February 2009

Spider Forest (2004)
Written and Directed by Il-gon Song
Starring Woo-seong Kam, Jung Suh, Kyeong-heon Kang, Hyeong-seong Jang

This is not light-hearted slasher fare, nor is it little girls dressed in white with flowing black hair and pale skin. Il-gon Song has scripted a reflective, slowly unravelling mystery, and not one which pertains exclusively to the murders in the story. The tone is that of a psychological thriller wearing supernatural flair, and while an effective sense of unease permeates the movie the substrata reveals an examination of the nature of memory, reality and the merging of both in a dreamscape which could have been conjured by the Brothers Grimm before their stories were sanitized.

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He awakens slowly, laying on his back in the middle of a forest. His face is covered with grime, his steps shaky. In a nearby cottage lays the drained corpse of his former employer, and in the next room his half-undressed girlfriend bleeds her life out. He’s in shock, but when a shadowy figure bursts from a hiding place he manages to give chase wielding a scythe. Turned around in the dark he’s laid out from behind, and when he comes to he manages to stagger to a brightly lit tunnel. Frozen in place as his adversary emerges from a utility door he’s hit by a car.

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When Kang Min (Woo-seong Kam, who also starred in R-Point) comes to in the hospital he’s had emergency brain surgery and can barely acknowledge his surroundings. The doctor’s seem convinced that he’s destined to become a vegetable until they find him sitting up, staring at his reflection in a window. Spider Forest, he repeats, the police. An old friend and detective, Seong-hyeon Choi (Hyeong-seong Jang) attempts to follow the few details the invalid can muster. That a murder has taken place is beyond question– the police have found the two bodies left to decompose for the two weeks Min was unconscious– but Choi’s superior has already decided for himself that the killer is already in custody. A guilty conscience doesn’t need to be arrested, they come to you..

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As Choi attempts to dig up clues Min flees the hospital and returns home to suffer a series of flashbacks: a late night with his wife after he’s had a foreboding dream (which comes true) about her dying in a plane crash; as an alcoholic wreck he begins a frenzied affair with a new coworker, Su-yeong (Kyeong-heon Kang), who now has been murdered; an overworked television producer, Min makes a fateful decision which has him shamed by his boss in front of a room full of co-workers before being told he’ll not return for the next season. In between Min struggles to remember the face of the killer he saw twice in one night, and struggles to remember how he came to find himself in the woods.

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Perhaps the mysterious phone calls he receives have something to do with it? On his desk is a roll of undeveloped film, on the phone is a disembodied voice who has obviously been keeping a close eye on Min. Confused and angry, shamed and stressed, Mind attempts to finish one more episode of his TV show, a program which investigates supernatural events. This leads to a run-down photography studio in a small town staffed by the woman, Min Su-jin (Jung Suh) who also lives there. She has a ghost story about the Spider Forest, dead children and things too horrible to comprehend. In the present Min tries to hide his bandages, fights to keep his feet, and retraces the steps as quickly as his memory and health will allow; Choi and his team of detectives are working backwards from the scene of the murders but every indication is that they’re on a collision course.

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An important cornerstone of Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House was his assertion that transparency would finally come to Washington. His recent speech on the federal budget has been championed by many critics of government for exposing the methods which have hidden costs from the American people by means of accounting sleight of hand. The reality of the budget situation is, as one could imagine, quite bleak but better to know what you’re facing before it smashes into your face.

How far will Obama’s call for open government go? The National School Lunch Program, which subsidizes lunch for under-privileged kids, is undergoing restructuring. Even the NSLP admits that the program is far from perfect– their latest data suggests that their meals fail the USDA’s standards when it comes to total and saturated fats– but many critics have been taking aim at the entire program’s structure. The subsidies program, which reimburses school districts based on the amount of meals served and at what cost, also offers a selection of vittles for schools to use in their menu planning. These commodities, due to economic and logistical pressures, tend towards the frozen, the preserved and the less than ideal. But struggling schools have to feed the children of struggling families. In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, yuppie demi-god Alice Waters envisions an integrated approach to feeding children healthy meals, providing better nutritional balance and eliminating processed foods from the menu.

Who decides what foods are made available to the NSLP? A consortium of scientists and nutritionists, of course, and such a meeting was recently held at the National Academy of Sciences. Presentations were made discussing nutritional needs, the merits of this vs. that, and a crowded auditorium took notes. Reporters? No, the only reporters on the scene were from American News Project. Educators? District Supervisors? Agriculturalists? Nope. The audience was thick with representatives from major food industry groups, companies and lobbying firms. These flies on the wall, in plain view of everyone, were researching what’s being discussed so that they can better grease the wheels of Washington and secure contracts with the government to continue selling crap to feed the children.

Is anyone even shocked that PepsiCo and The Pork Board are set to weigh in on what passes for school lunches? It’s a huge industry with a captive client and you can be sure that everyone from Monsanto to Hershey’s is looking through past contributions to see who owes them a favor. Will it be another year of back door dealings, will it be another case of money winning out over people? We shall see, and you can see:

Merci beaucoup Pete pour l’article de Mother Jones. There’s also a conversation with The Omnivores Dilemma author Michael Pollan which raises disparate but related concepts of food policy that I would have liked to highlight but had to let go of in order to be concise and not loose control of my typing. The picture of school children developing diabetes is by Owen Franken and stolen from the Amber Waves article cited above.

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As I’ve bitched about in the past I’ve been getting pretty cranky about the collateral damage which occurs when I buy food staples. While I may talk a good game the progress on liberating myself from the acquisition of plastic containers and bags has not been fought as aggressively as your standard Marxist guerrilla war. Okay, I make salsa and I reuse produce bags but, really, is that all there is?

Tortillas drive me nuts but the process of grinding cornmeal into pancakes and then cooking them so they maintain a good shape, width and texture seems daunting. Potato chips? I thought I could use a vegetable peeler for slices and fry them in oil but someone said that was a recipe for a charred mess so I’m compelled to investigate the matter further. Bread was especially aggravating because I’ve always been a miserable baker even under the best of conditions. My parents have a proper house with a proper oven that heats evenly, they have stairs that collect heat where dough can rise unmolested except for the occasional acting up of one or more pets, they have a butcher’s block where the dough can be rolled out and kneaded. My excuses are plenty but the alternatives seemed few; I can only bake extremely dense bread that dries out very quickly and tastes like nothing. I like a lot of the local bakeries but they don’t have stores, at least not in town, so I rely on their daily deliveries to stores where you’re forced to purchase their loaves in paper bags printed with the bakery name and brief descriptions. It’s not plastic but paper waste is still waste, and the bags aren’t even worth reusing.

One of my longstanding complaints about San Francisco has been a real lack of small bakeries where you can buy bread. Growing up I lived near a doughnut factory and they had a small storefront that was only open from 6am til’ noon or so with really shitty coffee and a wonderful array of arterial lining snacks. Doughnut shops abound here, many of them 24 hour operations which have offered refuge over the years, but none of them offer anything resembling bread to take home and use. You could wake up early and trek down to the farmer’s market but many of the vendors have their wares already bagged in the appropriate bag before you arrive, and I do need to sleep. When I had friends living in Olympia I would make a twenty minute walk every morning to the San Francisco Street Bakery. They made their own savories and sweets, had a small lunch counter for sandwiches and a small assortment of tables inside and out. It was a great place to go, and they provided bread to many of the Olympia stores, but I’ve never seemed to find anything remotely similar here regardless of how trivial the concept. (more…)

The woman sitting in the bus shelter said something as I walked up, but I assumed she was either on her cell phone or just another lunatic. It didn’t become any clearer as we waited for the bus because she didn’t say anything else that I could hear, but it’s not like I sat next to her. When the 22 Fillmore rolled up I tried to indicate by my stance that she should board first but she stayed seated until I began to climb on, then followed. I sat in the back, slumped against the window and she sat several seats up next to someone.

After a couple stops she hurried the the last seat on the opposite side of the bus and I swear I heard her whisper to herself, “I shouldn’t have done that.” I watched the person she had been sitting next to for some indication that they had been molested in some way but no evidence suggested that anything had taken place. I concentrated on the scenery’s passage through the window.

The woman made a call, explaining that she thought she would have been called back after lunch. By the clock periodically flashing the time up front it was a little early for lunch and she apologized for misunderstanding. She continued to talk, about how her sister had just buried someone and she had just buried her son, the same day, and how she needed a little help. The bus stopped at Fulton and a long line of seniors slowly dragged themselves up the steps and absorbed vacant seats. (more…)

The Longest Nite (1998)
Directed by Patrick Yau
Starring Ching Wan Lau, Tony Leung, Maggie Siu

By the time the 90’s were beginning to crawl to a close the new-wave from the Hong Kong scene was revered by cult-worshipping aficionados in the States. A friend of mine caught wind of the talk and, through the kindness of the video store clerks working underneath the pizza place I worked at, we checked out a couple of the best known titles. A Better Tomorrow, the movie which brought John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat into the international consciousness, seemed to be the standard bearer of the new, gritty and violent cinematic vanguard which continued through the 80’s and into the 90’s.

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I never invested fully in the genre so I’ve not kept up with the changes over time but the titles which I have come across all seem slick and over-produced, backed by big budgets and starring Asian pop-culture heartthrobs. By comparison Patrick Yau’s The Longest Nite (Um Fa back home) is the disturbed, pill-popping step-brother who hangs out in alleys looking for trouble. Its convoluted plot defies the standard paint-by-numbers framework utilized by most American action films to facilitate explosions and gore while similarly eschewing John Woo’s double-fisted hand-gun ballets. The violence is up-close and personal, the twists and turns as claustrophobic as city streets and everyone’s tired, grimy and angry.

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Two warring triad factions call a truce when it is learned that an old Macau Godfather is returning to quell the violence, assuming that a united front would intimidate or pacify. On the eve of the Godfather’s arrival rumours are flying that a contract has been put out on one of the triad leaders, Lung, issued by the other, Brother K. High-ranking and trusted gangster Sam (Tony Leung) is assigned the task to ensure that nothing happens to Lung because Brother K swears he has ordered no such hit and that someone’s trying to throw the truce into disarray.

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Fortunately Sam’s a plainclothes detective with a crew of hard-nosed partners who cruise the streets and enforce their own law. Shaking up the usual suspects in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the assassination plot (by crushing the hands of any two-bit gangster he can find with the aid of a bottle of condiments) he runs across a drifter named Tony (Ching Wan Lau) who has just arrived in town. There’s something in the way this stranger just sits there eating while Sam issues a beating across the dining room, or maybe just the way he looks, that puts Sam off and he suggests Tony leaves town.

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Tony’s obviously up to no good, dragging his travel bag from a cheap motel to a ritzy casino, searching for Maggie (Maggie Siu), his local contact. Instead he runs into someone from his past, the flamboyant triad boss Mr. Lung. Some words are exchanged which quickly leads to a gun being drawn and the situation is only diffused by the antics of a nauseated hostess and the pleading the casino manager. Meanwhile Sam’s night is going from bad to worse when police discover a stripped and headless corpse in his house. Higher ranking triad lieutenants are pressuring him to find out what’s going on, the police are starting to see the body-count rise, and Sam’s beginning to realize that he’s getting closer to the crosshairs himself.

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The Big Guns

A little over a year ago I found myself surrounded by thousands of revelers parading through the streets of Fort-de-France, Martinique. Carnaval was in full swing and events were planned from Sunday through Wednesday, each day bearing a particular theme with suggested attire. My two friends and I played along, descending from the hills of Schoelcher into the capital city to walk alongside the major avenues or standing in front of our Eurocentric safe-haven Cyberdeliss which afforded us refreshment from the heat and humidity. I can’t say that it was a spiritual epiphany for me, despite my Catholic upbringing, nor was there any sort of impassioned awakening for all things culturally Caribbean, but my week-long experience on the island has left a lasting impression.

Born and raised in the heathen American West offers me no concept of what Carnaval is all about beyond the stereotypes presented on television and in movies. The trip had been planned before we knew that our schedule coincided with Martinique’s grandest celebration and learning we would be sharing our vacation with the Mardi Gras crowd invoked a nightmare of New Orleans inspired debauchery. Nothing could have surprised me more when I saw days of drinking and dancing with no fights, flashing, puking or strong police presence. The locals were genuine, nice, exceedingly polite and had discovered a way to enjoy themselves without striving for an advanced state of inebriation. My original concerns also proved to be unfounded– sticking out like a sore thumb on a Caribbean island with high unemployment and low standard of living without any grasp of the language or ability to discern a dangerous neighborhood from a quiet one did not lead to having my kidneys stolen.

The French Overseas Departments have escaped the perils of their neighbors. Crime rates are very low by any standard but especially so when compared to places like Jamaica or Haiti. The theory of my friend who lived on the island while working on research for his dissertation suggested the economic stability offered by France and the hard won rights awarded to the former colonies by entrance into the Republic as states as opposed to territories prevented a descent into chaos and violence. (more…)

Charity - Water

Years ago, facing another Christmas season of obligatory gift-giving with my loving family, I conceived a novel tact. This was early in the degrading of my character which has eventually seen my abandoning the consumption of meat, complaining about plastic bags and fantasizing about producing my own yogurt; my idea was to eliminate the purchasing of gifts and instead donate to charity in my family’s names. I researched various organizations I thought would cater to the particular tastes of my parents and sister, printed out informational pamphlets about the prospects and compiled dossiers backed by a charity ranking grade to ensure that a good portion of the donation would trickle through administrative costs and reach the people served. On Christmas morning no one seemed unhappy about receiving my little packets of reading material, although I can’t recall my sister ever getting back to me about where to send money. My dad wanted a hundred bucks to go to the San Francisco Food Bank and my mom selected some organization which irritated me because of their religious affiliation but, well, it was her present. Both foundations which I donated to sent me mail repeatedly hoping that I would fund them again. This was the first and last time I tried this method of Christmas guilt-deflection.

In his recent column Paul Carr slags the charity gift and proposes an alternative, UncharityGifts.com, to get revenge on those thoughtless hippies who assigned your name to starving children instead of a nice bottle of wine:

For just £20, we’ll send a poacher to an African village to steal a cow in your friend’s name! Or, if you’re feeling generous, for just £50 we’ll pay local workers to fill in a much-needed well with concrete or raze an entire school to the ground. Of course, as with normal charity gifts, you’ll receive no actual proof that we’ve done any of the above, rather than, say, pocketing the money to cover admin costs, but who cares? The important thing is that your friend will receive a handsome certificate of authenticity to make them think long and hard about what they’ve done.

Remember: if you steal a man’s fish, you’ll make him hungry for a day, but steal his nets and you’ll keep him hungry for a lifetime.


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