Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why Hong Kong Has Only One Art House Cinema, And Why That's OK


Hong Kong

The art house situation in Hong Kong is not as dire at it seems.

Hong Kong is a city of 7 million people, yet it supports only one theater that specializes in European and independent films, the Broadway Cinematheque. The BC is next to a sizeable bookstore and café named Kubrick (pictured), which focuses on film, visual arts and literary texts and is a destination in its own right. The pair are located in the unglamorous neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei on the Kowloon Peninsula, and the patronage skews toward twentysomething locals.

The multiplexes in Hong Kong are like the multiplexes everywhere else. The promise of ten screens offering an abundance of choice was not fulfilled; instead, four screens feature the latest big-budget action release, four screens feature the new star-driven comedy, and the remaining rooms project two second-tier studio products. Time Out Hong Kong is hosting an undated article by Edmund Lee which attempts to explain why the city’s movie theaters are dominated by mainstream fare. No surprise, it boils down to money.

But Hong Kong is not the cinematic wasteland these facts would imply.

One difference is that, in the Cantonese context, “mainstream,” “big-budget” and “studio” are defined to include films which Americans would consider niche or cult. Asian genre films are the obvious example. In the last half of 2009, for example, the top spot at the weekend box office was held, at various times, by the Pang Brothers’ The Storm Warriors, Thai thriller Phobia 2 and cop picture Turning Point.

The studios include not only Universal and Sony but production companies and distributors like Milkyway Image, Changchun Film Group and Golden Harvest Entertainment. Big-budget includes the $80 million that the Chinese government and its partners spent on John Woo’s Red Cliff and the $45 million invested in capturing Gong Li’s heaving bosoms in Curse of the Golden Flower. While these are considered offbeat films in the United States, they're standard fare in Hong Kong.

Commercially-oriented Hong Kong theaters also play European films, some of which are not released theatrically in the United States. For example, I recently watched the French film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky at the IFC Palace, and it was available on several other screens. (Admittedly, H.K. can also be a dumping ground for films that didn’t make the U.S. cut, like the Richard Gere loyal pet movie Hachiko: A Dog’s Story.)

And then there are the non-profits. The Hong Kong Film Archive is operated by the city government, with regular programming. The Goethe Institute collaborates with both BC and the Archive to screen German-language movies. The local universities and film schools have screenings.

It’s all there. You just have to look a little harder than in Los Angeles or London.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sometimes That "Move To Thailand To Be A Foreign Correspondent" Thing Doesn't Pan Out

The video of one Keith Fitzgerald:



One side of the back story from The Korea Herald.

Way to counter the stereotype of Western expats in Southeast Asia as clueless, ineffectual whiners who couldn't hack it back home, Keith.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TSA: Unaccountable Nameless Thugs


Sherman Oaks, California

A FlyerTalk poster named forthefight has done a public service by asking various TSA officers their names and recording the reactions. (The acronyms stand for Customer Service Manager, Federal Security Director, Law Enforcement Officer, Lead Transportation Security Officer, Transportation Security Manager and Transportation Security Officer, along with various airport codes.)

IAD - When asked his name, the TSO placed his hand over his badge and began removing it. Letter to FSD resulted in general "your comments are valuable" letter.

IAH - When asked her name the LTSO turned her back to me and loudly announced "Oh no, you do not need to know my name". Letter to CSM resulted in "Your experiences show we have remaining areas for improvement." (understatement of the year)

SFO - When asked his name, TSO offered to write it down for me, along with supervisors name and CSM name. Offer accepted, nice note sent to CSM.

MCI - When asked her name, TSM refused, threatened to throw me out of secure area. Letter to CSM went unanswered for 3 weeks, call to TSA contact center resulted in promise to forward contact request to CSM. No word back - its been months.

PVD - When asked her name TSO refused and covered badge with hand, TSM also refused name until issue was made clear. Once issue was described, TSM provided CSM's name and walked away.

BWI - When asked her name TSM summoned LEO and announced that I had become "too difficult". Threatened to eject me from secure area. LEO found name of TSM and urged me to write CSM. Previous interactions with CSM caused letter to go unanswered, same with letters to Assistant FSD and FSD. Note: this airport has got to have the worst TSA staff in the country.

AUS - (Several occasions) When asked his/her name TSOs offered complaint form, name and, in some cases ID number. TSOs, TSMs and CSM were all very nice and helpful.

FLL - When asked his name TSM informed me that "you dont have that right in here" (gesturing to secure area behind him) and removed his brass name badge. When asked to clarify, TSM threatened to call LEOs. When further pressed, TSM offered the name of the CSD and suggested that writing him would be like performing a physically impossible intimate act. Call to TSA's Media Affairs line resulted in "we will investigate" followed by "the cameras do not record audio". Letter to CSM proved similar to preforming afore mentioned intimate act.

While there are some professional TSA officers, many are unprofessional, undereducated and believe they are unaccountable.

forthefight did what more people need to do: Stand up to these petty tyrants and remind them that we -- law-abiding flyers -- are the boss, not them.


Photo: For all I know, this TSA officer could be a consummate professional -- protecting us from dangerous grannies.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Kevin Costner: The Face of Turkish Aviation

Hong Kong

Kevin Costner is two storeys tall and connecting through Istanbul.

The Tin Cup star is mounted on billboards and decalled onto double-decker buses throughout Hong Kong. He's the face of Turkish Airlines, which hopes he'll jumpstart ticket sales for its premium cabins.

The ads in Hong Kong -- they're in the papers, too -- aren't designed to entice tourists to visit Istanbul in style. They're aimed at convincing business people to save a few dollars by flying to Europe or the Gulf States on Turkish Airlines instead of on flashier, more expensive carriers like Emirates and Qatar.

So the subtext of the ad is to sell a lower-priced but adequate (by front-of-the-plane standards) product to consumers who will never see the flag carrier's country because they're just changing planes.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Grading A Short Trip To Hong Kong


Sherman Oaks, California

I spent five days in Hong Kong. Which travel services made the grade?

Singapore Airlines. There’s only so much that can be done in the economy cabin, but Singapore Airlines did it. The Boeing 777-200ER was clean, there were several hundred channels on the seat back video screen, and the food was excellent. The attentive flight attendants were unnaturally skinny, with their wrap-around sarong kebaya uniforms being unforgiving of any extra kilos. New rule of thumb: Order the hindu meals; they’re freshly made, tasty, and there’s no meat to become dry or tough. Grade: A

(Note: I paid about 300 additional dollars to fly Singapore, and it was worth it. The biggest problem with the U.S. air travel market is that consumers buy the cheapest online fare. Consequently, the U.S. carriers don’t invest in quality service; they spend their resources gaming the search engines to generate the lowest fares, then they hit you with extra fees at check-in and in the cabin. The nickel-and-diming leaves a bad taste in my mouth; I’d rather pay one higher fare (in this case, about $1,100) and know that everything is included. Needless to say, Singapore did not charge any extra fees for my meals or checked baggage.)

Southwest Airlines. The Southwest flights to and from San Francisco (where I transferred to the trans-Pacific flight) were like every other Southwest flights I had ever taken. The no-frills airline offers an incredibly consistent product, and, at $55 a flight, there’s no complaints. Grade: B. Always a B.

San Francisco International Airport. SFO is one of the country’s better airports, but that doesn’t make it world-class. The AirTrain is particularly disappointing. To ride between terminals, a passenger has to walk outside with luggage, be exposed to the often inhospitable weather and wait on a raised outdoor platform which can be accessed by homeless people and other undesireables. SFO is an awkward and uneven airport which, like the Bay Area itself, is better-than-average but ghastly overrated. Grade: B+, with grade inflation. B-, without.

Cosmo Hotel, Queen’s Road East, Hong Kong. I’m too old for hotels that want to be nightclubs. There was nothing wrong with the Cosmo Hotel per se. In fact, at $100 a night, it was a steal for a full-service hotel in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities. But the hotel is all about hipster design, and I’m over that. Grade: B

Hong Kong Tramways. Who wants safety? The Hong Kong trams are ancient double-decker trollies that can move you across the northern half of Hong Kong Island for 25¢. They’re slow, you can fall overboard and be run over, and, if you stick your head out the window at the wrong time, you’ll be decapitated by a trolly moving in the opposite direction. So don’t be an idiot, and you’ll enjoy one of the best perks of the city. Grade: B+

Octopus card. The Octopus card is a debit card, similar to London’s Oyster card, which you load up with money that can be used on public transport and at some stores. They’re incredibly convenient and will be more so if taxis accede to the system. Grade: A-

Hong Kong Airport Express. Hong Kong’s officials had a wild idea: Convince people to take public transport to the airport by making the ride a pleasant experience. To that end, the Airport Express is a true express; it has only three stops before the airport. The seats are padded and molded bullet train seats, not hard plastic subway seats. A train leaves every 12 minutes, and the journey takes less than half an hour. The best service is In-Town Check-In; at Hong Kong and Kowloon stations, you can receive your boarding pass, check your luggage and travel to the airport at your leisure. Grade: A

(Side note to city planners: If you want people to take the train to the airport, you need to build the train station in the airport. Not next to the airport. Certainly not near the airport. People want to walk out of the train and into the airport terminal itself, not wait for a shuttle bus. If you can’t do this, don’t bother wasting taxpayer money on an “airport” station, because everyone who can afford to will take a car or van and be dropped off curbside.)

Plaza Premium Arrival Lounge. The idea is that you can rent a small hotel room, sleep, shower, or hang out in a private lounge without leaving the Hong Kong airport. The execution is spotty: the food is banal, the internet is slow, the menu of services is confusing, and it’s overpriced at $59 for three hours. Still, in a climate as humid as southern China, you’ll want to shower before stepping onto a 12-hour midnight flight to North America. Grade: A for the concept; C+ for the reality

LAX. What is there to say that hasn’t been said before? LAX has become such a disgrace that comparing it to Hong Kong International Airport is like comparing the last kid picked for T-ball to Albert Pujols. Grade: Transferred to Special Ed track

The Parking Spot, Century Lot, Los Angeles. The guy in the car in front of me had some problem. I didn’t know what the problem was, and I didn’t care. All I cared about was that, instead of opening the exit gate and having the guy drive around the block, the Parking Spot operators refused to open the gate, forcing half a dozen cars to wait for more than ten minutes. Then we were all told to put it in reverse. I screamed and cursed, and the gate attendant let me exit without paying, saving $60. Lesson: sometimes volume works. Grade: D


Photo: Hong Kong is the center of Cantonese-language media so, as in Los Angeles and New York, it's common to walk past shoots. Here, a model poses between a passing tram (on the left) and a double-decker bus.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Good Reading

-- On December 16th, white South Africans celebrate a very different -- and kinda creepy -- holiday than black South Africans.

-- Ted Chen explains why, after four years of trying to make it as a professional photographer in the United States, he is returning to Singapore.

-- Turns out, tasking the only high-level ABC (American-Born Chinese) in a company's executive ranks to manage the firm's China policy is a bad idea.

-- Lonely Chinese man jumps from balcony, accidentally lands on his blow-up sex doll, lives.

-- I previously blogged about one of the last remaining government noodle houses in Beijing. Also scattered throughout Beijing are restaurants operated by various of China's provincial governments, serving inexpensive regional cuisines. (Here's a 2006 NYT article on the topic.)

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Small Victory Over the Border Bullies: Knife Tricks Refuses To Answer Homeland Security’s Questions


San Francisco

“None of your business,” I said.

The Customs and Border Protection officer looked up. He had asked what my job was, and I had responded.

“You having a bad day?” he asked.

“I’m not required to undergo an interrogation as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country,” I said.

The officer, a younger blond man who was sitting at passport control at San Francisco International Airport, started to type into his computer. He no doubt was memorializing the interaction in some Department of Homeland Security database. Finally, he wrote “BGC” on my customs declaration form and directed me to a secondary inspection station.

Another CBP officer, a younger Chinese man, tried to be all friendly and chatty. “So, you’re coming back from a typical business trip to China?” “How long were you in Hong Kong?” Etc .

I didn’t respond, except for one time when he asked me if there was anything sharp or pointy in my bag and I said No. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have answered; if a person volunteers for a job rifling through the bags of law-abiding citizens, that person assumes the risk of mechanical pencils and staple removers.

He searched my luggage and waived me through.

My lack of cooperation may seem juvenile or unwise, but it is, to my mind, necessary. The U.S. government has no authority to compel citizens to orally answer questions as a pre-condition of re-entry. Issues such as your foreign destinations, the dates of your travel, your occupation and who you met are none of their damned business.

Of course, the border bullies can’t stand it if you exercise your rights. Many of the street thugs who applied for DHS jobs get off on the power, and they punish those who refuse to genuflect before them. For example, earlier this month, journalist Michael Yon was detained and handcuffed for refusing the answer an inquiry about his income – another topic which is NOTB.

I won’t answer these people’s questions. Maybe you shouldn't either.


Pictured: CBP officers engaged in security measures which, since 9/11, have resulted in the arrest of not one would-be terrorist.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

We Live In Singapura

Admittedly, if you don't follow Singapore politics, this might not make sense. Still, it's sprightly and it's the closest to political satire the place allows.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Two Swedish Holiday Traditions

Sherman Oaks, California

On Christmas Eve, the Swedes stop whatever they're doing and watch Donald Duck.

At midnight on New Year's, Swedish television plays the following music video:

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