Gong Tau


Apologies for the poor quality of the screenshot. I had to disable hardware video acceleration to take it. It’s from a recent Hong Kong movie that my wife and I just watched, called Gong Tau in Cantonese, and badly translated as Oriental Black Magic in English. Check out LoveHKFilm.com (which happens to be my favourite site for reviews of Asian cinema) for a full review.

By any reasonable standard, this is one terrible film. It has bad acting (Mark Cheng is impossibly stone-faced no matter what kind of crazy shit is happening while Maggie Siu is a hopeless mess of hysterics in just about every scene), a perfectly predictable by-the-numbers plot hurried along by wildly implausible yet convenient events, sometimes extremely fake-looking CGI, and absolutely zero sense of actual horror due to the lack of any tension or dread. What is amazing about this film however, is its sheer excess that as LoveHKFilm points out, has not been from Hong Kong in a while.

Full frontal nudity, both male and female? Check. Mutilated baby? Check. Gross autopsies and vivisections? Check. Animals shredded into stringy bits? Check. It’s like the film makers held a round table to brainstorm ideas for the most shocking and disgusting scenes possible and high-fived each other over every sick suggestion. You know how in some games when characters get blown up and you end up with gory bits of blood-drenched remains scattered all over the place that are now known as gibs? Well, if you ever wanted to see what gibs might look like in a movie, Gong Tau is the film to watch.

Even the ridiculousness of the Asian curses aspect of the movie pales before the excessive gore, but they still deserve some mocking. I mean, flying heads? Mind control? Black market magicians selling each other corpse oil? I don’t really need to reiterate my longstanding disdain of superstitious nonsense here, but I have to say that sometimes the best way to show how stupid something is, is to take it to its extremes. If stuff like this really works in real life, why are we still using bullets and bombs?

Anyway, check out this movie if you have a fetish for disgusting gore, or I suppose if you want to see pretty new actress Teng Tzu-Hsuan fully nude, but there’s really no other reason to put up with this pile of crap.

Half-Life 2: Episode 1


Since even Half-life 2: Episode 1 is two years old now, it’s probably not fair to write a proper review of it so I’ll just jot down some of my thoughts on it. Its graphics are noticeably better than that of the original Half-Life 2, but still some way short of current standards. The most confusing thing about these episodic sequels is that they’re named Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and so forth, when as even Gabe Newell has said, it would make more sense to name them Half-Life 3: Episode 1 etc. Still, wholly brand new sequels are usually a lot more ambitious than Episode 1. The improvements, while noticeable, aren’t spectacular, and the way the story continues immediately after Half-Life 2 makes it feel like you’re playing new chapters of the original game rather than something completely new.

Episode 1 continues with Valve’s tradition of telling stories without cutscenes, choosing instead to keep the player in control in a tightly restricted environment to give for the NPCs to finish their canned speeches. It does work well, thanks to decent writing, good voice acting and, as before, Valve’s impressive technology of enabling the NPCs to have realistic facial expressions. But the way the game keeps locking you in rooms that can only be unlocked by an NPC after finishing a speech does get a bit too transparent.

Continue reading Half-Life 2: Episode 1

Free Will and Morality

A while back, I blogged about how philosophy is embracing empirical experiments. A couple of experiments, one by the University of Minnesota and the other by the University of British Columbia, make for a great example of this. Both experiments had similar aims: to examine what effects belief in free will has on human morality and were structured similarly. The experimental subjects, mostly college students, were separated in two groups. One group was given text to read that expressed skepticism on the subject of free will, arguing that human actions and decisions were mechanistically determined by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. The other group was given either a neutral text in the case of the first experiment or a text that explicitly endorsed and defended free will in the second experiment.

After reading the texts, the students were given the task of completing a test. In both experiments, the students were given the opportunity to cheat on the tests, while being erroneously led to believe that their cheating would not be detectable. The results were that students who were given texts that were skeptical on the subject of free will were more likely than the others to cheat on their given tests. The researchers wisely caution against reading too much from these results, but at first glance, they appear to confirm concerns that advances in our understanding of how our minds work have far greater long-term ethical implications that the more publicly known worries over genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

A Book: World War Z


Max Brooks’ World War Z is a follow-up to The Zombie Survival Guide which became a commercial success largely through word of mouth on the Internet. While The Zombie Survival Guide was a fictional manual covering the biology of zombies and suggested methods of killing them and surviving a zombie outbreak, World War Z tells the story of a worldwide zombie apocalypse scenario through the oral testimonies of over 40 survivors. It has since become popular enough that there are plans to make a film version of the book with a screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski.

World War Z places the initial zombie outbreak in Sichuan Province, China, where a boy diving for treasure amongst the submerged villages of the Three Gorges Reservoir comes to the surface with a mysterious bite mark on his foot and is kept locked in an abandoned house by frightened villages after attacking and biting a number of them. They notify the local hospital and the doctor who is sent is shocked to discover that the boy is as savage as an animal, biting and clawing at anyone who comes near him. His skin has become cold and gray, and though numerous wounds are found all over his body from his struggles to free himself, no blood comes out of them. A hypodermic needle inserted into where his veins should be comes up filled with a strange, viscous matter. He is even able to snap his own arm in an effort to free himself and seems affected by neither pain nor exhaustion. Not unexpectedly, all of the villagers bitten by the boy have become comatose with cold and gray skin as well.

Continue reading A Book: World War Z

China Bans Ghost Movies

Yahoo News has a report saying that the Chinese has banned video and audio content containing ghosts, monsters and other such entities detailed in a list by a government department. The stated aim is to “control and cleanse the negative effect these items have on society” but as the report notes, it looks as if this is part of a wider crackdown to make sure that the government is in full control of all media during the Olympic games.

Sometimes it seems that I have an obsession with reporting on the latest ridiculous decisions made by the Chinese government. Part of it stems from how out of touch such decisions seem to ordinary lives in our world today and I realize that this is due in part to the Chinese government’s near absolute control over its citizens lives and the lack of a need to account for their decisions to anyone. I find it a marvel that Chinese bureaucrats can even issue directives like this and the earlier example of banning reincarnation without official government approval with a straight face.

A Game: Bioshock

Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected these answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose RAPTURE.

– Andrew Ryan, founder of Rapture


Bioshock has been named by multiple sources as the best PC game of 2007, so it was some trepidation that I picked it up, hoping that all the hype wasn’t totally unfounded. As the much heralded spiritual successor of System Shock 2, also written by Ken Levine, Bioshock has always had a lot to live up to, and judging at least by its unexpected commercial success and the near universal acclaim of game critics, it has largely succeeded at that. To me, there’s no question that Bioshock is a pretty much a unique gem, there’s nothing else quite like it in the market, but at the same time, I’m painfully aware that a lot of the hype is undeserved and the thought of what Bioshock could have been, if the designers had just been a little more ambitious and daring, is positively agonizing.

That Bioshock is a triumph of aesthetic design and storytelling goes without question. The opening FMV of the protagonist sitting in a plane, reading a mysterious handwritten message, segues seamlessly into the first scene as the player takes control of the sole survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Flames rage on the surface of the ocean as you, confused and exhausted, swim through a gap in the burning debris of the plane to the shelter of a lighthouse that stands, incongruously, on a lonely rock in the middle of nowhere. You push through the gilded double doors and suddenly it’s like walking into a different world. A banner proclaims, “No Gods, No Kings. Only Man”. Music wafts in from an unseen source. Plaques on the walls valourize the virtues of “Art”, “Science” and “Industry”. The grand stairs lead down to a roughly spherical pod sitting in a small pool of water, a bathysphere. You step inside, because there’s nowhere else to go. Then you settle in your seat as it takes you to the bottom of the ocean. The year is 1960. Welcome to Rapture.

Continue reading A Game: Bioshock

Sharia Law in Great Britain

I’m a little slow on this issue but I felt that this article in the Asia Times is well worth pointing out. On February 7, Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican church, made a speech in which he predicted that sharia law would inevitably be accepted in Great Britain. This article is one of many others written in protest against the speech.

There are plenty of reasons to be dismayed by the U.K. granting legal recognition to sharia law alongside with its own national laws including what many commentators have already described as a means of appeasing fundamentalist Muslims, even if it means sacrificing the liberal values that flow naturally from a recognition of universal and inviolable human rights.

Personally, I must also confess that I find the issue of sharia law itself uncomfortable. Inasmuch as sharia covers areas such as marriage, or food preparation standards or finance in which all of the participants voluntarily agree to have any disputes be arbitrated under it, I, of course, have no objections. But since sharia is supposed to apply to Muslims only, it seems more than a little unfair that Muslims who change their minds and renounce Islam find it hard to do so and hence are still subject to sharia against their will.

The unexamined life is a life not worth living