Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How Green Was My Valley

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

How Green Was My Valley has the unfortunate distinction as being the film that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Unfortunate because on its own it is a wonderful film, well made and quite moving at times. If a comparison needs to be made, I'd rather see the two films as complementary representations of two competing ideals of America. Citizen Kane ponders the corrupted American dream through an examination of an increasingly isolated individual trying to recapture, through commercial excess, happiness that was taken away years ago (how very Gatsby-esque). How Green Was My Valley, on the other hand, examines the integrity of the individual spirit and community power in the face of corporate greed and excess. There are elements of each in the other, despite the differences in tone and style, and I like to think the two ideals wrestle with each other, constantly pushing America forward.

So in any other year, I think How Green Was My Valley would have been a worthy winner. But I'm also not surprised that the Academy would chose a film with a generous serving of nostalgia and sentimentality as the alternative to a darker and more negative film. A film that Randolph Hearst had so vehemently campaigned against. And also a film that was the second highest grossing film of 1941. That always helps.

In any case, the film is beautifully photographed with stunning long shots that showcase the beautiful small Welsh town set (it was meant to be shot on location in Wales, but due to the war was shot in California instead) and the ravishing countryside vistas.  Equally beautiful are the images of the town and its people binding together as one. Such images really enhance the theme of the power of the community - miners rushing in and out of the mines, the Morgan brothers standing up together to form a union, and the townspeople comforting the Morgan family in moments of tragedy:

Amidst all this communal love, it was the images of the individual spirit standing up above the community that moved me the most. For example, Beth rising above the town gossip to tell the townspeople how far she will go to protect her family:

Or Huw, once the outsider at school, turning adversity into strength, literally, by becoming a boxer:

Argharad bravely turning up in church despite the rumours against her:

And Mr Gruffydd, in a callback to the above scene, turning his back on the townspeople after condemning them for their small-mindedness:

But this is my favourite:

It's an image that stands in stark contrast to the majority of the images we see throughout the movie. Gone are the vistas, the town and the townspeople. In its place is a lone silhouette, in an uphill battle against the smoke and ash that threaten to cover her town. She is searching for solace but is overpowered by capitalism's destructive power. The lost, yearning loneliness of this image packs a real punch, for despite the heartwarming nostalgia of the final montage, this image reminds us of the true darkness of the film. Here, as we begin to wander past the valley of the shadow of death and into the future, it's an ashen valley full of grey men that we see, rather than any green valleys of yesteryear.

Sunday, 18 May 2014


May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia which commemorates the date on which the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the Classification of Diseases in 1990. Local initiatives are undertaken around the world, including the IDAHOT Thailand: School Rainbows in Bangkok, organised by UNAIDS, APCOM, YVC and Youth Lead. Internationally, as part of IDAHOT's celebrations, people are encouraged to share their stories. This is mine.

My homosexual feelings began in primary school when I had a crush on our class captain, Paul. This was confirmed during my first year at an all boys school, but it wasn't until my final year that I ever expressed my sexual identity to anyone other than myself (my mother, on Mother's Day, but that's another story to tell). To the outside world, a person's coming out is a one time experience, because they only come out to you once. But really, it's a continual process, first to yourself, then to others, perhaps slowly or in one big go. But it continues every time you meet someone new. It happens with every new work colleague, every new acquaintance, and every niece or nephew who reaches a certain age when they release that Uncle Adam and Uncle Steve sleep in the same room.

Every time you come out, there is a risk, hopefully ever diminishing, that you will face awkwardness, disgust, rejection, discrimination or violence. There can also be no reaction at all, or happiness as closer connections are built. But most importantly, each time you come out, you affirm your own identity. You declare yourself as who you are as you express it to the person next to you or to the world at large. It's thanks to coming out that I'm a more confident person, that I've also been able to come out as a Linux geek, or as someone who thinks bacon is not the best meat ever. For someone who is relatively private and introverted, being gay has made me come out of my shell, and I am all the better for it.

I'm also lucky that I've grown up in an environment that has been extremely accepting of homosexuality. Decriminalisation of homosexuality, anti-discrimination laws, Will & Grace, Brokeback Mountain, Mardi Gras, and, most importantly, a family that treasures love and wellbeing over religion or social acceptance. That is not to say that I haven't encountered some homophobia in my life. One night in Canberra, my partner and I were holding hands in public, and a group of teens became following us, throwing rocks our way (but not at us). We walked faster and stopped at a bus stop, confronting them and calling the police. There are still places where I don't hold hands with my partner, where I walk a bit faster than I normally would. And I overhear people say fag, or poof, or 'it's just not right'.

It upsets me, but this is nothing compared to what others have experienced, particularly in the Global South. Social and workplace discrimination, denial of essential health services, physical violence, jail and death by stonings. It is unacceptable. I cannot imagine what gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people must feel in such environments. There is so much to be done to end homophobia, so much research, awareness raising, education, advocacy, and lobbying to be done. But it starts with speaking up, telling your story and taking a stance against homophobia and transphobia.

So that's my story. What is yours?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Mother's Day

In one of my first weeks in Bangkok, my partner and I were walking around Chatuchak Markets and, 'Que Sara Sara' played over the speakers over the homewares section. A wave of warmth and nostalgia washed over me. I was tired in all the heat, humidity and crowds, as we unsuccessfully searched for a red ceramic bowl for our house. But all of that faded away as the melody to one of my favourite songs swelled in my ears. It's a song full of memories for me.

I think it is such a beautifully written song because it captures both the romantic yearning for a happy future and the stoic acceptance that what happens in the future may simply be beyond our control. It neither dampens nor amplifies our dreams, merely realistically accepting the ambiguities at play. Something that generations continually teach the next.

It's also a song that has been used to chilling effect. Exhibit A: this emotionally brutal advertisement from the Thai Life Insurance Company:

It's also frequently used in cinema, such as in Mary & Max, In the Cut, and the one that started it all, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much:

Here, Doris Day sings the song at the ambassador's house, in the hope that her kidnapped son hears the song and somehow responds. That crack in her voice when she sings "now I have children of my own ..." gets me every time.

It's that endless and timeless connection between mother and child that resonates the most with me. Probably because it's also one of my mother's favourite songs, and I can still hear her in my head, whistling the tune while she's cooking or while she's moving around the house. It's a song that brings me back to my childhood, a time when my mum, and her resilience in bringing up 3 children on her own in a foreign country, was so crucial for our family. It's a reminder of how much our mother's experience, wisdom and love comfort us as children, readying us for the world ahead. It's a reminder of the most important woman in my life, and how much I love her. Happy Mother's Day.