Tokyo Story: a study of social and economic change in Japan during the 1950s

Yasujiro Ozu, “Tokyo Story / Tokyo monogatari” (1953)

Under the precise and careful direction of Yasujiro Ozu, this family soap opera becomes a character study of Tokyo and Japan during post-war reconstruction in the wake of the devastation and poverty left behind by World War II, and the impact that reconstruction had on social and cultural values at both the individual and the immediate collective (family) level. An elderly couple travel from their home in a rural fishing village to Tokyo to visit their children and their families. The couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) are perturbed to be met with a range of quite negative emotions and reactions from exasperation, indifference, rudeness and selfish cruelty from their GP doctor son’s family and their daughter, a businesswoman running a hair salon. The couple are shunted from one family to another and at one point during their visit are dumped in a holiday spa where guests have all-night parties that disturb the older folks’ sleep. The only person who is glad to see them and who helps them become accustomed to the fast and glitzy pace of Tokyo is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). The grandparents decide to go home through Osaka where they plan to meet their youngest son but the grandmother’s health begins to fail rapidly and the couple narrowly arrive back home before the woman falls into a fatal coma.

The plot is not remarkable but what holds the story together is the dialogue which does all the work of advancing the plot, portraying character and underlining the process of change and the inevitability of death. Through the interactions of three generations of the one family, Ozu examines the effects of Westernisation and technological and economic changes and progress have on Japanese culture and traditions. Respect for the elderly and a sense of mutual obligation and help are disappearing, to be replaced by the pursuit of self-interest and immediate material gratification. The couple’s sons put work ahead of their own needs and those of their families. Daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) thinks only of herself, her business and pursuing wealth. Interestingly though, the children and their families have not achieved the success they had hoped for – the doctor and his family live in a suburb of Tokyo, not in the centre of the city as the grandparents expected – and there is a sense of disappointment among the children that they have not done as well as they had hoped for.

Ozu’s technique of filming scenes at the level at which people sit on tatami mats in houses or on verandahs imparts an almost voyeuristic intimacy to the drama and helps to bring out the underlying tensions in the film as the grandparents come to realise that their children might consider them a burden. The grandparents also get no relief in trying to connect with their grandchildren who angrily spurn them; in one significant scene, the grandmother muses about her younger grandson and what he might become as an adult, as the child ignores her completely. This scene takes on added sadness as events in the film roll out to the grandmother’s disadvantage. Important events tend to happen off-screen to the extent that the only time we become aware of most things is when actors talk and discuss these occurrences. This has the effect of not only pushing the narrative on but also revealing the character and morality of the people discussing the issues.

The climactic moment comes after the grandmother’s funeral when Noriko and her young sister-in-law nearly come to blows over the behaviour of the older children at their mother’s funeral and wake. Noriko persuades her sister to accept that the children have their own lives to lead and that the separation of older parents and adult children is inevitable; while this explanation appears to calm down the younger woman, Noriko’s own life as a lonely widow dedicating herself to caring for her parents-in-law would appear to suggest that Noriko might not necessarily believe in what she says. Noriko’s obliging manner and constant smile mask a very real pain born from a life of suffering under her alcoholic husband and perhaps a family background in which daughters were brought up to be strictly subservient to husbands, no matter how well or how badly the husbands treated them.

The film appropriately ends on a dark note when the grandfather, left all alone by his children and daughter-in-law who must resume their normal working lives, must ponder living alone without his beloved wife. Hints in earlier parts of the film suggest he will turn to drink again to soothe his sorrows. What this seems to imply is that the changes and progress coming to Japan might not be all shiny and good for the Japanese people: the changes are likely to lead to isolation, loneliness and dependency on drugs like alcohol for millions of Japanese just to get through the day. While everyone accepts change and that nothing will last forever, at the same time no-one seems to think that with rapid change, opportunities to improve people’s lives will appear and should be seized upon. To allow an elderly man to live on his own with only drink for company is certainly cruel and would not have been tolerated in Japan before the war.

Slow and leisurely as it is, and though the characters tend to be stereotypical, the film certainly bears watching a few times for Ozu’s messages about change, the inevitability of death and the fragility of life to be absorbed, and for landscape scenes of a past Japan that themselves illustrate rapid technological, economic and social change.

Bad Tales: voyeuristic survey of dysfunctional families in alienation

Damiano and Fabio d’Innocenzo, “Bad Tales / Favolacce” (2020)

A survey of three families living in a dull suburban estate on the outskirts of Rome, “Bad Tales” could have been a critical indictment of the lure of the Italian version of the middle-class American Dream and the consequences people and families suffer when their efforts to achieve that dream fall far short of their ambitions and aspirations. Busting your guts out and endangering your health to earn the money to afford the material goods and the lifestyle you believe you and your family deserve, neglecting your loved ones, your family bonds under strain, your children suffering from alienation or bullying and turning to drugs, gangs or other dangerous forms of solace … all these scenarios could form a universal if tragic narrative that exposes the reality of the capitalist scam that far too many generations of families have fallen victim to, with casualties in the form of domestic violence, addictions and suicides. Instead “Bad Tales” turns out to be a voyeuristic peek at three families that are either dysfunctional or broken in their own way, with an underlying suggestion that the parents alone are largely responsible for the ruin they bring to their domestic environments. The children don’t get off very lightly either: on the verge of adolescence, alienated and emotionally repressed, the kids are presented as both knowing and naive, and ultimately out of their depth or helpless in situations where they most need a steady anchor and support.

The Gothic tale with its black humour unfolds in three sub-plots, the main one of which revolves around the Placido family. Bruno (Elio Germano) has recently become unemployed and his frustration and resentment at having to be a house husband while his wife Dalila (Barbara Chichiarelli) must be the breadwinner drive the conflict among him, Dalila and their two children Dennis and Alessia. Both parents are astonishingly cruel, lax and inconsistent in their treatment of the children. Bruno in particular behaves in a passive-aggressive way guaranteed to confuse the hell out of his kids and keep them, especially Alessia, highly anxious: he forces both of them to recite their grades to dinner guests; he bursts an inflated swimming pool in the middle of the night (because he is fed up with neighbours’ kids inviting themselves over and using the pool) and blames his action on gypsies; and he bullies his son openly in front of the sensitive Alessia. The children have a cousin, Viola, who is treated just as sadistically by her parents; they discover she has head lice after using the Placidos’ pool so they shave off all her hair and she is forced to wear a wig to school. Viola is interested in a boy, Geremia, at school: the boy appears shy and socially inept, and lives with his father Emilio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) in rather impoverished conditions, with no other relatives. Also living on the estate is a much older teenage girl Vilma (Ileana d’Ambra) who has a child out of wedlock but some time during the course of the film moves out of home to live with the baby’s father. The couple decide to leave the estate with their baby and head for the city but parenting and looking for work prove exhausting and the young family falls into despair.

Much of the film is taken up with character exposition and the dynamics of the individual families, and the plot only really starts moving once the four children, having to bear the brunt of their parents’ repressed anger and disappointment, and being surrounded by adults obsessed with their own self-importance, rebel. The rebellion is sparked by a school-teacher who clearly seems unable to comprehend the effect of his teaching on his impressionable students. The homemade bomb plot is thwarted by a visiting relative of Geremia’s and the police. Dennis and Alessia resort to even more desperate measures, again aided by the school-teacher. The tragedy that befalls the apparently perfect nuclear family of the Placidos is contrasted by Geremia and Emilio: the two may be an unconventional family, and Emilio acts more like an older pal rather than as a stereotypically patriarchal figure, but there is warmth in the relationship. For all the rather morally dubious decisions Emilio makes – he encourages Geremia to transmit measles to Viola by giving the boy condoms! – he quickly realises that a toxic atmosphere surrounds Geremia at school and among his class-mates, and the two bunk off from the estate to doss down with a cousin in his Rome apartment.

Apart from Bruno and Emilio, both played well by Germano and Montesi respectively, most characters are sketchily developed and the children’s characters in particular seem rather flat and one-dimensional. Bruno remains a coward at heart while Emilio tries his best in his own limited way to be both Mum and Dad to a son who needs more help in his social and intellectual development than the father can provide. Very few characters evoke much sympathy from the audience, with the result that people will not care when tragedy strikes the Placidos.

With such material as families in crisis and on their own in dealing with frustration, conflict and social alienation, the d’Innocenzo brothers end up floundering with “Bad Tales”. The film has no clear plot until more than halfway through its length and audiences will not warm to the adult and child characters. It really needs a better background context that throws more focus on the school-teacher and his malign influence on Dennis and Geremia: why does the school-teacher encourage the children to do what they do, what is his motivation, and does he share in the frustrations and failed dreams and hopes of the children’s parents? And for that matter, where is the government and those institutions that should be helping the families and showing them how to resolve their conflicts and issues, and how to deal with disappointments and failures in their lives?

Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

The Goddess of Fortune: how the passage of time and random events change people and relationships

Ferzan Özpetek, “The Goddess of Fortune / La Dea Fortuna” (2019)

On the surface, this very visually stunning and colourful film appears to be a heart-warming comedy that with some adjustments could be remade by Hollywood. Delve a bit deeper into its narrative and its characters, and the film reveals a great deal about the nature of families, both conventional and unconventional, the passage of time and what it can do to people in love, and the necessity of change and random events in shaking up old patterns and routines, and revealing their weaknesses – and the pain and emotion that emerge as a result. Arturo (Stefano Accorsi) and Alessandro (Edoardo Leo) have been a couple for 15 years despite their different backgrounds, Arturo being a translator who once aspired to be a writer and academic but failed at both, and Alessandro being a plumber who brings in most of their income. The two are part of a happy little community, all living in the same neighbourhood, of various misfits including a married couple, one of whom suffers memory loss and must be reminded of who he is each day, a transgender woman and an African refugee. Arturo and Alessandro’s relationship seems to have hit the rocks for some reason, the two no longer feel the passion they used to have for each other, and they’re starting to get on each other’s nerves. All of a sudden, out of the blue, an old mutual friend, Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca), turns up at a party with her two children Martina (Sara Ciocca) and Sandro (Edoardo Brandi) in tow. She asks Arturo and Alessandro to mind the kids while she stays in hospital for a few days for tests.

As might be expected, the presence of the two children upturns Arturo and Alessandro’s routine and the two men have difficulty adjusting to their roles as foster parents, even though the arrangement is temporary. The neighbours believe that the children will help the two men get on better but in fact the children inadvertently drive the men’s relationship to boiling point. Alessandro discovers Arturo has been having an affair with a painter behind his back. Annamaria is forced to stay in hospital for longer than she had been led to believe. Her health goes from bad to worse and the two men, now unable to stand each other’s company, contact Annamaria’s next of kin – her mother Elena (Barbara Alberti), in Palermo – to see if she can take care of the children. Elena agrees and the men take the kids on a ferry trip to Sicily to meet their grandmother who turns out to be a harsh conservative Catholic matriarch of a noble family in decline.

The plot is not outstanding but what makes it work is the energy and enthusiasm the lead actors throw into their characters. Arturo and Alessandro become much more than two gay men having mid-life crises in their personal and professional lives; they become two very real individuals with particular faults and quirks that they must confront and come to terms with if they are to revive their relationship and continue living together, and at the same time care for Annamaria’s children. Accorsi and Leo give what may well be the performances of their careers in fleshing out these characters and giving them complex emotional lives; Leo in particular does outstanding work in portraying a gruff working-class plumber whose outward toughness belies a sensitive emotional nature. Trinca doesn’t have a lot to do as Annamaria and most of what audiences learn about her come very late in the film when the character has disappeared from the scene. The child actors do what they can but their characters aren’t quite bratty enough to give their foster parents the headaches needed to push their relationship into open conflict so there is something of a forced quality to the plot.

Özpetek’s direction emphasises the use of close-ups to capture emotion and character in his actors’ faces, and makes excellent use of the film’s settings in Rome and Palermo. Rome is portrayed as a vibrant, sunny and colourful place, where people of all backgrounds and proclivities can come together and form impromptu families and communities. Palermo looks rather sleepy and provincial, and the scenes set in Elena’s dilapidated mansion seem to feature Mafia character stereotypes. Here the film takes a dark comedy turn as Arturo and Alessandro discover rather more about Annamaria’s family and what made her run away from home and become a flighty single mum than they would have liked. At this point the film ratchets up to another level and becomes more sombre Gothic drama than comedy as the two men try to save Annamaria’s children from falling into the same fate that befell Annamaria and her long-lost brother.

The film’s resolution is actually rather less happy and secure than it at first appears, and one can imagine after the credits start coming up that the two men and the children will still have to work out how they can all live together without driving one another completely nuts. At least Arturo and Alessandro come to realise that they must put their self-interests aside if they are to make their relationship work and be able to care for the children.

While the plot tends to be rather patchy and has the look of several skits sewn together with a few seams and loose ends showing, the film’s characters and themes hold them together. A strong theme is acceptance of the random curve-balls that life throws at people and helps to make them and their connections with one another stronger – if they recognise the opportunity presented. The film makes constant reference to the Goddess of Fortune who throws such curve-balls at Arturo and Alessandro. The challenge for them both is how they use chance occurrences in their lives as opportunities for growth – provided they recognise them as such in time.

The Plot to Destroy Syria: a good overview of the agendas aiming at Syria’s collapse and extinction

Carlton Meyer, “The Plot to Destroy Syria” (Tales of the American Empire, 2 October 2020)

In just over 10 minutes, director / narrator Carlton Meyer lays out quite a detailed context of antagonists and their agendas behind the US-led war against their common protagonist target Syria. This war has been portrayed incorrectly (but deliberately) in the Western mainstream news media as a “Syrian civil war” waged between so-called anti-government opposition groups supposedly fighting for democracy and freedom on the one hand and on the other Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad who is always painted as dictatorial. Meyer’s explanation of the background to the war that began in Dar’aa in southern Syria in 2011 is succinct and accurate, and viewers do not really need to know very much more beyond what Meyer states in the video, though a general knowledge of Syrian history since the country became independent of France in the 1940s, with the rise of Hafez al Assad to the Presidency in particular, would certainly help.

Meyer points out that quite a few nations in Syria’s neighbourhood want Assad gone: Israel for one wants to grab territory where Jewish people lived in Biblical times, and this territory happens to stretch from the Nile River in Egypt as far east as Baghdad in Iraq, and from northern Saudi Arabia in the south to Cyprus and much of Syria in the north under the notorious Yinon Plan; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms, all Sunni-dominated, do not want an example of a country whose institutions are based on socialist principles and values so close to their own oppressed Shia-majority publics, and their plan for a gas pipeline running through Sunni Muslim territory from the Persian Gulf to Turkey and Europe was nixed by Syria; and Turkey under current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen on taking over Syria’s northern border areas as part of a resurgent neo-Ottoman empire. In addition, The United States has long had ambitions to invade Syria as part of a long-term plan under the Project for the New American Century to invade seven countries in the Middle East and northern Africa and seize their energy wealth and mineral resources. Meyer could have noted that all these nations’ ambitions overlap considerably although viewers should be able to see this overlap and realise it will lead to a situation where Syria’s enemies will co-operate to a certain extent where their interests coincide and clash where their interests conflict – with Syrian cities, towns, villages and the countryside as the battleground. Wisely Meyer does not discuss ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra, both of which need their own videos to explain how these groups arose in Syria and how they are funded and supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Turkey, the US, the UK and France.

Maps showing Israel’s Yinon Plan and its designs on the Golan Heights and surrounding areas in Syria and Lebanon, the Sunni gas pipeline (and the pipeline running through Iran, Iraq and Syria that replaced it), Turkey with Syria’s northern border areas added to it, and others make for a very visual history lesson. There are not many live-action films referenced in the video and what there are, are of US politicians during discussion and debate. For the most part the video is well-paced but it does get faster and quite breathless in discussing Bashar al Assad near the end. Assad is portrayed as an intelligent and socially progressive leader who is popular with his people. Ultimately it is due to Assad’s character as a man of integrity that he continues to be President of Syria and to attract the public support that holds the country together and stops it from succumbing to a de facto coalition of invading forces from all around the planet.

The video is worth replaying to get a full picture and understanding of what was originally at stake for Syria and still is, even though the country has defeated ISIS and other invaders and is in the process of steadily reclaiming territory (though the US still holds parts of eastern Syria) and driving terrorists out of Syria through Idlib province. The major stumbling block is Turkey which continues to drag its heels in repatriating the terrorists remaining in Idlib and to harass Syria’s northern border areas. Meyer promises more short films about Syria and the recent war there.

Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision): more fawning over a despicable subject

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision)” (2020)

Purporting to show how Hillary Rodham Clinton became a feminist icon to millions of women (and quite a few men) around the world, this episode in the four-part hagiography by Nanette Burstein does little more than portray its uninteresting subject as a victim of reactionary politics and malign forces in US politics. The hardest decision of the episode’s title that HRC makes turns out to one facing most women at some point in their marriages or equivalent unions: when a partner has been unfaithful, and moreover dallied with a number of women over the years of married life, should the cuckolded partner forgive the errant one, and stay together, or should the cuckold leave the one who did wrong? Even when HRC does make that decision, seeing how it benefits both HRC and Bubba is hard: neither HRC nor any of her 2016 Presidential campaign staff is asked any hard questions as to whether HRC’s forgiveness of her husband was a good idea to have undertaken in the past 20 or so years.

The episode sketchily yet smoothly covers the period of Bubba’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in its coverage of the political events, bombshells and scandals that pushed HRC out in front before blinking audiences. Nothing is said about how sex scandals and other related activities might have affected HRC’s rise to a position and influence during the mid to late 1990s. In-between significant events and trends during her husband’s years in the US Presidency, one might have expected to see how HRC learned to stand on her own feet away from the shadow of Bubba’s Presidency and the scandals associated with it. What happens here instead is that HRC exploits gender-based identity politics to elevate her own position and launch her campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 with the help of starry-eyed acolytes and advisors whose interviews here are little more than gushing praise for the woman.

A more sober, objective and energetic documentary portraying HRC and her influence on US politics and foreign policy will have to wait many more years. How she manipulated and exploited identity politics for her benefit, the role that mainstream news media in the US and elsewhere played in colluding with her in that manipulation, allowing her to escape prosecution for various crimes, and the malign effect such manipulation had on the American electorate and the feminist movement in the US, to the extent that huge numbers of people were prepared to vote for her simply because she was a woman, ignoring her lack of policies that would actually help the poor and disadvantaged sections of the US population, is an issue Burstein is blind to. Above all, in spite of her attempts to sanctify HRC by denigrating her campaign opponent Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign debates, odious as he was then (and still is), Burstein still is unable to show how and why HRC lost what should have been a winnable election against a politically inexperienced outsider.

Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady): on the road to smug notoriety

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady)” (2020)

This episode continues to cover Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life from the time hubby Bubba Bill decides to campaign for the US Presidency in 1992 after serving five terms as Governor of Arkansas to the Whitewater real estate investment controversy that dogged the couple during Bubba’s first term as President. As in the first episode, the events of the early to mid-1990s are interspersed with the events of HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign during its early run from when HRC bad-mouths Democrat rival Bernie Sanders to Super Tuesday in early March and a bit beyond that. These events are recounted by HRC herself and her campaign aides in a narrative that flatters the woman and paints her as a victim of bullying by the Republican Party and forces in US society antagonistic to the idea of a First Lady who is anything but submissive and content to stay at home in the White House supervising interior decorations and the garden design. Director Burstein rarely if ever challenges her subject on any aspect of what they discuss that does not only conform to a pre-arranged script of HRC as a righteous saintly type badly treated by reactionary forces in US society but is significant in its own right because of the light it casts on HRC’s behaviour then when the issue was current and on her behaviour since that time.

By presenting herself as a victim of malign misogynistic individuals and groups, and portraying herself as a feminist champion and pioneer, HRC comes off as self-absorbed and smug. Her aides are worshipful and adoring. Few of director Burstein’s interviewees ever stop to wonder whether HRC’s own personality and behaviour might be factors contributing to her unpopularity, the constant put-downs and smears against her reputation. As a result, Burstein’s film is less documentary, and more fawning hagiography. I hazard that many years, perhaps even decades, will have to pass before a more balanced and sober account of HRC’s life and the damage she has inflicted on US politics and society since she became a Senator for New York state in 2001 can be done.

China Will Not Invade Taiwan: why does the West insist otherwise?

Carlton Meyer, “China Will Not Invade Taiwan” (Tales of the American Empire, 18 September 2020)

In this video essay, narrator / director Carlton Meyer examines how a supposed Chinese invasion of Taiwan would not benefit China at all and would ruin that nation, by comparing the logistics that would be involved in such an invasion with the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, in 1944. Meyer quotes some impressive statistics in those landings and adds that Taiwan itself is impressively armed and able to defend itself. He looks at current Chinese naval and other military capabilities and finds, among other things, that China would need at least 6 million fighting personnel to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan, with 2 million fighters in the latter’s armed forces. On the historical military front, Meyer waxes in great detail – he is clearly at home as a military historian as he pulls in facts and figures from battles fought during World War II and afterwards to demonstrate how difficult a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be for both nations.

In fact as Meyer observes, China depends on Taiwan to supply semiconductors and other raw materials for its own high-tech industries, and tourists and business people from both countries visit one another’s territories. Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait want peace and have no desire for conflict. While Beijing regards Taiwan as part of China, it seems happy to allow Taiwan to run its political, business and social affairs, and not to intervene in Taiwanese affairs.

The real issue, which Meyer deals with rather quickly and not in much depth, is why the US and the West continue to insist through MSM propaganda that China is keen on invading Taiwan and that Taiwan’s very existence is threatened by Chinese military build-up, despite the fact that for over 70 years at least Beijing has never lifted a finger to send fighter jets or warships to its small island neighbour. Given that the US surrounds China with military bases in countries as far-flung as Japan and South Korea on one side, and Afghanistan and some parts of Central Asia on the other, talking up the possibility of conflict in East Asia justifies continued US military presence in its client states – and continued US military presence in client states enables US intel agencies stationed in those bases to spy on China and Taiwan, and embed paid agents in organisations in those countries to act as regime-change agents (as has been done in Hong Kong over the past several years) to try to get rid of politicians and governments perceived to be hostile to US attempts to throw its weight around and treat them as its inferiors.

Meyer concludes that if on the other hand China and the US ended up fighting each other, the Taiwanese most likely would back China to defeat the US. On that note, the film ends as viewers face the uncomfortable truth that it is the US that wants war with China – and cynically might try to use Taiwan and its clients Japan and South Korea as the battleground.

Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl): early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life receive glowing treatment

Nannette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl)” (2020)

Ostensibly a four-part series on the life and career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this work is never more than a worshipful hagiography of the woman who, after nearly a complete Presidential four-year cycle, has still never accepted that she was and will always be the least favoured of two unlikeable candidates for the US Presidency in late 2016. The series takes the form of interviews conducted by Burstein (never seen, though her voice can be heard) of HRC and various aides who have worked for her over the decades, including those aides who worked for her 2016 Presidential campaign.

Episode 1 “The Golden Girl” follows HRC’s life from her childhood growing up in a staunch Republican family in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood through her college years in the 1960s, during which she worked as a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, to postgraduate studies at Yale University Law School where she met Bill Clinton, whom she married and followed to Arkansas where she taught in the law faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The episode then runs through Bill Clinton’s early political career, starting with his tenure as Attorney General for Arkansas and then his time as Governor of Arkansa, the latter during which HRC not only continued as a partner in Rose Law Firm (which she joined in the late 1970s) but also tackled education reform and was successful in establishing teacher testing and state standards for curricula and classroom sizes.

Inserted into the narrative of HRC’s early years are snapshots of her Presidential campaign in 2016 and the various controversies relating to her time as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term (2009 – 2012) that resurfaced during her campaign, in particular her role in the infamous 2012 incident in which US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi; and her use of a private server over which she conducted government business in violation of Federal laws forbidding the use of privately owned and run digital technologies to receive, send, work on and store emails containing government information. Disturbingly HRC and another interviewee breezily wave away the private server issue by saying that a previous Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also had a private server while holding the position. (Did he ever use this server to transact government business in the way HRC did?)

The constant theme throughout this episode, which HRC and other interviewees consistently bash into the TV audience’s ears and faces, is that HRC’s story parallels the rise of second-wave feminism and the fight for women’s rights from the 1960s onwards. In very many occasions HRC claims she was battling misogynistic prejudice against her for her education and achievements, and for wanting to retain her maiden name after marrying Bill. Viewers are misled into thinking HRC a significant leader in the fight for women’s rights and equality with men before the law. At the same time though, very little attention is given by Burstein or her interviewees on what the ordinary John and Jane Doe know of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s / 70s and what HRC’s role might have been in that movement, if she had ever participated in it at all.

Despite covering the life of the woman who would become a significant figure in US politics and culture in her own right, for better and for worse, the program makes its subject an uninteresting and dull figure. One would have thought that Burstein, an experienced film director, would try to encourage HRC to relax and try to project a warm personality. Instead HRC comes across as a self-absorbed woman, around whom the world supposedly rotates and does obeisance. Everything dragged into the film, whether it be the history of civil rights and rights for women, ends up revolving around HRC.

Of course, nowhere in this episode will we see much about the scandals that were to follow the Clintons like a bad smell: scandals like the Whitewater real estate investment controversy or HRC’s dabbling in the trading of cattle futures contracts while serving as First Lady of Arkansas. As a result, viewers will only get a slanted view of HRC as a dedicated feminist and a tough political fighter. The real HRC, with all her sociopathic qualities, is carefully polished to Teflon-like sheen.

The Strange Tale of the SS Mayaguez: an example of US military arrogance and bungling resulting in needless tragedy

Carlton Meyer, “The Strange Tale of the SS Mayaguez” (Tales of the American Empire, 4 September 2020)

As an example of US military arrogance and incompetence resulting in unnecessary tragedy that could have had more serious long-term consequences for the world, the May 1975 SS Mayaguez incident would have been hard to beat in the pre-9/11 world. Since the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, this incident is increasingly becoming a minor footnote in the long and continuing history of US military, political, economic and social decline and decay.

In May 1975, the US cargo ship SS Mayaguez, travelling from Hong Kong to Thailand and having picked up classified US materials from Saigon on the way – the US having just recently evacuated all its diplomatic staff from that city in early 1975 after the Communists claimed victory in the Vietnam War – passed very close to Poulo Wai island in Cambodian territorial waters and was captured by Khmer Rouge forces. The then US President Gerald Ford was notified of the ship’s capture and the US National Security Council met to discuss the incident. The US government determined to free the SS Mayaguez by force and sent an aircraft carrier and two destroyers to Koh Tang Island where the SS Mayaguez crew were supposedly being held hostage. So began a series of actions in which US Marines invaded Koh Tang Island only to be met by tremendous Khmer Rouge gunfire. In the ensuing battle, many Americans were killed, three were captured and over 100 Cambodians were killed. The three US Marines who were captured were later executed by the Khmer Rouge.

As Carlton Meyer’s matter-of-fact voice-over narration informs viewers, the SS Mayaguez crew were actually being held away from Koh Tang Island and were released unharmed by the Khmer Rouge to one of the US destroyers sent to Cambodia. The release of the SS Mayaguez crew and the recovery of the ship were hailed by the Ford administration as a successful rescue in spite of the actual bungled rescue attempt, the senseless killing and the fact that the Khmer Rouge had been planning all along to release the crew back to the Americans after checking the cargo on the SS Mayaguez.

The mini-documentary is very detailed in its retelling of the incident though it barely has much time investigating why the US government decided to invade Koh Tang Island and blast its way through to the captured ship and crew rather than use diplomacy to negotiate the release of the SS Mayaguez. The film points to the general political and military context of the time: the US had just suffered a major military defeat and humiliation by a minnow nation, and Gerald Ford had been in power as US President for a few months and needed a victory that would enhance his reputation and tenure. The film also asks what might have been in the cargo that had been picked up in Saigon: did the cargo include sensitive military recordings indicating US surveillance of Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian communications? Another issue is why the SS Mayaguez sailed so close to Poulo Wai and why it was not flying the US flag at the time. Was the captain merely incompetent or was he under orders at the time?

I’d have liked to know whether the brilliant minds who thought up the reckless rescue plan and decided to send the Marines to Koh Tang Island were reprimanded in any way and promoted horizontally rather than vertically upwards but the film does not say. The long-term impacts and consequences of the SS Mayaguez incident are not covered in the film either. One significant result was that the US was later forced by Thailand to remove all its combat troops from Thai soil in 1976 after the Thai government learned that in spite of its refusal to allow US forces to use a military base in Thailand to launch the invasion of Koh Tang Island, the US went ahead and started the invasion from the base anyway. Relations between Cambodia and the US soured to the extent that any Westerners found in Cambodia were presumed to be US spies and ended up being tortured, forced to make false confessions and then executed.

The film provides a good general survey of the Mayaguez incident. Viewers wanting a more specific understanding are directed to the Wikipedia article about the incident.