Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Not 1, not 2, but 15Malaysia.

September 16, 2009

Also guest blogging at Backseat Radio: Howl be thy name.

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For the past month, I am sure a lot of you have caught wind about 15Malaysia, a Malaysian filmmakers showcase, that has been taking the country by storm (I’m such a punny cliche, heh).

I will not deny that Malaysian-produced films have been more of a disappointment to me, rather than of standing ovations. When they announced the 15Malaysia project back in August, I did not really mind too much about it. Checked out a few trailers, sure, but it did not make me go whee. Maybe I was afraid this is going to be another roll of badly orchestrated films.

But I was glad it is not. As days go by, I slowly became alright with the local talents. So much so that I had a brief moment when I am actually proud of what we have. For the past few weeks, my mornings in the office started off with something new to look forward to besides the day’s news and instant Nescafe.

Here is my take on the short films.

#1 Potong Saga by Ho Yuhang
15Malaysia premiered on a right note with this first showcase. A Chinese guy, due to the world economic downfall, goes through an unnecessary circumcision to get himself eligible for an Islamic bank account because of misguided information regarding the application from three Chinese ah peks.

It was definitely a laugh-out-loud film to watch, and to kick start the series in a more lighthearted note. Also, I always find Chinese speaking in that twang amusing. Heh.

Note to self: never get information from all around, especially Chinese ah peks. Go straight to the information counter. Heh.

#2 The Son by Desmond Hong
I like this film because the angle is quite refreshing. It’s told from the perspective of a Chinese boy who paid witness to a racial dispute gone wrong. One of those good-guys-turn-bad-at-a-bad-time kind of scenario. It’s also one of those stories that keep the audience glued as they gradually unveil the big picture. Textbook storyline to follow, but they did well on it.

The human interaction shown between the father and son seems to be quite realistic to me. How they would dodge the pink elephant in the room by talking about the son’s exam results and helping out in the father’s store.

#3 One Future by Tan Chui Mui
This is my favourite out of the bunch. Immediately, I caught the similar whiff to George Orwell’s 1984, and I kind of liked it. It shows an extreme situation in the future when the government takes full charge of the country. Despite their goodwill providing jobs and homes to the citizens, even assigning people to different families everyday without regards of the startling racial difference, the latter has no freedom to go against the government with something as simple as speaking.

Pete Teo’s narration is an eerie one in the introduction: “The future. Life is perfect. The government loves everyone. It takes care of everyone.” Note the ‘it’ pronoun for ‘the government’. Although halfway through the tone gets a little humourous, but the message is all the same on high alert for all.

A pretty simple take, yet all the same informative. Well done.

#4 Meter by Benji & Bahir
This can also easily be a favourite. Another comedic piece from the collection, which features Malaysian politician Khairy Jamaluddin, whom, I must admit, put on quite a good act for this film. He did a good portrayal of the typical Malaysians’ attitude towards everything around them, how there is always something to complain about for both sides of the coin. And how we are just a bunch of big talks.

And the passengers he picked up are the few minority in the population that have to put up with the typical Malaysians in all sorts of way – whether if it is getting bashed, telling them off, or simply just walking away. I like it how Baki Zainal, the second taxi passenger, told Khairy’s character off when he confronted the passenger for speaking English when he is a Malay.

There are a couple of films that deserve some honourable mentions. One of them is House by Linus Chang. Despite the acting being not so great, there is a wonderful metaphor going on when the kids smashed Rama’s prototype house and when the constructors came to tear down his house with his mother watching on.

I thought Linus’ work wore a coat much alike to Yasmin Ahmad’s works, what with the pulling of emotional strings. So, who knows, maybe he may be the one to carry on the torch.

Suleiman Brothers’ Rojak! deserves an honourable mention too because of the CGI special effects. As the rojak seller explains how Malaysia is pretty much like the rojak he makes, everything around him goes bam-bam-bam. The protests, the snatch theft, the bullying, the discrimination… every bad that holds the country together like the thick curry he coats atop the many ingredients.

It is one of those shit-happens-to-us-but-at-least-we’re-still-together kind of films, so yeah. It gets overplayed sometimes.

A good half of the collection is made up from a humourous aspect, such as Halal, Slovak Sling and Healthy Paranoia, which also carries a more serious undertone on how we view the country. I guess people tend to take things in more when it is funny. Films like The Tree, Lumpur and Gerhana, tend to get a little boring but the messages are still as alarming.

Chocolate, one of Yasmin Ahmad’s last works, still uses the same characteristics the Malaysian legend has been using since day one. Racial differences – mainly between Chinese and Malay – and the unchangeable view that still prevails after the May 13 riot. It did not do well for me, because it was too open-ended. It left me hanging, much like Yasmin’s sudden death a few months back.

I appreciate Nam Ron’s boldness for Lollipop to open his film with a paedophile masturbating to young innocent children in his little room, but other than that, his metaphoric intention was not as clear as House, and it took some time to link the pedophilia to the Zambry/Nizar political battle. At first glance, the latter seems to be thrown in just for the sake of being involved with the country’s current affairs.

Johan John’s Duit Kecil was probably the least catchy one from the bunch for me. A man visiting the whore house with no small change, and ended up holding a conversation with the prostitutes. Meh.

All in all, 15Malaysia is a collection worthy to be stashed on your shelf. So, well done, Pete Teo and Packet One Networks for spearheading this project. As well as the 15 directors of this series. We may have hope yet.

If ever some day Packet One were to release a DVD of them, be sure to head out there and get a copy. Or, you can do it the Malaysian way – get a ciplakversion, or pirate it off the net. Heh.

You can still head on over to 15Malaysia’s website to check out all the short films, or if Streamyx has been a bitch to download the videos, you can watch them all in one shot at TimeOut KL’s Free Flicks event on September 27, 2009 (Sunday) at the Annexe Gallery. More info here.

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Book review: Famous Street Food of Penang

June 24, 2009

Also guest blogging at Backseat Radio: Doing pilates and Keane live in Singapore @ 13 August 2009.

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“Discerning foodies invariably dismiss Penang delicacies sold outside of the island as pale imitations of the real thing. Penangites in Kuala Lumpur are usually prejudiced against the Penang hawker food available in the city – they tend to claim that the snacks or noodles are not 100% “authentic”. Even if the food vendor is a member of a Penang family that has made a name for itself with a specific regional specialty. Penangites tasting the food will still insist that it just isn’t the same.”
– p. 8-9

*Takes a deep breath* Hokkien mee, Curry mee, Loh mee, Tok tok mee, Lam mee, Jawa mee, Mee goreng, Nasi kandar, Char kuey teow, Char kuey kak, Lorbak, Oh chien, Or kuih, Chai kuih, Ban chang kuih, Chee cheong fun, Ais kacang, Bubur kacang, Rojak!

Phew, what a mouthful!

And what a mouthful indeed, when you venture up north of Malaysia to Penang for their endless variety of hawkers food.

For a Penangite, some time in your life while growing up, you are bound to hear tidings of who sells the best what in which street. Although you may not have been there and try it yourself, you know they are there, firing up their stoves in the wee hours of the morning to serve a long line of customers for the day.

For people born and bred elsewhere, it may be a little hard unless you engage with a local Penangite and trust him/her to bring you to the best vendors around the island.

However, if you do not have any friends or relatives hailing from Penang, why not pick up a copy of Famous Street Food of Penang: a Guide & Cook Book compiled by The Star Publications.

Inside, it has everything you need to know about filling the tummy in the Pearl of the Orient. From catchy stories of the vendors themselves, whom most of them took over their parents or grandparents business and are still doing the works for at least a decade, to concise locations of their stalls on the island, to even recipes on how you can cook up your own char kuey teow and ban chang kuih!

The Star Publications is one of the more sought after newspapers available in Malaysia, so you can definitely trust them to be straightforward with their writing, while at the same time, engaging.

I like it that they are clear and concise about the history of Penang in the introduction, unlike a certain book I reviewed a while that seemed to go on and on and on.

As the saying goes, everyone has a story to tell, and the hardy people of The Star managed to dig deep and get the story. This shows that they are not merely collecting information from all over and slapping them into a compilation; they really do go out there and get things done.

As I was going through this book, I thought to myself, if I were to come up with a collection of stories or a coffee table book, it would be something along the line that The Star is walking on. The kind of stories that are not displayed out to the public for everyone to read. The kind that you need to grab a hold of the storytellers, sit them down for a cuppa (and perhaps buy them the cuppa), and probe them to tell you everything as if you were their confidante.

The recipe at the back of each story/dish is also something fun for the readers. With precise steps of how to prepare every dish mentioned in the book, who knows, you could be the next Hokkien Mee vendor stealing the scene in Sarawak or in the heart of KL!

Also, it is quite a good book to bring along with you if you are staying overseas, and will not be returning home for a long while. Having the recipes to whip up a meal of nasi kandar in your very own kitchen over in Melbourne or England is enough to satisfy your craving for the time being. Hey, beggars cannot be choosers; anything is better than nothing.

Alas, there is only so much you can include in a book. Where is the duck-lapped Kuey chiap, or the gooey substance sprinkled with finely grinded peanuts – Muar chee, or the pork-crazed Bak kut teh, or the colourful array of Kow chan kuih?

But seeing that The Star has covered most of the hawkers food already, I guess it is OK to let them off the hook for this one. After all, they succeeded in making me miss the food back home. (Why, yes, I am quite the family’s daughter, missing food over my family; but believe you me, most of us Penangites are like that, heh)

However, whether all Penangites would agree that all the vendors mentioned in the book is the best, is another matter. Some may argue that the Kayu nasi kandar is not the best but the Line Clear nasi kandar across the Penang Road; while others may prefer the charcoal cooked Curry Mee available in the Air Itam street market (featured in the front cover of the book) tops the gas cooked one at Lorong Seratus Tahun.

Each to his own, really. The only way to settle your score is to head on up to Penang and go on a big binge out yourself.

Now, who’s with me on a foodie road trip to Penang?

Book review: Three Cups of Tea

May 21, 2009

‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson
and David Oliver Relin @ Amazon.com

“If you insist on keeping your kafir school, you must pay a price,” Mehdi said. the lids of his eyes lowering. “I demand twelve of your largest rams.”

“As you wish,” Haji Ali said, turning his back on Mehdi, to emphasize how he had degraded himself by demanding a bribe. “Bring the chogo rabak!” he ordered.

You have to understand, in these villages, a ram is like a firstborn child, prize cow and family pet all rolled into one,” Mortenson explains. “The most sacred duty of each family’s oldest boy was to care for their rams, and they were devastated.”

… All the boys wept as they handed over their most cherished possessions to their nurmadhar. Haji Ali led the line of rams, lowing mournfully, to Haji Mehdi, and threw the lead to him without a word. Then he turned on his heel and herded his people toward the site of the school.

… “Don’t be sad,” he told the shattered crowd. “Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. Haji Mehdi has food today. Now our children have education forever.” — p.152, 153

This is why Mitch Albom does not work for me: I read Tuesdays with Morrie, and I was not impressed at all. Some could get all emotional with the advices given, but all I saw was an old man with a lot to say before he dies. And mostly they are advices you probably would have figured out by yourself the more you put yourself out there in the world anyway.

There was no character growth, no suspense, no conflict, no climax. Just. One spoiled young man getting bitch slap verbally to his senses. You just wonder if Albom is writing self-help books, or just writing self-indulging books.

Three Cups of Tea may not have been as interesting if Greg Mortenson has not lived it. Merged together with David Oliver Relin’s appropriate writing style, it was published with enough dosage of descriptions on the destination, as well as the Muslim culture there, and also punchy facts that could grab you heart with one single sentence. He does not overdo his writing to grab anyone’s attention, because he knows that the story he is writing will already be good enough to do all the captivation.

The excerpt above is one of the more touching parts of the book. It showcased a wise old man, Haji Ali, who went faced with a thread or any problems life throws at him, would remain calm and let things unfold naturally in the name of Allah.

Heck, he even gave Mortenson a whopping when he was pushing against time on the people to build the school in Korphe, and also gave him a good scolding when he wandered into Waziristan without asking for help.

Another favourite character of mine would have to be Jean Hoerni, a former climber who hit the jackpot when he created a computer chip that is used widely till today in the Silicon Valley. It was funny the first time they spoke on the phone:

“I know what you’re after,” a sharp voice with a French accent interrupted. “Tell me, if I give you fund for your school, you’re not going to piss off to some beach somewhere in Mexico, smoke dope, and screw your girlfriend, are you?”

“I…” Mortenson said.

“What do you say?”

“No sir, of course not…”

And.

“So. What, exactly, will your school cost?” Hoerni barked. Mortenson fed more quarters into the phone.

“I met with an architect and a contractor in Skardu, and priced out all the materials,” Mortenson said. “I want it to have five rooms, four for classes, and one common room for-”

“A number!” Hoerni snapped.

“Twelve thousand dollars,” Mortenson said nervously, “but whatever you’d like to contribute toward-”

“Is that all?” Hoerni asked, incredulous. “You’re not bullshitting? You can really build your school for twelve grand?” — p.55

Beats an old man sitting on his death bed giving mere lectures any day, don’t you think?

There will always be a reason out there for us for doing charities. We can tell ourselves that we don’t have the money of famous celebrities or millionaires, and that we are not capable of supporting even ourselves to help the less fortunates.

But here is Mortenson, who set up home in a self-storage box and sleep at the back of his car, eat $0.99 donuts for breakfasts and have $3.99 croissants and coffee for dinner, all because he want t o save a little more for his journeys back to Pakistan. And nobody else would offer donation because he was not a climber who scaled K2, but one who failed to.

Here is a poor helping an equally poor; what do you have to say for yourself now?

When you are reading Three Cups of Tea, don’t expect to be pulled into travelling there with Relin’s descriptions of the flowing Indus River, or the hustle and bustle of the Rajah Bazaar, or the innocence of Korphe Valley, or even the spectacle that is K2. Relin provided the dark side of this land, as blunt as it is supposed to be over there.

But Relin still managed to capture the readers with enough amount of descriptions merged with straightforward facts. I was grabbed instantly at the first chapter, titled ‘Failure’. Not only did Relin mentioned about Mortenson failing, he also talked about the many mountaineers who not only failed, but died, on the way down from K2 years before Mortenson’s attempt. Which shows that Relin did his homework when putting together this book.

The description on the Art Gilkey Memorial caught my attention specifically:

For two days, Mortenson and Darsney drifted in and out of the facsimile of sleep that high altitude inflicts on even those most exhausted. As the wind probed at their tents, it was accompanied by the sound of metal cook kit plates, engraved with the names of the forty-eight mountaineers who’d lost their lives to the Savage Mountain, clanging eerily on the Art Gilkey Memorial, named for a climber who died during a 1953 American expedition… But the number of metal plates chiming in the wind would multiply, as four of the sixteen climbers who summited that season died during their descent. — p.15

I look at the world today, and often question what has happened to us. A pregnant woman killed because another man’s greed for money to indulge his date. Families killed because of jealousy and desperation of another. Even in your everyday lives, drivers cannot even do the easiest decency of giving way on the road. It just makes me wonder if there is still any good left in this world.

But when I read Three  Cups of Tea, it moved me that somewhere out there, there is a man in a foreign country, doing his bit to make the world a better place. Out there somewhere, there is a community of people, who would still extend their helping hand and into their very own homes when you were lost and in need of hospitality. People, who has no idea who you are, would just volunteer to help you out in whatever you want to do without any prejudice. For a while, as long as you keep the pages turning, the world seems alright.

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For more information, stop by http://www.threecupsoftea.com and http://www.penniesforpeace.org.