Movie Review: Blind Mountain《盲山》(2007)

There are two endings to Blind Mountain. In the censored Mainland Chinese version, the police comes and rescues the female protagonist from her rural prison. In the version for international release, which is the one I watched, the girl grabs the knife closest to her and, in a climactic eruption of violence, stabs her “husband” who is stopping her from leaving. Then, the screen fades to black.

From leaving what? A marriage that she was sold into, an entire village that is complicit in the trafficking of women, the stifling despair of being surrounded by other women—some held captive for years and resigned to their fates—who persuade her that “All women go through this”, the insular traditions of female infanticide and a family that treats her like a reproductive vessel, much like what they expect of the piglets in their shed.

This is the well-known reality within China: the trafficking of hundreds of thousands of women, sold to rural bachelors as brides. It’s a decades-old crisis that has been dissected by sociologists and then largely ignored by society until occasional sensational headlines surface (take, for instance, the story of “model teacher” Gao Yanmin). Much has been said, little has been done, much less is understood. Why are hundreds of thousands of these tragedies enacted across the country, year after year, with negligible change?

As one of the rare few Chinese movies about the endemic problem of trafficking, Blind Mountain cuts through the noise, social analysis and propaganda to brutally present the ordeal of the female protagonist. On a search for employment, college graduate Bai Xuemei is duped and abducted to the rural mountains, where she is sold to a farming family. A purchased womb for “husband” Degui, a middle-aged illiterate farmer, Xuemei resists and is raped, beaten and impregnated. Again and again, she attempts to run away. Each time, she has to scale the silent mountains, tearing through the eerily atmospheric beauty of unspoiled nature. Every attempt—nail-bitingly painful to watch—comes up against the cruelty, apathy and tacit surveillance of the villagers, many of whom have bought wives themselves and collude with one another to prevent any woman from escaping. As the story races to its explosive conclusion, the movie puts an entire society—not just a family or a village—on trial.

So matter-of-fact and unembellished is the narration (with many takes masterfully shot with a hand-held camera) that vile moments arrive without any spectacle. Despite the raw, economical style, the emotions run so thick and palpable that I had to pause the movie twice just to breathe. Stripped to the narrative bone, this movie horrifies and haunts more than any slasher pic.

The idea of “blindness” runs throughout Director Li Yang’s trilogy: Blind Shaft (2003), Blind Mountain (2007) and Blind Way (2017). Each respectively deals with the plight of laborers in illegal mines, women sold into the mountains as wives and disabled children prostituted in illicit begging rings. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean these crimes don’t exist. They are happening right around us.

Who is blind here? It’s easy to say the villagers due to their ignorance and atrocities. But so is the law—blind in its (lack of) enforcement, which persecutes only the traffickers and not the buyers. In one scene, a provincial official visits the village and is pleased to see a pastoral idyll; all the trafficked women have been hidden, obscured from the picturesque. I wonder if this is blindness by choice. What the state desires is not the gritty truth but a manufactured mirage of prosperity. As for citizens, especially those in cities, it’s much easier to believe what the state dictates than to confront the persistent monstrosities happening in the country’s underbelly. So it is society too that has turned a blind eye. One is left with unabating despair.

What deeply frustrates and crushes is the moral vacuity—an eroding sense of inertness—of these stagnant backwaters. A deep, pervasive sense of loss and impotence drifts over the villagers, even the men who rape and beat their bought wives. Each lash of violence seems to be a bitter retaliation against a world that has left them behind and given them few choices of living with dignity. Severed from the country’s economic growth and the upbeat ‘Chinese dream’, these men sicken yet sadden.

I want to tell you that this movie spares us nothing. But I know that reality is only harsher and bleaker than the images. How long more will this latent moral crisis simmer? When will it reach the tipping point? Until then, our conscience can only atrophy.

作家有多大的想象力都无法超越现实本身的疯狂、炸裂和传奇。终于到了这一天,现实的荒诞和作家的想象赛跑。最后赢的是中国现实输的是中国作家的想象力。

No matter how expansive the imagination of the pen, there is no surpassing reality’s own outrageous explosiveness and notoriety. So we’ve reached this day: the absurdity of the real races literary imagination. And at last, it is China’s reality that wins and China’s authors who lose. (my translation)

Yan Lianke 阎连科

Happy 牛 Year!!!

看春晚 📺

吃饺子 🥟

幸福的滋味

躺在爸爸妈妈的手掌心 👋🏼

如此简单

拥有温暖被爱环绕的感觉 💞

Dear reader, wishing each of you a healthy, happy, fruitful and prosperous Chinese New Year — one that’s kinder to us, gentler on the world, steadier in these rocky times; 祝大家新春快乐,牛年大吉,牛气冲天,牛转乾坤,平安喜乐,健康万福 ❤️㊗️🐮🌟🧧🧨

With love,

From A Foodie: Singapore Chinatown Hawker Adventure!!!

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
🍹
From A Foodie: California Dreamin’
🌴

Hello fellow foodies, it has been a while ; ) COVID-19 has made certain food adventures impossible for most of last year. But since my impromptu walk to Chinatown after work last week, my foodie soul has reawakened with a fervency that cannot be ignored. In my dreams, I picture myself eating oyster cake.

So my friend KW and I decided to do a food trail in Chinatown. We diligently researched and mapped out all the places we wanted to try with the meticulousness of cartographers — especially the hawker stalls we’ve heard so much about — and in a single day, we covered over ten food places (under $30/pax), explored the largest hawker center in Singapore (with 260 stalls spread across a gigantic complex), traversed several food streets and ate till we surrendered inevitably to the limits of our metabolism.

Here’s how the food adventure unfolded (ft. pictures galore and our best attempt at ratings). >:)

Chinatown Complex Food Centre

168 CMY Satay (60¢/stick)

First dish we tried: a meaty appetizer. I haven’t had satay in ages but I’m a huge meat-lover so it worked for me. Dipped in peanut sauce and interspersed with cucumber and onion slices, the skewered charred pork and chicken were skinny and not greasy at all. I give it a 7.5/10, which might be inflated because I didn’t eat breakfast and deflated because I was waiting for KW to return to the table and the freshly grilled meat chilled in the interim.

Hawker Chan — Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle 香港油鸡饭面 ($3.00)

Ordered this for the hype: this is apparently the world’s CHEAPEST Michelin-starred meal. Hawker Chan, the founder of the stall, is also the first hawker to be awarded a Michelin Star in the world. Now his Soya Sauce Chicken can be found in other countries, as a sleek restaurant chain.

Our verdict? 7/10. Not too oily; better than other soya sauce chicken dishes that KW has tried before. But for non-soya sauce chicken lovers (like me), Hainanese Chicken Rice might be a more satisfying choice.

If you’re looking for a better dining ambience, Hawker Chan has also opened a roadside restaurant right below the Complex, with air-conditioning and higher prices.

Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao 中国拉面小笼包 (65¢/Xiao Long Bao; 50¢/Hong You Chao Shou)

The XLB is WAY better than Din Tai Fung and cheaper too. Each bite is a revelation. If it were bigger I would give it 10/10. The skin is not too thick, the soup not too oily, and the meat incredibly fresh. Because I’m difficult to satisfy, I give this 9/10.

Sichuan-style wontons is also 9/10. Not too spicy with a dash of vinegar, each wonton is wrapped in smooth slippery skin. Quote KW, who ate this for the first time in her life, each bite was “mind-blowing” (she is still reminiscing about it ten hours later).

Old Amoy Chendol ($2)

Generous heaps of red bean, pandan jelly, coconut milk and gula melaka, the chendol was satisfying even for a non-chendol lover. For chendol lovers, I think this would hit all the right notes.

The two of us give it a 7/10 for the wallet-friendly price and the nice hawker who thought we were professional food vloggers because I couldn’t stop filming everything.

Pan Ji Cooked Foods 潘记刹骑马

Sachima freshly handmade every day. What more can a dessert-lover ask for? This is one of the last places in Singapore that still handmakes sachima—frying fluffy strands of batter, binding them together with sugar syrup, and slicing them fresh for the queue of customers.

They sell out so fast that I had to come back three times just to finally bring home a packet. Although my parents found it a bit too sweet, I love how fresh it is. You can taste the human touch. 7.5/10.

Keong Saik

Keong Saik Bakery

KW had the Two-face Burnt Cheesecake ($8.50), which is creamy cheese atop matcha cheese. Oozing, rich, crustless, dense. Each bite is a guilty pleasure. She rates her first bite as 8/10 but detracts a mark overall because it got too heavy for the palate towards the end. Kind of overpriced for a cake that she couldn’t finish.

I ordered the Matcha Burnt Cheese Cruffin ($6.50) which was a 9/10. I had this with ice-cream and tea from Apiary and could only heave a happy sigh. The bittersweet matcha syrup gushed over the flaky crust and creamy center like lava. Each bite was indulgent.

Apiary ($4.20-$5/scoop)

Possibly the best ice-cream place in Singapore. With flavors like Blue Milk, Ferrero Rocher, and Baileys & Brownies, there is no shortage of creative options. I went for Blue Milk (milk based ice cream infused with blue pea flowers and seasoned with a pinch of Himalayan pink salt) and a pot of Yuzu Pear Blossom tea while KW went for Sicilian Pistachio in a cone. We unanimously award 9/10 for both flavors. I loved the milkiness and the floral undertones, which mixed perfectly with the cruffin from Keong Saik Bakery. The hot tea in a dainty pot diluted any cloying sensation.

Maxwell Food Centre

Tong Xin Ju Special Shanghai Tim Sum ($4 for 8 pieces)

I DECLARE THIS THE BEST DUMPLING PLACE IN SINGAPORE. Best dumpling of my life, aside from my dad’s. No dumpling beats my father’s but this one comes close. This was the last stop of our day and we swore that we could only eat 8 dumplings. Then, immediately after splitting the first plate, we couldn’t resist ordering the steamed version.

I would go out on a limb and say that the steamed dumplings were even better than the fried ones. They are ultimate comfort food on a rainy day, a sunny day, and all the days in between. The San Xian filling with well-marinated meat and chives were addictive. Made fresh daily, the dumplings deserve 9/10 for the fried, 10/10 for the steamed.

What a pitch-perfect ending to a tummy-filled, 10,000-step day. There are few other places in Singapore where you can get such a concentration of handcrafted, intergenerational recipes within a ten-minute radius. Chinatown, beyond its temples and tourist-favorite Food Street, has many age-old surprises waiting for you. Try before they disappear!

Hawker centers are one of the places where daily dedication to taste and economical prices coalesce. Where else can I find food this cheap that tastes better than most restaurants around the world? The adventure continues.

A stroll at dusk: Chinatown

This is the 100th post on the blog and the first post of 2021. Here’s the full Chronicle. Thank you for being here, thank you for allowing my stories to enter your life : )

I love walking. The best way to experience a city is, partly, to be a flâneur: passionate wanderer, aimless saunterer, happy stroller. Grid-like Manhattan with its broad avenues, paved Gion streets lined with machiya and shrines, Beijing hutongs, the sloping city of Chongqing and the steep cobblestone steps of Jiufen, dingy Kamagasaki and raucous Dotonbori, Cairo with its reckless drivers and friendly locals, railway tracks in Hanoi, tea fields and rice terraces in Bali, Charles River at night and Massachusetts Ave in the day on H-mart runs…

And there’s my island home, Singapore. A Friday evening walk on a whim takes me to unseen corners and colors. How often do you feel like a tourist in your own country?

At 5:36pm, I leave the Treasury building at High Street, where the Prime Minister’s Office is located. The Supreme Court is right across the road with its UFO-shaped dome; the Parliament House sits at a diagonal angle; the National Gallery readily beckons, blue cupola in the distance.

Down North Bridge Road I go—steel and glass skyscrapers bearing familiar bank logos tower on Singapore River’s faraway bank—and over the white boxy Elgin Bridge (named after Lord James Bruce Elgin who was the Governor-General of India), which strides atop one of my family’s favorite riverwalk restaurants, JUMBO Seafood.

Past Doctor TJ Eckleberg’s eyes, for the new ages.

Past the infamous Hong Lim Park with its Speaker’s Corner (the only venue in the country where public protests are allowed), a meadow of peace that idles in the bustle of the commercial district. Strangely empty though the sidewalks are strewn with white-collars, it’s a green oasis in a concrete jungle.

As skyscrapers peter out, the new recedes, usurped by the past. A single traffic junction demarcates two different eras of architecture. Behind me: tall public housing blocks, office buildings and a WeWork storefront. Opposite: rows of multi-hued shophouses. Strings of cartoon zodiac lanterns hang over the drone of traffic, for miles and miles. Each zodiac animal is a pufferfish-like emoji. Beside me, an old couple pauses to capture photos. Festivity of the Lunar New Year dots the blue skies.

I cross. The junction, fittingly, is called Cross Street. From now on it’s solidly Chinatown. A swirl of cultures in a melting pot.

The ambling continues past the pastel green minarets of Masjid Jamae, one of Singapore’s oldest mosques.

Past the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Its ornate five-tiered gopuram on Pagoda Street is lined with figurines: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer. I spot Sepoy soldiers in their khaki uniforms, harkening back to the time of the British Raj.

At the Chinatown Food Street, I buy pineapple tarts from Kele—traditional sunflower shaped ones and cheese-flavored pineapple balls. Conan is also there, buying durians. Hee.

Past the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, South Bridge Road opens up into a four-lane boulevard. Ahead, the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton, the world’s tallest public residential buildings, stand erect like dominoes.

To my left is a nondescript open-air complex, whose plain beige walls belie its true status: pure food heaven because it’s Maxwell Food Center—the mecca of hawker centers. All thoughts of no-dinner diet are promptly forgotten. Tian Tian Chicken Rice is worth breaking my intermittent fasting for. So are the fried sanxian dumplings, washed down with lime juice. The entire meal costs only $9, all effortlessly paid by scanning QR codes. I’m about to buy Fuzhou oyster cakes to bring home but the uncle tells me that everything is sold out for the day. And it’s only 7pm.

Belly full, I weave through the void decks of an old HDB and emerge onto another street of Art Deco-style and colonial-era shophouses. Two rights, one left, past boutique hotels, hip bistros and artisanal bars, and I’m at my final destination. Basque burnt cheesecakes to go at Keong Saik Bakery. A gem in a modern village full of old-world charm.

For the first time since the pandemic began, I clock 10,000 steps in a day. Right before I enter the mouth of the MRT station, I spot the brutalist mustard-yellow and green People’s Park Complex, windows blazing in the darkness. I think back to the time when I was thrown off its premises and forced to return under the cover of the night to report on its lift breakdowns (People’s Park Complex residents plagued by hour-long waits for lifts, The Straits Times). I grin.

Goodbye, 2020

2020 is a year of records set, plans broken, trajectories transformed, passions lived.

It marks the first time I’ve stayed indoors for four months straight. For 120 days, I didn’t take a single step out of the apartment. (!!!)

It marks the most words I’ve written in a year, ever. All these years I’ve talked about writing a novel and turns out, it really IS doable.

It marks the first time I’ve managed to draft so long and so complete a novel manuscript, currently at 101,000 words. It’s uneven at parts, needing some serious editing in 2021, and has a few potholes here and there. But the road has been paved from beginning to end!!! The goal is to smoothen and varnish it with sustained rounds of revision in the months ahead.

It (probably—though I don’t keep count) marks the most books I’ve read in a year. Never have I had so much time just to read, think, and write (strip everything else away and only these three pillars are left in life’s ground structure).

It marks plans dashed—spring break in Israel, summer in D.C., senior year on campus—and in the chaos of scattered itineraries and occasionally splintering faith, I found a haven of peace, a reason strong enough to withstand all that derailed, and a purpose that anchored me in these weird times. What I thought would frustrate ended up freeing me. As the space of my physical world constricted to the size of the household, creatively it grew to contain multitudes: the worlds in the pages I read, the worlds growing under my pen, the worlds I dreamed feverishly about. Instead of claustrophobia, I strangely felt more liberated and less burdened than I have in a long while. Distractions were axed, choices were made for me by the external state of affairs, and all I had left before me was a desk, a laptop, and an open, blank calendar for my mind to inscribe upon.

Standing on the last square of 2020 and gazing back, I’m grateful. I’m lucky to be in Singapore, where community cases number mostly zero on most days, things are opening up (Phase 3!), vaccines will be provided to all for free, and the death rate is low. I’m blessed with a stable, loving, and supportive home and “a room of one’s own.” My life is animated with stories and colored by characters who knock at midnight, in visits of imagination. I’m lucky that writing has found and rescued me. It became my lifeboat, an open door when all windows were closed, and showed me an existential purpose—melodramatic as it sounds, call it destiny.

To my parents, who I have spent most of 2020 with, thank you for respecting my dreams, giving me full autonomy with all your faith, and creating so much happiness in my life. Thank you for illuminating my moments of weakness, motivating me when I lose my way, and loving me in the best way possible. I love you more than words can say, Mommy and Daddy.

To God, thank you for teaching me the most crucial lessons in the gentlest of ways, for forgiving all the times I’ve disappointed you, for showing me a purpose that electrifies and makes me want to wake up every day, for all the opportunities to do you proud. When I see one set of footprints in the sand, I know You are carrying me.

Who knows what 2021 holds? Uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain. I don’t know when I’ll be back on Harvard campus, what will happen to my manuscript, where I’ll be next summer. But 2020 has fortified the bits of me that used to doubt incessantly, cushioned my blind optimism, and taught me that the only way to make things happen and reach seemingly big, impossible goals is to start small and persist every day.

I’m ready, 2021. Let me hurtle into you, like the bullet leaves the barrel.

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A Quick Round of Favorites

(Note: some of the places/things mentioned were released before 2020. My only criteria is that 2020 was the year I first discovered them.)

Favorite Books: 12 Top Reads in 2020

Favorite Skincare Product: Sulwhasoo Herbal Clay Purifying Mask
Honorable Mentions: L’Occitane Cherry Blossom Shimmering Lotion, AmorePacific Moisture Bound Rejuvenating Eye Treatment Gel

Favorite Movie: Parasite
Honorable Mention: Little Women

Feels like I watched Parasite ages ago but it was actually back in February before the world went off the rails. I remember the four of us in a packed AMC theater beside Boston Commons, all leaving the cinema amazed by the sheer artistry and incision we had just witnessed on screen—a brilliant story seamlessly stitched in a perfect choreography of acting, writing, and directing.

Sadly, I’ve watched very few movies this year. If you have must-watch recommendations, send them my way!!! : )

Favorite Album: Evermore, Taylor Swift
Honorable Mention: Folklore, Taylor Swift (Read my review of the album here.)

Both are tributes to fantasy in a time when brutal reality demands our attention. Honestly, it’s a close call between E and F. Evermore wins in my heart because of a few standout tracks: “marjorie” (the Youtube lyric video features footage of Taylor’s opera-singing grandmother), “tolerate it” (I know I keep saying this but the lyrics in this bridge is her best one yet), “gold rush,” and “long story short.”

Fictional songwriting blends good storytelling with ear-catching composition. Who can do both the autobiographical AND the fictional better than Taylor? No one. My fictional favorites are the infidelity-driven crime anthem “no body, no crime” and the unlikely love story between two con artists in “cowboy like me.”

More wistful and adventurous and less sad, Evermore has chiseled away the parts of 2020 that we wish we could forget and carved out what can last.

Favorite Song: 《刻在你心底的名字》卢广仲

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Wishing each of you a happy, healthy, and fruitful 2021! See you next year ❤️

With love,