Chipmunk on the Way to Seokguram

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Adorable chipmunk on the way from the Seokguram grotto in Gyeongju!

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Film #14. The Act of Killing (2012)

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I try to be far more critical whenever I watch a documentary by a western filmmaker on a non-western subject. It’s a familiar pattern among western filmmakers to promote ‘western’ values such as democracy, freedom, individualism and liberalism by targeting, framing and “otherizing” a specific person, groups, event or memory in a non-western culture or the history of a non-western country where those values have not been progressed enough, such as China and Southeast Asia. They enforce a specific perspective on these people or phenomena in the ‘other world,’ by taking a ‘universal’ moral stance such as ‘killing is bad’ or ‘freedom is good’ and what not. Even though what’s going in the screen is absolutely authentic without any trace of direction, the viewer becomes subjected to the specific, ‘morally superior’ viewpoint of the director that seeks to disclose the ‘moral inferiority’ of the subject in his or her camera. As a result, the audience came to antagonize the non-western subjects as the ‘other.’

The motive behind The Act of Killing (2012), a critically-acclaimed documentary by an American-born filmmaker named Joshua Oppenheimer,  seems to have not been very much deviated from that of other western filmmakers. Oppenheimer points his camera towards the persons and groups–e.g. Anwar Congo, Pancasilla– in Indonesia as the incarnations everything hated by western viewers who believe in human rights, democracy and freedom: terror, coercion, and violence.  As a result, even though the director approaches Anwar Congo as a friend, the audience antagonizes him. Of course, I was disturbed by the terrible memories of the crime against humanity occurred in Indonesia in the 1950s and the fact that it has never been persecuted, but I was even more so by the director’s true intention to juxtapose the political reality of the country and that of the audience because the contrast is so great so that I just wanted to close my eyes. Unanswered questions were just hovering over my head.
On what grounds should I criticize Anwar Congo and his colleagues who live in a totally different system of morality? Which set of standards or morality should I use to condemn them, since their definitions of the right and wrong are worlds away from mine? What is responsible for this incredible gap between the ones living in the same continent? What could possibly be different if Anwar Congo sincerely atones for his past actions for the rest of his life?
As a member of Joshua Oppenheimer’s intended audience, the Act of Killing directed my anger NOT towards Anwar Congo but towards the reality of my own inability to make a difference. But I don’t deny the benefits of seeing a political documentary: it gives me a clear understanding of where I am in the world. I will watch the sequel, the Look of Silence (2014), at the earliest opportunity.

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Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Rogue

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Assassin’s Creed Rogue is the fifth game in the series I ever played, after AC II, AC Brotherhood, AC Revelations, and AC III. Having been away from a game console for more than 2 years, I never got to play the acclaimed Black Flag and the highly anticipated Unity. I have also installed the first AC game in the series in my PC but never got around with keyboard control.

During the Thanksgiving holiday last month, I got this opportunity to borrow a PlayStation 3 console from my cousin. Rejoiced, I immediately ran to a local E-Mart (a Korean equivalent of Wal-Mart)  and purchased the very first Assassin’s Creed game I found in the shelf with a relatively huge amount of 59,800 Won (68.93 Canadian dollar -_-;;) compared to the Canadian price of $29.99. (Yes, electronics are more expensive in this country for a reason not yet known to me…) Anyway, I repeatedly convinced myself that any price was worth for fulfilling my longtime thirst of an AC game. (Really?? -_-;)

So, here it was. It took roughly two weeks for me to complete all the main missions. Far before actually playing the Rogue, I was intrigued by the novel and striking feature of a Templar protagonist, in opposite of all his Assassin predecessors. Yet, I was baffled to meet Shay Patrick Cormac introduced as an Assassin in the beginning. So I had to be patient to witness his dramatic transition almost in the middle of the game.

*SPOILER ALERT*

Compared to the callous one in the Third (the last AC game I played and the main frame of reference in this post), Shay was a generally likable and complex protagonist. I guess Shay is the most ambivalent protagonist in the AC history, having been both an Assassin and a Templar. I lost most of my faith in the quality of AC’s storytelling since the Revelations, but the plot of Rogue was sufficiently engaging with the sudden turn of the sides and the ensuing process of butchering Shay’s old colleagues, which was more heartbreaking than Connor butchering his daddy.

Like many previous titles, Rogue also features several plot points that just don’t make sense: the Morrigan appearing out of nowhere after Shay escapes Davenport, seeing a secret gathering of the Assassins Shay did not personally witness  (we’re reading Shay’s memories when we play Rogue…), Shay not killing Achilles in the end (Because Achilles appears in the Third for Christ’s Sake!) and so on.  Since the Revelations, I realized the story is no longer a  primary concern in the AC games, solely for the interest of gameplay. So it was fine with me. (sarcasm)

In terms of gameplay, most was fun except the ship upgrade part… I don’t remember the Third had this feature but I do remember it wasn’t this baffling. Collecting metals was the hardest part in this game… The naval battle with Adéwalé was memorably challenging. I put all the collectibles and side missions aside to come back as soon as completing all main missions, only to find there wasn’t a lot of side missions as significant as the Homestead missions or Assassin’s Tombs in the previous games.  So for the first time since AC II, I’m navigating every corner of the map to obtain all collectibles.

I’m planning to entertain my newly installed PS3 with another AC game, most likely Black Flag. Yes I know I’m far behind, since the new game of the series, AC Syndicate, is to be released today. I don’t know when I shall be holding the new-gen console…😦

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Celebrating the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States

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Last week was a historically triumphant moment for one of the most discriminated minority groups in the world. After decades of heated debates nationwide, the Supreme Court of the United Sates finally guaranteed a right to same-sex marriage. Watching each of my friends rainbow-fying their FB profile pictures, I felt like joining the celebrating mood, though the only thing I added to my profile picture was a Hello Kitty doll on my bed. I sincerely congratulated the gay rights activists in the U.S. for their long-sought victory, but I wasn’t ready to defend their rights against an angry friend of mine who ranted on Facebook against the historic Supreme Court decision.

She is a devout member of my Catholic parish. I’ve always admired her deep faith and her amazing sweetness, but I never got a glimpse on her conservative stance on a controversial issue like this until now. She was so convicted of the essential “sin” of homosexuality, for it only concerns the momentary and carnal pleasure that never sees its fruit (i.e. babies). Though she made predictable comments about respecting minorities but her speech was overflowing with disgust and rage against the “love” of gay and lesbian people, showing how devoted she was in God’s way. I was confused: what can I say to her? How can I articulate my empathy for LGBT people who must have been subjected to discrimination and injustice for so long? How can I defend their rights against people who are so sure of the “sinfulness” of their unions? After all, how can I challenge her point that homosexuality is essentially wrong?

There are certain things that I consider ‘wrong’ or ‘unethical.’ I’m against prostitution, divorce, adultery and casual sex. I’m able to say this because all of these concern my personal choice: I’m able to say I’m against prostitution, for I can choose not to pay or be paid for sex. I’m able to say I’m against divorce because I can choose not to divorce from my future spouse. I’m able to say I’m against adultery because I can choose not to have sex with someone other than my spouse or someone else’s spouse. I’m able to say I’m against casual sex because I can choose not to have sex casually with someone I do not love or want to have children with. But on what grounds shall I say I’m against or for homosexuality or same-sex marriage? I cannot choose to love or marry someone of same sex. I only understand those LGBT people as the ones who have the same feelings, intellect and desires as myself. I only wish them happiness in every possible way and I want them to enjoy all the rights that I enjoy, too.  I don’t think I’m in a position of judging, criticizing or sympathizing with them, only because they are different from myself.

It really doesn’t matter whether I am for or against homosexuality, or agree or disagree with same-sex marriage. It’s about justice and equality that must be applied for all people, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so many things that define a self-identity. I also consider myself as a God’s child but I also believe in the boundless compassion and progress of humankind as well.

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Infantile Review: 87th Academy Awards (2015.2.22)

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1. Just like last year, this Oscars was marked with a series of memorable moments, definitely including NPH’s extravagant opening number (much compared to Hugh Jackman’s humble one in 2009… I guess it has to be either monologue or song that makes up the Oscars opening), his hilarious parody of Birdman and Whiplash, the redemptive reunion between Idina Menzel and John Travolta, Lady Gaga’s glittering tribute to the Sound of Music, and many more. Also I keep wondering how NPH could have placed his accurate predictions.

2. Most of my own predictions went wrong, except my new favourite Alexandre Desplat who won the Best Original Score award for the Grand Budapest Hotel. I hoped Michael Keaton would win Best Actor in exchange for all the essential ones like Best Picture and Best Director, which I thought were very much reserved for Boyhood. But it turned out the other way around: Boyhood only won Best Supporting Actress out of 11 categories it was nominated while Birdman swept Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Personally I didn’t care about either one but I’d rather Boyhood for its more universal themes that extend beyond the interests of lofty film artists.

3. Also this Oscars was highlighted by a number of inspiring speeches, including Patricia Arquette’s call for equal wage for women, the Best Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore’s encouragement for all those “weird and different,” J.K. Simmons’ urge to “call our parents, if we are lucky enough to have one or two alive on this planet,” and Iñárritu’s few words for immigrants. But some of their words also attracted criticisms. I personally cannot understand why Arquette had to bring up (the rights of) sexual minorities and people of color to support her own vision of the fight for women’s equality, because their rights should be respected as equal as hers. I do think it was intrusive and …selfish.

4. Like last year, I was distressed to see ‘race’ become a heated issue all over again. As the host NPH jokingly remarked, this Oscars has been ferociously criticized for being the “whitest” Oscars in a few years, for the nominees in the important categories were all “white” people, famously snubbing the director and actors of Selma, a drama based on Martin Luther King Jr. and a Best Picture nominee. I haven’t seen Selma so I couldn’t comment on whether it deserved a best director or best actor nomination; but I hate to see the purity of art ruined by all these issues of discrimination and unfairness.

5. I am already thrilled to see next Oscars!

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Book #26. The Giver

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I was somewhat surprised to know that a significant portion of the English-written books I have read in the last 2 years are YA novels. Maybe it was related to what I have been trying to do–teaching. Many of them were compulsory due to the coursepacks I needed to follow in my classroom. The Giver has always been widely known for its significance in the field of education, which was a reason I grab this one.

I did not do enough research to verify my vague suspicion that the ‘Giver’ series officially set the path for those successful ‘dystopian’ YA series such as the Hunger Games and Divergent. Even though Lowry’s Quartet was written much earlier, I found its setting already too familiar because of those worldly franchises too much exposed in popular media.

Simply put, I did enjoy the book, but it was not that as memorable or amazing as its fame.

First of all, its futuristic, dystopian setting seems a bit rudimentary to be a basis of anything substantial in the characters and the plot.  I know it’s absurd to expect details as much as in Brand New World and 1982, but I just wanted to learn more about the Community, their life without colors and love, in order to more closely connect to Jonas’ confusion and delights in receiving the ‘memories’. But a few of the facts a reader gets to know about this unknown setting is the significance of the December Ceremony where every 12-year-old is assigned a permanent role, and the concept of Release to Elsewhere. Lowry does not give more than that–there was little description about this colorless, painless, loveless community as vivid as that of the December Ceremony fully described in Chapter 6-7. That sufficiently explains why I did not wholeheartedly follow Jonas’ confusion and struggles as he receives the ‘memories’ of colors, pain and love.

Secondly, I also felt that the central characters are rather two-dimensional. The Giver is presented as a sage, but he relatively lacks human qualities for a common reader to connect to… We only get a glimpse of his feelings and thoughts in his brief mention of his daughter which is not further explained at all. (I think this is why Lowry published sequels) For the reason explained above, I also couldn’t connect to Jonas as he struggles in his ‘Receiving’ memories. He seemed a perfectly normal kid in the beginning, living with loving parents and a sister, hanging out with buddies, having a crush on a girl and so forth but he turns into some kind of alien as he takes his position as the ‘Receiver’… To me, Jonas did not spring as a fully developed character but only as a mere carrier of the plot.

Despite these, it was a smooth read, definitely appropriate for teenagers. I think this is a good entry for young adults into this wide literature genre called ‘dystopian.’

I just pray I won’t have to plan a whole unit out of it.😉

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Book #25. The Left Hand of Darkness

I bought this book for a Science Fiction course I took in the fourth undergraduate year. I purchased all the books for the entire course, unknowing to the prospect of dropping the course in only two weeks. I only returned an anthology and reserved several stand-alone titles.  I was glad to do so when I met a customer who was reading The Left Hand of Darkness, written by the godmother of SF (isn’t that what she is called or is it just me….) when I was serving my parents’ restaurant. We had a good chat that was way more worth than the two weeks of university lecture. I promised him that I would read the book and I fulfilled it several years later.

I have to admit that I struggled to get into this book, mostly because of the alien terms invented by Le Guin. I desperately searched for glossary on the internet but most of them were incomplete. In the end, as a novice to SF, I didn’t have to know all the scientific terms to complete my priority: to get through this unkind novel of an unfamiliar genre with any means possible.

The plot is as follows. The human race living on the planet Winter has only one sex: in 26 days, they enter a period called kemmer, in which they take form of either male and female in order to have sex with one another and get pregnant. The protagonist Genly Ai landed on this planet in order to convince this alien race to join the Ekumen, sort of UN in space. Naturally, these asexual aliens do not trust this young man who is essentially different from themselves, both physically and sexually. A course of events drives Genly Ai to prison, and one of the Gethenians rescues him and comes to an understanding with him.

The relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is the most interesting part of this novel. It is much deeper than just friendship or alliance…  I was somewhat excited to read them sexually attracting to each other. Because they are fundamentally different with each other, their relationship was much more complex, ambiguous, and profound. And I liked that. They were bound together in no way two people of same nature can.

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the differences, that that love came: and it was the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. (248-249 : emphasis mine)

In a world of constant clashes between beliefs, ethnics and politics, the concept of ‘bond’ built on ‘difference’ is quite striking. Maybe it was ‘difference’ that forms the basis of all types of union. For example, what could be more different than a man from a woman? Yet they attract to each other, love each other, and understand each other to form a basic social union. Understanding first comes from perceiving and  recognizing a ‘difference.’  All forms of dialogue, agreement, promise, and partnership that lie within the cornerstone of our society would not be needed had we been of all same opinion, same view and identity.

The novel’s depiction of ‘ambisexuality’ is way more than interesting. When I was young, I was somewhat repulsive to the pre-destined notions of masculinity and femininity, mostly promoted by the media. I was blindly, unconsciously searching for qualities that transcend the pre-decided notions of sexuality, because too often I felt constrained in my natural-born gender. It was affecting way more areas of life than necessary–daily appearance, social manners, public safety, occupation, etc.
In this respect, the Gethenian’s system of sexuality is much more genuine and more focused on its essential role–erotic love and reproduction. Their way of mating seemed much more beautiful and sacred to the eyes of an earthling that have seen all sorts of tyrannies and violence on ‘sexuality.’ I was once again surer with the vision of fading barrier between genders would make our world a better place.

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ was a successful read, considering my relative indifference to its genre. As a result, I summoned a copy of another shelved text of that course–Snow Crash. With three other YA books I ordered, I sincerely doubt whether I could open that copy within this year…:)


 

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace. 2010.

 

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