Archive for March, 2012

In 1973 KC’s young travel reporter set off to discover our SE Asian neighbours, for a year or so. Travelling slowly through Bali, Java, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, West Malaysia and Thailand, I eventually arrived in Vientiane, capital of Laos. It was strangely quiet, despite the Vietnam War raging not far off, with communist Pathet Lao troops already encircling and preparing to oust the Royalist government. Blithely taking a bus north to the old Royal seat of Luang Prabang, I was turned back by a roadblock not far out of town. A highlight of my Vientiane stay was the infamous White Rose night club, where floor shows were as salacious as the best (or worst!) of Bangkok’s notorious Pat Pong Road bars. Other customers included dodgy CIA and Air America operatives, infamous for flying arms and drugs to/from tribal groups fighting the communists. Not exactly Apocalypse Now, but a curious ambience nonetheless in that sleepy town on the Mekong. My spirit of adventure undoubtedly had a good dose of uninformed nonchalance and naivety.

Eighteen months later the communists completed their takeover of the country and Vientiane was quickly reformed of its bad habits, including a ban on prostitution and closing down the seedy bar scene. A severe form of regimented Lao-style communism was installed.

Recently I read the first in a series of crime thrillers set in this period: ‘The Coroner’s Lunch – A Dr Siri Paiboun mystery set in Laos’ by Colin Cotterill. Engaging and simply told, it portrays this mix of communism and old Lao customs, as guerrilla cadres out from their jungle hideaways take control. Official stupidity, surveillance and corruption abound, making life difficult for Laos’s only coroner. But our 70+yr old hero carries out his investigations with aplomb and murder mysteries are resolved in the Lao way. When lunching with a politburo pal, overlooking the Mekong, Dr Paiboun occasionally washes it down with illicit Lao-Lao, the local rice whisky. It’s not high literature, but the story is insightful and evocative of that time and place.

My own Lao story came full circle two years ago, returning there thirty-six years later. The White Rose is long gone, but its ghost remained in the restaurants around Nam Phou fountain. Prostitution is still illegal in Laos and the low bar scene has not been allowed to return. In 1973 I had to fly over Pathet Lao territory to reach Luang Prabang, and this time I travelled by bus, over two days through spectacular rugged mountains. LP is now UNESCO heritage-listed because of its unique architecture of royal palaces, Buddhist temples and French colonial buildings, nestled in the junction of two rivers. The restorations work well, and it’s still a cool place to hang out. Sundowners are de rigueur and Beer Lao in large bottles is my palliative for the tropical heat. Enjoying them on a cafe terrace overlooking the Mekong (far north of Dr Paiboun’s favourite spot) was a nostalgic treat – surrounded by my old Laos and distant memories.


Q: “Bo penh nyang” – no problem!     A: “Thammadha” – she’ll be right!

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Reviews of three films about alienation, exploitation and redemption.

Shame is directed by Steve McQueen (no, the Bullitt guy died in 1980) and stars Michael Fassbender as a NY executive with a serious problem of sex addiction, manifested in his use of prostitutes, masturbation at work, constant pornography use and fleeting relationships. His sister’s arrival upsets his grim routines, as she moves in temporarily and stays. Although confronting and shocking, the story is more nuanced as we get hints of their disturbed family history and conflicted characters. The bleak portrayal of executive work and social life rings true. The audience is challenged (or complicit?) as we are also voyeurs in a story centrally about voyeurism, and the egocentric alienation of our age fuelled by increasing sexualisation. The anti-hero has a brutal epiphany and promise of redemption. Gird your loins (ha!) for R-ratedness and you may be entertained.

The Hunter is based on a Julia Leigh story. A ‘gun for hire’ is sent into Tasmanian wilderness by an unscrupulous foreign hi-tech biology company to find, kill and bring back the last reported Tasmanian Tiger, so it can extract its genetic material and make lots of moolah. Willem Dafoe is ok as the hunter, but the Hollywood-clichéd script is unsubtle, particularly the stereotypical portrayal of conflict between timber town rednecks and tree-hugging greenies. Sam Neill plays a bush character, like he’s wandered over from the Jurassic Park movie lot. The loner amoral hero is redeemed in a final act of courage. The film needed more editing to reduce repetitious car-driving, trap-setting and moody landscape shots. It’s a trite variation on a theme stretching back to King Solomon’s Mines, with Tassie bush decor instead of African jungle.

Sleeping Beauty is Julia Leigh’s own first film as director. The central character is a young woman, with an ethereal beauty, who can’t make enough money waitressing to pay for her uni studies and rent. She accepts work as a silver service waitress cum escort for frustrated wealthy clients, with a special role as ‘sleeping beauty’. Alienation meets the commerce of aged erotic yearnings. The mood is bleak, sex is mechanistic; and like Shame, estranged relationships and survival in our strange world are on display. But the heroine’s feelings are not, so we can’t empathise with her inner world and are left unengaged with her fate. A formal dinner with naked waitresses is eerily similar to a scene in ‘L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close’ (House of Tolerance). Leigh’s slow cinematography is also reminiscent of the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ style of Robbe-Grillet. Sleeping Beauty’s unredeemed world left me cold and flat.

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Aldi, the plucky German challenger to supermarket duopoly giants Coles-Woolworths, seems to have a great sense of humour. They have created a whole range of ‘home brands’ : some with cute names redolent of bucolic English countryside, like Sunny Vale margarine, Goldenvale breakfast cereal, Ashwood cakes, Sweet Valley canned fruit, Brookvale desserts, Hydale canned meats, Ashfield smallgoods, Cowbelle cheese, Belmont biscuits; others with cross-cultural concoctions like Damora crackers, Mamia nappies; plus classic French copies like Ouverture jams; also deep connotations, so to speak, like Ocean Rise canned tuna; and soulful Bakers Life breads.

The Aldi marketing department must have a ball in its brainstorming sessions to come up with these non-brand names, and design imitation (rip-off?) packaging of rival ‘real’ brands. Presumably intellectual property lawyers run their litigation litmus tests on these close resemblances, but it’s an existential challenge to the so-called ‘brand equity’ of the originals. It makes you chuckle while cruising in Aldi, discovering all these unheard-of products.

Champion of Aldi chutzpah is ‘Bramwells Brekkie Mite’, which looks like a twin of our iconic Aussie yeast extract classic, but at half the price. Taste-wise the jury is out, but it seems downright unpatriotic spreading it on my morning toast. The kicker is that it’s made in Brazil! Looks like the Germans have outplayed us again, in our own world cup of breakfast spread, using Brazilian players.

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The Gonski Review of our education funding arrangements has called for a new approach, with the establishment of a Schooling Resource Standard deemed necessary for every child. Government funding of each school’s SRS would be reduced by local income from private fees, trusts or philanthropic contributions, and topped up for disadvantage. The bottom line is an identified need for another $5 billion of government expenditure, to correct chronic under-spending in education, with Australia near the bottom of OECD rankings.

Naturally our fearless leaders immediately went weak-kneed. PM Gillard assured us that no school (i.e. private) would lose any funding or be ‘worse off’, and avoided any commitment to finding extra billions. As for actually taking any action soon, well now we need more consultation, despite waiting two years for the results of Gonski’s extensive community consultations. Minister for School Education Garrett made blah noises as usual, and promised to get moving on something. Some have criticised Gonski for not devising an actual funding formula, but maybe that was deliberate. Most stakeholders have so far made positive noises, so apparently he’s found the right wording formula at least.

The sorry history of how we went wrong in education funding since the 1970s has been well-canvassed by Jane Caro in this succinct summary: http://newmatilda.com/2012/02/21/gonski-can-help-us-change-direction

Gonski has laid down the challenge of a fairer model, but the other bottom line implied by it, is that wealthy private schools will eventually have to receive less government funding. Watch the defenders of entrenched privilege in coming months as they put fear (of God?) and more doubt into the pusillanimous Gillard and gutless Garrett government. Meantime, make sure the kiddies are on all those school enrolment lists, just in case.

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Terrible Tony Abbott’s assessment of our bumptious and erstwhile Foreign Affairs Minister was mostly spot-on. KRudd liked parading his intelligence and posturing on the world stage, way beyond Australia’s remit as a ‘middle’ (or middling, or indeed muddling) power, neglecting our vital interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ubiquitous and prolix, Rudd grandstanded on Libya, nuclear proliferation, climate change action (while dropping his own CPRS plans!) and did nothing on live cattle exports to Indonesia, instability in PNG (Australia’s biggest recipient of foreign aid at $482m), East Timor/Malaysia asylum seeker plans and other simmering regional matters, like West Papuan independence. Lots of blah and jet setting, but little useful action in our regional backyard of upset neighbours; and obsessed with getting a seat on the UN Security Council, lobbying all and sundry as he commuted round the world.

Even his vaunted Sinophile knowledge did not seem to help much with our oh-so-important China relationship. And as Abbott succinctly put it, both ‘the Rudd and Gillard governments managed to antagonise Japan over whaling without actually saving any whales’. We learn now that he had plans to open an Australian Embassy in Senegal, of all places. ‘Punching above our weight’ rolls nicely off Australian tongues and is akin to Anzac Spirit, but matched with an over-weening personality and super-ego (in a non-Freudian sense), we become a pain in others’ diplomatic derrieres.

My accord with Abbott on Australia’s interests stops abruptly at his conclusion that ‘the continued engagement and forward strategic presence of the USA is vital’. No sir, we say NO BASES here! Australia’s goal should be independence of thought and action within our US alliance, without kowtowing and joining US military adventures like obedient sheep. If NZ can think for itself so can OZ – and they have more sheep per capita too. Our strategic interests do not always align with our best friend LOFW (Leader of the Free World), and we should be prepared to tell them so.

This rant is now history as Kevin suddenly left the world stage for another tilt at the top job, but apparently without counting properly. Vale Kevin 07, as he exits stage (left or right?) with his fixed smile on that pudding dial; Therese and brood in tow; ego intact and devoid of self-reflection!

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