gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I think this is great evidence that the press people are running out of either good common sense or good ideas for news.

Britney having great sex, thank you

And to think, just the other day, I was kidding with a friend about turning something on parents being disallowed to participate in actions harming the unborn child into something about pregnant women having sex. Who'd have thunk?

gambitch [ 8:17 AM]

Friday, June 03, 2005

Remember Amnesty International? These guys put together a report some time back about abuses at Guantanamo Bay, which I mentioned earlier. I also mentioned at the same time the fact that Bush came out all guns firing and slamming the report.

So now, it's the press' turn. More importantly, which ways the columnists and editorials are tilting. And here are two examples - not the biggest names, sure - to show the way America is divided today:

Something on the Bush side...

... and something not!

This is where I go into pure imagination, so you've been warned. But I reckon this: It's very much one thing when you talk about going to war and shooting at the enemy in the battlefield. It becomes altogether quite another once you've caught some people and you have a choice what you want to do with them. Unfortunately, what we do know about Gitmo is that people get thrown in there and can't expect much of a decent meal. Truth be told, soldiers can't really expect a decent meal when they're still in their own camps, so what makes anyone think things will get any better when you're in one that belongs to your enemy? It's not like you can bring a sandwich along, or have a portable water cooler.

It's not fun when you're caught by the other side. They don't put you up in a downtown two-roomer apartment or some abandoned house out in the suburbs. No, conditions are rough where these guys are detained. And they're only a little bit better where the rank and file guards are staying. They still get those military bunk beds and dodgy television sets that aren't even plasma flatscreens. And while they've got access to beer, they usually don't have finer stuff.

So POW camps are a natural setup for some rough behaviour by guards, who themselves aren't getting the best of conditions. They don't get to walk around in suits or Gap. No, they get the standard issue grey army T-shirt and camo pants. These things aren't exactly the kind of thing most people would wear downtown, especially in some unfriendly weather (which happens to describe weather conditions in most army camps). Eventually all these things add up and make guards rough people. Even if there was no directive from the top to abuse prisoners, all these adverse conditions are only going to make it pretty likely to produce guards filled with irritation and frustration. They have to take it out on something. There usually aren't that many arcade machines over in those camps, so that's not an option. But prisoners are.

I can't remember where I heard this, but there's something about war that I just feel like saying here. To paraphrase what I think I've heard, it goes like this: We may be noble in our intentions, but in the course of fighting the enemy, we risk becoming that which we so nobly wanted to fight.

That's what happened in Vietnam, among other places. America lapsed into the demons it was trying to fight, and that gave the world villages swamped in napalm.

If America seriously wants to win the war on terror, it has to be mindful not to become the monster it's fighting. Unfortunately, as Gitmo and Saddam Hussein have shown us, it looks like Rumsfeld and his subordinates are already failing to hold that line.

gambitch [ 11:27 PM]

Thursday, June 02, 2005

If anyone were to ask me to offer one reason why Mr. S.R. Nathan should not run for a second term as Singapore's president when the elections come around later this year, I would simply say that he has said no before.

A friend (sorry, no names) has sent me word that the man, Singapore's second elected president since the system was implemented some twelve years ago, may be running for the position again, after indicating as recently as early May that his health may make bowing out an advisable move. We have all seen it before, actually. Mr. Nathan's predecessor, a recovering cancer victim near the end of his term, chose to retire rather than run again. The man died a year or two ago.

But before anyone is led to think that the presidency of this small island is anything like the presidency of the United States or France, I would observe that that is hardly true. The presidency in Singapore is very much a ceremonial one, with its two most high-profile roles being holding the second key to the national reserves vault (a key that has never needed use, I am told, because the nation is paranoid about touching its reserves even in bad times) and granting clemency to people on death row (which, again I'm told, nearly never gets to happen because those who do get the death sentence commit crimes of such severity society generally doesn't want them to live). Mr. Nathan himself is, in fact, best known for being a big enough health nut that he jogs in public quite often, security in tow of course.

The president plays no real role in shaping domestic policy, nor is he regarded as a key player in regional and international affairs. That's left to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet folks. And while the president can be used as a public relations icon in support of certain good domestic movements such as care for the elderly and environmentalism, Singapore is not well known for bottom-up initiatives that are not a product of government agitation. It's not that they don't exist, they just don't get much publicity, so it seems.

So playing president on this particularly small island isn't something that places an awful lot of stress on the heart. Unlike President Chirac of France, Mr. Nathan doesn't need to lose any sleep or tear his hair out over such things as a common EU constitution and set of laws. Nor, as in the case of Bush, does he need to conjure weak excuses to sell Harry Potter-style welfare schemes. Which is to say that if anyone wants out for health reasons, the chances are he's probably got something pretty serious. Maybe that's true, maybe not, but I won't take my chances on that one.

All this is by way of saying something quite simple: Mr. Nathan elected to play hard to get with the press, the public and, so it wants to seem, the actual PAP-run executive. That last bit is unlikely, because Mr. Nathan, as a product of the wider establishment which has always carried strong PAP influences, is likely to have held secret communication with the real power brokers for quite some time. But he is fooling around with the press, and while I know it's a bit weak for a complaint against a man who has done practically no wrong (not that he's got the opportunities), it does leave a bit of a taste in the mouth.

I'm no Bush fan, but one thing I have to give him credit for is the courage to declare unambiguously that he was going to run for a second term as president, despite what was then already emerging as a messy clean-up in post-war Iraq, abject failure to reorganize Afghanistan, and plenty of woes back home about the economy, Medicare, Social Security and education, among other things. In fact, given the mess he was getting the country into, you've got to admit he has quite the balls to actually try in the face of such disaster.

And on a different level of comparison, we look at that famous story of Sir Alex announcing his retirement as United's gaffer a couple of years back. He announced it and made it very clear he was going, saving everyone the uncertainty over whether he'd be around, and therefore whether there was a need at all to find someone to replace him. Things are good that way. Fine, things didn't work out, and in the face of all desperation it seems his health was fine enough to let him continue, and he reversed his decision. Suddenly all action regarding finding a new manager was off. All that for nothing? Probably. But he reversed what was a firm and publicly announced decision because of some form of public pressure. He still made a firm decision in the first place. Better a flip-flop than a man who can't commit to a first decision in the first place.

Mr. Nathan's done nothing particularly wrong, and the way the bigwigs were pleading for him to continue, he seems to have offended no one either. He could have chosen to just say "Let's see my doctor's report before I decide" or anything to that effect. If it's a health problem, fine, let the doctor decide. If you're otherwise happy with your job anyway, then fine, carry on as you have done before. But really, does he have to lead the local press on and play games with them? Does he even need that as an election gimmick? I shouldn't think so - he won his first election because no one had to vote.

gambitch [ 1:35 AM]

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I'm not sure if this falls under the humour category, actually:

GWB blasts Amnesty International as liars on Gitmo

I'm not going to deal singularly with the facts of this case much, mostly because I'm not in the physical condition to do a fully lucid and long post. All I'll say is this: America has a tendency to urge some countries in the world to follow some set of standards it has set, most of which, while dressed up in noble language, sound awfully arbitrary much of the time. And then America turns around and decides it doesn't want to be subjected to the same standard.

Can you blame us for spotting the irony of it all?

Taiwanese writer Bo Yang once wrote that the spirit of Western civilization's legal and democratic institutions was "no exception for me", but when it gets transplanted to China (a term he uses to include both sides of the straits), it somehow becomes "only I get excepted". I'm happy to tell Bo Yang, if I ever meet him (I think he's still alive but very old now) that it looks like it's no longer a uniquely Chinese problem. Apparently Americans have caught it too.

It's very much about wanting to be the big boss, setting an intricate network of laws for everyone else to follow while you don't have to care. Why else is America firmly refusing to sign the Rome Statute for the ICC, something that's been used to try the very kind of war criminals the US seems to love wanting to criminalize? Why else do the Americans have so much to fear about Chinese textiles while wanting to dump their steel on the cheap? Why else is Bush nominating this guy called John Bolton, who has absolute contempt for things that don't operate the way he wants them to, championing him as the man who can inspire UN reform?

This could all be just too funny if it wasn't a dead serious matter.

gambitch [ 4:02 PM]

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sometimes it's funny how the famous words of Forrest Gump are so true. For those who didn't catch the Tom Hanks movie - possibly because you were too young - Gump said, "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get." So it was for me the other day when I decided to go catch a movie, largely on a whim. Which means, of course, I didn't necessarily have a good idea what it was I was about to watch.

So I stumbled upon this movie that turns out to be rated R - which is fine, since I'm above the legal age anyway. In this world, there are generally two kinds of R movies. One kind depicts such graphic violence that it's deemed unsuitable for the squeamish (read: kids), although I know of fully grown adults who don't exactly have a taste for the graphically violent either. I'm one of them myself, which is why I've never taken to Wes Craven. The second kind of R movie has to do with either sex or nudity - they're bunched together because one suggests the other. The movie I watched happened to be the second kind. But that's okay. If you're underage, you can still read the rest of this post.

There are certain misunderstandings about movies rated R for nudity/sex. One of them is that every one of them is, without exception, seedy and intended to arouse people. Typically these 'movies' would have no real plot or message, so goes the idea, and everything is just a lame hook to show sex, lots of it. Now I'm going to be a bit generous here and concede that there might well be movies like that, that aren't proper movies by my definition. But then, we don't usually call them movies; we call them videos. The difference is that the latter type usually doesn't get screenings at the picturehouses. Videos are meant more for your purchase or rental and consumption in your (probably) private bedroom.

No, it turns out what I watched was a proper movie. It's no Star Wars, but it was written to tell a story and convey a message. And I would imagine it's very hard to call an R-rated movie a porn flick when the female lead, around whom the story evolves, gets exactly zero boob flashes on the screen for the length of the show. No, there's only one boob flash (well, technically two, but I'm counting by the scene) throughout the story, and it was shown as part of a scene where people were shooting an AV video. If you're a dirty old man hoping to let off something or other while watching this movie at the cinema, you would have been very disappointed. You would also have been caught too, were there more people watching this particular movie. But I suppose the fact that this one's no Star Wars makes it less tempting for people to want to watch it. I'm a weird guy that way, I guess.

Anyway, it turns out that this movie is actually based on a book written by one-time Japanese porn star Ai Iijima. I'm probably guessing here, but porn stars aren't known for turning to writing after their movie careers end. But in the case of Ai Iijima, her book, entitled Platonic Sex, won rave reviews in Japan. From what little I know - given I didn't read the novel - it's actually based on her own life story of how she came to do porn flicks. I don't know about why Americans or Europeans do porn flicks, but in the case of Japan it probably reflects a certain kind of social malaise that is the combination of high cost of living and a very conformist education system. You drop into the gutter, and you either die quietly or end up on the dark side of town. That could well be Ai's story. I don't know for sure, though.

But it's precisely this kind of thing Ai explores in her book, and what this movie explores as well - although this is not a fully faithful interpretation of the book itself. In the movie, the female lead is gang-raped by some so-called friends in a car, then horribly misunderstood by parents as someone who likes sex. (A classic case of how society prefers to blame the victim as a way to make itself feel better.) Misunderstood and subjected to a fit of violence from a father too upset about how he has lost face because of his daughter's misfortune (which he doesn't see as such), the girl runs away from home.

A brief interruption here for the benefit of people who don't understand. Japan, quite anomalously perhaps, is a society of people so concerned about preserving their own face that, for what is supposed to be a very advanced nation, it cannot get past the fact that sometimes unfortunate things happen that are not the victim's fault. Parents here actually try to be very strict with their children's upbringing. Many families remain single-income, with the father bringing the dough home, often as a sarariman in a large corporation or government agency. Foreign maids are uncommon here, unlike in other prosperous parts of Asia, largely because Filipinos and Ceylonese don't understand a word of Japanese. This means that mothers often are expected to hold the family together and bring up the children, with dad playing the old role of disciplinarian. Yes, it's very traditional here.

The consequence of a setup like this is that, if the child does something wrong, it is seen as the parents' fault for not raising them up well. It's very old Asian, I know, but that's the reality of it. What makes it worse is that, in a society where conformity is implicitly required if not openly demanded, any negative deviation from a life without incident is seen to be the fault of whoever it happened to. If parents work really hard at giving a proper upbringing - or if they believe they're doing so - and the child still throws punches or clubs someone or dyes his hair metallic purple, the parents believe it's some inherent property in the kid that prevents him from sticking to the straight and narrow. Maybe there's some truth in it, but not sticking to the straight and narrow is, in itself, seen as something bordering on the criminal. So if parents give their daughter a strict upbringing and she still gets gang-raped, the thinking is that she probably asked for it somehow or other by mixing with bad company or flirting around.

This sounds terribly strange, coming from the same country that is known for dirty men of all ages and makes who molest schoolgirls and office ladies on packed trains and buses. It also sounds terribly strange coming from the same country that has an international reputation as a massive source for porn actresses and nude pictorials, not to mention the country that perfected the cosplay sex industry. But that's moral conservatism in the Land of the Rising Sun for you.

Back to the movie. The girl runs away from home, with practically nowhere to live and looking to feed off the generosity of friends who don't mind her crashing in for the night. Sometimes that doesn't come off, though, and when that happens and you're down to the last coins, what do you do? For Japanese teenage girls, there's an option called enjyou kousai, which is really a euphemistic term for teenage prostitution, done as a means to get some quick cash to buy trendy stuff. This isn't about poverty most of the time; it's usually about not having enough to live the high life and not wanting to do without it. But with this girl, she's probably just dead broke and unwilling to go home. Either way, she picks up a plain (some would say unpleasant) looking sarariman - the translated subtitles suggest he's a teacher - and makes some yen spending the night in what is known in Japan as a "love hotel".

So here's another convenient opportunity for the movie to give a boob flash. But no, that doesn't happen either - all we have is the girl taking off her micro skirt or shorts (sorry, can't remember) and revealing leopard-print knickers. Um, okay, I get the point. But the movie's full of these near opportunities, and never takes them, to the probable frustration of the dirty ones among the audience. I'm glad to say I'm not one of them, though. Here's something that had a story; the teaser scene had the girl, clad in uniform, seriously pondering suicide by jumping off the top of her school's main building. She actually gets rather close to doing just that, but for a random misfired SMS. She misfires back, with absolutely no hint of mischief, and unwittingly prevents a stabbing too. It's that kind of movie, not some cheap porn flick.

Oh, and incidentally, there are some guest appearances by a number of actors who are no strangers to the small screen either. One I had no problem recognizing was the incredibly tall Hiroshi Abe, who plays this philantrophist with some very strange worldviews that have plenty to do with money. Another, whose name I cannot recall, gets the usual bit part as the owner of a clubbing joint. It's sometimes a pleasant surprise seeing people flit between the big and small screens, and it actually goes to show how these actors and actresses don't really mind helping out a bit with an industry that definitely doesn't have a great export market, and is not known to do superbly back home either. Indeed, the Japanese movie industry isn't known for its volume the way Hollywood, India or Hong Kong are. Heck, even South Korea seems to be having a massive export glut now that people have suddenly 'found' its entertainment industry.

So, it's really nice to catch such a decent Japanese movie that some who didn't know better thought was a porn flick. Even the music is lovely too - they apparently pulled up this vinyl from this group called Not At All, titled From Silence. The movie uses this piano piece that has a recognizably Japanese flavour to it, but this is the kind of instrumental music I so like to collect. It's a great mood-setter, really, highly sedating. Makes you think how on Earth people manage to source this kind of music to go into a movie, unless of course they had the track commissioned. But if they didn't... Well, that's something!

Point to be made? Don't underestimate these movies that don't get lots of advertising and end up lost among tasteless servings and over-hyped blockbusters. Having said all that, I've got my sights on Madagascar. Ironic, I know. But who gives a damn?

gambitch [ 9:33 PM]


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