Illusions of Conversation and Other Harmless Stuff

Spirited Away To A Castle In The Sky


The closest I’ve been to Hayao Miyazaki was here, a few feet away from the great man who was inside the house (his personal office near the studio) at the time.

It was the summer of 2006. Takafumi from TBS asked me if there was anything I’d like to do for my first trip to Tokyo. I sheepishly asked, “Any chance I could visit Studio Ghibli?”

He went on to arrange a private tour (what a guy). It was rare privilege as the studio isn’t usually open to public visitors. I can’t remember the name of our guide on the day, except he was a senior technical director and a perfect gentleman.

The studio building is literally in the suburbs, surrounded by residential houses. Photo-taking wasn’t encouraged inside the studio although I was not told explicitly not to take pictures. Still, I restrained myself and paid more attention to what the guide was saying instead.

We visited the screening theatre (which also doubled as a recording studio). I sat down on a seat that the guide said Miyazaki had sat in that same morning, and immediately felt unworthy. Still, it was pretty comfy.

We then visited the photography room, where a giant 10-feet tall camera was the centre piece. Back then, backgrounds were still painted by hand and photographed rather than digitally scanned to retain the sense of depth in each painting.

We continued on to the art department. Most of the artists were away on their break. The guide pointed out Miyazaki’s desk in a corner – a non-assuming, tiny desk not much wider than 1 metre, with drawing tools organised neatly by one side. There wasn’t a computer in sight (even though digital painting was already very prevalent in 2006). It’s all paper, pencils, oils and water colours on every single desk.

The second floor was closed to visitors due to production going on for ‘Tales Of Earthsea’ – the first ‘Miyazaki film’ not to be directed by the man himself, but by his son, Goro. I learned from the guide that Miyazaki was in fact very against his son directing the film and having it be marketed as a ‘Miyazaki film’ – something about the son not being ready or there were more deserving directors to do it. Turned out he was probably right because ‘Tales Of Earthsea’, in my opinion, is the least impressive of the Ghibli films.

We then went down to the canteen for tea and cake. I remember the decor to be very European in taste; warm, cozy and homely. Miyazaki, of course, has always had an affinity for European aesthetics. Artwork and cels from Ghibli films adorned the walls. My regret is I should have risked it and taken some pictures.

Ghibli and Miyazaki’s films changed my life. That’s not an understatement. From a creative and storytelling standpoint they are unmatched, but what’s most impressive is that they came from a storyteller only concerned with telling very personal – even esoteric – stories for a certain audience, yet they speak to millions outside of Japan as though they were bedtime stories our parents told.

Frankly, I don’t need anymore Miyazaki films, because I am more than happy to keep re-watching the ones he made. Instead, I wish him the best of health and if he could mentor more directors or perhaps make a short film from time to time, that would be infinitely more than anything I, or any fan, could wish for.




Life, Movies & Airports


You know life isn’t like the movies when it’s 1am and you’re at the airport, waiting restlessly for a delayed flight – the perfect time for that stranger to waltz into Starbucks, asking if you’ve got a spare iPhone charger, but you’re using a Samsung, and a light banter about Android vs iOS ensues, which turns into a crackling conversation about how airports are designed to be antisocial, the absurd nature of serendipity, Batman v Superman and so on…

Life isn’t like the movies. Nobody walks into your life if you’re sitting there doing nothing except expecting someone to. Life doesn’t have a switch where attraction, remorse, self-righteousness, arrogance, empathy and redemption can be turned off and on. Life, at its most pivotal and important moments, certainly doesn’t have any piano or violin playing in the background, unless by some sort of freakish coincidence your iPod is playing.

The Starbucks staff walked over and said they’re closing; that he’s sorry but I’ll have to leave. I snapped out of a little fantasy that I had wistfully indulged myself in, picked up my bags and walked to the boarding gate to join the rest of the passengers waiting to go back to their own lives, real or otherwise.  


Ervin’s 2014 Year Of The Horse Top 10 Answers to “Why Still Not Married?”


10.     “Guess I’m just lucky.”

9.       “I need to give you something to live for.”

8.       “I’m going to space, and I fear I shall not return.

7.       “Uncle (or Auntie) told me don’t be stupid.”

6.       “Emotional attachments are forbidden for a Jedi.”

5.       “Your husband warned me it’d destroy my sex life.”

4.       “I’m waiting for Liverpool to win the Premier League.” (Will be a while)     

3.       (Whisper) “I’m Batman.”

2.       “Because I can’t mate in captivity.”

And the No. 1 Answer to “Why Still Not Married?”:

1.       “I’m waiting for your daughter to reach legal age.”

That Girl In Pinafore – A Singapore Classic


Chai Yee Wei’s That Girl In Pinafore might as well have been a science fiction film.

It steers you through the waters of time like a ship that taps into memories to fuel its engine of nostalgia.

It’s a voyage that many of us don’t make that often anymore, as the toils of life keep us grounded by the harbour.

As a local boy who grew up in Singapore in the early 90s, the film transported me back to a time when life was simpler, love was purer and horizons were further.

A time when our love for certain genres of music were seeded and forever ingrained into our emotional DNA, however our musical tastes would evolve in the decades that follow.

A time when hours were spent on an analogue phone talking to a girl and pauses in-between felt like waiting breaths rather than awkward silences, as they do today.

A time when the notion of adulthood and all its trappings seemed galaxies away, and friendships followed the same bricked path that would eventually split up in different directions.

Nostalgia gets a bad name sometimes, but in this case I am prepared to be unabashedly nostalgic and sentimental, just as the director said he dared to be ‘shamelessly Singaporean’ in making this film – and it’s all the better for it.

You won’t find a more heartfelt love note to Singapore this August than this 2 hours of affective storytelling and songs that lift the spirit one minute and serenade the soul the next.

The opening song “麻雀衔竹枝” alone exudes a charming, everyman love and longing for home and country, it makes the new National Day song as forgettable as a sedated parliamentary session.

It isn’t a perfect film, by any means. And it’s easy to attack it for its clichés and weighty melodrama that at times perhaps demanded too much from a young cast, some of whom have never acted before, talented as they are.

The director even picked scene-stealer Kelvin Mun after mentally auditioning him from a corner for 2 hours at a McDonald’s where Kelvin worked. Hey, it’s a better way of spending 2 hours in McD then queuing for plush toys.

But it doesn’t need to be a perfect film (whatever that means). Just like how the songs were sung by the young actors (none of whom are seasoned professional singers) in a raw, naturalistic style that feels intimately comforting, the film stands on its own and even resonates more in spite of its imperfections, backed up by excellent art direction and cinematography.

Ultimately, what spoke to me more was the earnestness and the palpable sense that this is a personal story of love, loss and hope – not told with any grandeur or ambition, but with the care and love of an artist restoring an old painting.

The ‘old paintings’ here are a handful of songs that were played and sung from classrooms to canteens, from school halls to recital studios, from cassette tapes to radio airwaves back in the 80s, 90s. These were songs that told the dreams and stories of a generation that sadly wilted with time and the twilight of youth.

The film reflects this beautifully – not so much with mourning or tragedy or any sense of regret, but with a quiet yearning, maturity and dignity. Every ship reaches its harbour at some point, and another journey on foot beckons.

Please catch That Girl In Pinafore in cinemas while you can. And to my friends in Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and wherever this little movie might reach, please support what to me is a Singapore classic in the making.

A Precious Trip Down Memory Lane


Earlier this month, Pacific Rim transported me back to the same wonder, magic, and joy I felt when I watched Godzilla movies and Ultraman TV shows in my childhood.

Last night, another movie hurled me back to a time in my youth where monsters and 200-feet superheroes were replaced by that other mysterious species called girls (wearing pinafores mostly), and the first inkling of a teenage dream that seemed uncertain yet infinite.

Xinyao (新谣) was the reason I learned to play the guitar, even before I moved on to other family fare like Poison and G n’ R. For years I wondered why no film was made about it. At a time when teenagers (and adults alike) prefer to listen to Korean pop songs where not a word is understood, an important part of our creative and musical heritage languished in the memories of those who grew up in less complicated times – until now at least.

This is one of my favourite movies of the year. It’s a love note to the songs that defined a generation of teenage dreams, yearning and exploration – of friendship, romance and the choices one makes. And they were damn good songs.

It isn’t perfect, but neither were those times. The truth is Xinyao did decline and somehow couldn’t find a way to suit the times ahead. I thought the film did its best to reflect this.

Also excited and heartened to see Yee Wei (another CJ alma mater) do the local scene proud. This is a little gem of a film. Kinda bumped that two of my favs 遗忘过去 and 那一段日子 were left out though. Sequel, maybe?

In a short month, I’ve travelled twice back in time. Only at a certain age do you appreciate how rare that happens – and how precious it is.

We live our lives forward, but sometimes it’s just how we tend to hold on to pieces of our past while waiting for our finite futures to unfold that makes the journey special, whether you’re 16 or 61.

After all, what good is a journey if you don’t remember where you’ve been?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?


You might say there’s nothing really wrong. Guy’s clearly into photography, or maybe he just bought a new DSLR that he can’t put down. After all, some of us Instagram our food as if to prove it’s cooked before we eat it. I’ve done it and will do it again, so I’m no hero.

This fella though, let the woman (who bought the food while he toyed with the camera) wait for 5 minutes while he snapped away from different angles, both standing and seated.

The woman, expressionless, sat there patiently as the camera attacked its target. She wasn’t exactly cheering him on, as you can see.

(And in case you’re thinking this was for some exquisite macaroons or haute chocolate, it’s Soup Spoon.)

5 minutes later, he put down the camera, satisfied with his haul. They went on to eat, as if nothing happened.

In a sense, nothing did happen. I’m in no position to judge either person, since I don’t know them. The same applies to anyone else reading this, really.

All I can do is remember this little scene, and know what I would and wouldn’t do in the same situation. Sometimes, life does need to be seen from the outside.

The Thing About Life


From a Reddit thread, in which user xeltius responds to a user who wants to kill himself:

Here’s the thing about life. On the one hand, none of it matters. Many philosophers come to this conclusion and cannot figure out why anyone should care either way. Human beings will expand from Earth to the next galaxy and the next and then what? Our technology will increase without bounds. Life will constantly change for our species but, as a whole, we don’t have a goal nor a well-defined purpose nor a mission statement for humanity. We are just trudging through the universe one day at a time. This is why people war. They don’t think things through. They crave purpose and meaning. They are incapable of projecting far enough into the future to do something useful. They are irrational, always, and they often cause more trouble than is needed. You could look at all of that and decide you don’t want to live in such a world. But, if you do that you neglect a key aspect of it all–being a human being is a highly unique experience.

Really think about that: no one will ever have a brain like yours, or your quirks, or your combination of experiences. Even your fellow INTJs differ from one another despite many similarities. Expand that– humans are different from you. Consider even more the unlikeliness that you would be here in the first place. We humans take life for granted because it is all around us but you should not be here, statistically speaking. Neither should I. We are that one in a billion sperm that made it into the highly elite University of Mommy’s Egg. In our case, the penalty for not getting into that university was not sulking and licking wounds or retaking the entrance exams–it was death. Right off the bat, many of the potential replacements for you never got the chance to come into existence and as such never got the privilege to truly experience being a human being. They never got the opportunity to develop a brain that is better than any supercomputer pound per pound. They never got the opportunity to reason. They were never able to use those hundreds of thousands of sensors we call rods and cones in conjunction with the world’s best, all-natural, dynamically adjusting, camera lens (eyes) and the processing centers of our brain to interpret the energy given off by a sunset and translate it all into the beautiful image we know. Think about that. When you SEE, you are translating waves of energy into colors. That’s insane. When you HEAR, you are translating pressure waves into the audio you are perceiving. The other sperm never even got the opportunity to hear the most gorgeous note which is capable of sending chills down your spine.

Why is being a human so great? Because as a species, we are not only complex but are statistically anomalies. We go from hydrocarbon blueprints redundantly encoded in biological structures to sacks of meat to children who very quickly figure out for themselves how to take random sensory input like sight, sound, balance, etc. and make sense of it in real time. We are self-aware and dynamically adjust to life’s curve balls. Why should you want to live? Because you have eternity to be dead. That’s a hell of a lot longer than the 70-100 years you will be alive on this planet. As long as you are going to die anyway in the future, you may as well enjoy the privilege of being a human now while you can appreciate it because it is a gift that you would be a fool to squander.


(Photo credit: Vasanth G.Benjamin)

Two Wolves


There’s an old Cherokee story of a boy who comes to his father and tells him of a nightmare that he dreamed. In it, there were two wolves fighting, killing each other.

The father listens patiently and explains to his son that we all had two wolves battling inside of us. One is strong, kind, and good. He’s compassionate and loving. The other wolf is vicious, murderous, greedy and jealous. The two wolves fight all day, and they fight all night.

The little boy is terrified and asks his father, “Which one wins?”

The father answers, “The one you feed.”


Story excerpt from Stephen Tobolowsky’s ‘A Good Day At Auschwitz’, The Tobolowsky Files.

Image from ‘Princess Mononoke’ – my favourite anime film. Nothing to do with the story above.

Love at First Sight (The Spark)

(Essay reproduced. Author unknown.)

I don’t think “love at first sight” is a real thing because it beggars the understanding of what love truly is. I certainly understand the appeal of a meant-to-be fated romance, but that has not the depth that twenty or fifty years of loyal marriage contains. First-sighted love is shallow by comparison.

Maybe “spark at first sight” or “connection at first sight” is more accurate. But those phrases won’t catch on because they’re not romantic enough; they’re too factual and miss all the poetry of the feelings of the moment.

But isn’t that the point? Love isn’t a moment. It’s a million moments back to back. Love is the totality of what is looked back on, it’s the reminiscences by those who have always held that one relationship in higher regard than any other, even among myriad opportunities. Love is not fleeting, not temporary, not able to be had with whomever and whenever.

The spark is a welcomed and celebrated first step — an emotional doorway drug — along the path of love, but it is not love itself. The spark is the emotional high. It’s the manic part of the plot, the shallow scenes of the movie that are fun and easy to write but not where the depth of the characters is explored.

We can all recognize the universality of a story that highlights the spark, but we long to connect with the truth revealed in commitment’s depth. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not a romance, but a tragedy — if for no other reason than that they never progress past manic emotionalism and into something more mature. The spark was all they had, and even that was quickly gone.

But compare that with the excellent prelude of the computer animated film Up. The spark between the couple sets the buoyant tone and we get the sense that great love has flourished between them. Their love has matured through life’s ebb and flow, through achievements and disappointments. The movie’s silent prelude leads us through the spark of their romance, the depth of their love, and the pain of losing the same. It is this arc that moves us emotionally and prepares us to suspend disbelief when, as an older man, the main character launches into his greatest journey, all borne from the depth of his commitment. (And notice from Shakespeare that irrational sacrifice is the outcome of the spark’s immaturity, while in Up we see that love puts correct emphasis on enthralled living.)

The spark certainly has its role. It convinces you to lower your defenses, take a risk, and then take responsibility for a real relationship. It’s an invitation into something greater. The spark is an emotional promise, “There is something greater than what you feel right now, something worth the time, worth your heart.” The spark can’t take responsibility for what comes after and how the relationship unfolds, but it is truthful in its promise to open the doorway to love.

The spark says, “Carpe diem,” this is the only moment that matters, the most important moment of your life. But what comes after convinces you that every moment since has mattered, has made your life what it is. This is much more than the spark could ever have given; this is love.


P.S. If you haven’t seen Up. Do yourself, your partner, and your soul a favour. See it.

When The Sheep Aren’t Leaping & Sonnet Ain’t Sleeping

Sunday night.

For some reason I get insomnia on this night more than any other. Perhaps it’s the one night of the week I really hope for a good night’s sleep, and for that, karma taxes me for the times I tweet about weird people on the train or insult my housemate’s singing on the Internet.

Insomnia is a dangerous thing. In a way it’s a subtle test of human conceit and its futility which is ever proven by those who try to will themselves to sleep, when sleep is really a gift that chooses its recipient.

The thoughts before sleep always linger. They’re seldom wholly happy, nor are they always sad or melancholic. I think it’s a time when our soul takes stock of recent events, distills them down to their essence, which is then purified as tiny drops into the small ocean called life.

And whatever bit of resistance our consciousness puts up in the face of sleep, Memory seizes the opportunity to do a little dance in our head, for better or worse.

Memory is the one faculty of our nature that we are at once blessed with, and also at the mercy of – often late in the night when the heart wanders, sometimes to places we’ve told ourselves never to visit again.

Memories are like dreams, if you think about it. We don’t choose our dreams, and often times in life, we don’t choose our memories. They choose us.  Certain thoughts are associated with certain people or situations or music and they stick in our minds, sometimes in hidden corners, and they reveal themselves in ways that we are seldom prepared for.

Of course, there are those memories that repeat in our heads like a playlist of favourites, except they often aren’t happy ones. They are there only because we can’t let them go or tuck them into those corners in our minds where they could surface later on as nostalgia or reminders while we’re busy making new, happier memories.

Still, Time is a persistent customer and eventually, it always convinces us to relinquish our hold on those memories that haunt us when they should be used as nourishment to help us grow.

Life itself is sort of a never-ending insomnia. Day after day, we struggle for an existence that hopefully means something. Just as the main character in Fight Club describes the consequences for his insomnia, “everything becomes a copy of a copy of a copy.” And we know the more copies we make, the more blurry everything becomes. The journey towards self discovery leads to a greater loss of identity.

But you know what they say about dealing with insomnia. You don’t lie there. You get up and do something. Read, write, create, organize, eat. Take those steps, however small, forward.

The next day could be a copy, but it doesn’t have to be a carbon copy. There could still be new memories, new songs, and a couple more precious drops into that ocean.

Happy new week.