Thursday, November 30, 2006

October 7: Mid – Autumn Moon in a Distant Land

This article is a continuation of the series of articles relating to my US trip.

October 7 of this year coincides with the Mid – Autumn Moon Festival in the Chinese Lunar calendar. Some of Chinese elders believed that Mid – Autumn moon is the most perfect full moon amongst the 12 full moons in a year. I for one believed in it. At the time of the Mid – Autumn moon, I happened to be in LA. I made it a habit of mine as an observance of tradition to take some time out and “look” at the moon. I remember the last lines in one of Li Po’s famous poem and translating it would state that, “Though you are not in my side, my dear friend, I still raised my glass and offer a toast to the moon, wishing that you are here beside me and that you are in good health and I hoped that across the distant, you are doing the same.” The Mid – Autumn moon is to me a medium of connection. It is a medium to connect with the past (traditions), to the present (with the love ones not with you then) and with the future (with that Someone). And it is in this state of mind that I left my room that evening and came to the promenade, pulled out a chair and watched at the moon all by myself (I just came back from dinner after a visit to Universal Studio that morning and a brief visit to the Pueblo). Strange but the moon seemed different in LA than in Manila. It was larger, whitish in color and looked rather dull. The Mid – Autumn moon in Manila by contrast looked just right (size), glowing perfectly in a yellowish shade and generally bright. Even so, I stayed for a good hour or so revealing at the sight trying to establish a connection somewhat. I was hoping somebody was looking at the Mid – Autumn at the same time as I’m from the other side but just then a poignant realization came to me. The Moon is 15 hours late! (LA is 15 time zones away from Manila)

Monday, November 27, 2006

October 7: Wet

This article is a continuation of the series of articles relating to my US trip.

I was actually thinking of using “The Kong, the Donkey, and the Desperate Housewives” as the working title of this piece chronicling my visit to the Universal Studio but I felt that “WET” will be all the more appropriate. This is because anybody visiting the studio has a 60 – 80% chance of getting wet unless someone who liked my aunt never even attended any of the rides. They get to stay dry but had no fun at all. So how do someone get to enjoy the ride and avoided getting wet? Well, there are ways liked wearing a raincoat to the Jurassic Park boat ride or bringing an umbrella to the Studio Tour on a hot autumn day or one could stay way, way back of the seats at the “Water World” show. In fact, somebody just did that. There was an audience who wore a raincoat and bought an umbrella to see the Water World show but unfortunately, the performers were determined to get him wet and he did get wet in spite of the preparations he made. Now, you can stay dry and be entertained but that will be less fun and admittedly, “awkward” or if not “cuckoo” beside it’s no guarantee either that one would stay “dry”. Well, the best way to enjoy the visit to Universal Studio was to simply get “wet” and my visit to the studio just happen to be THAT. We arrived at the Studio at around 10 – 11 am but before that we went to see the Graumann’s Chinese Theater and the famous Hollywood “walk of fame”. Funny but I noticed that the walk and the Theater are the only place on earth where one could only meet the humblest people on Earth. The reason? Well, that is because most passersby had their heads bowed “ ) (Ok, that sounds corny). Ostensibly, people who pass by there happened to be “busy” looking at the “stars” of their favorite actors and actresses. And at the Theater, one could always find people trying to “fit” in the shoes of their “idols”. Some even tried to “feel” like a “star” by pressing their palm on the cold pavement and imagining the handprint left there by their “idols” to be theirs. Guess what? I happen to “fit in” the Terminator’s shoes! What do you know? Gover – nator Arnold is also a size 9½. Marilyn Monroe on the other hand has the smallest pair of hands and feet that I’ve ever seen. In fact, it looks like that of a 16 – year old girl and she did looked like a 16 – year old (young smooth naïve looking angelic face)! No wonder she’s a goddess! Anyway, at the Universal Studio, our first stop was to “try” the Van Helsing’s Dracula’s Fort. The place is dark and one can get the sense of a growing “edginess” but I was relatively unfazed having survived the “Terror Tower” the day before. My cousin however was pretty “shaken” by all the skeletons he is seeing so far. Funny if you to think about it because my cousin and I had just “survived” an elevator fall the day before and our heart was still beating that day. We’re pretty much alive. It turns out that the Fort is for 12 years old and older (my cousin is 10 and kids below 12 are likely to suffer trauma). Being a responsible adult, I had no other choice but to bring my cousin out of the “Fort” and thus bring myself out as well. Later on, as the other tour members exited from the Fort after experiencing a “pretty good scare”, they recounted to me about their ordeal. Ahhh, too bad. I could have “indulge” a good scare myself but being a responsible adult, I had no recourse but to stay on the sidelines. “ ). We next went to see the 3D show, “Back to the Future”. The show is based on the 1987 blockbuster movie of the same name. We were seated inside a “convertible Delaurent” car cum time machine good for 6 people and there we were taken “back in time” to the pre – historic past to chase after a renegade Delaurent piloted by Biff Tannen, the villain in the movie. We progressed from the volcanic age to the ice age and then to the dinosaur age where we were swallowed lock, stock and barrel by a T – Rex! Don’t ask me how the T – Rex’s breathe smelled but apparently, we tasted so bad or somebody in the audience must have a bad smell for we were eventually “vomited” by the T – Rex. After that, we all bumped the renegade time machine and were safely brought back to the future. yippee. We’re back (that sounded swell). The show is nice and would have been great if I haven’t visited the “Soaring over California” show the prior day. By comparison, the Back to the Future show looked “old” as in “like from the last century”. After the show, we took the Mummy the Revenge ride. Again, this roller coaster theme ride is based on the hit movie, the Mummy movies. The ride is somewhat similar to the “Space Mountain” ride except that the dazzling twinkling light show replaced by some mummy props of Imhotep’s priest and the Pharoah’s bodyguards. The ride seemed short because the speed is quite fast and the twists and turns are more abrupt and the banks and turns are much, much more steep than any of the roller coaster ride at Disney. But then again, it wasn’t that thrilling. In fact, on the last leg of the ride where the automatic camera took our picture, I was the only one of the 16 people on board who still has his eyes opened. What can I say, I survived the “Terror Tower”. Anyway, the best part of the ride is at the end for after a high – speed swirl in a dark tunnel, the cart suddenly stopped (as in SUDDENLY) just mere INCHES away from a solid wall. After a round of mummy laughter, we were suddenly pulled backwards also at high speed and into a chamber where the mummy was vanquished and thus end our ride. Great ride, hurray (sounds enthusiastic, right?). After that rather pleasant ride, we next went to take the Jurassic Park boat ride. At the Jurassic Park ride, we took a boat and went into the park, which closely resembles a prehistoric jungle one saw at the 1st Jurassic Park movie. Along the way we get to see a host of different dinosaurs. Some like the brontosaurus popped out of the water and sprayed through his “nostrils” located on it’s head. Naturally we all got wet. Next, we encountered a bunch of dinosaurs, (I don’t what species they belong but who cared anyway) who squirted water out of their mouth. They are located on both sides so everybody got wet again. After that, we saw a truck falling off the cliff and rushed towards us (pretty scary, huh?). Finally, we went inside the lab where we encounter dinosaurs popping out of the ceiling and on the final leg, a T – Rex stand guard at the “falls” and reached down tried to bite our head off. We then fell through the tunnel and out in the open just like the “Splash Mountain” drop. Although the drop was shorter than the “Splash Mountain” drop, the Jurassic Park ride is more “splashier” because I got drenched even if I stayed at 2nd row from the back (I wizened up). About the T – rex biting scene, compared to the giant boulder – chasing scene of the Indiana Jones’ ride, the latter is much better than the former. Again like the Mummy ride, I didn’t blink while everybody else did. Funny but I didn’t realize that surviving the “Hollywood Tower Hotel a.k.a. Twilight Zone’s Terror Tower would turn one into a “killjoy”. At any rate, after lunch, we went to see the Terminator 3D. Nice graphics, nice show. One thing I could say about the Terminator 3D and the later, Shrek 4D is that it is just a “movie”. I mean if you watched Disneyland’s “Honey, I shrunk the audience”, “A bug’s life”, and “Soaring over California” and to the lesser extent “Back in the Future”, one would have the feeling that you are intimately involve in the show however passive you might be (we all just sat there and watch). It’s like the stage is talking to you and you reacted because of the “special effects” from the chair. It is unlike Terminator 3D and Shrek 4D wherein you just simply watch them act just like in the movies except that it is the 3D/4D format. After terminator, we went for a guided studio tour aboard a 4 stage motorized coach. At first, I had this misconception that it would be a dull ride since we will be touring studio grounds, where you could only see large warehouse type buildings that houses the sets. Well, the first part of the tour were like that i.e., the beautiful tour guide told us what films where shot in this buildings, which is the special effects buildings, and which are the temporary shelters of crews etc. However, sometime in the middle of the tour, we went to a place called “Little Mexico”. The place is the studio set where one of scenes of the movie, “Big Fat Liar” was shot. One of the main features of the set aside from it’s rural Mexican appeal is the “simulated” storm. Heavy rains were brought about by the strategically located sprinkler systems. Thunder and lightning were simulated using lights and sound effects and lastly, came the huge flood waters cascading down from the slopes that actually threatens to engulf the coach we were riding on (it quickly receded soon after we left). We hurriedly left the place as a result and turn to a row of buildings that reminded us of New York and Europe. Afterwards, we went to see “neighborhood” of the “Desperate Housewives”. I got to say that they have such beautiful houses and “neighborhood” and that I wonder why the “housewives” living here would get “desperate”. Well, too bad, they don’t have a shoot that day and I wasn’t able to see Eva Longoria or Terri Hatcher in person. Next came the “garden” area where the studio kept some of their plant life that they would eventually used in their shoot and surprisingly, they also manage to keep some of that water spraying dinosaurs from Jurassic Park as well. At the end of the road, we find several cars used in the shooting of “Fast and the Furious” movies and also a compound housing one of the explosive scenes of the movie. In this scene, a barrage of bullets sprayed at the 2 parked sports cars triggering a fire and eventually an explosion that sent the cars flying into our direction. We hold our breath then thinking that the cars would smash right into our coach but it didn’t. It turns out that the cars are mere empty shells and they were “flown” by two giant mechanically arms. To our amusement, the operator performed a dance number using the cars and the mechanical arms. Pretty cool. We next went to a lakeside cottage and pier where “Jaws” was filmed and we actually saw Jaws, the mechanical shark. As we were watching, the coach stopped by the edge and all the sudden, the wooden pier beneath us “collapses” and we were partially submerge (half a wheel high) in the “lake”. Then, Jaws suddenly emerge by our side and gave everybody a pretty good scare, everybody except me. What can I say, I survived the fall at the Terror Tower. We eventually escaped with our limbs intact and proceeded to a closed warehouse where the studio designed it to look like a San Francisco subway station. There, we stopped and quite unexpectedly, we felt a violent shake. It’s an earthquake! Instantly, our coach sank by a foot and all electrical installation blew inside the “station” and sparks were all over the place. Ceiling panels collapses and lights went off. Then, when we thought that the whole thing was over, the roof collapses and an oil tank truck slide down towards us and burst into flames. Again, it would seem that the truck would hit us but luckily, somehow a “well placed” support column stopped the fall and thus we were safe or so we think. Just then, we heard a loud gushing sound coming from the stairs. Flood waters! Immediately upon the sight of the torrent, we drove away. It turns out that we had just witnessed what is like to be in a subway experiencing a magnitude 8 earthquake and by all means, you don’t want to be caught in one (not that the simulated scene was scary or something but the thought is). we then went to another warehouse which also designed to look like New York, the hellish version of it after being trashed by the Kong. Here, we saw wrecked buildings, crashed helicopters, fires and once we attempt to cross a bridge, we were stopped because the bridge was “swinging” violently and guess who was doing that? It was none other than the King (Kong) himself. Everybody was screaming their lungs out at the sight of the giant monkey except for me. I looked Kong straight in the eye and guess what I’d see? The monkey looked tame and gentle to me that I considered keeping him as pet if the studio allows me. “ ) Anyway, we moved on and passed by the famous motel where the murders in Alfred Hitchcock’s opus, “Psycho” were filmed. Pretty, desolate I would so. No wonder people felt creepy watching the movie. Next we were led into a tunnel and were trapped inside. It was dark inside and the tunnel seemed to be turning about on it’s side and suddenly, we heard noise, a bug’s noise. But this is no ordinary bug’s noise rather it is the noise that would reminded everybody of the flesh – eating scarabs in the Mummy’s movies. Although we couldn’t see anything moving but the sound does give audience a shivering feel. With that, we finally concluded our tour of the studio. It was actually a nice tour, more of a sight – seeing tour with occasional surprises. After the tour, we went to see Shrek 4D and then for the finale of the day, the Water World show. The Water World show was actually a reenactment of the last battle scene of Kevin Costner’s movie, WaterWorld. Inside the compound are three stands, left, right and center (vis – a – vis the stage). My sister and I happened to be seated at the right stand and somewhere in the middle seats. By the way, the seats are color – coded. The “green” seats are the wet sections and are located at the front while blue seats are the dry section and are mostly at the middle and the back, though it was no guarantee that audience won’t get wet. Anyway, prior to the start of the show, the actors were out trying to “aroused” the sleepy audience by dousing or more aptly, spraying them with cold water especially those in the front row seats. Next, these loonies started a screaming/cheering match among the audience (divided into the left, right and center). The winner gets to stay dry while the loser got drenched literally. One of the wise guy audience wore a raincoat to the show and he was promptly targeted by the water guns. One of the female audience probably got peeved by all the “water” attention she got that she immediate took the water gun being offered to her by one of the actors and she immediately aimed it at one of the other actors but to her surprise, the water gun was empty. It was a ruse to lure her out in the open. Poor girl (and she happens to be attractive), she got a prompt “beating” from all the water guns aimed at her. After that rather energizing pre – show performance, the show started. The fight scene was superb and looked realistic complete with explosions, fireballs, fires. It also help that the stunts are well coordinated and choreographed. But that however wasn’t the exciting part. What really excites me is the sudden appearance of a biplane that flew out of nowhere and barely over the wall made of rusted galvanized iron sheets (and in the process scraping off one of the sheets) and landed on the pool directly in front of the center audiences, sent out a huge wave that splashed the center audiences wet and kept moving forward until it bumped onto the sides of the pool. Now that is fun, wet, and scary! Too bad, I’m seated on the sides and in the dry section. But at least, it was a great show. By the time the show ended, it was around 5pm and we had to bid goodbye to the place and go back to our Inn and rest. You know what? I had to admit that Universal Studio is a great place to visit and play that is if I haven’t been to the Twilight Zone’s Terror Tower. As fate would have it, I survived the elevator fall at the Terror Tower and I lived to tell it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


This represents my point of view and not the general view of Chinese or specifically the Filipino Chinese community. I wrote this piece as a comment to Professor Cruz’s BusinessWorld column dated October 3. His column is about the succession stability among Chinese. Specifically, he was referring to an article written by some prominent American management thinkers on the Chinese practice of succession by primogeniture (succession through the eldest male). The conclusion of that study tends to reinforce the view of the stable nature of Chinese succession.

My first reaction upon reading your column the other day (October 3) is that it is an idealization and partially true. It is an idealization because history and reality showed that it doesn’t happen that way. In fact, it is dynamic. It is partial because the authors used the “Imperial” version of Confucian philosophy, the version that stresses obedience and submission. It is a feudal philosophy because it was born out of the feudal environment. Confucian philosophy is all about maintaining social and familial harmony through understanding and acceptance of one’s station in the hierarchy of things in the universe. For every station in the hierarchy, there is a corresponding duties and obligations as well as rights. Duties include taking care and defending the ones underneath you like subordinates, brothers, wife, son, students, servants etc; being true, loyal, and helpful to your peers like friends; and lastly being obedient, loyal, respectful, submissive, and generally defer to the decision of your superiors like elders, teachers, parents, rulers, etc. With duty comes rights, namely the right to demand protection, guidance, and care from your superiors; the right to demand loyalty and support from your friends and lastly, the right to demand loyalty, submission, and respect from your subordinate. However, the hierarchy is by no means rigid or static. As a matter of fact, it is quite fluid. There will come a time when a son becomes the father, or a junior member of society would become an elder, or a student becoming a master. And each rise in station would mean a corresponding change in their duty. This is the “imperial – feudalistic” version of Confucianism, a partial version that is being stressed and systematically preached throughout the centuries. As you can see, the “Imperial” Confucian philosophy is pro – establishment, pro – hierarchy, pro – order. And it is this version that provides stability to succession. However, Confucian philosophy is not just that. It is not about static and rigid hierarchy. For within the philosophy lies the genius of it’s first master, a thought that is greatly expounded upon by Mencius, another master. According to Mencius, disruption can happen in this “static” hierarchy once there is a dereliction of duty, which inevitably tramples upon another person’s rights. The aggrieved party would have the right to “overthrow” or “remove” the guilty party if not just simply severe the bond that binds them. This can be seen in Mencius’ reply to the prince of Chi when the latter posed the question, “what if a father is not a father (as in not performing the duty of a father), a son is not a son, a king is not a king, and a servant is not a servant”. To which Mencius replied, “I heard of a tyrant named Chou (the last king of the Shang dynasty) and not a king named Chou. A tyrant should be overthrown and killed but not a king”. In Mencius’ view, ones station’s in the hierarchy is maintained as long as he “does” his duty. If a person doesn’t perform his duty, he doesn’t “deserve” the appellation and the status accorded with it, i.e., the bond is severed. In addition to that, there are two concepts in Confucianism that contravenes with the hierarchal nature of it’s philosophy. The first one is ren or benevolence, and the second is Yi or righteousness. Benevolence or Ren is about caring for somebody without the superficiality of the rigid rituals and customs of respect and reverence. Righteousness or Yi is about doing what is right even if such were not his duty to perform. Furthermore, anybody can exercise this virtue and is not limited by his station in the hierarchy. One doesn’t have to be rich and powerful to be benevolent or righteous. It is these “exclusion” clauses in Confucian philosophy that is more often used in history when a father “disinherit” the eldest son (in old times) or pass over him (modern times) in favor of a younger and capable son if the eldest son doesn’t perform his “duty”. It is also due to these “exclusion” clauses that if the successor doesn’t perform his new “duty”, his siblings has the right to “overthrow” the eldest son’s leadership. However, it is also here where the weakness of the philosophy lies. It doesn’t promote meritocracy. What if the leader performed his duty but is not exceptional? There would be no justification in removing him from his place. Therefore, Confucian philosophy tends to promote stability in succession but doesn’t provide incentive for exceptional performance for there is no “real” competition.

P.S. There is a paper in Beijing written by a present day historian entitled, “Confucianism, the ultra stability factor in the imperial Chinese society.” It is written in Chinese by the way. I had a critique of such thesis written by a Taiwanese historian.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


November 24,2005. I attended my professor’s book launching and it is there that he first broach the idea of organizing an Alumni association for the DLSU Graduate School of Business. It is also then that he asked me if I’m interested to make it happen and to which I wholeheartedly agree. Since then, I’m engaged in recruiting, spreading the news, and trying to organize a GSBAA (Graduate School of Business Alumni Association). It was a tough task and one filled with frustrations after frustrations. Many thought the idea was great but few actually responded the call to be active in organizing such endeavor. Nevertheless, the circle grows and soon enough, I had a talking group of around 30 “willing volunteers”. Then GSB steps in and “hijacks” the process. They called a general assembly and conducted an election. Initially, I was quite reluctant to run partly because of the enormous task ahead in organizing such associations (having trying to do that for the past year or so) and partly because, things are quickly getting “political” with several people interested in the post of the President. One candidate actually called me up and proposed an alliance with him as President and me as his executive officer. He even claimed to have the Dean’s blessing. Eventually for some reasons, he backed out. At any rate, I did decide to throw my hat in the fray largely because I don’t want to see all my efforts went for naught and also, I had to admit the lure, the prestige, and the glamour of the title President did me in. Fast forward, September 23, election day. Only 40 alumni showed up for the vote. I ran for President but lost because the Corporate Secretary (the Dean’s eyes and ears) changed the rules right then and there but I did manage to get myself “elected” as a board director (It’s official, I’m a jinx in elections, having lost twice now). Then last November 9, the board and it’s officers were sworn in at the Manila Polo Club by the DLSAA (De La Salle Alumni Association, the parent organization) and DLS – GSB. The evening was pleasant though politics still figured prominently. At any rate, we ended at around 11 in the evening. The night before that, I was engaged in a text chat with an old friend of mine and when I broke the news that I’m going to be inducted the following evening, she congratulated me profusely. To be quite honest, I was rather surprised by her reaction. To her, my position as a director of a prestigious school’s alumni association and a graduate business school at that was something unbelievable and probably enviable. Frankly, I never saw that way. To me, this was nothing (and I mean it). I mean what is to brag about when you have a nascent organization, which probably have an active membership of 10 people (the board directors) whose survival beyond next year is seriously in doubt and who has no agenda as of yet, no vision, and most importantly, no funds (we have a seed money of P50,000.00 borrowed from DLSAA, even so P50,000 for a prestigious organization like ours is a pittance). It is not that I’m not proud of being a director of DLSAA – GSB rather I don’t find it “necessary” (nor am I enthusiastic) to display such title prominently. Besides, after the election, I felt that it is no longer my “overriding” concern. Somebody else is at the helm and I felt that it’s time to take it in stride. Surely, I felt bad losing the election, I mean who wouldn’t but I never did sulk (Ok, probably briefly but I was over with it by the time I traveled to the US in early October). I felt a burden was lifted from my shoulder and my role is now pretty much limited (which is why I don’t see the need to “publicize” my title). Then came my friend’s reaction and suddenly, I realized that I’m a director of the board of DLSAA – GSB chapter, Inc. I represent a prestigious academic institution of this country, one of the top two business schools in this country (better than UP which ranked 3rd and certainly way, way better than THAT SCHOOL IN LOYOLA). We maybe only 10 people in the organization as of now but I and my colleagues are the face of tens of thousands of alumni (however passive they maybe) scattered across the world from the Philippines to China to Taiwan to Indonesia to Hong Kong to Canada and to the US and best of all, we spoke for them even though they don’t realize it. I and my colleagues are the link between DLS – GSB and the world for we provided the first hand knowledge of the real world to our Alma Mater, on how to be relevant in this day and age. Besides as my friend pointed out, how many people at my age (all of my colleagues are in their 30s) get to be a director of an alumni association of a prestigious school? Only few. And this is no ordinary alumni association for this is not your typical high school alumni association. This is a business school alumni association! A graduate business school alumni association! Furthermore, of the 9 colleagues of mine in the board, 5 of them are my friends and classmates. They are the people I’d recruited to join the “talking group” and they are the people I cajoled, enticed, and for some, practically forced to join the board. These are the same people that I know who are hardworking, persistent, and willing to sacrifice their time and effort for no pay just to see this thing through (the other board directors are just as hardworking). I must have done something right to have such GREAT people on the board and I just can’t let them down by taking “this” in stride. Lastly, I did promise my professor “to make this work”. The organization maybe small and it’s future bleak but we could grow it. We may not have an agenda as of now or a vision or a direction but that is great for we are not burdened by the past. We can build our own traditions, hammer out our plans, and pave our own way and lay the foundation of a mighty organization. Between sitting in the topmost floor of a tall glass tower watching rather helplessly over an automated empire and laying the bricks down below trying to built that empire, I rather get myself dirty doing the nitty gritty stuffs and mold the face of the future. But exactly, what is the future? What is DLSAA – GSB about? I don’t know what my other colleagues think about the organization but I’ve been telling this to my friends in the board. “The alumni association on the micro scale is about old friends and old classmates getting to see each other, exchanging updates of each other’s status, telling tales of old times and their trials and tribulations. It is about people trying to connect with people who they once shared a certain part of their lives. On the intermediary scale, the alumni association is about connections for who could better understand the importance of connection other than business people? And what connects them is the fact that one point in their lives, they went to the same school, underwent the same program, and probably have the same teacher. But beyond connections, the association is about the community. It is about a specific community of people having specific needs, needs like constantly updating their knowledge of the latest management and business theories etc. On the macro level, the alumni association is about a voice. Imagine if you group business tycoons (John Gokongwei and Henry Sy, Sr are both DLS – GSB alumni) and budding entrepreneurs, from captains of the industry to top CEOs of major corporations to middle managers that execute top management’s decisions on the frontline, what would we have? Can anyone imagine the % of the Philippine economy that we contribute? Can anyone imagine how much say we have? Can anyone imagine how much we could do?” Until now, these words of mine seemed “tall” and though I believed in them, I never actually embraced it fully. Now, I discovered something thanks to a friend of mine and it is to her credit that I’m wearing my new role on my sleeves.

P.S. Thanks Jocelyn Tan for helping me “see”. Sometimes, a person inside can’t see where they are and it is the people outside that could tell that person inside where they really are.

NOTE: Calling all GSB alumni (graduates as well as people who attended GSB for 1 year) to please join and actively support the newly organized DLSAA – GSB. For foreign based alumni, please spearhead the formation of a DLSAA – GSB local chapters in your host country. I and my colleagues at the board would greatly appreciate your effort and would like to warmly welcome you into our ranks. “ )

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


WARNING: This is a spoiler. If you wanted to be surprised, don’t read this!!!

I went to see the much hyped about movie, The Banquet, last Sunday (October 21). And boy! Am I in for a treat! The movie is quite spectacular and is one of the best movies I’ve seen for the year and probably one on my list of the best movie of all times.

The Historical Background
The backdrop of the story is set during the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdom Period in China (The civil war period sandwich between the Tang dynasty and the Sung dynasty). Few actually appreciate the significance of this historical period to the overall movie theme. The Five Dynasty period is a time when anarchy prevailed as a result of warlordism and civil war. In just a span of 70 or more years, 5 dynasties rise and fall in rapid succession. In these turbulent times, the Emperors are mere hostages to their aspiring generals while generals are hostage to their greedy and unruly soldiers. As a result, Emperors rarely died peacefully. Most of them died by assassinations and in rebellions. Because of the weakened state of the central authorities, local potentates came to control local affairs and thus rampant corruption ensued. And because of the frequent changes in regime, political survival and expediency became the norm and principles became an oddity. Morality is no more than a piece of paper and degeneracy sets in all levels of society. It is in this sad state of affairs that we find our heroes.

The Storyline
The movie begins with the Empress Wan entering the funeral chamber of the recently deceased Emperor, her husband. She was surprised to discover her brother – in – law (the late emperor’s brother) dressed in the armor of the emperor. Without much saying, she realized that the brother – in – law has in fact seize the imperial throne and he offered the Empress a choice, to be his consort or die. The Empress quite naturally spurned his indecent offer in a rather angry fashion but somehow relented in the end (Or did she?). With one potential opposition (the empress) removed, the brother – in – law sent out his royal bodyguard to assassinate the true heir of the throne unknowingly that the Empress Wan has also sent out her own trusted bodyguard to protect the true heir. The Prince – heir oblivious to the events outside his own reclusive world was actually sulking and was in the midst of doing a traditional play, The Song of the Yueh Women (he was actually more an artist than a prince). The Song is about a loner’s lament of unrequited love. While he was at it, the Empress’s bodyguards came and informed him of the news. Much afterwards, the assassins came and began one of most the visually spectacular sword fighting that I’ve seen. The fight was quite bloody. Everyone in the Prince’s entourage including the Empress’ bodyguard’s died fighting including the person posing as the Prince. The Prince only manages to survive because he gave his performance mask to his protector and hide underwater in the artificial lake. After surviving the massacre, he sets out to his home, the imperial palace and only to discover that his childhood love, his one and only, his step mother, the Empress Wan was in the midst of preparing to marry his uncle, the usurper, the murderer of his father, the new Emperor. The Prince was not just simply aggrieved but also beseech with anger and harbors vengeance. He visits his step – mother in the night ostensibly to confront her but also partly due to his longing to see his beloved. There happened one of the most awkward scenes. A man kneeling before the love of his life who is 4 years his junior and calling her mother. So close to his true love yet so far away. The Empress was equally hurt in such display of traditional Confucian obedience and filial piety for she still loved the Prince but couldn’t do so because she was technically his “mother” and tradition dictates that she acts accordingly. After that rather awkward confrontation came the idle pleasant exchange on their recent lives (nothing happened since both are strictly proper). Unknown to the two, the new Emperor, the usurper was about to enter the chamber when he overheard the idle murmur of the two. At first, he was surprised that his nephew, the true heir is alive but was no sooner overcome with jealousy. Even so, he kept his silence as his jealousy raged within him. How could she (his former sister – in – law and now his consort) do this to him? He (the new Emperor) could have given her everything she wanted. She was after all the object of his love (or lust depending on one’s view). Silently, he walks away and left the two alone. Amazingly, the Emperor kept his silence about the discovery even to his love, the Empress but grew increasingly distraught that she didn’t reveal the Prince’s survival to him until finally he couldn’t take it anymore and reveal what he knows to the Empress during a polo match (polo was actually invented in China during the Tang dynasty as an aristocratic sport). The Prince on the other hand was hiding in the house of his fiancé, the lady Ching, who was the daughter of a powerful minister, Yin. Minister Yin was an old but ambitious courtier as well as an astute politician, always going the way where the wind breezes. Lady Ching’s brother was a military governor of an important strategic province bordering the Khitans. Lady Ching was very much in love with the Prince so much so that she purportedly could communicate with her beau in her dreams (a sign of mental instability I would say). She would have given him everything even though she knew that he didn’t love her. Upon the discovery, the Emperor summoned the Prince for an audience and right then and there, he commanded the Prince to perform a swordplay with his royal guards since the Prince was considered the foremost swordsman in the realm, second only after the deceased emperor. The swordplay was to be played out using wooden swords to prevent injury and accidents but in the middle of the fighting, one of the guards changed his wooden sword for real thing and began carrying out the assassination attempt right in front of the Emperor who is pretending to have fallen asleep (and thereby claim innocence and be absolved of any guilt). The plot almost succeeded had it not been intervened and saved by the Empress who herself was an excellent swordsman. The emperor awoke and dismisses both the empress and the Prince. He silently looks at the guards and without warning kills the guard responsible for the foiled assassination. After that foiled assassination, the Prince became convinced that his uncle is behind the murder of his father and he sought out revenge. He visited an alchemist for a strongest poison known to man. However, he wasn’t convinced that the poison was strong but when he pressed the alchemist for another poison. He was stunned to realize that there is nothing more poisonous than a human heart. With that realization, he gave up revenge. On the day of the coronation, the new Emperor sent out for the Prince to entertain the imperial host with swordplays with the new Emperor’s bodyguards but the Prince refuses and instead, performs a play, which he wrote. The play tells the story of two brothers, one rich and the other poor. The rich brother loved and trusted his poor and evil younger brother but the latter had the former murdered through poison. The play was an indirect reference to the usurpation and murder by the new Emperor. The Emperor though clam was shaken by the knowledge of his nephew’s discovery and he immediately sent the Prince to exile as hostage to the Khitans. En route to the Khitans, the bodyguard – escorts attempted to murder the Prince but the Prince was saved by Lady Ching’s brother. It happened that Lady Ching volunteered to accompany the Prince to his exile but this offer offended the jealous Empress Wan that she had Lady Ching arrested and tortured. Using Lady Ching as hostage, the Empress came to an understanding with Minister Yin and plotted with Yin to save the Prince (through Yin’s son or Lady Ching’s brother) and eliminate the new Emperor via assassination. No sooner that the plot was hatch, Minister Yin plotted a coup within a coup. Only this time, Minister Yin intends to remove the Empress after the assassination of the new Emperor and to usurp the throne for himself. Meanwhile, the Empress is also scouting for poison and came upon the same alchemist that the Prince sought. Like the Prince, she asked whether or not there is a much more poisonous substance than the one she is holding and to which she also received the same reply, “the human heart”. However, unlike the soft – hearted Prince, she appeared unperturbed by the revelation and “rewarded” the alchemist with poison in order to keep him silent (a vile woman indeed). There afterwards she began to orchestrates events and on the hundredth day of her marriage to her brother – in – law, she beseech the Emperor to throw a feast and the Emperor obliged and ordered a banquet to be served in her honor that night. During the banquet, the Empress quietly slipped in the poison to the Emperor’s cup and proposes a toss. The Emperor was about to drink from the poisoned cup when all the sudden a troop of actors appeared led by Lady Ching. Lady Ching offered to stage a play, The Song of the Yueh Women to entertain the Emperor. The Emperor puzzled but eventually allowed and he offered as a gesture to Lady Ching, his poisoned cup (he has no knowledge about it). The Lady Ching drank the wine to the shock of his father, Minister Yin and his brother, who both are privy to the assassination plot. There followed one of the most harrowing scene in the movie, that of a broken hearted, dying woman slowly dancing and singing a heart wrenching song till her demise in the arms of the Prince, who happens to be the masked actor behind her. In the end, the Prince professes his love for the poor Lady Ching but everything is too late. Lady Ching’s brother literally flew out of his seat and snatched his sister away from the Prince’s embrace and the Prince so enraged by the tragedies that befell him, let out his sword and aimed towards the Emperor, only to be stopped by the royal bodyguards. Whilst the battle was raging, the Emperor though calm was visibly stunned by the knowledge of the poison and the attempt to assassinate him and most importantly, by the person he most loved and that person is none other than the Empress Wan. In a twist nobody expected, he called off the guards and confronted the Prince. There he wailed against fate and most likely disillusioned by the betrayal, he took the cup of poisoned wine and drank it to the last drop and slowly, the Emperor walked up to his throne while removing his crown and collapsed and died in the bosom of his wife, the Empress. The Empress immediately proclaimed the Prince as the new Emperor but was rejected by the Prince. While the commotion is on going, an enraged Lady Ching’s brother vented his ire on the scheming Empress. He pulled out a poison dagger and aimed at the Empress’ neck but was stopped by the Prince, who was in turn fatally wounded (the Empress killed Lady Ching’s brother). The Prince died immediately in the arms of his wailing beloved………..mother………… Minister Yin for in his part of the complicity of the attempted assassination of the Empress was exiled to a distant colony. With all opposition removed, Empress Wan assumed the throne but didn’t live long to enjoy her new – found power. She was murdered in the end.
The story sounded so much like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (or was it Othello?). In fact, if Shakespeare were born a Chinese, he would have probably written something like this. This is one tragedy after a tragedy and a tragedy within a tragedy. It is a tragedy after a tragedy because one could see in the latter part how one character after another fell, burned by their own doings. It is a tragedy within a tragedy because though the characters faced their individual tragedies, the greatest tragedy is that as humans, we are mere animals of our passion and our ambition and fate came along and played our passions and our ambitions and turned us into victims of our own deeds. It makes me wonder though if we are just merely stupid or fate was being cruel.

Direction, Cinematography, and Martial Arts Play
The film is directed by Feng Xiao Kang. One thing I could say about the movie is that it is not your traditional Chinese martial arts – imperial age drama. The armors worn by the imperial guards reminded me of the Sauron’s dragon flying – minions in the Lord of the Rings movie. In fact, though the architecture is definitely Chinese, the black and white colored backdrop and the unconventional designs readily gives an impression that this is more of a Medieval European drama (and hence, the seeming reference to Shakespeare) rather than a Medieval Chinese one. The only time one would awake to the realization that this is a Chinese drama is in the grandeur and pomp of the setting (Medieval European dramas are by contrast much simpler). The obsession with the manipulation of color with an intense monochromatic (mostly red) color imposed on a black and white background provided the visual appeals and readily captures the audience attentions to what is going on rather than be distracted by the rich background. Funny, this color manipulative approach seemed to be the “rage” in Chinese films nowadays. The martial arts choreography was a breathlessly stunning visual spectacle. If you are familiar with Jacky Chan movies and his brand of raw power and bare knuckle kung fu, the swordplays here are by contrast has more grace and beauty. It looked more like a dance or more succinctly, like a ballet (especially the fight scene at the beginning) except that it’s bloody. It would be more apt to describe it as a bloody sword dance or a murderous ballet of swords. So beautiful yet so deadly. Even so, the fight scenes though bloody are in no way gory at all. The dialogue in the movie is both simple, short, and sparingly little and is spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles. Though most of the dialogues are also mere allusions and seldom straightforward, the message they convey are nevertheless concise and clear if one matches the words with the actions of the characters. Overall, credit should be given to the director Feng for he manages to keep the focus on all the protagonists (around 6 of them) without losing sight of the movie i.e., without drifting into each individual character and furthermore, he manages to maintain the focus of the movie in spite of the arduously slow tempo of the movie.

The acting quality of the individual actors is exemplar. The actors are all character actors and they dwell into the emotional state of the characters they are playing. Take Zhang Zhe Yi for instance, she played the character of the Empress Wan. One could literally see the emotion played out in her face whether she is happy, jealous, lust, malicious, scheming, drunken with power, or even mourning (aside from that she has a great petite body with a beautiful back and a nice arse). The Emperor (the brother – in – law/usurper) was by contrast steely calm, grave, and indomitable but also surprisingly fragile. The actor who portrayed the role, played it with a straight face devoid of emotion. His speech is deliberately even and slow giving us an image of calm and control, of darkness and dignity, of strength and power. He hides his jealousy, his rage, his fear, his weakness so well that his subsequent actions came as a huge surprise to the audience and baffle us about his through nature. His taking of his own life at the end of the movie even though he is in no immediate danger of death and even of losing is one such prime example. It is only there we could see his weakness, his frailty, his defect as a human being. The Prince on other hand displayed melancholy, sadness all throughout and the actor (Danny Wu?) played it so well that one could actually see sadness in his eyes and actually believed he (the actor and not the character) is a sad figure.

The theme of the movie is quite simple and that is Love and Ambition don’t mix. Both Love and Ambition are inflammatory and one would ignite and fanned the flames in the other until both are burned down in the end. This is best expressed in a Chinese phrase, “Jiang san wuo mei ren”, “the world or the maiden’s hand”. Difficult choice but I know mine.