Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Asian Cinema: a Field Guide

This useful reference guide, published in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, gives a good overview of the scope of Asian cinema and the works of prominent directors. The author, Tom Vick, does Asian film work at the Smithsonian, and this 274 page guide, published in 2007, provides a timely introduction to a subject of increasing interest.

While many Americans are familiar with major Chinese and Japanese film-makers, well established and influential here, other noted artists are less familiar. The book provides general coverage of more familiar subjects, but devotes more individual attention to those about whom less is known. There is also an emphasis on films that are available in the U.S.

Separate chapters deal with China, Japan, India, Hong Kong, Korea, Iran, Taiwan, South & Southeast Asia, and Central Asia & the Middle East. There is a good index and bibliography.

At a time when the world seems smaller, and American attention is often drawn to Asia in negative ways, this book points to another dimension of the many peoples and cultures from Turkey to Japan.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Time travelling

I've been spending a lot of time in the early 19th century lately. Without premeditated intent, I've found a pattern in recent reading and viewing:

  • Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian (book & audiobook)
  • Sense and Sensibility (PBS Masterpiece TV)
  • The Jane Austen Book Club (DVD)
  • Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
Patrick O'Brian's rich legacy of Aubrey/Maturin novels was most famously developed into the film Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. The story of two friends -- the bluff, hearty, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, and the Irish-Catalonian naval surgeon, natural historian and spy Stephen Maturin -- follows them through the Napoleonic wars, the War of 1812, and other adventures.

It's been said that O'Brian writes about what the men were doing while Jane Austen's heroines anguished over matrimonial prospects. Indeed the second and third Aubrey/Maturin books humorously and successfully satirize Austen. But O'Brian shines in the painstaking historical detail, the period language, and above all in action sequences. I'm currently in the eighth book of the series, but the sixth, Desolation Island, was the beginning of a three book story arc and contained stirring battles that almost redefine the term "page turner."

O'Brian's work is also well served in audiobooks with the work of excellent narrators, John Lee and Patrick Tull. Each brings different strengths, but both make it a joy to listen. Lee's work on Desolation Island makes it difficult to stop listening, with fine voice characterizations and narrative power.

Sense and Sensibility, a two part-adaptation on PBS' Masterpiece, is one of the finest screen translations of Jane Austen. Written by Andrew Davies, who famously adapted Pride and Prejudice as a mini-series, this new production holds its own with Emma Thompson's wonderful 1995 feature film. Wonderfully produced, cast, acted and filmed with strong direction, this is a must see for Austen fans.

The Jane Austen Book Club, the film of Karen Joy Fowler's novel, is fun and entertaining chick-flick stuff. But with a large ensemble cast, the screenplay does not have room for deep characterizations, and the movie feels light-weight. The cast turns in good performances as a group reads Austen's novels and applies them to personal problems, but the whole seems contrived.

Empire of Ivory, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. I read the first books in Naomi Novik's fantasy series awhile back and enjoyed them, but thought they were fairly predictable. The premise is goofily engaging -- what if the British and French employed fighting dragons during the Napoleonic wars? But the result was engaging but slight.

During the four books of the series, however, Novik has continued to develop larger themes. And now she kicks it up a notch in both seriousness and imagination. She continues to use human exploitation of dragons as an analog for the 19th century slave trade. Here she mixes in the discovery of a hidden, advanced pan-African empire that threatens European dominance. In the earlier books, dragons sometimes seemed curiously tacked on to world history as we know it. Novik has gotten bolder, giving her secondary world a stronger narrative life.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

So sue me, I like Jackie Chan movies. Thus it happens that I really enjoyed The Forbidden Kingdom. It's more of a guilty pleasure than great cinema, but I thought it was a fun time. A bit predictable, but still fun.

The story of the Monkey King and the Journey to the West is a classic of Chinese literature. This American-Chinese production seems to fuse many elements from the classic story with plot devices from The Wizard of Oz, -- an American teenager mysteriously journeys to a magical place and has to journey with strange companions to defeat an evil ruler, before he can be sent home. And it works pretty well, as long as you don't think too hard and enjoy the ride.

Jet Li gives every appearance of gleefully portraying the Monkey King, but things kick up a notch when Jet Li and Jackie Chan are fighting together. Jackie seems to be reprising his Drunken Master character. This sure seemed like classic Saturday matinee fare, updated with 21st century FX and martial arts wire work. I was waiting for the double feature -- would it be Tarzan or Roy Rogers?

All things considered, the Monkey King has fared worse. The graphic novel American Born Chinese may have done the legend better justice, but as screen adaptations go, this is a durn sight better than Dragonball Z!

The Star Beast - renovating a classic

As Gillian mentioned in the previous post, Bruce Coville and the folks at Full Cast Audio have been producing dramatized audio versions of Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile novels. With three books adapted thus far (Have Spacesuit Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, and The Star Beast), and three more to come (including Red Planet and Between Planets), Full Cast is doing a great job of bringing these somewhat forgotten titles new life.

The Star Beast was first published in 1954 and is out of print in book form, though it's fairly easy to find a copy. The story shows its age a bit, particularly in the portrayal of female characters and in failures to predict technology. Some of our current technology has already overtaken Heinlein's 23rd century predictions. As for the female characters, Heinlein was always sexist, though not necessarily in a bad way -- he had a firm sense of gender roles. This softened somewhat in his later works, but in the 1950s, it was decidedly a traditional and old-fashioned, occasionally unflattering view. And his juveniles were squarely aimed at pre-adolescent and teen boys, and sometimes serialized in Boy's Life magazine.

A 1985 article in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, "Heinlein's Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years" calls attention to the timeless nature of Heinlein's work, despite the dated sociology and technology. There's still tremendous humor, satire, and the exaltation of personal responsibility, common sense, kindness and practical science. But mainly, Heinlein was a gifted storyteller, with a fine sense of character and plot. For all these reasons, it's a good thing that Full Cast Audio is reviving these neglected works.

I've listened to several Full Cast books and have never been disappointed, but The Star Beast is the best yet. With a large cast of over twenty performers, the production is engaging and the performances, particularly by the leads, are excellent. The book is eight hours on eight discs.

At the ALA conference in Toronto in 2003, I talked with Bruce Coville about the then-fledgling Full Cast Audio. I thanked him for reviving Edward Ormondroyd's David and the Phoenix, another childhood favorite. He was pleased that others remember these books, and was committed to bringing back some of the old classics as well as providing opportunities for contemporary writers to get their work dramatized.

Coville is working to make "family friendly" audiobooks, which he defines as "Can an intelligent adult and an intelligent youngster listen to the recording at the same time with mutual pleasure and a lack of embarrassment?" So he helps remind us that you don't have to outgrow children's books and that one of the strengths of audiobooks is the way they create opportunities for sharing.

He's succeeding admirably in all aspects.

Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free

Just finished listening to the Full Cast Audio production of Kathleen Karr's Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free. I think it is one of the best done audiobooks I've heard. Based on the true events, it is the story of a women's prison that put on Pirates of Penzance in 1914. We hear the story told by a young prisoner, Libby Dobb, of how a new chaplain comes to the prison and starts a choir. After their first performance, of Handel's Hallelujah chorus, is successful, the chaplain decides to put on a full scale production of Pirates of Penzance.

The book draws you in, as Libby and the other women struggle with not only prison life, but also the issues of the day: i.e. oncoming war, a woman's position in society, birth control. The characters feel real, and are made all the more so by the talented actresses that have each role. Along with the full cast there is music, and that really brings the book to life. Snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan and Handel play through out the book, taking the place of page breaks, and of course the women actually sing.

This is a wonderful audiobook for any library to have, or even to own for yourself if you like Gilbert and Sullivan. I have yet to listen to a bad Full Cast Audio production, and there probably won't ever be one. This is a company to trust. They are also the ones making Heinlein audiobooks, but that's a different post.