Category Archives: TALK. Movie

Writer Profile: 10 works which inspired me as a storyteller

  1. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

As a child I fell in love with the story of Peter Pan and for a long period of time I would look out the window expecting a flying boy to come visit. Like most other children I eventually grew up and moved on from fairy tales. Peter Pan is my one exception. As an adult, I still feel a strong connection to its characters, setting and language.

While I didn’t care much for the plot or the sequence of events, I was drawn to the details and nuances in each character’s behaviour. I felt that the main characters Peter Pan, Tinkerbell and Wendy were already so colourful that I only wished to learn more and more about them.

Another important element which drew me to the story was its setting. Set in the imaginary world of “Neverland”, the physical details of Neverland were of less significance than its location. With it being far away from home and only reachable by flight, I was fascinated by the sense of escapism and adventure.

Additionally, I was intrigued by the way the characters spoke to each other. While using simplistic and direct language, the conversations were concise and symbolic, often alluding to and contrasting the social conventions of the time. With this language, I found myself spending more time thinking and drawing parallels to the real world. Thus, I was given more space to imagine and participate in the story.

  1. Tales of Ise Translated by Peter Macmillan

Similar to Peter Pan, Tales of Ise has a very loose plot structure and uses simple language. Its characters, however, are from a very different time and place. Set in the Heian era of Japan, the tales depict a romantic matriarchal society and the lives of various unnamed noble characters.

Changes in nature and the human heart are major themes of the book. While the characters themselves are not very defined, their purpose is to illustrate the mood or tone of the setting. With the lack of plot and individual characters, this piece builds a whole world with an agglomeration of scenarios, feelings and atmospheres common to all ethnicities. Every time I read Tales of Ise, I am transported to a world where we are at one with nature, relaxed and filled with love.

  1. Susan Sontag: The Rolling Stone Interview

While I enjoy reading most of Susan Sontag’s essays for her acute critique and precise language, I particularly enjoyed her interview with the Rolling Stone for its spontaneity and breadth. Solely focusing on Susan Sontag’s language, she expressed herself with great passion, insight and intellect. It is quite rare to see anyone speak with such precision and intent, while maintaining a flow of smooth narrative and strong rhetoric. For these reasons, I admire her not only in what she says but also in how she puts it.

  1. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Similar to the above works, The Stranger uses very straight-forward and simple language. What sets it apart from the others, are its themes of tragedy and indifference. The world depicted in the protagonist’s head is one that scares me. I find myself often wanting to suppress such feelings of hopelessness and indifference. Yet, it is exhilarating to open the Pandora ’s Box once in a while. As the events progress, I have an overwhelming feeling of suffocation as I empathize with the protagonist. It is not until the end of the story, as the protagonist breaks down in tears for the first time, and we, as the reader audience, are confronted with our very own sense of righteousness and morals, that I feel a weird sense of alleviation.

I am weighted down by these tremendous emotions and shocked that the author could illustrate this state of the human condition so well.

  1. People on a Bridge: Poems by Wislawa Szymborska (Author), Adam Czerniawski (Translator)

Wislawa Szymborska’s poems are my best antidote to the constant bombardment of information overload in the modern world. Her carefully constructed poems are usually quite void of intense emotions, yet her insight alone brings my focus to the minuscule details of everyday life. Seemingly meaningless, her artful usage of inanimate objects as characters opens doors to rich imagery and imagination. The feelings she evoke are usually lingering senses of nostalgia and poignancy.

  1. Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman

Anomalisa is one of a kind in the way that it switches between absolute nonsensical dialogue and plot or character development. In fact, I find myself constantly focusing on each dialogue, to be drawn in by the rhythm of it, only to find out that the dialogue was used as background “noise” and it is of no importance for plot advancement. Yet, the fully loaded dialogue sequences fills the film up with a weird but enchanting cacophony. In stark contrast with the works mentioned above, Anomalisa leaves you with so little breathing or thinking space that I became confused and bewildered, much like the mental condition of the protagonist, Michael. While plot in this piece, again, is of little significance, the dialogue itself is an excellent example of “show, not tell”, thus creating an immersive experience for the audience, such as myself, to enter into the psychedelic world of the protagonist.

  1. Starting Point: 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki

This book consists of a comprehensive selection of written articles and talks by renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki. What I find fascinating about this book is that it reveals Miyazaki’s thought process and views on life. Explained in a very straight-forward manner, he touches on a wide variety of subjects including morals, art and existentialism. While his works are often tied to fantasy and magic, after reading these articles, I realize the reason for Miyazaki’s  universal appeal is his belief in potential, or the constant “what if”s. While most of us operate according to or in contrast to our physical and temporal reality, Miyazaki attempts to extend reality, not to mimic or address it. Thus, while reading his works, it’s easy to believe that the worlds depicted exist independently from ours.

  1. From a Cottager’s Sketchbook Volume 1 by Liang Shiqiu Translated by Ta-tsun Chen

A relatively obscure book written by Chinese intellectual Liang Shiqiu during his time spent in an old cottage in the rural area of Bei Bei, SiChuan Province in 1939. Contrary to the proper and structured Chinese classics, Sketches of a Cottager depict the mundane and ordinary life of Liang Shiqiu himself, a well-read man with a sharp tongue. Such a combination of setting and character has brought forth a dynamic mix of interesting thoughts and observations. Also, a sense of melancholy is felt as I realized how much China has changed in her politics and economy that such circumstances no longer exist today.

  1. The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

This book has sparked my interest in social commentary and stories forgotten by history. Iris Chang delivered a striking recount of the Nanking Massacre through presenting us with images and witness accounts of period of Japanese occupation in Nanking during the Second World War.  What struck me most about the story is how little we know about it today. In the age of social justice, it begs the question of who is being heard, and who has a voice? These questions hit very close to home as I, a member of a visible minority, often wonder who will speak for me, represent me in media or in history. What is the significance of remembering painful events? Is the answer as simple as to eradicate evil from this point on? While the subject matter at hand is complicated, I appreciated how Iris Chang bring out more subtle but impactful messages, as exemplified by her quote, “almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances.”

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradise Lost stands out in this list for its language and plot structure. As an epic poem, it has grand scenes and strong characters. It utilizes plot, characters, settings and themes to their full extents as well as illustrating each character with beautifully crafted and impassionate language. Each event creates a dramatic impact which furthers the story and its character development. The stark visual contrast between heaven and hell creates a clear dichotomy between God and Satan, the almighty and good and the lowly and evil. I often find myself mesmerized with each character as he or she experience different stages of suffering and temptation, for the emotions and imagery are so strong that the reader, such as myself, feel miniscule in comparison to the grand schemes of the supernatural.

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[TALK. Movie] Realism and Animation

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As an avid movie-nerd and animation-geek, here’s my take on why “till this day, my mom calls me a child when I watch animated films”. (With that, I think she’ll most likely change her mind if I show her Ghost in the ShellAkira and Paprika)

Animation movies in the U.S have always existed as children’s entertainment, closely associated with comics and cartoon. Although there are recent advocates for graphic novels to be recognized as an official form of literature, the pool of material still presents a lack of character or storyline development. On the other hand, although European animation movies does not adapt to comical norms and cliche storylines of the U.S., and approach animation more stylistically as an art form, European animation still fails to become a prominent medium of cultural influence.

A common theme within western animation is that animation create a fantasy world which did not exist in reality. Animation in the west have always been expected to reflect reality in metephors, but never to mirror it. And this is even evident in the best works within the genre, for example Art Spiegelman’s Maus, (in a way very similar to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which disguises a cruel fact of reality in a light hearted fantasy and only reveals its satire to the viewers in a subtle manner).

One may argue that this phenomenon of  censoring and sugar-coating reality in western animation contributed to the general association between animation and children’s entertainment. Even in the bigger productions from studios such as Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, it is still very apparent that the only type of storylines presented are the “feel-good”/”underdog prevails”/”good vs. evil” type of thrillers. Although these are movies (such as Up, Toy Story) that would also be enjoyed by adults, the storyline is still child-like as they present a black-and-white, good vs. evil world with little complexity or ambiguity. Without these subtle “in-betweens”, they take away all those different shades which make life interesting. In turn, these movies promote the concept where animation movies exist as an oasis for adults to think like a child.

While there’s nothing wrong with providing an escape from gruelling everyday life, (after all that’s what most movies are meant to do) I see animation as a valuable vessel wasted and dismissed when it could’ve achieved so much more. Similar to what plays were like before Shakespeare came along, animation is an art form capable of bringing out worthwhile messages, allowing us to take a look at our world and life through a poetic lens.

Japanese animation on the other hand, and in my opinion, uses animation to its full potential and had become a huge player dominating the global animation scene. With internationally renowned figures such as Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, a matured animation industry with numerous animation companies, constant supply of storylines through comics(manga) and a world wide fan base, throughout the years it had created almost all of the benchmarks within the genre.

Now what is so different within the Japanese approach that separates it from its contemporaries in the west?

In terms the technical level of art and animation, there’s no doubt that both the Japanese and the West are on par with one another. In fact  quite a few western animation movies have beautifully drawn realistic background arts with great attention to detail. 101 Dalmatians, Prince of Egypt, An American Tail are all examples of background artwork giving the movies their context and grounding. On the other hand,  in Japan there are numerous films which also accomplishes this (see Ghibli’s films, Cowboy Bebop, 5 millimeters per second and etc.)

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While Japanese animation does not differentiate itself only by art, I believe that the key to the Japanese success is “how” and “where” to depart from reality in animation. Simply put, as human beings we cannot depart from our built-in set of aesthetics. That’s why even E.T. needs a symmetrical face with 2 eyes and a mouth in order for us to “like” him. Try digging out burgess shales’ fossil animals and make a movie out of them, chances are, people would hate it. Thus departing from our known reality entirely is not a good tactic for creating an animation film which everyone should resonate to. The paradox is that: as human beings, as much as we hate reality and dull everyday life, we are prone to feel detached and afraid, if we depart from it too much. Thus, the key is, “balance”.

Take Miyazaki’s films as examples, even though they might be suitable for children as well, his fantasy worlds and characters are never a reduced and censored version of our world. He usually starts the story from the details taken and mirrored from reality and as the story progresses he subtly shifts the viewer into fantasy. A brilliant example would be “Spirited Away”; you can never quite tell the precise moment when Chihiro entered the fantasy world of Gods. Was it the tunnel? Or was it when her parents started eating food meant for the gods?

Miyazaki never makes his characters explain themselves. Never explain what you don’t know. Rather than attempting to making sense of everything or reducing reality to manageable size, there’s much more beauty in recognizing the ambiguity that surrounds us.

Oversimplification of our world means death to animation; that is where you loose all subtlety, and the beauty that lies within.

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