26 Jun 2007

Hamam (1997): a brave attempt but it failed in its context

Directed by Ferzan Ozpetek

It is a beautiful film if we only consider the technical part of it, and its attempt to talk about homosexuality in an Islamic society is such a brave act. When homosexuality is still a great sin in Islamic views, openly discussing it and placing it in an Islamic society certainly require great courage. Ferzan did it, and he did it ten years ago. This is admirable, but beyond this concern, this film seems superficial. The narrative of the film is plain, the characters' emotional development is neglected, and the discussion of homosexuality in a conservative society is never touched. What is left in this film is only the sentimental music, the handsome faces of the actors, and the amazingly beautiful scenes of Istanbul.

The story line of this film is easy to catch. It is about why Frencesco decided to inherit and reopen his aunt's hamam, the Turkish bath. During his stay in Istanbul, he started to know more about his deceased aunt and accidentally found out that he is attracted to Mehmet, the son of the couple who manage the hamam. The longer he stays, the happier he is, and the journey has forced him to recognize his sexuality.

Why and how Frencesco suddenly realized that he is attractive to men, especially after his arrival in Turkey? Why does the director use his death as the ending of the film? These two questions highlights the feebleness of this film. It seems, when we look at them in a negative way, that the film still shows the stereotype of the hamam as a place where sins develop and of homosexuality as a great sin that whoever commits this crime should deserve only the death. Moreover, this is not the worst that is shown in the film. The emtional developemt of how Frencesco struggles to accept his sexuality is not successfully delivered. It is this lack of emotional development that makes the film fall into the scope of only presenting stereotypes.

The film in fact gives us a very suppressed atmosphere which flows throughout the whole film. It seems to plead the forgiveness for whatever acts that resulted in this tragic ending. But how could we identify with this sorrowfulness when the story line and the required emotions are not successfully conveyed? Lacking these basic elements only makes this sorrowfulness ridiculous, and it furthermore reaffirms that the theme of this film is simply inappropriate and is a sin itself. Homosexuality is not a sin and should not be treated in this way. Due to the Islamic background of Turkey, homosexuality is not such an open topic as it is in other western countries. Presenting hamam as a place that evokes men's sexual desires for other men would become a problem that basically degrades the country's cultural tradition. Ironically, the director seems to anticipate this already, and he arranges the death of Frencesco. Frencesco was stabbed to death by the man who rang his doorbell. Whatever reason that caused this death. It is required because it reflects the sad ambiance the film tries to bring about. However, this death is more like a statement that tries to rectify the wrong image of the hamam, of Turkey, and of Islam.

Talking about gay films is never easy because we are dealing with a topic that is not widely accepted even in our time now. Not long ago Brokenback Mountain (2005), directed by Ang Lee, just raised a big discussion on homosexuality in films. Indeed, Hamam is released way earlier than Brokeback Mountain, and of course its way of presenting homosexuality would be way more conservative than the later one. Time - space difference is a crucial effect on a film's presentation. Brokeback Mountain's success certainly benefits from this time - space difference. We are more comfortable now with this topic, and homosexuality is more acceptable now. However, this is not the only reason why Brokeback Mountain is successful. Its success comes from the highly narrative plot and the strong but subdued emotions that are clearly conveyed in sequence through the lens. It is this combination of the plot and emotions that give the film artistic values which make the film special and worthy to be remembered. Without that, a film is simply a series of images that could not evoke us to feel for it.

But don't forget that even a good film like Brokeback Mountain still receives harsh criticism from some conservative religious groups. Prejudice will always exist. Only when we all do our best to keep talking about it loudly and publicly, could we truly turn prejudice into fairness. Therefore, we should encourage the production of good films on the topic of homosexuality. But we all need to be careful about the context of these films. We must make it as clear as possible so that what we want to say to the world could be delivered to the audience successfully. Hamam is a beautiful film, but it truly lacks that artistic values that could give homosexuality a positive image in the Islamic world.

19 Jun 2007

Duan Wu: Dragon Boat Festival

Today is Duan Wu(端午), a day we Chinese commemorate the poet Qu Yuan(屈原)(ca. 340 BC - 278 BC). Being a patriot to his country but being banished, he drowned himself in Milou River(汨羅江)in the Warring States Period(戰國時代)(5th century BC - 3rd century BC).

Our traditional views hold that people were afraid of his body being eaten by the fish in the river, so they rowed narrow boats to scare the fish away and threw food to the river. This tradition of rowing narrow boats could be the origin of the dragon boat festival. In the meantime, Zongzi(粽子), steamed rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, should come from the tradition of preparing food to feed the fish. Slowly, functions of both traditions are transformed and become more delicate now.

There is another tradition we keep in Duan Wu. According to the studies of the ancient Chinese on time and seasons, Duan Wu is the time when the weather starts to get hot and humid, and we should all be careful of different kinds of illness that hot summer days will bring us. In order to stay healthy in the summer time, we should hang herbs on our front door and drink Regular Wine to keep illness away. This tradition has its practical consideration due to the lack of medication in the old days. However, it has become a tradition that only has its symbolic meanings left.

The wine drinking tradition was used by the Ming Dynasty writer Feng Menglong(馮夢龍)(1574 - 1645) in his book Jing Shi Tong Yan(警世通言). Chapter 28 is a tale about Madame White Snake, and it described how Madame White Snake was forced to become what she truly is, a huge white snake, when she accidentally drank Regular Wine on Duan Wu. The author's choice of Duan Wu and Regular Wine as the background of the story reflects the traditions we keep on Duan Wu. The combination of Duan Wu traditions and the tale gives this old festival new flavours, and new flavours are what is needed for an old festival to survive.

This is the power of culture. It transforms something that is simple to be something that is highly complicated but joyful and meaningful. We Chinese should be proud of our Duan Wu festival. This festival has incorporated ancient knowledge and inherited cultural significance. It is a product we unconsciously produce, but we appreciate it consciously and deliberately we strive to make it more refined and enjoyable.

It is quite ridiculous when I heard about South Korea's decision to list Dragon Boat Festival as their country's heritage in 2005. It is true that they also celebrate this festival, but don't forget that their celebration of this festival is the result of the influence of the Chinese culture. I believe most Koreans would disagree with my statement here. However, we cannot be so ignorant and disregard all historic and historical facts.

14 Jun 2007

A book about Peace and Happiness; we all deserve them: The Many Ways to Nirvana

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, edited by Renuga Singh

This book teaches us how to reach Nirvana. Dalai Lama introduces us the concept of Nirvana and what benefits could understanding Nirvana bring us. What is Nirvana? Is it something you can attain in the future? If it is possible for us to attain, how come we hardly hear anyone who attains it. If it is a state that is not possible for us to reach, why does Dalai Lama talk about it? I had all these questions before I read this book, and after reading it, I started to tease out a bit, not wholly, the complex but wise teaching of the Lord Buddha.

Being a Buddhist believing in the great power of all Buddhist deities, I have been chanting Buddhist incantations and scriptures for a long time. I used to just memorize and repeat them without trying to understand the hidden meaning that they try to deliver to us. It truly sounds funny, but I believe most people who consider themselves Buddhist and regularly recite Buddhist scriptures would definitely do so. Since the Lord Buddha achieved Nirvana 2500 years ago, he has being represented as having high divinity. Due to this reason, people living in Southeast and East Asia would consider Buddhism as a religious belief rather than a philosophy for studies like the academics would do nowadays. In Taiwan, we all learn that reciting incantations and scriptures will bring us blessings from the Lord Buddha and Bodhisattvas. By doing so, we will also have our wishes come true. The more we recite them, the better our life will be. When we reach the end of our time, we will be granted the chance to enter the pure land where peace and happiness are offered as rewards. This belief has such a strong religious significance meaning our devotion to Buddhism grants us the access to be free from any kinds of suffering. We could say our devotion is a strong recognition of the existence and the supernatural power of the Lord Buddha and all Bodhisattvas. When we chant and recite these incantations and scriptures, we confirm their presence and spiritual power, which could release us from anxieties and troubles.

Is this state of being free from all anxieties and troubles called Nirvana? Nirvana is the full enlightenment, is the realization of reality and emptiness, is ultimate happiness, is peace, and is the purpose of our life. Dalai Lama says, “Nirvana is peace … when the mind is totally purified of afflictive emotions, that state of mind is called Nirvana”. (p. 19) He clearly points out that Nirvana means being free from sufferings. How do we achieve Nirvana through our devotion to Buddhism? Dalai Lama explains that we should all develop compassion and altruism because they transform our mental attitude, which is what guides us to accomplish the purpose of our life. (p. 34) When we develop these two distinct characters, we are not only leading ourselves towards happiness but also helping all other sentient beings wherever possible. In the book, Dalai Lama says that we can easily develop compassion and altruism through reciting incantations and the study of Buddhist scriptures because they give us good examples of compassion and altruism. We should all remember the meaning of these examples and utilise these meanings in our everyday life. Only when we finally practise compassion and altruism in our everyday life, could we start to transform our mental attitude and proceed to Nirvana.

Dalai Lama intends to introduce Buddhism as a way of learning and living, and Nirvana is the only goal for us to achieve in this life. He says, “The essential feature of Buddha Dharma [the teaching of the Buddha] is to maximize the utilization of human intelligence so as to develop an effective way to transform our emotions.” (p.109) This has given us a very different approach to our belief in Buddhism, especially for those believing in the supernatural power of Buddhist deities. From his perspective, reciting incantations and scriptures requires a good understanding of the text. It is a learning process in which we utilise our intelligence to the maximum for understanding the teaching of the Lord Buddha. It is our intelligence that equips us with the concept of compassion and altruism. It is our intelligence that guides us to practise these qualities in our everyday life. According to this, we could say the blessings don’t come directly from deities but from our good understanding of the Buddhist text. Because of our daily practice of compassion and altruism, we gradually obtain peace and happiness. In other words, the great pleasure we receive from practising these qualities is the purpose of our life, is Nirvana we all seek to achieve.

This book explains the concept of Nirvana concisely, and it also introduces us that we should all aim at using our intelligence to develop compassion and altruism. Furthermore, it guides us to look at Buddhism through another perspective. Instead of talking about all sorts of surprising effects from reciting Buddhist incantations and scriptures, Dalai Lama focuses on the text of them. What has been described in them is truly what we could and should practise in our everyday life. The book only intends to say that it is highly possible for all of us to achieve Nirvana, and Nirvana is nothing supernatural at all. He says, “What is important is a transformation within oneself. That is where the hope lies” (p. 37); when there is hope, nothing is impossible.

8 Jun 2007

Lily, our new puppy!

Got a new puppy, Lily, a black female Taiwan dog. Isn't she just cute! She is only 3 weeks old now, still a baby, but she has already shown her temper and attitude. What can I say ... she is a Taurus, meaning she can be very stubborn. When she wants to play outside, she can whine as long as she can. That is quite embarrassing cause it sounds like we are abusing her.

It is really good to have a puppy again. We named this little girl Lily after our last pet. Old Lily was a Cocker Spaniel. She died of cancer at the age of 14 four years ago. The vet once said that foreign species rarely live this long here in Taiwan. So I guess we are lucky to have old Lily for so long. Hope old lily is now under the protection of Buddha.

I don't know much about Taiwan Dogs. I only know that they are rare now due to mixed breeding with other species and some Taiwanese' horrible habit to eat dogs, especially black ones. The original Taiwan Dogs should have short hair, a triangle face, bat-like ears, and a tail that looks like a crescent blade. When I look at my Lily, I found her having all those features, and moreover, she has jet black pads and claws. It is the kind of black that shines under the light. I am pretty sure she is from one of those original Taiwan Dogs.

Welcome this new member to the family. My parents are happy to have a new pet though they complained a lot about keeping a dog before. In fact they consider Lily their new daughter. Well, she is just adorable.