Category Archives: Asia

Movie Discussion: The Handmaiden (2016) by Park Chan-Wook


Juan, Anne, Yisheng, and Aaron showed up for the screening. We discussed the ambivalence towards lesbianism depicted in the film. It’s generally a positive portrayal although the sex scenes appear to be fetishized for a male heterosexual audience. While the film inherited this flaw from the book, we wondered why there is no positive portrayal of men. We also talked about the colonial period the film is set in and if the director is making a statement about Korea. Finally, we discussed the film technique, camera movements, and the prevalence of green color in the film. I guess green is the warmest color for Park.

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Filed under Colonialism, Lesbian, Love, Post-Colonialism, South Korea

Kapoor and Sons at DYMK 

Attendees: Veronika, Raj, Aaron, Ben, Bien, Thomas. 

We all like the movie very much. All characters are likeable; it’s a movie full of likeable and strong characters, a sympathetic portrayal of all of them. There is much joy and humor in the film, just as there is sadness, as if the director wants the viewers to cry; there is so much sadness that you are bound to identify with one of the character’s plight. We also talked about social class; the treatment and affirmation of sexuality; the feminism; and who is cuter: Arjun or Rahul? 

Thanks Edwin for hosting us at DYMK. 

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Filed under Class, Family, Food, Gay, India, Love

Discussion: Beijing Comrades (Lan Yu) by Bei Tong

This was the night when minority races were racists, starting with Raj saying “All Chinese homes have prawn crackers what!” With the Chinese theme, we had beer cocktail, dumplings, mooncakes, and eclairs.

Attendance included Veronika, Pierre, Calvin, Chams, Raj, Timmy, Asyraf, and Aaron.

We asked questions about the authorship as Asyraf noted that it felt like a female writing fan fic, not unlike the Japanese boys love manga genre, written by women, for women. Chams wondered if the book would be more organic in its Chinese format.

Themes:

1. Death: Most of us expressed our disappointment at diabolus ex machina of the sudden death of Lan Yu when they are about to live happily ever after. Pierre noted the trope of the time. Chams claimed that the sad ending makes the story more poignant. Raj playfully suggested that perhaps that author is saying that the person who screws around is better for survival (in Raj’s words, “Cheebyes always live”), although Pierre rightly noted that we were assuming that staying alive is a good thing.

Aaron brought up the history of sad endings. EM Forster wanted a happy ending for Maurice, but the only way he could envision them together was to remove them for society, staying in isolation in the woods. Like Forster, Bei Tong just couldn’t envision a happy ending in the 80s. Veronika pointed that that this is especially true in the age of HIV/AIDS in the 80s. Han Dong associates sexual diseases with angmohs, Raj noted.

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2. Communism, Money, and Love: There are several communist references in the book: Asyraf noticed that Han Dong means “defend Mao Ze Dong”  and Chams said Han Dong is conformist, when compared to Lan Yu.

Aaron noted that in the postscript, Bei Tong wrote that she was surprised to come across such strong love existing in a capitalist society like USA. In short, Beijing Comrades argues that money is bad for true love, that is, a true form of communism is actually good for love.

Timmy said, “Chey. So typical of Chinese. You Chinese love money, you can talk about money the entire day. Lan Yu is the true Malay, giving up money for love.”

Raj chimed in, “Yeah la, Chinese people are very good at saving money.”

Asyraf shrewdly noted the irony: Han Dong embodies a good communist, and he hates anything Western (from angmohs to their food), and yet he is so good at earning money, and he uses money to buy boys.

3. Communism and sexuality: Calvin informed us the tension between Confucianism and communism. Communism wished to get rid of old “gods” and so Confucianism wasn’t popular. And Beijing Comradeexemplifies this tension. While communism means that people are equally valued for their production value, that is to say that being gay is ok since sexuality is not important in work, China is essentially a Confucian society in terms of being filial and producing heirs.

It is such a society that we see a shocking scene. Han Dong’s mother cries, and Han Dong says his love for Lan Yu is not as important as his mother’s wellbeing. Chams saw it as Han Dong taking the path of least resistance, as he is a conformist. Veronika put herself in Han Dong’s shoes and agrees with Han Dong’s thinking.

4. Gender: Seen in the communist/capitalist light, Raj notes that most people are commodities. Boys are bought for sex; women have sex with rich men who are potential husbands; and in a sense, women are seeing rich men as commodities.

We also talked about Han Dong leaving the curvy woman for the slim Lin Ping. Timmy scoffed, “Chey, so typical of Chinese.” Raj added, “Yeah la, Chinese fuck Malays and Indians, but marry Chinese in the end.” HAHAHA. How come so much Chinese bashing one?

In any case, there is much complexity about gender in the book. But since only two of us read the book fully, we didn’t delve deeply.

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5. Sexuality: In the essay attached to the end of the novel, Petrus Liu argues that because Han Dong doesn’t believe in labels, “Han Dong stands as an example of a failed gay identity” (379). But Asyraf, Calvin, and Veronika called on Liu’s narrowmindedness: Han Dong by sleeping with everyone is bisexual or polyamorous; just because he’s not absolutely gay does not mean it’s a “failed” identity. Aaron also said that Liu uses a Eurocentric point of view on Han Dong. Han Dong needs to overcome societal and familial pressures, which he does in the end, and admits he is gay eventually, even if he lacks courage to live the life. Isn’t an acknowledgement of his gay self an affirmative identity even if it doesn’t adhere to the Western notions of screaming to be out-and-proud? 

Petrus Liu also claims that since Lan Yu stumbles upon being gay–as Asyraf puts it succinctly that Lan Yu doesn’t choose to be gay–Lan Yu has a “non-identity” (379). But we disagreed with Liu. Obviously Lan Yu has a choice. He rejects a violent advance, and psychoanalysis, as Pierre noted. We also observed that Lan Yu goes out to find gay friends; you’re gay when you choose to make friends in the gay community. That is an identity.

6. Sex: Besides sleeping with men and women, Han Dong sleeps with “Annie” (drag queen) and HJ (guitarist who wears makeup). Why does Han Dong sleep with men he is not attracted to, Aaron asked. Both Raj and Pierre said that because Han Dong doesn’t know how to deal with relationships, he is experimenting.

Are there too many explicit sex scenes? Raj said, “Yeah, what’s up with emphasizing Han Dong’s big cock?”

Timmy responded, “Yeah lah, it’s so un-Chinese.” When asked to clarify if big cocks are un-Chinese, or if writing about big cocks is un-Chinese, Timmy declined to answer.

Aaron admired the sex scenes because they defy the hush-hush taboo secrecy of Chinese society.

Conclusion

As we always want to end with a positive note, nobody had anything good to say, although everyone who didn’t read the book were persuaded to read the book. Chams said in the tiring world we live in, it’s good to read a trashy book to relax. Calvin liked the purity and steadfastness of Lan Yu. Although Pierre said the book is dated, Aaron felt that it has captured a cultural zeitgeist at a particular point in history; he could identify with the struggles of Han Dong (“The struggle is real!); and the complexity of gay relationship between Han Dong and Lan Yu is universal and still relevant to reflect on our own modern gay relationships. Love is timeless.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bei Tong, Bisexuality, China, Class, Family, Gay, Love

72nd Discussion: Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask

Moderator: Raj
Attendees: Alexius, Dominic, Ivan, Timmy

The biggest complain we had about the book was the way it was written: Dominic felt it was unlike the “Japanese style of writing”, comparing Mishima to Murakami. Raj thought the book was draggy, describing “mundane things in mundane ways.” Alexius did not like the ending and was left disappointed by the book. Timmy found it uninteresting as a whole.

For this discussion, we forewent our usual style and went through the book chapter by chapter.

Chapter One – which we deemed “Resurrection” because of an experience the narrator went through when he was four.

Believability
We started doubting the narrator’s credibility from the start of the book. Timmy thought it was all “fluff and bluff,” while Dominic opined that the book seemed like a semi-autobiography of the writer… a romanticized version of himself as the narrator.

Childhood
Timmy was amazed by how well-read the narrator was, even questioning his accessibility to such literature at that age. Raj added on his penchant for changing the (fairy) tales that he read, which added (and accentuated) his morbid nature from that age onwards.

Donning the mask      
According to Timmy, the turning point was when he started playing dress-up as Tenkatsu. This went on as he started being masculine in front of his cousins.

Obsession with death
“Maybe he finds life hopeless?” Alexius joked.

Joan of Arc
Raj noted the narrator’s disgust of Joan after finding out that the martyr was a she, declaring that incident as the “first disappointment of his life.” (Joan of Arc was Raj’s favourite of the book)

Chapter Two – “Boys with Toys,” because:

“The Toy”
The matter of the narrator referring his penis as “the toy” was brought up. Timmy quipped that the narrator thought his penis had a mind of its own; Raj observed that he was very detached to his member despite being an adolescent in this chapter. Alexius offered that perhaps he was ashamed of his homosexuality.

From St. Joan to St. Sebastian
Raj made mention of the narrator moving on from one historical figure to another, noting his preference for “virile, lean (guys) with muscles and wearing very little,” adding that St. Sebastian may have been the narrator’s role model at that point of time. According to Timmy, this may also be a continuation of the narrator’s sexual awakening. (St. Sebastian was Dominic’s pick as favourite.)

Omi
Was he gay? Raj and Timmy said no, while Alexius said yes. (Both Alexius and Timmy picked Omi as their favourites.)

Delusions of grandeur, S&M, and armpits were also discussed during this chapter. Overall, we felt that this chapter did not make a lot of sense – just like an adolescent’s mind, according to Timmy – and contained “too much fantasizing,” according to Raj.

Chapter Three – for which we termed “Regressed Suppression” as the narrator did not face any pressures from external forces, only internal conflicts.

Raj found this chapter “bizarre,” which probably had to do with the myriad sub-topics we touched on but barely managed to delve deeper into:

  • The narrator acting more of a teenager, which included mimicking his peers (Raj noted his obsession with kissing, which he found interesting) in his attempt to appear straight;
  • His body, which he seemed to be embarrassed about;
  • War and the military (according to Raj, women were front and centre in this chapter because “the men went to fight”);
  • Voyeurism;
  • Dying young.

Chapter Four – “The Beginning of the End”

A continuation from the previous chapter, where the narrator was labelled “the last virgin alive” by Raj and his desperation to have sex (“everybody’s doing [and done] it, so I should too.” – Timmy) despite ending up not doing it. We didn’t get the chance to discuss more about Sonoko and their relationship.

“So when did the mask come off?” asked Raj.
“It didn’t,” Timmy replied.

And that concluded our discussion, followed by an apology from Alexius who regretted recommending the book as well as did not find it as appealing upon second reading.

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Filed under Classics, Coming of Age, Disability, Family, Gay, Japan, Time, War, Yukio Mishima

69th Discussion: Lydia Kwa’s Pulse

Moderator: Brian
Attendees: Alexius, Kenneth, Raj, Timmy

The idea of bondage in a predominantly Singaporean setting intrigued us to read the book, though not enough to sustain our interest in it – all of us disliked it, with Kenneth finding the novel “myopic” and not relatable, and Brian claiming “struggling” to finish the book, “paragraph by paragraph”.

THEMES
The usage of kabuki was questioned – why the Japanese term instead of bondage? Kenneth explained the difference between Japanese bondage (not a sexual fetish, more instinctive, cultured and all about aesthetics) and Western bondage. He further added that the ideology was only touched on a superficial level. Brian had hoped that there were more bondage scenes.

With reference to the above and sex, Raj opined that Natalie only did bondage and controlled sex because she has difficulty letting go and being free. Overall, we are in the belief that the book painted Singapore and Singaporeans as a repressive society.

Raj found the portrayal of mother figures in the novel stereotypical and delusional – far worse than the portrayal of gay men. Kenneth thought how the grandmother was written was a representation of her generation, while Alexius saw her as offering Natalie nothing much apart from “gambling her life away”. There also seemed to be a generational divide, with the old folks seeming guarded and the younger generation adopting a devil-may-care attitude.

Kenneth interpreted the use of fortune telling as an “informed way of looking at life”, though Alexius found it stereotypical in relation to race, preferring that tarot cards be used instead.

On the issues of race and racism, Raj described the book as “rojak gone wrong”, noted that Indian people were only featured in the book as an afterthought. Brian highlighted the anti-white sentiments. Alexius observed that the Peranakans were aggressive and quipped that “if Adam was an ang moh, he should have gone with a Malay boyfriend.”

There was also semi-political tones adopted throughout the book which, according to Alexius, alluded to the government’s relations with the Malay community. Brian, however, begged to differ, stating that the book tries to avoid being political.

CHARACTERS

None of us liked any of the characters, with Alexius deeming all of them as fakers.

Brian outright hated Natalie, while Raj found her to be full of herself.

Alexius felt that Selim sacrificing himself to be a stretch though Kenneth empathised with the character.

There were still a couple of things that we liked about the book: the romantic innocence and first loves (Raj) and an oddly “feel good book” as “other people have duller lives in comparison (Alexius). Brian liked a particularly paragraph in Chapter 5 which he thought went against the rest of the book. Raj was touched by the ending.

By the end of the discussion, we still stood firm in disliking the book. Brian deemed the book empty, while Raj thought it tried to cram in too many ideas and didn’t challenge anything. “Like a city bus,” he purred.

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Filed under Canada, Family, Lydia Kwa, Queer, S/M, Singapore

62nd Discussion: Ellis Avery’s The Teahouse Fire (or Q&A with Raj)

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Poor Raj! He set such a beautiful table, and no one came for the book club. Aaron had emailed Raj a list of questions beforehand to moderate the discussion, but since no one came, Raj decided to answer them.

 

Questions for Teahouse Fire:

  1. On p. 284, there is a Japanese phrase “ichigo ichie” for the tea world. It means “one moment, one meeting,” or in the deepest sense, it means there are no mistakes in life. What does this phrase mean about life in general? Does the novel embody this phrase? Which character, do you think, apply this philosophy?

avery - The_teahouse_fireIchi-go ichi-e is linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience, particularly depicted during the tea ceremony conducted in the style of famed tea master Sen no Rikyu where unique scrolls, tea bowls and flowers are set up in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique. This is also true that there is has been no repetition of the set up for the varios tea ceremonies in the book. In each of the tea ceremony, the host and guest had one unique experience that lead to friendship or disaster

In a deeper sense, it is about Aurelia meeting Yukako in the teahouse that night of the fire – it is that one moment, one meeting that changed the courses of their lives. Towards the end, in the same tearoom, Aurelia kissed Yukako and again changed the course of their lives.

  1. What are the similarities and differences between Western and Japanese cultures in the book?

Similarities:

Mary vs Goddess of Mercy.

The status of fallen women is the same – Aurelia’s mom and Kenji’s girlfriend Aki – outcast.

Differences:

Bath rituals

Role of wife

Social order – Samurai, Traders and the untouchable working class

  1. Is Urako/Aurelia responsible for her uncle’s death? (Also note the molestation scene before the fire.)

She prayed for her life to change and she rather not have the uncle with her – shown by her praying to change her life before the goddess and also her uncle only showed up in nightmares later in her life as Urako. Also, she never bothered to find if her uncle survived the fire at all.

  1. Why does Urako/Aurelia have made up last names?

I believe that she doesn’t know her father’s name and that name “Bernard” was given by her uncle. Hints that her mom could have been raped by a priest was suggested by both Aurelia and her mom when she said, “Aurelia Bernard. Who is this Bernard, tell me? The Church hates truth, and the nuns hate it most of all.”

  1. Why does Urako have sex with Nao?

She wanted someone who desire Yukako to desire her as well. Also she believes Yukako desires Nao instead of her and she wants to punish her.

  1. Objects in the book often have significant meanings: the lightning cup, Yukako making a spoon out of Baishian’s wood for Urako, and Urako’s Catholic medal. What gives these things meaning? And what is the significance of these things? On a side note, does Yukako’s marketing on tea ware cheapen or ennoble the art?

Symbolism and subtle messages are very much a cultured Japanese behaviour – the book is full of hidden messages just like Urako’s closeted sexuality – classic example of her dress handing in the alcove.

Yukako’s marketing of the tea sets made them more of a commercial item rather than “ichigo ichie”- “one moment, one meeting”.

  1. Why does Yukako set Baishian on fire? What is the significance of fire and water in the book?

Yukako’s way of atoning for her mistake – she will never be able to host another tea ceremony in Baishian again – again on the theme of Ichigo Ichie.

You need fire and water to make tea – its sweet irony. Also Aurelia had a fire after a long journey over sea into Japan and after another fire she sails away from Japan.

  1. Yukaka appears to be half sister to Koito. Does it give her a right to teach Koito, a geisha, chado?

Yukako did it for other reasons rather than the fact that she is a half sister. Yukako , according to the book, has been key reason for women to learn tea. She also introduced this to the Geisha world through Koito. But whether she has a right – it all depends on who’s perspective you want to look from.

  1. During one teaching lesson with Koito, Yukako honors Urako’s Western dress. Why?

Yukako’s acceptance of the western influence into their lives. Also Urako is her first student.
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  1. Why does Aurelia’s mother insist on calling her blond when she has black hair?

Maybe her real father had blond hair??

  1. Comment on the throwaway reference to Singapore as a name for a ship. Is it exoticizing Singapore?

Author wants to show the historic importance of Singapore as a port as well of the fact that Japan owned Singapore at one time.

  1. Incest: Comment on the rampant incest that occurs in the novel: Aurelia with her uncle, Yukako with her half brother, Nao; Kenji (Yukako’s son) with Akio (Nao’s daughter).

Its common in those days – people don’t get out of their circle and houses too much

  1. Why does Akio dress Koito in Yukako’s kimino?

Fantasy – Fetish – every man wants a virtuous wife who is a whore in bed!

  1. Discuss the male-female relationships in the book. Are there any positive ones? (Also look at mother-son relationships).

Yukako – Tai – positive

Tai – Tsuko – positive

  1. Discuss the male-male relationship in the book, especially the triangle between Nao, Hiro, and Akio.

There is a lot of brotherly love and jealousy by Nao to Hiro and Akio. Hierarchy in the teahouse is one the reason for this and class status.

  1. Nao’s class struggle.

Didn’t help when he married an untouchable gal !!

  1. Love: Does Urako love Yukako or Inko?

Different sort of love – Yukako is a sort of motherly-sisterly love – whereas Inko was more of her equal. Inko loves Urako more that Urako loves her while Urako love Yukako more than Yukako love her.

  1. Discuss the female characters (Pipe Lady, Yukako, Urako, Chio, Aki, Koito, Inko)

Really? Why??? There is too many female characters in this book!!!!

  1. Discuss the male characters. Are there any strong and positive male characters? Is this another male-bashing lesbian novel? (Mountain, Akio, Jiro, Kenji, Tai.)

There was no real great male characters , but at the same time there is no real male bashing. There are more mean gals depicted in this book than lame men. This book centres on women rather than men.

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Colonialism, Ellis Avery, Family, Food, France, Historical, Japan, Lesbian, Love, Race, Religion, USA, War

61st Discussion: Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang

Moderator: Aaron
Attendees: Dominic, Faizal, Hisham, Javin, Jiaqi, Timmy

mchugh, maureen - chinamountainzhangThis is one of the rare times that we decided to do a (gay) science fiction book. Everyone had something to pick on with the book – from its setting (Javin found it “unnecessary” and depressing, Dominic thought it was a dauntingly boring disturbia, Jiaqi didn’t think there was enough “sci-fi” and advanced technology to classify it as futuristic) to the writing style (Raj didn’t find it appealing, Timmy thought it was too static and sterile) and even to how prehistoric some concepts were (Aaron scoffed at the idea of cruising despite being set in the future).

THEMES
1. Structure: Jiaqi liked the diversity in showcasing the varied characters, which Javin disagreed with as he could not invest in them as much. Raj hated having to connect all the dots, which Aaron added made the book all the more messy and chaotic. Hisham felt that it could have been done better.

2. Homosexuality: Everyone agreed that homosexuals were stereotypically portrayed here, from the rich ang mohs to the Chinese gays with the inability to say no to everything. The happy ending that Zhang received drew ire from Aaron and Javin, who felt like it was forced, though Raj and Jiaqi thought otherwise, even if it was clichéd.

3. Women: Portrayed negatively except for the Korean woman (Jiaqi), and the doctor, who came across as domineering (Hisham).

4. Racism: Raj quipped that despite being set in the future, the only thing that was progressive was the food. Aaron pointed out that the Chinese characters suffered terrible fates, eliciting a rather long racism rant.

5. Relationships: The gay relationships featured came across as passive (Dominic) and devoid of love (Javin), to which Jiaqi vehemently opposed, commenting that it was filled with affection. Timmy noted that the heterosexual relationships showed the most growth throughout the book.

Dysfunctional, queer (Aaron) and atypical (Raj) were used to describe the familial relationships, though Jiaqi thought the families featured were portrayed normally.

CHARACTERS

1. Jiaqi didn’t think Angel was a fully developed character, and whose only sole purpose in the book was to be the information superhighway to Cinnabar, according to Dominic. Aaron saw her as a fag hag, to which Javin quipped that her being a fag hag gave her the opportunity to win races.

2. Everyone agreed that Peter was the most well-adjusted out of all: partly because he came off as relaxed and was able to come to terms with himself (Javin), and mainly because he was ang moh and didn’t worry about others’ opinions (Raj). Jiaqi deduced that Peter had it easier than Zhang. Peter is Javin’s favourite character.

3. Aaron thought that as a character, Cinnibar was not properly fleshed out.

4. Raj viewed Matador as another typical young gay boy who didn’t give a hoot about the world, to which Aaron concluded that he was another whiny bottom who just wanted to be taken care of.

5. Based on our observations, Hai Bao was set up as Zhang’s (life?) mentor. His suicide served as a milestone in Zhang’s life, causing him to “wake up” from his “catatonic” state.

6. We looked at Martine as a repressed being who had difficulty expressing her emotions. Timmy envisioned her to be like the ultimate on-screen ice queen, Tilda Swinton.

7. Aaron selected Zhang as his favourite character; citing his determination that gave everyone hope. Jiaqi liked that he was funny, relatable and sympathetic.

The question as to whether he was a depressed individual elicited two responses – Jiaqi, Dominic and Timmy didn’t think that he was ever in that state in the first place, while Raj and Aaron believed that he was.

We also questioned his decision/motive of revealing his sexual orientation to San Xiang at the end, and wrote it off as him finally accepting and being comfortable with himself.

In rounding up the discussion, everyone generally had nice things to say about the book – that it was interesting (Dominic), an “MRT-friendly” read (Raj), likeable and memorable characters (Jiaqi) and being enjoyable overall (Timmy). Aaron appreciated the literary values the book brought across, and being one of the only few books that saw the gay man eventually getting his happy ending (pun not intended). Hisham profoundly expressed that the book made our #firstworldproblems seem minute in comparison. Javin succinctly summed it up best: “It’s a gay book.”

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Filed under China, Class, Colonialism, Ecology, Family, Gay, Love, Maureen F. McHugh, Politics, Post-Colonialism, Race, S/F, Space, Technology, USA, War