Friday, November 29, 2013

French Film Festival 2013 - Hiroshima, Mon Amour

It's that time of the year again - the French Film Festival kicked off last Wednesday and will last until December 12. For the past four years, I've been one loyal fan of the festival. At the 2011 festival, I was most disappointed for being too late to get a ticket for the musical "Beloved" starring Catherine Deneuve. Luckily this year I've already booked one for her 1967 film "Beauty of the Day".

The day before yesterday I watched the 1959 film "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" in black and white, which is named a Cannes Classics at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival. The scriptwriter, Marguerite Duras, who had her first venture in the world of cinema with this film, was nominated for an Oscar.

The story is about a French actress doing filming work in Hiroshima, where she meets a married Japanese man and falls in love with him. The timeline is about ten years after the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima. At the end of the three-day affair, the actress decides to leave her lover. The couple struggle with the pain of imminent separation. The camera oscillates between the past, with images of the aftermath of the bombing, and the present, with images of the lovers' day-to-day activities together with the actress's recollection of a tormenting end to a love affair with a German soldier at Nevers, France, during World War II, when he was killed.

I'm glad that I had stumbled upon a book about Marguerite Duras earlier in the week and was given to understand a little her unique literary style, which centers on the coexistence of past and present, memory and oblivion, love and death, which elements are readily identifiable in the film. In this film, she also departed from the conventional literary model by being sparse with descriptive details and shifting from single-voice narration to dialogue. The lack of descriptive details is intended to invoke in the audience the power of imagination. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, a male and a female voice converse with each other in the background, with the female trying to remember horrific scenes of the bombing and the male trying to negate her, representing a conflict between memory and oblivion. For the rest of the film, the protagonist's pain of memory and the pain of her inability to forget coexists with her lover's unrelenting effort to make her forget her past so that he could have a future with her.

Ten years after the bombing, Hiroshima is already back to normal life with a bright future. At the time of the lovers' encounter, the actress had also left Nevers to begin a new life in Paris. Towards the end of the film, the actress says to the Japanese man: "You're Hiroshima", and the Japanese man says to her "You're Nevers". After all, it is just a matter of forgetting and letting go of pain.

This film won the International Film Critics Award and the Film Writers Award. It also shared the Prix Melies with Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows". In 1960 it won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

More Land Is the Answer, Or Not?

(Note - My recent idea was to blog about light-hearted topics like music, films and books on this blog, while keeping more serious subjects on my Asia Sentinel blog. But lately the Asia Sentinel has been undergoing a change of server, and links to my A.S. blog posts don't seem to work any longer. So I'm re-posting my two latest A.S. blog posts separately here for interested readers' convenience.)

Here's the second last post "More Land Is the Answer, Or Not?":- 

Amidst Hong Kong’s clamoring for sky-high property prices to be reined in, there have been incessant calls for the SAR government to increase land and property supply. I, for one, was at one time besotted with the thought that releasing more land could eventually dampen prices, if still skeptical over the prudence of dishing out more land to the same cartel that is already sitting on huge land banks (because highest-bidder-wins-policy would ensure that deep-pocket developers would, more often than not, end up the winning bidders).

Having observed this year’s government land tender results, it seems the larger tracts, like always, have fallen into the hands of leading developers or State-owned mainland developer (to quote a few examples: a sizable Yuen Long lot went to Sun Hung Kai Properties; two large Tseung Kwan O lots went to Wheelock Properties, two Kai Tak lots went to China Overseas Construction). Owing to bidders being able to use nominee companies (whose parent companies may also be nominee companies) in land tenders, it is impossible to know from officially announced tender results who actually got the other sizeable plots.

As for the land tender prices, they are, as always, marked closely to the property market, where prices have barely fallen from the historical peak. The palliative buyer stamp duty and special stamp duty – the so called “piquant measures” – have so far only managed to reduce property turnover, but hardly the prices. But already property vested interests are nagging for a repeal of those measures, which have been introduced for only a few months.

It would seem that my earlier tinge of optimism about increased land supply being an effective impetus to eventually bring property prices down to more affordable levels seems misplaced. I unwittingly overlooked the crucial fact that the government and the leading developers have never ceded their firm grip on land and property prices, simply by virtue of their collective ownership of almost all of Hong Kong’s buildable land. They have a common interest in keeping prices high, though for different reasons. The former wants to maximize land sale revenue for its fiscal health, so that it can continue to trumpet to the world that Hong Kong has the unique advantage of a low-tax regime. The latter want to continue to fatten themselves with development profits and rents. They are no different from a clique of bakers who have monopolized the supply of wheat flour – they naturally have the power to manipulate the price of bread.  

It is apparent that, as long as the high land price policy that the Hong Kong government embraces with all its life force remains intact, no matter how much land is released into the market, it’s not going to have the desired impact on property prices, much less on the entrenched status quo. History shows that every market dip in the past was caused by an external event or internal chaos rather than an increase of land supply (of course the property cartel would try to dupe the public into believing the latter being the culprit). On the other hand, past experience has taught many of the older generations (including civil servants) that their best bet is “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Such an attitude towards buying and owning properties has been institutionalized over the years, and is deeply embedded in the social consciousness. Naturally, homeowners would want to see prices stay up, whose expectation can be self-fulfilling. Homeowners would rather use all their savings to buy more flats for their offspring than see property prices fall significantly for the greater and long-term good of society.

The only problem is, at least some clear-thinking and independent youngsters and individuals who have a sense of justice are finding that this game only favors those already with capital (equity in homes) and is grossly unfair to those without at the starting point. They can see that Hong Kong’s addiction to properties is stifling healthy innovation and creativity, the lack of which is taking a toll on its economic development. For those who are grassroots and those who by a stroke of bad luck have slipped onto the lower social echelons, living in decrepit sub-divided flats as well as enduring bitingly high rent is their only option until subsidized flats become within reach, if they ever will. These unfortunate have-nots, along with the haves, all need to pay a lot more than would have been necessary for their daily needs and consumer goods because of obscene rents.

The SAR government’s vacuous vows to increase land supply or to search for more land to build affordable flats are at best a feckless attempt to teach guileless Hong Kongers simple Economic theory about supply/demand equilibrium, and at worst a red herring aimed at diverting the public’s anger away from its perpetual collusion with the property cartel (which should now include powerful mainland developers).

Thus, CY Leung and his administration, knowing full well that the Gordian knot to Hong Kong’s social and economic ills (including the much condemned wealth gap) lies in the government’s high land price policy, its addiction to financing itself with land revenues and the regressive tax system but lacking the courage to touch them, can only put “band-aids on top of band-aids”, as one internet commentator jeered. At the same time, society’s institutionalized belief in the magic wand of properties is providing good excuses for inaction on government’s part.

An Irrelevant Population Policy

(Note - My recent idea was to blog about light-hearted topics like music, films and books on this blog, while keeping more serious subjects on my Asia Sentinel blog. But lately the Asia Sentinel has been undergoing a change of server, and links to my A.S. blog posts don't seem to work any longer. So I'm re-posting my two latest A.S. blog posts separately here for interested readers' convenience.)

Here's the latest one "An Irrelevant Population Policy" (the other one "More Land Is the Answer, Or Not?" follows in another post):-

Chairing the Steering Committee on Population Policy, the Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam put forward a consultation document that at least shows she is very much a part of the blinkered, stubborn and backward-looking bureaucracy.

There was a time when Carrie Lam struck me as an outspoken, capable civil servant having some sense of mission and having at heart struggling Hong Kongers’ interests, who readily outshone the coterie of mediocre and self-serving top-ranking bureaucrats. My confidence in her started to wane, though, when she pushed through LegCo the amendment to the Land (Compulsory Sale for Development) Ordinance, lowering the triggering threshold from 90% to 80% of units in the building in question, which effectively makes it easier for developers to encroach on private property rights in the name of urban redevelopment. Public opinion that showed strong opposition to the amendment bill was simply ignored. I began to harbor doubt about Lam’s true colors, but was still willing to believe that she was probably overpowered by her boss who was always all ears towards the powerful property oligarchs.

Hong Kong society has been screaming for some sort of population control, which indeed, judging from all kinds of prevalent social problems ranging from (lack of) housing to (poor) quality of education, inadequate medical care, and fast-declining quality of life, seems well justified. When society is plagued by overcrowding from the individual travel scheme, by a general lack of decent living space and a host of other unresolved issues, daily life pressure has already been building up to a boiling point. Then this Steering Committee went and poured oil on fire by saying that Hong Kong needs to squeeze in yet more people, just for the sake of pandering to the business sector by importing more labor (apparently so as to keep wages down). The document shows at every turn that the administration is still saddled with the outdated mindset that economic growth is overridingly more exigent than anything else, including but not limited to, decent and affordable living space for everyone, a more level playing field for all entrepreneurs, a cleaner environment and a narrower wealth gap.

Setting vacuous objectives for a population policy without having regard to urgent social issues will not help anyone, because those objectives would only sound totally irrelevant.

Why is the Committee not more concerned with quality of citizens, quality of life, quality of living space and quality of environment, which should all weigh far more than business growth, in its deliberations about a sustainable population policy? Why hasn’t it occurred to Committee members that in an already well developed economy like Hong Kong’s, quality of growth and quality of labor is perhaps much more important than quantity? To achieve some improvement in the quality of life for the existing population, is placing a cap on population growth, when there’s already an acute shortage of land and housing, such a bad thing after all?

Has the Committee ever asked the questions why young couples in Hong Kong are less and less willing to have babies and why more and more foreign-passport-holding families are thinking of returning to their adopting countries? To panic over a shrinking working population and to blindly recommend import of labor will do nothing but exacerbate existing problems. Is it not obvious to the Committee that those problems include, but are not limited to, a chronic lack of affordable housing, a lousy education system, an over-concentrated economy, limited upward social mobility for young workers and a rotting environment? Economic growth is not a panacea and in fact slower growth couldn’t hurt and could even be helpful in letting society have the chance to fix its more urgent problems. Hong Kong’s GDP per capita is already on a par with most economically advanced countries. It is certainly rich enough to do a lot more for the aging population (mostly taxpayers in their younger days who contributed much to Hong Kong’s prosperity) and for the less privileged.

The administration has to set its priorities straight. The Steering Committee on Population Policy needs to treat people as human beings rather than robotic units of production.