The Beijing Diaries, Days 4 & 5: Random Observations

November 13, 2012 in China, NBA, Travel by pacejmiller

The added security is a hassle — unless you have a press pass

November 9 & 10

The 18th National Congress is officially underway, and my days generally involve running around between my hotel and the media center at the aptly named Beijing Media Center Hotel. You would think they’d put the media center somewhere convenient and close to the Great Hall of the People. but it’s about 6 subway stations away.

The rich international news agencies generally have their own cars and drivers or get special shuttle buses directly to the venue from their hotel, but cheap news agencies like the one I work for force us to catch the subway.

On Friday, I moved back to the hotel I was originally supposed to stay at (but was cancelled at the last minute). It’s part of the same chain but it’s more convenient, newer, brighter and cleaner — although it’s also a little smaller.

Anyway, not much to blog about since I’ve been spending most of my time attending press conferences and writing articles, so I’ve decided to share some of my random observations of Beijing.

Here goes:

  • Beijing’s subway system is utterly insane. Off-peak here is like peak time in Sydney and Taipei. I’ve never had so many bodies pressed against me at once, and definitely never so many bodies that smell like they haven’t showered for some time. People have to prepare about 2 stops in advance to make their way through to the door so they can get off.
  • Red lights don’t count for cars here for some reason. Everyone seems to have accepted this fact, even the traffic cops and pedestrians.
  • Red lights don’t count for pedestrians either if enough people can cross the road at the same time. Dozens of people just naturally form groups of their own and cross together at the same time, blocking cars that should have the right of way. Strength in numbers. It’s awesome.
  • Taiwanese people have got nothing on the Chinese when it comes to picking their noses on public transport.
  • I am always thirsty in Beijing. I have about 4 litres of water a day and I’m still thirsty.
  • The Oriental Plaza Mall across from when I am staying is huge — it stretches between two subway stations (Wangfujing and Dongdan). Think about that for a second.
  • There is a serious phlegm problem in Beijing. People are constantly hocking phlegm wherever I go (in fact I can hear it outside my window as I type this), though to their credit there are significantly less spitting noises that follow. It must be something in the air or the food because I’ve been experiencing a significant rise in phlegm myself.
  • There is no concept of lining up in China. I often see massive crowds of people and I think something must be going on, but they’re actually all just trying to get to the ticket machine at the same time. Years of fighting for survival can do that to people.
  • The Beijing Media Center Hotel really sucks. The internet there is slow and many websites don’t work. The wi-fi is completely unreliable. I would believe it if someone told me that the Chinese government giving foreign journalists shit internet on purpose so they can’t send their articles back home to get published.
  • Security is heavy right now at subway stations and near tourist spots in Beijing but you can get away with most of it if you have a press pass (they just let you through without checking most of the time). Makes me worry that someone is going to make a fake press pass. They fake everything here, so surely a press pass is not that hard.
  • I can’t get out of my head the recording of the English announcer’s voice from the escalators at all subways stations on line one. “Please stand firm, and hold the handrail,” she says. But it sounds like “Please stan-fer, and ho-de-han-ruil” — with a Frank Constanza kind of halting rhythm. I love it.
  • Beijing (and I assume all of China) has really awesome NBA coverage, with multiple live games and replays throughout the week. The best part is that during timeouts and breaks they almost always show highlights of other games around the league. It’s one continuous NBA-rama here.
  • From my very limited interactions with taxi drivers in Beijing I have concluded that they are the nicest in the world. The other night I had real trouble getting a cab to go to a journalist function, and I finally managed to hail one down — but it was heading in the wrong direction. The driver was so apologetic that she would have to find somewhere to do a could of U-turns and despite me saying it was perfectly fine since I was the one that chose a cab in the wrong direction she just wouldn’t stop apologizing. And when I arrived at my destination I tried to give her a one yuan tip, but she wouldn’t take it no matter how hard I tried. Are they polite or just crazy?

Battle of the Polarizing Films: Drive (2011) vs The Tree of Life (2011)

November 13, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

It’s November and I still haven’t finished reviewing my list of 2011 films. So here’s another film battle — this time,  between two of the most polarizing films of last year – Drive and The Tree of Life. I thought one of these films was amazing, and the other boring and pretentious — but can you guess which is which?

Drive (2011)

I had heard some mixed reviews of this Ryan Gosling neo-noir crime drama. Some said it was slow and boring and too violent for its own good. Others said it was one of the best films of the year.

The story follows Gosling’s unnamed lead character, who works as a mechanic by day and a getaway driver for criminals at night. You don’t know much about his past or background, but all you know is that he is one heck of a driver who can stay calm under the tensest of situations and a badass you wouldn’t want to mess with. He befriends a neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son, whose father is in prison and owes protection money to the mob.

It’s a simple story driven by a fascinating character and a sublime performance from Gosling, who seems to be unable to do anything wrong these days. It’s also boosted by a superb all-star cast, including the omnipresent Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks.

With the exception of Mulligan, who gives a good performance but feels miscast in the role, I loved everything about this riveting film, which had been hooked and on the edge of my seat from the opening sequence — which is, might I add, one of the best of any movie ever. I loved the tension and I loved the mystery of Gosling’s character — the calmer he was the more nervous I got. And I don’t often notice the soundtrack but this one’s was rocking — the ethereal-electronic-pop-dominated score was perfect for the look, style and feel of the film. (For some reason it reminded me a little of the video game Grand Theft Auto!)

As for the violence, yeah, it might have been a little excessive (elevator scene, anyone?) but I thought it fit in well with the overall tone and added an edge to the tension. I’ve always been a fan of well-executed violence (thanks, Tarantino), and I suppose this is a great example of it.

One of the best, and potentially one of the most memorable, films of the year for me.

5 stars out of 5

The Tree of Life (2011)

The buzz around The Tree of Life before I watched it was that it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking that cements his place in cinematic history as one of the best directors of all time. But word of mouth from relatives was that it was so confusing and boring that walking out would have been a better option than staying until the end.

My previous experiences when it comes to Terrence Malick have not been positive. I remember when people were calling The Thin Red Line a vastly superior film to Saving Private Ryan and decided to check it out, but had too much trouble trying to decipher all of Nick Nolte’s mumbling to really understand what the fuss was all about. Then I watched his next effort, The New World with Colin Farrell, but I gave up on it about 20 minutes in after, again, failing to get through all the mumbling voice-overs. What’s this guy’s deal with incomprehensible philosophical mumblings?

Anyway, I thought as a more mature movie viewer, I would now be more capable of appreciating Malick’s art. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The Tree of Life had its fair share of mumblings as well, but that wasn’t its problem. Its problem was trying too hard to be “profound”, to be “different”, to be a “masterpiece.”

Essentially, this “experimental” film follows a middle-aged man’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), but at the same time it is also supposed to be some chronicle of the history of the universe that explores the meaning of life.

I don’t have a problem with ambitious projects, which this clearly is, but I suppose you need to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy The Tree of Life (ie, high on LSD or something). If you’re expecting a linear narrative with a clear story to tell, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you’re expecting a movie to suddenly turn into the National Geographic channel and show the images cosmos and dinosaurs and asteroids, and feel that it explains what life is all about, then you’ll probably love The Tree of Life.

I do appreciate the artistic merits of the film to some extent, as well as the beautiful images of nature that Malick projects onto the screen. The scenes depicting the children and their relationship with their father are also done well and occasionally stirring. In that sense I guess I don’t despise The Tree of Life like some others do, but at almost 140-minutes it was just too much to take and digest. Frankly, I was often bored and frustrated.

Maybe I’ll have more luck with Malick’s next film, To the Wonder, a romantic drama starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. I heard people booed laughed at it during the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

2 stars out of 5!

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