Sometimes, the power of suggestion of a potentially good pairing leads you to try something new. When the internet connection at my house suddenly got busted last week, I had no choice but to work in a cafe with a pretty good internet connection. Of course Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (CBTL) is my go-to place for this.
While thinking about which tea latte to get, the barista suggested that I try their new calamansi pie. Because I tend to like something sweet with a zing to it, I thought, “Why not?” It’s a nice American-Filipino mash-up of a dessert (American pie plus a touch of Filipino calamansi, or Philippine lime). So I got a slice. I asked with drink would go well with it, and the barista just said “Tea latte.” So I randomly picked African Sunrise.
I’ve tried all their tea lattes so I have no problem with picking whichever. But the calamansi pie is, to put it bluntly, bland. The whipped cream at the side is a nice touch, but I was really after the zing of calamansi. A calamansi pie without the zing of calamansi (which you would obviously expect from a pie like this) is not a real calamansi pie.
Now I’m craving key lime pie…
I enjoyed watching “Flavors of Youth (International Version)” on Netflix last weekend but…the stories seemed a bit predictable. What got me hooked was the soothing, melodic sound of Japanese and the nostalgic feeling that some images from the film brought back to me. The film’s three stories resonated with me: food memories, sisterhood, and missed opportunities. But I wish these were told in a more novel and refreshing way. I was looking for an a-ha moment, I guess.
My Netflix list has a good number of historical drama and films from the world over. Although I’m not exactly a history buff, there’s something about history, real life events, and true stories that seem compelling when put on screen. Whether it’s the need to know, the need to learn, or the curiosity on someone else’s version of events, I’m there.
A few weeks ago, I watched a 20-year old British historical film on the early reign of Queen Elizabeth I, simply titled “Elizabeth”. It’s not exactly an Asian film, but I have been curious about the life of Queen Elizabeth I because her reign is referred to as the Golden Age of England in the fields of politics, exploration, and art. Because a good number of my English literature classes in high school featured Western writers from her era, her name made an impression on me. When I was younger, I imagined what it would be like to be an artist, a poet specifically, during her reign. I imagined that my life would have been more exciting given that society during that time valued beautiful, artistic things.
What further struck me about her was not her portrayal as anti-Catholic, but rather her faith in human reason, intellect, and conscience. She also believed in human agency, that humans have the power and capacity to think and act. She embodied empowerment.
I am currently juggling a number of Asian dramas, namely “Mr. Sunshine” and “Jugglers” from Korea, “Blood and Treasures” from Thailand, and “Atelier” from Japan. I’ve also added Japanese reality series “Terrace House: Opening New Doors” to the mix because it has new episodes and I really want to know how the story of Shion and Tsubasa pans out.
But I’m going to talk about “Mr. Sunshine” and “Blood and Treasures” in this blog more because these dramas depict aspects of Korea and Thailand’s histories.
“Mr. Sunshine” is set during the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty. It was the time when Japanese and American people were both taking an interest in the peninsula. There were pro-Japanese Koreans who adopted the Japanese way of life, including language and fashion. There were also Koreans from a lower social class who were attracted to the prospect of freedom and liberty, and who consequently were enamored with the English language. I learned from this drama, though, that English schools at the time were considered schools for peasants. And to my mind, it was understandable why some peasants would want to learn the English language, and to attain whatever ideals and ideas that learning the English language carried with it. One scene which illustrates this is one peasant girl’s supreme effort to learn English and to, according to her, maybe even find love.
It was also striking how this drama idealizes the classless society as represented by Americans. The lead character, Eugene Choi, always highlights this in the drama, and understandably so: He and his family were slaves before he had a chance to escape to America. In America, he was bullied during his younger years, sure. But as time went on, he was able to adapt to the culture, he acquired English language skills, and worked his way up to become a high-ranking officer in the American army. This upward movement would not have been possible in Joseon, where society is rigid.
I’m only in the 8th episode as of this writing and I’m loving this drama right now. It brought to life my Korean history lessons in grad school, back when I was still a MA Korean Studies student. I couldn’t quite picture the events in my mind just by reading dry and boring textbooks, but this one made me get it. This one made me love that part of Korean history.
I know, though, that this drama is BASED on history, but not all characters actually lived and not all events actually happened. But still, as I have an idea what’s fact and what’s fiction, I can appreciate the life it brings to history.
Another history-inspired drama that I am loving right now is Thai drama “Blood and Treasures.” This one was recommended to me by a Thai friend. This drama, which shifts from the 1700s Ayutthaya to the present time in Bangkok (or Krung Thep), paints a luxurious picture of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, of which I only saw the ruins during a trip with my ASEAN friends back when I was a student in Thailand.
I knew from my Thai friends, who are so unbelievably enthusiastic to share Thai history with me, that Ayutthaya used to be a prosperous kingdom but was attacked by Burmese. Watching this drama helps me understand the conflicts between Thailand and neighboring places in that time period.
The drama centers around former court dancer named Ubol who gets cursed to guard Ayutthaya’s treasures upon its defeat in war. She feels betrayed because her husband, a general, tricked her into the duty and killed her. After many centuries, she prays to a higher being to lift the heavy burden of guarding the treasures. However, the higher being agrees, but only after fulfilling this: That she get her husband to voluntarily exchange fates with her.
Well, that is the extent of what I know, since I only saw up to episode 2 thus far. But just like “Mr. Sunshine”, I am loving “Blood and Treasures”. I love how both Thailand and Korea showcase their history in mainstream drama series, and also how audiences of both countries enthusiastically watch such shows.
But I do not just love it, I am envious of it. I wish my country will highlight our history in more films and TV series, and I wish people will likewise enthusiastically watch such shows. I feel that if my country produces more well-made and engaging historical films and TV series, we will have a stronger national identity and unity.
P.S. Here’s an upcoming historical film that may fill my hunger for history. It’s called “Goyo”, which is set during the latter years of the Spanish colonization of my country. It features the young general Goyo, one of our national heroes, as he battles it out with foreign enemies. Films like these are few and far in between, which makes me even more excited to watch it.
If I were to learn one Southeast Asian language (other than my native Filipino language), I figured it should be Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia from hereon). Here are my reasons and motivations for trying it.
- Great ROI. Aside from being spoken by a very populous country, I noticed that my Indonesian friends can speak to our Bruneian friend. They said they can also speak with someone from Malaysia. I found that awesome. And from a practical viewpoint, the more people I can communicate with within Southeast Asia (or even beyond), the better. The return on investment is much higher and more satisfying. Especially if (and I mean IF) the ASEAN Integration actually comes to fruition.
- Quick and intuitive learning. Based from my initial class, I noticed that a good number of the words are close to my native language. This will probably make my language learning quite intuitive. This is especially because whenever I listen to my Indonesian friends speak, I can actually take a wild guess what they’re talking about.
- Free tuition. The Indonesian class is free for faculty, staff and students of my university, thanks to the Ateneo Center for Asian Studies (ACAS) and the Indonesian Embassy in the Philippines. As my Korean teacher told me before about scholarships, if you can learn and learn (and for free), why not!
Excited for my next class!
When I think of Indian films, the first thing that comes to mind is the elaborate song-and-dance numbers that pop from out of nowhere. Second is the 3-hour investment you need to make to watch a film.
But thanks to Netflix, I got exposed to a wider variety of Indian films. And I learned that not all of them have song-and-dance numbers (for example, “Lust Stories”).
I came across an Indian film called “Love Per Square Foot” on the streaming site a few weeks ago. It wasn’t a mind-blowing film, but it was a pleasant one to watch. The film depicted the love story of two young Indians, whose journey to marriage began the unconventional way: Buy a house first, fall in love second. I also liked the way it gave me a peek into the aspirations of young, working-age Indians. In this case, a house.
What further amazed me about this film was the realization that I didn’t mind having song-and-dance numbers in Love Per Square Foot. I used to find the appearance of song-and-dance numbers in Indian films jarring. I feel like it comes out of nowhere. But in this film, it felt organic–there was a reason why the music appeared; there was a reason why somebody sang. In my head, it was all logical. I suppose what I have been looking for all along was organic unity and some sort of logic that still remained creative.
“Citizen Jake” is a Filipino film that was shown in local cinemas some time in May 2018. Although the story, script, and acting were not perfect, it still touched a nerve in me simply because it tried to talk about the ills of my country. Few mainstream movies do this, as I have noticed that most Filipino films in cinemas nowadays center on millennial romance, marriage infidelity, and quirky takes on contemporary middle class life. These movies are not necessarily bad — I actually enjoy watching them. But watching Citizen Jake at the cinema found me comparing this film to the Korean films that I love.
Storyline’s historical and societal references
What I love about certain Korean films is that the storyline is usually based on history and social ills. Films such as “Peppermint Candy” and “Veteran”, for example, dig deep into the historical and social elements of Korea which adds multiple layers to the film. These films not only entertain but also educate, which hopefully helps the audience be more informed and socially aware (Or in millennial terms, which one of my former Korean Film class students explained to me, more “woke”).
I feel that the Filipino film “Citizen Jake” ignites similar effects of being both entertained and educated. The storyline references historical events in the Philippines such as the Marcos regime, as well as societal problems including corruption, blind allegiance, women’s exploitation, and the elite’s sense of entitlement, to name a few.
After the film ended, I overheard a lot of people talking about the scenes in it, and how closely similar some of it are to actual events in history. The elderly in the audience have an especially vast wealth of experiences and knowledge to draw comparisons from, and they were actually the ones talking enthusiastically about the film while walking out of the theater.
Characters’ power struggle
I have always been intrigued and awed by how characters in Korean films and TV series play mind games with each other. The fight for the possession of power is usually intense, and the strategies and tactics extremely smart. Which is how life is, really, especially in an Asian context where making sense of moods is a measure of social adeptness and agility.
I felt the same sense of power struggle between characters while watching “Citizen Jake”, especially between members of the protagonist’s family. Jake’s father was not painted in black and white. Jake’s brother, although bad to the bone in this film, reminds me of Korean antagonists whom you know act the way they do as a result of the way they were raised. Yes, you get outraged by their actions, but at the same time you understand why. Jake, meanwhile, is a character who has a lot of inner struggles right from the start–from family, to society’s ills, to self.
What I did not like about the film
Although the storyline amazed me despite some quibbles, I found the acting of the protagonist lacking. I can feel things from the storyline, but not from the main character. The actors who played the role of Jake’s family were actually more engaging. With Jake, I look into his eyes onscreen and I see an empty space. There is no intensity, just some awkward body movements and a blank face. This is actually a film that made me realize that it is possible to like the storyline despite the kind of acting which borders on insincerity and lack of talent.
Other Filipino films that ignite similar feelings in me
-“Norte ang Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” – A very, very, very long film that explores a man’s descent into deeper and deeper darkness.
-Birdshot – Seemingly simple plot tells a lot about the dynamics of Philippine culture and society, and how deep the grave we have dug for ourselves is.