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Monthly Archives: February 2009


Malacca.  After a 4 hours bus ride from opulent Singapore, we arrived in Malacca, deposited in a low-end shopping mall cum bus terminal.  It was busy with young people and old, now girls dressed in Muslim headgear, but aside from the shift in the language tones – Singapore was a babble of Malay Chinese Indian all peppered with the clipped sounds of the new language of EnglishInternational – and the drop down-scale, not so different – MacDonald’s version of globalization.  A taxi ride into the center of town – not a big burg is Malacca – saw a shifting cityscape of near 3rd world crossed with “developing” – a fistful of high-rises (hotels mostly – and what will become of these in the coming years when global depression cancels out the easy tourism of the last few decades?), an unhappy mix in which international money blots out the local, leaving only a residue of what was once the regional culture.  Now it is iPods and, as outside the window, Mercedes-Benz – the usual status symbols of the globalized world.  I can’t say I find it attractive, and I suspect a deeper inquiry beyond “well, they buy it, ergo they must want it” which the marketeer logic would propose, would reveal a wounded psyche in which the old cultural patterns have been abruptly uprooted, and replaced with market-oriented new “values” the depth of which extends only to the next shift in fashion.


A walk through central Malacca shows the result: tawdry run-down signs of the past jostled by a smattering of new buildings, bland hotels one might find almost anywhere near a beach, and then, passing the UN “World Heritage” notice, we come upon “Jonker’s Walk” which runs a handful of blocks, a setting made famous I think by a Conrad novel.  If one could see beneath the veneer of tourist-aimed signage and carnivalesque lighting, it is probably a charming display of regional vernacular architecture.  The trouble is that under its oppressive load of tourist lures, its been pretty much wiped out.  Instead there’s an outdoor market proffering the same junk one might find on any tourist street across the globe, though of course with some local flavoring.  Unfortunately the local element is overwhelmed by the tacky carnival atmosphere, the same western and Malay-Singaporan tourists (not that many at this time of year) meandering the booths which are selling mostly the same trinkets they could buy back home. Such are the glories of globalization.  Back in Singapore this is writ large, with Gucci and Hermes and BMW vying for the big-bucks in a sprawling district of obscene wealth, a tropical 5th Ave or Rodeo Drive.  In less monied Malacca it’s far lesser items, but essentially the same globalized game of corporate logos attempting to attach themselves to your ego, like a virus.  Nike iPod etc. uber alles.  The tourists flock with grim set looks, taking photos of themselves in “exotic Malacca,” guzzling the same beers and whiskey’s they could have at home: Carlsberg, Johnny Walker.  We passed a garish stage-set, with red Chinese lanterns floating overhead, and large announcements wishing everyone a good Lunar New Year 2009 (though lunarly speaking it is not 2009, but globalization begets a cultural pastiche, and while the signs wished good luck, the astrologers reckoned this Year of the Ox was going to be a downer, and so far they’re right), while on stage to an over loaded PA system a lady warbled karaoke style, followed by another whose voice bent off pitch for a fingernail on blackboard screech.  Your 15 seconds of local fame.  Back in Beijing the Chinese New Year commenced with the inauspicious burning down of the almost finished Mandarin Hotel, a Rem Koolhaas 30 story edifice which almost finished (May occupancy scheduled) burned up like a torch in a matter of an hour, top to bottom.  I await the architectural autopsy to find out just what materials were used on the cladding that found pictures of the skeletal structure aflame, each column and beam alight as if set with Christmas decoration.  And I wondered is the adjacent bit of architectural muscle-show, the China Telecom building, similarly clad and equally flammable?  Its cantilevered excess would seem a perfect no-escape (aside from a leap into the 70 story void) design which might have the Dutch architect’s office a bit nervous now.   And one wonders outside the internet “conspiracy” circles, just what the broader world makes of the fact that this inferno covered the structure top to bottom, but, unlike the World Trade Center, it failed to collapse.




From Malacca went to Kuala Lumpur to visit friend U-wei, a filmmaker busy preparing new feature based on Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. We didn’t get much chance to see the city, except to note it had exploded in the 4 years since I’d last been there and the Petronas Towers now have some serious company, if nothing quite so high.  A serious flush of money, or something pretending to be money, has gone through the place in those years.   U-wei was pretty busy so time with him was short, though we got a bit in with Julia, mom to a set of twins around 14 months, and a 4 year old Milah.  Lovely kids – we were jealous.


Then on to Rawa Island, off Mersing on Malaysia’s eastern shore, 2/3rds the way back to Singapore.  In the big bus terminal, a hectic marketplace for multiple bus “lines” – some of which I think compose a single bus – we got taken for rubes and sold tickets that then required “follow me” to another place, dumped in another person’s lap, then another, and I caught the scam early and had noted a police kiosk and went to demand they accompany us.  Marcella used her Italianate “pissed off” manner and they obeyed, and after more hassle than civility should require we got our proper tickets and on the bus, a failed con-job this time around.  The cop acted like it had been a small misunderstanding about 20 cents difference in ticket prices, but it was a scam and I suppose normally tourist victims would throw in the towel.  I am sure the police guy knew all about this, but he was covering for the scamsters.  A little stain on the trip and note to be wary.


Rawa Island is a tiny little low-key resort place, with a nice beach, living in a one room cottage high up on stilts, surrounded with jungle foliage, the caw of birds, the gentle lapping of waves.   We got in some swimming around the coral reefs (which seemed sick to me, if still beautiful)  – gigantic blooms of seeming flowers rich in fractal repeats, sea anemones, the dazzle of tropical fish.  We didn’t have snorkeling gear, just swimming so going down for a look was a 30-60 second affair.  Marcella, who virtually did not swim 3 years ago and was afraid of water, went out 150 meters to the edge of the reef, and got over her nervousness and went down to look up close at the array of wonderful things 10-15 feet down.   Next time snorkeling gear or some scuba lessons.

The deal included meals which came in 3 main courses, a massive amount of pretty good fusion cuisine, but way too much for one’s well-being.  Tropical juices.  Mmmm mmmmm mmmmm.

A very needed relaxing 3 days of bliss before we went back to Singapore, and at the last moment I discovered I’d misread the ticket (from before leaving !) and we’d missed our mid-night Sunday + 15 mins flight, and after a rush to get it sorted had to buy new tickets.  Minus $900.   In a well-traveled life that was a first for me.  Alzheimer’s setting in??  No, just carelessness and stupidity, of which I have an ample natural supply.

Now back in Seoul piecing together the edit line of SWIMMING IN NEBRASKA, a perfect example of the stupidity store I have.  Fortunately I have it mostly recovered, though I am missing one major shot and must wade through upteen poorly labeled and unlogged tapes to (hope to) find it.  Classes start next week, meaning gearing up to make a feature using students as helpers, collaborators, and perhaps actors, crew or whatever.  Back “home.”



Back to Seoul, following some fun adventures in bus stations, buses, Rawa Island, Singapore and airports.  Excuse the relative absence while on the road, but there was little time for scribbling here.  Meantime the world continued to deteriorate, or at least the official version did.  The stockmarket is heading to the 5000 level I thought it would land at, though of course the prognosticators of the industry did not want to concede such a fall.  2/3rds the value lopped in a matter of a year.  In computerese, fraud in/fraud out.   So the charade is about done, the fake wealth exposed, and the crooks too.  As usual the grand public is a handful of steps behind, but shortly we may expect that the general call for heads to roll will reverberate and the real criminals will begin to be hounded.

Soon to be ex-Premier of defunct Liberal Democrats (Orwell-speak) in Japan

On the way to 5000 or lower

It wasn’t that long ago that suggestions that our culture was terminally corrupted would be met with silence or with an admonition that we weren’t some deviant 3rd world den of sleaze.  Today, outside some really uptight Republican deep inside exactly such shit and hence in total denial, you’d not get much argument.  Yep, we’re in the pits.  Yesterday the Dow dropped another 250, about to break the 6000 level and heading to the 5000 level which I thought a long time ago would be the bottom.  I.e., the “market” levels off at 1/3rd its alleged value of a year ago, more or less.  Meaning 2/3rds our “wealth” was a fraud.  Ask Madoff, or better yet, ask his “clients.”

Ironically, while the world – thanks to “globalization” – is in a collaborative economic tailspin (the socio-political echo shortly to follow), in my own life, having made a gamble on such things, and in fact having imagined the world would collapse in such a manner in my own life-time, and Social Security etc. would not be at hand when the time came, things seem to look  OK.  Yonsei here is eagerly courting my presence another year, and it seems other options are similarly opening up.  My retirement, after a fashion, comes in the form of a job.  Though if things collapse as fully as I imagine possible, these jobs my go up in the air in short order, in which case quelle surprise!

Shortly classes recommence, and the not-too-difficult work cycle kicks in.  2 half days a week.  In this term one of those classes is to make a feature film – me and them.  Undecided how to tackle it, but we hope we can make something good, or perhaps two somethings – theirs and mine.   By spring I expect the fiscal avalanche to be more visible, and perhaps these spoiled souls will be stirred by tangible problems more severe than boy-girl and the like.  I understand that President Lee here continues his mis-steps, and having come in as the bizman who would resolve all the Korean economic plans, he now presides over his part of the globalized fiscal freeze.  So much for magic wands.  His ratings are in the outhouse now, so perhaps as homeless hit the street and the next wave of the close-down arrives, there’ll be more demos all about.   About time.  Perhaps a better topic for a film than last spring’s lovelorn losers in Love in the Shadows. Of which, following a tepid audience response in Rotterdam according to Sangwoo and Sihyun, they are re-editing their parts to make it a bit more brisk, and we are awaiting word from other festivals – Sydney, Jeonju, Singapore.  I just sent off Parable to the Cannes festival – a first for me to even try to roll the dice on chic Cannes.  I did so as they said they can screen digitally, so while I am doubtful they’ll take it, they just might.   At worst a foot in the door for something next year.  Though if it gets in I know a few people who will be thrilled to pieces – Steve and Rachael and Ryan.

[March 3 2009: Check Howard Kunstler on this.]

Kuala Lupur, known locally as KL. In my friend U-weih’s office as he edits some made for TV piece (to make money). He’s in final stages of prepping a film to shoot in August, based on Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly, script of which he’d given me 3+ years ago and which I never got through.  Not his fault but mine – I seem unable to read a script.  We’re staying with him, partner, 11 month old twins, and 4 year old daughter – all lovely.   U-weih is a funny guy, connected to the arts and theater and cinema world here, a little local powerhouse of some kind.   He just came back from US, where he holed up in fading hippy haven Woodstock, working on his script.   We’re just in from a short stay in Malacca, which if I recall properly also figures in a Conrad story.  It was interesting, though its Unesco World  Heritage status did not protect its center from being warped into Disney shape by commercialism, and now “Jonker’s Walk” – a long street of vernacular architecture is buried in the signs and lights of tourism, and its full length little stands and stores are hawking ubiquitous trash items to be found in any flea market and tourist trap on the globe.  Parallel to it though is another street, similar, but not so drowned, and having a stunningly beautiful Chinese temple circa 1600 something, as well as a Buddhist temple, and a mosque.  On this street one can see a hint of what the other was once like.   The center of Malacca is a mix of run-down low buildings, Indian, Malay and Chinese eateries, shops, etc., and a few new high-rise hotels.  On the sea front, doing a damned good job of hiding whatever beach there is, is a phalanx of giant hotels and shopping malls – yep, selling the same crap you could find in USA or Europe or the airport.  The wreckage inflicted by globalization is, well, global.

Kuala Lumpur has clearly grown immensely since I was here almost 4 years ago – back then the Petronas Towers shot up, with little in the way of high-rise competition.  Now a sea of glossy new skyscrapers vie for attention, new freeways swoop over the landscape, and a vast sprawl of housing developments, resorts, big schools and factories lead into the center – clearly money, or perhaps its ersatz soon-to-be-bitter equivalent, has run through here like a flood.  Everything is spiffier and cleaner than it was a mere 4 years past, and the remnants of “3rd and developing world” signs seems to have been replaced with a would-be Singapore slickness.  It isn’t there yet, but its clear that’s where it is heading.

We’re here another day or maybe two, then back toward S’pore by bus, along the eastern coast, hoping to find a cheap hotel for a few days before we fly back to Seoul.  U-weih dangles a proposition for a return here, to do a seminar during the KL Film Festival, in November.  Marcella likes it here, and we’re still nosing around for an alternative job to the Seoul one.  Maybe – though I doubt – something can be wrestled up here.

No, its not Malaysia, though in some places it could be.  Amazon instead.  But here and nearby, forests have been stripped, for the wood, and to make space for money-making plantations for coconut oil, and other such things.   And similarly the culture has in some degree, been stripped as well, and like Korea, one feels like everything has been Disneyfied, shifted to a simulacrum of some original, even when the original is sitting right there.  Though that is seldom, and if so, then draped in a wash of commercialism where the bottom line is the bottom line.   On the flanks of KL are McMansion colonies, gated communities, as obscene as those outside Denver or any other hot US city.  And I suspect they are similarly suspect in the same way as the American ones:  shoddy construction hidden by a cheap veneer of  “class,” and shoddy financing to go with it.   The collapse doesn’t seem to have arrived here…. yet.    But I feel the shoe falling somehow.

Singapore, and more specifically Nanyang Technological University, a sumptuous campus set on the edge Singapore.  The sounds of birds fills the air, as do tropical leaves.  This mostly very new campus, much designed by famed Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (white, techno, ship-like), is filled with buildings, a vast auditorium here, sprawling out-door arcade there, Olympic plus sized swimming pool, tennis courts, student housing and faculty too, all rather well done, with spacious breaks of field and foliage – a veritable little academic paradise tucked away a degree from the equator.  Or so it seems at a glance.  On one hand the facilities are without question first rate – all the buildings, grounds, and so I am told inside the labs are similarly equipped with the best.   Perhaps the film-media department has a Red already.  A peek in the equipment room door shows dozens on dozens of lighting stands, reflectors, tripods, a steady-cam mounted on one of those gyroscopic walk-mobiles, sound equipment, and oodles of cameras, HDV and otherwise.  5 editing suits, mixing room, 3 sound stages, green room.  Millions of bucks worth of would-be bang in technological gear.  Clearly NTU has $$ to spare.   And a very nice swimming pool.

School of Art Design & Media

I’m here for a look around, and obliquely to be looked over.  Nothing formal, though, just vague hints.  This because the media/film department is presently a bit rudderless, awaiting a new chairman for the whole arts school, so everything is on hold, no one out to stick their neck out lest they make some wrong choice.  Undercurrents of the usual academic politics show up quickly, a cauldron of seething resentments, back-biting, and the quivering of insecure souls grasping for a hold on tenure, safety, security, power.   To say another academic department, in this case one acting as I’ve seen others.  Been here 2 and a half days and thus far those of the film/media sector have managed to avoid meeting, even for a handshake, though a poster with my picture is found on the walls announcing my afternoon talk.   Seemingly par for the course in this kind of thing.  Maybe I have AIDS (Academic Insecurity Distancing Syndrome)?   This afternoon in a few hours I give a little presentation, a run-through of clips of work from 1972 to present, a casual talk, hopefully some good grilling, and then the talking-dog show is done.  [Update:  did the talking-dog show to a fistful of students, a few non-film faculty and a (really) sleeping temporary head of the film section, specifically one Assoc. Prof. Russell Pensyl, who had the days prior been, if one cared about such things as an ego matter, just plain rude.   He continued on same path.  I was told he is gunning for Chair of Dept.   Of such souls are our institutions of learning composed, and through such do the poor students get bludgeoned into submission by persons of no talents, cowering in insecurity the second a person who actually makes things walks in the door – unfortunately this is a repeated pattern to my experience.  Anyway it is clear that while the setting is opulent, the equipment is obscene, and the potential is great, this sad school is certainly not going to be interested in yrs trly and I certainly wouldn’t want to be involved with negotiating the shoals of academic politics that apparently pervade the idyllic tropical setting.]

Meantime we haven’t had a chance to see any of Singapore outside an early morning walk on arrival near and around the China Town area, and a costly evening out to Holland area, where a pizza, not bad but nothing great, ran S$19, or about $13, and the red wine that went with it – 2 bottles chosen by our hosts, ran a mere $250 or so….  I would have stuck with beer if informed.  The taxi to-from was another $45.   To say Singapore is a bit schizoid, a very rich little enclave, catering to those able to spend the bucks in such a manner, but then housing a large population of others, placed in nicely designed and kept public housing, with ample parks, athletic fields, and such to keep everyone “happy.”   Singapore is known for an authoritarian and strict government, which, frankly, makes sense to me as the place is a melting pot of a handful of cultures, which given a bit of space to do so, might break out in communal warfare anytime.  Muslim, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Anglo all crammed onto this tiny island, 4 million or so.  So, while “rich” and appointed for such, it is also poor.  So a 10 minute walk off-campus finds one in a lively, clean, well-kept slice of public housing where good street-type food (or better) can be had for S$2.50 a simple veggie meal, or S$4 or 5 for some meat, fish or whatever, take your ethnic choice of flavoring.  I.e., at least on the food front one can live cheaply here, and well.

Tomorrow we’ll go nose around central Singapore, and perhaps meet up with some other potential could-be job souls.   Meantime though an email from Seoul brings a seemingly eager note from Yonsei, saying they’d like me to stay a few more years….

In another day or two off to Malaysia for some relaxation, and to visit a friend, Malay filmmaker U-wei, in Kuala Lumpur.  Then back to Seoul from here.

[Oh, and yesterday in the email came a notice from the Singapore Film Festival rejecting PARABLE; no word yet on LOVE IN THE SHADOWS so maybe it gets in and the Yonsei folks can come for some tropical warming. 3/04/09 – further word said no to Love too.]

For a long, but pretty clear in-language-you-can-understand article on what the present financial crisis is really about, there’s this in the Village Voice.   It gives an in-depth look at where the problems really came from.  The proper conclusion should be to take all these fraudsters and criminals to court, seize their myriad ill-begotten assets, lock ’em up and leave them to fend for themselves in an ordinary run-of-the-mill American prison.  [Note: the USA holds the world’s title for most imprisoned citizens, in plain old numbers, and per capita.  But the real crooks are “in business.”]

This is one of them, John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, who passed out 8 billion in bonuses just after getting a flush of US taxpayer money, and just before selling out to Bank of America, for which he briefly took CEO role.

Thain, 53, is a former head of the New York Stock Exchange and a former chief operating officer of investment bank Goldman Sachs. He had been named head of a wealth management division of the merged businesses of Merrill and Bank of America.

In 2007, Thain topped the list of highest-paid CEOs in American business, with a compensation package valued at $83 million, according to an Associated Press analysis. That included a signing bonus and other enticements that helped lure him from the NYSE to lead Merrill.

CNBC said Thursday that Thain spent $1.22 million redesigning his office — including $35,115 for a “commode on legs” and $1,405 on a parchment waste can — when he became CEO of Merrill Lynch a year ago.

If ours was not a very ill society, this guy would be imprisoned for such crap.  But our current celebrity-glamor-wealth-obsession culture instead tends to stand in awe of this kind of stuff, instead of perceiving it as a moral affront on a par with raping babies.