Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh
The title story tells of Ding Shikou who, after 43 years of work and one month away from retirement, is laid off. Forced to find another source of income, he hits on the idea of renting out a hut in the woods to courting couples. His entrepreneurial scheme is a success, but has results he hadn’t bargained for.
The story ‘Abandoned Child’ tackles the friction between the notorious one-child policy and the pervasive rural notion that female children are second best. ‘Man and Beast’ picks up narrative threads from Mo Yan’s most famous novel Red Sorghum and ‘The Cure’ is a searing tale of arbitrary executions and nightmarish brutality. The most recently written story, ‘Shen Garden’, is a poignant account of a middle-aged man coming to terms with compromised choices and abandoned dreams.
Mo Yan thoroughly deserves his Western reputation as one of China’s foremost writers and this excellent collection is a great place to start for those unfamiliar with the work of this splendidly spirited author.
Romesh Gunesekera’s third novel is set in the near future on an unnamed tropical island, once a gentle and fertile semi-paradise – the ‘edge of heaven’ – but now poisoned by decades of war and pollution. Marc, the narrator, arrives from London to try to piece together his fragmentary and troubling history. His grandfather left the island many years before and his father, a pilot, died in dubious circumstances while flying a fighter plane in the endless civil war.
Passing his days in a seedy, deserted hotel, Marc meets Uva, a mysterious and passionate dissident. Uva is releasing a pair of emerald doves and she shows Marc her farm, where she is revitalizing and restocking her despoiled land. The two become lovers but are wrenched apart when the farm is destroyed by rampaging soldiers and Uva disappears. Taken prisoner by the shadowy military regime, Marc escapes and, together with Jaz and Kris, two ill-matched companions, sets out into the perilous countryside to find her.
Our location is obviously Sri Lanka and Gunesekera has, as in his previous fiction, produced an aching elegy for a fragile, damaged land. Unfortunately, he has also attempted to shoehorn into the same novel a futuristic action thriller, a parable on flight, a meditation on fatherhood and a love story. These elements don’t really gel and the whole thing too often reads like a sketch for a novel, full of interesting but unpolished ideas, rather than the finished article. Those seeking Gunesekera’s best work would be advised to begin with Reef or the stories in Monkfish Moon.
Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe
This book does what it says on the tin. It paints the now-familiar picture of Mugabe as a power-crazy despot whose cronies have embezzled at the country’s expense. Even before the recent elections there was no getting away from the fact that Mugabe’s rule has descended into a thuggish intimidation of the opposition, including detention without trial and the use of torture. The Government has contempt for the courts and a demonstrable tendency towards corruption and self-enrichment.
Nevertheless there are curious omissions in Meredith’s highly readable narrative. No credit is given for the great post-independence advances in healthcare and education. There is no criticism of Britain’s role in determining the slow pace of land reform that has led to the current crisis. Mugabe’s brutal assault on Matabeleland dissidents in the
Meredith reports criticisms of Mugabe’s military support of the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, without saying that this support is invited – unlike the Ugandan and Rwandan rebel players.
Nor is there any analysis of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change – financed as it is by Western governments and business interests, in favour of privatization as part of an IMF-friendly economic programme, and with an unclear policy on land.
Clearly the full story has yet to be written.
The Video Activist Handbook
Video activism is spreading fast and this book is invaluable both to the novice and the experienced user. It opens by chronicling the diverse use of camcorders by activists everywhere – be they Brazilian trade unionists, Tibetan dissidents or British eco-warriors. Technical guidance alternates with personal accounts from video-makers on the frontline, such as those at the WTO summit in Seattle.
Harding explores the increasing potential of the internet as a tool for political change, with step-by-step instructions for encoding video and disseminating images for viewing on computer screens around the world. Nor does he shy away from the thorny issue of when – and when not to – film. Images that are useful for campaigning purposes can also be used to imprison activists.
Saudade do Futuro
This film reveals the sprawling, commercial city of São Paulo through the lives of Nordestino Repentistas: street-poets originally from the rural northeast of Brazil who come to make their living in the ‘wonder south’.
Documentary-style, it brings the street culture to screen with humour and humanity, allowing the repentistas to speak (sing) for themselves. Having no obvious narrative, it’s more a collection of first-person stories from all kinds of people about being Nordestino in exile in São Paulo. But the street-singers with their spontaneous, improvised performances are the undeniable highlight of the film. Sparring, rhyming couplets move swiftly from stories of poverty and discrimination to jokes about the crew behind the cameras.
The film manages to be political without being didactic. At one point a repentista asks his audience: ‘Do you want to hear about the difference between rich and poor, between those who are beautiful and ugly? Or do you want me to insult you?’ Of course the crowd opt for a series of searingly funny and extremely crude insults.
Saudade is a virtually untranslatable Portuguese word: it translates variously as ‘desire’, ‘regret’, ‘nostalgia’, ‘memory’. And a ‘memory of the future’ is obviously a contradiction in terms. But the tensions in these different meanings reflect the deeper ambivalence that the Nordestinos express about their new home and community in exile: ‘I’ve a place down in Moco/ no window, door or patio/ so I come sing in the square/ for a future we can share’, is how one puts it.
In the Rajasthan desert light, the mounted warriors are magnificent. Their costumes and weapons, their long jet-black locks, even their flesh tones, glow in the pellucid light. Lafcadia, their leader, is skilled, noble, self-possessed – everything his son Katiba wants to be. He’s also a stern and careful father who’s bringing up Katiba alone. When the warriors ride off, Katiba has to stay.
These opening moments suggest a western – these are the good guys, on a noble quest. The visual style, the focus on the human face, the lack of dialogue, suggests Sergio Leone. However, as we soon realize, this is no spaghetti eastern.
The feudal lord is collecting taxes – the warriors are his enforcers. When an elder claims his village cannot pay, Lafcadia promptly decapitates him. Yet later, when razing the village, his sword drawn to a young girl’s throat, he drops his weapon. He leaves and his vow – never to kill again – offends his master. No-one, simply no-one, leaves the lord’s service. The lord demands Lafcadia’s head. Instead he gets the head of Katiba, the warrior’s son.
What follows is subtle, interesting and resonant. Lafcadia embarks on a quest that is spiritual rather than vengeful. He needs to come to terms with his past life and his grief. His experience, even as he treks into the remote Himalayas, is internal and contemplative, and Kapadia’s close-ups are more akin to Bergman than Leone.
The almost entirely non-professional cast, with life experience etched on each face, is superb, and the attention to detail – scuttling scorpions, padding camels’ feet – is beautiful. The Warrior is an accomplished, innovative and bravura début.
The Rough Guide to Bollywood
Brace yourselves. Yes, we know that Andrew Lloyd Webber has suddenly declared Bollywood – the lush, inventive and often outrageously camp music that drives India’s film soundtracks – the next big thing, but he’s right. And now, poised to capture the all-singing, all-dancing fallout from Monsoon Wedding, the Indian movie that scooped awards at Cannes, comes the Rough Guides’ authoritative introduction to the subject.
Compiled by the British-based Bhagwant Sagoo and DJ Ritu, you know from the opening ‘Dum Maro Dum’ (‘singer Asha Bhonsle at her sleaziest’) that you’re in for a fabulous ride. Plaintive love songs with delicate flutes and percussion; mad, passionate ones whose strings affect the same glissandi as a rollercoaster and, when things get too exciting for anything else, some urgent twanging that’s been lifted straight from a James Bond soundtrack. A more modern sensibility comes with Lucky Ali’s club hit ‘Ek Pal Ka Jeena’, but those in a more reflective mood might just be seduced by the fluid lines of Jatin Lalit’s ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this Bollywood disc makes fun of a genre that, to outsider ears, can seem overwrought and lurid. Ritu and Sagoo show real affection for their subject matter. Furthermore, these songs are actually immensely subtle affairs. Used in films in lieu of erotic romps, their role was one of exquisite timing. And with Bollywood now the world’s biggest film industry, the role of its songs in a changing society is something to be watched.
Imagine a little French café, somewhere far from the boulevards of Paris, an outside table – and the Indian Ocean gently lapping at your feet. It’s difficult to convey quite how disorientating Digdig is. Familiarity can’t be taken for granted. An accordion melody seems to float on a breeze; the percussion is light, but calling its listeners to a dance, and the guitars slither between a gentle high strumming and the lurch of a steel guitar. The vocals, when they come, are in French and then again, something else. There are good reasons for the confusion. Although Digdig comes out of the meeting between Bob Brozman, the California-based bluesman and Hawaiian slide-guitar virtuoso, and René Lacaille, one of the most talented multi-musicians from the tiny island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, its antecedents are even richer. Although still a French département, Réunion’s demography has been mixed: French colonialists, Arabic and Chinese sailors and an African tradition, imported with the slaves who were brought into the island’s sugar economy. All have made their musical mark.
Digdig is a strangely sonorous album and ‘Mam’zelle Rico’ is such an exuberant number that Réunion should well consider adopting it as its anthem.
In Possible Worlds (2001), the first English-language film from Quebecois director Robert Lepage, there is a moment when a scientist tells the protagonist, George, that he intends to kill him ‘in all possible worlds’. It is a scene to ponder. If George can be killed in all possible worlds then so too can he love and be loved. And, sure enough, in a series of encounters in a myriad of alternative existences, we see George (Tom McCamus) loving his wife Joyce (Tilda Swinton).
Now this might seem to be hinting at the possibility of a unified man, but it does so by underlining an essential dualism. In this particular film duality is experienced as something that separates body and brain. But duality is a process that runs throughout Lepage’s theatre and film work. Born in Quebec City in 1957, he spent his childhood first in Anglophone Canada then in French-speaking Quebec. It was an upbringing he was to describe as ‘a metaphor for Canada’, and it’s this split that appears time and again. You see it in the very title of Tectonic Plates (1988) or the agile exploration of Chinese culture in The Dragons’ Trilogy (1985). In his play The Far Side of the Moon (2000) it appears with greater stagecraft and subtlety than ever before.
Written following the death of his mother, The Far Side of the Moon is an attempt of two brothers to confront the emotional freefall of people who find themselves without that buffer zone between themselves and their own deaths, their parents. (Are any of us ever old enough to become orphans?) But this one-person show is also acutely about us, the audience. Its elegantly simple staging begins by revolving a giant rectangular mirror – one that stretches the width of the stage – to face the audience. The house-lights are up: Lepage looks at us; the audience watch themselves watching him. It’s an uncanny introduction to the theme of narcissism, of that separation we all experience from our own images, that shoots through the play.
But the most arresting image of the piece is its central one: a portal that functions as a washing-machine door, the window of a space-ship and a hospital CAT scanner. Lepage’s theatrical sleight-of-hand allows him to shift the action dramatically from place to place and time to time. With deft strokes (and no little humour), Lepage switches characters with alacrity. Using as his over-arching theme the story of the American-Soviet race for the moon (something he was fascinated with as a boy), he finds in it one gigantic metaphor for human existence.
Theatre is no stranger to playwrights or directors ready to engage with the big questions about what makes us who we are. But it is perhaps Lepage’s readiness to approach them with such a touching self-consciousness that has struck a chord in his audiences around the world. As a director he has been quick to embrace what technology can offer – The Far Side makes mesmerizing use of video projections and an original soundtrack from Laurie Anderson. But he never abandons simplicity. A wordless gesture in a Lepage production can signify as great an isolation as an entire scene from Beckett. Language becomes something larger than the linguistic battlefield that it certainly is in Canada; in its suspension it unites us all.
The Far Side’s final image is audacious. Lying on the floor, Lepage seems to writhe in slow motion; it’s not so much a physical agony as an existential one. But the mirror now gives us a very different picture. It seems as if he is space-walking. Is it an act of isolation or of freedom? Lepage leaves it to us to decide, but the sequence, breathtakingly long at ten minutes and as silent as outer space, is a beautiful one, as strange and as querulously poignant as all the man’s work.
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