Monday, 4 August 2014

Picture Perfect?

I was just scanning through the photos on my phone, copying them onto my laptop. Scrolling through, I see what an assortment of miscellaneous crap I've got. Mountains of pics of my Star Wars figurines, of course, taken mainly during my visits home. Lots of videos of me doing deadlifts and benches, with seconds struck off here and there as my impromptu cameraman (very few ladies powerlift at the UTown gym) accidentally pressed stop/start too early or too late. And a plethora of blurry photos, candid shots, snaps of little things - menus, signboards, chickens - that struck me as cute or funny.

Real chickens! In Singapore! Not even in a cage! Taken while on the way to Matt Hou's CNY dinner, somewhere near Jalan Jelita.

I thought the sign was cute: N'aww, the plants are a work in progress. Later I realised that while taking this photo, my student card may have dropped out of my pocket, costing me $80 to replace. 

Between noun and adverb, more like. Taken in Straits Quay, Penang. After gymming and a Subway with Gab, Jack and Han Peng, I was sitting on a bench waiting for one of them to pay for their parking ticket when I saw this.

As I scroll through these pictures, I remember so much about the place I was when I took them, the people I was with, what we were doing. This one picture, taken in PPT class

Mm. Cookie.

reminds me vividly of how classes were like, more than a class picture ever could: chill, with occasional visitors like Prof Guillem, Prof Fullwood and Isso (who made above cookie, and told us "although it's twice the size of a normal cookie, it's actually only one, so you're okay."). And the toasted-sandwich wrapper from the vending machine visible in the background... It all comes back to me. I can taste it. Feel the oil in my fingers as I pick up my pen to scribble a response to Jolanda, or Spandana, or Raeden, or Florence, speaking in the background. So many memories, unravelled from a single image.

And I realise that it's these little, candid shots that bring back the most memories, not the carefully posed and artistically framed portraits I (up until very, very recently) wished I had taken more of. When I first look at a random shot, it takes me a moment before I remember where I took it... Then that "oh yeah!" moment triggers a host of other memories: where I was, why I was there, why that image struck me as interesting or funny. These little snapshots - blurred, mundane, random - have so much power to vividly evoke the past. And isn't that the reason why we take photos? To commemorate an instant in time, an event, a place, an experience?

Perhaps these pictures are so effective because they have so much of the real about them. Life is messy. It's chaotic, it's random, it's arbitrary and unpredictable and awkward and organic. And that is precisely what these photos are. People talk about screen blindness - the interposing of a camera lens between you and the present moment; you become so focused on taking the perfect picture that you forget to enjoy your surroundings - but this is slightly different. These pictures aren't of anything central, but peripheral. I photographed the chicken on the way to Matt's party, not the party itself - yet that photo reminds me of the party. This is a sort of photographic metonymy, I guess. Looking at a small part (a chicken) evokes the whole (my busride, my walk to Matt's house, the party, the journey back).

But of course, the thing about this kind of photo is that it's idiosyncratic. I wouldn't show the cookie pic to my parents and say: "Here, look at my PPT class." Of course not. It would make no sense - the evocation of memory is unique to me, because I was the one who took the picture and who understands its significance. Sharing your memories with others is where "normal" photos come in: everyone gets together, someone snaps a selfie with an iPhone or takes a stunning shot with a DSLR, you post it on Facebook and Instagram, show it to your family and friends, people like it, etc. etc. etc.

But if you're too lazy for that - and if it's going to be just you looking through your old photos - then I'd say don't fuss too much about getting everything perfect. Take pictures of things that make you smile, or tickle your sense of humour. Don't worry too much about it. Life isn't perfect, so why should your photos be?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a couple days ago with Harry and Lingess, and I can honestly say that it’s one of the best movies I’ve watched for a very long time. It’s difficult for me to parse my initial, visceral, rather overwhelmingly positive reaction into cohesive strands, but here goes (spoilers ahead. Fair warning.):

  DPTA is such an immersive movie. Once you accept the movie’s initial premise, there is no further need to actively suspend disbelief, unlike in some other movies: a guy with amazing spiderpowers, fine; but a one-armed scientist/gigantic lizard who somehow manages to set up a secret lab in the New York sewers without anyone noticing? Vehicles that transform into robots, fine; but an overprotective dad letting his daughter date a race-car stunt driver who slept with her behind his back, and who throws down his weapon at the first sign of danger? I mean, really?

  But I digress.


  The acting in DPTA is excellent. The douchebaggy characters were so effortlessly douchebaggy that I came to hate them naturally. Carver and the two arsenal guards aren’t cardboard cutouts to be laughed at and scorned – minor-villain caricatures like Watto in The Phantom Menace – but believable characters acting in monumentally prejudiced, narrow-minded and foolish ways. It isn’t easy to attain that level of douchebagginess whilst still keeping it real, but these guys pulled it off.

  It's evident that the actors connected deeply with the characters they played. Apart from the consistently impressive performance of Andy Serkis (whose acting range is formidable! Compare Gollum and Caesar), one scene particularly stands out in my mind. Soon after the electricity comes back on, the mayor Dreyfus notices that his iPad is functional. Scrolling through his photos, he comes across a picture of what are presumably his deceased sons. The raw emotion demonstrated by Gary Oldman here really blew me away. He literally cried on screen. Not the wimpy blinking out of a fake tear or two – although there are a couple instances of this elsewhere in the movie – or the likewise wimpy bury-your-face-in-your-hands-and-make-crying-noises technique; but full-on emotional breakdown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crying scene more authentic, moving or memorable than this one (otherwise I would’ve remembered it). And, considering that there’s at least one crying scene in almost every movie, that’s saying a lot.

Totally convincing. Stop pulling at my heartstrings, you. 
 (Photo credit: Nicholaus Haskins via Compfight cc)


Emotional Depth

  DPTA was a movie that got me thoroughly emotionally involved. I found myself hating different characters at different times: Malcolm & family, Caesar, Maurice and the other loyal apes were the only ones who escaped my invective for the entire movie (I remember actually swearing at one point). All the other characters were – to use Harry’s words – “a bit of a nobhead” to varying degrees at one point or another. 

  My emotions were torn as I struggled to find a character to blame for the escalating hostility – and eventual brutality – between the humans and the apes. Was it Carver, the jittery and trigger-happy human who fired the first shot, breached the trust of his simian hosts, and ultimately forced Caesar to make a decision between letting Malcolm stay and placating the rancorous Koba? Or was it Koba, the treacherous ape whose resentment of Caesar (whom he viewed as a philanthrope in the most literal sense), ambition and cunning drove him to seize power? Or was the conflict an inevitable product of each side’s mistrust of the other? There is no two-dimensional villain whose paper-thin motivation is a half-hearted excuse for his diabolical machinations; no one character so stereotypically evil that I couldn’t find a way of sympathising with him.*

  Yet my emotional reactions were not all negative. There were little moments of heroism that sent a thrill through my (frankly rather romantic) soul. Maurice defending the fallen Alex was one such moment. So was Ash’s refusal to slaughter the old human couple in defiance of Koba, made all the more powerful by Ash’s evident fear of the latter: the sheer terror with which he went to his death accentuates the remarkable bravery of that one moment all the more. And I found myself grudgingly admiring even Koba’s boldness and cunning when he slaughtered the two arsenal guards with their own gun. Say what you will about the bad guys, you can't deny that they've got some serious (dare I say ape-sized?) balls.


  The themes that DPTA raises are thought-provoking and pertinent ones. What stayed with me the most was the destructive nature of prejudice. Viewed from one angle, DPTA  basically chronicles how even the best efforts of well-meaning parties cannot bridge the chasm created by a few mistrustful, warmongering bigots. The human-ape conflict is a tragedy of misunderstanding. Neither side is willing to trust the other; there is ill-will and resentment all round; everyone is therefore susceptible to increasing levels of prejudice, fuelled by certain parties who want to manipulate tensions to further their own agendas. A rare scenario in today’s world? I think not.

  Trust, betrayal and forgiveness are also explored to some depth, especially in the interactions between Carver, Caesar and Koba. Perhaps it Caesar’s forgiveness of Carver’s betrayal – and Koba’s refusal to do likewise – that pushed the latter over the edge. Fear that the humans would repeat their barbarous “human work” (another moving little scene: made me empathise with Koba's rancour) led to anger at Caesar’s tolerance of them; anger at Caesar led naturally to hate – and Koba’s conversion to the dark side was complete. It is only poetic justice that his own betrayal of Caesar was not forgiven.


  I’m aware that many aspects of this review may be tainted by selective memory or the halo effect. Maybe upon a second viewing, many of the elements that have left such a positive imprint in my mind may turn out to be less impressive that I remembered. After all, this is but an attempt to analyse and explain my ultimately visceral reaction to DPTA. That being said, DPTA undeniably kept me riveted, had a big emotional impact, and gave me plenty of food for thought. And that, in my book, makes it all that a good movie should be. 

P.S. sorry about the lack of images. I'm still exploring legal, non-copyrighted sources that I can use on my blog.

*There are only two identifiable female characters in the movie, both supporting, and neither is evil.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Polutlas (revised)

So this is the second version of a flash fiction piece written for my Flash Writing course last semester. It's based on the story of Odysseus in the Trojan Horse, as recounted in Book IV of the Odyssey. The word polutlas is a Greek epithet applied to Odysseus, and means "much-enduring".


  He can’t endure much longer. How long have they been in this hellhole? Odysseus has no idea. Hunger and sleep compete for his attention. Anticlus, who has started to snore, is shaken violently awake; hands are clamped firmly over his mouth to prevent any sound escaping. The reek of urine and sweat fills every nook of the small space. The chamberpots are nearly overflowing. The water-skins are nearly empty. ­

  They need to strike soon.

  A decade of occasional battles and innumerable dice games. Ten dark winters spent huddling alone before a sputtering fire. He hasn’t touched a woman since he last touched Penelope.

  It has been too long.

  Odysseus recalls the almost unbroken tension of the past hours. The enemy's initial skepticism had quickly given way to thunderous sounds of merriment and echoing voices celebrating victory. Yet not even then could the Greeks cramped in the Horse afford to relax – the slightest whiff of suspicion could mean ruin. Now, at long last, the voices outside have subsided into snores, and the moans of copulating couples have ceased.

  Odysseus’ hand hovers over the trapdoor.

  He tenses. Voices, incoherent but definitely approaching.

  He makes out a male voice, deep and slurred with drink: "Helen". A woman's gentle murmur in reply. Then, so close that he can touch the speaker but for the rough wood separating them, a clear, high voice.

  "Menelaus. Menelaus, it is I."

  Menelaus jerks up, his eyes wild with shock.

  "I'm here, my love. I've missed you so. Come out to me."

  Menelaus’ mouth opens – Odysseus’ sword is at his throat. A small pinprick of blood trickles down the blade. Menelaus pants, but stays silent.

  Helen's voice continues relentlessly, morphing as it calls to Agamemnon, then Diomedes. More and more men become agitated as they hear their beloveds beseeching them individually with such haunting clarity. Helen had known these women, no doubt, and could reproduce every lilt and cadence of their voices perfectly. All around Odysseus, men are in tears, shaking with suppressed sobs. It has been too long.

  Odysseus moves to stand firmly on the trapdoor.

  The deep male voice, impatient this time, is heard again, persuading Helen to come back to bed. Odysseus takes a breath, lets it out slowly.


  He stiffens.

  A torrent of memories, unearthed by the sound of Penelope's voice. The first time he heard it in her father’s palace, warm breezes blowing in from the sea. The low murmur of her laughter and the way she would brush her arm against his. The day he hid from her in the apple orchard, making Penelope frantically call his name: “Odysseus.”

  Odysseus’ hand hovers over the trapdoor. His fingers grasp the catch

  He can almost see Penelope’s face, smell the fragrance of her hair, feel the soft down of her neck as they embraced on the beach that last morning.

  It has been too long.

  All around him are the faces of ragged men. Faces that have grown old and scarred with his; faces sleep-deprived and tear-streaked. Faces that now stare silently at him.

  Helen calls one last time.

  Odysseus lets go of the catch, curls his hand into a fist, and waits.


Short stories of exactly - exactly - 55 words. Written for my Flash Prose course this semester.

[Saying Goodbye]

Born out of necessity, you were. Concision was your key virtue. It's why I loved you so, treasured you above all my others. You, more than the rest, sprung from my thoughts, the carefully scrubbed, trimmed and polished child of my imagination. But now I'll have to let you go. It's no good. You're fifty-five.


[A Mother's Love]

Her bosom haunted him. Every night, as she heaved beneath him, he could not help but notice its swell. He tried to lose himself in her, to find some sense of the love that, as a child, he had never known.

Her familiar voice greeted him as he entered the bedroom.

"Oedipus, I've been waiting".



He was a clerk and she was a nurse. They had been young, and in love; their parents had even given consent. The wedding was set for the next day. Then the bombs started falling and the soldiers swarmed ashore.

He put down the photo with arthritic fingers, blinking away tears in his rheumy eyes.

Friday, 30 August 2013


Three weeks in. The new college has been inaugurated (just on Tuesday morning, in fact). The YNCers donned formal wear for what would possibly be the last such collective gathering for a long time to come.The media have come and gone in a flurry, snapping photos and snatching soundbites. The last interviews have been conducted. The newspaper articles have been published. The hype of opening a new college is beginning to fade, and we're settling down to business.

And oh, what business it is. Things are going by in a mad rush. I feel like we're in a buffet that closes in five minutes: we're rushing down the aisle, sampling a bit of this and a smidgen of that, grabbing a spoonful here and a forkful there. We're skimming - skimming through our readings because we don't have the time to read them (where did all those hours go, anyway?); skimming through massive topics in one-hour lectures (both Kongzi and Mozi were covered in one sitting); skimming through richly-layered texts like a catamaran over the Pacific (we blazed through the Ramayana in two weeks and are now writing a paper on it). I just don't feel like we're fully engaged with anything. I'd love to have pondered over Kongzi, Mozi, Mengzi and Xunzi a lot more, but as time is such a scarce and precious resource, perhaps Xunzi's advice will have to be followed for now:

"The greatest cleverness lies in not doing certain things, and the greatest wisdom lies in not pondering certain things."

That's why I've stopped doing my Scientific Inquiry readings.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Word of the month = Dynamic

So it's been a week since classes have started. One of the first impressions I have of the character of Yale-NUS is that it's dynamic. Many people here - especially the international students - are movers and shakers, the adventurous type who came here because it was a frontier, a "marchland". They want to start something new. They're pioneers, trailblazers, Davy Crocketts and Marco Polos and Zheng Hes (I think I've laboured the point). But more to the point, they're creative. They're brimming with ideas, and the gung-ho to put them into action. There's always something fresh, something new going on here.

The Shenanigans! Uncharted performance at Yale (oh, about two and a half weeks ago) is a great example. Completely student-initiated, it took on a life of its own, snowballing from a couple of people one week to a third of the whole first class a fortnight later. The performance lasted over two hours, was smoothly organised and beautifully executed. What I'm trying to illustrate here is the dynamism of the YNCers. With them, things happen. They get ideas, they get creative - and then they get down to business. There's nothing airy-fairy or wishy-washy about them. The gap between what is desired and what is achieved is as small as is humanly possible.

(I refer to YNCers in the third person, although I'm a proud YNCer myself, simply because I don't consider myself half as dynamic, proactive or creative as some of the others are. I hope, though, that in time this will change, as I spend more time living and interacting with this wonderful group of people.)

The way the college is shaping up is also remarkably sensitive to what we students want (hence, sense 2 of "dynamic"). Nothing's set in stone. Professors' office hours vary according to what's most convenient for their students. X-boxes and coffee machines and Economist subscriptions were purchased upon request, as was a juice blender and a supply of fresh fruit to supplement the paltry organic offerings of the dining hall. We request, and the administration responds - easy as that. The incredible amount of freedom we have to shape not only the school's student organisations and culture, but also (to a certain degree) the way it is run, is a tremendous privilege, and one that I hope we will not come to take for granted.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The First

And so it begins. Thoughts become words become dots on a screen. The first bubble escapes my head and finds its way into the big, wide world.