Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 29 April 2010
Thursday, 29 April 2010 17:57

Notes on impermanence

Being an outsider in the city can give rise to a poetry of sorts. Whether we are business ex-pats, exchange students or foreign workers, we all eventually face the same problem of our wandering impermanence. For this months Focus on poetry in the city, I look back at some written scraps and ramblings on my own impermanence and identity issues whilst I was a student of Mandarin in Taipei. Of Anglo-French descent, studying Chinese, for me it was fitting that I could find scrawlings in the three languages (and cultures) between which I’m torn:

Published in Focus: City and Poetry

When I think of poetry in the city, two films immediately spring to mind. The first is Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation, the other Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). The first one is set in contemporary Japan, the other in post cold war Berlin (complete with the Wall). In both films, the city in question appears to be observed from the eyes of the outsider. In Lost in Translation, Charlotte and Bob's destinies cross paths in Tokyo. They both feel alienated and ill-fit in their surrogate society; they are both outsiders and loneliness brings them together. Their chance encounter takes place in multicoloured Tokyo, yet like two floating reeds passing by, Tokyo is also where they must part, such is their wandering impermanence. In contrast, The Angels Among Us, is seen through the eyes of an angel; quietly, calmly, observing the human world that he so adores. He adores it enough to be willing to descend into the human world; however, living a different type of existence he is completely unable to transcend the role of observer. He hears every humans' secrets, he is captivated, fascinated by the joy, the love, the rage, the sadness;  the fullness and variety of their emotions. Therefore he eventually leaves his position as an onlooker in heaven, to become a mortal human of flesh and blood...

Of course the subject matter that make up these two films are present in many other literary works;  however, the image created in Lost in Translation is much closer to classical Chinese poetry,  specifically the poets who wrote of their drifting from place to place as the outsider, or sighed the tragedies of separation and death.  For example, when Bob and Charlotte are about to part,  standing on the street embracing, there is a sense that they may never meet again, which for me brings to mind the words of two Chinese poets: Li Shangyin, a Tang Dynasty poet "Though this moment will turn into a precious memory, I cannot help but be devastated at its passing" and Northern Song poet Liu Yong's poem - Yu Linling "The smorgasbord of emotions in times of parting has always caused a world of pain". It's an unfulfilled love story,  no doubt dooming them to separation and feelings of loss, and as Charlottes tears roll down, the two of them keep rolling on. Wings of Desire, in contrast, is a piece of western theology, a reinterpretation of Christianity's fallen angel. When the film starts, a poem is read:

When the child was a child 
It walked with its arms swinging, 
wanted the brook to be a river, 
the river to be a torrent, 
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child, 
it didn’t know that it was a child, 
everything was soulful, 
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child, 
it had no opinion about anything, 
had no habits, 
it often sat cross-legged, 
took off running, 
had a cowlick in its hair, 
and made no faces when photographed.


Als das Kind Kind war, 
ging es mit hängenden Armen, 
wollte der Bach sei ein Fluß, 
der Fluß sei ein Strom, 
und diese Pfütze das Meer.

Als das Kind Kind war, 
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war, 
alles war ihm beseelt, 
und alle Seelen waren eins.

Als das Kind Kind war, 
hatte es von nichts eine Meinung, 
hatte keine Gewohnheit, 
saß oft im Schneidersitz, 
lief aus dem Stand, 
hatte einen Wirbel im Haar 
und machte kein Gesicht beim fotografieren.

The original German version from the film is in fact read by the main actor Damiel (Bruno Ganz). The poem is called Lied Vom Kindsein (Song of Childhood) and was written by Peter Handke, a poet and scriptwriter. He got his inspiration from another German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke's great work Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies).

There is a subtle metaphor here: before the angel fell down to earth, he could maintain the innocent eyes of the observer, like the purity of a child without any preinstalled beliefs or standpoints. However when he becomes human, it's just like when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit; they became aware of their naked bodies and had to find leaves to cover themselves, they then began to nurture a sense of shame and thus had to endure human suffering. This notion stems from a biblical allusion and although the words used in the poem aren't especially profound, what they represent is far deeper than what meets the eye. Another interesting aspect of this film is that when the angel transcends to the human world, the frame switches from black and white to a colour. His head is bleeding as he encounters a pedestrian and asks his first question as a human: "Is this the colour red?" This echoes the meaning in the poem, that whilst he was still an angel he did not possess the human sensory system; after humanisation he felt pain, but he also saw colour. This is the beauty and the tragedy of being human. For him however, it's all worth it, because he experiences love.

Wings of Desire is set in pre-unification Berlin, with many of the city's landmarks appearing in scene. The angel often stands on the famous Siegessäule overlooking the bleak, desolate post-war Berlin. The huge Berlin wall encircles and demarcates the isolated island of democracy that was West Berlin. For those, like myself, that have never been to Berlin, it matches the image of Berlin we imagine, a numbing chill hanging in the air, freezing all the poetry and songs we mutter to ourselves. Perhaps, if I eventually visit Berlin, I will look up, searching to see if there really are angels occupying the skies. Going back to Lost in Translation, the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo, is in great contrast to the lonely souls of the two protagonists who have nowhere to anchor. Is this not indeed a feeling that all drifters, travellers living as outsiders in a foreign land have, as they walk alone down a road full of traffic? Another Tang Dynasty poem written by Zhang Ji comes to mind:

The moon descends and the birds call, through the frosty midnight bite

Fishing lamps and maple trees lining the riverside accompany my anxiety induced insomnia.

From the Han Mountain Temple outside the Suzhou city walls,

An echo descends from the midnight gongs all the way to this passenger boat

Even if these two examples couldn't be further apart in time and setting, they nonetheless express the same emotions; one follows the insomnia of the drunken immortal Zhang Xu on a boat in ancient Suzhou, the other has Bob and Charlotte lying sleeplessly on their beds in a deluxe hotel in modern Japan; the nostalgic feeling that the moonlight is always brighter in your hometown.

Ida_UntranslatablePoems05Another way the film shows the changes in Charlottes state of mind is that at the beginning, after she visits a temple, she rings a friend and tells her: "Today I visited a temple. Monks were reciting passages, but I didn't feel anything." Finally at the end of the film she takes a high speed rail to Kyoto, moving from one city to another. Transport is a very important setting for travellers and contemporary urban nomads. Staring out of the window onto the ever changing sceneries has a mysterious charm. In the same way life is like a drama, scene after scene, one appears temporarily but then eventually all scenes come to an end. Fittingly, the accompanying background music for this part is 'Alone in Kyoto' provided by the French duo Air. And for me, her time spent in Kyoto is the most poetic of the whole film; strolling the temples of Kyoto, Charlotte eyes catch a newlywed couple passing by, dressed in traditional wedding garb. As she stops and watches them, the groom takes his partner by the hand and the lens slides over to Charlottes face. She is no longer the girl who didn't feel anything; subtle changes in her expressions show us that where she used to only feel a cold alienation, she now feels warmth.

In big cities, one constantly encounters different people; sometimes these can become true lasting relationships, other times we just brush by transient visitors. And this, this is the fatal attraction of the city. People are just words and the streets just phrases, freely interweaving together to create a huge fantastical poem. And every city is a poem, regardless of all the tiny words whirling and dancing within. And every encounter between two of these tiny characters can kindle a moving story, and every story can be a poem;  some disappointing, some tragic, some helpless, some soul destroying; yet some heroic, some romantic, ecstatic and tantalising!

Translated from Chinese by Nicholas Coulson

(Top photo by Ida Yang/ Bottom left photo provided by AtMovies)

Published in Focus: City and Poetry
Thursday, 29 April 2010 13:50



——戴维.林区(David Lynch),《戴维.林区谈创意》(Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity)


堪培拉位于澳洲大陆东南方的群山中,是澳洲的首都。人称当地为「丛林之都」,到处都是公园与空地,而一连串的高速公路与大型干道则将其一分为二;在这里,车子就是老大。1913年,美国知名建筑师华特‧柏利‧葛里芬(Walter Burley Griffin)赢得一场国际建筑竞赛后,开始在此大兴土木。澳洲政府之所以设置在这,为的是摆平雪梨与墨尔本都想成为首都的争执。






林区曾说:「地方感(sense of place)在电影中占有相当关键的地位,因为你想要进入另一个世界。每个故事都有自己的世界、感受和氛围,你会试着把它们组合起来,利用微小的细节制造地方感。这和灯光与音响至为相关。」他的电影做到了这点:在呈现我们熟悉的日常景象与事态后,设法将其扭曲,让现实变得有点怪异。林区以卓越手法于世俗庸碌中注入一丝魔幻感,使得正常生活看来有如他方。


摄影/Stephen Dann(上)、Pascal Vuylsteker(下) 翻译/吴思薇


No71_small 想了解更多关于堪培拉的奥妙之处,请购买本期杂志!


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