Crooked Cliches

Like any good nerd I have stacks of books to get through. I have about a year to get through those stacks before I will have to pack some up and discard the rest. So, there is a bit a pressure to make some headway in the towers of paper that fill an alcove in our bedroom. For the longest time it has been a point of pride for me that I finished every book I started. True, this says a lot about the low standards I have for myself, but I finished even the bad ones. I would always convince myself that the book might get better as I read on. crookedletterMany times by the end of a book I could happily say it was a good read after all. As I got older and my time for reading diminished, like my youthful zeal, I viewed this point of pride as a waste of time. I read some pretty bad books. I could’ve spent my time on something else, like a better book. Nowadays I allow myself to get mid-way through a book and then assess whether or not I should continue. That assessment came a little while ago for The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm: One by Sean Williams. I found it lacking.

I found this book on a trip to the library and I am sad to say I got suckered into taking it home because of the cover art and the brief description on the flap. Thankfully libraries let you take books for free. I saw this great apocalyptic painting on the front with only a human and a demon looking person walking through a ruined city underground. The flap talked about mirror twins, Seth and Hadrian Castillo, who while on vacation get pulled into the events of the end of world when Seth is murdered in front  of his brother. Hadrian is left in a corpse filled city and Seth goes to the afterlife to have his own adventure. I began to think I had found a great surrealist post-apocalyptic novel, like the fantasy version of The Road. I had high hopes, much like William’s publishers. The bottom of the flap said Williams was compared to Ursula K. Le Guin and China Mieville, though it doesn’t say by who this comparison is made. It should have said he wanted to emulate these authors, for I think that is what he was trying to accomplish.

This story is flawed in so many ways, and I hate saying that, for Williams is a professional author, published and all that, but it is. Williams creates two surreal worlds, three really but only talks about two, supplies them with norms and rules and then violates both. Seth goes to an after life ruled by will alone, but than can die again, pass on to another realm, because of a fall, or being eaten by the locals. Will power can move him and strengthen him, yet he must travel by boat, that isn’t really a boat, through a tube, that isn’t really a tube, because what, he can’t will himself to fly through an airless afterlife? Hadrian isn’t in one city, he is in all the cities of earth. They have become a Frankenstein mash up that he can travel through in a big metal car driven by an old lady, yet it takes them hours to get anywhere and the rest of world is apparently fine. So, how can Hadrian drive through destroyed Earth cities at the same time as people are still living in them?

There is also Williams heavy use of mythology. Many stories under the Speculative Fiction umbrella have made use of Earth’s many mythologies, there is nothing wrong with that. However, Williams is trying to use all of them in some capacity or another at once. Yet, even with such a huge grab bag of tricks, he pulls out the less common dominator of all, Christianity. This Cataclysm, of which the Castillo brothers are witnessing, are moments when three different realms of life are some how forced to merge together. The previous Cataclysms were the fall of the Morning Star, and then Noah and then Jesus. So, perhaps this cycle has something to do with his second ‘coming’. Not sure, as I didn’t finish the book, but yes Jesus is mentioned, except Williams spelled his named differently. As a matter of fact, many figures from mythology make guest appearances or are talked about, places as well, all with unique spellings provided care of the author. The cliches are piled on thick. Like peanut butter on the roof of a dogs mouth, I kept chewing by couldn’t swallow.

The writing is lacking as well. Characters are not fully developed, motivations for their actions seem weak, unjustified or just not there. The dialogue between between people is stale, it reads like a Japanese RPG. Seth and Hadrian both have guides that they talk to learn about the worlds they now inhabit. Each exchange with these people is like a video game tutorial. There is also a character Ellis, a woman both brothers sleep with and become obsessed with and get jealous over. Yet, she disappears in the first few chapters and that creates a ghost love triangle. Everyone is sick of love triangles, especially with dead people. Williams is weak as a word smith. He tries so hard to explain these surreal otherworldly places and experiences but comes off as cartoonish.

So, to conclude, I find The Crooked Letter to be on par with contemporary young adult fiction. Some people are going to like this book, but I really think those folks would be teenagers. This book is perfect for that demographic, by the way. Younger readers could use this as a place to start, before they are ready for more complex surrealist authors. They could also just start with H.P. Lovecraft like I did. Cut to the chase I say. Sadly, this book was filed with adult science-fiction and it lacks the development to be such. One of my favorite authors is Clive Barker, who is known to be experienced at the otherworldly. As I read Sean Williams I kept thinking he wants to be Clive, he really wants to be Clive. I don’t blame Sean for wanting to write like Clive Barker. I wouldn’t mind some of his talent rubbing off on me. While Sean Williams is a lot further along to that goal than I am, he needs to try harder than this.

 

 

A Message Poorly Packaged

There are so many films that feature some young hot shot with musical skills or dancing skills and they have to compete in some trail in which they prove just how good they are. These films are supposed to be fun and heart warming and maybe teaching us the value of believing in ourselves and the power of performance arts has in our culture. Guess what? Those films are complete crap. I can’t stand any of them. They are cheesy. Yet, there are always exceptions, right? One such exception is the Thai film The Overture, or overture posterโหมโรง or Hom rong. Don’t get me wrong, it has cheese like the others, but at the center of this story is a kernel of importance.

The Overture, directed by Ittisoontorn Vichailak is a fictional telling of the life of Luang Praditphairoh ( born as Sorn Silpabanleng), a Thai musician whose speciality was the ranat ek, which is very much like a xylophone. The ranat e, while it can be played alone, is usually leading an ensemble and is an important part of Thai classical music, or ปี่พาทย์ (piphat). Sorn was raised in a small village and played at local events but eventually gained fame and was accepted into the service of Prince Somdej Chaopha Kromphaya Bhanuphantuwongvorradej. As a royal musician he was something of a public servant promoting the traditional arts of Thailand. Luang Praditphairoh was the title he earned in the service of the royal family. It doesn’t sound that horribly exciting, right? Remember, the movie is a fictional telling of his life, and therefore dramatized unnecessarily to make a certain point.

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A ranat ek.

The movie is very simple, it bounces back and forth from when Sorn is an old man, played by Adul Dulyarat, during the second world war and when he is a young man, played by Anuchyd Sapanphong. The first few minutes of the movie sees him age twenty years. This can be confusing at times, but like all biopics it has the problem of shoving someone’s entire life into two hours or less. However, the film just doesn’t handle these transitions well. Sorn has to compete twice against another musician named Khun In, played by Narongrit Tosa-nga, who beats him and leaves him hunted by his defeat. Khun In is also just a title, but one held by Narongrit Tosa-nga who is an actual master of the ranat ek. Sorn has to compete against Khun In later for his patron’s honor, the Prince. This is just one plot line, the other follows the older Sorn who has to stand up against the modernization laws being imposed on Thai people by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who was running a dictatorship at the time. He was concerned that Thai people should modernize like their Japanese allies and therefore began outlawing aspects of Thai culture that was deemed outdated. This included much of Thai traditional music. The older Sorn has to prove to a young brash Lt.Col. Veeta, played by Pongpat Wachirabunjong, who you might know from Chocolate and Ong Bak 2, that the roots of Thai culture is what will keep the nation together during these difficult times.

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Sorn, as a child, being let into his father’s band.

Let me be frank, the acting is not done very well. I am not sure how much is the actors fault and how much is the script. I have seen some of these other actors in other movies and they do a much better job in those films. However, when making films about Thai history, Thai film makers have a tendency to ‘play it safe’, or just tell the story in the best light possible, especially when the royal family or government might be involved. To make something that would make Thai culture look bad would really offend a lot of people. So, the acting is not method based. Everyone is stiff and delivers lines like a public service announcement. Thankfully, the acting is not the point, the music is.

I would not recommend this movie just for entertainment purposes. Anyone who does that might find themselves disappointed. There are some very good reasons to watch this film however, and they all connect to better understanding Thai culture. Thai classical music is the focus here, so you get to hear a lot of very wonderful examples of it. The music is amazing, expect for the actually film score, but the parts were people like Khun In Narongrit Tosa-nga are playing is absolutely amazing. Various styles are showcased as well as incredible soloist pieces. The movie was responsible for a new wave of interest in Thai classical music, which is not surprising and most likely the reason the film was made. I also would not view this movie to learn Thai history, for it falls away from the facts of Sorn’s life and focuses more on using him as a messenger of Thai traditional culture.

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The real Luang Pradit Phairoh (Sorn Silapabanleng).

You also get a look into the concerns of many modern Thais. The West has always been a blessing and a curse. They brought technology, which the Thais were never afraid of, but they also brought suffering. Sex trades, drug trades, greed for land and wealth. The Thais did what Japan did in the 19th century, modernize, all in an attempt to compete with the west. This desire to modernize was pushed into the 20th century and always there was the debate of how far away from traditional culture the Thai people should go. The debate popped in everyday life and the highest politics, even when considering the power that should be allowed the crown and the prime minister. Today there are many pundits that are quick to accuse the West’s influence for all of Thailand’s problems, like movies and video games, but also pushy western governments. While the film does pander to this demographic, it still makes the point that art is not just defending tradition, but keeping alive the creative seed that makes people who they are as a community. As Sorn tells the Lt.Col. while his troops need discipline, artists need a different discipline, one that allows them to express of the soul of humanity and the cultures we develop. At one point in the film Sorn plays his ranat ek with his son who plays a piano, at the time a very modern instrument. They find away to create a tune as they play together, driving home the point of the film, modernize all you want, just don’t lose what makes you Thai.

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Anuchyd Sapanphong as a young Sorn.

 

Rainbow Crossing

IZ

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Have you ever heard of Israel ‘IZ’ Kamakawiwo’ole? There is a good chance you haven’t, and that is ok. Have you ever heard of the song Over The Rainbow? I am sure you have, The Wizard of Oz has become a very well known movie the world over. Well, I hate that song. I always have. Perhaps I was too exposed to it through my life, or perhaps it was because I felt it was cheesy and whatever meaning it was trying to convey was lost through the performance of it. I am not entirely sure, but I have always hated it. I hated it until I heard IZ perform it.

I never knew who Israel ‘IZ’ Kamakawiw’ole was until I worked at The Classic Cup in Westport of Kansas City with a woman who was born in Hawaii. Stacy was her name and she was a beautiful Japanese/Jew that liked her men like her coffee, strong and black Those were here words by the way. Stacy was a stern, no-nonsense, talker and therefore always had advice and an opinion. She had long midnight black hair and golden skin, that she adored with dangly golden baubles. She was always willing to take underdogs under her care, and in this case that was me. She was the one who first told me about IZ. She never played any of his music, but she talked about him, his impact on Hawaii and on her. Years would go by until I actually heard his voice.

On a chilly fall evening, years later, I was making my daily commute from college to home when NPR did a special on IZ. He had just died. At one point along K-10, the highway that winds it’s way across the tabletop of Kansas, they played IZ’s rendition of Over The Rainbow. If you have never heard it, I can only say that you are missing something magical. It is a medley of Over The Rainbow and A Beautiful World, a song I have loved for years. It is just IZ and his ukulele, nothing more. He strums it slow, sings it light and it washes over you like the gentle ocean waters of his homeland.

I had to pull over. I sat in my car staring at the brown waves of grass slightly glimmering in the dying sunlight. A light that was still strong enough to light a sharp blue sky that filled the human imagination. There is nothing bigger in Kansas than the sky. Only the wind passed by me carrying the scent of woodsmoke, a fall aroma that accompanies the sleeping of trees. I sat, watching nature slowly play out in front me feeling small and bittersweet. I cried.

I was a young man with a wife and children carrying the burden of my failed life upon my shoulders. I had tied to my soul, like the anchors of Ebenezer’s hell, the guilt that I was not the provider I wanted to be for my family. I allowed the weight of this guilt to weight down my happiness and crush my heart a little more every time I felt my family suffered. It was my fault we didn’t have money. It was my fault my wife had to work so hard because I was taking too long in school. I wasn’t smart enough. My loved ones were depending on my dysfunctional mind. It was my fault, I was convinced.

I had, like any person, dreams when I was a child. As I grew older those dreams changed, as they normally do. At one point my dreams didn’t change because of my interests shifted, they changed because I realized I could not pursue them. As each dream was throw out for one more reasonable I was left with only the most humble of dreams. I found myself on the side of K-10 holding the last dream I had. A comfortable life for my family, a career that helped society in some way and being a person my wife and children could be proud of. Here was IZ asking ‘Why can’t I?’. I was asking myself that same question. Why can’t I have this dream? Why is it so hard to have this one little dream? Then IZ sang of a beautiful world and how could I argue watching that sunset. Like a forge lit in the darkness, it was a promise that something else could be created.

More years have past and those chains I fashioned from my guilt are felt coldly hugging my shoulders. I feel nothing but the weight of my inability to be some one useful to my family. I am instead the source of all their troubles. I bury this. I hide it. I will not let it show for I need Israel Kamakawiwo oleto at least be a rock for them. I have to give my children a better life, even if it costs me my health, my sanity or my own life. It is this pressure I was trying to keep a lid on one day when I was at work, when I heard IZ sing to me.

His feathery voice crested out of the store’s speakers like a warm ocean current lapping at my chafing soul. My eyes watered and I couldn’t speak to the customers for fear of croaking, choking on my sobs. IZ sang of dreams, simple ones. He asked what I was still asking, ‘Why can’t I?’ Why can’t I have my dreams, my simple small dreams? I controlled my face as best I could. Then IZ got to the beautiful world part. The sun was high and bright in another sapphire sky, yet this time trees were filled with life affirming leaves. It was they who waved like the ocean waters I have never seen. I could see them swaying back and forth through the giant storefront windows.

Even though I have my chains I still dream. They are same dreams, but these, unlike the others of my youth, I won’t let go. With each opportunity that I get to experience a peaceful moment, the beauty of nature, the beauty of art, the beauty of my children, I chip a piece of metal off my chains, wearing them down. The beauty of this world, of our potential is my chisel and the hammer is my unbending, unbroken will. I ask, with each stroke against the despair that holds me, ‘Why can’t I?’. I no longer ask this out of desperation, but affirmation. I will not be denied my rainbow crossing.

Yanji Taxi Driver

The Korean film industry is a recent discovery for me. I have loved watching foreign films ever since I was a kid, but I was always limited to what I could get my hands on here in the middle of America. Korean films just weren’t something I could access. Thanks to America’s growing interest in Korean films I can find many to watch now, and with each one I become an even bigger fan of the industry as a whole. My latest walk through SeoulYellow_Sea-p3 cinema is The Yellow Sea, a thriller, or chase movie, perhaps a crime drama, in truth it is kind of all those things. However you want to define the second film from director Na Hong-jin, boring is not one of them.

The story centers on Gu-nam, played by Ha Joon-woo, who is a taxi driver in Yanji, China. Yanji has a large population of ethnic Koreans and many travel back and forth between China and Korea for work. Gu-nam’s wife does just that, however, it takes a loan of 60,000 yuan from shady folks to get her to Korea. After that she disappears, never sends any money home, or calls. Gu-nam is left in debt and trying to raise their daughter, when he is given the opportunity to perform a task that would wipe out his debt and perhaps reconnect him with his wife. This is when he gets to know Myun Jung-hak, played by Kim Yoon-soek, who offers him enough money to get out of debt for the job of killing someone and bringing back his thumb as proof. Gu-nam would have to travel to Korea to kill this man, but he would also be in the same area that his wife is supposed to be in. He agrees and undergoes the smuggling process to get into Korea. That process is the movie taking a jab at society concerning poverty and illegal immigrants. When Gu-nam survives the trip and gets to Seoul he discovers things aren’t going to go as planned.

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Ha Joon-woo as Gu-nam.

Gu-nam’s target is Prof. Kim Seung-hyun, played by Kwak Do-won. While Gu-nam is not used to killing people he plans out the killing of the Professor very well, until other people show up to do the job before for him. While trying to fulfill the thumb part of his bargain Gu-nam is labeled as the killer by the police and an epic manhunt is started. The good Professor had connections to the underworld it seems and once his good friend and mob boss, Kim Tae-won, played by Jo Sung-ha, finds out about the killing he sends his men looking for Gu-nam as well. Between running for his life and fighting off cops and mobsters, looking for his wife and a way back home Gu-nam begins to unravel the twisted plot he has found himself in. Gu-nam ends up being the loose end everyone wants dead and eventually Myun Jung-hak comes from Yanji to do the job himself.

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Kim Yoon-soek (seated) as Myun Jung-hak.

The Yellow Sea is cleverly written. While watching the movie you are not given any idea as to why Kim Seung-hyun is wanted dead and why someone like Gu-nam, a poor taxi driver from another country is hired to do it. However, it doesn’t matter. The movie keeps you watching Gu-nam stay alive and look for his wife. While it is slow in the beginning, because you spend time getting to know Gu-nam and his family, it picks up fast and there are so many chase scenes and fight scenes that are rough and dirty. This is not a spit and polish hollywood film like The Bourne Identity, but you could compare The Yellow Sea to such a film. It is like the poor man’s Bourne identity. No secret spies and identities with super skills, just a cab driver, confused and running. Gu-nam gets in so many fights and he is not a fighter, so it is nasty and brutality realistic. Hatchets, knifes. Baseball bats and a dog bone make up the weapons of choice for most of the fights, and people do get spilt open. Many of the scenes are filled with blood, like Myun Jung-hak’s apartment after Kim’s henchman Choi, played by Lee Chul-min, fails to ambush him. Behind all this action though is a witty whodunit story, with many guilty parties and Gu-nam stuck in the middle. While the focus is the entertainment, the story also shows it’s viewers the economic and political issues surrounding the Chinese-Korean immigrants who sneak into to Korean to find work. Gu-nam is smuggled in over the Yellow Sea and the harshness of the journey is made a bleak reality for the viewer. Not everyone survives the trip over. While he is looking for his wife you get to encounter other people in a similar boat, being used as cheap labor. Without turning the film into a statement, it uses such conditions to explain Gu-nam’s desperation.

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Don’t come uninvited to Myun Jung-hak’s home.

Action films don’t always highlight a persons acting skills, yet some force an actor to really push themselves. This is such a film. Ha Joon-woo’s portrayal of Gu-nam is an intense one. At the beginning he is depressed and despondent, but as the story goes on he become very focused and emotionally tense. Near the end he goes for broke, just doesn’t care anymore. While this doesn’t sound all that unique, Ha Joon-woo does most of all of this without talking. Gu-nam’s lines are limited and he spends his time running, fighting, or standing or sitting somewhere eating and smoking. Joon-woo communicates so well through body language and facial expressions Gu-nam’s state of mind. His confusion, anger, desperation is painted on Joon-woo’s face like a canvas, as clear as day. Not that the other actors don’t do wonderful jobs as well. Kim Yoon-seok is one of the reasons I wanted to watch this movie after seeing his performance in Punch. He delivers a great performance as a swaggering, yet intelligent, small town tough. When it comes to Ha Joon-woo though, I have never had so much fun watching an actor eat noodles.

The Yellow Sea is an smart, dirty, very brutal, crime drama, that includes chases and fights on boats, buses, streets, on foot and driving 90 miles an hour. In Korean fashion many of the violent scenes are cringe worthy. Rather than being a turn off, however, it just adds to the dark fun of the film. The Yellow Sea is not just mindless action though, there are some poetic elements that surround the characters, the ending is especially so. The ending alone is cringe worthy and sums up Gu-nam’s entire endeavor. This all provides movie watchers a very believably bleak story of desperation, survival and revenge. I highly recommend taking some time to watch it.

yellow sea gu-nam eating

On The Road Again

While attending KU I had a few wonderful classes with Professor Yang Lu, who taught many subjects concerning central Asia. One of his classes focused on the development and migration of nomadic groups in central Asia. Even though this class covered the Silk Road he stilled offered one just on the trade route. I took both these classes and become silk road VHhooked on the subject. Now, out of school and not likely to go back, and without a professor’s reading list, I am always on the look out for well written books on historical topics, but especially the Silk Road. At the library, a wonderful place to visit by the way, I found The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen. It was published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. Similar to a child in a used video game store who realizes that they have the money to buy a game they found, I took the book off the shelf and checked it out, which was free, in case you were wondering. I am very glad I did.

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Nicknamed Tang Barbie, for she shares the dolls dimensions, this 7th century paper doll is made out of recycled documents.

First off let me say that this is hardcore academia. I don’t say this to scare anyone off, quite the opposite in fact. Don’t pick this book up thinking it will be some Stephen Ambrose walk down Cherry Lane American Beauty readathon. This is a true work of history that makes great use of archeology. As a matter of fact, archeology is the back bone of this entire work. Dr. Hansen focuses on the archeological finds of key locations along the many twisting and turning routes that make up what we call today the Silk Road. Places like Dunhuang, Khotan and Turfan, where people lived and thrived in trade and kingdoms rose and fell in the desert sands. Well, some where near desert sands. The archeological evidence Dr. Hansen uses ranges from clothes found in burials, many made with recycled documents, to actual preserved documents, coins, burial decorations, but more commonly refuse heaps centuries old. She skillfully recreates what life was like then and explains the finds and what they prove about life along the famous trading path.

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The Northern and Southern trade routes that surround the Taklamakan Desert is the area that Dr. Hansen focuses on.

The vision Dr. Hansen paints for us is one of a trade route that really isn’t. Local trade was carried out between short distances and sometimes items were able to make it further than the people who originally carried them. Yet, much of what moved along the route was not material wealth but things like religions and cultures. Dr. Hansen explains how these aspects of humanity changed what they came in contact with, but also how they were used in the city states that dotted the harsh landscape. She also points out that much of what drove trade in these areas was Tang money. Tang, being one the largest Chinese Dynasties. It pumped a lot of money, for political interests, into the Taklamakan Desert, thus driving a great amount of the trade there.

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The modern city of Xi’an, once called Chang’an, the ancient capital of many Chinese Dynasties, including the Tang. It was this major city that the monk Xuanzang brought Buddhism to China.

During the time period she focuses on there is movements of Buddhism from one place to another. She recounts the tales told of Xuanzang, the famous traveling monk from Chang’an. She talks about the many monastic buildings placed along the route, like the massive cave complex in Dunhuang. Dunhuang itself held a major find of literature on Buddhism as well as many other topics, all sealed away behind a wall for hundreds and hundreds of years. Such finds are also a part of Dr. Hansen’s story. She writes about the different explorers that traveled these lands in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. How they found what they did and how it impacted the world’s view of the Silk Road, as well as shaped modern archeological practices.

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The Buddhist cave complex in Dunhuang, China.

The picture she presents, however, is not just a large impersonal landscape. There are many intimate details to be found in these desert documents. People trading, marrying, divorcing, princes trying to get home, the lives of soldiers in service to their emperor, a woman complaining about her worthless husband, and monks, lots of monks. There is a story of a mountain fort under siege from warring Muslims, spreading Islam, told through nothing but the trash left behind by the doomed occupants. In many cases you can get into the life of these ancient people from thousands of years ago, due to the nature of the archeological finds and Dr. Hansen’s word craft.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who has some prior knowledge of the Silk Road, it will build upon what you already know. For individuals who know nothing about the Silk Road, this may or may not be the best place to start. Dr. Hansen makes her argument very clear, and takes the time to recap basic knowledge of the times and area for readers. However, there is still a certain amount of detail that can only come with previous exposure. Having said that, I must add that Dr. Hansen’s book makes the most of current data and therefore creates a very accurate picture of what historians and archeologists know. Therefore, starting here would help reduce being exposed to previous misconceptions of past works. So, while you might be a new comer to Silk Road history, you will be rewarded for your struggles with a very solid picture of a certain time during the history of the Silk Road. This time period is vastly important as it sets the path for how the Silk Road becomes famous in later centuries. For example, why the Mongols felt the need to conquer all of Central Asia. In any case, I loved the book and will be adding it to my collection.

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The desert oasis of Dunhuang, in Gansu Province, China, is the ancient site of one of the largest cave based Buddhist temple complexes in the world.

A Simple Love Story

When anyone in the west begins to focus on Thailand one issue always pops up, prostitution. The stereotype is that all Thai people are somehow involved in the flesh trade and all Thai women encountered outside their home country are bought women. Also, the only reason a man travels to Thailand is to have cheap sex with the locals. This ugly aspect of the Kingdom is always worked into western media, from news, to movies, the Thai TEDDYBEAR_FILMMOVEMENT_POSTERpeople can not escape the Wests’ fascination with sex. So, when I sat down to watch Teddy Bear, a Danish film by Mads Matthiesen, about a man finding love in Thailand I was ready for this worn out stereotype to rear it’s ugly head. Well, I got what I expected, but I also got to see the movie portray a quite truth about East/West relations; that sometimes, Asians and Westerners really do fall in love.

The film’s main character is Dennis, played by Kim Kold, of Fast and Furious 6 fame. Dennis is looking at forty years of age and still lives with his mother, Ingrid, played by Elsebeth Steentoft. He is a bodybuilder and spends his time at the gym and taking care of his mother. His mother is filled with issues, she doesn’t trust men, doesn’t want to be alone, and will not let Dennis have his own life. She makes Dennis feel guilty about the simplest things by bringing up what a horrible person his father was and how much like him Dennis is. Dennis, to avoid his mother’s wrath, has to lie about going on dates. These dates never work out well, for Dennis is an introvert. People expect him, as a bodybuilder, to be a meat head, an attention hog, and a sex manic, for why else would he work so hard to make his body statuesque? Not only are people disappointed by Dennis, but he is disappointed by them.

Dennis and his mother visit his newly married cousin, Bent, played by Allan Mogensen, who has just married a much younger woman from Thailand. Dennis sees how beautiful she is and how happy they appear and decides to learn about how Bent met her. Dennis ends up taking a trip to Pattaya, where Bent met his wife. He lies to his mother about where he is going, telling her he is going to Germany for a bodybuilding competition. When he gets to Thailand he meets Scott, played by David Winters, yes, from West Side Story.  Dennis comes to find out that this place is a bar for older men seeking to pay for the company of Thai women and Scott is nothing more than a pimp. Dennis has issues with this. However, while there he works out at gym, where some fellow bodybuilders know who he is. There he meets Toi, played by Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard, who owns the gym. She inherited it after her husband died five years earlier. She is not really into bodybuilding herself, but perhaps by spending time there she doesn’t hold to the same stereotypes of bodybuilders that others do. She treats Dennis differently and he notices. The two begin seeing more of each other until it is time for Dennis to return home.

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Kim Kold as Dennis and Elsebeth Steentoff as Ingrid.

Dennis goes home and tries to tell his mother where he went and that he has fallen in love with Toi. She becomes angry and accuses him of being a sex tourist. She is disgusted with him and makes him promise to break off the relationship. He promises but he rents out in apartment and brings Toi to Denmark anyway. He tries to keep the two from meeting by lying to both of them, but it happens anyway and then Dennis is forced to choose between his mother, and the woman he loves.

Dennis is an introvert and many of us introverts have trouble connecting with others. Being such a person makes dating very difficult. In the west, at least America, introverts are not prized people. A person has to be outgoing and the center of the party to be worthy of anyone’s attention. Dennis seems to have the same troubles. Teddy Bear is a continuation of a short film Matthiesen did called Dennis, which shows the main character in another dating situation gone wrong. While you don’t have to watch Dennis to understand Teddy Bear, it does fill in more of Dennis’s character. The point is that many introverts in the west have better luck finding a connection with people from other cultures, where extroverts aren’t the standard to which people adhere.

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Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard as Toi.

The acting is great. Kim Kold plays does a terrific job in appearing uncomfortable. He is painfully awkward and despite his size you feel the need to defend him from some people he encounters, his mother for one. Elsebeth Steentoff’s portrayal of Ingrid is a nervous, insecure mess. Her abuse is based on quiet guilt and the silent treatment. While she is kind of scary, you feel more pity for her. She must have been hurt horribly in the past or just can’t get over what happened with Dennis’s father, still, you feel more pity for Dennis, who isn’t allowed to live his own life. Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard makes Toi as sweet and as comfortable as can be. The other women Dennis encounters are kind of intimidating and a little hard, yet Toi is soft and easy. You can see why Dennis would fall for her. While the screen time between the two is limited, the chemistry is great.

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David Winters as Scott.

The film gently attacks those stereotypes that crop up so often in Thai/Western relations. Not every man wants a cheap hooker, or travels to another land just to have sex with the locals. Another is that every Thai woman is motivated by money and willing to have sex with strangers to get it. Other stereotypes are quietly smashed as well. For one, the bodybuilder being a unintelligent testosterone filled meathead, obsessed with physical beauty and sex. While the film showcases the stereotype of older white men traveling to Thailand for sex, it does so not so much as to show how unnerving it is, but that while it exists, there are other aspects to humanity and Thailand then this.

Teddy Bear is a quite drama about real life. There are no screaming fights, no emotional break downs, and no passionate sex. The closest you get to a break down is Dennis silently crying in his room after his mother destroyed everything in it. The most passionate thing that happens between Toi and Dennis is that he wants to hold her while they sleep. Dennis wants to be loved for being him and wants someone to believe is a good person and worthy of attention. Toi becomes that person because she can see who he is and values that interior that Dennis has trouble expressing. Part of my love for this film is how much I identified with Dennis as well as a person who loves a Thai woman and the country she comes from. However, you don’t need a connection with Thailand to enjoy this film. Teddy Bear is universal story, for it is about a shy, nice guy over coming his fears and a caring woman finding each other, and that has nothing to do with countries and cultures, for that is all encompassing humanity. I love Teddy Bear for it is a simple love story, the kind I like the best.

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A Pause for Reflection

I am in mourning. My Playstation 3 has given me the dreaded Yellow Light of Death. It is an old system, the fat one. This is the first time I have been with out games in over 15 years, and it has been a little over three months now since it died. I don’t play  games everyday and weeks can go by before I play even a few hours. Also, I have become quite tired of the games being developed nowadays. They are infantile, adolescent, and generally disturbing when one realizes that these games are being marketed towards grown men. So, one would think that I shouldn’t be that upset about losing my ability to play games. After all, I am an adult who loves to read, to learn. Surely, I can find other forms of entertainment? Well, yes, I can. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss specific games. Even with most games catering to overgrown children, the evolution of games has created mature worlds to play in. These worlds have become like books are to me, places I like to visit every now and then. Being denied the ability to visit some of these worlds is the same as being barred from rereading a favorite book.

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The weirdest little game ever made.

At the end of the eighties I was tired of gaming. While many games were technically challenging, they were mind numbing. Hardly did they contain any real story, and any sense of reality. What I mean by this is that the thinking behind the game was not logical thinking. So, the action that had to be taken was not something that would occur naturally, or through a logical thought process, to an average person. It was game logic, which as a thinking human being raised in the real world I had trouble understanding it. I got tired of having to consulate game guides to have the nonsensical steps to progress in the a game explained. So, I stopped playing for a few years, and was perfectly fine with it. Until the Playstation was developed and Final Fantasy 7 was released. I saw in this game the potential for an engrossing story, and that is all I have ever wanted from games, a good story, and an interesting world to play in. So, I bought the console and the game and started playing again. I have now been with a gaming system ever since. However, this is not a love story that ends happily ever after. It is more like one those ex-lovers who is always disappointing you but who you keep having sex with whenever they show up.

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Beyond Good and Evil, a unique gaming gem.

For the longest time the only games that had any real story were the games from Japan, and many times those stories were underdeveloped, and filled with childish cliches, not to mention an unhealthy fascination with bouncing breasts. The Japanese developers also had a terrible habit of constructed games using game logic. I begin to seek out cult games on the Playstation 2 to satisfy my game craving. Things like Beyond Good and Evil, or Ico, The Mark of Kri, Shadow of the Colossus, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. The more creative, the better. During the height of the second generation of gaming there were so many developers doing so many different things. You could avoid mainstream crap and find some real art and storytelling in lesser known games. There were so many that you could walk into a used game store and find titles you had never heard of before, almost like a used book store. I thought the future of games was a bright one, but then the industry began homogenizing itself. The cult games disappeared, smaller developers were swallowed up by giants like EA, and then the third generation came.

While owning a Playstation 3 I have purchased fewer games than I did on the any other gaming system. All games are mainstream now and the lesser titles are lesser because they are not that good, not just unknown. Sure, all these games nowadays look incredible, but will always be lacking in story content, or they will always add something to appease the adolescent gaming sect. In one form or another they will try to appeal to too large a crowd and ruin a perfectly great piece of art. Or, they will never think it through, instead developing something so simple, riddled with cliches and sexism and stupidity, something that ends up being a direct insult to our intelligence.

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Fallout, the best of all apocalypses.

However, there is an up side to this homogenization. Some of the mainstream games have become real good. They have expanded into full worlds that you can explore for days on end. There is more time and money dumped into these single titles then ever before. I speak of games like The Elder Scrolls, for example. I could write Bethesda a love letter, but that is another blog. However, that has not stopped the development of sexist, childish, underdeveloped, immature games being developed as well. Sadly the same immature thinking has infested mods for Elder Scrolls, but those are more easily avoided. So, the point is that there are only a handful of games I am even willing to play. Many of those games, however, have become worlds I visit like they are vacation spots. I have yet to finish The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and I don’t feel I have to finish it. I go to this place to wonder around and find new things, tease my imagination, like a tourist. So, losing my ability to visit this world is a little depressing. Similar to having a trip planned and losing my passport before boarding.

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A kiss is but a kiss, romance from Dragon Age 2.

The point I am trying to make, outside of expressing my mourning, is that the world of gaming is on the edge of becoming something more than just an adolescent boy’s wet dream. There are real places being created, like those in well written books, which can inspire people’s creativity and wonder. Worlds that people can escape into, not to escape life, but learn how to enjoy it more. Yes, I believe games, developed in the right way, can be life affirming. Not because you are given an empty accomplishment trophy, but because you created something in the game, you solved a problem your own way. It can also be used as a medium to help raise social awareness, much like science-fiction and fantasy novels. For example, when Bioware created gay relationships in Dragon Age that was a triumph. It gave individuals a chance to explore such relationships that they would not have done otherwise and show them that these relationships are not different from heterosexual ones. When these worlds become this complex they allow us to explore our humanity, safely in a isolated environment, they become learning tools, as well as places of comfort and relaxation. I had these things when I discovered my love of reading and my love of speculative fiction, but I was able to add this world of gaming to it as well.

This is why I call out to all gamers to support art that moves the genre and us forward. These sub-standard productions that cater to the most base aspects of our humanity are not to be tolerated as forms of art or even entertainment. I call upon developers to steer their corporate masters towards endorsing true creative arts rather than something just to make money. Even Hollywood has movies made for the sake of the art of storytelling. As far as money is concerned, well, that is another blog post. Yet, I feel that like in every entertainment based industry, we are being charged far too much. Unfortunately, until I have the money, I will be denied my favorite virtual worlds. It might be several months until I can do anything about this situation, but I will not waste it. There are other worlds to explore in other media, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss the land of the Dragonborn.

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Tamriel, my second home.

The Veteran Chan

I have always been a huge Jackie Chan fan. I grew watching him and Bruce Lee on the weekends on USA’s Kung Fu Theater. So, Jackie has really been a part of my life for a long time. I also went and purchased as many of his films as I could, just because I am huge geek. I have always appreciated his ability to mix action and comedy. I never cared that the acting was bad, or the story was about as well written and believable as Letters to Penthouse. I always felt happy watching him. As the years have gone by Jackie’s stunts have slowed down, understandably. He has also tried to make more movies that showcase his acting rather than action. Plus, he has become a super patriot. Many have even accused him of being a Party mouth piece. So, his current films are filled with little-big-soldier-posternationalist sentiment and brief spurts of action. Little Big Solider is such a movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching.

The film takes place during the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. This is a popular time to portray in film as there were seven states that were fighting for control of what we think of today as China. Eventually each state falls to the Kingdom of Qin, and that is when, as popular history suggests, China was first unified. You can already see the nationalism being set up. Jackie plays The Solider, in classic Chan style no one has a name, who plays dead during a battle between his forces of Liang and those of Wei. He thinks he is the only one to survive until he comes across the young general of the Wei army, who is also nameless, and is played by Wang Lee Hom. Chan takes him captive and starts to take him back to Liang to claim a reward. Little do either of them know but the General’s little brother, Prince Wen, played by Yoo Seungjun, is taking advantage of this battle to kill off his brother and claim the throne. He is assisted in this by Captain Yu, played by Yu Rongguang. Oops, I guess a few people got names. This begins a chase that twists and turns over the surface of Phoenix Mountain as Chan tries to get Hom back to Liang and Hom tries to escape him and his murderous brother. There are many humorous and weird encounters with other people all over the Mountain, like the tribal people who live there, members of other armies, Kongzi and his disciples, and the Songstress, played by Lin Peng. This character only seems to exist so there can be a pretty lady in the film. Jackie likes pretty ladies.

This movie moves fast, the action comes quickly and frequently. However, it is a low key action. This is more of the barebones comedic fighting Chan is good at. It all takes place in the wilderness, so, sticks and nifty little tricks with feet, and flips. There are no over the top stunts. Unfortunately, the action doesn’t stay going. I think because of Chan’s age and his desire to focus on story more than stunt, the action comes and goes in little increments. While all of it is good, there was nothing that got a visceral response out of me, unlike so many other Chan films of the past.

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Yu Rongguang (L) and Yoo Suengjun

The acting was decent. Chan was the best out of all the cast members. He played this veteran who just wanted to stay alive, because he was the last of three sons, and wanted to honor his father’s wish of carrying on the family name. However serious that may sound, he isn’t. He is very happy-go-lucky, in love with life and nature. Like a goofy Taoist he roams around the wilderness exclaiming how marvelous it all is and singing a song about trying to figure out what crops to planet. While there is a sad aspect to him, this is really one of Chan’s most lovable characters. Wang Lee Hom on the other hand was kind of a disappointment. The banter that goes on between him and Chan is funny. Hom plays the straight man to Chan’s goofball, but Hom is so wooden, stiff, in this film, and it makes all the funny feel forced. To his credit, Hom handles the action really well, and watching him and Jackie go at it through the film is pretty fun.

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Jackie Chan as The Solider.

There are a couple of themes in this film. First, there is the nationalism theme. The movie keeps going back to a theme that has been played out in movies and video games and books, that being, conquer all and you bring peace. Unify that land and you will bring stability to all under Heaven. While there is no character that expresses this desire directly as a goal, it is brought up in dialogue frequently. Another theme is one of peace. Chan’s character keeps making references to peace and peaceful living. Living as a small person, happy with fields and livestock and family. He looks down a little on bigwigs like his captive. He only wants to capture the General to be rewarded land so he can live the small life he dreams about. The General does not share the same view about peace. He wishes to die on a battlefield, but that is his journey in the film, to find the value of peace. Of course, Qin conquers all in the end and what these characters wanted is of little consequence. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was nice, and a little sad. Chan did a very good job with his characters closing scene. However, the closing frames ruin it when the film explains peace came to China when Qin destroyed everyone else. This is not a good thing. This period of history was bloody and nasty and the King of Qin was not a nice fellow. He was a tyrant whose sons where over thrown. However, this is China’s birth, don’t question it.

In conclusion, this film was good, not great, but good. It lacks the true legacy of Chan’s films, but is still entertaining enough. While the themes are deep in of themselves, they are handled too lightly here. Other films have handled these themes better, Hero for one. The balance of fun and seriousness in this film gets bent. This takes away from the comedy a little bit. Also, those times when it should be very serious, even emotional, it isn’t. It is just nice. Don’t expect too much and you can enjoy it.

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Wang Lee Hom on top of Jackie Chan

Historical Urban Fantasy

I am normally not one to read urban fantasy. It typically has way too many dry and overused ideas. The authors of the genre tend to be unimaginative as well as untalented or perhaps lazy. For example? Sparkling vampires, need I say more? While I am a fan of alternative history, I am a harsh judge. So, if I encountered the complete Traitor to the Crown Trilogy by C.C. Finlay in a library book sale I most likely would never buy it. On the day that I did encounter these books, however, I purchased them. This trilogy, which was urban fiction blended with alternate history, sounded so cheesy. The American Revolution secretly being centered around a war between good and bad witches? This is never really my kind of story. Perhaps it was the influence of my new found love of Sleepy Hollow, which as is urban fantasy as you can get, that got me to buy these books. Or, perhaps, it was because each was a dollar a piece. Hell, why not, right?

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Book One

So, what are these books about? There is a young man named Proctor Brown, who is a witch. His mother has taught him that his gift is from God but he must never reveal what he can do, he would get burned as a, well, witch. The story starts just a few weeks before ‘the shot heard around the world’ is fired. He loves a young woman and is trying to impress her father at a coffee shop in Boston, when he meets an arrogant British officer with a magical charm, that protects him from bullets and knives. Later when the fighting breaks out at Lexington and Concord Proctor finds the British officer again and makes it his mission to stop such witchcraft being used against Americans. Proctor is a patriot after all. The events of the story lead him to an underground railroad for witches trying to escape being discovered, which is his predicament. Proctor meets the family running the railway, the Walcotts, and becomes paired with their daughter Deborah in the endeavor to stop the British witchcraft working against the American forces.

That is the first book and the following books are along a similar pattern. Proctor and Deborah find evidence that witchcraft is being used to aid the British efforts in the war, or threatening them personally, most of the time both and they move to stop it, mainly because they are the only ones who know about it and can do anything about it. They aren’t always alone. Deborah’s parents ran a place called The Farm, which trained witches to use their powers for good deeds. The students there lend some support, but for the most part these two power witches are left to the task themselves. The plots of the two first books revolve around very specific historical events and each are tied up pretty nicely. The last book deals with events as well, but the story of Proctor and Deborah, more Proctor, take center stage.

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Book Two.

These books are both good and bad. The alternative history part works fairly well. Finlay places you at famous moments in the American Revolutionary War and does a pretty good job of created an accurate picture. However, all the events center around magic. So, the enemy, this mysterious coven of witches working against America, creates magic which effects the out come something like a battle, and Proctor and Deborah have to reverse or change this spell some how. By the third book, this all seems too big to be believable, that two witches from Massachusetts help win the American Revolution.

That being said, the good parts are kind of fun. Proctor and Deborah are both likable characters, but are the only ones that really get a full work up. So, many of the others just seem like props. Though there are a few that get more detail, there just aren’t many. The relationship that develops between Proctor and Deborah is fun to watch and endearing. The action in the story is exciting as well. Finlay got a good handle on the combat of the time and Proctor, while no expert, isn’t helpless either. The spells they cast are hidden in prayers, for they believe God has given them their gift and they seek to do his will. These spells end up being pretty spectacular without being fireballs and lightning cast from open palms. The magic is much closer to what people believed magic was once capable of, possessions, weather control, and curses. The magic also works like people once believed magic to work. There are rituals and objects that act as a focus for the spell, there is also a right and wrong time to cast a spell. So, the magical battles are unique, as far as urban fantasy magical battles go. However, there are still a few good hatchet fights.

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Book Three.

Finlay could’ve done a much better job with this story if he had taken more time and made his books longer. As they are now, they are easy reads, or fluff reads, but for an experienced reader, there are gaping holes of what could have been in between the lines. Don’t let that stop you from reading them though. They were fun for me to read for I didn’t get what I was expecting. The story moves fast, so for quick readers it won’t take you long. For slower readers, they shouldn’t prove a problem. I think of books like this in the same way many think of summer movies, they are not Oscar material, but they are good popcorn munchers. If Finlay had dedicated more time, these three books could have been game changing, instead, they are simply fun.

 

 

Reading order

  1. The Patriot Witch
  2. A Spell for the Revolution
  3. The Demon Redcoat

Bookish Encouragement

I used to work at Borders, back when it was a very successful bookstore, in the late ’90’s. Like any retail industry we got customers who came into our store at a loss. These were people who didn’t have much use for books, or reading, or paper for that matter. They were a completely alien breed of person to us employees, for almost all of us were passionate readers, perhaps obsessive. These folks were so unused to the lay out of book store that they could barely formulate the question they wished to ask us. It was sometimes a struggle, especially when they were buying books for the true readers in their life. They knew that their loved like books, and knew a little of what kind of books, but that was it. They excepted us to be able to magically suggest a book for them to buy that would make this person happy. Sometimes they came in with one bit of information, and thought we would be able to extrapolate from that what they required.

There was one common request that for awhile left all of us very confused and frustrated. “Where is the new Oprah book?” I can’t tell you how many times someone would walk in and ask that question or a variation of it. We were all at a loss. Oprah wrote a book? No, she endorsed a book, we would find out later, and was in the habit of doing so frequently. However, these poor folks, some who I am sure never even picked up a book, couldn’t remember what the title was or the author. They just knew that Oprah told them to read it. Of course, our computer system did not have Oprah’s reading suggestions as a search parameter. This made helping them pretty much impossible. We were reduced to asking what was on the cover? Was it fiction, or non-fiction, to which we were asked, “What is the difference?”.

This request became so common that management took it upon themselves to set up a display by the help desk of all the books that we knew Oprah had endorsed. Someone was also assigned to check up on what Oprah was suggesting each week as well. Thankfully that wasn’t my job. Even with the huge display in plain view, people would walk up and standing a foot from it, ask where the new Oprah book was at. This of course lead to jokes about them. We would all complain at the boorish behavior of some of these people. They were clearly not book people. Some even thought that we operated as a library would and that they could return book when they were done with it.  They were a source of humor and frustration for all the employees that worked there.

I read article by the author Shannon A. Thompson today that was on the topic of bullying based on book choices. Of course, the message was that this is small minded and hurtful. Such judgement against others is damaging and shows the bully to be a petty person. She also addressed the public imagine that reading a book is undergoing. Children feeling that reading is ‘uncool’ is damaging for our future. It is bad enough that here in America there seems to be strong popular support for anything anti-intellectual in nature. Having a generation determine reading to be a waste of time would only set us back even more. That is why I decided to share her blog post and add my own voice to it. For reading is a must for a civilization to advance. Books are a foundational block of human continuity.

After my fellow co-workers were done making fun of or complaining about these Oprah readers, we would always feel bad. We shouldn’t say such things, we thought. We shouldn’t judge them like that, or look down on them, regardless of how rude and boorish that they seemed to us. Because, after all, they were reading! They came of their own freewill into a bookstore, a place that they never thought to go before, to get something that never had value to them before. Who cared why they were reading, we should celebrate the fact that they where. Reading could open up so many more doors for them. They might keep reading and become an avid readers like us. We should praise them for doing this. Good on them for picking up a book! Reading should never be frowned upon.

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