Passage to Penang

Eleven years (give or take) since I first came to live in East Asia, I finally made it to Malaysia last week. Though I’ve been to many other places in East and Southeast Asia, Malaysia, for some reason, was never a big priority for me. Despite that, I’d always found its lively mix of ethnicities, cultures, and secular and (occasionally) more fundamentalist proclivities a fascinating story from afar.

For numerous reasons – many related to the colonial tenure of the British – Malaysia is a truly multicultural place. About half its people are of Malay stock, a quarter Chinese, 10 percent indigenous, 7 percent Indian and the rest of various backgrounds. As a result, you’ll see as many hip young Chinese or Malays as burqa-clad Muslim women, and restaurants that have everything from halal to BBQ pork to – yes! – chicken and mushroom pies.

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After just a single day in Kuala Lumpur (a situation forced on us by a 13-hour delay to our flight from Seoul) we headed to our main destination: Penang. I’d come across Penang for the first time when I was at Morning Calm, when one of our regular contributors had turned in a piece about George Town (the capital of Penang State) and its supposed status as one of the most haunted spots in Malaysia. As was always the way at MC, the photos had made George Town look stunningly beautiful, an alluring mix of ethnic trappings and glamorously faded colonial architecture. Though that certainly wasn’t the whole story — large parts of George Town are run-down and/or built over — there is a remarkable amount of buildings dating back 100 years ago or more and some gorgeous natural scenery too.

We had the pleasure of staying in two beautifully restored hotel buildings, one of which, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, is a centrepiece of George Town’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other, the recently opened Clove Hall, was actually the more comfortable of the two, coming as it did with a pool, wooden (rather than stone) floors, a balcony and a flat-screen TV. Falling asleep in a four-poster bed draped with mosquito nets or having a leisurely breakfast out in the garden, complete with English crockery, wicker seats and a ceramic patio, was like being parachuted into a Somerset Maugham novel.

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The owner of Clove Hall was a very affable and interesting fellow called Christopher Ong. A Penang native, Ong had left the country in the late ’70s, started a career as an investment banker, and then retired in the early 2000’s to become a hotelier. After achieving considerable success with Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort Hotel, Ong decided to return home and get involved with efforts to preserve Penang’s old architecture, which he did by restoring the then dilapidated Clove Hall (a former drinking and gambling club for British colonials, Ong said) to its current Anglo-Indian beauty.

Ong said that for several reasons — antiquated property laws, neglect from the stridently pro-Malay central government (Penang has a very large Chinese population), general economic decline — Penang had preserved a great deal of its architecture dating from the 19th century and before. Although much had fallen into disrepair, the town was now taking the task of preserving itself much more seriously, especially since the historical centre of George Town had gained its World Heritage status in 2008.

Though there were beautiful buildings throughout the parts of Penang we went to, some of the highlights were Suffolk House, once the home of Francis Light, the British “discoverer” of Penang, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the rather garish former abode of nouveau riche Chinese traders, and the Penang State Museum, which did a great job of detailing Penang’s singular history.

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As for Penang’s other big attraction, food, we managed to get a fair bit of that in, too. Among many other things, Penang is famous for something called Nyonya cuisine, which derives from the days when the earliest Chinese settlers arrived and intermarried with local Malay women (nyo means woman in Chinese [and Korean]). Though using primarily Chinese ingredients, Nyonya adds Southeast Asian spices such as turmeric, lemongrass and coconut leaves. We had an excellent feed of Nyonya both in KL and in Hot Wok in George Town.

In George Town’s wonderfully colourful and boisterous Little India, we tried some of the excellent local samosas and syrupy iced tea from Penang’s famed food stalls. In the resort town of Batu Ferringhi, we pushed the boat out and had a fabulous Chinese meal at the Shangri-la. And in true multicultural spirit, we even shared chicken sausage, pommes frites and a tuna pita-bread wrap at a place called Edelweiss, a beautifully restored 19th century structure now owned by a Swiss expat.

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3D or Not 3D?

Finding myself nearby Yongsan CGV on Sunday, I decided to make a virtue of being alone and catch one of the current slew of action/horror films that my girlfriend wouldn’t dream of watching. As it happened, my timing was spot on for my least-favoured option, Piranha 3D, a film that, though clearly trashy, had managed to garner a 74 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

One of the main attractions of this film, of course, was that it was screening in 3D. However, this was not the lush 3D of Avatar, but the lesser 3D of Alice in Wonderland, which was converted from 2D in post-production. Whatever one thinks of the story in Avatar – and I thought it was pretty bad – surely few people would deny being dazzled when they first saw it.

To hear Piranha director Alexandre Aja tell it, the decision to switch to converted 3D was forced on them by having to film much of the action underwater. Conveniently, this cut-price aesthetic also jibed with his intention of making a schlocky B-movie homage, in which 80,000 gallons of fake blood were reportedly used, and one of the big draws was the prospect of seeing a scantily (or non-) clad Kelly Brook in 3D.

Now, before I talk more about the 3D, a quick word about Piranha 3D itself. I’m well aware that a film about carnivorous piranhas is going to involve people getting savaged by fish. I’m also sure that there are few pleasant ways to be eaten alive, and it’s not this film’s job to pull punches anyway. That said, the violence in Piranha 3D is absolutely grotesque. Torsos are sliced in two, scalps are ripped from their heads by motorboat propellers, and male members are devoured, and then burped up again, by razor-toothed fish. I’m not sure if it’s a sign I’m growing old and reactionary, or if this film would have prompted the same reaction in me 20 years ago, but – and despite the best efforts of a genuinely solid cast – I found Piranha 3D largely unwatchable.

As for the 3D, though it did add a certain cheesy eeriness to the underwater scenes, it was patently inferior to the effects seen in Avatar. The big cliché when describing 3D content is that the x or y really seems to be leaping out of the screen toward you. For me, Avatar actually delivered this sensation on many occasions, but Piranha 3D – despite enchanting shots of the heroine being sick toward the camera, or some “jocks” throwing a drink at the onlooking main character – definitely didn’t. It was often more reminiscent of earlier attempts at 3D – such as Jaws 3D or Friday the 13th Part III – when the effect was less three dimensional and more multi-layered, like a spacious theatre stage populated by cardboard cutouts.

FLAT OR FABULOUS

I’ve now seen four 3D films in total: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3 and Piranha 3D. Of those, just one stood up as an excellent film in its own right – the funny and poignant Toy Story 3 – while Avatar was the only one, at least for me, where the 3D effects were genuinely stunning (but in the absence of a decent story, even they got a bit tired after a while). Though better than in Piranha 3D, the effects in Alice in Wonderland were rarely riveting, and the film itself was the kind of predictable hokum that Tim Burton seems to specialise in these days. And even though Toy Story 3, as an animated film, was able to make use of the best 3D technology, I would argue that the 3D effects really didn’t add a whole lot to it.

So, is 3D a waste of time? Actually, I really don’t think so. Through my work (which involves doing PR for LG Electronics), I also got the chance to see some of the new 3D TVs in action at a tradeshow in Seoul a couple of months back. In the middle of an exhibition hall at COEX, LG and Samsung had two massive, flashy booths lined up right next to each other, and the highlight in each was unquestionably their 3D line-ups. Here, as much as anywhere outside the opening hour and a half of Avatar, I got a taste of what 3D effects can really do.

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LG's 3D booth
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The Avatar game
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Football in 3D
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A prototype glasses-free 3D set. Worked OK in a very narrow viewing range.

Though not everything on display looked flawless, the larger sized screens, when showing content actually filmed in 3D, were very impressive. A trailer for the teen dance movie Step-up 3D finished with a dancer flinging his hat toward the screen, which genuinely made me flinch. Best of all, however, were the computer games and the football, two forms of content for which 3D seems tailor made. To trot out some more clichés, the computer game, itself based on Avatar, really did draw me into the action. Irrespective of the so-so gameplay, the graphics and Na’vi character were so convincing I could almost feel the onscreen undergrowth brushing against my legs. The football was every bit as engrossing. Showing a montage of clips from Chelsea games, the 3D effect really gave the impression I was watching a field of oompa-loompa footballers playing the game right in front of me.

Which brings us back to Piranha 3D. When asked his opinion of the new film (whose original version, incidentally, had a sequel directed by Cameron himself), James Cameron said: “I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D.” This drew a sharp response from some commenters. But after seeing a fair bit of 3D stuff myself since the release of Avatar, I’m increasingly inclined to agree with him.

Especially since the release of the much-derided Clash of the Titans remake, 3D has been facing a growing backlash, with many dismissing it as no more than a gimmick. Having seen the best and the lesser sides of it, I think 3D is definitely not going away. But I can see a few things happening:

1)      After the forthcoming flurry of 3D films, the novelty will wear off, and filmmakers and viewers will settle on certain genres of films for which 3D is especially well suited; ie, action, sci-fi, animation and perhaps some horror. The only elements of 3D I think will prove to be a “gimmick” are the lower-quality effects used on the likes of Piranha 3D and Clash of the Titans.

2)      3D will become a standard feature on TVs, especially once a good amount of 3D Blu-ray content hits the market.

3)      But even when glasses-free models come out, 3D content will still only have appeal in certain genres. However, on top of the kind of movies that will attract 3D fans to cinemas, 3D TV will also become popular for all kinds of sports, computer games and perhaps wildlife shows and the like.

So there’s my tuppence worth. And for what it’s worth, I reckon that the forthcoming Tron: Legacy film – which I’m REALLY looking forward to – could be the one that takes 3D properly into the mainstream.