“You Live in Light”

A Downton Abbey fan, I started Daisy Goodwin’s American Heiress with a keen curiosity. Coincidentally our heroine, the American Heiress, is also named Cora and a contemporary of Lady Cora. With Lady Cora’s vision flashing up every now and then, I plunged into Miss Cora Cash’s quite adventurous journey.

An American Heiress at the end of 19th century, “the richest girl in the world”, Cora Cash is ushered to England by her Ambitious mother, Mrs. Cash, and thereby starts the hunt for a tilted husband. Serendipitously, Cora falls, literally, into the hands of Duke of Wareham, by way of a riding accident. Without any of the anticipated lengthy, bitter and sweet courtship, they are engaged within a week’s time. Despite a few setbacks, they are married as planned and their wedding in Newport, Rhode Island of America is a tremendous sensation.

The real tests, trials and tribulations come after Cora starts her life as Duchess of Wareham and Chatelaine of Lulworth estate. As Cora braves on in her new life, she finds herself very much at odds with those around her, including her husband and mother in law.

Although not the first novel capturing that intriguing phenomena of American money marrying English titles, I find the juxtaposition and contrasting of the free New World and the quaint Old World as portrayed in American Heiress fascinating.

In the older days, marrying for love was obviously not an aristocratic aspiration while social climbing and preserving family title, wealth and power at all cost were more of the accepted norms. As a result, many lived a life rife with intrigue and betrayal. Underneath the calm and elegant veneer there were often lies, secrets, repressed feelings, twisted spirits and in many cases cruelty. Although Jane Austen brought the idea of marrying for love front and center early 19th century, it was however much later that it began to resonate and take hold.

Mrs. Cash does indeed aspire to buy her way into higher society as mother-in-law of an English duke, or even of a prince, if she could have managed it. Cora Cash however actually marries for love and she thinks her husband wants her too besides her money. And little she imagines the treacherous web of foreign sense and value ahead. Lucky for Miss Cora Cash, things work out. Besides the money, it is her way. It is because, as her husband puts it, she lives in light and she alone can wipe away all the shadows for him.

It is a pleasurable read and quite an education on the fashion of the days. And it turns out American Heiress can pass perfectly as a prequel for Downton Abbey.

My Lord Vulcan (A review on A Hazard of Hearts)

Many women started their romantic “foray” with one of Barbara Cartland’s many heroines, I was a Barbara Cartland virgin until I very recently watched TV movie “A Hazard of Hearts”. IT TOOK MY BREATH AWAY!

In a toss of the dice, young Serena Staverley’s hand in marriage is lost by her improvident, fanatic gambler father along with the family house and Serena’s inheritance to Lord Wrotham, a man she loathes more than anything else in the world. After Sir Staverley leaves the room, Justin Vulcan, a tall, dark, handsome, enigmatic young lord, who has been silently watching from another end of the room, coolly approaches the gambling table and challenges Lord Wrotham. With another round of dice tossing, the Staverley house, Serena’s hand in marriage and her inheritance are now turned into the hands of Lord Vulcan of Mandrake. At that moment, Sir Staverley shoots himself to death somewhere else in the club.

Serena’s cousin Nicholas rides to Serena with the news and warns her of Justin Vulcan as such “… He never loses at anything, never shows his emotions and he is heartless to women who love him…” and offers to marry Serena to foil Lord Vulcan. Serena, young but indomitable and being aware of her cousin’s love for Lady Isabella, is determined to honor her father’s debt “even if it means marrying to the devil himself.”

Such are the circumstances that precedes Miss Staverley’s first meeting with Lord Vulcan. The whole thing slips his mind until his friends goad him into going to Staverley Hall to pay it and the girl a visit ten days later. His friends speculate if the girl might be a bald with wooden legs. As they stand at bottom of a grand stair case waiting for Miss Staverley, an elderly woman descend with a mild limp to the landing, holding a candelabra in one hand and looking down to the group pensively. While this sight elicits mocking or gloating smiles from his friends, Lord Vulcan himself hardly shows any reaction.

Then his friends’ faces freeze into an expression of awe and we see a lovely young lady in white gown and long dark hair that falls onto her shoulders descend ethereally to the landing, holding in one hand the leach of a velvety black dog that surpasses her in height. Lady Isabella turns consciously at Lord Vulcan, whose face does not stir. What to read of his gaze at Miss Staverley is up to the viewer to decide. That constitutes the dramatic first meeting between Serena and Justin.

The emotional match between Serena and Justin evolves delicately as the story continues to develop with melodramatic turns and twists. Serena stating her being in love with no one draws this from Justin, “Serena, should I make you fall in love with me?” Serena is baffled. Apart from being addressed by first name for the first time, is that a sinister taunt or a declaration?  But if Serena cannot discern at this point, she probably does later when an intense outburst from Justin reveals something of jealousy.

Barbara Cartland was not queen of romance if she did not know how to stir sensations and inspire love. As the first or second of Barbara Cartland’s long list of historical romance novels, A Hazard of Hearts (1959) has a contrived plot but nonetheless sharp and utterly captivating. Yes, Barbara Cartland sensationalizes her story but not too much and it does not take attention away from the development of her characters’ inner world and plot or morals of the story. I infinitely prefer stories that allow the calm wit and inner strength of its characters to shine over those drown in surreal effect or senseless thrill. Indeed, intellectual stimulation does not come from high speed chase, or massive explosion, or zombie and slimy monster caliber disgust, or grotesque, self demeaning parody.

Appeal of romanticism to me is its call to reach ideals by transcending reality. In this day and age, when too many productions resort to gain viewership by dumbing down and over sexualizing, A Hazard of Heart, giving innocent courtship and true love the center stage, is a breath of refresh air. It too gets the psyche right.  After all, respectful restraint can only enhance romance.

The cast, including Helena Bonham Carter, Diana Rigg and Edward Fox, is outstanding but it is Lord Vulcan, portrayed by Marcus Gilbert, who holds me spellbound. Embittered by a family secret, Lord Vulcan is cynical but self possessed and soft spoken. Despite the cruel reputation, he is responsible and considerate. He appears detached, and sometimes sardonic, but his eyes sometimes betray him. He at first puts up with his mother’s gambling but when it gets out of hands, he does not spare her a cutting putdown and eventually deals her an ultimatum. To avenge Serena’s abduction, he duels Lord Wrotham. Like all Byronic heroes, he is not perfect. His flaws make him however vulnerable and loveable.

Marcus Gilbert’s Lord Vulcan now tops my list of romantic heroes, Laurence Oliver’s Mr. Darcy(Pride and Prejudice 1940), Timothy Dalton’s Mr. Rochester(Jane Eyre 1983), Marcus Gilbert’s Lord Vulcan(A Hazard of Hearts 1987), Robson Green’s Liam Marple(Me and Mrs. Jones 2002), Richard Armitage’s John Thornton(North and South 2004), Elliot Cowen’s Mr. Darcy (Lost in Austen 2008).

The earliest romance novels like Jane Austen’s were conceived in the Regency era. And Jane Austen’s work has certain passed the test of time, two hundred years later, they are still in print. A Hazard of Hearts and many of Barbara Cartland’s historical romance novels are set in the Regency time as well. Women of Regency era had far less freedom and rights than their counterparts of the twenty first century. Why was it the era that saw the birth of romance genre? Is it the Romanticism Movement? Why it is that Regency gentlemen’s garb has such a way of transforming a man into a gentleman of a romantic aura?

Literary merit or not. Formulaic or not. With more than seven hundred books and a billion copies of her books sold internationally, Barbara Cartland and her legacy are unmatched. I don’t need any excuse to say that I enjoy this movie tremendously and it is much, much more than guilty pleasure to me.


China at Cross Road!

To say I am interested in China’s development is an understatement, China is in my blood. The irony is though I did not know her much until I have lived away from it for years. Nor did I seek to understand her as much as I do now.

We look to history for our interests and concerns about the present states of things. For my quest, I devour books such as Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel’s new book, Deng Xiaoping and China’s Transformation, one that fascinates me tremendously.

If I was politically interested and astute while living in China, I might have picked up more of or better understood what was going on in China. But still, few could have gained such broad and comprehensive understanding of China’s politics during the Deng years. Twenty years of research condensed into a book of more than eight hundred pages, Professor Vogel’s book is an amazing journey through the first fifteen years of China’s post Mao era, opening up what would have remained the Black Box of China’s top political circle.

Its research is thorough and its narratives intriguing. To name one, its account of the secrecy and complexity around the endeavor between Carter administration and Chinese government under Deng’s leadership to bring about the normalization of Sino-US relationship late 1989 and early 1990 rivalries a Hollywood espionage movie. Most importantly, it helps me as I seek to answer many questions about China’s future.arly to mid 1970s, after cutting ties with most of the world for decades, Chairman Mao Zhedong, in hope of forming an alliance to counter threat from Soviet, was willing to open China through a chink of door and started a dialogue with US government. Deng Xiaoping who was restored to power during this time had the opportunity to visit US and Europe and realized China had fallen far behind the developed world. Like many other Chinese top officials who had survived the Mao era, Deng had learned the errors and terrors of radical leftist policies first hand and took them to heart. But it was not till late 1978, almost two years after Mao died in September 1976, that Deng would became the paramount leader and China would embark on an audacious journey of Open and Reform.

Motivated by patriotism and personal ego to modernize China, Deng and his reform minded supporters were determined with their pursuit and brilliantly succeeded in finding a path unprecedented in history of China. They broke away from radical leftist Maoism while maintaining the support of the powerful conservatives and were able to unite the country under the banner of Four Modernization of China. Deng’s determination and ingenuity in coining new concept within the frame work of Marxism and Maoism to shore up support won him admirers and supporter.

Aiming to gain investment and modern technology that China desperately needed, Deng pushed vigorously to normalize relationship with U.S. and to improve relationships with others such as Japan. During his visit to U.S. in early 1979, shortly after normalization of relationship with U.S. was announced, Deng sought to have U.S. start receiving Chinese students. A group of more than five hundred government sponsored Chinese students came to U.S. later that same year. Chinese students and scholars have continued to pour into U.S. since. In 2010, about 128,000 U.S. visas were granted to Chinese students and the majority of them came on personal funding. It was a prescient vision and strategy of Deng’s, one that changed China and will continue to change China in ways that perhaps Deng could not have foreseen himself.  As these U.S., European and Japanese educated students return to China, they will not only bring back advanced science and technologies but also political and cultural influence.

The potential of the Chinese market has long been coveted by more developed part s of the world and target of their expansion. During the colonial days, it resulted in wars and China’s humiliating loss and cession of its important ports along its coastal line and later closing its door to the world almost completely under the leadership of Maoist government. Since the re-opening of its door three decades later in late 1970’s, international businesses, as they seek to expand profits, have continued to tap into China’s market and pour into China with investment and technologies desperately needed and vigorously sought by China, with only a brief period of slow down after the crackdown of the student movement in 1989.

Over the past three decades, China’s economy, previously that of a communist system of public ownership and tightly controlled by state planning, has transformed into one that is of a mixed of state and private ownership and a market economy with the state retaining economic dominance. The market-oriented, state capitalism economic system has spurred China’s GDP to grow at an unrivaled pace, averaging 10% per year. In 2010, it became the second largest world economy, right after U.S., pushing Japan down to the number three spot.

Becoming the economic juggernaut that it is, China has realized many of its ambitions. To name a few, China in 2003 became the third nation that has successfully launched manned spacecraft and it now boasts world class metropolis like Shanghai, high speed rail, fastest computer and longest bridge in the world. Forbes’ billionaire list now includes those made in China. The wealth and nouveau riche that China has created in turn have spurred fascinating phenomena. Worldwide luxurious name brands are contriving up marketing gimmicks to cater to the rising and seemingly insatiable consumer demand, one that comes with Chinese idiosyncrasies this time. And the world sees China’s influence continues to grow, far beyond the economic realm.

China’s transformation is truly impressive and, like that of Mao Zhedong, the name of Deng Xiaoping is gloriously inscribed in China’s history. Interestingly however, just as that of Mao, Deng’s legacy is marred. Among others was Deng’s decision in 1979 to close down the Democracy Wall and put Wei Jingsheng in jail and in 1989 to crack down the student movement of 1989.

Could Deng have embraced the call for democracy and forged political reform while he was at the helm? Could Deng have taken the stance taken by former Premier Zhao Zhiyang, who risked an end to his political power to stand on what he believed to be the right side of history?

Shortly after the crackdown of the student movement in 1989, former US President George H. W. Bush, who had established a good relationship with Deng, tried to maintain his personal rapport and a working relationship with Deng despite the strong anti China sentiment prevalent in US. He wrote to Deng to explain his countrymen’s outrage of the crackdown. Deng charged that US economic sanction is detrimental to China US relationship. Bush countered that it was China’s cracked down on the movement that had caused the problem. Deng insisted that US sanction had infringed on China’s interest and dignity. Deng, the transformational Chinese leader, could not understand that it was his crack down on the peaceful demonstration that had infringed on the universal human desire and right for freedom and dignity. It takes an enlightened mind to understand that Human Right is nobody’s internal affair; it is an affair that should concern the entire humankind.

China is one of those places where, oddly, individual rights and freedom have not gained momentum in its social conscience, despite its long history of civilization. Conforming to the norm and falling in line of one’s station in the great scheme of social hierarchy are expected. Criticism of and any form of defiance to the ruling body are almost always considered unwelcomed threat to the authorities and to this day invariably suppressed and retaliated in the name of maintaining order and stability.

Although pragmatic and bold with economic reform, Deng was in many aspects a traditional Chinese leader. In the meantime, he was a staunch communist and faithfully believed that maintaining communist’s party rule was the way for China.

Stability however could not be achieved by force but by winning hearts and minds. Chinese government has since resorted to the alternative, boosting economic development to win popular support. In the meantime, the world, wrapped around China’s finger tip for profit, continued to pour investment into China and China seemed to have succeeded largely in attaining its goal. More than twenty years later, Democracy Movement of 1989, one of the epic episodes in Chinese history, seems to have been forgotten and, despite murmuring dissent, the communist party rule has remained chiefly unchallenged and unchanged.

In comparison communist countries in Eastern Europe have gone through more fundamental changes. East Germans, in part inspired by Chinese student movement of 1989, later in the same year successfully pushed forward their own movement and torn down the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany finally united into one. Communist rules in this part of the world effectively disintegrated.

Like Mao, Deng was a transformational leader of his time and Chinese leaders after Deng have basically continued the same policies that Deng had spearheaded. And despite all the wonderful things happening in its economic realm, Chinese government has kept up the same rhetoric in its political arena.  As a result, political obscurantism exists to this day in ways of press and information control, censorship and suppression of dissent. To this day, few Chinese have learnt about Liu Xiaobo being awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Recent occurring of dramatic events further exposed concerning problems – rampant corruption and officials abusing power, acting out of and above law and practicing medieval thuggish politics.

Rule of law has not been able to gain strong foothold in China. For dynasties after dynasties, Chinese legal system has been a Potemkin village, façade of a system that has been used by authorities to punish those who are threats to the regimes. To this day, rule of law is not an established fact in china. Apart from the lack of an independent judicial entity, is it the profound repercussion of compounded repression over thousands of years? Is the Chinese psyche so damaged that once in power, few could escape the temptation and abuse it with vengeance? Does Chinese government lack the ability or will to institute an effective legal system that would bring about Equal Justice under Law?

What has enabled some people to break free from the thuggish medieval political and social mode and advance to democracy and rule of law? Is it economic advancement alone? What has enabled some governing systems to better curtail the abuse of power than the other? Do social traditions play a role?

Confucianism, which among others advocates inwardness and obedience to authority in the embodiment of elders, teachers and officials, etc., has been deeply engrained in all aspects of Chinese societies and heavily influenced and shaped social hierarchy and conscience. Maoists’ repudiation of Confucianism temporarily shelved it but did not actually erase it. What does the revival of it in the recent years by the government signify? Is it a backward step in its political reform?

China did not open its first university till 1898 and had no public education till nationalist government took over in 1912. China’s public education has however since grown exponentially and made great stride in education of science and technology. But innovation has stagnated. While Europe and U.S. have been taking quantum leap in science and technology, China is still singing songs about its Four Great Ancient Inventions of compass, gunpowder, paper making and printing and has unfortunately resolved to espionage or downright stealing of intellectual properties of foreign countries. Why?

It is not Science and Technology alone that have spurred Europe and U.S. advancement and placed them far ahead of societies that were once the greatest civilizations on our planet. Is it? What else is it? Is it the difference of religions, or lack of religion? Is it a culture or the lack of culture of equality, compassion and charity?

Isn’t it an irony that philanthropic and humane spirits are lacking in China where individualism is suppressed and communism exalted and that they are the norm of western societies where individuality, personal rights and freedom are valued?

The truth is Chinese communist party has not truly liberated its people as it claims to have done. To unleash potential of creativity, to stop further brain drain and to attract talents to come back to China, it must free hearts and minds that have been intimidated and suppressed and create an environment for independent and critical thinking.

The mosaic composition that represents China is a complex one. The need to reform is being countered by national pride that was once deeply humiliated but is now emboldened by unprecedented economic growth and ready to defy any outside influence at the slightest provocation.

China is at a critical juncture.  While its authoritarian and totalitarian ways persist, the high ideals of socialism and communism promulgated in its constitution have been abandoned de facto.  How will China solve its ideological dilemma? Will its leaders be able to transform its political system to one that could sustain the economic growth and support of its people and one that would implement democracy and rule of laws?

In Civilization West and East, a fascinating documentary by Niall Ferguson that seeks to answer questions such as what has enabled the west to ascend and dominate the past five hundred years? Will it be able to maintain its prominence? Will emerging markets like China and India become truly the leaders of the world in the 21st century? Ferguson lists six factors as the “Killer Apps” behind the west’s success, Competition, Science, Democracy, Modern Medicine, Consumerism and Work Ethic. What can and will China learn from history? Only time will tell. And I surely hope whatever happens will place China on the right side of history.

Liang and Lin

Liang and Lin, Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past, a biography by Wilma Fairbank tells a touching story about Liang Shicheng and Lin Huiyin.

His father was Liang Qichao, an eminent scholar and government official of his time who mastered the Chinese Classics but was in the meantime a leading modern thinker at a time when China was transitioning into its first republic from its last monarchy. Her father was also eminent scholar who held important government posts. Born into these intellectually elite families, they both grew up bilingual and bi-cultural, traveling and being educated abroad.

She, a beauty and poet, was embroiled in a passionate pursuit by Xu Zhimo, a brilliant talent who was known as the foremost Chinese modern poet, but coolly made her choice otherwise. Inspired by her interest in architecture, Liang went with Lin to University of Pennsylvania to study architecture.

At the completion of their study, they went back to China where an incredible journey awaited them. With tremendous dedication, they devoted their lives to exploring and preserving China’s architectural heritage. With such talent and devotion, they could have achieved so much. And yet their path was fraught with disruptions to their profession and too many times life threatening situations. Being uprooted during the Japanese invasion, reduced to poverty and stricken with disease did not stop them in their work. What that followed the long eight years of hardship was not peace but civil war.  When peace finally came with the establishment of new China, unimaginable ordeals unfolded ahead.

The most disheartening events happened in new China under the leadership of the new communist government on which they placed their faith. These events were of such preposterousness that they were unfathomable. What they experienced was tragedy of such magnitude that it could not help but break a reader’s heart.

Over the years and the multitude of vicissitudes, the only constancy was their dedication to their work; they never once contemplated giving up. It was such drive that enabled them to achieve what they did and earned them great respect and admiration all over the world.

They eventually received posthumous recognition that they duly deserved. Alas, it is all too little too late.

Wild North and Romantic South

(A review of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)

The one thing he does, after losing a business he works hard his whole life to build, is to go to Helstone. Bitterness of rejection from a year ago still remembered in his heart, he goes to Helstone for the first time in his life. He wanders around, knowing she is not there. Does he hope to find consolation somehow from a place once so dear to her?

She, having transformed from “… look down upon him from her imaginary height” to “… suddenly find herself at his feet”, goes to Milton to rescue him. But she misses him.

He takes a north bound train to go back to Milton and she on a south bound train to London. Midway, both trains stop at the same station. Here by a thread thin chance, they meet again.

These are the ending scenes of BBC’s 2004 TV adaptation of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the most romantic TV dramas. It is British actor Richard Armitage’s break out performance and won him “an army” of enamored female fans, the “Armitage Army”. At the center of all the attention, Richard Armitage modestly attributed the success to Elizabeth Gaskell. Well, if you have both read the book and watched the TV show, you know both Richard Armitage and his fans are right on. Coupling handsome Richard Armitage and Elizabeth Gaskell’s intensely magnetic John Thornton created just the license to swoon.

Old fashion or not, on top of my list of greatest romantic novelists are Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Is it any wonder that these authoresses achieved these feats at the peak of the Romantic Movement or during the subsequent Victorian Era and before the Age of Realism completely set in? Is it mere coincidence that the world had seen by far the greatest romantic music composers in the same era? To me, the Romantic Movement, which by the way is not about things romantic in the popular sense, is as important as the First Industrial Revolution as a critical turning point in human history, in that its liberating influence on human society’s emotional, intellectual, artistic and philosophical development has revolutionized the way human beings see themselves and the world around them and has in turn spurt innovations of all kinds.

Elizabeth Gaskell of course accomplished much more than creating one of the greatest romantic dramas. Her characters are a rich, colorful spectrum cross social classes and her treatment of dialogues demonstrating various characters’ languages and tongues adroit. I especially admire her delicate portrait of her characters’ internal worlds and contrast of their temperament and dispositions. Skill and effort in this area set the classics like this and the rest apart. Most of the novels and movies these days give too much attention, if not all, to actions, thrills and sensations, not the depth of characters. You go through it quickly if its plot holds you and you are done with it forever, for there is nothing else left to go back to.

North and South is socially conscious. Margret’s change of heart towards gentry and agrarian centric South and seemingly chaotic and industrial North, admitting “the South has its fault and the North has its virtue”, is demonstrative of the current of change and transition. Although Thornton himself refuses to get involved, deeming it gambling, many those around him including his brother in law are becoming venture capitalists. The strike brings the poignant conflict between the masters and workers front and center and its fallout tragic to some. Elizabeth Gaskell offers hope though through the improved relationship between Thornton and Higgins, a worker and union activist.

The TV program enhances the story smartly by rearranging some of the blocks and changing some scenes. I find the TV version of Higgins more intelligent, the contrast between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Thornton and between Margret and Fanny more vivid on TV, book version of Mr. Bell more witty and humorous, the TV version of its ending mostly brilliant. In fact I rate it most romantic scene. But it is one of those stories that you can enjoy both reading the book and watching the TV show.

Why Do We Love Cinderella? (A Review of Ever After: A Cinderella Story)

The story of Cinderella embodies timeless human desires and fantasies – virtues/immoralities justly repaid and dreams of remarkable good fortune come true. And there is little wonder that since the time of Greek historian Strabo of first century B.C., if not earlier, thousands of variants have been created cross culture and media. Most influential to this day are probably French author Charles Perrault’s version and German authors Brothers Grimm’s later retell of the story, lending inspirations to many others.

Most memorable to me is however Disney’s animated film from 1950. So when I came across the 1998 20th Century Fox movie Ever After: A Cinderella Story, I pictured the sylphlike Cinderella singing Dreams Come True, chirpy birds, peeping mice, fairy godmother and glass slippers… As lovely as it is, a simple fairy tale can no longer hold my attention. I was about to click it away when the theme music started. The strain is captivating, tender and passionate all at once, I was transfixed. What followed continued to keep me glued to my chair until the end of the movie.

I was thoroughly wowed. The movie score is truly beautiful but obviously it is just one of the many achievements of this production. Assembling smoothly such mood setting score, brilliant script, transforming costumes and make up, picturesque locations in Dordogne, France and solid cinematography, Ever After tells an epic love story that is more than fairy god mother’s magical wand can render.

The movie starts with Grande Dame Queen of France meeting the Grimm brothers at her castle where she sets the record straight about “the little cinder girl”, showing a jewel-encrusted glass slipper, eliciting from one of the Grimm brothers the exclamation “Then it is true!”, and telling the story of Danielle de Barbarac.

Thereupon the story of Danielle de Barbarac unfolds in 16th century France under the rule of king Francois I. This premise of Ever After is skillfully and cleverly set; the underlying social theme of Renaissance lends inspiration for its plot development, adds complexity, richness and plausibility.

At eight, Danielle’s father, a peasant, marries Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent, a widow with two daughters, and dies shortly afterward, leaving Danielle ‘Utopia’ by Thomas Mores as the last of the books he brings home to her from his travel, which she will memorize by heart and spirit. Ten years later, Danielle, portrayed by Drew Barrymore, is no longer a tomboy but a beautiful, compassionate and intelligent young woman, who is made to work as a servant alongside Maurice, Louise and Paulette, the only servants left at her father’s manor that has languished in the hands of her stepmother. Danielle serves obediently to win the love of stepmother and sisters and struggles to keep the household together. Love however will guide her and eventually her spirits and strength find their way. Rescuing Maurice, she is courageous. Her defining moment is however when she passionately declares: “A country’s character is defined by its everyday rustic. They are the legs on which you stand. Such positions require respect.” Barrymore is lovely in the movie and turned out a stellar performance but I find her very prettiness and sweetness make her just a tad more Cinderella than Danielle.

Henry, portrayed by Dougray Scott, is the crown prince of France, who is “in many ways, still a boy”. He rebels against an arranged marriage to Spain’s princess that his father King Francois I signs into a treaty with the Spanish King. He does not want to be king for “being so defined by one’s position is insufferable” and he wants “nothing more than to be freed of his gilded cage.” That is, until he finds love that transforms him and gives him purpose. Dougray put in an attractive blend of manly appeal and puerility, which befits the character nicely. At the end, Prince Henry proposes thus, “I kneel before you, not as a prince, but a man in love. But I would feel like a king if you would be my wife”. That is a princely manifesto of love!

Stepmother, portrayed by Angelica Huston, is given more dimensions and hence more interesting. Yes, she is still cold, cruel and crafty. Determined to make her daughter Marguerite the future queen, she will still crush Cinderella, or rather Danielle, and whatever is in the way. But she also gives glimpse of a tender, feminine, seductive side and a sense of humor, albeit repulsive. I find Huston’s rendition exquisite.

While both stepsisters fawn to the prince like every eligible courtier girl, the two sisters are day and night. Jacqueline is gaucherie but kind. The social climbing Marguerite is nasty and foul tempered to some but can also put up a handsome and artful performance that might possibly steal some prince’s heart.

I like Queen Marie of France, mother of Prince Henry, stately, affable and quite empathetic. King Francois I is more likable than expected, dominating but also somewhat open-minded and can be reasonable. Leonardo da Vinci, the court’s resident artist, is the genius who retires fairy godmother from this story. Danielle asks: “Signore, a bird may love a fish but where will they live?” Da Vinci answers: “Then I shall make you wings.” Who needs fairy god mother when there are heroes like Da Vinci, Gustav and Maurice?

Sense of humor is another quality infused into this story smartly. Kudos to screen plays Susannah Grant and Andy Tennant who is also the director; and as it is the case with any successful production, to its supporting cast who put in an integral performance.

An utterly enjoyable film, it is one of the handful movies I can watch over and over again and today I am the proud owner of an Ever After DVD.

P.S. I must say I do not get the choice of song that plays at the end, accompanying the credit list, ‘Put your arms around me’. A strange song, it is totally irrelevant and its mixing with the movie is ridiculous and ludicrous.

Shangri-La: a Lost Horizon?

Shangri-La was a name that evoked mysterious zings and inspired me to read James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

Shangri-La is a recondite lamasery located at Blue Moon, a remote and idyllic valley surrounded by majestic Tibetan mountains. It is the unexpected destination of four travelers on board an airplane that is supposed to evacuate them from Baskul, which is on the brink of a revolution in 1931, to Peshawa. Adventure of the four travelers, Hugh Conway, a British consul, Mallinson, Conway’s vice-consul, Barnard, an American, and Miss Brinklow, a British missionary, begins when they realize their airplane is hijacked and they are taken instead over the Himalayas towards Tibet. The airplane crashes near Shangri-La and the impostor pilot dies but the travelers survive.

The four new comers find accommodation at Shangri-La surprisingly well-to-do and modern. While Chang, a Chinese man who is a lama in-training and their point of contact with authority of the lamasery, receives them hospitably and converses with them eloquently and freely in general matters, he keeps his lips sealed about why they have landed at Shangri-La, calmly and politely declining to answer certain questions and fending off Mallinson’s exasperation.

The group does gain hope from Chang’s revelation that porters are due to arrive in two months. As each deals with the waiting in mode characteristic of their dispositions, they learn about each other, explore Shangri-La, make discoveries and form resolutions abiding to their values and situations. Barnard, the American, who turns out to be a wanted fugitive by American government due to financial fraud, is happy to be thus harbored and wants to exploit the rich gold deposit at the valley. Miss Brinklow avails herself to the extensive library, delves into studying multiple languages and resolves to stay and convert the people of Shangri-La. Mallinson detests Shangri-La as a prison but falls in love with Lo Tsen, a beautiful Manchu girl who does not speak but plays the Harpsichord bewitchingly.

Conway is spiritually drawn to Shangri-La, its seclusion, serenity and philosophy of moderation. He becomes the chosen one and is exceptionally honored with series of meeting with the high Lama, Father Perrault, a French and founder of Shangri-La, and trusted with high secrets of Shangri-La. Shangri-La has the elixir that enables tractable ones to live into unthinkable long age. In fact Father Perrault himself is about three hundred years old. Father Perrault envisions impending human catastrophe, alluding to another world war, and prophesizes Shangri-La will be human’s last reserve. Conway’s weariness of war and chaos of the world in general, his wit and calm uncommon of his age recommend him to Father Perrault as his very successor.

One stormy night, Father Perrault reveals his wish for Conway and dies shortly after. The same night Mallinson reveals his plan to leave/escape Shangri-La. In fact, it is all arranged and Lo Tsen is waiting with the porters at their camp. He presses Conway to leave with him and scorns the allusion that Lo Tsen might be of much older age than she seems to be. He leaves after Conway refuses to go along but returns shortly after and beseeches Conway to help get him to the camp for he failed to conquer the treacherous cliffside defile, the only path to escape.

James Hilton created a plot and premise that offers everything that nowadays thrillers want. His writing however striped all swashbuckling and watered down its intensity to almost non-existent. It perhaps is more a cerebral statement. It commented on exhaustion and destruction of war, foreboded Second World War and expressed the longing to escape.

It couldn’t be more poignant that the same Middle East region is still deep in war and ravaged. I wish there is an end to disasters of all kinds, natural or manmade, soon.

Lost in Austen

Lost In Austen

I confess. Since I stumbled across Lost in Austen, a Mammoth Screen/ITV television production, I have become addicted to this Pride and Prejudice inspired fantasy and been contriving to get a dose of it every day, multitasking between desktop, laptop computers and TV sets, in one way or the other. This behavior no doubt qualifies as an unprecedented “fresh lunacy”. I had never watched anything more than twice back to back, but now I I’ve been watching Lost in Austen daily for three weeks running and wanting more still…
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