Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Sunday's Saunter.

Week one at work and play has come to a suitably enjoyable end. While there isn’t enough Jasmine in Jeddah to wrench the violet folds from under my eyes, it is seven pm and another evening beckons. Three more cups of tea, a pack of Ramen, peanuts and a pint of pilsner and we’re on our way.[1] And so it is, this sodium-enriched existence of the globalizing (non)elite.

General reflections are always taxing (most often upon my prose) so I’ll sketch a simple portrait of day one post-jet lag (bare with me). Sunday afternoon I took a bus southward to Stanley, a former fishing enclave now peopled by not-quite middle aged expats sporting utterly attractive multicultural children. What the Embarcadero market is to aspiring (and accomplished) San Francisco bobos Stanley is to sophisticated, family-oriented Hong Kong expats: the harmonious embodiment of all they hold dear. And it’s not too hard to see why. Whereas merchants at the Embarcadero can label their fare “Tasty Salted Pig Parts” (Boccalone) while simultaneously enjoying 50-foot lines of yogafide vegans, Stanley boasts the only bakery in Hong Kong equipped with both the Guardian and the London Review of Books. Never mind that’s the principal reason I went out there (advertising is more effective than we’re often willing to admit): all their patrons were offensively attractive French clans sipping flat whites and mulling over an English scone. In Hong Kong we’ve come full imperial swing.

That evening I head north to Kowloon to embark upon my first solo movie-going experience – something I’ve wanted to do for some time (disclosure: I saw A Dangerous Method alone three weeks ago as my parents watched The Artist next door; doesn't quite count). Known for its expansive parks, raucous shopping quarters and notorious Chungking Mansions,[2] Kowloon is the second most developed part of the city after Hong Kong island (and also geographically part of mainland China). In fact, the famous HK island only holds 1m of the Special Administrative Region’s 7.2m people. Kowloon, for its part, is also more properly ‘Chinese’ than anything on the island. Though home to a considerable chunk of the city’s hotel stock, it’s boom, grind and bustle are decidedly less Western than anything in expat-heavy Central, Sheung Wan or Causeway Bay. Why, I cannot yet properly define, though forthcoming excursions should clarify. But first, back to the movie.

Dining alone is easily justifiable: you’re working late, on the go, in a hurry, etc. After all, we must (calorically) sate ourselves with some regularity. However for some reason solo film going is categorically different. Though essentially an individual experience – or better, one substantiated by an anonymous crowd – there’s an understated taboo against indulging such a subversive desire. Even if “you’ll never see these people again,” you’ve signaled to your fellow cultural consumers that you’re essentially companion-less. Or worse, your crew doesn’t share your cultural inclinations (Not that movie-going cannot be ironic or self-serving: it can and often is). The real reason that solo film going is frowned upon, I’d wager, is the backdoor power of perception it allows its shameless practitioner. Unshackled by muffled pre-show conversation, you can skim the paper through the previews, (unwittingly) eavesdrop on your neighbors (it’s that or deciphering Cantonese mint commercials) or even indulge the odd peripheral glance to see just who is always laughing at precisely the wrong moment. L’enfer, c’est les autres. (N’est-ce pas?)

That said, there’s complete and utter silence once the show’s begun. Not so much as a Skittle pierces the airwaves as the Japanese rape and pillage their way through Nanking for 2:24 hours.[3] Thirty-five minutes into the epic I had an itch on my lower back. Unfolding my left from right leg to readjust, I quickly realize that’s the first movement anyone’s made since the film began. And so it was an hour later when my thigh had a similar favor to ask. Whilst I'm practicing 11th row acrobatics – shielding my eyes from the screen as my father did during The Titanic – the rest of a practically sold-out venue remain undauntedly stoic as the Nipponese ravage the bodies and buildings of all things China.

As we, or rather I, leave the cinema I’m both flabbergasted and fuming. Would one’s reaction be different having seen the film in Harlem? Perhaps. All the same, it's difficult to stymie one's indignation. Citing that AA Gill piece[4] over and over again while vowing to never forget, you’re even more curious to see the reaction of the Chinese upon leaving the cinema. Everyone's aware of the deep regional mistrust toward the Land of the Rising Sun, but this was far worse than anything I'd seen regarding the German menace over many a Memorial Day morning marathon growing up. What visceral rage awaits me in the bathroom chatter down the hall? Will they be uttering old Nationalist hymns of revenge? Or cursing the skies as they pass the Japanese life-style boutiques and sushi restaurants that line the exit of the theatre? Not quite. (Remember it’s not as though we keyed every Mercedes outside Plaza Frontenac after seeing The Pianist).

Civilized and subdued as ever, they whisper amongst themselves and head for the back exit into the mall. Some go for ice cream, others head straight to the escalator. A super-fly couple gets into the elevator with me. I’m dying to know what they think, but they utter not a word. He gets out his smartphone and peruses the screen. She glances at the faded mirror of the elevator door, a motion neither of us admit to noticing.

Six floors southward I leave the mall and rejoin the madness of Nathan Road where giant neon fixtures pierce the only virgin sliver of sky. A parting sea of glass, steel and concrete quadrilaterals compete for breath along the boulevard. The air is cool, if humid, the crowds as careless as when the sun went down – Nanking but a figment of our imagination.

[1] Bear in mind this first paragraph was written Saturday evening, i.e. I’m not raging this peaceful Tuesday morn as I complete this.

[2] Thanks to Ned and Thayer for pointing that out.

[3] Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like it though I did:

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