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Michael Huang

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About Michael Huang

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    I am a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, studying for a degree in theology, with hopes to earning a doctorate in the future. I like to write fiction and read just about everything, and I also love watching film and analyzing it.

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  • About my avatar
    Somebody's gotta be an Asian hero!
  • Favorite movies
    Ordet, The Godfather, Three Colors Trilogy, Diary of a Country Priest, The Decalogue, Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Favorite music
    The Cure, progressive rock, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, U2, Rush, Dream Theater, Marillion, early Genesis
  • Favorite creative writing
    Shusaku Endo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Umberto Eco, Orson Scott Card, Flannery O'Connor, "Life of Pi"
  1. This is going to get me in trouble with some members of the forum who I know like it, but . . . Waking Life. I like animation, and I like experimentation, and I like philosophy--but I thought this film was not only pretentious but fundamentally Gnostic and indulging in some of the falser aspects of postmodernity. (I wrote a critical review of the film on my website a couple of years ago over here.) Perhaps my problem was that I entered the film with the wrong kinds of expectations; I didn't approach it as a film so much as a philosophical statement. I may have been evaluating it primarily as such. The animation was, admittedly, quite unique and beautiful. I watched it with a friend who is my theological discussion partner. He also hated it, more than I did! And for the same reasons. Perhaps I need to give it another chance, as I haven't seen it again since. It's odd because much more recently, I watched Jean-Luc Godard's most recent film Notre Musique, which is similar in some ways, and I found it not only watchable but strangely beautiful. Same with Innocence (the Ghost in the Shell film sequel), which is if anything even more pretentious than Waking Life in the dialogue. Maybe my tastes have evolved over the past couple of years . . . or maybe I've since been able to separate aesthetic from philosophical/worldview/ideological criteria better. (I was able to do this with both Signs and Hero, though I loathed their theology and politics, respectively.) But back then, I really wanted to like Waking Life, and all my prejudices/tastes predisposed me to liking it, but I didn't. I also didn't like About Schmidt, which all the critics raved about; I found it self-serving and sentimental, despite a decent Nicholson performance. (I did like Sideways, though.)
  2. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman--this was actually my first Gaiman work, and I like it a lot. There is a stretch in the middle where it slows down, and there are points where the "Americana" aspects are overbearing and precious. But on the whole it's an excellent parable/allegory/road trip of a novel, with plenty of jibes at the worst aspects of both modernity and ancient paganism, and with some beautiful, beautiful prose to boot. I'm eager to start reading Sandman soon. The Stripping of the Altars, by Eamon Duffy--this is a history book, but it describes in vivid detail the state of late medieval English Catholicism at the time of the Reformation. Duffy's thesis is that not only was genuine Christian practice alive and well, and not corrupted or half-pagan as most English historians since the Reformation claim, but that the Reformation itself was hardly a popular movement but a top down imposition. The Reformation, for all its theological virtues, destroyed and uprooted centuries of tradition and caused massive social disruption, and not for the better, from Duffy's obviously Catholic viewpoint. This is a very fascinating book for a Protestant like myself to read. It makes one wonder what price the division of the church really exacted, and what was lost in the process that was true and beautiful.
  3. Hey everyone, I haven't posted on this board in a while, but I've been lurking constantly. In either case, just to let everyone know--I'm doing Nanowrimo this year too. I actually did it last year, but I didn't finish my novel by the end of November. Instead, I finished it in February, which was still much, much, MUCH faster than I'd ever worked. I've come to the conclusion that Nanowrimo is one of the best motivational tools to come along ever, so I've decided to try again. This time, being in school rather than work, I have a lot more free time. I hope to actually finish the first draft by November's end! Just thought I'd drop a line. I'd like to post more often on the board now. Happy writing, everyone! Mike
  4. I've seen Avalon--despite good visuals and effects, and a fascinatingly original premise, it felt rather clumsy to me. The philosophical themes seemed much more forced than in GitS, and I'm not sure the standard Oshii style worked quite as well in live-action format. I had a hard time buying the twist at the end, in particular. I liked the sepia-toned cinematography in it, though, as well as the score (Oshii and Kenji Kawai make a great team). Maybe part of the problem was that the whole film was in Polish and mentally I kept trying to compare Avalon to a Kryzstof Kieslowski film . . . very different kinds of filmmakers, obviously! Alas, I have to say when it comes to integrating intellectual ideas into film, Kieslowski does it far more smoothly than Oshii does, even at his best. I don't know about you, but Magda, the protagonist of Avalon, bore too many physical and character resemblances to Major Motoko Kusanagi for comfort too. Finally, it's actually been several years since I saw the first GitS movie, which I saw multiple times but perhaps never fully appreciated. I think I'll go back to it sometime and see whether my opinion of its handling of intellectual ideas will have changed. There is defiintely far too much quoting going on in Innocence, but I felt that the actual ideas behind them were more compelling. And yes, I can't resist those Tachikomas!
  5. I just returned from seeing Innocence, the second Ghost in the Shell film directed by Mamoru Oshii. I actually liked this film better than the first GitS--not only are the CGI + 2D anime visuals spectacular, but to me the philosophical asides, which I found to be overbearing and empty in the first film, seemed more relevant and interesting this time around. (Though there is far, far too much quotation going on in the film--the characters seem to basically dialogue by throwing quotes from Confucius, the Bible, Milton, and other writers at each other.) The action sequences are few and far between, but they are expertly choreographed. The world and the backgrounds are sumptuous and almost hyper-realistic, though Blade Runner's influence is never far from the surface of this movie. I thought I detected some outright homages at times. Anyone else have a look at this film during its limited theatrical run? Here in DC, it's only going to be playing in one theater for a few more days before leaving. I'm glad I caught on the big screen while I could, because it definitely is a "big screen movie," with a pounding soundtrack and rich visuals. Unfortunately, some knowledge of the first film is necessary to fully follow the story, but that film is widely available on video. Finally: it came as no surprise to me to learn that Mamoru Oshii was, in fact, at one point a seminary student. That would explain his constant quotations and his ruminations on the mind/body problem. (Reportedly, he lost his faith as a young man.) The whole franchise, of course, revolves around this issue, and it's interesting to see how the question of what the soul is, whether it's separate or tied to the body, and whether it can be transferred is handled. This is good science fiction. I also really enjoy the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series as well; for those who find the films obtuse and inaccessible, the TV show explores many of the same issues but has more action, humor, and character dynamic than the philosophical tracts that the films sometimes become. The first volume of the first season is now out on DVD, and more will be released in the future.
  6. I think I speak for my avatar when I say that this is a crying shame.
  7. So I finally broke down and bought the DVD of Zhang Yimou's To Live just to see how it contrasted with Hero. Though I've made political criticisms of the latter movie, after watching To Live, I can now see where the hestitation to criticize Yimou's political stances comes from--a film like this is incredibly risky to make in an authoritarian regime. You have to respect someone who made such directed and pointed criticisms of Communism in a film, in ways that jeopardized his future career. Indeed, it's very easy to see why the authorities clamped down on both Zhang and Gong Li, for a film where most of the tragedies in the characters' lives come as a result (direct or indirect) of the various revolutions affecting China. So despite the seeming capitulation of Hero, To Live stands as a brave movie, not to mention a great one from a pure film perspective. Gong Li and especially You Ge do terrific jobs potraying the hard life of an ordinary couple; the story sometimes just teeters at the edge of melodrama, but never goes over because the acting is so balanced and the characters so well-rounded. The cinematography isn't as lush as, say, The Yellow Earth or Hero, but I think that's appropriate, given the settings of the film. The characters' lives are not ones where sweeping natural vistas would be appropriate. One thing that I actually also appreciated is how the film was, while bitterly critical of the system, had a very "humanistic" sense about it, as the Film Comment article mentioned. Tragedies come about not necessarily by malice, but by the weight of circumstances and decisions that are out of the hands of most of the characters. Even the Party officials are not bad men--many of them, as individuals, are good. They mean well, but are caught and driven by a system that is directed toward evil. That to me seems much more realistic than having cardboard villains or people motivated only by malice to stand as antagonists. It also heightens the tragedies that happen to the family, too--they were often the results of geninely good intentions. I can see how some might interpret this as underestimating the evil people are capable of; indeed, this "humanistic" sense seemed almost to justify the tragedies and tyranny of the Emperor in Hero, so such an approach can sometimes be directed to less desirable ends. But not in To Live. Here, it shows that even the good that we try to do is tainted by sin and can result in exactly the opposite of what we originally planned. No greater evidence of the Fall is needed, particularly in grand utopian schemes like the Cultural Revolution. In fact, it serves as a powerful indictment of such schemes. (Harriet Beecher Stowe did something similar with the institution of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin.) So I thought To Live was a terrific film, a moving piece of cinmea that depicted the live of ordinary Chinese in aa hopeful but also sharp-edged way. Anyone else have anything to say about it?
  8. Silence is one of the few books, along with The Cost of Discipleship and Kierkegaard's Practice in Christianity, that made me re-evaluate and take my faith much more seriously than before. Endo has since become one of my favorite authors. It is strong, strong medicine--not for the faint of heart at any rate--and honestly, I dread a movie remake of it. I don't know how well Scorsese will "get" the story, though in many ways Endo's liberal Catholicism is actually much more in line with the vision presented in Last Temptation of Christ (for proof, read Endo's non-fiction Life of Jesus). It is not a "conservative" book, though it is not unorthodox, either. I will still probably watch it on opening weekend, however. So yes. Read the book, now, if you haven't already.
  9. Thanks, Opus. That clears up my question about the releases, too, because The New Republic mentioned cuts that I thought weren't there. MichaelRay, To Live was made 10 years ago, I believe. It's certainly possible for someone to change his mind in that span of time, or to decide that one doesn't have to always take a critical stance to be a valid artist. I have no problem with that decision, actually, as long as it's come by honestly (which is why I had no problem with The Road Home, whose "dissident" themes were muted, though I think were still present in a very, very quiet way). To demand everything be political to one's liking is oppressive and reductive for the artist. It's just that Hero seemed to run so much in the other direction for me, with less nuance in its pro-government approach than would have been present if both sides of the issue really had been carefully considered. There is a sanitized or airbrushed feel to history that it gives which is, unfortunately, reminiscent of propaganda. I don't know whether that makes Zhang a "sell-out." Maybe he just felt it was necessary to do it the way he did it in the context of the film, for the sake of the film's story or feel. But a lot of the evidence, with Zhang being feted by the Chinese government, seems to point in the direction of accomodation. I don't think Zhang would ever see this as a betrayal, nor should he; I don't think he ever had any special obligation to be a "dissident filmmaker," a label mostly applied to him by Western critics. Perhaps he even believes that China is a more hospitable, freer place than it was in 1994 (and by all accounts, it is; two of Zhang's films that were previously banned got released after Zhang came into official favor, and as far as I know, they are still the same subversive films as before), and is more willing to put his trust in the government. I disagree with that response, and regret that it colors the message of Hero, but I can certainly believe that it can happen. I actually have yet to see To Live, mostly because it's not available in my local Blockbuster, and I'm told it's Zhang's masterpiece. I should check it out sometime by other means.
  10. To me, when I see the final frames of the film--the Emperor surrounded by the troops inside that huge palace--I see a man not so much helpless, dwarfed and overcome by the system he has created, but someone who has built a mighty organization that will outlast him and will be his legacy--tall, glorious, and imposing. The Chinese nation as a monolith. (That is what Qin Shih Huang is noted for, after all--for the idea of China as one nation, under him, even through successive dynasties.) Yes, he is visibly reluctant to kill Nameless, and must do so to uphold the "sacred law." But his reluctance comes from the fact that the film wants to portray him as essentially a good man, a man who may use tyrannical means but is at heart a noble reformer who wants peace. It's part of the rehabilitation of the King the film does. In fact, the film made me want to like him--in the movie, he's sharp-witted and perceptive, a great swordfighter, and contemplative in turn, and while he isn't merciful to Nameless in the end, he wants to be. For me, the strongest point in favor of the more charitable, less authoritarian reading of this film is the scene at the calligraphy school. The master tells the students that they can kill everyone in body, but their writing will outlast them. And it is one of their ideograms that hangs over the King in his palace at the film's end--though, of course, one of the King's goals is to unify the written language, and thus wipe out all the other calligraphies that exist in favor of one. But that piece of culture that hangs over the King, and that he contemplates, may be a very subtle sign (no pun intended) that a diverse set of cultures and nations make up modern China, and that they cannot be erased so easily, even by autocrats. A wise king, in fact, may learn from them. But they should be conquered anyway, so the film seems to imply. In some ways, it reminds me of the old Westerns whenever they talk about the Indians. The portrayal wasn't always disrespectful or overtly insulting. John Wayne looks out into the distance and says, "It was a good way of life," and he means it--but it was destined to be vanquished or assimilated. Sad, but necessary. The very fact that there's tragedy involved makes it all the more noble, in fact--it's what underlies the emotional power of the various characters' self sacrifice in "Hero." That is, perhaps, the most insidious part of this film, the romanticizing of what is essentially conquest and destruction by highlighting the nobility of the vanquished. It's a compliment that can only be paid posthumously.
  11. For what it's worth, The New Republic has a critical review of the film that pretty much echoes most of the objections that have been made about the film's politics. The reviewer also adds that the film felt lifeless and overly aestheticized--I wouldn't go that far. I enjoyed the aesthetic aspects myself. It also mentioned that there were cuts, which I thought wasn't true? I thought the version we saw was the same theatrical version released in Asia, but just not the director's cut on Asian DVD. I thought Tarantino had convinced Weinstein to leave the film alone . . . I get the sense that whatever subversive readings people here and elsewhere come up with, the way the film was received in China, and in much of Chinese-speaking Asia, is going to be the more obvious and overt message. The controversy would not have been so fierce otherwise. The Film International essay, I think, goes a long way in explaining that Zhang never wanted the "dissident filmmaker" label in the first place--which is OK, really, not everyone needs to be a radical challenging gadfly to be a valid artist. But does explain how the explicitly pro-government tone of Hero is not that inconsistent with his past work. (That's strange, though, given how I've seen The Yellow Earth--on which Zhang was cinematographer--which really did seem to be an indictment of the government at the end. And even the recent The Road Home, which was otherwise innocuous, carries the latent theme of "mysterious disappearances" and arrests for political reasons in its plot.) In fact, based on all the impressions I've had from interviews and articles about Zhang, Hero does seem to be one huge bid for mainstream respectability, most of all in China but secondarily in the West. In that, he has surely succeeded, and with a stunning showcase of his cinematic abilities to boot. I just can't help but think that a movie that could have been, even just aesthetically speaking, strengthened by making the Emperor's achievements more clearly ambiguous was flattened in favor of a rah-rah ending in which the last two words one sees in the film are "Tien Tia"--"Our Land." (In Chinese it literally refers to the entire known world, ie, the entire known world belongs to us.) Somehow that message speaks a lot louder to me than the admitted ambiguities and subtleties pointed out by Jeffrey and other fine observers here. Believe me, I want to believe in the other interpretation, because I loved the film aesthetically. But with the way the King sheds a tear when he hears about how Broken Sword "understands him finally" because all he ever wanted was to unify the country . . . I can't see how that isn't at least a partial apologia for autocracy, however filled with some (perhaps necessary) tragedy and sacrifice and pain it might cause in the meantime. You gotta break eggs to make an omelette--as Lenin said.
  12. I feel very conflicted about this film. I saw it today at the Uptown Theater, Washington DC's biggest screen, and the visuals and the cinematography were as lush and spectacular as promised. I really liked the Rashomon style building of narratives, too. Truly, this is wuxia film as art. As a film, it was marvelous. But, despite the ambiguities that Jeffrey and others have helpfully noted, I think the political subtext of the film is just too loud to ignore--particularly as a Taiwanese-American. The main question is: where do you separate China as a culture and civilization from the government that runs it? Is the King of Qin a representative of all China and Chinese people, or specifically of the Chinese government? And is it talking only about the Qin government, or also by analogy the present day government (and therefore its policy toward Taiwan, Tibet, etc.)? Because the current Chinese government also wants to unify Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, etc. on the basis that all Chinese people ought to belong to one nation. (With the latter two, of course, that has already happened. With Taiwan, China says it will use force if necessary.) Taiwan and China even have differing writing systems now--China offically uses a simplified Chinese script whereas Taiwan has stuck to the more difficult, intricate traditional script, and so one can even see that the union of currencies and writing systems mentioned in the film carry a contemporary subtext. Moreover, one of the things that Communist government did was to standardize Mandarin as the official spoken dialect of all China, which certainly makes administration and communication easier. But one begins to see the parallel here . . . the Chinese government sees everywhere where Chinese predominantly live as "our land." So while there are some ambiguities, and the film is not QUITE propaganda for the current Chinese government--it is far too artful for that, and I'm still stirred and moved by the whole theme of self-sacrifice in spite of it all--the politics still made me very uneasy. This is still in spite of the encomiums to peace that marked the end of the film, about being willing to lay down the sword. Perhaps I'm too biased to see it fairly, I don't know. But it seemed halfhearted, and in either case it didn't happen until AFTER the country was unified by the sword, anyway. Finally, on a historical note: Chin Shih Huang-di--the Qin Emperor--turned out to be a hated tyrant, whose dynasty did not survive long. 4 years after his death, the Han dynasty took over China. The people rose up in revolt against the Qin tyranny in the end. This is a stretch, but if the audience in China is aware of this, then perhaps Zhang is actually being very smart and more subversive than first suspected: yes, it's great that Shih Huang-di unified the country and language and whatnot. But he got his in the end.
  13. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' The Boatman's Call. That album was what got me into Nick Cave; the songs on the first half of the album in particular resonate with spiritual and Biblical themes in ways that are rare in popular songwriting. There's also Cave's two spiritually-themed lectures, The Secret History of the Love Song and The Flesh Made Word.
  14. I read Blankets again. After my second reading, I've come to the conclusion that my initial reaction to the ending was too harsh; in fact, I was more moved the second time I read it. It really did feel like the best possible ending for a story like this at this point in Craig Thompson's life. Also, I think I now agree with etpetra's point about Craig trying to find a way back to a spiritual life through the Bible itself rather than through a mere vague "spirituality"--especially in his search to find the complexity and paradoxes in the text. "The Kingdom of God is within and/or among you." That is actually quite nuanced and shows he's paying attention to the text itself (though, I'm still kinda skeptical about his way of reading Ecclesiastes). That passage, by the way, reminded me of hearing Marva Dawn, one of my favorite theological writers, talking about the difference between saying the Kingdom of God is "within" vs. "among" you. She says we have mistranslated the text to Gnostic directions, which is part and parcel of the rejection in some Christian circles of art and creativity and the body--the pathologies that led Craig to reject his faith. I'm glad Craig was at least able to realize that there's more to the Bible than the rigidness he was raised with. And I also realized the last few pages, in which Craig reflects on rhythm and ritual, did show an intuitively sacramental or liturgical understanding of life, even if faint and not quite in a religious context. The last few panels about leaving a mark in the snow were intensely poignant, kind of in a Japanese way--the beauty of temporary, fragile things that don't last. Very existentialist to a degree. Such thinkers often become profoundly religious in due time, or at least understand the life of faith in ways that can illuminate better than works written by people "inside" the church. I think of Robert Bresson, an agnostic, adapting Diary of a Country Priest and somehow capturing the nature of faith and grace in such powerfully true ways that most people assumed Bresson was incredibly devout. Perhaps such artists are devout in their own way, or in a way only God can see. So forgive me for my longwinded but not quite so well informed previous post. I stand corrected, and moved in the process. Mr. Thompson is one fine artist indeed, and Blankets still remains the finest growing-up-evangelical memoir I've read in any medium.
  15. I thought the use of voiceover in A Clockwork Orange was startingly effective, as it was given in Anthony Burgess's made up slang and often provided an ironic counterpoint to the action onscreen. Sometimes, voiceover can be used profitably to summarize things (like the prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring) that would take too long to explain in "real time."
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