Indiana Jones, make room for Irene Blum

January 7, 2013

Ballantine Books sent me an advanced, uncorrected proof of Kim Fay’s The Map of Lost Memories. Because I’m not going to check or read the finished book, note that the final novel may have been revised.

After reading the uncorrected proof, I think Kim Fay’s novel is brilliant at times, average at times and sometimes falls flat then revives to be brilliant again repeating the cycle. In fact, Fay’s descriptions were so vivid they transported me to Shanghai, Saigon and Cambodia, and I could smell and see these exotic places—some I have visited and Fay’s descriptions rang true.

The main character in The Map of Lost Memories is Irene Blum, who in 1925 slams into the glass ceiling and is passed over for a job she deserves, the curatorship of the museum where she grew up and then worked. Instead, the job goes to a man who has the proper credentials even though he does not have Irene’s experience or global connections.

This leads Irene to steam across the Pacific to resurrect her career by finding several copper scrolls that record the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer Empire (802 – 1431 AD).

Irene’s first stop is Shanghai where she is sucked into the power struggle between the nationalists and communists and barely escapes with her life. Her next stop is Saigon and from there she travels to Cambodia with her motley crew, visits Angkor Wat and then is off to discover a lost temple in Cambodia’s rugged northeast near Laos that may be the rival of Angkor Wat.

Along the way, she collects a crew of dysfunctional allies each with his or her own agenda. There is the drug-addicted Simone Merlin, who appears to be a dedicated communist out to save the poor Cambodians from being exploited by the French colonial powers.

Then there is Louis, a world renowned scholar of the Khmer civilization and Angkor Wat, who was a childhood friend and former lover of Simone.

Irene also finds romance with the mysterious Mark Rafferty, who is linked to her mentor Henry Simms, a wealthy and powerful old man dying of cancer and another reason why Irene is racing to find the copper scrolls that will reveal the history of the Khmer empire ruled by Jayavarman VII (1125–1218), the last of the great Angkor kings.

At one time, the Khmer Empire was one of the most, if not the most, powerful empires in Southeast Asia. In fact, recent satellite images have revealed that Angkor Wat, the capital of the Khmer Empire, was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world at that time.

However, history reveals there will always be empires that rise to flatten other cultures and countries and then fall. For example: the Aztec, Han, Inca, Roman, Spanish, French, British, Greek, Persian, and Egyptian. I doubt that the future will ever see Italy rise to equal the Roman Empire.

The Khmer Empire of Jayavarman VII was no different.

I enjoyed this novel and if you enjoy an Indiana Jones adventure, this book is for you. At the end of the novel, I had a feeling that we may see more of Irene in subsequent novels as the adventure continues.

Discover China’s Three “Journeys to the West”

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – a movie review

July 16, 2011

This film (based on a novel by Lisa See) is the story of four women and of the complexities of China — Lily and Snow Flower live in 19th century Southwest China, while Nina and Sophia live in 21st century Shanghai.

The characters of Lily and Nina are played by Bingbing Li and Sophia and Snow Flower by Gianna Jun. The director is Wayne Wang, who worked on The Joy Luck Club among other films.

Even in the 19th century, Shanghai was a world apart from Southwest China and still is.  It is safe to say that the day-to-day grind of life probably hasn’t changed much (except for foot binding and more freedom for women) in remote rural villages in Southwest China, which is off the beaten track of most foreign tourists that visit China on fast-paced packaged tours.

I read Lisa See’s novel soon after it came out and although I enjoyed the book and felt it was well written, I couldn’t understand why it stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List as long as it did.  And to be honest, I still don’t. However, if there was a formula to predict why a few books are wildly successful and many fail, no one has discovered it yet.

The original story Lisa See wrote shows a small part of China and in no way represents all of China and all things Chinese. That would be a challenge since China is a diverse land with many spoken languages and cultures and one written language and a very long history.

From what I recall, Snow Flower and Lili, the characters in 19th century China, live in Southwest China and belong to one of China’s fifty-six minorities, which have unique cultures apart from China’s Han majority, and as children these two girls are sworn to be loyal friends for life.

Considering what life was like in China for woman in the early 19th century, it is understandable why such a custom would have evolved.  However, to be clear, I will remind the reader that women were mostly treated this way everywhere in the world at that time, and many still are outside the US, Europe and China. Sex slavery and abuse of women still exists in many countries such as Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Fortunate for me, I read the reviews of this film in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle after I saw the film.

These reviews, written by Sino-blind Americans, demonstrate no clue that the real purpose of this movie may have been to highlight China’s past and present and not as another cloned US movie such as two I saw recently, which reflect what is mostly popular in America. Both of these American movies, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon and Horrible Bosses, lacked depth without a soul, and I cannot recommend them to anyone. However, I must admit that I’m capable of enjoyed both depthless movies and films with depth such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

I’ve been to China many times and sat in movie theaters watching movies made in China for a Chinese audience and this movie, to me, is a Chinese film with Chinese actors and actresses set in China.  After all, a Chinese film company was behind its production and the director is Chinese.

Most Chinese do not think like the average American that is often stuck on a linear path incapable of seeing the meaning between the lines. However, Chinese think metaphorically meaning if you want to understand and enjoy this film, look between the lines and learn from what is hidden in sight?

As we travel with the ancient (19th century) and modern (21st century) sworn sisters with scenes that shift from past to present, we discover that although there is more personal freedom in China today than there was almost two centuries ago, life still comes with no guarantees.  The scenes in modern Shanghai show a city in transition with old being torn down being replaced by new as if China is emerging from a cocoon. I saw this transition as a metaphor.  The scene where Nina is taking off her high heels and rubbing her feet compared to the ancient Lili (both played by the same actress) taking off her three-inch shoes and rubbing her bloodied, painful bound feet demonstrates how far China has evolved.

In fact, because this film is more Chinese than the novel written by American born and raised Lisa See, I feel it captured more of a sense of China than the novel did.

For those reasons, I cannot agree with most of the American media critics that trashed the film.  Of course, to be fair, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would be considered a failed and flawed film to most Western critics because it is a Chinese film adapted from a Western book.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is more than just a disjointed film jumping clumsily between centuries. This film represents China and the complexity of Chinese civilization and it demonstrates how much China has changed while so much that is often out of sight of most foreigners stays the same.

If you have the patience to suspend your Western values and expectations of what movies should offer and want to discover something new, I recommend seeing this film. But be warned, since this film is Chinese (in my opinion), it pushes the melodramatic envelope beyond what most Americans are comfortable with.

Shallow thinkers that flock to see movies such as Transformers 3, Horrible Bosses, The Zookeeper, and Cars 2, etc. may want to avoid Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  However, if you are an individual that enjoys learning and expanding your horizons, go — and take a box of tissues.

Also discover Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and/or Farewell My Concubine

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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