Thursday, July 17, 2008

Movies: The Forbidden Kingdom & Kung Fu Panda

I'm still in Beirut.

One of the perks for being in Beirut is that I can go to the movies.

Singaporeans are avid movie goers. We have the highest movie-going rate in the world. According to a 2006 source, on average, we watch 8 movies a year.* The national average might be more now. If that is true, then after arriving to the MENA region, my annual movie-going rate had fallen below the 2006 national average at about 6 movies/year. When I was traveling in North Africa, I missed out on a lot of movie releases.

In North Africa, I did not have the opportunities to visit the movie theatres out of reasons of personal choice and time.

In Algiers, I passed by a movie theatre in downtown several times although I had never watched a movie there. The movie played there are probably voiced-over in French so I cannot understand. Also, the movie theatre did not look inviting to me.

I did try watching a movie once in Morocco and it was a big turn-off. I watched the Da Vinci Code in Megarama, a cineplex in Casablanca. As expected, it was entirely in French. Plus the theatre didn't have AC that day and the air got very stuffy.

Anyway, I always go to the movies as often as I can whenever I'm back in Beirut.

During the past 2 weeks, I saw two movies in Beirut: The Forbidden Kingdom and Kung Fu Panda. Incidently, both were about kung-fu.

The Fobidden Kingdom

What can I say about a movie that casted Asia's titanic martial arts actors - Jet Li and Jackie Chan?

Suffice to say, I went into the movie with pretty low expectations.

Without a doubt Jackie Chan movies are always awesome in the fight scenes and martial arts choreography but terribly weak in plot. In Chan’s movies, the plot is just an excuse to link all the spectacular fight scenes together.

If you grew up watching his movies like I did, then a time will come when you could not expect anything new.

His roles are always similar (90% of the time, a police hero). Reluctant hero forced to fight by circumstances. There are new death defying stunts every time but his acting never improved. Arguably, his recent stunt scenes had gotten less spectacular when compared to some of the incredible stuff he had done in the '80s.

As for Jet Li, I still think that his best movie role ever was his debut in "Shaolin Temple". He was great in "Once Upon A Time In China" for his portrayal of Wong Fei Hong. It reignited popular interest in the legendary Chinese folk hero and several movie sequels. Then he was again great in his portrayal of another folk hero, Huo Yuan Jia, in "Fearless". In this role, he managed to show another sensitive depth to his acting.

I found his latest role as "Monk/ Monkey god" trite. He looks uninspired, overweight and overage to be monkey god. Forgive me for being bland but his bad complexion showed prominently throughout the movie. If he wants to continue to make it in Hollywood as a leading man, I think he should consider using some of that Hollywood magic, no?

Perhaps now you can understand why I went to the movie without any expectations. And yet I was disappointed even further by the movie.

The story was weak. Basically a coming of age story about an American kung-fu aficionado who got teleported? to ancient China (presumably) on a quest to save the stone encasted monkey god by returning his staff to his statue. During the quest, he found travelling companions in the likes of Drunken Immortal (Jackie Chan), Monk (Jet Li), who taught him Kung-fu 101 and Swallow (Liu Yifei), a potential love interest or to add a feminine aspect. The main antagonist, the Jade Warlord, whose treachery was the reason behind monkey god's imprisonment, is pulling all stops to impede the protagonists.

Beyond the special effects, modern English dialogue, the plot reeks of the stereotypical coming of age and revenge plot elements as popularized in the 70s & 80s kung-fu movies. I get more complex and moving plots when playing Final Fantasy on Playstation!

The names of characters like Drunken Immortal, Golden Swallow and White-hair Assassin are not new. Their characterizations were but pale shadows/ diluted amalgams of iconic heroes/villains in popular Asian movies and novels. In fact, a lot of these characters had so much more depth and backstory that were left undeveloped in the course of the movie due to lack of screen time. It is like putting the Hulk, Spiderman and Batman in a same movie so that you get all the action and nothing of the backstory. Perhaps, spin-offs are in the making? (Think The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King).

Of course, it can be said that kung-fu movies are all about the action and not the plot. If so, the highlight of the movie would be the extended fight scene between Jet Li's Monk and Jackie Chan's Drunken Immortal. For me, that fight scene didn't work so well. The figh scene between Uma Thurman's character and the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill was more memorable than this one. I was actually waiting for it to be over and get on with the story.

Although the film was not a hit for me, online ratings gave it moderate review ratings.

Kung Fu Panda

I had a better time watching this animated movie than the previous movie.

What do I like about this movie?

Firstly, the production quality was great and it showed. According to the wikipedia write-up, the production design, animation and even the music were created after extensive research on Chinese art and culture. Yet, the end result was not a rip-off but a very original movie that pays tribute to its Asian roots.

Secondly, the voice acting was good. Big names like Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman were attached to the voice of the characters. This is hardly new news in the movie industry. What I think worked for the movie was that the voice-actors had a lot of self respect by not spoofing the Asian accent in speaking English.

Thirdly, it was funny. The movie came from the same studio that delivered the Shrek franchise, so I would be sorely disappointed if there were no punch lines in the movie. Granted, it wasn’t hilarious funny but there were some funny moments that helped advancing the plot well. I thought the funniest scene in the movie was the acupuncture scene between panda, tigress and mantis.

I read that sequels are in the pipeline. Yey! =D

* This source, quoting a 2003 Unesco study, put Singapore in 6th place in movie attendance per capita, behind Iceland, US, N. Zealand, Georgia, Australia. Lebanon comes in at 10th place. Morocco in 49th and Algeria in 76th.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Toyota Man Died Of Overwork

Photo credit: Luxomedia

Saw this piece of news on Yahoo Singapore this morning. An engineer working on Camry hybrid has died of "karoshi", which in Japanese means literally, death from fatigue due to overwork.

The victim, whose name, had been witheld by Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) was said to have clocked 80 hours of overtime per month in the two months leading to his death.

TMC has stated officially that it will improve it's monitoring of it's employees health.

Japanese society which place a lot of emphasis on values like working hard and placing team before self, karoshi has been a growing trend in the official records for the past few decades since early 90s.

I remembered a chat several years ago with a TMC employee from product development. I was told that the company has started then to limit overtime work by monitoring individual employees' working hours.

Employees were required to clock in and out on a daily basis so that their bosses, and sometime corporate HR, could monitor the number of hours worked. Employees who wished to perform overtime work has to get approval from his/her superior!

Being the worker bees that they are, TMC employees were known to circumvent the system. For instance, an employee starting work at 10:30 am under the flexi-hour scheme, would report to work earlier at 8:00am but clock-in at 10:30am. So on paper, it looked as if he/she reported to work on time whereas in fact, this employee has already performed 2.5hrs overtime.

Similarly, employees were also known to clock-off on time but stayed behind to work. As there was simply too much work to do, the bosses tend to be more lenient when it comes to enforcing the overtime limit.

Letting the employees bring the work home to limit overtime work was not a viable option because of the sensitive and confidential work information that the employees were handling.

It blew my mind when I heard this. Throughout my work life, it is usual to know of colleagues who were late but got their colleagues to clock-in on time for them to aviod a pay deduction penalty. In Algeria, truancy was so rampant that the company had to install a fingerprint scanning system for employee clock-in & out!

It is extremely rare to learn of employees who perform more overtime than they should and let it go unreported, considering that working harder is good for performance evaluation. Only in Japan!

The Japanese worker is an epitome of the selfless, dedicated samurai who places his/her team above all else. Stubborn and anal retentive, yes, but nevertheless responsible and dependable. Of course, I do personally know of exceptional cases but it's a valid generalization.

During business trips in Japan, I could experienced several very brief stints of the nerve-wrecking, high pressurizing work culture there. I really hope that major Japanese companies could really review the work environment and work curcumstances in the interest of their employees' health, social and family life.


By JAY ALABASTER, Associated Press WriterWed Jul 9, 4:08

A Japanese labor bureau has ruled that one of Toyota's top car
engineers died from working too many hours, the latest in a string of such
findings in a nation where extraordinarily long hours for some employees has
long been the norm.

The man who died was aged 45 and had been under severe
pressure as the lead engineer in developing a hybrid version of Toyota's
blockbuster Camry line, said Mikio Mizuno, the lawyer representing his wife. The
man's identity is being withheld at the request of his family, who continue to
live in Toyota City where the company is based.

In the two months up to his death, the man averaged more than
80 hours of overtime per month, according to Mizuno.

He regularly worked nights and weekends, was frequently sent
abroad and was grappling with shipping a model for the pivotal North American
International Auto Show in Detroit when he died of ischemic heart disease in
January 2006. The man's daughter found his body at their home the day before he
was to leave for the United States.

The ruling was handed down June 30 and will allow his family
to collect benefits from his work insurance, Mizuno said.

An officer at the Aichi Labor Bureau on Wednesday confirmed
the ruling, but declined to comment on the record.

In a statement, Toyota Motor Corp. offered its condolences and
said it would work to improve monitoring of the health of its

There is an effort in Japan to cut down on deaths from
overwork, known as "karoshi." Such deaths have steadily increased since the
Health Ministry first recognized the phenomenon in 1987.

Last year, a court in central Japan ordered the government to
pay compensation to Hiroko Uchino, the wife of a Toyota employee who collapsed
at work and died at age 30 in 2002. She took the case to court after her
application to the local labor bureau for compensation was

Monday, July 07, 2008

Office Humor

If you use MS Excel to generate graphs at work like I do, you may appreciate the creative graphs on this awesome site: Graph Jam: Pop Culture for People in Cubicles

Here's a few personal favourites...=)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Internet Connection in Beirut

This is the internet connection speed in my office on good days. You should see the connection speed at my apartment, the connection speed test screen won't even load sometimes. I heard most of Lebanon is still on dial-up speed. Sigh...