Less is the new more

When Muji opened its first store in my hometown, my bestie and I enjoyed spending time in the store very much, and we decided that when we have our own home one day, we will ditch all our old stuff and replace them with all Muji.

Especially, we want to make sure that we will be able to eat, live and play in a space with special aroma coming from a white and nicely designed Muji diffuser…

Muji Diffuser

Now Muji stores are everywhere, they exist in shopping malls all around my hometown — next to Starbucks, H&Ms, and various other big brands. It is now also a hotel, a restaurant, and a bookshop. The brand, which originally means “good quality products with no brand” is rapidly expanding its footsteps and thriving in a branded world.

Muji products haven’t changed much — plain, simple, with minimal decoration and good quality.

Its face, however, has changed and no longer brings the same kind of excitement.

It’s clear that more people are yearning for a simple and streamlined lifestyle, and are willing to pay for it. The need for simpleness, order, and minimalism has never been this important in a busy and hectic world.

Marie Kondo, the famous organising master, is another “spokesperson” for the philosophy of minimalism. She suggested that we should say goodbye to things that don’t spark joy anymore in our life, as a method to reach an organised lifestyle and a free mindset. Not surprisingly, this made her a bestselling author, as well as the founder of her decluttering business empire.

One thing I’ve come to realise now is that how maintaining a home filled with Muji only stuff is unrealistic, and I also have no determination to cut off association with excessive materials I own based on Kondo’s recommendation. Despite that, I still wonder around Muji stores every now and then and listen to online talks on the “KonMarie” method. This is probably the main trigger behind this whole “minimalism ecomomy” — To turn the need and interest of decluttering into a new kind of consumption habit. For me, it all started from the time I got attracted to that Muji diffuser.

 

Beginning of New Bond

Google Home

I was quite excited to try out Google Home, although none of my light switches at home is smart enough to pair up with it.

The commands I have used most are:

Weather today/tomorrow/next week
News
Play a podcast (only autoplays the latest episode)
Play XX radio station
Play a XX song by XX artist

Phrasing the commands simple and straightforward is the rule, otherwise what awaits me is just “Sorry I can’t help.” or “Sorry I don’t understand”.

It certainly has created a new vibe at home, but I also sometimes wonder whether it is actually necessary to have such a not-so-smart “home assistant” to be around.

Google, not surprisingly, is pretty proud of its product:

What we found is that people are not only learning how to use the devices, they’re weaving them into their lives and daily routines. And in some instances, they’re forging a new kind of bond with technology, one that’s often much more personal than in the past.

I was expecting the bond to be formed a bit more smoothly than what I’m experiencing. The media had given a lot of credibility to the AI technology and what it can bring to the future, despite its obvious current limitations. It feels that AI has slowly taken its shape in certain fields through audio and visual stimulation, or maybe a combination of both. However, since long ago, the discussions of AI tend to focus on how AI can saturate ordinary people’s life both physically and mentally  — ie: occupations to be replaced by AI roborts by 20XX years; AI computer beats chess master; people become too obsessed with AI and get confused with boundaries between AI and reality (as seen in the movie Her, and Black Mirror S3E1).

The “new bond” pushed by Google signifies that they have kickstarted the process to transit a machine from one that talks, responds, and actions, to one that understands, interacts, and generates more intimate user experience.

Recently Facebook has decided to shift its Newsfeed algorithm from focusing on relevant content to enabling more “meaningful social interactions.”Another example that big companies are heavily investing in new ways of getting people to “bond” with technology, on a level that facilitates the day-to-day social interactions between people in an online environment.

As AI becoming part of the modern living, it will certainly introduce new user habits, access points, behaviours, which then lead to more diverse ways to perceive ourselves and others. However it’d be interesting to see if the “new bond” led by AI will live up to the high expectation, both in terms of its speed of development and the quality of the connection that’s being generated.

In the Name of My God

Transparent is a mind-blowing show that portrays the story of a transgender person – Maura Pfefferman and her LA-located family.  Maura’s three adult children, each experiencing their own sexual/gender issues at different stages of their lives, had distinct ways in coping with their father’s coming out as a transgender person. They were also pushed to explore the various unresolved conflicts in their idenity and developed deeper understanding of their own. It’s one of the best shows I have ever seen in normalising the existence of LGBT community in the everyday life — It brings out all sides of the LGBT in an honest but romantic way. One of the memorable parts of the show is that as a Jewish family, the Pfeffermans actively celebrate their ancestry by going to Jewish gatherings, reflecting on their past, and following different traditional rituals. All the religious practice with the presence of synagogue, close interaction with Rabbi, has lead the audience to view LGBT culture through a unique lens. When religious freedom and sexuality diversity meet, it challenges “the normal”, and yields this incredible level of  tolerance, communication, and love in an open religious community.

The similar feeling struck me again when watching the Japanese film — Close Knit (2017), where a young girl (Tomo) witnessed her uncle’s girlfriend (Rinko), who is a transgender person, encountering different kinds of discrimination in her daily life. As a way to channel her anger and determination to become a woman, Rinko set a goal of knitting 108 colourful woolly “penises” and then burning them as a symbolic way of letting go of her male identity, hoping this ritual inspired by the Buddhist idea of reincarnation would allow her to truly embrace her new identity without fear and worries. The act of knitting happened throughout the film, the scene where she finally burnt away “her past” with the help with Tomo and Tomo’s uncle is one of the highlights of the film. In this film, practice of religious ritual plays an important role in providing the emotional support for Rinko, and goes beyond to empower her to establish her identity in a society where LGBT is still a taboo subject to a large extent.

All of this more or less contradicts my previous understanding of the relationship between religions and LGBT issues, which is mostly observed from the conservative side of different religious groups as covered by media. The recent example being the discovery that religions play a role that is positively correlated to the “NO” vote in the Same Sex Marriage vote in Australia. I believe there are different layers of understanding, support and tolerance on the issue of LGBT among all different religions and sub-religious groups. However it is undeniable that the practice of faith among LGBT groups can not be stopped no matter how strong the disagreement one religion holds against the LGBT community. In spite of numerous conflicts and challenges in the modern world, I can still see how religions evolve in people’s minds and be reinvented in people’s hands.
After all, genuinity and being true to one’s heart is what makes a faith most sacred, authentic and strong. Love is love.
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Close Knit (2017)

Facing the Waves

Norlan-Dunkirk

When it comes to tragedy on screen, the presence of sea generally creates a sense of tension to the story and makes it more powerful, like Titanic.

It’s hard to say if Dunkirk is trying to tell a tragic story. Over the viewing experience however, I could strongly feel how a war battle in the vicinity of sea left people being extra exposed and vulnerable, to an extend that the so-called enemy and alliance, defeat and victory seem less significant. Under the pressing situation, people had to make choices, voluntarily or involuntarily, in the solo hope of survival or going home.

One of the stories that stuck with me and worked its way into the film was a veteran telling me about watching people walk into the sea, just as if they were going to swim home. I asked him, ‘Were they literally trying to swim back to England or swim out to a ship; were they killing themselves?’ He didn’t know, but he knew they were going to die. It’s a chilling thing to hear.    —-

For a war film that doesn’t involve much bright colour or long dialogue, what we are shown is three episodes of the famous World War II evacuation and a vivid depiction of lives associated with it. The desperate struggles happening near, above and at the sea clearly bring out a sense of belonging and patriotism among the British soldiers as well as civilians, which then led to a spirit of solidarity and people’s willingness to sacrifice. In contrast to the vastness of sea, the ugliness and narrowness of the nature of war is also largely revealed at the same time.

A sense of admiration and fear to sea seems to be universal, whether they are threatening a few little boats like what is portrayed in The Great Wave off Kanagawa (A print of which is recently showing at NGV), or an array of military ships in Dunkirk…It seems that any hatred, blood, screams could all be easily erased and conquered by the roaring waves, which in a way enable people to stop, to reflect and to forgive.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai (36 Views of Mount Fuji)

Van Gogh Sphere

Who would have thought paintings done by a man suffered from mental illness could become a blockbuster exhibition and appreciated by tens of thousands of people in more than 100 years time.

The paintings, revealing a man’s inner world through stunning colours, bold style, and brushstrokes inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, are not static. The pinenut trees and flowers, wheat fields and plain sky, all covered with layers of pigment and thick lines, making a statement of their own. I could also see a slim and lonely man sitting not far from them, rapidly sketching out their shapes, and fiercely making touches with his brush, or fingers.

Interestingly, his works have nowadays been recreated into replicas and become a source of income for peasant painters in China. In a Chinese village where there is no trees, no flowers, let alone wheat fields, the painstaking painters are self-teaching his techniques, applying them with their brushes, and perhaps adding a touch of their own imagination of the world he used to live in.

We all say that great art is invaluable, however when art becomes accepted, circulated, and a part of mainstream, they come in a price tag and distinct values. They then gradually form their own economy sphere — like the exhibition, the replicas, the moment another piece of work claimed to be inspired by Vincent.

As the end recipients of that economy sphere, we feel inspired by the strong energy and emotions those paintings convey to us and probably sympathise with the master’s suffering and experience. Behind that sphere, the struggle, isolation and frustration that once impacted or even drove the master’s works, may have been continued in today’s world, although in a different way.

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The Game of Watching and Being Watched

Live streaming on Taobao has been gaining more and more popularity since its launch in 2016.

Like this one above, they all seem very entertaining to watch, and especially engaging by allowing users to ask questions during the streaming process.

This kind of sales model doesn’t require much set-up or training. For the sellers, not only are they providing services and promoting their products at the same time, it is also an opportunity for them to show off their personality, build trust with customers, as well as to stand out from hundreds of other sellers who sell pretty much the same thing.

Similar to the spread of live streaming on Facebook, Instagram, etc., being filmed has never been this common. From a viewer’s perspective, live streaming is probably something with more genuinity and interaction than many other things one sees on everyday media. The impact is also spontaneous, like reality TV but the audience gets invited to be part of the show as it is happening. Here’s another example in advertising:

However, the dark side of technology has quickly emerged. There also seems to be a tendency for murder, suicide, crimes being broadcasted on live streaming, and they got circulated online faster than ever because of social media. Suddenly it feels like Hunger Games could happen anytime soon in the real world. But Facebook has already reacted to that and found a solution, which is to hire 3000 “Content Monitors” to review the live streaming content as they go live. A solution that is not so high-tech but perhaps effective for the time-being, which seems to suggest that more violence simply leads to more surveillance and regulations.

What do people gain from going live? Profit, leads, or just pure entertainment? There is never a standard answer. As broadcasters, as viewers, we are all being watched, willingly or unwillingly.

Silence

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2 missionaries, 1 boat, an isolated island.
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Long journey, troubled souls, diminishing hope.
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No redemption, on the soil full of oppression.
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Only more blood, despair, and death.
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Silence, silence, endless silence.
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Do people want to be saved, or too scared to live?
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In the movie, there is a few scenes where Christian villagers were asked by the governor to spit or step on a piece of wood carved image of Christ or Virgin Mary, as a gesture of rejecting the faith. It’s a decision of life or death, while most of them chose death, holding onto the hope that they would be in Heaven eventually. The Father, after suffered all the extreme pain for being devout to his belief, chose to live. Before he stepped on that piece of wood, he seemed to have a moment of enlightenment by seeing a vision of Jesus and hearing him giving the permission to step on him. His desperation got deeper and he struggled to comprehend the meaning of praying to silence. The choice puts an end to the physical pain from the outside world, yet is that the end of his doubt? Or the start of more questioning by the silence.
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I was surprised that the film was shot entirely in Taiwan — a slight compromise of authenticity given the costs to deliver the message I guess. It more or less shows Scorsese’s approach to survival as a devout filmmaker, and a Father to Hollywood cinema.