Friday, May 23, 2003

Berry's Ball

Last night as I was on my way home, trying to decide where to have my dinner, I suddenly chanced upon the billboard in front of Theatre Djakarta showing the poster of Monster's Ball. I took a look at my watch: it was 7.40pm. I raced up the stairs to the box-office: next show was 7.45pm. Dinner can wait.

Two hours later as I was sitting at the restaurant eating my beef curry, I realised that I have just seen the best movie so far this year. Monster's Ball is the story of a classic bigoted white man of the South, a correction officer in a state penitentiary played by Billy Bob Thornton, and his eventual redemption triggered by the judicial execution of a black man (Sean "Puff" Combs), the death of his tormented son and his unexpected affection for the wife of the condemned man, played by Halle Berry.

The execution and two personal tragedies brought the two characters together; Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) quiting his job at the penitentiary to become a gas station owner, Leticia (Halle Berry), facing eviction from her landlord and working in a diner to make ends meet, crossed paths when Leticia's obese son was killed in a road accident and Hank stopped to help.

The strength of this movie is that it refuses to be seduced by typical Holllywood cliches about relationships and bothers to take time to build up its two main characters at a slow and unhurried pace. But one is never bored throughout the entire movie; the execution scene brings an edgy tension to it and the slowly igniting passion between Hank and Leticia is portrayed with intelligence and great subtlety.

Scenes of Hank eating chocolate ice-cream and coffee at the diner where Leticia works lingers in the mind. Soundtrack is kept to the bare minimum and it is the nuanced acting of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry that evoked the mood and emotions of plot with great effectiveness. Not surprisingly this was the role that won Halle Berry the Best Actress Oscar last year - the first for a black actress.

I was happy at how the ending was handled too. There was resignation, hope and guilt all mixed in the expression of Leticia as the realisation sank in that Hank was the officer who handled the execution of her late husband. But there was only quiet acceptance and perhaps even peace of mind in the end as Hank said: "We'll be alright".

Life Metaphors

Anthony Robbins, the motivation guru teaches that the metaphors we choose to view life determines the quality of our lives. For instance, you often hear people say things like "life is a bitch" or "it's a dog-eat-dog world out there" or it's a "rat race". One can imagine the kind of attitude a person brings to his everyday life if he chooses to see his or her world in those terms. Your world immediately becomes a cruel Darwinian struggle for survival where everyone cares for themselves, leaving no room for compassion or charity.

There are people who see life as a "game" or an "adventure". Immediately your world is filled with possibilities and excitement. Sure, you could lose a game or get yourself injured in an outdoor adventure, but when you view your life with such metaphors, you begin to take these things as expected minor setbacks towards your goal. You don't give up tennis just because you lose one match. You learn from defeats and strive to improve your game. And because you are "adventurous" you are always open to new things and new experiences. The cuts and bruises you get along the way are part and parcel of that hiking trip up Mount Kinabalu. Hey, they could even be something that you boast about to your friends.

We should always reexamine the metaphors we unconsciously adopt. They limit or expand the possibilities in our lives. Metamorphosize your life with the right metaphors!

Of Beauty: Classical and Romantic

When I was in my Fourth Form at 16 years of age, I fell in love with Physics and Mathematics. Out of a sudden, I began to find algebraic equations, and physical laws of nature "beautiful". Somehow they reflect an inherent order and harmony in the universe, allowing me to catch a glimpse of the infinite genius of God. The experience was like a religious awakening to me.

To many of those who are less scientifically inclined, it can be difficult to understand why dry mathematical equations can be considered "beautiful". Beauty in the conventional sense means something that's pleasing to the senses. But the scientists see beauty from a different aspect: Beauty is something that’s pleasing to the mind.

It did not occur to me that there are clearly two types of Beauty until I read that classic of the Beat generation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. That book fell into my hands during the long holidays after my Form Six STPM examinations. It opened intellectual vistas for me. I didn’t realize at that time the book was one of the bibles of the hippie generation and I was probably two decades late.

In the book, Mr Pirsig pointed out that the two sometimes-opposing views of nature: one, a holistic and subjective view where things are taken in its sensuous totality and the other, a “classical” way appreciating beauty by dissecting things into its basic components and analysing their inter-relationships. Both views bring about a different conception of beauty. The beauty of a motorcycle can be experienced by riding one down the freeway with the cold air sweeping pass your face and the power of the engine pulsating under your seat. That's Romantic Beauty. Alternatively, you could also experience a motorcycle’s beauty the classical way, by admiring the engineering brilliance of the motorcycle: every piece of nut and bolt, wheels and spokes, pistons and valves working in tandem in accordance with the laws of Newtonian mechanics to propel the rider and the machine forward.

Immediately the world made sense to me: Brazilian football is Romantic Beauty, German football is Classical Beauty. A computer programmer is a “classical” artist whilst a poet or a songwriter creates works that evoke a sense of the Romantic Beauty.

There shouldn’t be this divide and dichotomy between the arts and the sciences: both are equally valid ways of appreciating the world. Both the scientist and the artist are equal children of God.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Problem of Aceh

While the world was preoccupied with the recently concluded war in Iraq, another war has been brewing in our own backyard. I'm of course referring to Aceh. But then this is not a new war - the Acehnese have been fighting for their freedom for decades. And way before Sukarno united the Malay archipelago together into an independent and sovereign state called Indonesia, the Acehnese have spent generations fighting to defend their homeland from the Portuguese and Dutch.

Historically, the Acehnese have proven to be fierce and brave warriors. Even the women fought bravely alongside the men to defend their kingdom against foreign invaders. Known as "Serambi Mekkah" or "Corridor to Mecca", Aceh has been the bastion of the Malay Muslim world for many centuries. The Aceh Kingdom was a well-known trading stop for Arabs, Turks, Chinese and Indian merchants before the arrival of European sailors.

The belligerent Portuguese were the first to face the ferocity of the Acehnese. Many battles were fought between ships from the two sides. After the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, the Aceh sultanate mounted many campaigns to oust them from that important port. In fact, it was with the help of Aceh that the Dutch managed to capture Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641.

When the Dutch wanted to extend their dominion over to the resource rich Sumatran island, they found in the Acehnese their toughest opponents. Bloody wars between the two sides were fought until the first decade of the twentieth century.

It is not surprising that having such a long and proud history of defending their homeland, the Aceh people have a strong sense of local identity and since independence from the Dutch, have posed a problem to the Indonesian government who is not willing to entertain any secessionist hopes. Peace talks have broken down between the two sides and the Indonesian army is determined to crush the 5,000-odd freedom fighters of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement with their military might.

The Indonesian army has been accused of commiting many human right violations in their past attempts to contain these separatist rebels. Hence, the Acehnese have no love for the Indonesian government. They want greater share of their local oil and mineral wealth, a more Islamic legislation and administration and ultimately their Utopia of a completely independent Islamic state of Aceh.

It is a thorny issue for the Indonesian government. But I believe President Megawati will fight to the last drop of blood to keep the Indonesia of 13,000 islands, forged together so painfully by her late father Sukarno, a single united nation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Mindblowing, Mindboggling Matrix

During my brief sojourn to KL last weekend, I managed to catch The Matrix Reloaded - that long awaited sequel to the philosophical cyberpunk movie The Matrix written and directed by the very talented Wachowski brothers.

A lot of people I talk to did not like the first Matrix, mostly because they didn't understand the story. I personally thought The Matrix was groundbreaking, and thoroughly entertaining with mindblowing special effects. It managed to fuse together a delightful blend of cyberpunk sci-fi, kung-fu, video game-like action, messianic religious themes and freshman year philosophy. Everything fell into place neatly: the action fans can enjoy the Yuen Wo-Ping choreographed fight sequences; the special effects buff, the hypercool bullet-time gun-fights and the more cerebral ones can ponder the metaphysics behind this alternate reality called the Matrix. A true cyberpunk fan will definitely dig The Matrix.

With the Matrix Reloaded, expectations obviously had been set skyhigh by the fans and that could spoil one's enjoyment of the movie. This is the sequel syndrome - it has to surplass the original without the benefit of freshness and surprise. Sure, this Matrix sequel does have a few things up its sleeve and breaks more grounds in special effects but the first kiss is always the best. Reloaded is loaded with action, stunts and effects. It also serves as a bridge to the final chapter of the Matrix saga, The Matrix Revolutions. Perhaps that is its greatest handicap - one leaves the theatre with more questions than answers.

And what a stunning string of questions did this second Matrix raise. SPOILERS COMING UP. Neo - Keanu Reeves - finds out that the Oracle is a program and that the Matrix itself is actually version 6.0 and that Zion and the so-called real world could actually be a super-Matrix itself. END OF SPOILER. What is real and what is not? We are given no answers at the end. New intriguing characters such as the Merovingians, the Keymaker and the Architect makes this second installment an challenging watch, demanding one's attention and definitely a repeat viewing to fully comprehend the many concepts spewed.

Highlights of Reloaded include Neo's fight with hundreds of Agent Smiths, the meeting with the Oracle, the freeway chase and Neo's meeting with the mystical Architect, the maker of the Matrix. Intriguing is one word to describe the movie. Obviously being a bridge to the third installment, it doesn't have the sweet after-taste ending of the first but it is still thoroughly entertaining ride. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle and don't ask too many unnecessary questions. Ignorance can be bliss.

For those who are not contented with ignorance, Davin Arul's excellent primer contains enough speculations to fuel endless debates with your fellow cyberpunks.

Pramoedya's Tales

Pramoedya Ananta Toer's collection of short stories, Tales from Djakarta though set in the 1950s, still captures a great deal of the life and struggle for existence in present day Jakarta. This excellent tome paints vignettes that depict the existential quest for survival by individuals who are downtrodden and forced to persist on the fringes of society.

In the ruthless city of Jakarta, decimated by World War II and its ensuing struggle for independence from the Dutch, followed by the subsequent economic decline during the Sukarno years, the cast of these short stories - maids, prostititues, food sellers, soldiers and an assortment of various street people - is still a realistic representation of lower class Indonesian society today. Enter into any of the densely-packed shanty settlements that sprout between gleaming glass towers of multinational corporations, one can imagine the characters of Pramoedya's tales still reanacting their real-life wayang of hope, fear and despair within the walls of those rickety structures.

I liked the stories so much that I even bought the Indonesian version, Cerita Dari Jakarta, so that I could read some of my favourite tales in its original language. Some of the English translation could sound a bit quaint to modern ears but reading the originals allowed me the savour the cadence and imagery of Pramoedya's prose in its essence. The sardonic tone of these tales sometimes require them to be recited orally to be fully appreciated.

Pramoedya, whose works were banned for decades in his own country under Suharto's Order Baru government for allegedly being a communist sympathiser, has now slowly regained the recognition which he fully deserves. Tales from Djakarta serves as a very good introduction to Pramoedya's other works - his autobiographical Mute's Soliloquy, written during his years of imprisonment on Buru Island, is especially touching.

By reading Pramoedya, the chronicler par excellence of the miseries and sufferings of Jakarta's street people, one gains the insight of a sure hand towards understanding a bit of the cultural and social complexities of life in this fascinating city.

Monday, May 19, 2003

The Joy of Jakarta

What is it about Jakarta that I like? The streets are dirty, the canals stink and the traffic horrendous. Why do feel a surge of happiness everytime I land at the Soekarno-Hatta airport and get into a Silverbird taxi?

It is easy to list out all the negatives about Jakarta. Many are afraid to even step foot here, thinking that it is a dangerous place with frequent riots and pipe bombs exploding everywhere. It is definitely a polluted city and the general standard of hygiene is poor. There are also a lot of beggars and aggressive street vendors loitering the streets, making the new visitors here feel unsafe.

Surprising there are also some positives which are often overlooked by the casual visitor. The taxi service here is much better than those found in many cities in Asia, especially if you go for the Bluebird or Silverbird cabs. One can always find taxis anywhere in the city and they will generally use the meter (unless it is one those predatory cabs waiting outside on those discotheques late at night). The fares are the cheapest in the region too; you can hire a cab for the whole night out in town and the Silverbird limousine driver will wait for you dilligently outside your favourite night spot. Even with the meter running the whole night, it probably will not cost you more than 200,000 rupiahs (which is about 20 over USD).

For those who drive, finding parking spaces is a lot easier here too; mainly because there are always the ubiquitous attendants who really earn their 2000 rupiah tips by guiding you through the traffic chaos and help you tuck your car into the tightest of parking spots.

Some might not agree with me, but I think in general public toilets here are cleaner than those you can find in KL! I am talking about toilets in malls, theatres and restaurants. This is because there are enough workers to constantly clean and maintain these essential places. In Malaysia, public toilets are an after-thought: they are maintained almost reluctantly by half-hearted and weary-looking workers. Labour here is cheap and are available in abundance. As such, the service you'll receive in any commercial establishment are generally better because there are always more than enough workers and everyone specializes in doing a few specific tasks.

Jakarta is also very expat-friendly with many amenities that caters specifically for the foreigner. How is that different from other cities in the region, one may ask? The difference is that in cities such as KL or Singapore, there is a huge local middle-class population, hence the so-called up-market amenities are not so "exclusive" in a sense because they cater to a wider public who can afford such amenities but not necesarily demand the same refined standards of the upper classes. Here in Jakarta, upmarket generally means the snobbishly exclusive upper middle-class and above.

But are these the reasons that make me like Jakarta? Definitely not. It is actually the people, the culture and the history that fascinates me endlessly. But this will require another blog entry for me to elaborate.