Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams. - Yeats

Saturday, March 30, 2019

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For some reason isn't posting a photo to twitter from blogger. I'm trying to figure out why my review of #SunLi #HappinessAsFlowers #幸福像花儿一样 isn't posting with a photo. :(

Friday, March 29, 2019

Review ~ Happiness as Flowers (2005) #幸福像花儿一样 (#孙俪 #SunLi)

This is the first time real life couple #SunLi (#孫儷) and #DengChao (#邓超) have worked together.  When they made this drama, they were only a reel life couple and only became a real life couple some time after this series and before the 2008 series Tian Mi Mi (甜蜜蜜).

I actually finished most of this review in Dec 2018 and hoped to publish it before the year turned because last year happened to be the 30th anniversary of China's Reform and Opening Up which would be kind of fitting since this series has something to do with it.  However, lots and lots of things got in the way and, in the end, I can only call this just one of many missed opportunities.

This is part of my ongoing effort to watch all of Sun Li's work and honestly, when I first decided to try this series, I was a little worried that it might be a difficult watch.  I don't particularly like idol type dramas, nor do l like generic sappy love stories that are designed to draw as many tears out of the viewer as possible.  As I was under the impression that this was a generic teary romance, I approached the series with a little caution.  However, it turned out to be a surprisingly interesting series, albeit with some caveats.

It's pretty important for those of us who are not Mainland Chinese to put aside some possible biases.  This is a story set in a military compound in Beijing (me: at least, I think it's Beijing) in the 80s.  Pretty much everyone in this series will be pro-China, pro the Chinese military, pro Mao Zedong etc.  I suspect that there will be viewers who will have some difficulty with that, especially those who are more influenced or accustomed to a Western worldview.  If you watch this series with an open mind and try and understand the context and the "world" that it is set in, you may find this to be an unexpectedly fascinating series because it gives you a microcosmic view of what it was possibly like to live in an enclosed community on the verge of far-reaching changes.

The other possible bias some people may have is not just the pro-China and pro-Chinese military stance.  It's also that it's set in an even smaller subset of the military.  The main protagonist of this tale is a dancer who entered the military dance troupe at a young age of 11 and pretty much grew up in this cloistered environment which also means that the characters' understanding of the world is going to be limited to their small environment.  It also deals with military families and it seems like the vast majority of the characters, even the older generation, did most of their growing up in a similarly closed environment.

It's not just the location but also the times that may take some getting used to, so there will be some values about love and marriage which will be very different and quite possibly difficult for most modern day people to understand and accept.  This may make it difficult for some viewers to watch this series and not feel some impatience or incredulity with some of the decisions that some of these characters make.  Just know that, in the world that this series portrays, this value system is pervasive which means that in the world that this drama is set in, it's not just acceptable or believable but it's the norm.

Therefore, it's also pretty important to understand that that's just the way people think in that community and that's the way they do things in that era or in that particular environment in the 80s.  If we as viewers impose our own value systems and beliefs on this drama, it would be near impossible to enjoy or appreciate this drama.  Actually, I also believe that if we brought our own bias to every drama or film, not just this one, it would be difficult to appreciate a vast majority of productions, especially those from different cultures and those which are far removed from us by time and space.

The story starts soon after the beginning of 改革开放 (pinyin: gǎigé kāifàng, literally: Reform and Opening-up) where a series of economic reforms were implemented.  The process actually began in 1978 soon after Deng Xiaoping came to power.  What these far-reaching reforms are and how they affected China is a topic too wide for this review.  It is pretty interesting though and I was partly distracted from writing this review because I was reading up about it.  If you are interested too, you can read about some of it using these links (CLICK ME, CLICK ME and use Google and your library).   It's pretty interesting stuff but what you really need to know in order to understand the period this drama was set in, is to know that China was at the cusp of a huge transformation that is still on-going today.  These policy changes will have far reaching effects and will not just change the economy, politics and policies but will also change society, attitudes and beliefs.

The protagonist of this drama is Du Juan (played by Sun Li 孙俪).  Du Juan entered the army's dance corps (文工团) at 11 years old and when we first meet her she's about 20 years old.  She's a cheerful, innocent and somewhat naive young woman but she can also be determined, single minded and stubborn.  Her biggest and perhaps only really goal in life is to be a dancer because she loves it and can't think of doing anything else but that.  She lives with a roommate Da Mei (Yin Tao 殷桃).  Da Mei couldn't be more different from Du Juan.  She's realistic, a little materialistic, restless and ambitious.  If I remember correctly, she entered the troupe when she was 12 and she's around the same age as Du Juan.

Both Du Juan and Da Mei are gifted dancers but unlike Du Juan, Da Mei isn't so single-minded about dancing.  She's actually actively looking to leave the troupe and her idea of escape is to find a man with a good and influential family background in the army and marry him.

 After some careful selection, she eventually does what she set out to do and marries Da Hai (Yu Bin 于滨).

Du Juan, on the other hand, is quite inexperienced in the matters of the heart.  Her first love Lin Bin (Xin Baiqing  辛柏青) is someone she starts out idolizing as a hero who has just returned from the battle front in South Xinjiang.

Meanwhile, the spoilt and immature son of a high ranking official in the army, Bai Yang (Deng Chao 邓超), has also fallen for Du Juan.  Bai Yang also works in the army, he's in the clerical department.  At first, Du Juan picks Lin Bin over Bai Yang but several things happen and they break up and she's devastated.  Bai Yang helps her through this difficult time and through his persistence he manages to move her enough that she does eventually marry him.  After marriage, Da Mei soon becomes fascinated and enamored by the new opportunities that the reforms have created.  This puts pressure on her marriage to Da Hai.  Du Juan's and Bai Yang's marriage life is stormy almost from the very beginning mostly because of her incompatibility with the insecure Bai Yang and his mother's demands on her. When Lin Bin gets into serious trouble, Du Juan goes out of her way to help him which further weakens her relationship with the Bai Yang.  Ultimately, all of them will be affected by the changing times and attitudes.

The above spoiler free synopsis might make the drama seem like a simple and maybe even generic sappy love story but that would be to do this series some injustice.  The series doesn't try to squeeze every last tear drop out of its viewers.  There is very little melodrama or tear jerking even though there is a lot of conflict and some domestic violence. 

Part of what makes this series very watchable is the time period and attitudes, in particular towards love and marriage, of that time.  In those days, people thought of marriage as something that was inevitable and hence, they got married really easily it seems because it was just a matter of course.  As long as the parties seem interested and the match was appropriate, they'll get married.  If they love each other a lot, then that was considered a bonus but it seemed like it was enough to just have affection for each other.

The series is also set soon after China's transition to a more market economy and the opening up of the country the foreign investment.  Business was booming and opportunities to make it big and make a lot of money were everywhere for the bold and the daring to take advantage of.  But that also meant that those who had no knowledge or experience may bite of more than they can chew and those who did could fail in dramatic fashions.

Soon after the start of the reforms, China also began to downsize its military.  As the series proceeds, you'll see several people lose their "jobs" in the army or are in danger of losing them.  It's a particularly traumatic thing for many of them because a large number of them grew up in the army and have never considered live outside of the army.

So there was also a growing number of people that felt displaced in a world that was changing too fast for them to grasp.  While the series doesn't go into depth with this but for most of us who know nothing of that era and how these changes may have affected the average man then, it's pretty interesting.

While this series does illustrate some of the tensions between the old ways and the new ways, it doesn't take sides.  The drama doesn't attempt to make any overt or strong moral judgments or statements about the times its characters live in or the choices they make.  Instead, what the viewer can look forward to getting is an insight into what it might have been to grow up, to love and to live in a military compound in China in a time of great change.

Honestly, until I watched this series, I was unaware that these were some of the consequences of the reforms.  Actually, while I know of Deng Xiaoping and his reforms, I only know of them in a broad way and in terms of how they affected China as a whole and also China's relationship to the world, which is part of the reason why I found this series quite interesting.  I didn't even know that China had downsized their army after the Reform and Opening Up.

While reading up about the series as I prepared to write this review, I read that this series is actually based on a novel《幸福像花样灿烂》(Xìngfú xiàng huāyàng cànlàn) by Shi Zhongshan (石钟山).  The title of the novel loosely translates into something like "Happiness is like a Splendid / Brilliant Flower".   The novel was adapted for television by Associate Professor Wan Wanping (王宛平) from the Central Academy of Drama (中央戏剧学院).  She apparently spent three years writing the screenplay.  According to the Baidu Baike page on this series (click me), before she started writing the screenplay, she conducted a lot of of interviews and many of the details in the drama were gleaned from these interviews.

Wan Wanping also said that the screenplay deviates greatly from the actual novel.  It only used the novel's "shell", meaning that she only used the characters' names and the era that the novel was set in.  The story was pretty much re-written by her.  She original novel was only 20,000 words (me: which makes it more like a short story then a novel, I guess) so she had to add more characters and details.  Most importantly, she wanted to change the soul of the original work. After some discussion with the producers of the series, they settle on the theme of "innocent age, simple love".  The original story takes place over 20 years but Wan Wanping's adaptation only covers their youth.

She also changed some of the key character's personalities.  For example, Du Juan is a more passive character in the original story.  Wan Wanping likened the Du Juan in the short story to Xiang Lin's unhappy wife.  Now this is one of the reasons why I find writing reviews / posts like these interesting.  I had no idea who Xiang Lin or his wife was so I had to go research it.  If I'm not wrong, it should be the wife in Lu Xun's short story Blessings (click me, click me).  The Du Juan in the series is a bright and sunny soldier (me: who, if I might add, has a backbone and a mind of her own which I liked.)  Wan Wanping also said that the character she changed the most is Bai Yang.  In the original written work, he's a playboy and may even be considered a villain.  She changed him to make him to be someone that girls like and made him more like the Jia Baoyu from Dream of the Red Chamber. (me: I have to say thought that I think that Bai Yang got off easy at the end because his attempts at control and his physical aggression towards his wife Du Juan pretty much equates domestic violence in my modern mind.)

Gao Xixi, the producer of the series, also said that he removed "splendid/brilliant" (灿烂) from the title of the series because he didn't agree with what the "happiness" in the original written work meant.  Is "happiness" Du Juan's single minded contentment or Bai Yang's "angry discontentment" (honestly, I can't translate this properly, the article wrote 睚眦必较).  Whatever the case, Gao Xixi feels that there is no real conclusion at the end and it's up to the viewer to make their own meaning when it comes to what kind of flower "happiness" is.

Personally, I don't know too.  At least one thing is sure, Gao Xixi achieved what he set out to do.  It is never clear from the drama exactly what kind of flower this is or what kind of "happiness" any of the characters attain at the end.  In the end, maybe the "happiness" each of them attains is simply just a different kind of "flower" for each of them.  "Happiness" means different things to all of them and perhaps to the viewer too.

As for production values, it's pretty basic.  It's not terrible but it's set in a military compound and it's an older series set in an older era.  So nothing in here will be dazzlingly beautiful etc.  That said, it really suits the setting and the story so I've no problem with it.

The pacing of the series was actually quite good.  It didn't drag at all.  Things just flowed from one situation to another.  Some of the more serious moments were undercut by some light-hearted banter or amusing moments in the beginning so things don't get too heavy.  Even when there was no light-hearted banter or comic moments, things never get too heavy or overly melodramatic.  I quite like that.  It felt like the producer and/or director had a firm control on the production of this series.

Performances were all pretty good actually.  While Sun Li and Deng Chao aren't as polish as they are now, they are still very good in the series.  The second leads and the supporting cast were mostly pretty good to competent.

I really love it when Du Juan gets pissed and as stubborn as a bull in the series, Sun Li really gave Du Juan a lot of spirit and passion especially in those scenes.  Yet at the same time, she's able to express the naivety and childlike quality in the character without making her feel like a contradiction.  Also, because the story does take place over several years and Du Juan does go through quite a few critical events in her life, Sun Li takes care to show these changes without changing her basic nature.  At the end of the story, Du Juan still holds on to that guileless single mindedness in her way of thinking even though she's lost that unsophisticated youthful awkardness.  And all these are quite delightfully expressed by Sun Li which made Du Juan such an engaging character.

Both Deng Chao and Sun Li have a great deal of chemistry too which made them delightful to watch even when they bicker and really fight.  They have several scenes together, especially near the end, which were quite amazing.  Deng Chao is also really good as the petulant, spoilt brat who is trying to hide his inferiority and his almost desperate desire to make something of himself.  He swaggers and brags but his eyes will betray his lack of confidence.

I also quite like Yin Tao in the series.  Her Da Mei makes a lot of very modern decisions and is a difficult character to sympathize with.  But Da Mei is conflicted and torn between what she knows to be a rational desicion and her desire for self-actualization and Yin Tao portrayed this emotional conflict in her quite well.

Xin Baiqing had the unenviable task of playing the weak willed Lin Bin who's foolish pride would lead him to make one poor decision after another.  So in the end Lin Bin can only give long lingering looks at Du Juan or sulk with repressed anger or turn away in guilt and all these were expressed quite well by Xin Baiqing.

This is by no means a perfect drama.  And I feel that lots of people won't be able to watch it all the way through for a variety of reasons, mostly for the reasons I painstakingly tried to outline in the beginning of the review and also for the following reasons. One of the other possible obstacle would be that the characters are not your typical characters from your conventional idol dramas and all of them are flawed.  I actually feel that none of the younger couples are compatible or matured enough to be in a marriage.  So present day viewers who are used to idol romances and who may want an idol romance may not like a story about highly incompatible people who get married in an era where people just got married because that's what people do.  In the end, I don't think I can really call this a romance or love story.  It feels more like a story about a group of young people and their lives in an age of transition.

While I can't give this a wholehearted recommendation to everyone because I really feel that this isn't a series that will travel well outside of China; still, I would say that if the viewer can get pass some of the possible prejudices that I mentioned in the review, then go ahead and give it a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised, just like I was.

For other Reviews of Sun Li's work, please head over to this page. CLICK ME

Monday, December 24, 2018

#梶浦由記 #KajiuraYuki #ufotable ~ Kimetsu no Yaiba 1st trailer released

ufotable's Facebook page posted a video of the first trailer for #鬼滅の刃 #KimetsuNoYaiba.  Kajiura Yuki is collaborating with #ShiinaGo #椎名豪  on the soundtrack of this anime series that's due to air in April of 2019.

The music on the trailer does sound quite Kajiura-ish which is the kind of music I like.  The style and look of the animation looks quite ufotable which I also generally like.  I'm not sure how the collaboration for the music will work and I'm not sure if I'll enjoy the story.  But since both Kajiura Yuki and ufotable are involved, then I'll definitely be checking it out.

I'm looking forward to this and am curious to hear new music from Kajiura Yuki next year. :)

Okay, I'm off to bed.  It's been a long day.  Good night. :)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Unboxing ~ Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel - I. Presage Flower [Limited Edition]

I actually received the #ufotable #fatestayhf box-set months and months ago but I didn't do an unboxing post then because there were just too many things happening in my life and there was so much OT at work it was virtually impossible to do anything outside of work.  At first I thought that I wouldn't do the unboxing since it's been too long but I have decided to do it for two reasons.  Firstly, the Fate/stay night Movie: Heaven's Feel - II. Lost Butterfly will be screening soon so its seems appropriate.  Secondly, I keep getting distracted from my review of Sun Li's Happiness as Flowers (幸福像花儿一样) drama because Legend of Condor Heroes 2017 (射雕英雄传) is so much better than I expected that I can't concentrate on the review. Hahaha!!  So I decided to do something easier.  This will be one of those photo heavy unboxing posts and I won't be doing any reviews or commentaries on the anime film or on Kajiura Yuki's (梶浦由記) soundtrack this time.

This is a truly beautiful release.  Few do such beautiful packaging as Japanese companies.  I ordered this from CDJapan and as usual they packed it nicely.

I wished the company I got the Sun Li book from via Taobao had packed my book up with this kind of bubble wrap.  Sigh....

Any way, I will be doing the unboxing of this release, Fate/Stay Night: Heaven's Feel - I. Presage Flower (Movie) (English Subtitles) [Limited Edition. The pre-order tokuten for this release is a B6 size sticker from CDJapan.  But, unfortunately, this is no longer available.

The sticker came in a little plastic bag to keep it safe.

The above are photos of the box that holds the contents of this release.  As is common among Japanese releases, there is a sheet of paper that wraps around part of the box that gives you information of the contents of the release.  I took photos of the case with and without that sheet of paper.

The case is made from good quality hard cardboard stock and opens up nicely to reveal two books and the digipak CD tray.

One of the books is a paperback booklet with about 51 pages.  This book is called the "Animation Material" book and it contains tons of information and illustrations pertaining to the anime film.  There are character design sketches, small thumbnails of the background images. There are credit pages at the end.  It looks like it uses "perfect bound" binding and is nice and sturdy.  The text is all in Japanese though, so you'll need to be able to read Japanese if you wish to understand what is written in the book.

Haha!! Maybe you can tell that I'm using a new mobile phone to shoot these photos.  I'm not used to the screen and I keep shooting everything off center or I keep messing up the composition. :P

The other book is a beautiful hardcover 52 page book called the "Art Book".  The cover has shiny purple illustrations embossed into the front and back.  The back cover has an entire paragraph in English text.  It's a very pretty book. The inside of the book consist of pages and pages of full colored key visuals and character illustrations.  There is no text in the book except for the credit page at the end which lists who the artists are.

The Limited Edition comes with the Blu-ray of the anime film.  Luckily this release has English subtitles.  Quite often Japanese anime releases only have Japanese subtitles.  It also contains a DVD disc that has special material on it and an additional CD disc with Kajiura Yuki's soundtrack. The three panel digipak opens up to reveal one single illustration on the back.

This release comes in three versions.  The one I unboxed is:
Fate/Stay Night: Heaven's Feel - I. Presage Flower (Movie) (English Subtitles) [Limited Edition]

There are two other Regular Edition releases.  One is a DVD version and the other is a BD version.
Fate/Stay Night: Heaven's Feel - I. Presage Flower (Movie) (English Subtitles) [Regular Edition] DVD version

Fate/Stay Night: Heaven's Feel - I. Presage Flower (Movie) (English Subtitles) [Regular Edition]  Bluray version

The Regular Editions only come with one disc and I don't think the come with the two books too.

For those who wish to get it from CDJapan like I usually do, please feel free to use the above links or any other links you wish.

This is a very nice release and fans of the series should be very happy to own this.  Now, I'm looking forward to the release of the next film in the trilogy and the next box-set release too. :)