Book #110: Whispers Under Ground (2012)

whispersundergroundauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 617 minutes (10 hours, 17 minutes)
finished listening on: 5 Aug 2016
this series: (1) (2) (3)

This is the third book in the Rivers of London series by Aaronovitch. It’s not the strongest of the bunch – I found its story has blurred a bit with the next book in the series in my mind, and its climax wasn’t as dramatic as before.

This book takes the story into the London Underground, as the characters team up with faerie people to track down mysterious troublemakers. So there are a lot of train themes and motifs throughout the book. We find out a lot more about the lore of the series, compared to the others, where we’re being introduced to it, and still pretty clueless.

The other character, Leslie, is now being inducted as a magician too after a magical accident, so she and the main character Peter are back to being a sexually-frustrated double act, especially as she’s actually better at it than he is. This added a nice level to the story.

The audiobook narrator is also continuing to add an extra layer of realism to the book, and I’d like to commend him for that!

But basically it’s a stepping stone, as the later books (to be reviewed later) are a bit stronger than this one.

Film #218: The Descent (2005)

the-descentdirector: Neil Marshall
language: English
length: 99 minutes
watched on: 4 August 2016

We actually watched three films in one day – the first was The Purge and the second was actually Leon – but I’m not going to re-review that. I mentioned it when I reviewed Nikita, though. My thoughts haven’t changed a lot (Natalie Portman and Jean Reno’s relationship is still creepy), although the visual style is dated.

As for this movie, it’s very famous, and I was much more apprehensive about this movie than The Purge, because it’s actually straight-up horror in a way that the other isn’t. And apparently I talk a lot during the movie when I’m nervous – maybe, yeah, although I think I just talk during movies anyway. But like the last movie, it wasn’t nearly as bad to watch as I expected. I think I just had some bad experiences with horror when I was a child, such as The Witches (I had nightmares about that!), and it’s put me off. I still wouldn’t choose to watch it by myself – I’m still a wuss – but this is teaching me perhaps they’ll be OK.

It’s about some cavers who go astray and get lost in a cave, which turns out to (spoilers) have some monstrous post-humans in it, evolved away when a group of Swiss cavers got trapped (or something), cannibalistic and blind, so the characters have to walk around silently.

The first half of the movie is suspense, and in many ways was more scary and creepy than the second half, which becomes more jump-scares. Of course I get scared by them too, but there’s a certain predictability about jump-scares that there isn’t when it’s people getting trapped in a creepy cave.

One nice thing about this movie that you still don’t see enough is that the human characters are all women. (It was also nice to hear Scottish voices and a variety of accents in there, too.) Since all the monsters are played by men, I think, it lends a certain insidious aspect to it, like there’s a subtle implication of sexual violence, and I think this was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Relatedly, we spent half the movie discussing who would be picked off first. Obviously the feisty one goes first, and the one who forgot to bring her pills for her mental illness is going to stick around. The others were interchangeable. There was a subplot that one of them had slept with the other’s husband, but I didn’t see the point in this argument – it just created drama where it didn’t need to be.

Anyway my main problem with the movie is the director’s cut ending. (So obviously spoilers coming up!) The original ending is that one of the characters escapes – the director’s cut ends with her realizing it’s been a schizophrenic dream and that she’s still in the cave. It’s signposted throughout the movie as her mental illness gets worse and worse – still, I get annoyed when I sit through ten to fifteen minutes of something that turns out to be unreal. On the other hand, since it’s in the realm of unreliable narrator, it does raise the question whether the whole experience was real or not. Or did she just kill all her friends – is she the monster? It’s not all bad, but it left a sour taste in my mouth right at the end.

And anyway, I’m eleven years too late to see this movie, but I liked it overall – I just think the original cut might be better.

Film #217: The Purge: Election Year (2016)

purge3director: James DeMonaco
language: English
length: 115 minutes
watched on: 4 Aug 2016

My friend was in a horror movie mood when we went over to her house in August. I was a bit apprehensive, but it turned out fine. Actually this isn’t really horror, it’s more of a gory thriller where everyone is maimed in inventive ways. Well, that’s okay then…

The premise is that once a year, there is a “purge” in America, when all crime is made legal for one day and the country descends into chaos. This movie is the third in the series (apparently) and has a political bent to it – one of the main characters is a woman hoping to overthrow the fascists in charge and ban the Purge. Sounds a bit familiar…

The premise is patently ridiculous, but it did lead to conversations like “What would you do if there was a Purge?” (I’d try to hide!) and “What way would you like to go?”, and other such morbid questions. It was also as trashy as I expected but in an enjoyable way, and it was fun to watch.

I’ve heard the other movies in the series are better, though – the first one is home-invasion horror, for instance. This is more of a caper, with very light political satire thrown in. It’s no classic, but it’ll entertain.

Film #216: I Want Your Love (2012)

i-want-your-lovedirector: Travis Mathews
language: English
length: 68 minutes
watched on: 28 July 2016

The box of this movie proudly proclaims that it’s “bringing gay sex back on film” – it was one of a few that I bought during one of my recent trips back to the UK in 2015, and took a shamefully long time to get around to watching. No way I could find such things here, but that’s a rant for another time, and one that I’ve already had before, indeed.

It means this quite literally, as it, like such films as Shortbus or 9 Songs before it, features explicit sex. “Is it porn?” people ask. Yes and no, I’d say. Fortunately, the BBFC seems to say “no”, and it’s on general release in the UK, rated 18 instead of R18. It was certainly produced by a porn company. It was evidently workshopped in a similar way to Shortbus, with the actors helping to shape their characters.

It’s about a guy in San Francisco who is going to leave for the sticks somewhere, perhaps his hometown in the Midwest. It follows him and his group of friends, mostly other gay males, as they explore their emotions through sex with each other.

The characters are all spot-on, in my opinion, and I could see aspects of myself in each of them. The acting is not always great, but the movie weathers the inconsistencies well.

It’s quite a claustrophobic movie – it seems to have been shot on the cheap mostly within San Francisco townhouses, and a lot of the movie and acting is in close-up. This had merits – it fostered a more intimate atmosphere, and allowed certain actors a chance to shine – but mostly I wished it would back away from the characters a bit and show the full picture more.

Mainly, to be honest, I’ll remember this movie for how rooted it is in a certain sociopolitical clime. It’s very 2012. The main character is moving back to Ohio or Indiana for economic reasons – it’s now too expensive to live in San Francisco and too difficult to find a job there. The fashion sense, too – there are a lot of ironic hipster beards, and the main character among many others is quite unkempt, with five-day old stubble and tatty clothing. Like another gay movie I watched recently, In Bloom, these things root it in the early part of this decade, post-collapse in 2009.

For some people, the explicit sex is reason enough to watch it; for others, this might be a reason to avoid it. I liked it, and certainly at only 68 minutes it’s not a big time commitment like so many modern movies. Just don’t watch it with your family.

Book #109: The Long Cosmos (2016)

The-Long-Cosmosauthors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 385 pages
finished on: 25 July 2016
others in this series: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Terry Pratchett’s still turning out to be prolific beyond the grave, it turns out – this is the second book released in the Long Earth since he passed away last year. Apparently the last chapters were finished off by Stephen Baxter alone, in fact.

This picks the characters up as old men – the character Joshua Valienté is now in his sixties or seventies, and goes off for a final trip through the Long Earth, that strange multiverse introduced in the previous books in the series. He’s very similar to the authors’ ages now, and they wrote this very successfully, I thought. He gets trapped somewhere when he gets injured, and is taken care of by a troll, one of the other species of hominids that can step from world to world.

So where The Long Utopia, the fourth book, was about Valienté’s family history, and the history of the Long Earth by extension, this book explores the other species of the Long Earth, including the trolls, and what they call “elves”, introduced in the first book and almost forgotten since then. The trolls are depicted as a gorilla on the front cover, which I don’t think is accurate – it should be more like Homo erectus, or like neanderthals, from the descriptions in the book. They can also communicate with the human characters using a kind of translator microphone thing, briefly mentioned a few books ago, although somehow humans and trolls can’t truly learn each other’s language – this is hand-waved away a few times by saying the grammar doesn’t match properly. I liked this look into trolls – they were always elusive before, and even disappeared completely during one of the stories.

Not to deliberately spoil anything, but the book ends with a very grandiose cosmic tying together of loose threads, with a philosophical justification for the Long Earth that I didn’t buy completely. It’s at this point that I start to tease out Baxter’s style from Pratchett’s, which I found difficult to do in the first book, but having now read two of Baxter’s books – Proxima and its sequel Ultima, which I’ve yet to review – these both have similar themes, exploring the nature of the multiverse with slightly far-fetched explanations. Despite this, I was overall satisfied with the book’s conclusion. Of course, I only recommend it if you’ve read the other books first!

Film #215: Paris 05:59 (2016)

ParisSFWaka: Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau
directors: Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau
language: French
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 18 July 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 6/6)
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

I had a choice with this movie – I could either go to this final screening on the Monday night after work, in Aoyama, or I could have gone a few days earlier to the screening in Shinjuku. The cinema in Shinjuku was more comfortable than the hall in Aoyama, but I chose the latter, because it said there was an event. Perhaps naïvely I thought there would be a Q&A with the directors – after all, I’d been to exactly that back in 2012 – and I was keen to have the chance to meet them if possible. It turned out it was a local drag queen doing light comedy, and some guys from the LGBT community centre, who ran around giving out condoms. And they started late because they were trying to get everyone seated in a completely packed hall. Oh well.

The reason for the condoms became clear pretty quickly once we started watching the movie – the film starts with a very long, very explicit sex scene in an underground club in Paris. Two men (Théo and Hugo, as in the French title of the movie, but I’ve forgotten which is which now) make a connection, and start to go home together, but it transpires that one forgot to put on a condom in the heat of the moment, and the other is HIV positive, and the rest of the movie becomes a kind of safe sex PSA, as we follow the men around, first to a hospital to get an emergency drug to stop the infection from taking hold, and then on mini adventures around Paris at 5 in the morning (getting food, taking the first train home, discussing life, worrying about the potential of getting HIV, blaming themselves and each other, etc).

Such a subject can easily fall flat on its face, and the movie was teetering on the edge a few times – it’s as good as filmed in real time, and it looks like it was actually filmed on location at 5 in the morning around Paris, probably on a low budget, as there are very few bystanders in any of the scenes. This means that there are a few scenes where they are just waiting around, or the hospital appointment itself, which was tedious to watch.

But the film does have an exuberance despite the subject matter, and most of the scenes in between – as the two guys run or cycle around the city – are very fast-paced. It’s also sensitive to its subject matter, and is careful to paint its characters in many colours. A lot of the conversations they have are about normal, mundane things – food they like, or why one of them usually takes Mondays off work, or why one has a “new” number beginning with 07 instead of 06. This kind of minutiae is always appreciated, and it gives a more detailed look into the culture they inhabit in a way that other things might not, but at some points that’s all they’re talking about – and it was a bit repetitive, too. The movie sort of loses its way in the third act, after the sex club and the hospital scenes have been and gone and there’s only the guys rushing around.

To a limited extent, they also encounter other characters as they go around, who add to the vibrance of the world that’s being depicted. There’s an old homophobic man in the hospital complaining that he should be first, or an old lady on the metro as they take the train home.

As a “meet cute”, this movie works really well, although come to think of it, the sex club isn’t really cute. As a depiction of two guys starting out their journey together, it works just as it’s intended. But as a PSA about the importance of wearing condoms with strangers, it’s decidedly ham-fisted. An important message, to be sure, but subtlety was not this movie’s strength.

Book #108: The Devotion of Suspect X (2005)

suspectxaka: Yougisha X no kenshin (容疑者Xの検診)
author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
language: English translated from Japanese
length: 440 pages
finished on: 16 July 2016

I had a busy day that day in July, having watched two movies and then finishing this book on the train on the way back home. Higashino seems to be an entry-level Japanese mystery novel writer, and one of the few who’s been translated into English too. The Devotion of Suspect X is a title that comes up repeatedly when searching for Higashino’s books. And it’s pretty cheap to buy second-hand, so I gave it a shot.

The book is about a woman who kills her abusive ex-husband, which is depicted at the beginning of the novel. Then she and her enigmatic neighbour try to cover up the murder, all the while being investigated by some Japanese Taggart. The neighbour is an introverted mathematician with a crush on the woman. I’m sorry I’m still no good at remembering character names, by the way! There’s a twist at the end, of course, when we find out what exactly really happened. There’s a certain level of unreliable narrator.

The book’s cover proudly proclaims Higashino to be the “Japanese Stieg Larsson”, which I think is a bit presumptuous. The Millennium trilogy was a tour de force in a way that this book just isn’t, but more importantly, Larsson more directly tackles themes such as misogyny and violence – hell, the first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is literally called “Men Who Hate Women” in Swedish. None of that here – in fact, the mathematician guy has some of the creepiest inner thoughts about the woman (possessiveness just being the start) that I’ve ever seen put to paper, although we’re not necessarily encouraged to agree with him. The murder victim himself had elements of being abusive towards his wife, but it wasn’t explored in as much detail. This book isn’t anything bad, but I think this comparison is too lazy.

However, the story is easy to read, gripping, and I can see why it’s so popular. But it marks a break from what I’ve come to know as the detective story formula, popularized originally by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. In that, the identity of the killer is usually kept as a surprise, and Holmes or Poirot finally piece together the information right at the end. But in this one, the identity of the killer is known from the start, and that removed a lot of the tension. Instead, the nature of the mystery is a bit more esoteric. The detectives don’t know the identity of the killer, but I think the audience should be able to view the world through their eyes. In this we’re kind of omnipotent. This does allow us to see the thoughts of the “villains”, however, asking the alternative question, how will the two sides outsmart each other?

I did really enjoy the setting in Tokyo, as it was more immediately familiar to me than reading something set in America, or even the UK, which sometimes feels distant. Even so, the characters belong to a world I don’t, and it was a look at a side of Tokyo I wouldn’t normally see.

I think Higashino seems to be a very competent and eloquent author, and as I mentioned, the book was light and easy to read, although I think I was slightly disappointed with the story. Higashino was scuppered a bit by bad translation, however. Japanese is full of set phrases for greetings and so on, and the translators struggled to find appropriate ways to keep the English fresh-sounding. I kept wondering what the Japanese version would say – I don’t think I’d be able to read the whole thing, though. It’s a pretty difficult language to read, even after about five years. That aside, I think I will recommend this book overall, and perhaps seek out more Japanese mystery literature to see how it compares.

Film #214: From Afar (2015)

desdeallaaka: Desde allá
director: Lorenzo Vigas
language: Spanish
length: 93 minutes
watched on: 16 July 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 5/6)
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

I think the first thing I noticed when I went into this movie, the same day as the last movie, is that the screen was much wider than usual – turns out it’s shot in one of these super widescreen formats and it really is wider than usual. It was the first of many discomforting things of the screening. The movie doesn’t shy away from using the entire frame, which meant that my eyes were often jumping around. I don’t envy the Japanese members of the audience, who probably had to try and divert their gaze to the far right just to see the vertically-displayed subtitles.

The movie is from Venezuela – perhaps the first movie I’ve seen from that country. It’s set in the capital, against a backdrop of poverty. The first main character is an older man who cruises for young men, seemingly for sex. In fact he takes them back to his apartment, makes them strip, and then jerks off. Creepy for sure, but pretty tame.

I think creepy sums up a lot of the movie, to be honest. The camera has a very selective focus, despite having such a wide frame: it often focuses on only one thing, leaving the rest of the frame blurred out. Frequently the subject of its focus is the back of someone’s head as we follow them around, at once claustrophobic and voyeuristic.

The second main character is one of the young guys he cruises, who realizes that the man is a second-rate perv, beats him up and runs off with the money. This seems to spur the man on further and their lives get more entangled and codependent, despite all the obvious homophobia on the younger guy’s lips at the beginning of the movie.

So many words are left unspoken in this movie, and that got annoying and trite. The man doesn’t really speak much, and there are extended sequences with only awkward or no conversation. I kind of found this self-indulgent, and that the movie dragged a bit, despite not being particularly long. I did enjoy the tension, at the same time, and after I got used to the unique cinematographic style, I enjoyed that too. Basically it has merits, and if artsy South American movies about poverty and homophobia suit you, with a healthy serving of tension and intrigue, I’d recommend it. But you also have to be happy to watch an hour and a half of navel-gazing, and characters who really should just talk about their feelings honestly.

Film #213: How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) (2015)

htwacetaka: พี่ชาย My Hero
director: Josh Kim
language: Thai
length: 80 minutes
watched on: 16 July 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 4/6)
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

I remember the hall I saw this film in, from when I went to see a German movie a few years ago. The seats aren’t so comfortable, and I had to crane my neck a lot, especially as it’s easy for someone to sit in front of me and block the screen. But it’s a nice venue, and there was a massive pride flag hanging outside to signpost the festival. The day I saw this, I also went to the Brazilian festival in Yoyogi park, a short walk away, and then I came back for another film in the evening.

This film was a Thai film about a boy of about ten and his older brother, who’s gay. The brother will be entered into a draft for the military, but it turns out his richer boyfriend will be exempted – the draft isn’t as random as they’d have you believe. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what will happen next. The younger boy tries to manipulate the crime boss into exempting the brother too, but has no idea how to go about this and gets them all into more trouble.

The Thai title of the film – “My brother: My hero” – makes it much more explicit that this is about the hero-worship of the older brother. In this regard it reminded me very strongly of a French film, Close to Leo, about a young boy who’s kept in the dark about his brother’s HIV diagnosis, but obviously has a close attachment to him. Close to Leo was much more leery about its younger protagonist, though – one thing I remember about it was a slow-panning shot over the prepubescent boy’s topless body lying next to his friend. In this movie, the characters are often topless, but it’s not sexualized, at least in the case of the younger boy. It seems to be more a fact of life in Thailand than anything.

The English title of the film refers to manipulation, and to a book that the boy finds during the movie and uses as a metaphor for the tricks he tries to play with adults and his brother. It also refers to his checkers games with his brother – his ultimate goal is to win as checkers, and as a reward, be allowed to ride with his brother into the city.

Basically I liked this movie. It’s got a wide variety of characters, and the gay aspect of it, similar to above, is a fact of life, not something that characters are anxious about. The family and other relationships that are portrayed are realistic. It also has high production values, and a very high-quality image and visual style.

Similar to the Indonesian movie I’d see in the queer shorts collection the previous day, this film has an atmosphere evocative of hot South East Asia, and one of the major themes that’s explored is class, but I much preferred the treatment of the gay characters in this one. And the acting was great. Perhaps I wasn’t so satisfied with the ending – it didn’t seem to go anywhere at the end. But I enjoyed it overall, and I would like to see more like this.

Films #209-212: Queer Asia shorts

Watched on: 15 July 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 3/6)
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

The third film I watched at the film festival this year, back in July, was actually a series of short movies. The title on the program also had the name of the pan-Asian organisation that chooses movies from other LGBT film festivals across Asia, but it’s an alphabet soup acronym, and I can’t remember it offhand.

There were four shorts, and there wasn’t a common theme to them aside from being set in Asia or with Asian characters. I’ll write about each one individually, as I did with the other short compilations I watched.

As with the other short films I watched, these were all cinematically sound, and their use of cinematography, including imagery and soundscape, was more tightly controlled, so even for the movies I didn’t enjoy so much, the movies themselves were generally high quality to watch.

the-fox-exploits-the-tigers-mightFilm #209: The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might (2015)
director: Lucky Kuswandi
language: Indonesian
length: 24 minutes
This movie weirded me out a bit. It’s about a bromance between two characters that gets a bit out of hand, and acquires an animalistic or abusive sexual aspect, along with voyeurism and other parts also in play. It’s also plainly about class, though, and the sexual dominance part reflected that one character is socially dominant over the other.

The atmosphere was evocative of hot Indonesian summers, and the images it provides are nice. But I felt that the “gay” character here was painted as creepy and not in a good light. Sorry, not here for that.

sowolFilm #210: Sowol Road (2014)
aka: Sowol-gil (소월길)
director: Shin Jong-hun
language: Korean
length: 25 minutes
This is about a middle-aged woman selling her body on Sowol Road, a notorious street in Seoul for prostitution. She helps a young transgender girl who’s in the same predicament, who was about to be beaten up by a client. Later it turns out the girl is dating the woman’s son, by coincidence, and she gets a slap in the face. I didn’t get why that was – is it because she’s trans? In any case, she ends up saving the older woman from the same client, out for revenge, and all is forgiven.

The film was gritty and I felt sympathy for the characters – aside from that scene in the middle that confused me. It draws light on Seoul’s undertrodden trans community, and I think that’s good. However, perhaps because I’m not the target audience, I wasn’t as interested in this movie as the others.

When-Mom-VisitsFilm #211: When Mom Visits (2015)
director: Chang Chiung-wen
language: Mandarin and English (a rare bilingual film)
length: 19 minutes
This is about a girl whose mother flies to America from Taiwan for a surprise visit, which is a bit of a problem because her girlfriend is lying in bed with her. They have an argument, and her girlfriend storms off, saying she has “principles” and won’t date someone who’s in the closet.

What follows is a lot of angst from the main character, who eventually comes out to her mother, but not before being very self-involved – she’s called out for it by another character who makes her realize that her mother also has a secret relationship going on. I was a little disappointed by both the girls in the original couple – one being self-involved, and the other being unable to comprehend that coming out is difficult for people. I was disappointed that they didn’t get back together in the end, I guess, because they’d been really cute together at the beginning.

IGTSNBBFilm #212: I Go to School Not by Bus (2015)
aka: Fongsi (放肆)
director: Morris Ng
language: Cantonese
length: 35 minutes
This film was the longest of the bunch, and unfortunately the video quality was noticeably lower than the other movies. It’s available on Youtube, and perhaps better seen on there than the big screen. It’s a Hong Kong movie about two high school teenagers, one apparently out and proud, which is nice to see in Asia at all. The school they go to is pretty homophobic and Catholic, though, which creates an easy conflict, and the other boy (the main character) is softly-spoken and artistic, more repressed in character. The relationship grows naturalistically, and was nice to see unfolding as the boy teaches the main character to run for a PE exam. Later he breaks his leg and the main character has to run for both of them.

The film was very melodramatic, overall, but it left me with a warm feeling and an overall good impression of the four-part series. There are enough laughs, as well, especially from the two girl classmates cheering them on awkwardly from the sidelines. And the ending was bittersweet. So out of the four, it was my favourite, although objectively the third one might be a better film.