Thursday, November 29, 2007

The World

I often start something but can’t find time to finish, like this review on Jia Zhangke’s The World which I started at least a year ago. The World seems to be the least cheered film by Jia Zhangke’s Chinese fans, however, is much more appreciated by western viewers including Jonathan Rosenbaum. I still think it is a great one. Jia’s narrative style reminds me more of documentary than drama, while The World lacks this character but rather works like a typical story-telling movie. This does not necessarily mean mediocre, since it does offer more. Compared with the purity in his earlier works, The World exhibits more richness through its insightful metaphors, exploration of the complexity in social conditions as well as the variety of filming technique.


The World theme park in Beijing acts as a perfect setting for many metaphors: for the migrant workers, either construction workers or dancers, the park IS their dazzling world which fulfills their fantasy about traveling around the glode as well as achieving better living. Like Disneyland, the World theme park creates a perfect place to project the visitors’ dream, while the real world, what’s behind the clean and happy scenes, are supposed to be kept invisible to the audience. However, Jia chose to show us this hidden world: the hardship and struggles within the dancers and workers’ everyday life.

There’s an ironically funny effect every time we see the characters moving against the miniature attractions. The dilemma lies in their ability to migrate physically v.s. their inability/immobility to find a proper position in society. The question remains: Is there a proper identity for any of us in today’s hyperreality? What is left to be real?

Complex Social Conditions of China

Relationships became fragile and vulnerable in today’s complicated social environment in China. The sense of feeling lonely and lost is found in most characters. The security guy’s constant desire to possess his girlfriend’s body results in a frivolous and ambiguous relationship with Liao, a lonely woman whose husband stowed away to France ten years ago. The naked mannequin at Liao’s studio somehow suggests the place for fulfilling the male fantasy.

The friendship between Xiao Tang and the Russian woman is well conveyed. Sharing the similar fate brings the two women close to each other; language is no longer the obstacle in communication. The scene where the two meet at the restroom of the club is so powerful, simply heartbreaking. This recalls Jia’s documentary Dong, where the story flows from the construction workers at Three Gorges Dam to the prostitutes in Bankok – different people are connected not only by a river surrounding them, but also their way of making a living on their bodies.

The cheap life of migrant workers is fully revealed especially through a young guy’s tragic death. He writes down something before passing away in the shabby hospital. Jia didn’t show us what’s on the note immediately. Instead, after we hear the crying, the camera leads us to the blank wall with text gradually appearing: the dead worker’s last words are simply a list of amount he owed to his co-workers. In Dong we experienced another construction worker’s death and even followed to his extremely poor home. Such things are happening all the time in China and workers’ lives are worth much less than an economy car.

Use of Flash animation

A short Flash animation is used to portray characters’ strong desires aroused by each emotional phone message. The use of Flash is by no means Jia’s trick to get fancy or to copy Run Lola Run; it feels quite natural here since both Flash and cell phone message are digital media. The surrealist images and vivid colors of the animations are in sharp contrast with the grey tone of the filmic reality, an almost romantic and utopian expression of the characters’ feelings and desires. The similar contrast can be seen between the dancers’ splendid appearance in the show and their ordinary daily looks.

Open Ending

The open ending of the movie is quite successful. The ending scene offers different readings: Is it truly an accident or a planned suicide? At the very end, with the blackout of the screen, we hear the short conversation: “Are we dead?” “No, we’ve just started.” This raises another question: are they still alive, or that’s just some kind of unconsciousness? My reading is on the positive side:)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Milwaukee Art Museum

Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the only Calatrava building I’ve visited, has the unspeakable charm to me. The first time I was there, I was on a class trip and the pavilion just opened to the public. The incredible elegance of the structure and space took my breath away. I remember standing in the reception hall for minutes with my eyes fixed on the beautiful roof structure. The second time I was there with my parents and husband only a few days ago - the same sunny day, the same blue sky, of course the same shock by the stunning beauty of the design!

The suspended pedestrian bridge links downtown Milwaukee directly to the museum. The pavilion functions as a connector to the old museum, an energizer for art appreciation, and a new landmark for the city. It also enhances the view from both Mason street and the lakefront. The wing-like sunscreen opens up or closes down during the day to adjust the interior light and temperature. These movable wings just resemble a giant seagull resting by the lakeshore.

Always amazed by Calatrava’s organic form, innovative engineering and romantic imagination and sensitivity to the site –
Rather than just add something to the existing buildings, I also wanted to add something to the lakefront. I have therefore worked to infuse the building with a certain sensitivity to the culture of the lake - the boats, the sails and the always changing landscape. - Santiago Calatrava

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dog Heroes

Dogs are no doubt man's best friends. During my visit of the US Air Force Museum, this dog with a parachute on his back caught my attention. This small exhibit honors "Vittles," the forgotten dog hero of the 1948-49 Berlin airlift. Vittles accompanied American planes on 131 missions to deliver aid behind the Iron Curtain.

Our next dog hero is a Japanese. Before going to Tokyo, visiting Hachikō statue at Shibuya station was already on my list. I learned about the touching story of this faithful dog from Chris Marker's genius documentary Sans Soleil. Hachikō statue is a very popular meeting spot. When I found Mr. Hachikō by the station one night, I was surprised to see how small he appears to be and how he was buried by the crowds around.

A natural connection is the13-Dog Statue at the entrance of Tokyo Tower, erected by Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1959. An incredible story goes behind it: 13 sled dogs (Sakhalin huskies) were left behind in Antarctica by a Japanese research expedition in 1958 due to an emergency evacuation. Almost a year later a subsequent expedition arrived and found two of the dogs still alive! This true story probably inspired the Disney movie Eight Below.

Aircraft Nose Art

I visited National Museum of US Air Force in Dayton OH this Sat. The museum has an amazingly comprehensive collection of aircrafts from the Wright Brothers time, thru. First and Second World War, Vietnan and Korean War, to the outerspace exploration. Besides those obvious attractions such as B-2 Spirit, Fat Man atomic bomb, the unique design of each memorial outside the museum, one thing I found interesting is the nose art for each military aircraft. Although used for cruel warfares, most of the aircrafts had its own unique and eye-catching graphic. As exclusively an American tradition, aircraft nose art expresses the strong individuality, personalization, itimacy and sense of humor attached to each crew.

Cartoon theme

Erotic theme

The well-known Chinese "Flying Tigers" (飞虎队)

There's also a display of pilot's uniforms from 1910s to the late 20th C. I found the earliest design actually quite stylish: the boots, gloves, hat and leather coat - could be the coolest winter dressing style!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

MUJI and CB2 Opened in SoHO NYC

The famous Japanese home design store MUJI just opened its first USA store at SoHO NYC. MUJI is everywhere in Tokyo. With its minimalist modern style, it products range from clothing, furniture, homewares to food. I really love the simplicity of its design, but most stuff are beyond my price range. IKEA is much more affordable. My favorite Chicago-based contemporary furniture and home accessories store CB2 also opened a store at SoHO. Should check them out next time I go to NYC.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Who Killed The Electric Cars?

I finally watched this documentary recommended by several co-workers. The disclosed facts were quite shocking: There used to be hundreds of electric cars, EV1 by GM, running on the roads in California and Arizona since 1996. Within 10 years, they were all stripped from their leasers and destroyed in the junkyard by GM. It's pretty painful to watch those beloved fabulous cars being crushed and then shredded into pieces...It was no different than dumping fresh milk into sewers! Thanks to this film, more and more people will learn about the history which the authorities have been trying hard to bury.

Who on earth killed the electric cars? The oil industry, the car companies, the government, the consumers...None of them can get away with the murder. After all, it was our human weakness we have never overcome: the short-sightedness targeting only at short-term profits.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Nanook's Igloo

Watched Nanook of the North, an influential documentary on an Inuit family's everyday life, made by Robert J. Flaherty around 1920. Although Flaherty was criticized for deceiving the audience by staging actions and distorting Inuits' real lifestyle, the film still offered valuable insights into Inuits' world and opened a whole new ground for documentary filmmaking at that time.

Even today, some knowledges on Inuit traditional living skills seem fresh to me, esp. the construction of igloo - the first time I saw the process on TV. It's quite amazing how fast an igloo was done by Nanook: using a sea lion's teeth as the snow-cutting tool, applying the stable dome structure, the igloo was built in less than an hour! The smarter part is replacing a snow block with an ice block as window and putting the snow piece perpendicular to the window to reflect sunlight. Like to try it one day :)

From A Short Animation to Steven Holl Buildings

Just found out the animation for Kunek's song posted here is a French animation called L' Enfant de la haute mer. This short animation was so beautifully done, and I could watch it over and over again. It's very phenomenal and perceptual by catching the flickering moments of light and shadow, rendering the tangibility and subtlety of familiar textures, and thru. the usage of palpable and emotional watercolors. All of the above reminds me of Steven Holl's work: his phenomenal approach in creating space, his enthusiasm in natural light, and his signature watercolor sketches.

I was a big fan of Steven Holl in school years ago, however, I didn’t get to see his built works until recently. I made my first trip to Seattle this past Sept, visiting his St. Ignatius and Bellevue arts museum certainly appeared at the top of my to-do list.

I have to say St. Ignatius is PERFECT. Built ten years ago, the trace of time can be easily read thru. the beautifully weathering skin accompanied with lively vines.

Different colors and shapes of light arrest your eyes soon after you step into the chapel. The interior is perfectly carved to create exotic lighting effects. The sense of devinity is felt everywhere.

Love the exquisite design of the door. The door knob has such allure that you want to touch it, feel it and hold it.

I was quite disappointed to see how Bellevue works in reality: Holl's original idea was to introduce natural light to both lobby and galleries. Unfortunately, the three big light wells are permanently covered, as well as the clerestories along the gallery walls for a much more controlled interior lighting. The random pattern of the recessed downlights inside the galleries were also altered to evenly spaced track lighting.
The hanging curvy stair tube made of translucent glass remains the only highlight of the museum. It felt like stepping into a weightless space, a space blurred and softened by sunlight.

During my last visit of Beijing, I saw the construction site of Linked Hybrid, a sustainable high-rise residential community right off the 2nd ring road of the city.

Years back in NYC, I walked around Little Italy looking for Holl's storefront gallery . It took me quite some time to recognize the building. With all the revolving panels closed, it looked really austere and blended into the surrounding environment.

Now I look forward to visit his new art museum in Kansas City. With the cheap airfares from Skybus, it would be an easy weekend trip :)

Camper's Wabi

I learned about Camper's environmental shoe Wabi from the latest Metropolis magazine. Wabi means "to ask for forgiveness" in Japanese, which reflects Camper's motto: healthy for the feet and clean for the planet. Besides its environmental-friendly components (made of a recycle rubber ousole, a biodegradable insole made of coconut fiber and wool, and tow liners), Wabi also respects the natural shape of human feet which offers more comfort and pleasure in taking a walk. Finally the both organic and sleek look of the shoe just makes it irresistable - I want to get a pair of Wabi and go for a walk now!