Sunday, October 03, 2004

Lost and Loving It

This one took such a long time to write, I can't even remember what sparked it off. I started this post on 10 September and now it's almost a month later, and much has happened in between. For one thing, I started to download "Last Life in the Universe", then discontinued the download when the DVD went on sale here. I bought the DVD and almost immediately lost it in the mess of my room. Damn it, I was so looking forward to watching it again. It was one of my favourite films this year, together with "Lost in Translation". Anyway, here we go: my thoughts on the two films.

Although I prefer Last Life, both films have much in common. Both are about two lonely people (who have little in common and may never have met each other in the normal course of things), who meet and, for a brief moment in time, connect. Both are set in big cities (Bangkok and Tokyo) that provide the very powerful sense of urban alienation, amplified by, at least for three of the four characters, the culture shock of being alone in a foreign land. And both films were very satisfying to watch.

At one level, the films could have been little more than that hoary cliche about two ships passing in the night. The notion of serendipity is usually badly explored by American movies starring Meg Ryan, Helen Hunt and their doe-eyed sisters. Fortunately, both films lifted the idea beyond the ordinary. It helped that there was no happy ending, nor was there a melodramatic parting of ways. The other important factor was the excellent direction and finely nuanced acting of all four leads. The shock of meeting a soulmate when you least expect it; the vertigo of falling in love, heightened as it were by the tacit knowledge that the chance meeting cannot but end - the melange of feelings were made palpable oh so subtly. You felt for these characters precisely because you were not told to.

Where Last Life was more effective was in its storyline and cinematography. Its more improbable pairing of suicidal Japanese librarian hiding from the yakuza and grief-striken Thai girl about to migrate to Japan provided more dramatic tension than Lost in Translation's ageing over-the-hill actor meets young lonely wife. In the latter, the two Americans cling together as they reel from the shared experience of being lost in Tokyo. In Last Life, Kenji and Noi are drawn together in spite of the cultural, language and personality differences, which made the fledgling romance more poignant. As for the cinematography, the landscape, a major player in both films, was so "lush and invocative" (quoting some review I read and totally agreed with), it was hard not to fall in love with the film. Kudos to the incomparable Christopher Doyle.

All in all, the two films appealed to the hopeless romantic in me. Now, if only I can locate that missing DVD...


The Cost of Good Food

Eating well is something that matters to me. I think it's part of my father's legacy (not that he has passed on yet). Growing up, my family was middle-middle class; we could afford a maid, annual trips to Malaysia, a semi-private apartment (as opposed to the standard public housing that most Singaporeans live in), and membership at a private club that, in those days, had few facilities other than two swimming pools. Nothing to complain about except that I went to school with upper-middle class kids who could afford family vacations to Disneyland, Sunday brunches at top-notch hotels, and membership at premier clubs, complete with golf courses, so needless to say I felt a little envious.

Nevertheless, we ate well, very well in fact, as I discovered years later. Meals at home were five-dish affairs - one meat, one fish, one vegetable, one soup and one other, all lovingly cooked by my mother and her sidekick, the maid. Soups were painstakingly double-boiled, over charcoal fire, and made with good stock, using expensive cuts of meat. Seafood was a given; even a simple dish of leafy green vegetables was stir-fried with prawns. Fish, crabs, squid, lobsters, all made regular appearances on the dinner table, and not just for special occasions. It wasn't just the quantity or the variety, it was also the quality. Invariably, the fish was the relatively more expensive pomfret or seabass, rather than more humble varieties. I took all this for granted, never eating the "flavourless" pork rib bits in the soup, and turning my nose up at leftovers.

Likewise, when we went out to eat, my father would order five or six dishes even though there were four of us. His rule of thumb was always "one dish more than the number eating". If this meant that there was too much food, we were told not to eat the accompanying rice or noodles. But nothing made my father happier than to take us out to a first-class Chinese restaurant and order delicacies like sharksfin, abalone and birds' nest soup, items that cost $28 to $48 per head.

To appreciate how unusual this was, you would have to understand that my family ate this well on what was essentially civil servant-sized pay packets. If my parents had been lawyers, doctors or bankers, this would have been more expected. In fact, as I found out later on in life, families far more affluent than ours ate more frugally than we did. Ingrate that I was, I always assumed that eating like this was the norm. It was only after eating various meals with the families of friends that I realised how unusual my family's eating habits were. Other families may have eaten as much but few did so as extravagantly. In retrospect, we may well have been able to afford vacations to far-flung holiday destinations, had it not been for my father's insistence on eating well.
I am my father's daughter. I understand his obsession with the intrinsic value of food, from the nutritional aspect to taste and texture. I look at this week's grocery list and realise that I want to eat well and I will probably die broke because of it.
1. Whole chicken, to make stock with - never ever stock cubes.
2. Chicken breasts, for grilling - lower in fat
3. Peppers, eggplant and zucchini, for making grilled vegetable sandwiches - yummy and healthy
4. Portabello mushrooms, for grilling - because they are soooo good
5. Cod fish, for cod steaks. - fish is good for you
6. Salmon, for salmon steaks. - ditto
7. Unsweetened soy milk. - ok this one is more for HM
8. Asparagus for blanching - tastes good even on its own
9. Fresh leafy vegetables, for blanching and salads. - I'm learning to enjoy this
9. Walnut bread from a bakery - how can one eat those loaves that pass for "American Bread"?
10. Apples, oranges, bananas, kiwi fruit, mangosteens - 5 servings of fruit and veggies per day
I eat enough junk in school as it is, too much starchy fatty mulch that is low in nutrition. Don't get me wrong - I am a real trooper when it comes to food. I willingly eat at the school canteen and hardly ever complain about having to do so. And I relish junk food and hawker food when I'm out. I am also well aware that those meals at fancy restaurants are laden with artery-clogging ingredients like butter. But since I do have a choice over what I eat at home, I choose. Hence I would rather buy fresh than frozen, organic than conventionally farmed (or worse factory-farmed), brown rather than white. I want food that tastes great because it is so fresh, food that doesn't have to be majorly processed before it becomes palatable, and food that is good for me because it is chockful of vitamins, anti-oxidants and nutrients. If this ups my food cost, so be it. It would be cheaper if I lived in a city where there was a hinterland providing fresh farm produce cheaply, but I don't, so that's that. I think of eating well as an investment in my health and happiness.
P.S. When I last visited my parents' place, we had steamed lobster for dinner. Some things don't change.