30 June 2008

Review: Man Jeuk (文雀)

The term "Man Jeuk" (文雀) or sparrow is a Hong Kong slang for pickpockets. Aptly, the story is about a team of pickpockets leading a carefree life until each member crosses path with an enigmatic lady who seeks their help to regain her own freedom.

Clever but rather predictably, the bird was used to link the ideas of the characters together. One party being "sparrows" and the other party eagerly seeks the freedom of a bird.

The movie had a simple and straightforward plot. I readily give it away and rest assured that it wouldn't affect the movie experience. I guess the show never intended for any clever twists to make you go, "Oh, that's clever." Instead, the director, Johnnie To presented it as a visual spectacle, capturing the sights and sounds of Hong Kong in a way that has probably been forgotten.

Johnnie To successfully created something of a parallel universe of Hong Kong that maintains its old world charm amidst the ever rapid pace of change. Beautifully and romantically shot, every scene was intricately filled with the old world charms of Hong Kong. The classic eateries where the team of four pickpockets gather daily for their meals of simple and distinct Hong Kong fare. The colonial buildings where the damsel in distress plays her cat-and-mouse game to shake off her unwanted bodyguards. The long flights of steps that connect the distinctive back alleys that have been made so familiar. The tight, angular spiral stairwells that are so unique to Hong Kong. The costume design was simple and effortlessly timeless with a good dose of vintage. It was almost like a walk back in time, until an extra picked up his a rather modern cell phone to answer a call.

The cast didn't exactly shine in the movie as they weren't necessarily portraying the most well thought out characters. They looked good in all the scenes and definitely fit the roles, but that's probably all there is to it. But the performances probably aren't going to earn the casts any nominations.

Perhaps the simplistically made was an intended homage to the classics that came from the golden era of Hong Kong film. A story of the underdogs having their day. Mild slapstick scenes to twitch the corner of our mouths. I guess it was Johnnie To's intention was to re-introduce Hong Kong films to his audience's regular staple of Hollywood films. It might even be part of a continual effort to establish a niche for Hong Kong films.

My verdict: Watch it if you are looking for something refreshingly different from Hollywood films, it is definitely something to catch if you love great cinematography or just starting to get into art films. The simple plot removes the need for any additional thought to process for the audience to concentrate on being visually pleasured from start to finish.

23 June 2008

Pengerang Cycling Trip!

We went on a cycling trip down to Sungei Rengit, Pengerang for cheap and good food!

We started out from Changi Village, renting our bicycles that would be loaded on the ferry…

We shared the boat with a cute little boy and his family…

The jetty on Malaysia’s side has been upgraded and even has a marine tank for fishes…

Ahead of us was about 20km which would be covered by cycling…

In between, we stopped over for a break and phototaking…

Upon reaching our destination, we checked in to Millenium Hotel and proceeded to lunch. Then we cycled over to the Ostrich farm for a look-see.

Ying Huei and the ostrich egg for size comparison.

Enough to feed 40 people

Nicole and the ostrich egg for size comparison.

Mark and Yangyi having weird ideas with the egg.

The Girlfriend with an ostrich hen.

The ostrich’s blank expression

I attempt to impersonate the ostrich’s expression, but failed at it.

Ostrich Chicks!

Miaozhen is mortified of feeding an ostrich.

The Girlfriend feeding Lulu the ostrich hen

take attendance~

I then gave ostrich satay a try. It’s pretty good, but not exactly cheap, at least when you buy and eat it on the spot.

Ostrich Satay is good, but not exactly cheap.

Satisfied, we split up into 2 groups. One went to look for Batu Layar and we returned to the hotel to rest.

Along the way, we stopped at an old couple’s place where they were preparing fruits to be sold on their push cart stall. At 30 sen per skewer/piece, the fruits were awfully cheap and good!

Check out the uncle’s biceps! Must be the daily wheelbarrow workout.

Dinner Time! Everyone was looking forward to this meal. We went to Good Luck Seafood Restaurant. No chance to take any photos of the food because everyone else would have finished it by the time I was done shooting…

We then stopped by the push cart stall of the old couple for more fruits and photos!

Miaozhen “kidnaps” somebody’s little boy, yet again…

We nearly cleared all the old couple’s fruit stall of their fresh fruits before we moved off, all thanks to their special sauce of dark soya sauce, sugar and chilli pad mixed together.

Miaozhen brought us to an old-skool confectionery with old-skool cakes…

…And Ying Huei modelled for us…

Then, the group returned to our hotel for the night. Old already, couldn’t stay up late like last time liao.

Breakfast! I was thinking about the very good made-on-the-spot chee cheong fun since the night before and I got really excited when I spotted it at the kopi tiam!


One of the awesomest chee cheong fun in the making…

The finished product, ready to eat!

After breakfast, shopping for food stuffs!

Happy with all the shopping, we finally checked out of the hotel and embarked on our journey back to the jetty. Unfortunately, the rain didn’t seem to be letting up, so we hired a lorry to bring us and our bikes back to the jetty.

Another group photo~

Then we got hold of Miaozhen's passport...

On the boat back…

I think we are up for more fun in the near future!

More photos available at my multiply.

20 June 2008

Visiting Vietnam - Day 2

It's day 2 of Vietnam after so long since my post about day 1! We got up for the visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels today.

Breakfast from the hotel was a baguette, jam and butter with Vietnamese coffee. A surprisingly awesome combination despite the simplicity. The baguette was fresh and had that nice and soft chewy centre and a crispy crust. The jam and softened butter went really well with the baguette. But then again, our expectations for breakfast weren't really high...

Before we left, we complained to the manager about the horrible water pressure and the state of the room.

That "fun" sailor uniform

We decided to take the scenic route by the ferry that costs each of us US$12. Here's what we saw on the 3 hour ride...


...and this...

...and this...

...and this...

...and this...

...and this...

...and this...

So interesting was the boat ride that we gave in to the Z-monster and dozed off...

3 hours after we boarded the boat, we arrived at a rather nicely done up jetty with some animals made of fibre glass.

On the contrary, this is a real cow

It was another 5 to 10 minutes' walk to the visitors centre of Cu Chi Tunnels. It turns out that admission fees weren't included in the US$12. So we paid to take a look at this place.

We were systematically ushered first to view a video about Cu Chi Village. Then our tour guide for the day shared about the war between the Viet Cong and the American troops. Much to the credit of the Cu Chi Tunnels, the Vietnam War probably displayed the most intriguing and impressive example of guerrilla warfare. The villagers would behave pro-Americans in the day, but when night falls, they would be fighting against the American troops, ambushing them constantly from well camouflaged spider holes such as this.

The soldier reveals a spider hole from right under our noses.

Jumps in...

And hides and awaits to ambush unsuspecting passers-by.

It definitely got the bunch of us curious. Can we fit into that little spider hole?

To satisfy everyone's curiosity, here's a look inside.

Quite a generous amount of leg room actually.

So I got out for the next person to try. Thankfully, I didn't get stuck. Yup, the Vietnamese managed to keep the American soldiers out of the tunnels because they made the tunnels smaller and narrower so that only the smaller sized Vietnamese could pass through, forcing the enemy retreat from the narrow segments.

Jingjing needed a little extra help to get out.

The Girlfriend getting in and getting freaked out by the darkness when the lid is closed.

Besides spider holes, there were also surface traps that would inflict enough pain to cause trauma to the American soldiers. In warfare, the effective way to destroy troop morale was to inflict maiming injuries with traps so that they would live to remember and relate the pain to the rest of the troops.

Surface traps for the enemies and their attack dogs. Surface traps for the enemies and their attack dogs.

And they probably had traps made to accommodate the enemy in every possible shape and size. So there were the spider holes for ambush and booby traps for causing trauma. The actual Cu Chi Tunnels was part of a network that was over 200 kilometres long.

Our tour guide of the day explains to us about the Cu Chi Tunnels

Our tour guide of the day explains to us about the Cu Chi Tunnels

Remnants of an American tank.

Remnants of an American tank.

An obligatory shot of the barrel

An obligatory shot of the barrel

The simple but ingenious double hinged door trap that would puncture those family jewels

The simple but ingenious double hinged door trap that would puncture those family jewels

Unused American bombs which the Vietnamese collected to salvage and convert into their booby traps.

While still on the topic of salvaging parts for other purposes, we were ushered to a hut where my good friend, the treehugger would be proud to wear...

Sandals made out of tyres

Sandals made out of tyres

Then we were brought to the main attraction - the tunnel itself. Measuring only 50 cm wide and 1.2 m high, the entrance definitely wasn't meant to look welcoming. Our guide briefed the group on the tunnel route, assuring us that there would be exits along the way so that at any time we felt uncomfortable with the cramped and pitch black spaces, we could easily get out of the tunnels.

A trap door going deeper into the tunnel

A trap door going deeper into the tunnel

The tunnel was illuminated with really dim lights just to let you know you are on the right track. Plus, the narrow tunnel meant there was no turning back. To get a photo of those behind me, I had to tuck my camera under my arm with the lens facing the back for the shot. Unfortunately the picture got obscured by the loose straps on my bag.

Lifen and Jingjing on their way out of the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel

Lifen and Jingjing on their way out of the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel

By the third exit, I was all alone crawling in the tunnel, it was definitely tempting to get on from the next available exit, but I figured to try out how far I could last in the darkness and cramped spaces. Somewhere between, it almost felt like I got stuck as that portion of the tunnel was intentionally kept narrower. Thankfully, it was still possible to progress from there. I wasn't sure how far I traveled underground, neither was I sure if I would see the end of the tunnel soon enough.

Then I thought I got to a dead end as I felt a wall in front of me. I had to feel around for the path for a while until finally I found that I had to climb upwards to a slightly higher tunnel, through a trap door.

Moments later after a little bit more crawling, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and greeted by a little gecko...

My welcome party at the end of my tunnel crawl

My welcome party at the end of my tunnel crawl

So I was out of the tunnel, and was told that I had crawled through 100 m of the tunnel. We then went on the visitors centre where tourist merchandise would be available.

The more "exotic" wines of Vietnam

The more "exotic" wines of Vietnam

So when we were done with all the crawling, it was already well past lunch time. We were all thirsty, dirty, tired and hungry. We quickly boarded the coach that would ring us back to Ho Chi Minh City for a proper meal. We tried dozing off on the ride, but the constant sounding of the horn kept the light sleepers up.

Right after alighting from the coach, we unanimously voted for a place to eat. Our guide recommended Kim Cafe which was just across the street from the tour agency office. So we sat ourselves down and ordered.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

This one is freaking awesome! The dish came along with a yummy sauce which my guess was a concoction of bean paste, sugar, fish sauce and ground nuts.

A close up of the spring rolls

As you can see, the lovely translucent rice sheet isn't shy about showing off the ample contents of shrimp and veggies.

Here, we introduce one of our obsession - Vietnamese coffee!

The Girlfriend enjoying her ice Milk Coffee

The Girlfriend enjoying her Ice Milk Coffee

Lemongrass Squid

Lemongrass squid

Another favourite among the six of us. The gravy packs a punch and we all drizzled it on our own plate of rice. Almost like sambal sotong, but this one tastes zestier, thanks to the lemongrass.

deep fried spring rolls

Deep fried spring rolls

This one has got pork wrapped in them. Definitely good, but not as memorable. It felt rather heavy from the meat and the oil from deep frying.

We also tried a river fish soup which required an taste. While the fish was fresh, it had a very strong muddy taste you would get from freshwater fish. The soup was almost like tom yum soup, but it was more on the sour side which was nice. We ended up just drinking soup and leaving quite a bit of the fish behind.

Gratified with a good meal, we returned to our lodging for advice on other districts. The lady manager of our lodging pointed us to another region away from Ben Thanh Market on the map. So we made our way to that area for some window shopping and perhaps real shopping as well. Along the way we spotted a promising baguette sandwich stand which we would return to.

That promising baguette stall That promising baguette stall

The area definitely seemed more upmarket, with many individual independent and branded boutiques. I liked what I saw there as the designs of apparel looked much, much more refreshing and exciting than the carbon copy stuff seen in Singapore.

Other than that, there were plenty of familiar, but different street food that awaits the adventurous stomachs. No, I was too chicken to try them.

A hapsening looking pizza place, complete with rooftop dining area.

Grilled corn

Roadside stall selling baguette sandwiches

Barbecued meat

Then we reached junction...

Statue at a roundabout

Statue at a roundabout

And someone came up with an idea to do this...

The route we took eventually had us ending up at Ben Thanh Market. But in the evening, stalls are set up out side, along the streets surrounding the main building, much like Lau Pa Sat in Singapore, only less polished.

The Rooftop Cafe

Last destination of the day was this Rooftop Cafe at a hotel (name I can't remember) just beside the Opera House which was touted to have the best night view of the city.

The opera house with Ho Chi Minh's statue The opera house with Ho Chi Minh's statue

So happily, we went there for a round of drinks and to experience the best night view. But it turns out that a huge neon sign was erected at the vantage point and it perfectly block any glimpse of the best night view.

Still we made it a point to enjoy ourselves.

Partially at my expense...

Once we were done with our outing to the Rooftop Cafe, we returned to the Promising Baguette Stall for our last meal of the day.

Unfortunately, due to blunders from both the customer and the business owner in payment, an argument erupted. One of the helpers had demanded for money for one of the baguettes we had already paid for. Problem was, the boss in the cashier role didn't acknowledge the payment and it led to a lot of unhappiness and some profanities exchanged. We had to get our ever helpful hotel manager to mediate in the native language. But before that could happen, we were chased away from the stall.

The hotel manager later advised us that we should make it an effort to pay only when we receive the goods in future to avoid any confusion.

We then returned to our room to wash up and prepare for our 6 hour road trip up to Dalat.