Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Homestyle Wedding Party and The Death and Rebirth of the Sun

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I took a day-long train ride to her hometown in Hubei province to have a wedding party for her family.  We had already had a wedding dinner at our home in Xiamen in February but that was for our friends that live here.  Her parents had gone back to their hometown after living in Xiamen for many years, so we followed them back a couple of months later so that we could have a traditional wedding celebration there.

Tina's hometown is a small town out in the countryside, a clone of the countless small towns you pass by on those long boring train rides and never give a second thought about.  It was freakishly hot, so we were too tired to do anything but eat, sleep, and hang out with visitors.  One positive note is that extreme heat usually results in people spending a lot of time in bed together with little or no clothing, which is always fun :-).  All in all, it was a pretty boring week, but it was nice to see a new part of China and Tina's family, and also to take a break from summer teaching.

The wedding party was pretty low-key, just a lunchtime gathering of about 80 people, mostly family and close friends.  I was wearing the red and black silk suit that I wore for the first party, and Tina was looking angelic in a Western-style white wedding gown.  The beer flowed like wine, people were happy, hongbao was flung hither and yon, and later everyone crashed or played mah jong.  It was a fun experience but I'm definitely wedding-ed out.  Two is enough :-P.

On the way back, we got to watch the solar eclipse through our train window.  There was only a thin veil of cloud cover so the sun was clear enough to view.  We bought a piece of tinted glass so we spared our retinas from the glare.  I'd seen a total lunar eclipse back in America but I'd never seen a solar eclipse.  It was wild watching a black disc slowly eat the sun.  The best part was when there was just a shy sliver of light left, like a glowing eyelash.  Then- it was gone, and nighttime fell in a few seconds.  There was definitely a surreal vibe, kind of an ominous blackness like the anticipation before a catastrophic storm.  It lasted for a couple of minutes, then the sun made its encore appearance and life returned to normal.  It was a great way to end a unique week.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

China Tattoo Advice Part 2: Choosing a Tattoo ARTIST

The word "tattoo artist" generally applies to anyone who creates tattoos. And if you're familiar with the tattoo process, the tattoo artist doesn't actually draw the tattoo by hand (unless he's got mad skillz); he or she will use a stencil (a pre-drawn pattern) and will apply the pattern to your skin using some transferring liquid. The process is exactly the same as those temporary tattoos that kids like to wear, except in the case of an actual tattoo, the stencil is only a line drawing without any color. This makes the tattoo artist more of a "tracer" and "colorer" than an actual artist, but there is a tremendous amount of artistic skill that is necessary to pull off a good tattoo.

The technique of tattooing is very different than drawing on paper with a pen. The machine is bulky and vibrating, and skin is not totally smooth and flat. So the technical skill of a tattoo artist must be above and beyond a skilled drawer. But where the artistic element comes is is in the improvisation. As I said before, a tattoo design is pre-applied to the skin in a stencil, but this is only a rough idea. Stencils are sometimes crooked or jagged where they should be smooth and straight, and a good tattoo artist will be able the visualize the tattoo outside of the stencil and work towards the finished product, rather than follow the details of the stencil.

As you can probably guess, this is where the difficulty comes in with finding a good tattoo artist in China. There are many tattoo artists with decent technical skills but who lack creative vision. In China, tehcnical ability is equivalent to capability; i.e., if you can execute all of the steps in a waltz correctly, you must be a good dancer. This is only half-true; Chinese culture by and large does not take into account the soul of the person performing the action if that action is not inherent to Chinese culture (Chinese calligraphy is a notable exception to this); that is to say, whether or not the person executing the dance steps with robotic precision actually feels the dance in their spirit, and more often than not, the answer is no. The same goes for tattooing. Yes, maybe the tattoo artist can stay in the lines and color-by-numbers, but there are numerous instances during a tattoo that require the artist to improvise, and the only source for this improvisation comes from the art that lives inside him, and unfortunately I've come across many tattoo artists that are good at the tattoo part but the artist is AWOL. If the stencil becomes smudged or he needs to add a little bit of flair that isn't in the original design but will certainly enhance the tattoo, many tattoo artists will find themselves floundering. I've brought crude drawings to tattoo parlors of designs that would be too big to draw on paper with the expectation that the tattoo artist could envision the design like I did and simply draw the pattern into my skin, but many times I've been met with nervous downcast eyes. My initial thought is "Are you serious? You really can't see what I'm imagining here?" But then I remember where I am and what the cultural emphasis is on. Chinese mindset: if you provide a workable pattern, I will happily fit my work into it, but if you ask me to improvise, I can't promise anything.

Of course, it's a great relief to find someone who is artistic as well as technical. China abounds with excellent artists, however most of them are holed up in smoky studios with oil and brushes. But when one ventures into the world of tattoos, it's a golden combination. It merges Chinese dedication to perfect replication as well as the creative soul that adds flourish and character to the final result. So the moral of the story is: find a tattoo artist that is an artist foremost. If he has his original artwork hanging on the walls of his parlor, that's a good sign. If he gives you a quizzical look when you ask him if he could add a little bit here or there when there is no pre-drawn stencil, that's bad. Just make sure that your artist knows how to color outside the lines (though only in a metaphorical sense).

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Few Thoughts Concerning Michael Bay

With mega-robot destruction sweeping the world cinemas and the countless critics tooting horns of lofty opinions, I'd like to share my take on the second-most prominent celebrity named Michael currently carpet-bombing the news.

In every sense of the word, Michael Bay is the People's Director. He knows what the average moviegoer wants (bouncing boobs, bombs, bright lights, fast cars, thundering soundtrack). My grandfather once referred to Bay and his posse as "a wrecking crew." That's what Michael Bay does- he wrecks things in ever-so-beautiful and poetic hues of glorious devastation, because this is what people generally want when they go to the movies. Movies are the world's waking dreams, and we want to watch on screen what we generally can't have in real life.

Now it's easy to just blow things up and have busty babes running around in slow motion, but I will contend that Michael Bay delivers such normally low-class entertainment elements with flair and bravado that no other Hollywood director can match. Bay's films are masterpieces of color and light. Many directors have their own particular tones and hues that they favor, and Bay opts to go with the disco club palette. If it's dark, it's really dark, but if it's light, it's really bright, but never glaring. Every camera angle is dramatic, every frame is excellently composed. I wouldn't call his action sequences gritty but they don't seem like watery CGI cotton candy either (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine). I guess the best word would be "visceral." It's as close to 3-D as you can get without being 3-D.

Of course it's well known that Bay favors effects over story and characterization, but most of the time (though not always), his story and characters are enjoyable, if implausible. Bay's dialogue is always peppered with up-to-date slang and contemporary humor (though the racist depiction of black people in Revenge of the Fallen's Twins was a bit heavy-handed). His films have an MTV hipness infused in them that irks critics but resonates with young people and with which I identify. But he never feels like he's reaching either. The jabs and jokes flow like wine but never feel like they're forcing the social relevance with pop-culture references, as many children's cartoons do.

Perhaps what I admire most about Bay's style is the tightness of his ship. Every detail is meticulous but never pretentious. The editing, the sound effects, the sets, everything is well-executed and solid without being overly flashy. Bay knows he's delivering a fluffy cream pie rather than a hearty meal, but damn if he doesn't make that cream pie as beautiful and sugary as possible. He makes the best-tasting cinematic junk food out there and if I'm not mistaken, he's the most profitable director active today in proportion to the number of movies that he's made.

Michael Bay is McDonald's. I've been going to McDonald's since I was a wee tot, and while I only go every so often, when I do, it's a treat, and I enjoy a cheeseburger now just as much as I did when I was five years old. The critics can say what they want, but when you have a winning recipe, it doesn't matter whether it's healthy or not.