Godzilla and Zombies — & the Worst of All Human Fears

Recently released outside their countries of origin, Shin Godzilla (2016) and Train to Busan (2016) make for excellent back-to-back screenings for anyone looking to take a break from the usual Hollywood fare. The cinematic return of signature monster Godzilla to present-day Japan needs no introduction, though by itself the film by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi was definitely more talk than action. Yeon Sang-ho’s Busan gained traction during the Out of Competition category of the 69th Festival de Cannes: it follows the story of a father and his daughter as they try to reach Busan City via KTX in the midst of a spreading zombie infestation.

Obviously neither Godzilla nor Busan is the first of the kaijū (monster) and zombie genres, respectively, which is why it would be worth trying to understand their appeal now. Since the pioneering armageddon/apocalypse film in the 1970s, amateurs and critics alike have tried to dissect time and again why these kinds of movies would sell despite their marginally diminishing originality. Shin Godzilla is already the 31st addition to a Godzilla franchise which began in 1954. Both television and the big screen are awash with variations of the zombie outbreak experience. In both cases, then, many would agree that their strongest point is not in the ensuing chaos or in the action sequences that betray corresponding levels of CGI budget, but in the way viewers are forced to confront their deepest fears.

Like their more realistic but equally imaginative uncle, the disaster genre, kaijū and zombie genres are growing ever more appealing nowadays because they are ample outlets for social commentary — whether the critique is on government, on mass media, or on capitalism. Moreover, they reflect the currently most pressing issue in the planet: the end of the world, which may or may not be brought about by climate change.

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Prophecies heralding the end of the world are not new to this millennium: they have been bandied around since the early Mayan civilization. It was only in the last few decades that tangible evidences were felt, forming a scientific basis for said end and worsening the scare: more extreme temperatures, more atmospheric and meteorological anomalies, etc.

More than the end of the world for whatever reason, though, the category of film that includes Godzilla and Busan also hints at a greater worry (and worry is already an understatement). Judging from how their standard cinematic plots are laid out, it would seem that apart from the end of pizza, the Internet, and all good things in this life, people are even more terrified of losing their humanity in the process of trying to survive.

In Train to Busan, some viewers may empathize with the characters who are given up to the zombies by their fellow passengers, and they rage at the selfish characters who put their own safety first — but a subconscious fear may well be at the back of these viewers’ heads: What if this actually happens to me, and I end up acting like the COO of Stallion Express?

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Spoiler: Kim Eui-Sung plays Yong-Suk, the self-absorbed COO who winds everyone up because of his ruthless desire to stay alive no matter the cost. Only a skilled actor can solicit hate from viewers, and this man manages that. What is perhaps most disheartening about his character is the idea that even when there is a common enemy, some humans still insist on being antagonists.

In Shin Godzilla, for all its dialogues, it would seem that the emotional peak of the movie is when the USA steps in to give aid, although the American government does not come off as the impeccably timed savior or deus ex machina as it most likely would have been in a Hollywood flick. By ‘aid,’ the Americans meant the use of a nuclear bomb that would not only take out the kaijū adversary, but also level the whole city of Tokyo.

After all the rapid-fire talking, this is the first time the movie actually breathes, but for unsavory reasons: The 1945 bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are obviously still fresh on the minds of the Japanese, which leads to frustration when they are unable to think of a non-nuclear alternative right away. The effect is not quite so clinical (as this review claims), because while the Japanese would have been able to rebuild physically, the prospect of another nuclear intrusion is more a blow to their memory than anything else.

Like all fears, our unspoken fear of losing our humanity is only as harmful as the actions we make in light of said fear. Phobias in the mind have a bad tendency to manifest themselves through words and relationships, but these prove worse when they manifest as concrete actions and decisions. The Americans in Godzilla are willing to launch a nuclear bomb that would have more than just one Japanese monster-sized casualty. The soldiers stationed by the final tunnel in Busan are given orders to shoot without even verifying if their targets are uninfected.

Fear can bring out the collective worst in people — and yet it can also bring out the best in individuals. While our basic instincts lean towards self-preservation, sometimes bonds of love and friendship are much stronger. In an early scene in Busan when the outbreak is not yet evident, the two leading men played by Gong Yoo and Ma Dong-Seok have a conversation on fatherhood that foreshadows the end of the movie. They talk about sacrifices fathers make that are easily misunderstood by their families, but this does not stop them from making the sacrifice anyway. When the film comes to a close, we gripe that more people could have made it through; nevertheless, it is two fathers’ fearless sacrifices that get the survivors to where they are.

Fear, ultimately, is only crippling to the extent that we let it cripple us. When the end does come and it is anything like the movies, we can at least hold on to the thought that no matter how dark the times, we humans will not want to lose sight of who we are. Otherwise we will have already lost half the fight to stay alive.

 

Suicide Squad — & the Basics of Research Paper Writing

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Released the week before last, the Warner Bros. film Suicide Squad (2016) was met with mixed reviews, setting ablaze DC fans, Marvel fans, critics, and bandwagoners alike. Despite a score on Rotten Tomatoes that continually plummeted in the two weeks since, this new addition to the DC Extended Universe nonetheless continues to be appreciated — in all senses of the word — by those wishing to know what worked in the movie and what went wrong.

On a forcibly bright side, at least the franchise is now one step closer to Justice League (2017), the zenith toward which the previous DC movies have been but a stepping stone thus far. Also, at least some people still found aspects to praise in Suicide Squad; other fans have meanwhile resorted to defending the movie against critics. As a stab at constructive criticism, then, here are some faults those critics found with the film applied to the hitherto unrelated occupation of research paper writing.

Yes, research paper writing.

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Members of the Suicide Squad are enumerated in this pre-New 52 ensemble.
1. Avoid flashbacks.

One must produce output with an intended audience in mind, whether this be a panel of experts on the subject, or a set of neophyte readers with no prior knowledge of one’s topic. In many film adaptations of novels or comics, this has spelled the difference between making a movie for the fans and making a movie for the general public.

In research paper writing, it is better to begin with a run-through of all fundamental concepts needed for more complicated explanations later in the paper; than to begin with a complex idea and insert explanations of the basics, i.e. flashbacks, as that idea unfolds.

2. Synthesize, not summarize.

A music playlist can run in the background of a movie, but it will not always constitute a soundtrack — especially if one song does not seamlessly flow into the next. The whole, after all, is more than the sum of its parts. The same goes for organizing ideas: if one merely summarizes data or, heaven forbid, lists them one after another, the output is devoid of meaning for both writer and reader. The synthesis, with its additional insights and more coherent style, is therefore more preferable.

3. Revise in cold blood.

Unnecessary parts are exactly that: unnecessary. For no other basic reason than this, brutal revisions are necessary. This attitude applies to scenes, minor characters, purportedly major characters, even entire chapters. One must then avoid using flowery sentences when a single, concise statement can deliver the same message with more oomph. It lessens the risk of a paper being dragging.

It also goes without saying that in this period of revisions, one must already take the time to check that elements as seemingly minor as page numbers, typographical errors, or table of contents are polished.

At the end of the day, less is almost always more, and readers/viewers will come to appreciate prudence in editing, as long as it stands to reason.

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4. Get (and acknowledge) reviews.

At the end of the day, papers are written so they may be read, in the same way that a movie is filmed so it may be watched. Reviews are thus important — as early as the first draft and by an outsider if possible — because they are supposed to point out gaps and loopholes that would otherwise not have been spotted by the writer who has been dealing more exhaustively with the material.

Unfortunately, there is no pleasing everyone; if negative reviews arise, these had best be dealt with a mature and open mind. If everyone says one’s output is terrible because of “muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing,” for instance, there are at least two ways to respond.

The first would be to ignore the criticism and to carry on with one’s work. Lashing out at the critic before moving on is optional.

The second would be to acknowledge the criticism and to incorporate any suggestions during revision. If the paper has already been completed and submitted, mayhap the criticism could be treated as a learning experience, and the suggestions saved for the next attempt at writing. For purposes of continuous self-improvement, this second response is obviously recommended.

 

‘That Which We Call A Poem’ — The Case Against Lang Leav

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Fodder for critics: Lang Leav books squatting on the classics shelves of a local bookstore in the Philippines.

The subject of love and heartbreak is not hard to find on mainstream media: it has been the concern of many an artistic or literary work since the earliest civilizations. From movies to novels to poems, people have always found ways to express the sheer bliss of infatuation, the tingle of lust and desire, the gut-wrenching despair of having loved and lost.

On the poetic form, there is no writer of today’s generation more widely criticized than Lang Leav. Based in New Zealand, she has authored internationally bestselling books like Love and Misadventure (2013), Lullabies (2014), and Memories (2015) — and yet a number of people would still be hard-pressed to call her work good, if called poetry at all.

What counts as poetry in the first place? Over the years, the consensus has involved figurative language and formal elements like meter and rhyme, but such a loose criteria has always allowed for experimentation, entailing that that which we call a poem by any other name could smell as sweet. What, then, is the real problem people have with Leav’s work? Is it the questionable quality of writing; or her themes and subject matter? Could it be her place in the ontologically shifting definition of poetry in relation to class and accessibility, to commodification, to nationality and diaspora?

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Like other literary forms, poetry has come a long way since the time of the Bard of Avon. We can fractionally credit contemporary writers like Leav for forcing readers to recall the point of a shifting definition of poetry in the first place, although to say that she contributes to this shift is nothing short of preposterous, for reasons explained below.

Triggered by the piece “A Question,” a Twitter thread from one Lakan Umali tackles an aspect of Leav-directed criticism — poetic talent or lack thereof. Some points below have been lifted directly from the original thread:

  • “A Question” had no cohesion of imagery: the image of a lip is followed by the image of a sweater.
  • While the focus on an overused topic is acceptable, her work in general reveals no hint of playfulness or experimentation with language.
  • In other words, her writing is so generic it should be a pharmacy.
  • The metaphor of an unhealed wound to describe one’s feelings for an ex-significant other earns points for creativity, because no one would expect that comparison.
  • Leav’s poems make the reader do all the work, and the generic-ness allows anyone to project literally any painful personal experience on the text.
  • Her work reaffirms already-established personal feelings and does nothing to challenge them or provide any new perspective.

The points are from a semi-literary slant, since Lakan himself admits a slight lack of technical know-how on poetry criticism.

From a socio-econo-cultural point of view, here are more questions to consider: Has Lang Leav already commodified poetry by commodifying love and heartbreak? Is not the point of poetry to be universally accessible and consequently open to interpretation in the first place? In defense of the bestselling poetess, are not the most lasting poems those that challenge the preexisting pool of works?

In June 2016, the local production company Star Cinema announced plans to collaborate on a project with Leav. The announcement promptly met backlash from a number of netizens.

Another reactionary Twitter thread, this time by one Mishka Ligot, adds a Filipino cultural context to Lakan’s standing critique to partly answer the second set of questions. Most points below have also been lifted directly from the original thread:

1. Barring the question of writing quality, it is popular culture that mobilizes poetry at present in the Philippines.

  • There is a class divide in local art: oftentimes literature is put up on some kind of inaccessible pedestal, which has not always been the case.
  • While Filipinos are not necessarily a ‘reading’ people, literature — particularly poetry — has more or less been part of our culture in the form of epic chants, folk songs, religious traditions, e.g. Pasyon/Pabasa.
  • Anyway, poetry as it is known by the modern generation is depicted as a bourgeois endeavor, regardless of whether it is in English or in Filipino.
  • Thus, the only way to reintroduce poetry to the Filipino psyche and knock it off its fake pedestal is through the vehicle of popular culture.
  • This has been proven to work by the growing number of spoken word gigs and exhibits throughout the country, as well as the likes of Juan Miguel Severo whose work was featured in the local TV series On the Wings of Love.

2. Unfortunately, there is a brain drain of the arts, so to speak.

  • There are many talented poets in the country, whether their poetry is in English, Filipino, or one of the regional/vernacular languages.
  • Their best means of exposure so far is through a limited academic circuit; local poets rarely ever get to break into popular culture.
  • Sadly, they are more recognized abroad, often becoming diasporic writers and taking their craft overseas.
  • How then can the public understand the quality of local poetry if they cannot access it?

3. Poetry nonetheless does not have to be pretentious; it can be accessible, understandable, even inherent in cultures across the Philippines.

  • If writing quality does come into question, we can talk to no end about how great poetry is mobilized through popular media, but realistically speaking this is not even the case.
  • Most films that feature works of landmark Filipino poets are indie productions, enjoying only a limited release to small audiences.
  • Star Cinema, on the other hand, rakes in millions of pesos annually and reaches nearly every corner of the archipelago. They choose to go with Lang Leav, perhaps because the fact that she is a foreigner lends sophistication to their project.

4. Filipinos are barely beginning to uncover a rich trove of local poetry.

  • Juan Miguel Severo’s successfully showcased work shows that people can be interested in something they once thought was above them.
  • For Star Cinema to opt for imported talent is a step back, a slap in the face for homegrown talent.
  • It is disheartening that the opportunity to promote one’s work is given to a poet who neither needs nor deserves it.

From a Filipino perspective alone, many arguments can be used to build up a case against Lang Leav, with plenty involving neocolonial undertones. The ultimate bottomline, of course, is that she writes terrible poetry, to the point that we must return to the basics of the craft to understand why her poems are terrible.

To say, though, that she has helped redefine said craft is an affront to writers who have accomplished exactly that by bringing something new to a great pool of timeless yet time-bound works. Lang Leav uses her words to convey scenes and emotions already tackled by better writers countless times before; and we who are acquainted with the latter are none the worse for it.

If all the arguments above are still not adequately convincing, here is a final Tweet to ponder on:

 

A Farewell to Aquino’s Communications Office; and A Portfolio of Its Works & Archives

When he was still president, Noynoy Aquino had not been known for his tact and sensitivity: the Mamasapano and Kidapawan incidents were but two testaments to that. For a man who claimed to answer to the Filipino people, he had poor public relations skills, if not a poor PR team.

In the transition period following a national election, then, it goes without saying that coterminous government offices — especially those attached to the presidency — are the first to suffer and the hardest hit. For instance, the Presidential Communications Development & Strategic Planning Office was an office created at the beginning of the Aquino administration. Through Executive Order No. 4, it was designed as a distinct, albeit redundant, office from the pre-existing Presidential Communications Operations Office.

However, the onset of a Duterte administration has heralded a substantial change in the structure of the executive branch, with the main goal of dissolving offices and officers with redundant functions. (Not to mention a secondary goal of making organization acronyms easier to remember.) As early as last mid-June, incoming Communications Secretary Martin Andanar made an announcement to this effect: that all presidential channels are to be subsumed under a single Presidential Communications Office, denoting the end of the PCDSPO.

At the end of their academically illustrious 6-year run, then, it seems fitting that some acknowledgment be made of the PCDSPO’s published accomplishments. Outside of specific circles, the titles above are not so well-known — and yet they reflect the rigour and dedication that the team led by Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III put, at least into the history and culture-related function of their office. Political biases and affiliations aside, if these were only publicized better, they would comprise a veritable mine of historical knowledge that is accessible and conveniently state-endorsed.

Apart from preparing these publications, the PCDSPO also endeavored to digitize its massive collections of primary sources — from audio clips to video material to photographs — and to make them available on the appropriate social media platforms under the handle GovPH. While the primary motive for doing so may have been governmental transparency as mandated by law, these already provide strong starting points for anyone wishing to undertake a politico-cultural study of the Philippines. The digital archives are most certainly helpful to any scholar, given that today’s trend in historiography leans towards non-documentary, non-traditional primary sources.

Under the leadership of Undersecretary Quezon and with other outlets like the Official Gazette, the Presidential Communications Development & Strategic Planning Office achieved what one Facebook user articulates aptly in the following comment:

In a country with a poverty of memory and a fatal neglect of the past, [the official presidential communications channels have] gone a long, long way in chronicling the life of our young Republic. What stood out more than the daily record of the administration are their efforts to archive and bring lost history to life…. Maraming salamat!

With all these in portfolio, a number of people are growing skeptical that future communications offices could match Aquino’s, if not in sensitivity and empathy then in efficiency and aesthetic. Of course, only time can tell otherwise.

Documentation in the country is a bothersome, often anachronistic process; then again, so are Philippine history, and Philippine historiography for that matter. Many thanks to the PCDSPO (2010-2016) for being a vanguard of all three!