Friday, November 28, 2014


As part of Image+Nation, I saw Lilting last night, an excellent little movie starring Ben Whishaw. I can't remember how, but I saw a trailer of this film a while back and had my eyes out, waiting for the chance to see it in Montreal and I was really happy when I saw it on Image+Nation's lineup for this year.

I used to go to Image+Nation frequently and see many films but it's been a while because November and December are loaded with busy days and events several nights a week. But since the film was only playing once, I blocked off the entire evening, had dinner with a good friend (even so, I escaped from our offices in a cloud of chaos and unfinished work). It's probably been three years since I saw anything at the Imperial, that lovely old theatre downtown, and the evening didn't disappoint.

"Lilting," directed by British director Hong Khaou, is set in contemporary London and tells the story of an unlikely bond between a Chinese woman in her 60s and her son's boyfriend. Her son, Kai, has died, though we don't find out until almost the film ends how he died, and there was so much opportunity for schlock or melodrama, but Khaou keeps the emotion very tightly wound throughout much of the film. We laugh, we feel irritation, we feel nervous, but we don't yet feel loss or the pain that the characters are experiencing until the end of the movie when it comes at us all at once in the final denouement.

The film starts with Richard, Kai's boyfriend, hiring a young translator to serve a "go between" for Kai's mother (who doesn't speak English) and a British man she has been seeing, Alan. They both live in an old folks' home and it is here and in these scenes that the film gets its humour: there are such huge culture clashes between the elderly English man and the older Chinese woman, everything filtered through the young Chinese translator. Richard lurks there in these scenes, both trying to be inconspicuous but also trying to get information, to connect to Kai's mother, ostensibly so that he can help her (which is probably partly true) but also so that he can simply connect to this last remaining individual from his lost Kai's life. He wants to experience the loss together in an odd way and this human need, to share loss, is where the film's humanity becomes so vital.

The scenes with Kai are all flashbacks and the dialogue between them is limited, we get very little sense of Kai, actually, and the film is really about this clash of cultures, of generations, and of two people dealing with their loss in very different ways.

It's a really lovely movie. There are a few long (for a movie) soliloquoys by the characters that are complex and beautiful. Like this one, said by Kai's mother at the end of the movie, speaking about her loss:

Through plenty of crying, I've learnt to be content that I won't always be happy, secure in my loneliness, hopeful that I will be able to cope. Every year on Christmas Day I get very lonely. An incredible feeling of solitude. On this day, everything has stood still, even the trees have stopped rustling, but I'm still moving, I want to move, but I have nothing to move it, and nowhere to go. The
scars beneath my skin suddenly surface and I get scared. Scared of being alone.

This poetic moment is filmed so beautifully and what I appreciate about this kind of approach is that the writer/director uses language in such a real way: it's not beauty just for the sake of beauty. We learn about this character, about her hidden passions and all the things we don't have access to because she is different or because she can't speak English.

I found this film to be incredibly moving and complex, meditative in language and image.

There is a lot to see at Image+Nation and I especially love their Latin American focus this year.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

When Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, first appeared on my radar a while back this spring, I knew I'd have to read it. I think Slate did a segment on their Culture Gabfest several months ago (maybe longer?!) and I had read several reviews of it before this even.

It's rare that a book on economics, on income equality, gets so much buzz. It was on the New York Times best-seller list and was also a best-seller in France (it was written in French and translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer). I've been reading it the last while and really finding it fascinating. So much of what Piketty suggests (so far) is counter-intuitive:

"It does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergences of rich and poor nations. None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which ... holds to be the key to long-term growth."

Having spent much of my young adulthood in Asia, particularly in China, this came as rather surprising news to me, especially since it seemed to me that China opening up precisely meant opening itself up to foreign investment and capital exchange and that was what led, at least in part, to China's extraordinary development. But Piketty provides ample evidence that this wasn't the case.

Later Piketty goes on to provide more detail about this "human capital" angle which he sees as the key to economic development. And the entire discussion is fascinating. There is so much else here that is worth exploring and relating but it all ends with an appeal to get this book and read it if income inequality interests you. This is not "pop" political writing or economics. It's graphs, charts, historical trends, hardcore statistics. But it's pretty readable (so far, I'm only about 1/3 of the way through it).

One of his main thesis ideas is that the world may be moving into a period of slow economic growth and, in fact, that this level of slow growth may be the more "normal" rate that economies grow. He suggests that the extraordinary growth of Europe, and then later in the Americas, from the Industrial Revolution until about a generation ago was a historical blip primarily and overstated secondarily.

I don't have a background in economics though it interests me as a discipline very much. Because I read mainly fiction, I do find I have to read this in a different kind of way: slowly, methodically, going back and re-reading certain passages when my attention wanders for a moment. This process has been interesting, too. I tend to read fairly quickly but that kind of reading doesn't work with this book. It's not that the ideas are terribly complex or hard to understand (it is, as I said, very readable, and the translator, Arthur Goldhammer, has sure made these concepts are accessible) but that the ideas and sentences require precision and patience.

I shouldn't be reading this book right now. I have about 10 others book on my office shelf that are crying out to be read before Christmas since they all involve Festival authors (or potential Festival authors), but it's good to take a break from Festival reading and just delve into something that I enjoy. Anyway, I have a terrible habit of reading too many books at the same time (also reading Ian Hamilton, Nancy Huston and Shigeru Mizuki) out of sheer necessity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Brazilian Film Fest starts this Friday! Stefan Zweig film adaptation one major highlight

I love film fests and Montreal has so many unusual and interesting ones to be proud of. Sure, our film festivals aren't Toronto's: we don't have Nicole Kidman or Channing Tatum walking the red carpet. We don't have photographers snapping photos or $300,000 cocktail parties.

But Montreal's not that kind of town. And this makes me proud, actually: we're not about Hollywood glamour or red carpets. We're not about simply spending a certain amount of money to make something "good." We're about interesting, creative programming for intelligent sophisticated art lovers. We should embrace this fact about our city.

I've been probably every year to see something at the Brazilian Film Fest since its inception, and every year I've seen something to knock my socks off. One film that I am really looking forward to this year is "The Invisible Collection," based on a Stefan Zweig short story.

The short story is set in post-WWI Europe when a young man, financially ruined by the war, sets out to find some art that an elderly aristocratic man has in his country estate. By touring the countryside at this pivotal moment in history, Zweig shows us the huge disparities between classes in Europe at this time and in hindsight, we can see all the signs of the looming bitterness that eventually leads to WWII.

Brazilian Bernard Attal's film version is set in contemporary Brazil and again considers the inequality that is rife in Brazilian society with the same rough storyline: Beto, whose family antique store has fallen on hard times, travels to the countryside in search of rare drawings that will change his future.

Though Zweig didn't set his story in Brazil, he was connected to Brazil at the end of his life, fleeing with his wife from the Nazis ascension to power, and settling in a small city just north of Rio. He has a huge reputation in Brazil and a museum has been made at the site of his former home. It was there, in 1942, that he and his wife committed suicide, despairing at the rise of Nazi Germany and pessimistic about the future of humanity.

The final period of Stefan Zweig's life was beautifully captured in a best-selling book by Laurent Seksik, Les dernieres jours de Stefan Zweig (this piece was itself adapted into a hugely successful French play in Paris) and then made into a gorgeous graphic novel (with some of the most beautiful illustrations I've seen in recent graphic novels) with Seksik and the French artist Guillaume Sorel.

The film as part of the Festival du film Bresilien plays on Monday, December 1 at 5pm and then again on Thursday, December 4 at 7pm. Tickets here.

A lot of excellent stuff worth seeing this year including a documentary about the hugely successful film City of God, called City of God - 10 Years Later. The film looks at the actors and others associated with the 2002 film to explore how their lives have changed after the international phenomenon that the film created. This weekend they play The Way He Looks, Elena, and Meeting Sebastião Salgado (about the Brazilian photographer).

Check out the entire schedule on their website and be sure to like their Facebook page for updates.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mãn by Kim Thúy

câu hỏi

In south Vietnam, we never talk about the weather. We never make comments, perhaps because there are no seasons, no changes, like in this kitchen. Or maybe because we accept things as they are, as they happen to us, never asking why or how.

Once, through the little square opening for serving the plates, I heard some lawyer clients say that you should only ask questions to which you already know the answers. Otherwise, it's better to be silent. I will never find answers to my questions, and that may be why I've never asked one. All I did was climb up and down the stairs that connected my oven to my bed. My husband built the stairwell to protect me from the cold in winter and the vagaries of life outside at all times.
                                                                          - Mãn by Kim Thúy

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The October Crisis in Fiction

I've been reading Louis Hamelin's October 1970 which has been a fascinating history lesson. Naturally, I know about the October Crisis but reading about it from a fictional point of view is a really different take on the dry historical accounts that I've read. Hamelin's myriad of accounts (real historical characters given new names though very easily decipherable) gives us an interesting take on the emotional lives of these (to us) dry historical figures that have little to say in a history book.

Claire Holden Rothman, too, revisits the same time period in her recent novel My October (long-listed for the Giller Prize, the winner of which was announced last night: Congrats, Sean!).

Both books are excellent ways to revisit a precise historical moment in Quebec's past with the hindsight of 20/20. Hamelin's book shows what happens to radical youth once middle age sets in and Rothman's book shows, too, how the ordinariness of growing old has the ability to tame even the most violently revolutionary spirits. Hamelin's book is more akin to the "real" story (if such thing exists; this, in fact, gets at the heart of Hamelin's project: determining what the "true" story really means) and Rothman's is, in a certain way, more readable. But both books I found to be solidly interesting reads for different reasons despite the similar historical focus points.

I often think about how age softens one's political ideologies. It's not necessarily that everyone becomes more conservative as they age (though that's often the case) but that revolution and radicalism is often a young person's game. There is less at stake for young people, after all, and less to lose. Whereas once one has a family, a mortgage, a safe if rather dull circle of friends, it gets harder and harder to put these materials things on the line for the sake of an ideology. In this way, perhaps, the books show us the same story from different angles: Hamelin's from the radicals' points of view; Rothman from the middle-aged parent's point of view as he reflects back on his life and career (he's a writer).

Hamelin's book hops around a lot in time and it's not always easy to keep track of the chronology. Rothman's book is more straightforward, though hers does skip back and forth in time a bit. What struck me about Rothman's book, though, is the fact that it's an Anglophone writer, creating a protagonist who's a Francophone nationalist. (I also liked Rothman's book because, given my fascination with place, it's set in a house just a few blocks from our offices in an area I know very well).

Hamelin is a master of little memorable quips that practically leap off the page. ("Even exceptionally creative people launch their little fictions into the world," which the writer at the National Post also noticed).

Now that awards season is starting to wind down (always a bit of relief in my world when it means fewer launches, prize ceremonies and cocktails to attend in the evenings), it's a nice chance to take a closer look at some of the various prize nominees to revel in them: why even being on the long-list of a prize means something (Rothman's book was also nominated for QWF awards; Hamelin's book was also on many awards list including the Giller prize long-list in 2010 for Wayne Grady's translation into English).

Though I live in Quebec, I am certainly no expert on Quebec history so it's also a good opportunity to learn more about the place where I live...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Eileen Chang: Half a Lifelong Romance

For some reason, this edition of Eileen Chang's Half a Lifelong Romance isn't available in North America though it should be.

I'm a huge fan of Chinese writer, Eileen Chang, who was at her writing peak in the early 1940s in occupied Shanghai. I've read just about all of her fiction and non-fiction and when she has a new piece translated or re-issued, I am compelled to read it.

So I ordered this UK edition of this novel. It's really wonderful. Though Chang wrote in both Chinese and English, I prefer her work in English translated by a native English speaker (this book translated by Karen Kingsbury) where the language is more fluid and natural.

Plus, as was the custom of the day, Chang herself chose English-equivalent names for her Chinese characters and it's very difficult to read a novel with characters named "Good luck," "Gold Root," "Gold Flower," etc. Most contemporary translators just use the Chinese equivalent (which if one isn't familiar with Chinese can be a bit daunting at first but one gets acclimated to it quickly enough).

Half a Lifelong Romance is classic Eileen Chang: embedded in the deep emotion, pain and psychology of her characters, China and all its political upheavals linger in the background, never making up more than hints or flavours in the story. It's all about human affairs: love, duty, commitment, betrayal. I've written before about the fact that during her lifetime in China, Chang was severely criticized for writing non-politically (when being non-political itself was a terribly politically charged stance), and this novel, too, shows us Chang's deep interest in love and families.

Though it has to be ordered from (possibly some aggregator site can find second-hand copies of it somewhere closer), it's well worth it. It's a really fascinating novel and I've enjoyed it immensely.

It tells the story of a doomed romance and all the complexities of early 20th century Chinese families, the pressures that class and morality forced upon smart hard-working women.

Eileen Chang is a very interesting figure. One of the most popular contemporary writers in 1940s
Shanghai, she was forced to leave her beloved city in the early 1950s (the Communists disliked her for a whole host of reasons) where she moved to Hong Kong and then the US, never to return to her homeland. Yet for the rest of her life (she died in 1995), she set all her books there, longing, perhaps, for those streets and familiar smells that were lost to her forever. Towards the end of her life, she was revered, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and her career got back on track soon after her death. She continues to be one of the most famous writers in the Chinese-speaking world to this day.