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Crossing the Divide

A film review of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Art-house movies, made primarily for aesthetic reasons, enjoy the privilege of not following mainstream narrative formulas. Much of the Asian arthouse fare centers on family drama as low-budget vehicles to gain international film festival attention. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s tenth work is an exception to this trend.

Shedding light on the impact of chance encounters, the 2021 Japanese drama, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy偶然與想像 ), weaves an anthological tapestry of tales encompassing a love triangle, a failed seduction and a romantic encounter that results from a misunderstanding.

Unlocking The Charm of Arthouse Movies

It can be a great challenge to define the theme of arthouse films especially when it’s divided into three independent segments.

Encapsulated in the three short stories, Magic, Door Wide Open, and Once Again, this film presented three female protagonists at the age of 20s, 30s and 40s. Coincidentally or not, the chronological order did deliver a sense of growing maturity in facing relationships.

While Hamaguchi often chooses female characters, his works, including this one, are not feminist stories but are reminiscent in sensibility to the works of Eric Rohmer – seeking to reveal the interior imagination of characters.

The movie’s Japanese title is Guzen to Sozo (lit. Coincidence and Imagination) but it seems more like karma that mere coincidence, because it unfolds a philosophical manifesto – both small miracles and devastating tragedies can be born from a minor coincidence. In Buddhist teachings, misconceptions, illusions and desires, especially about the self, bring about suffering.

Each of the three stories explored characters seeking to transcend the isolation in their lives.The social distance in modern society, especially in Japan, is a burden leaving many to feel isolated. It is a scary thing to reach across the divide to seek a connection.

That said, the initial scene of the second installment where a university classroom conducted a group assignment – a teacher asked students the question of “What makes people feel distant?” – could be a key to comprehend the movie theme. It almost seems like a throwaway scene, as none of these are characters within the film yet it might set the tone for the central theme binding the three seemingly disparate works.

Minimalist In Narrative

The aesthetics of minimalism widely defined the production design in this movie through its best use of limited budget, prioritizing the essential and maintaining simple forms.

Director Hamaguchi addressed each segment simply with three characters and no more than five scenes. One essential scene dominated most of the screen time of each short. A young entrepreneur’s company, a college professor’s office and a housewife’s home. Despite contained settings, these key scenes were charged with dramatic and enticing twists in conversation.

With almost no camera movement and restrained use of editing, Hamaguchi put more emphasis on the actors’ talents, which offers moviegoer an experience akin to watching stage plays with riveting performances.

Some reviewers criticized the last segment as low-energy and flat compared to the first two stories, but it is carried by delightful performances and it perhaps most deeply explores the themes most essential to the film’s title.

The movie is a delicate presentation that does take a mature exploration into the suffering of the heart faced with the division of society.

Synopses (Spoiler Alert)

Magic

At the outset, the story showed Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a model in her early twenties, making poses at a fashion shoot. She had an older friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) who shared the ride home after the shoot. In this taxi journey, Tsugumi revealed a romantic encounter that she felt could be the love of her life. Meiko prompted her friend to tell all and we learn that her date, Kaz, was still carrying a wound from his previous love.

After the friends departed, Meiko gave the taxi a different destination. She confronted Kaz (Ayumu Nakajima), a handsome entrepreneur, at his office and it was revealed she was the ex-love who broke his heart.

Both former lovers still harbored unresolved pain in their break up and, as the daggers flew, Meiko came to realize her past immaturity and a penchant for hurting the ones she loved. The two come to an embrace and perhaps renewed passions, but they were interrupted and Meiko escaped into the night.

Meiko put her self-reflection to the test during a chance encounter of the love triangle. Meiko both realized that she truly loved Kaz and wanted desperately to recapture his heart, but developed the mature insight not to hurt these two people she loved most, removing herself from the triangle.

Door Wide Open

Following the sense of a female’s maturation, the next segment portrayed a more sophisticated character who still lacked spiritual growth. It also explored the effects of coincidence.

An undergraduate student and housewife, Nao (Katsuki Mori), felt isolated from younger classmates, had an unsatisfying friends-with-benefits affair with a handsome but underachieving student Sakai (Shouma Kai). Sakai convinced her to conspire against Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shubukawa) who he claimed wronged him.

Segawa was known for his open door as he would rather expose even indelicate matters that conduct business behind closed doors. Nao attempted to seduce the professor by reading an erotic scene from the professor’s award-winning novel, and attempted to close his office door to offer the hint of intimate interaction.

The professor, however, seeming to take the bait of the “honey-trap”, approached her but, instead, reopened his door. In consideration of his reserve, Nao exposed to him the seduction scheme, which inspired them to reach a mutual agreement. He confessed he admired Nao for acting and thinking without being bound by social rules that distance people.

Despite his restraint and honor, a coincidence turned their unrequited relation into a public scandal ending his career and her marriage. Years later, Nao randomly encountered Sakai who had become a socially successful editor but had no interest in literature.

Undergraduate student Nao (Katsuki Mori), reads from the award-winning novel written by her previous professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shubukawa).

Once Again

Injuries, especially those of the heart, can leave deep scars. This third segment explored a creative human solution to ease the emptiness of loss.

Set within a sci-fi premise that a computer virus disabled all digital connection, Moka (Fusako Urabe) in her 40s travelled to a high-school reunion in a failed attempt to reconnect with the love of her life. Moka was convinced when she randomly ran into a woman on an escalator. Isolated in the role of housewife, the lonely Aya was obviously overwhelmed and bewildered as she hadn’t met teen friends for long while. Being polite to the woman who she did not recognize, Aya assumed Moka must be her former classmate so she invited Moka to her home for tea.

After revealing their mistaken identities, Aya came up with a creative idea to fulfill the void Moka had endured for decades. For a brief moment through a surreal role-play, they both found a warm closure to console their unhappy souls.

Moka (right, Fusako Urabe) mistook Nana (Aoba Kawai) as her first love. They made a role play to find closure to their life-long regrets.

***

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More Than “A Family”

A Review of Netflix’s First Yakuza Film

The Japanese movie sector is never lacking for serious gangster movies nor delicate family dramas that are sure to bring audiences to tears. It is rare to see a work that can balance a good combination of these genres.

The 2021 Japanese crime drama movie, A Family (ヤクザと家族 ), played a pioneering role by exploring a fresh narrative upon the well-travelled yakuza theme. It was the follow-up to director Michihito Fujii’s successful The Brightest Roof in the Universe (2020) and The Journalist (2019) which was adapted to a TV series this year.

The three acts of this narrative tale were divided across 20 years with chapters based in 1999, 2005 and 2019, against the backdrop of the yakuza’s decline over that period.

Unlike the old-school yakuza tales, the storytelling in this movie took a close look at a single person’s struggle of adherence to his code of honor and family, despite the police’s increasing crackdown upon yakuza.

More than a yakuza drama, this is a tale of an orphan who tried to create family ties in the complicated networks defining the dark underbelly of Aichi Province in the city of Nagoya. What we find is the cold reality that everything Kenji strove for turned to dust. However, even in Kenji’s tragedy, there is sown seeds of hope in the next generation.

Kenji agreed to join Shibasaki’s gang. Courtesy of Netflix.

Synopsis

Following the death of his drug-addicted father, the closest thing young Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) had to family was his two fellow street thugs that he called brothers.

The rakish teen intervened in a turf war between yakuza syndicates and saved the life of yakuza leader, Hiroshi Shibasaki (Hiroshi Tachi). Shibasaki ran his syndicate in strict adherence to the traditional yakuza code of honor and prohibited drug trade. Kenji found meaning and a sense of belonging in the gang “family.”

Kenji forged a strong commitment to the yakuza code and eventually took on the role of Shibasaki’s foster son. In the search to form a family of his own, Kenji fell for the spirited bar girl Yuka Kudo (Machiko Ono) who was a strong-minded orphan working hard to pay off college tuition. Sharing the same isolation, she shared a bond with Kenji and succumbed to his rough charms. Meanwhile, the owner of Kenji’s favorite restaurant, a single mother, had a child Tsubasa Kimura (Hayato Isomura) who grew up admiring Kenji and treating him as a surrogate father and idol.

The heart-warming development of intimate connections broke off once a yakuza territorial dispute infringed on the life Kenji was developing. After a bloody attack on Shibasaki, Kenji sought to defend the gang’s honor in a petty gangland vengeance which sent him to jail on a murder charge for 14 years.

Upon his return to the society, Kenji found the people in his life and the world he knew had faced earthshaking changes. He realized that it would be impossible for him to restart the life as a normal person. With no hopes remained, he decided to fight once again for the code of family.

Kenji became a pawn in a yakuza territorial dispute. Courtesy of Netflix.

The Proper Mix of Blood and Tears

Alternatively titled Yakuza and the Family, the story was not limited in portraying only Kenji’s yakuza family. It unfolded the narrative upon a variety of relations, tinged with Asian sentiment and sentimentality.

Whether it’s about honor-bound Yakuza family bonds, his lifelong “brothers”, the spiritual son Tsubasa, or Yuka who bore Kenji’s daughter, the narrative drew a wide spectrum of family ties within Kenji’s life. Their relationships with Kenji shaped the family drama themes of departure, reunion and continuity of generations, which added layers of colors to an otherwise dark and cold yakuza story.

In this sense, the movie can be regarded as an unconventional family drama even though it did delve into serious crime elements such as drug-dealing, assassination and revenge.

Kenji with his teen friends were regular customers of a yakuza-frequented restaurant. Courtesy of Netflix.

The story was a narrative breakthrough that gave it a more international appeal and, although the cinematography was not groundbreaking, the movie adopted an internationally industry-standard cinematic language, which may have broadened the film to reach more international audience. It certainly attracted Netflix to take a chance on this very Japanese genre.

However, being too industry standard has brought criticism that the movie lacks a cinematic signature in terms of director’s visual style and some reviewers have noted that, to a western audience, the story may seem melodramatic.

Still, it is a strong and personal account exploring the social implications of the realistic crackdown on Yakuza and the powerful performances of the actor ensemble make this a worthwhile watch.

A Family (Japanese: ヤクザと家族 The Family; alternate English title: Yakuza and the Family)—Japan. Directed by Michihito Fujii. First released January 29, 2021 in Japan. Running time 2hr 16min. Starring Go Ayano, Hiroshi Tachi, Machiko Ono.

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Chinese Film Review – Red Amnesia

By Jude Jiang, June 2015

Wang Xiaoshuai’s movie, Red Amnesia, presents a modern Chinese family drama centering on an old widow and her estranged children. Then surprisingly, it takes a social tone and cuts deeper to reveal the wounds and guilt held by the elder generation in China, who survived the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

Even though the story introduces a mysterious case of harassment of this elderly woman, the story is not structured as a thriller. Instead, it evokes empathy through a slowly evolving family drama, yet Red Amnesia displays a calm insight into the ongoing consequences of the past sins of the former political movement.

Parental control

In Wang’s past film Chongqing Blue (Ri Zhao Chongqing, 2010), after a middle-aged father’s son is executed for committing a horrible murder, he seeks understanding of how his son and himself as father, went wrong. In a similar vein to Chongqing Blue, which explores the social effects from absence of fatherhood, Red Amnesia takes on motherhood through an overbearing and controlling dowager struggling to retain control of her clan.

The old widow Lao Deng (Lv Zhong) is a typical retiree in her late 60s who maintains a busy daily routine. She constantly visits her two sons’ apartments to cook for them, no matter how unnecessary they think it is. She also takes responsibility for picking up her grandson after school and cares for her ailing mother in a nursing home ward. Through all this activity, she seems to gain neither joy nor satisfaction.

She does so much for her family but they resist and even seem to tacitly resent her continual domineering influence. When she ends her daily routine and returns to her own gloomy apartment, surrounded by memories and relics of the past, she is lonely and isolated. She talks to herself, to the picture of her deceased husband and even his imagined ghost, sitting silently in his former seat at their table.

Even as she forces her presence and influence into the lives of her children, a stranger begins to encroach into her life. Starting with prank phone calls, a series of increasingly disturbing events upset Lao Deng’s daily routines and threaten her safety. Though she tries to stay in the elder son’s (Feng Yuanzheng) fancy apartment for her security, the harassing calls continue. When the unseen intruder [the literal translation of the movie title in Chinese is The Intruder] dumps a mound of trash to spill into their apartment upon opening the door, Deng’s daughter-in-law (Qin Hailu) blames the old woman as the cause. Unwilling to endure being accused, Lao Deng, filled with self-righteous anger, returns to her apartment. Ultimately, she is willing to face the threat of harassment on her own.

A multi-level mystery

Even as she faces the danger from a potential stalker, the film does not overly rely on the suspense element nor does it rush to unravel the mystery. Instead, it takes us deeper into the mundane daily issues in her life that she faces, yet can not seem to solve. We see that her frustration with her family even outweighs her concern for her safety. For instance she’s upset that her younger son (Qin Hao) is a homosexual, she is frustrated that her mother is unhappy with the nursing home ward and she is discouraged that her daughter-in-law always quarrels with her.

“The time is different from the past now”, she complains to her deceased husband. As her over-bearing motherhood leads to naught for both her and her family, she realizes how little impact she truly has. It is in the face of this realization that she lets down her guard and invites a stranger, an intruder, into her home, in part, because he says he came from her former cultural revolution factory.

It turns out that the intruder was the source of the harassment and a wanted criminal for several other break-ins and a murder. He tears apart Lao Deng’s family pictures when he was left alone in the home. She does not see this as a normal robbery or theft. Instead, she believes that it was retribution from the ghost of a recently deceased villager, whom she back-stabbed in the past.

This time, she doesn’t seek aid from police or her family. Rather than seeking out and confronting her physical antagonist, she takes a trip to the factory village in Guiyang, Guizhou Province to visit the family of the man she wronged in the Cultural Revolution days. Here she seeks to confront her true antagonist – her own guilt.

Seeking redemption

One of her former village co-workers and their family greet her on her pilgrimage to the site of her past dark deed. Here we learn that she wrongly betrayed a villager, condemning his family to suffer, so that she could take her own family to safety in Beijing. After so many years, she finally faces these people who lacked her chance to leave the impoverished village to make a better life like she did.

Her host doesn’t seem to hold any grudge but returning to this village brings her face-to-face with the images of the past that still torture her dreams. Therefore, when she goes to the family she sabotaged to apologize, she is shocked that it is rejected and met with a slap to her face. She receives an even stronger blow when she sees that the grandson (Shi Liu) looking out the window is the intruder himself. At that moment, she understands that all of the harassment she faced, was brought upon herself as the cost of her misdeed.

This encounter totally unsettles Lao Deng and puts all her plans asunder. She oddly does not seek to call the authorities on the boy. Unable to come to terms with the victims of her past wrongs, she is left to seek redemption on her own.

In the past, Lao Deng made a hard decision to do whatever it took to protect her family, right or wrong. Here, she makes another strong decision. As she wanders the village of her past, she hears police sirens. In this moment, her motherly instinct calls on her to protect this boy she never even knew she had wronged. As the police try to navigate the narrow, almost labyrinthine, twisting lanes to relentlessly pursue the fugitive boy and bring him to justice, Lao Deng runs up the steep back alleys to warn the boy.

Red Amnesia may come across as fragmented elements fused together. Nonetheless, it remains a serious social study and perhaps Wang’s most critical film. It doesn’t pretend to be a thriller but rather, offers an earnest commitment to interpret an elder person’s story, while actually revealing a collective guilt borne by so many of those that witnessed the Cultural Revolution and are still coming to terms with its results.

Film:Red Amnesia 《闯入者》
Director:WANG Xiaoshuai 王小帅
Starring:LV Zhong 吕中,QIN Hailu 秦海璐、QIN Hao 秦昊、FENG Yuanzheng 冯远征、SHI Liu 石榴
Screen Writers:WANG Xiaoshuai 王小帅;FANG Lei 方镭;LI Fei 李非
Cinematographer:WU Di 邬迪
Producer:Liu Xuan 刘璇
Production Company: Dongchun Films 冬春文化
Distributors:Dongchun Films 冬春文化, Inlook Media 银润传媒, Herun Media 合润传媒, Edko Films 安乐电影,WXS Productions 引力影视投资, Chongqing Film Group 重庆电影集团, Golden Village Pictures [Singapore]
Budget (estimated):Not available
Release Date:30 April 2015 (China)、11 November 2014 (USA)
Length:110 min.
Genres:Crime/Thriller
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Just One More Cigarette

Fifty-two-year-old Bo Qi somberly paced along a 50-meter-long hospital corridor where its cold tile and cement walls were barely penetrated by the warmth of the spring’s sun.

On purpose, Bo plodded as slowly as the others, closely scrutinizing the various expression on fellow patients’ faces.

While many other patients in blue-striped patient gown had to rely on their families or hospital workers to escort them for even a brief stroll, Bo walked steadfast in solitary thought and had refused to trade in his own clothes for the uniform.

Some patients frowned or squinted their eyes while taking laborious steps forward, while others were humpbacked, holding onto the balustrade attached to wall for support as they shuffled forward.

A half-meter-long digital clock hung pendulously from the ceiling of the hallway, a constant and cruel reminder of passing time and for Bo, tomorrow’s impending medical procedure. It cooly blinked from 16:49 to 16:50, declaring another moment of life expended.

Now, in twenty hours and ten minutes, Bo noted to himself, he could end up being in the same pain as these people, or maybe worse, because the doctor warned him the surgery had a 20 percent failure rate.

This scary, grim thought marched through his consciousness like the unending procession of strolling patients. Once again, it made him impulsively eager to escape from the unit packed with 63 other patients, seven nurses, two doctors and Ling, his wife.

“Ling, can I have a cigarette?” Bo asked her with a poker face. Following the question, two pale-looking male patients, lying on beds in the same room, turned their heads and listened attentively to such human drama unfolding.

“You should be getting dressed in your hospital gown,” Ling’s cold, dark eyes stared through Bo from austere reading glasses poised above her stark-lined cheeks.

In her hand, she held a hospital pamphlet entitled, “How to keep a good diet during the operation period.”Her pen hovered over a page where she been underlining key points specific to pancreatic cancer.

“Just one. A final one,” Bo pleaded with strong determination. He however noticed the rising blush of barely controlled anger flushing the wife’s tanned skin even darker. Heedlessly, Ling crumpled the pamphlet and pressed her lips together tersely as she prepared to chastise him.

Wisdom bred of years of familiarity allowed Bo a moment of prescient foresight to avert the coming storm.

“Never mind,” Bo interjected. As he swiftly turned away, he saw the two patients sharing a wry grin at his personal plight.

The digital clock in the corridor showed 16:55. Only five minutes had passed, Bo thought. It was rather confusing to him that he both wished the time could go faster, and yet he wanted it to cease its endless march so he could delay the pain he would soon face.

But even more, he looked back in time and wished he had never even got the cancer.

“What is on your chest?” A patient in his twenties, leaning against a window and outlined by the warm rays of magic-hour sunlight, studied Bo who was staring at the clock mesmerized.

“Sorry? What?”

“The yellow pattern on your chest. Is that a dragon?” The young patient squinted at the tattoo on Bo’s chest that appeared to be poking its tail out of the loosely-buttoned shirt.

“Oh, it’s just a monster from some legendary tale,” Bo took a chance to look closely at the young man. His neck was attached via an IV tube to a 500ml bag of sodium chloride. Two blood-filled discharge tubes protruded from each side of his belly.

“Two days…three days after?” Bo could feel his nerves strained when asking the question.

“It’s the fourth day already.” The youth attempted to grin, though even the act of smiling remained guarded.

Surgical sutures could be split with normal activities like laughing or coughing, Bo recalled. Such information was shared among patients like folk wisdom and offered him a glimpse at what he would face if he survived the surgery.

“I’m thinking, afterwards, to have a tattoo…to cover my surgical scars,” The young patient said in a victorious tone. “I heard that it hurt a lot. But if I live through the pain of surgery, I can take anything, right? ”

Under the waning amber light, the youth’s bright eyes and white teeth appeared brighter and whiter to Bo. Annoyed, he looked away and leaned against the window.

What an arrogant young punk, Bo thought. In his short twenty-something lifetime, he might have only experienced pains in physical forms. Spiritual wounds hurt the most.

Bo remembered losing his best friend in a car accident after an unresolved quarrel. It was something he could never let go of. Following this awareness, he wondered how his wife would get by without him. The thought stunned him.

“Life is way too short,” the youth disrupted Bo’s deep
reflection, holding out a packet of cigarettes he had hidden under his hospital gown. “so we gonna’ do what we want, right?”

Bo stared at the thin white stick. For decades, he had turned to it for relief from the things he did not want to face. Seeking to escape from this new awareness, he turned to gaze out the window.

The unending urban noise was as upsetting as the foolish tattoo ideas that the youth had shared. He was about to turn away again from the clamor and chaos, when he caught sight of an inviting burst of colors from a courtyard between the tall buildings. The flora burst forth with the new life promised by the warmth of the spring breeze.

Bo chided himself that he had spent the whole day wasted in smoking, fretting over the upcoming operation and annoying his wife. He reflected that the tobacco had probably caused the cancer. He knew he needed to quit smoking if not for himself, then for her.

Grim thoughts once again marched through his consciousness. Bo couldn’t help but look back in time to the many opportunities missed, things he had left undone and those he regretted doing during his life span.

“Got a light?” Bo grimaced in defeat as he stuck the cigarette between his lips. The young punk flourished his lighter and the flame sprung to life.  

The clock quietly blinked from 16:59 to 17:00, reminding Bo of being one minute closer to his surgery.

“Hey, I will see you tomorrow,” the punk again carefully smiled an impish grin before he wandered back down the corridor, leaving Bo alone with his thoughts. 

Bo savored the smoke of his last drag in solemn reflection under the sun’s setting glow.

“It’s time for me to change,” He said as he reached for the rolled up uniform set on top of the gym bag of hospital necessities. Still hunched over the pamphlet marking another important note, Ling’s jaw went slack with surprise.

“Can we chat before the surgery?” Bo asked. Ling put aside the pamphlet and gently patted the empty seat beside her.

The two other patients were startled from their silent contemplation by the creaking sound as Bo lowered his bulk into the chair. While Bo and Ling were talking in tender subdued tones, the eavesdroppers shared a knowing glance and returned to their own inner thoughts.

Creativity Team:

Photo & Fictional Storytelling by: Jude Jiang, jiangwenjude@icloud.com

Editing by: Richard Trombly, richard@trombly.com

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A Spaceship, Hot Wheels, And Imaginary Happiness

A photographic journey into children’s fantasy lives.

Under the baking sun of a lazy Sunday on one of Shanghai’s labyrinthine market streets, vendors loudly hawked their wares to the few shoppers passing through the Nongtang alleys.

“Welcome aboard Magic Spaceship No.1. Me, the captain, will bring you to the magnificent galaxy!” a sporty nine-year-old boy informed his three fellows. Surrounded by chaos and noise, they circled a dilapidated motorcycle with a broken headlamp covered by plastic tape.

“The earth is burning! We have to take off the land right now. Come on, let’s go!” said the captain. He wiped sweat beads off his forehead with the dirty sleeve of his jacket as he hopped on the front seat. His jacket is emblazoned with Transformers leader Optimus Prime.

The passing housewives and grandmas passed by unaware of the upcoming launch or their own impending doom.

“Yes, sir!” Two chubby boys quickly hopped on the “spaceship.” One of the chubby boys giggled when he protectively tried to take over the entire back seat and their weight caused it start tilting back on its kickstand.

“It’s overloaded! Someone has to get off,” said the intrepid captain authoritatively.

“Don’t leave me alone on the earth! I want to move to the Mars too,” the third boy cried out, he anxiously clambered up and clung to the frame like passengers hanging on outside of over-packed trains in India.

His efforts and added weight tilted the motorcycle further towards the brink of toppling over. As the boys wildly shifted their weight to avert a real life disaster, they burst into peals of delighted laughter.

“Only ten seconds left! Ten, nine, eight, seven…” as the captain counted down the number, a kid who was about two years younger than the other boys meekly approached the vehicle. In an accent of Anhui province, he mischievously delivered a message, “Brothers, sorry but my dad said to get off his motorcycle. He needs to make a grocery delivery.”

In China, millions of migrant workers contribute to metropolitan work in a wide variety of professions from being a construction labor to running hometown-style restaurants. Many have their children in tow as the family drifts from one city to another.

While the adults bear the burden of making a living, their kids are the pursuers of great adventures. They discover fun with the power of imaginations set free.

At 9:30 p.m., the sound of sizzling meat drew attention of commuters emerging from a nearby metro tunnel to the vendor stationed at the mouth of a quiet alley.

While most of them marched forward, eager to be greeted by cozy apartments, a female dressed in neat white-collar fashion in her late twenties was attracted by the enticing smell of barbecued meat. Under a dim streetlamp, she saw a couple from Xinjiang province were barbecuing lamb skewers.

The smoke from the barbecue stand hung over the couple as fat dripped onto the glowing coals. As they generously added sprinkled cumin upon the juicy meat, the office lady walked over and ordered three skewers as a reward for her long, hard day.

Tired, she yawned and looked around the sleepy alley. Next to the barbecue stand, two Xinjiang girls at ages five and three, both dressed in overalls, were energetically running back and forth with two discarded bicycle tires in their hands.

These were clearly the vendors’ children, she noted.

Bright smiles shone forth from their faces, round cheeks blushed with genuine excitement, an emotion not common among white-collar people, she thought.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 新疆kid--scaled.jpg

As the elder Xinjiang kid lowered the tire to the ground, she surprisingly whispered to the tire, candidly, as if making wishes over a birthday cake. After giving an adept push, she continued chanting to herself while attentively watching the tire rolling along.

The tire traveled about five meters before wobbling. The elder kid hopped up and down with exhilaration. Following her sister, the younger one imitated the action, but her tire failed to go as far as her sister’s.

As the office lady inhaled the smell of enticing barbecued meat that relaxed her senses, she overheard the elder sibling giggle, “You have to say the magic words, Hot-wheel!” She could not help but think of Nezha, a mischievous god that rode on wheels of flame.

The office lady sat on the street curb and started nibbling on the barbecue. Observing how delighted the children were by this simple game provided a chance for reflection and a momentary relief from her office stress.

The kids noticed her glancing at them.

“Nice wheels, I wish I could play with you,” she said to the inquisitive adventurers. The kids beamed with wide grins and, taking her literally, ran to her eagerly. While she was not sure she could beat five meters, she knew the magic words. “Hot wheel.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 新疆kid-2-scaled.jpg

Creativity Team:

Photo & Fictional Storytelling by: Jude Jiang, jiangwenjude@icloud.com

Editing by: Richard Trombly, richard@trombly.com

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The Deafening Silence Beneath The Noise

It was a brisk sunny afternoon in October, 2015. Amid the incessant stream of traffic in downtown Shanghai, the 755-meter-long Dongtai Road, a pedestrian lane, seemed quieter than the surrounding streets.

A solitary man was fixing the handles, clasps and zippers on two care-worn suitcases. As he deftly switched between using pliers and tweezers from a tool bag, he pondered if these might be his last sale of second-hand goods on this once-thriving antique haven.

The clattering of nearby demolition crews woke a stray tabby cat from its afternoon nap. The tin shack’s rooftop had recently become the safest remaining shelter in this rapidly-disappearing neighborhood block.

A property giant bought this prime land that once contained a world-renowned antique- and flea-market district covering not just Dongtai Lu but encompassed the adjacent streets as well. 

The market used to be flooded with tourists from around China and from all over the world, and more than 100 antique store owners. They aggressively bargained for sales of antiques or reproduction items ranging from an ancient porcelain to Mao Tse-Tung’s little red book. 

A middle-aged former antique dealer wandered on the street, strolling past the seeming endless row of vacant stalls and empty shops. In his hand, he held a local newspaper which reported the latest urban development of this city. 

Most of antique dealers had accepted compensation fees and moved out by June. He contemplated doing the same thing and returning to his hometown in Anhui province.

The sounds of suitcase repairs, the strolling vendor and the cat’s meow were drowned by an excavator starting its engine, sending a plume of diesel exhaust skyward. 

Avid antique dealers Mr. Yang (right) and Mr. Du (left) stared bleakly at the vanishing world that had nearly been a second home to them over the past two decades.

They spoke in subdued and gentle tones with recollections of times past, commenting on the pace of change or alternately, they shared long glances that communicated without words. While Du sipped home-brewed tea from a glass jug, itself almost an antique, Yang gently sighed. 

The sound of something shattering made them recall a day three months earlier, when many shop owners, including their close friend Mr. Ma, made their exodus from the antique street.

On this final day, he and his family faced the monumental task of sorting through and packing up thousands of items he had carefully collected from homes in the nearby neighborhoods. 

Many of these items that Ma treasured were regarded as worthless by his family, who tossed them upon a trash heap. 

As some discarded ceramics shattered on the ground, the gentle octogenarian became cross and lost his temper as he clashed with his families’ harsh judgments.

Yang quipped that they might become grumpy like Ma in their old age and Du pointed out the difficulty folks like them already have in communicating with younger generations.

While they were immersed in pondering the future, another dealer intently typed on the keypad of his smart phone. He seemed untouched by the sights and sounds or the brisk breeze of the autumn afternoon.

Creativity statement:

Facing the information age, we have warped our lives into those small boxes on the screens of phones that we call apps. Even as they make us more connected, we also feel our existence becomes more cluttered and isolated.

I discovered photographing displays a certain power of amplifying single moments that otherwise will be lost to the rapid flow of time. My aspiration is to preserve and shed light on sincere moments and human interactions.

Photo & Storytelling by: Jude Jiang, jiangwenjude@icloud.com

Editing by: Richard Trombly, richard@trombly.com

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Original

A Crime Story Flirting With A Danse Macabre

Movies have become consumer products, and tags such as crime, comedy, adventure, epic, action genres are labels to attract consumers’ ever higher demands. So films are often crafted into audience genre expectations by producers’ chasing illusive ticket sales. In some cases, these narrow pigeon holes limit the commercial success of films that do not easily fit one genre.

Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード·ホテル), a 2019 Japanese movie, marketed as a “crime, detective, drama and mystery,” clearly breaks this expectation in this adaptation from Japanese blockbuster writer Keigo Higashino’s best-selling novel.

In stark contrast with its success in Japan, which returned nearly 4.6 billion yen ($44 million) in box office, overseas markets like China, which often devour Japanese content, only saw lackluster interest. Netizens complained the movie is not as “adrenaline stimulating” as they looked for, understandably considering some of the bloody and high action crime genre from Japan.

The hotel lobby, the main scene in the movie, is depicted as an elegant venue befitting a masquerade dance complete with soundtrack accompaniment of waltz music. The two lead characters also staff the front desk while they try to stop a murder but discover each others’ inner selves in this Danse Macabre.

Danse Macabre

Compared with most movies in the crime genre, Masquerade Hotel lacks quick-paced action and swift turning points, however, it aims to explore something deeper. It presents a Yin and Yang of two contradictory viewpoints in exploring strangers’ true natures, presented within the microcosm of an investigation into a serial murder case.

To the musical accompaniment of a waltz, the story takes place in the high-profile luxury of Hotel Cortesia Tokyo. It is believed to be the next target of a three-time serial killer who leaves GPS coordinates of his next murder at the scene of each preceding crime. Inspector Kosuke Nitta’s (Takuya Kimura), in an effort to catch the killer, goes undercover as a hotel staff where he ends up exploring mysteries of human relationships as well as crime.

The hotel, complicit in the undercover operation, pairs him with the front desk manager Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa.) She believes the hotel is a venue for guests to cast off their ordinary selves, wearing a mask in a surreal masquerade.  She is exquisitely professional in her manner of serving customers and is fully committed to one principle – to respect guests’ preferences and never reveal their true selves under their façade.

With an impending murder, this investigation becomes a “Danse Macabre,” a dance with death lead by the two lead characters.

In the first encounter, Nitta (left) and Naomi (right) face away from each other, symbolizing their contradictory perspectives.

Understated “Rom-Com”

Though the murder plot framework, complete with Agatha Christie-esque trappings, adds a commercial selling point as a crime genre movie, Nitta and Naomi’s developing relationship as they explore their widely differing life philosophies, is the gem in this film.

Naomi persuades rebel-spirited Nitta to have a hair cut as part of becoming a service staff. In this picture composition, the two are positioned at a distant yet balanced in oppositional symmetry.

The movie kicks off in an uplifted tone exploring the arrogant Nitta being transformed by hard-headed Naomi to take on a new identity as a professional concierge staff. Their relationship subtly evolves when the concierge Naomi, motivated by customer service, takes on a role as crime investigator and forms an unlikely duo with Nitta to catch the murderer.

Embroiled in the mire of investigation, Nitta discloses the mystery of three previous murders to Naomi. The camera moves from a two-shot until their profiles nearly overlap, embodying their newly-forged bond of trust.

From a debate over hair cut to about how to behave in front of hotel customers, Nitta and Naomi openly cast criticism upon each other, which, surprisingly, develops into genuine trust bond.

Through Naomi’s insights from her very different views and provoking insights about the previous serial murders, Nitta gains a new perspective and realizes the police investigation is entirely on a wrong track. The murderer is more clever and the plan more complicated than they imagined.

Nitta and Naomi as allies are closer together in frame but still in a symmetry.

Prior to the climax of revealing the murderer, the film takes introspective interludes exploring Nitta and Naomi’s Yin and Yang philosophies. Their opposed viewpoints on life, instead of leading to increased strife, gave each a growth opportunity to explore each others’ strengths and weaknesses. They both commit to catching the murderer at all costs. They recognize their roles and responsibilities limit the investigation to something like a dance. In protest, they vow to quit their jobs if they fail to prevent the next murder.

The scene is devoid of environment sound and simply shows the two face at the hotel door in a dark night, talking in low voices which adds to its subtle power. It indicates their newly developed bond in the most challenging moment of their careers.

The two celebrate the closing the case dressed in black and white to accent their Yin and Yang.

This delightful, genuine, trustworthy relationship adds a warm layer to an otherwise cold-tone detective investigation story, a genre where detectives are often portrayed as psychologically dark, affected by continually delving into the dark side of human nature.

Friendly Warning Prior To Watching

In accordance with the original book as a Japanese-style detective novel (すいりしょうせつ), the movie depends more heavily on the philosophical musing in the main characters’ dialogues to discover new clues and solve the investigation.

Additionally, different from usual crimes stories that present never-ending plot twists in shocking tones, this movie is subdued and calm on revealing the murderer and the motives.

For some movie-goers who prefer action over dialogue and desire thrilling chase scenes filled with excitement, this movie will not likely hold their attention.

Aftertaste

“Customers coming to the hotel wear a kind of masquerade and hide their true facade, while hotel staff here comply with a rule of not Tom-peeking guests’ real identity. By doing so, guests can find some sense of freedom.” said Nitta when he closed the case.

Would one unmask others’ truthful intention or rather protect the freedom interpersonally? Answers to this question may be embedded in this welcoming crime story.

After the crime has been solved, the would-be victim saved and justice served, the detective and concierge meet outside their work roles in a romantic dinner dressed in white and black to bring home their Yin and Yang opposition.

It leaves us realizing the real mystery this movie investigated was human nature and the course of the investigation was a developing romance between these two opposites.

Director: Masayuki Suzuki 

Screenwriters: Michitaka Okada, Based on novel by Keigo Higashino

Stars: Takuya Kimura, Masami Nagasawa, Takako Matsu, Fumiyo Kohinata, Ryô Katsuji, Katsuhisa Namase, Takashi Ukaji, Ryo Ishibashi

Runtime: 133 mins

Production Companies: Cine Bazar, Fuji Television Network

Distributors: Toho Company(2019, Japan), Sweet Charm Pictures (2019, China),Uni-Film Distribution & Financial (2020, China, theatrical), Pony Canyon International Licensing (2018, world-wide, all media, except Japan)

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Original

Purchasing the Future with Joy and Woes

City Talks, a contemporary painting made by Hangzhou artist Wang Xiaoshuang in 2016.

Starting from June 19, 2020, the State Council consecutively approved four cities, Changchun (Jilin province), Chengdu (Sichuan province), Yantai (Shandong province) and Xingtai (Hebei province), to administratively convert surrounding rural counties into city districts, which means the former counties will be governed by their local cities. 

Over the past ten years, China has converted a total of 141 counties and meanwhile added 110 city districts. As China’s urbanization trend continues, not only the countryside economy would be affected by urban economic forces that focus on infrastructure, construction and improvement of public service, but the rural life would be affected by urban influences. 

As the consumption culture permeates areas that formerly relied upon agricultural subsistence, knowledge and experience in farming have decreased and become a rare skill. The lifestyle in rural China becomes a mixture of joy and woes.

A water-color painting by Pan Sitong in the 1950s. It portrays casual Hangzhou lifestyle.

Familiar, yet unknown 

It was after school in the gathering twilight, an interval of time during which Qi Qi, a nearsighted eleven-year-old girl with thick-lensed glasses, could relax before supper. She stood on her pink Balance Bike and slid around the yard where five square meters of home-planted vegetables were planted.  

“Even though I was born and grew up in countryside,” said QiQi, looking with a confused gaze at two similar-look green plants in Grandma’s front yard. “I barely can tell the difference between these two vegetables.”

Guo Wei, Qi Qi’s father, walked from the house and furrowed his brow at her confusion. He paused before picking a few sun ripened tomatoes for the meal already cooking within.

“They are eggplant and pumping seedlings,” Guo Wei responded. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Guo spent most of his time assisting his mother on farm lands which are now rented out to a local herb planting and manufacturing firm. Guo left farming, to pursue selling ceramic tiles in a store as a more suitable way to support his family. 

Qi Qi leaned closer to the two greens seedlings and took a good at the leaves. “Ah, pumping seedlings have curvy strings!” She happily reported to her father. “Look, there are more greens growing! Let me check them out…” 

“You have to do your homework now,” Guo Wei stopped the child as she was about to sneak out of the yard to explore the natural world beyond. “Last night, you were up until 11p.m. Why can’t you finish the homework fast?”

It is true that Qi Qi has a propensity for procrastination, especially burgeoning load of daily homework issued by her school. She had successfully seized numerous moments to play and avoid homework throughout the first grade, a habit she has perfected now in fourth grade. As a result, her parents often sit beside her, enforcing her study time on a daily basis.   

As Guo Wei requested a second time for her to do homework,  Qi Qi reluctantly stepped off her Balance Bike and left the yard behind. As she dove into the boredom of working on several test papers, she couldn’t help diverting her thoughts back to the inviting yard and the two greens she just learned. 

Soon, on the margin of the test paper, a beautiful portrayal of pumpkin seedlings sprouted forth with curvy sprigs and blossoming leaves.  

Pressure to Move On 

Like Qi Qi, many children and teenagers in the rural areas of China are loosing carefree time to competitive school study. Additionally, they have to attend tutoring classes to improve maths, Chinese or English after school and on weekends. Some even attend daily after-school classes if they have trouble accomplishing homework on their own. The tutoring fees for these classes range from 150 to 600 yuan per hour, depending on how effectively the classes can enhance the students’ exam scores.

Qi Qi’s cousin, Jin Wu, a sixteen-year-old teenager who was about to take High-school Entrance Examination within one week, had been taking tutoring class on maths at the cost of 360 yuan per hour. 

“As long as he can enter the best-quality high school,” Jin Wu’s father said, “I am willing to pay the higher tutoring fee.” He was concerned because in the latest mock exam, Jin Wu was only rated entering a mid-level high school. It required an increase of seven scores to enter a better tier of schools. 

When Jin had dinner with his family, not only his father, but his mother and grandparents would encourage him to study hard or give him special food treats. He barely responded beyond his thanks and quickly finished the meal to obediently return to study. 

“There is no way that this new generation will ever return to doing farm work in the future,” Jin’s father says. “They know nothing about farming skills. Study is the only access to their survival.”

The modern Hangzhou International Airport was a significant part of the city’s infrastructure development prior to hosting the G20 in 2016.

Purchasing the future 

Both Qi Qi’s and Jin Wu’s parents bought apartments in town, about 14 kilometers away from their rural farm lands. They felt lucky they made the purchase decision early, otherwise they couldn’t have afforded it, since the price of residential land has dramatically surged over the past few years. 

Since the 2016 G20 took place in China, the real estate market in Hangzhou and the surrounding areas of Zhejiang province has boosted. In 2018, the city had to adopt a housing lottery system in order to prevent a property bubble. Needy families can only purchase apartments with winning the lucky draw. 

As many old residential complexes were dismantled, new high-rise residential buildings rapidly took their place. As exquisitely-designed as the ones in first-tier cities, these new apartments cost half or one-third of their urban counterparts.

“In my father’s generation, they built a three-store countryside villa on their farm property which will be the legacy for their offspring,” said Jianzhong Sun, a 42-year-old construction manager who lives in the same apartment complex as QiQi’s family. “But now, for the young generation like me, purchasing apartment in towns is a more rational decision for the future.”

At the price of RMB1.40 million (US$ 200,000 dollars), Sun bought a new apartment in 2019 in the suburban town of Xiaoshan, an administrative district of Hangzhou. The apartment is composed of two dinning rooms and four bedrooms, occupying 170 cubic meters, on the thirteen floor of an eighteen-floor high-rise.

Sun hopes to buy two more apartments as legacies for his two children in the near future. “Though my business seems profitable because of the the vast-scale of real estate development in China, it has become more competitive these days.” Sun added. He said his profit in the construction sector is down to 20% from 50% ten years ago. 

“Nowadays, we spend money much faster than we earn,” Jia Wei, Sun’s brother-in-law and a window-maker, says, “Twenty years ago, I could only make 50 or 70 yuan per day. I felt fulfilled since I could accumulate a few thousand by the end of the year. But now, the money I made yesterday can be fully spent today, even though daily income increases to be hundreds per day.” 

One week ago, Jia Wei purchased five automatic machines for his new plan for making windows, with a price tag of RMB150,000 (US$23,000). Adding the rental fee of workshop and salary of two workers, his overhead costs will exceed RMB300,000 annually. 

“It is inevitable that automation will replace hand craftsmanship, ” Jia says, “I have been considering this plan for years. It took me a lot courage to enter this new game with its higher stakes.”  

Hangzhou developed City Brain, a system combining big data of facial recognition and traffic flow information across the 16-million-person city.

From Rural to Suburban China

On the way from QiQi’s grandmother’s farmstead to QiQi’s family apartment in town there is a famous real estate development program, known as the Forest and Sea. It occupies 204,000 square meters (5,000 acres), so far it is the biggest residential property in Hangzhou. It claims it will attract 100,000 residents to live there in the next ten years by providing full facilities and every urban convenience including hospitals, schools and supermarkets. 

“It will soon become an ideal residence for people working in urban areas,” Guo Wei commented when he drove by the the Forest and Sea. “If the place is built as it claimed, then there would be no need for people to leave the place because it would have everything.” 

At the back-seat of the car, Qi Qi leaned against the window. She looked out at the heavy equipment and the open scars where construction sites were being prepared. Then she opened her textbook and withdrew a pumpkin sprout she had pressed in the pages.  

A view from Qi Qi’s grandma’s farmstead in Hangzhou. Photo by Jude Jiang.

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Original

The Windowless View

Chinese pavilions spark sentimental visions.

By Jude Jiang

Near the corner of a noisy intersection filled with downtown Shanghai’s endless stream of traffic in lies a pavilion. Painted with faded hues, from its sky-blue tiled rooftop to its burgundy wooden pillars, the hexagonal structure elegantly demonstrates serenity and harmony. 

A pavilion located in downtown Shanghai. Photo credit Jude Jiang.

Chinese pavilions have long been a part of Oriental gardens and dotting the picturesque mountain tops. Ancient poets composed verses or leisurely discussed philosophy with lords and magistrates. Today, people may rarely find time for relaxation or waxing poetic. The pavilion, therefore, may get little use, apart from occasionally being used as an impromptu phone booth while someone stops to sit and make a private call on their mobile phone. 

Though it has fallen into disuse by the busy city people, the pavilion lures other residents to its eaves. Stray cats seem drawn to this shelter and place it in practical usage to play, groom their fur, rally for a fight, eat the food kind-hearted aunties bring for them or just lay down and soak in the sunshine. Feral cats are cautious but they are willing to leave behind the security of the bushes and hedges to stroll across the open spaces to reach this enticing architecture.

Two cats cautiously enjoy their meal in an overlooked pavilion. Photo credit Jude Jiang.

While gleefully indulging in their feline pursuits under the sunshine around the pavilion, the cats remain vigilant. They raise their heads as one, and freeze. Taut muscles poised and ready to pounce, they listen cautiously, and upon hearing any sound of footsteps approaching or vehicle passing nearby, they scatter to the nearby bushes. However, some wise elders remain and intently monitor the activities from their 360 degree vantage within the structure.

Often passersby neither notice the cats nor enter the pavilion. They continue on in their quick pace to their own destination under the watchful gaze of the pavilion’s feline guardians. But the cats are blissfully unaware of the grand history of humble buildings like these.

“Truly enjoyable it is sit to watch the immense universe above and the myriad things below, traveling over the entire landscape with our eyes and allowing our sentiments to roam about at will, thus exhausting the pleasures of the eye and the ear,” wrote Wang Xizhi, a renown Chinese calligrapher during Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 353), in his famous essay, The Orchid Pavilion. In this verse, he extolled his sentiments to the view from the pavilion.

The calligraphy, The Orchid Pavilion, by Wang Xizhi.

Is this not the very sentiment that attracts these stray cats? Wang Xizhi assembled with forty old and young illustrious scholars in the Orchid Pavilion where they chatted, sang, drank and relaxed. They also pondered philosophy.

Wang Xizhi mentioned that his pleasure not only came from viewing the mountains, trees, bamboos and streams from the pavilion, but also from noticing his companions,“unburden their thoughts in the intimacy of a room, and some, overcome by a sentiment, soar forth into a world beyond bodily realities.”

Though there was no traffic noise in that age to disrupt their fraternity within the pavilion. After the ripple of pleasures triggered by the view from the Orchid Pavilion, Wang found himself in a sad mood contemplating the limited space inside with the immense wilderness outside the pavilion. This image caused him to compare humans’ limited lifespan with infinity of the Universe.

Impression of The Orchid Pavilion by artist Wen Zhiming during Ming Dynasty(1542)

 “Although our lives may be long or short, eventually we all end in nothingness. ‘Great indeed are life and death,’ said the ancients. Ah! What sadness!” Wang Xizhi surmised at the end of his essay. 

Modern architects employ cubic windows in their stark and impregnable concrete and steel behemoths made for residential, shopping and working spaces. When the buildings provide more internal space and security, do they also restrict our sentimental outlook?

Today one third of world’s high-rise buildings above 150 meters in height are located in mainland China. Thus, seeing a grand view through panes of high-rise building window is an ubiquitous experience, while discovering such grandeur in the windowless view from a pavilion on a mountain has become a luxury.

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Original

Strange Hues Color Modern Love

Love can no longer be defined by traditional ideals.

By Jude Jiang  (with additional writing by Richard Trombly)

Print from early 1900s of ancient artwork “A Chinese Long Song”

Over the past 30 years, while China’s modernizing has given it an economy that rivals the West, its divorce rate has also developed apace. A recent statistic, released by Civil Affairs Department of China, shows that in 2019 four out of ten Chinese marriages ended in divorce. When in a single day over ten thousand Chinese couples absolved their mutual promise of a life-long vow, some people cast judgments and extol so-called traditional values.

It’s always been hard. Is it harder?

Divorce and break-up entail bleak, painful transformational stages. Eat alone, sleep alone, do hobbies that were once enjoyed with a partner, alone. It can be hard to readjust to single life. And some people have never lived alone before. We must also face the unbearable phantom of reliving memories of sweet moments shared with our “ex”. After our idealized expectations meet the reality wall, we endure the disillusionment and various emotional distresses. It can lead to painful introspection about questions like “What is love?”,  “Is there a true and everlasting love?” and other existential angst.

“In truth, our partners are as imperfectly human as we are. Perhaps that image of ideal love has damaged us because we never find that perfect partner that completes us and solves every problem and removes all sadness in our lives. When we have our eyes fixed on that illusory fantasy, we overlook so many wonderful sources of love in our lives, right in front of us.”

These questions have fueled the quest of poets, musicians, philosophers, writers and artists through the millennia because these issues are so very and essentially human. As modern societies keep growing under burgeoning populations, seeking and sustaining love relationships seems even harder where many aspects of fast-paced, high-tech, plugged-in modern life can challenge a couple’s relationship. Has the equation of love become harder to solve or are we so distracted by modern life that we have more trouble finding it? Modern Love, a recent series streamed on Amazon Prime explores this issue.

The Color of Love

When we express love for someone online or wear T-shirts that say “I love (something)”, the word love is often expressed as an image of a vibrant, red heart. This symbolizes our image of a volcanic powerful passion we connect with love. That emotion fuels an ardent energy that leads people to tackle great obstacles in the quest to find eternal love.

Poster of Modern Love, anthology series presented by Amazon Original.

It is rare to see love symbolized in other colors of the spectrum. Psychologically, blue can represent calm and peaceful but in the very word blue is symbolized depression, so much so that there is an entire genre of jazz devoted to it. So it certainly seems out of place to see the poster for Modern Love, with its symbol of a heart painted in blue. While it seems so incongruous at first to see a blue heart, the series which is based on a column in the New York Times, explores love through this non-traditional lens.

Men have been raised with fairy tales of overcoming all the obstacles to win the perfect princess who will become your queen and be by your side eternally, while women were told to wait passively and their prince will come. We also have a huge body of idealized yearning and longing in song and poem as well endless novels of finding the perfect love that will give us a happily ever after ending if we find that one true love. We watch the same trope endlessly on the screen. Love solves it all and then you will be happy. In truth, our partners are as imperfectly human as we are. Perhaps that image of ideal love has damaged us because we never find that perfect partner that completes us and solves every problem and removes all sadness in our lives. When we have our eyes fixed on that illusory fantasy, we overlook so many wonderful sources of love in our lives, right in front of us.

Modern Love looks at what you have when you move beyond the fairy tale of the passionate, perfect or idealized love that we see all the time in literature and on the screen. It depicts how we experience love in modern times, with an accepting view of what love looks like, for the rest of us.

Based on the personal essays of New York Times readers submitted over the years to the column, Modern Love, this anthology series retains an intimate tonality of the original authors’ perspectives of love. The eight stories in the first season of Modern Love present a forum for observing a broader definition of love for our times, often with the hardships and depression it embodies, across the spectrum of non-traditional couple’s love relationships.

Modern Love is grounded solidly in the volatile modern reality where many human needs that are no longer met through the traditional societal structure of marriage and family, must now be satisfied through finding connection with others. The first episode is a wonderful example and one of the more compelling stories of a very different love.

Love Through Blue-tinted Lenses

In the first episode entitled When the Doorman is Your Main Man, we are introduced to a couple on the streets of the city on a first date. We expect to follow their romance. Instead, the date ends with an awkward kiss and the guy never calls Julie, our heroine again but we discover that she has a peculiar relationship with her fatherly doorman.

Guzim, the immigrant doorman, expresses his disdain of the admittedly ineligible men in whom Julie looks to find her prince charming. Instead of being offended, she instead bonds with him and even seeks his approval or rejection of the men. This bookish writer, who moved to NYC and is alone in the big city, is endlessly reading books and seems to be stuck in that world on the written page. Her relationship with the doorman is one of her few tenuous social bonds.

Guzim (l.) and Julie in Amazon’s Modern Love

In her inept and immature quest for fulfillment of her desire to find the perfect love, she inadvertently finds herself pregnant. The biological father is neither eligible nor interested in being involved. After she turns to her unconventional mentor for advice and support, she makes the big choice to be a single mom. 

With Julie facing pregnancy and then raising her child alone, there is the ever-present protective influence of the doorman. The relationship between these two strengthens as he becomes involved as she takes on this new life. He even has moments as an impromptu babysitter when the realities of hectic schedules and city traffic create obstacles for the single mom. We naturally expect that there is a developing love that will be requited, even if this would be an autumn-spring relationship. However, the love that does develop between them is never sensual. In the end, maybe Guzim replaced Julie’s need for family love since she was distant geographically and spiritually from her family.

“…ours was a common and unsung friendship, that between women living in New York, single and alone, and the doormen who take care of them, acting as gatekeepers, bodyguards, confidants and father figures,” wrote Julie Margaret Hogben. “Not because it’s part of the job, but because they’re good men.

The other episodes in this anthology also treat unconventional aspects of love rather than romance. Maybe love will not take the shape of the fairy tale but if we look at it under a different lens, that might not be such a bad thing. The reality is, many will never find happiness in a traditional marriage but one might ask, if those marriages, so prescribed and inescapable in the past societies, were ever happy.

So, maybe, the modern world’s high divorce rate shouldn’t concern us too much. Love may come in many colors.