Tatarsky, the protagonist, coming from the Institute of Literature and with the help of hallucinogenic fly-agaric mushrooms and a Ouija board, becomes an advertising creative and discovers a world where “Identification of the self is only possible through the compilation of a list of goods consumed, and transformation is only possible by means of a change in the list”, ORANUS, and where nothing or nobody is what/who looks like, especially on TV.

There is also a recent film adaptation and here is the trailer.

A little bit of American ideology

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This week I’ve seen myself taken to a couple of Hollywood’s productions and I must admit that they were entertaining and, above all, neuron-relaxing.

 

For a child or even a young teenager, love is a binary matter, either you love or you don’t, with all its eternal consequences, as simple as that. However, in the adult/erous world, things are not so clear but full of grayish nuances. MUD and his overexposed naked chest, a mélange of Pocholo, Bisbal, and MacGyver, helps 14-year old Ellis to keep on believing in Manichaean existences, in an idyllic and laid-back American South: Tom Sawyer revisited.

 

It’s always inspiring to realize how thousands of no-face digitalized extras are killed in Hollywood’s catastrophe films, while the protagonist –in this case, a mature but still babyface Brad Pitt in the role of a model father and an obedient husband-, and his whole family end up unharmed (Deus ex machina, as usual), as if their lives were more valuable than the other ones. At least, this The Walking Dead’s longer chapter, WORLD WAR Z of zombie, gives you a good amount of overseas fighting, PG-13 rated flesh and blood, and doesn’t hide its bold political correctness.

Contradictions in China

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China is, no doubt, a country of contrasts, one more mark of most developing countries in the world. You have the relatively rich coast and the poor countryside. But even in wealthy Shanghai and Beijing, you find poverty on the streets. They passed from a tightly controlled economy to an open market and frantic business after Deng XiaoPing. And now, everyone wants to be rich, everyone wants to live Western style. But they are too many, and the competition is hard. After Mao and the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals and good manners were equal to bourgeois vices, and everyone rushed for survival without paying attention to that. Nowadays, that the standard of living is gradually going up, their ways have not paired the economic development yet, and then you find people spiting on the floor in front of you, not respecting lines or pushing around, hotel clerks and taxi drivers quite rude and so on. But at the same time, a new generation of young Chinese not so limited by censorship –although it still exists, especially on the Internet, they might not be able to read these lines-and indoctrination, get little by little to adapt themselves to a more global and friendly world. I met so many families and young students willing to exchange pieces of language and culture with a foreign traveler…The hatred-love relation with the West and the complex of inferiority should be replace by one of a more mutual respect and help. And maybe they should look back to their ancient culture’s precepts of ethical standards and social norms advocated by Confucius.
As for politics and democracy, as long as people see how their standard of living goes up, they don’t care too much about it. But if the economy happens to get stuck one day, the Government will be in real trouble. Traveling around China and feeling the hugeness of the country in terms of population and territory, I understand the desire of the Communist Party of having everything tied up. If they didn’t, China would probably fall into chaos and/or regional civil wars. Now it’s a non-free but at least somehow harmonious society, and with low delinquency. But they will have to open the system; it’s a matter of time.
I think China has a real problem with pollution and should take strong measures to control it. Cities are not only sky-scrapers, factories and cars, but also people on the streets who have the right to breathe fresh air. The EXPO 2010’s theme is precisely the green cities. It’s a good and brave start, being aware of their own problems, but now they have to really face them, maybe at the cost of their own high-speed economic development. At least most scooters are electric. They should do the same with cars, if their objective is that everyone own one; and control their factories’ Co2 emissions.
As for China’s cities, the more livable and “civilized” is Beijing, followed by frantic Shanghai with its many contradictions –Pudong and the Bund vs. the slums downtown-. Mid-size cities like Nanjing can be nice in some areas, hostile in others; same as for Qingdao –good city to meet Chinese national tourists from all around China-, with a relatively well-taken care of beach front but a more abandoned downtown.
After this 2-week-trip to China, I don’t think I’ll go back in the short or medium term, but when I do, I hope I will find a better place to live.
Here you are a few videos. Enjoy:
Qingdao beach
Nanjing Kung Fu Noodles
Chinese exotic food
EXPO 2010 China’s pavilion
Traditional music at Shanghai’s Yuu Gardens
Shanghai’s storytelling
Miguelín, the Spanish gigantic baby at EXPO Shanghai 2010
Spain’s pavilion at EXPO Shanghai 2010

THE COVE, FLIPPER AND BULLFIGHTING

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The other day took place, at last, the première of 2009’s American documentary “The cove” in Japan. A small movie theatre in Kyoto had about 30 spectators on a Saturday evening, which shows how little impact has had on the Japanese population, although a few newspapers and magazines included articles about the topic. It was an exciting film, in the line of James Bond’s moves from the 70’s with submarine cameras, spies, etc. But let’s go to the content: Ric O’Barry, former trainer of the deceased Flipper, becomes paranoid about how humanlike and intelligent dolphins are and starts illegally releasing them in the U.S. After a few years, he decides to go abroad and do the same in Japan, or at least, make a big hit with a movie depicting the killing of these marine mammals because of their meat or for commercial reasons in Taiji, Japan. Independently of their illegal actions, as of entering a restricted area and taking images without permission, their reasons to stop the hunting and killing of dolphins for food accounts basically for dolphins’ high intelligence and friendliness to humans. Well, there are no scientific research that prove their even remotely closeness to human cognitive reason. Besides, if they were so intelligent, they wouldn’t allow themselves to be hunted in such an easy way always in the same area. And many other animals are submissive and friendly to us and we still use them for meat: think of rabbits –many times used as pets, chicken, cows, etc.-. There is not an extinction danger, as in the case of whales, so I don’t see why the Japanese should stop eating dolphins if they please. As for the way they are hunted and sacrificed, it might look cruel in front of the cameras but it’s always bloody when killing an animal; what happens is that we are not shown those images at all in the case of the regular and packed meat we buy at the supermarket. They should also record images of chicken factories and beef processing industries when the animals are killed and start campaigning against killing cruelly those animals.

The argument of poisonous mercury inside the dolphins’ meat is exaggerated in the movie, but anyway used as another argument. In the case of the killing of dolphins as ペストコントロール (pest control) and not only for food, I could also understand and approve the killing: if dolphins consume big amounts of fish and procreate without limits but without being consumed or controlled by humans, the growing human population of the world won’t have enough fish to survive; or we will have to depend exclusively on meat in the future. It makes sense, but they disregard it as an excuse.

But what really bothered me about the movie was the manipulation of images in their favour: the Japanese fishermen are depicted without a face, as if denying their humanness, their angry arguments and words in Japanese are presented as animal sounds out of context. Even they show Japanese politicians and officials as expressionless, lack-of-feeling persons and, above all, liars and cruel even to their own people; while the dolphins are a noble race of “animals” who deserve tears and a decent life in the ocean.
Well, in first place, they should first try to understand the country and the culture to where they have travelled –who is kind enough as to not putting them in jail after their illegal actions-; and second, they should try not to be so ethnocentric and think that they are in possession of the truth –as for which animals should be eaten and which ones shouldn’t- and that they have the holy mission of making all the humanity have their own absolute values.

And today, in the news, the prohibition of bullfighting in Cataluña, Spain. I respect the democratically taken decision but I don’t share it at all: the torture they claim to receive the “toros de lidia” is not that, but just a 20 minute fight against the bullfighter after 5 years of a great life of freedom in the fields before its final sacrifice. Apart from political reasons -some people consider the decision as a way of marking more differences between Cataluña and Spain in search of a future independence (curiously the announce of the prohibition coincides in time with the rejection of a few crucial articles in the Catalan Estatut)-, many of the promoters of this law may have many things in common with Flipper’s trainer, even without having heard about him.

Slumdog Millionaire at Ritsumeikan University

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A man with a fast and precise talk, the diplomat and eventually writer Vikas Swarup came to Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan, on Monday at the request of the tireless and persevering English teacher Andrew Dowling. In spite of the unusual of the occasion, very few Japanese professors and/or administrators attended Mr. Swarup’s lecture about his book –turned into a Hollywood-awarded movie- and India (maybe they were at one of those long meetings they like to celebrate in the evenings). But, anyway, around one hundred and fifty students were able to listen to and meet the celebrity. I’m not sure how much of the diplomat’s polished English did they even understand, but for sure it must have been a good experience for them.
He talked about the process of writing –supported by an “absent wife”- when in London in an astonishing short two-month period; about the publishing; and about the adaptation into a successful movie (even before the book had been for sale).
The questions about his own life –not belonging to the slums but depicting them in his novel- as a middle class educated Indian man, and about the use of English to show characters who speak in different Indian languages and dialects were answered by him with frankness and humility: his objective is not to explain complex Indian society but just to tell a story and entertain the readers.
The part of the lecture when he addressed India’s economy, culture and growing political weight in the world sounded more of a boring diplomat’s politically-correct speech than an intellectual’s opinion, but even though, when he talked about the novel, its characters and the movie themselves, it was well worth it. Thanks, Andrew, and happy birthday.

Futenma, familias numerosas y un pícaro coreano

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(English, español, 日本語)

Recently, politics in Japan have become a little bit frantic with the Futenma relocation of the Okinawan American military base. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, from the Democratic Party of Japan, is facing his biggest challenge as a politician since he assumed office in September 2009 –apart from last December’s scandal of his rich mother’s “donation” for his campaign-. When a politic party makes too many promises in a campaign, in the eventuality of winning, either you fulfil them up to certain point or you will lose your reputation with your voters. His statement at campaign speeches that he would send Americans away of Okinawa won him many advocates, but once in office, doing it is practically impossible without damaging the political and military ties with the U.S.
Indeed, Hatoyama’s DPJ’s foreign policy has been more of approaching Asia, at the expense of Japan’s relation with America. Actually, that’s not completely unwise from an economic point of view: Asia represents for Japan the 48% of her total exports and the 60% of imports, including natural resources. The U.S.’s weigh in the Japanese economy is only 18% and 10%, respectively. But when it comes to the military and national security, it’s quite comfortable being under American military umbrella, in case North Korea and/or eventually China become belligerent.
Now, Okinawans want their island for themselves, without the dollar-spending but trouble-maker U.S. marines. Hatoyama has changed relocation plans and sites many times but at the end of this month will have to make a decision to please either the Americans or his voters; national security or citizens’ will; difficult decision, Hatoyama San.

A otro nivel más doméstico, y sin repercusiones políticas internacionales, al señor Hatoyama también le están “creciendo los enanos”. Para este año 2010 y los siguientes se ha aprobado una controvertida ayuda a las familias de trabajadores residentes en Japón –japoneses o extranjeros-, que ofrecerá 13.000 yenes mensuales por hijo –el año que viene serán 26.000-. A pesar del crónico déficit presupuestario japonés, a primera vista parece una medida acertada para el largo plazo debido a los problemas de estancamiento demográfico en el país. La controversia viene porque Hatoyama, -en un alarde de filantropía sólo comparable a la del últimamente denostado e idealista presidente español Zapatero- ha extendido la ayuda incluyendo en el cómputo los hijos que residen fuera de Japón. No han tardado en aparecer algunos pícaros asiáticos, como este coreano que afirma tener 554 hijos adoptados en Tailandia y exige al gobierno japonés 86 millones de yenes al año. Como los japoneses son un poco inocentes pero no tontos, enseguida ha dictado una norma añadida al decreto ley que dice que en el caso de hijos en el extranjero la ayuda está supeditada a la aprobación individual por cada municipio, etc.

普天間の問題は鳩山さんの政府と民主党に対してかなり否定的だ。選挙でアメリカの軍隊を沖縄から撤退することを約束した。今、この約束を守ろうとしているが、アメリカとの外交関係に対する結果に気が付いてきた。アメリカとの議論だろう。以前から、アメリカよりアジアと仲良したいという鳩山さんは経済的な理由もあり、一方ではアメリカの軍用の保護は日本の国家の安全に必要であるとも認識している。沖縄の住民とマスメディアは圧力をかけている。5月末までの決定が求められている。
554人の子供がいる男性が存在するかどうか誰か信じるだろう? 実際はともかくそんな人がいる。尼崎に住む韓国人だ。最近、鳩山の政府が作った育児手当法律を見逃さないように、ヤツは尼崎の市役所に行き一年に8千6百万円を要求した!

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