The Flying Knives

If you need to avenge yourself against your enemies, you will need a basin filled with water and two knives used for killing pigs. Place the knives in the water and get your sorcerer to chant the correct incantation over the bowl. If he’s doing his job right, the knives will turn into fish and the water will turn into blood, and you will know that your enemy is not long for this world, because he will be killed by the “flying knives”.

Alternatively, stick pins in a doll and bury it on his birthday. Or kill a rooster, and stick pins in its head, on his birthday. Kam people don’t like to tell you when their birthday is.

Eric the camera assistant likes to say we are among the “Southern Barbarians”, an oddly medieval construction that recognises so much of this part of China is a very different culture. The Kam are just one of the peoples in this area, who plainly migrated from somewhere else, pushed south by the Han Chinese themselves, and who have only partly got used to the idea of huddling on remote hillsides. They are all incredibly short, quite dark and often quite impassive. Pan, our local fixer, has taken two days to come out of his shell, and only then revealed to the director that he was married with a kid, and that he would be taking us to meet his family.

Pan’s village is called Tang-an. To get there involves a 40-minute drive from Congjiang, the nearest big town, through Zhaoxing, the “capital” of the Kam, because it has five drum towers – any more than one in a Kam town is liable to be a family tower to mark the presence of several households with the same surname. And then out into the mountains beyond Zhaoxing, along a winding mountain road, up into the heights, when Tang-an is stretched out on the slopes above the rice paddies.

In the evening, we lurk around until half past nine, waiting for a practice session for the song contest that is coming up in the village. But none of the people who are supposed to be involved appear to be doing anything. Eventually an old lady called Lan Big Sister says she will take me to meet her friends, a bunch of cackling grannies who are singing a song in Kam in a dilapidated house near the fish pond. Matters are somewhat confused because Lan doesn’t really speak Mandarin.

“Here is some guy from Yinland,” she says, apparently not knowing where that is.

“Come in, come in!” shout the grannies. “We are singing a song in Kam about the benefits of government subsidies for pensioners.” So I try to sing along in a nine-tone language which sounds like the Bulgarian Shepherdesses falling down some stairs, while a heifer in the stalls next door keeps on letting out long farts that are picked up by my microphone.

Halfway through, a granny who has gone out for a dump comes back in to find the squalid room brightly lit with lamps, and a National Geographic film crew crouched in the corner while I perch on a little stool and try to sing a chorus that has two glottal stops.

“What the actual fuck is going on?” she gasps.

“Just pretend we are not here,” says the director.

It is past eleven at night before we struggle back through the streets, pausing only to help a villager carry a moped over a large pile of bricks that has been left in the middle of the narrow mountain road. My limbs are aching. I have a headache from our landlord Mr Wu’s moonshine, and we still don’t know what we are supposed to be filming tomorrow.

The director reveals that there is possible a mass slaughter of oxen at midday tomorrow. And before that, I shall apparently be jumping into the fish pond to hunt carp with my bare hands. What could possibly go wrong?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

Galway, JFK and Roger Moore

I’m in Galway, Republic of Ireland on a secret mission (Codename Blackbird) and today I stopped in at the cathedral to be confronted in the Chapel of the Resurrection with a mosaic depicting John F Kennedy, at prayer with the Irish martyr Pádraig Pearse, shot during the Easter Rising.

Lunch a block or so away at Re’Nao, a Chinese restaurant serving Xi’an food, which was authentic when I ordered it because I knew what was supposed to be in it. The restaurant offers so many customisation options on its food that it is possible for the overly picky client to turn everything into something completely different. I also had an authentic roujiamou meat bun (“rogermoores” as they are known in our house), although there were so many Have It Your Way options that I could have easily transformed it into a chicken bap with ketchup.

Re’Nao was one of three Xi’an establishments withing spitting distance of one another in Galway, all owned by the same Xi’an expat. For more about Chinese food in Ireland, particularly the never-ending quest for authenticity, you can click on my interview with Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals.

Cannon Fodder

Memories, released in the year of Windows 95, was made on a technological cusp of the expansion of computing power and the rise of digital processes. Some of the techniques included in the final print were literally impossible to achieve three years earlier when the film commenced production, throwing Otomo and his staff into a constant game of catch-up with new developments in processing and materials. In a sense, his celebrity in the anime world forced him into the role of an early adopter, tinkering with new technologies when they were still expensive and untried.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Cannon Fodder” in the Memories anthology.

Stink Bomb

“Revisiting the film in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s surprising how many resonances seem very much of our time. Stink Bomb begins in a doctor’s surgery, as the sniffling Tanaka gets his flu jab, and locals grumble about the virus that’s going around. He walks out into the snowy streets wearing a face mask – an entirely everyday sight in 2022, but something of an Asian peculiarity in 1995. The custom of wearing a medical mask when ill to protect others, was commonplace in Japan, China and South Korea, but had yet to spread around the world.”

Over at All the Anime, I cover “Stink Bomb”, the often-overlooked second story in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories anthology movie.

The Singing Tree

The Kam say that the first songs grew on a magic banyan tree in one of their remote villages. The birds ate the fruit, and that is what made them sing themselves. But the tree itself put out songs all the time, until an old woman, the legendary equivalent of those people who buy a house near a nightclub and then complain about the noise, decided that she hated the sound of all the songs and cut the tree down. She threw it in a river, and the songs washed away, but a Kam man grabbed them in a bucket and carried them to his village. He tripped while crossing some rapids, and some of the songs washed out and into the world, but most of the best ones stayed with him, and he took them to the Kam people. This is why the Kam people always sing.

This is presumably news to Pan, our driver, who is a Kam man, but whose musical taste only seems to run to dreadful disco tunes, seemingly played by an orchestra of kazoos. He subjects us to them all the way to Congjiang, which is the gateway to the Kam region. The mountains loom all around us, serrated with rice terraces up to the heights, with tiny villages clustered on the slopes, each dominated by a conical pagoda that looks like a fir tree – the drum towers of the Kam, where they still gather to sing.

Pan is glum most the time. The Kam people are slowly fading away beneath an onslaught of mainstream culture. Their young people marry out or move to the big cities, and there are less people around to sing in the moonlight choruses that make them famous. Only tourism seems to keep them alive. The gateway to the valley of the Kam is guarded by police who charge 100 kuai per visitor simply to get in, as if their entire community is a theme park of dark-clad people with silver headdresses.

Except for Pan, who wears a baseball cap, backwards, with the words London Fresh written on it. We pause outside the valley to film the terraces and send our new drone, a black buzzing 3D Robotics Solo 2, across the sky to photograph the picturesque bridges and the men carrying sheaves of rice. The director is still not sure what we are actually going to film here, but we have maybe four more days to get an episode out of it. Pan is the village chief’s nephew but he is cagey and sullen when we ask him about his traditions. We are not sure that he knows what they even are.

The big national myth of the Kam begins with a boy saving a girl from a tiger. But the story isn’t really his, it’s hers. Her name is Xingni, and she was busy trying to live happily ever after with her newfound husband, when an evil Chinese landlord saw her and wanted her for his fourth wife. That’s a nice touch, right there. He already has three other wives, but needs Xingni to complete the set. Why stop at four, she says, how about I come over to your place tonight with two of my friends, and we will sing to you till your ears drop off.

Singing, for the Kam, seems to come accompanied with a bunch of other activities. The landlord says that sounds great, but just as his three new teenage Kam girls are singing the shit out of him, his barn catches fire (this is not a euphemism), and he runs out to deal with it. When he comes back, the Kam have scarpered.

They run off to a remote village called Luosi where they dig a fish pond. While digging, they find an ancient magic sword. Inevitably, the landlord hears what’s going on, and sends some men to steal the sword. Once they steal it, the landlord himself wields it in a subsequent attack, killing Xingni’s husband. She gets the sword back by paralysing the landlord with a magic fan, then she cuts his head off.

The landlord’s son whines to the emperor about this apparent injustice, and an army arrives to punish them. Xingni tries to throw herself off a cliff, but is saved by the spirit of a pool at the bottom, who gives her a magic charm that will repel the army, on the understanding that she will turn to stone if she uses it. She uses the magic to destroy the Chinese invaders, and then she and her four daughters fling themselves from the clifftop, turning to stone as they fall.

Also don’t point at rainbows, because it’s rude to dragons. This is what I have learned today about the Kam.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

Aunt Eulalia (1940)

In the sleepy seaside town of Tukkilahti (Uusikaupunki here in exteriors), local banker Mauri (Eino Jurkka) is so busy that he has three back-to-back meetings in the evening, and no time to even stop to consider the marriage proposal from local law student Eino (Onni Korhonen) to his daughter Kyllikki (the vivacious Tuire Orri). That’s fine because neither me, nor you, nor cast, nor crew seem to care either, and the gormless young-lovers subplot is largely ignored in favour of a series of comedy capers.

Mauri and his friend Roger (Arvo Lehesmaa) are packed off to Helsinki on business, ostensibly so that local rivals can manufacture a means of ensuring their dismissal. In fact, they are intent on tracking down “Aunt Eulalia”, a wealthy widow whom they believe to be the custodian of a large inheritance for them. However, Eulalia (Birgit Kronström) turns out not to be the daffy old lady the men were expecting, but an attractive young woman who sings raunchy songs in nightclubs, and has already remarried a wealthy doctor, thereby confusing the legal standing of her late husband’s will.

A series of manufactured misunderstandings soon ensue, with Mauri’s trustworthiness called into question and the mistaken belief that someone has kidnapped someone’s cat, culminating in a hot-headed council meeting in which Tukkilahti shop stewards demand Mauri’s resignation, only for the overlooked Eino to deliver an impassioned speech in his defence.  Mauri realises that Eino is ideal son-in-law material (albeit rubbish at pretending to play the piano, I will observe), Eulalia reveals that she has ten thousand marks each set aside for Mauri and Roger, and Roger’s long-suffering wife Edla (director Eino Jurkka’s wife Emmi) comments that none of this would have happened in the first place if the men had just listened to their womenfolk – a sentence that functions as both a plot synopsis and a review.

The Finnish press was more forgiving, thrilling to the adaptation of the original 1929 play by Hjalmar Nortimo, and praising the Sampo-Filmi production team for integrating many of the songs from the original with a bunch of sea-shanties and variety pieces. Reading between the lines of the reviews in Helsingin Sanomat and Uusi Suomi, everybody loved the original play so much that a cinema version would have to be terrible indeed to get a bad notice – the sole complaints, that Aunt Eulalia wasn’t in it enough (this is true – the film is halfway done before they get to the Helsinki trip) and that the script flagged a bit in places, pointedly single out some of the only elements changed for the movie version. On the subject of which, Suomi-Filmi’s Ilmari Unho again penned this one under a pseudonym as he had done with Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman (1939), but rather gave the game away by writing on Suomi-Filmi headed paper. Don’t ever let that boy write a detective drama!

One also suspects that there was something about Nortimo’s original satire of small-town concerns that people who’d moved to the big cities could feel superior about, and ten years after the original play, that was almost everybody! Damning with faint praise, the student paper Ylioppilaslehti commented that “by the middle, you don’t want to leave.” By the middle, I was shouting at them to get on with it, but then again, when they do get to Helsinki we are treated to a bizarre Tarzan-and-Jane dance sequence, a teenage ballet recital and Eulalia’s singing, all as part of the “variety” sequence at her night-club.

Truth be told, at the time of the November 1940 premiere of this film, it had been a while that the Finnish cinema had seen such an obvious adaptation of a repertory-theatre farce for the screen (compare to All Kinds of Guests and For the Money), so perhaps there was a hope among critics that audiences were ready for it. Ironically, however takings were only mediocre in Helsinki, and slightly better than average in the provinces. As a result, despite such widespread praise, this second feature film from the Sampo-Filmi company was its last. Sampo-Filmi would make a handful of shorts over the next few years, but hereafter only shows up on databases as a distributor for foreign movies, in which capacity it continued to function into the 1960s.

Seen with 21st century hindsight, Aunt Eulalia is most memorable for the brief opening glimpses it offers of 1940s Uusikaupunki, majestic ships in the harbour, and unpaved streets still spattered with horse manure, wooden single-storey shops, with modest signs put up in the days before marketing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

Bullet Train

“The original novel of Bullet Train was itself a distaff sequel to Isaka’s earlier Grasshopper (2004), which has only this year been translated into English as Three Assassins. The fact that the plot relied on incidents and connections in a separate work may have skewed some of its flashbacks in all-new directions, leading to stand-offs in South Africa, South America and Mexico, and further dragging its events away from the original.”

Over at All the Anime, I write about the stories behind the story of Bullet Train.

Stir Crazy

Today we are in Shaoxing, home of rice wine, at the Pagoda Brand factory. Not the distilled stuff that gets turned into baijiu, but the 20% booze made by traditional methods for the last 3000 years, which served to get the Chinese munted before they discovered the grape or the distillation process. “Traditional” methods on this leg always seem to amount to the same thing, which is mixing in some rotting fungus and leaving everything in jars for a few months. This is how the soy sauce was made in Amoy; this is how they knocked up the Kouzi baijiu, and it turns out to be the way they make the rice wine, too. There are some more complex steps, I am sure, but we won’t be shooting them until tomorrow.

On paper, the idea of spending the last four days in a Shanghai hotel had seemed like a good one. We could get to know a neighbourhood. We could get our laundry done and be around to pick it up the next day. We could wind down and lose the repetitive grind of checking out and in and out and in. Except our last two days are to be spent filming in Shaoxing, which turns out to be a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way. Today we leave the hotel at 0700 and don’t reach the factory before 10, but then there’s the tour and the pleasantries, meeting the boss, and dickering over the right angles… and then it’s time for lunch in the company restaurant.

The whole facility has been designed for super-class A* visiting dignitaries – the Shaoxing company has got an entire wall of specially designed “celebrity” bottles with their own bespoke logos, and the images of sportsmen I have never heard of emblazoned upon them. Maybe the staff are designed to be part of the experience. The walls are spattered with photographs of portly Chinese men in suits, grimly concentrating as someone in a company anorak hectors them about wine-making, but the staff in the visitor centre are all noticeably attractive Chinese girls in what appear to be regulation-issue flared miniskirts. Come for the drinks, stay for the view?

We don’t get started filming until 1300, severely limiting our light and our day. The director is spitting feathers at the fact that another film crew turned up this morning and faffed around all the things we want to faff around, thereby indisposing the workers to slow down their afternoon to pander to us. We shall have to come back tomorrow, on my last day, before I run to the airport, and the crew themselves will be obliged to return a third day without me to shoot a festival about the god of wine. Belatedly, we all realise that we should have stayed in a Shaoxing hotel – travel time over the next three days is going to rack up nine hours back and forth. Either we take it out of our shooting time, or wake up insanely early so as not to miss the light.

The fermentation process involves great vats of fresh-boiled rice tipped into large jars of lakewater, mixed with wheat-based yeast. The porridge thus created veritably bubbles like a soup, the heat of its own fermentation causing it to chug away to itself, warming the entire jar. Mr Wang, the chief fermenter, wanders among the vats with a stick that terminates in an H-shaped bar – this is a pa, used to stir the rice mixture and cool it. It has to be kept constantly around 34-36 degrees Centigrade for the optimum conditions. The director wants to film the stirring process, but arranging this is like herding cats, since every time we set up a shot, Mr Wang is called in to stir, and then he immediately does so before we can start filming. Moreover, he refuses to stir any given a pot a second time, as that would cool it too far, which means we have to set up his camera for another shot somewhere else; stir and repeat. Meanwhile, Mr Wang’s colleagues are banging around in the background, shouting at each other, and a coach party of Chinese tourists keeps blundering into the shot.

There is scant time remaining before I will have to leave for the airport, and we still need to film the introductions for the Grains and Ceramics episodes and my wine-tasting experience. We rush a shot of me at lunch talking about the prevalence of rice in the Chinese diet, and then over to the museum for the final shots. But whereas the museum was a relatively peaceful venue yesterday, today it is rammed with tour groups, who keep poking their heads around the corner and trying to take selfies in front of the equipment.

Perhaps fittingly, my final piece to camera is another boozy taste test, before an array of dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet rice wines. The best of them taste like dessert wines, the worst like a sherry solution of sugar and plums.

“Okay,” says the director. “Go to the airport. Everybody say goodbye to Jonathan. You won’t be seeing him again.” That’ll be my performance review, then. They already have more B-roll to shoot; I have a plane to catch. There is no time for speeches or proclamations. Mr Mao is already gunning his engine outside, petrified that he will be held responsible if I don’t make it to the airport in time. Eight weeks in each other’s company ends with the briefest of hugs and a dash for the door.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).

Heavenly Delusion

“There is an outside world, but they don’t get to see it. In fact, as one of their minders reveals, the outside world is awful. The outside world is hell. And if the kids know what’s good for them, they should stop wondering about what’s outside… even if some of them seem haunted by apparitions that seem to come from there.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Masakazu Ishiguro’s manga Heavenly Delusion.