BOOK 2 IS FINALLY READY!

Cover art for the fantasy novel, Elai Nelson and the Storm on the Sand

Announcing the release of Book 2 of my fantasy trilogy, “Elai Nelson and the Storm on the Sand”!

Available now as an e-book from Amazon and other retailers:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07J5QYQBD
https://www.books2read.com/u/31xX0l

As part of this launch, Book 1 is available FREE for five days, on Amazon, from 26th Oct to 30th October. Go download it now!
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079RN2YZM

To read some feedback about Book 1, please check out:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38925267-elai-nelson-and-the-prophecy-of-the-child

#fantasy #novel #book #teens #youngadults #adventure #fiction #books #read #reading #swords #sciencefiction

Welcome to the Grind.

Creative writing is harder than I thought it would be. My respect goes out to all the great writers who have built amazing new worlds for us to explore and lose ourselves in. I now know how painful and arduous the journey is.

I was at a friend’s house recently for a get-together, and someone asked how my “work” was going. My standard answer nowadays is that I have a dual identity, that of a novelist and a game designer, and that the game designing was easy and moved along at a consistent pace, whereas the writing was far more challenging.

I reflected on that answer. It was true, but why? What was the difference in the two kinds of creative work?

I think the difference is in the lack of external stimuli or challenges that make it harder to move forward in writing than in game design. On an average day, most of us go to work with the aim of solving some problem or finishing some task. There’s a question to answer, a form to fill in, papers to collate, documents to file or staple. Stuff to box up, stuff to build. Things to clean, things to cook, things to pack, things to move. There’s emails to reply to, research to be completed, calculations to be done. Judgments to be pronounced, opinions to be expressed, choices to be made. It’s iterative to some extent, reactionary as well. It’s like playing tennis or volleyball – you hit the ball and it comes back to you later.

Creative writing, especially for novel-length works, is not like that. There’s no list of things to just get through and then a novel appears. You have to invent. You have to imagine. You have to create. You have to craft. You have to figure out something out of thin air. You have to build worlds and characters that didn’t previously exist. And this doesn’t always come easily. You can’t tell someone, “alright, sit in this chair and don’t get up until you’ve written a concerto”, or “I’m locking you in your room until you come up with the next chart-topping pop song”. It doesn’t work that way. Inspiration can’t be forced.

And yet, what happens when you seem to lack inspiration? Sit there and do nothing? Do something else? For me, the game design provides a way out so that I’m still “productive” in a relative sense, but the book still remains unwritten while I’m working on the games. That’s not the solution to this particular problem.

Thus, the time-honored advice by some of the best and most prolific writers in history is simply – “sit down and write anything.” Literally. Even if it turns out to be junk. Especially if it turns out to be junk, don’t give up. There’s a few important reasons why:

(1) Writing is hard work. It requires discipline. And discipline needs to be trained. So forcing yourself to sit down and write everyday is part of overcoming the lazy and unmotivated part in all of us, and building the habit and discipline of writing.

(2) Don’t underestimate momentum. Sometimes, while writing a stream of junk, you begin to build up some momentum and then suddenly you find yourself writing pretty decent stuff which you can actually use.

(3) There’s the occasional pearl buried in the muck. You might write 90% junk during one of these uninspired moments, but somewhere in there, you find yourself penning that beautiful verse, that fantastic comeback, that plot-fixing element, that delicious verbal exchange. Throw the rest away, save that. It could be the gem that elevates what you eventually write to a new level.

(4) Quality is subjective. There’s no objective scale for measuring quality in creative works. One man’s music is another man’s noise. One woman’s gastronomical delight is another woman’s gastrointestinal disaster. Sometimes, we can’t even decide whether what we’ve written is good or awful. And it may just come down to our mood at that very moment. So it could pay off to just leave the “junk” that you’ve written to sit for a few days, before returning to just glance at it. You might surprise yourself that it ain’t as bad as you first thought it was.

(5) And finally, the most important. Just like for other kinds of “work”, just like for my game designing, it’s easier to move forward when there’s something tangible to tackle. In this case, if you’re written pages of “junk”, you actually have in front of you a first draft. And it’s far, far easier to make progress improving a first draft than coming up with a first draft at all. That’s how to get a book written.

So, in summary, creative writing means forcing yourself to sit down everyday to put in the hours to write. Get something out. Anything. Then take it from there.

All the best to the rest of you writers and aspiring writers. I’ll be in the trenches every day, just like you. I know how it feels. Don’t give up.

10 Things I Just Learnt From Watching Crazy Rich Asians

There’s this new movie that’s the talk of the town in Hollywood. A show headlined by minorities that is taking the box office by storm. No, it’s not Black Panther, that was months ago.  I’m talking about Crazy Rich Asians, which is collecting critical and box office acclaim. When I last checked, it was at 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s Academy Award winning territory.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan, it follows the journey of an Asian-American girl, Rachel, who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend and learns that he is basically from an insanely wealthy family.

crazy-rich-asians cover

It may all sound formulaic, but here’s ten things I learnt just by watching this movie:

  1. It’s not just Bruce Wayne that buys hotels on a whim.
  2. Chinese music is played everywhere in Singapore where rich people hang out.
  3. Wearing three-piece suits outdoors in Singapore doesn’t give you heatstroke.
  4. Comfort-Delgro taxis can afford to pay for product placement, but Singapore Airlines can’t. Now we know which company is making truckloads of money off its customers.
  5. If you’re going to fire antitank missiles at your bachelor party, it’s best to do it while sailing in international waters.
  6. Singapore looks best when you’re hovering eight hundred feet in the air at night. I actually first learnt that from Formula One, but it’s a cool reminder.
  7. Rich people act like wild animals when they don’t have to pay for cheap Asian clothing and jewellery.
  8. The easily-recognisable heir to the biggest family empire in Singapore somehow won’t get stalked in New York by crazy women who want to get a piece of him.
  9. SAF captains aren’t real men. Or maybe only those that marry crazy rich women.
  10. Container ships don’t really exist. They’re just disguises for all the crazy rich parties going on out there.

Crazy Rich Asians bachelor party

I’m kidding. The movie was great. I’m also glad that our little island is getting some publicity. And this coming right after the earlier piece of high drama, Crazy Unpredictable Dictators.

crazy unpredictable dictators
A couple of crazy, unpredictable dictators showed up in Singapore recently.

Some people nowadays expect movies to be all sorts of things. Social commentaries. Chances for representation and visibility. Thought-provoking and challenging mindsets. Which is why criticism for some movies comes in thick and fast, when they don’t meet what people feel is the standard required for a good movie.

But amidst all of that, these people sometimes forget, the real reason we go to watch movies is because we just want to have a good time. Yes, it’s important to highlight social issues. Yes, it’s important to be a conscience for society. But most of us don’t want to go and be reminded about our problems when we go to a movie. We want to be entertained. We want to leave feeling like, hey, that made my day a bit brighter. If it can be done while addressing real-life issues, great. If it can’t, but it’s still something that’s enjoyable, that’s not too bad.

Crazy Rich Asians falls squarely into that category, for me. It’s just a really fun movie. And some of the criticism of it really sounds silly and petty. Henry Golding is a hapa, or half-Asian, rather than a full Asian? Show glorifies the excesses and decadence of the rich 1%? Movie is formulaic and predictable? Singapore isn’t as nice as the show makes it out to be? There are other Asians in Asia besides Chinese? Stereotypes abound in the movie?

crazy-rich-asians-constance-wu-awkwafina

Look, it’s a Hollywood rom-com written and shot primarily for Americans. Let’s not nitpick about small issues. One movie can’t represent the myriad  ethnicities and races that abound in the largest continent in the world. And from the dawn of time, people have been fascinated by stories about the rich and powerful. It’s vicarious living. It’s daydreaming. It’s entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that, if taken in moderate doses along with a healthy dose of reality once we leave the cinema.

And retelling old stories and rehashing old themes has been around for as long as time itself. For a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, see West Side Story. For the cartoon version of Hamlet, go watch The Lion King. There’s very little that’s completely original nowadays. Everything creative that’s done is partially inspired by something else done earlier. Even the greatest fantasy book ever, the Lord of the Rings, was heavily drawn from Nordic mythology. So, for Crazy Rich Asians to stick with the tried and tested Cinderella formula isn’t a bad thing, especially if it’s skillfully done.

crazy rich asians michelle yeoh

As it is, the movie’s already a major triumph in so many ways for the market it’s aimed at. A lot of us Asians living in Asia don’t get this. When Asian-Americans celebrate the movie as a watershed moment, the rest of the world goes “meh” a bit. We don’t see the big deal. Where we come from, we aren’t the minority. We don’t experience racism from non-Asians (we do this among ourselves as Asians, but that’s a different conversation). We don’t struggle to get movie roles in big-budget films made in our part of town. We don’t have to change our names to get a chance to audition. We don’t face “whitewashing” on a regular basis.

So finally, after 25 years, here comes a major Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast (yes, hapas are Asian too, in my book), and naturally, lots of people are excited. The best thing about this movie? It’s not some angsty, preachy diatribe about how Asians have been marginalised in America. It’s not about how after centuries of colonisation, we’ve now finally gotten back by becoming rich and owning chunks of the rest of the world. It wasn’t a movie made from any chip on our collective shoulders. No, the movie isn’t mean, it isn’t cynical, it isn’t snarky, it isn’t arrogant. It’s just a lot of fun, very quirky, with screwball antics. It pokes fun at ourselves, Asians. Specifically, it pokes fun at rich Asians. More specifically, it pokes fun at the rich Christian Asians in Singapore. A character in the movie actually frowns upon the supposed $40m spent on someone’s wedding, explaining that “We’re Methodists. Our budget is $20m.”

crazy rich asians wedding gossip

At its core, Crazy Rich Asians is just a heart-warming story about family and love. It shows that you can be rich and still miserable (Astrid’s story). It shows that you can be rich yet humble and grounded (Nick). It shows that you can be rich yet totally messed up (just about everybody else in the movie).  Basically, whether you’re rich or poor, it’s pretty much up to you whether you want to be a good person or a jerk. Money just makes it easier to go in whichever direction you choose.

Crazy Rich Asians Fiona Xie

But it’s not just a popcorn flick for a fun date with that special someone. It does weave in commentaries about numerous issues, although these are of course treated lightly and cursorily, as expected for a romcom.  There’s the obvious love versus money, personified by Nick’s journey. There’s Asian values vs Western values, epitomised by the movie’s main tension between Eleanor and Rachel. There’s new rich vs old rich, hilariously played to the hilt by the ostentatious family of Peik Lin. There’s shades of misogyny and racism in the undertones and overtones of the various rich men in the extended family. There’s the pointed reminder that rich Asians do the same insane sh*t as rich non-Asians.

Asians do crazy sh-t too

In the end, the strength of the movie comes from the stunning visuals and gorgeous palette. Everything looks beautiful, from the amazing costumes and larger-than-life sets, to the fantastic scenery shot in Singapore and Malaysia. The cast is stellar, more than showing that Asians can comfortably headline major movies. There’s Henry Golding performing admirably in his first real acting role. There’s Constance Wu proving that Fresh Off The Boat is not an accidental success. There’s the formidable Michelle Yeoh, a lady who lights up every film she’s been in, even if she doesn’t do as much ass-kicking as she used to. Awkwafina practically steals every scene she appears in, Ken Jeong and Chris Pang are perfectly cast, as is the gorgeous Gemma Chan. Ronnie Chieng and Jimmy O Yang bring their comedic A-game to the movie.

Crazy Rich Asians cast

But it’s our Singapore actors who do us really proud, holding their own against this insane international cast. Tan Kheng Hua, Koh Chieng Mun, Selena Tan, Janice Koh, Pierre Png and Fiona Xie did great in this movie, showing that we have as good acting chops in this little island as anywhere else in the crazy rich world out there.

Crazy Rich Asians Tan Kheng Hua

There’s even a classy tribute to the Joy Luck Club, with Lisa Lu playing Nick’s grandmother and matriarch of the Young family. Harry Shum Jr. makes a teasing cameo at the very end, as a setup to the sequel.

Finally, the soundtrack is to die for. From Katherine Ho’s mandarin cover of Coldplay’s Yellow, to Sally Yeh’s famous Canto adaptation of Material Girl. The highlight for me, though, was Kina Grannis’ appearance at the unbelievable wedding scene, singing her cover of Can’t Help Falling In Love.

razy Rich Asians wedding scene

In the end, this isn’t a powerful social commentary like Black Panther. It isn’t a heavy hitting political drama like Syriana. It doesn’t try to do too much. It really just sets out to have a rolling good time, and in that respect, it does so with aplomb.

Crazy Rich Asians - henry and constance

I’m not really crazy and I’m certainly nowhere close to being rich, but I’m having a great time being Asian right now.

The Best NDP Show We’ve Ever Seen? Possibly.

It’s been a bit since my last post, mainly because I’m trying to finish writing Book 2 of the Fire on the Clouds series. It’s a lot of fun to write it, but that doesn’t make it any easier or faster.

Anyway, this is going to be a slightly longer post, to make up for the months of radio silence. I’ve just completed my annual NDP journey, and it has moved me enough that I want to put down my thoughts before they fade away.

To summarise, this is far and away the best NDP show I’ve seen that I can remember, surpassing my previous favourite, the fantastic 2009 show helmed by the brilliant Ivan Heng, underpinned by one of the best NDP theme songs ever, Electrico’s What Do You See.

NDP2018 Flag Flypast
NDP2018 Flag Flypast

NDP2018 has everything – a fun and engaging pre-parade portion, an impressive aerial display by the RSAF during the P&C portion, and a beautiful and heartwarming show, filled with powerful stories of real Singaporeans.

Almost there! #ndp #ndp18 #ndpeeps #wearesingapore #f15

A post shared by Michael Ban J Y (@michaelbanjy) on

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is probably the best NDP show in a long, long while. I’ve been involved in NDP for some time now, been privileged to see the inside and outside of every show and parade, how they are put together and how much work goes on behind the scenes. In that time, NDP has evolved and grown to be what it is today. And yet, this year’s NDP has taken a big leap forward with the bold decision to appoint Boo Junfeng as the Creative Director. Junfeng, a filmmaker of unprecedented skill and vision, centred the show this year on five stories about real struggles by Singaporeans and how they were overcome. That emotional spine, woven beautifully throughout the live mass performances, connected the audience to the show in a way that has never before been achieved.

Having been directly involved in NDP for the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot. There have been positives and negatives for every show so far. We’ve had sea creatures, we’ve had the hosts arrive via flying fox, we’ve had all manner of military displays and song items. We’ve had touching tributes to Singaporean athletes and the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. We’ve had drone displays, we’ve had gorgeous flying cities. We’ve had instant hit theme songs like JJ Lin’s Our Singapore and 53A’s Tomorrow’s Here Today, as well as underrated gems like Corrinne May’s Song for Singapore. In terms of storyline, 2016’s bold portrayal of Badang and the Singapore story was acclaimed for bringing to public consciousness a little-known part of our history, but was also considered by some to be hard to understand and connect with. 2017’s show was not well-received by netizens, with the ridiculous “mozzie” segment in particular receiving flak for appearing to be one long Government propaganda bulletin.

Thankfully, this year’s show not only surpassed the rather low bar set last year, but moved the new bar so high that the next few NDP committees will have their work cut out for them. Thankfully, 2019’s team will have the huge advantage of relying on a mobile column display to wow the audience.

Before I go further, I want to give a shout-out to the hundreds, if not thousands, of people, who thronged the entire Marina Bay area, hoping to catch some of the show. One reason the float is the preferred NDP venue is because of people like you, who go to great effort and trouble to try to be part of the celebrations. We salute you, and hope that it won’t be too long before you manage to get hold of an NDP Preview or Actual Day ticket!

NDP Crowd at the Merlion Park
NDP Crowd at the Merlion Park
NDP Crowd at MBS
NDP Crowd at MBS

Now on to my thoughts about this year’s show.

Breaking down what I felt made this year’s show and parade so memorable, it falls into a few main categories:

Lots of great crowd interaction. Every year, the NDP team tries to get the crowd involved as much as possible. There’s the traditional Kallang/Marina/Padang wave, there’s various games, there’s the cheering for the Red Lions and waving to the President, and so on. Clappers and other noise-making implements will be found in the funpacks. Some years, the audience is even asked to join in a dance (not forgetting the controversial funpack song from 2011). Each new team has the benefit of seeing what was done in previous years and learning from it. So it’s no surprise that the crowd interaction was top-notch this year. A lot of behind the scenes attention was paid to the energy level and responsiveness of the crowd during each rehearsal. Huge balls were thrown into the audience, banners were pulled up by the crowd, “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” was played to great hilarity in the pre-parade. The audience was also asked to write down their own story on giant placards provided – the two sided placard representing the story of each individual on one hand (“I am…”) and the story of all of us as a people on the other (“We are…”). A simple but meaningful touch.

A fun pre-parade segment. Before the Parade & Ceremony portion began, with all its solemn processional displays, the crowd were treated to an enjoyable pre-parade portion. There were well-made behind-the-scenes videos about the NDP performers and the hardworking thousands who made the entire event possible, there was a great musical medley of old NDP songs, showcasing the incredible vocals of MICapella, a hilarious video about host Gurmit Singh being late for NDP, and of course, the crowd favourites, the Red Lions, who flew in on wingsuits for the first time ever, before landing with precision on the promenade. This year, they were joined by elite brethren from the Republic of Singapore Navy, the Naval Combat Divers.  Previously, divers had performed low-altitude jumps directly into the water. This year, they showcased their ability to jump from higher altitudes and arrive in the water by parachute.

Combat Divers exiting Super Puma
Combat Divers exiting Super Puma
Republic of Singapore Navy Combat Divers
RSN Combat Divers
RSN combat diver
Combat Diver in full gear

Impressive Aerial Display. This being the 50th Anniversary of the Republic of Singapore Air Force, it was natural that this arm of the military would be given pre-eminence at the parade. A procession of our aerial assets was followed by a pair of F-16s forming the shape of a giant heart in the sky using smoke trails. The climax was a stunning flypast by an F-15SG emblazoned with RSAF50 livery, culminating in an impressive vertical climb on full afterburner. The crowd reaction told volumes about how they felt about this segment.

F-15SG with RSAF50 livery
F-15SG with RSAF50 livery

Stunning Show Visuals. Junfeng and his team had a clear vision of what they wanted to do. From the Act 1 mass dance item inspired by the opening of the London Olympics, to the beautiful balloon garlands and the light balls carried by students in Act 2, to the ever-present SOKA and PA dancers in the later acts, the audience was treated to a spectacle of colour and movement throughout. And what better way to end the opening act than by paying tribute to La La Land.

Gareth Fernandez singing "We Could Work It Out" at NDP 2018
Gareth Fernandez singing “We Could Work It Out” at NDP 2018

Ironically, I found the fireworks at the finale not as interesting as the rest of the show, when this is usually a highlight for most years. It’s not really an indictment of this year’s fireworks, more a sign of how much better the show is this year, that even the fireworks don’t count as a favourite moment. I actually preferred the “waterfall” fireworks from the end of Act 2, during the song What Do You See.

NDP 2018 Act 2 Fireworks
Act 2 Fireworks

Best NDP Soundtrack in Years. The music director this year, Sydney Tan, a veteran of so many NDP shows, outdid himself with 2018’s soundtrack. From the collaboration with Charlie to produce the theme song, to the seamless way the music brought us through all the highs and lows, it was a joy to experience from start to finish. Joanna Dong’s gentle vocals on melodious former NDP tunes was skillfully woven into the energetic “Come Together” segment in Act 1, with Gareth Fernandez performing a contemporary version of the old Beatles hit We Can Work It Out. Masruddin’s video perfomance of Coldplay’s Fix You segued smoothly into the live version by Shak’thiya and Vanessa Fernandez. M1LDL1FE (formerly known as “Take Two”) absolutely rocked with their original composition Always Been Right Here. It even inspired members of the NDP organising team to start their own band, called “Midlife Crisis.”

Midlife Crisis - Coming Soon to So Drama!
Midlife Crisis – Coming Soon to So Drama!

But the best musical number was undoubtedly Act 2’s The Water Is Wide. The favourite segment of many people I spoke with, this song is both beautiful and melancholic, and captured the mood of the visuals perfectly. An old Celtic folk song, it got some people thinking that a hymn had been reworded for NDP show. In truth, the tune is a very old one and has been used in numerous other songs, including, yes, a hymn. But the words used here in NDP2018 were from the original Celtic song. Once again, Sydney’s amazing skill was displayed, as he managed to fit both Lion City Boy’s touching rap, as well as Julai Tan’s violin number, in the middle of it all, without any of it sounding out of place.

But the choice of Aisyah Aziz to drive the main song was inspired. Besides the fact that she’s beautiful, she has the stunning vocal chops to pull it off. With the students and balloon garlands weaving intricate patterns around her, the entire act was unforgettable.

The best NDP show I've seen in years. Heartwarming and unforgettable stories by Boo Junfeng, hauntingly beautiful…

Posted by Junyan Wan on Saturday, July 28, 2018

Heartwarming True Stories. This is the part which made the most difference in this year’s show. Previously, videos were ancillary to the performances. At best, snippets of news clips or interviews would appear. Sometimes there would something featuring our sports heroes or famous people from our past. But this year, Junfeng gave us quite something else – detailed and touching stories of ordinary people with extraordinary experiences. Three of them were joined by the common theme of kindness and compassion, the other two by resilience and the courage to chase your dreams. There is nothing that connects an audience better to a performance than authenticity. In this day and age of CGI and carefully choreographed performances, people crave true stories more than anything else. That’s why this show resonated so powerfully, even more so when these five individuals were shown to be at the float among us. The cheers and screams of support for Masruddin and Nizar when they performed, for Julai Tan, for the others when the cameras panned to them, were the loudest of the whole evening, far more than for any other part of the show. People appreciate them, people care. Without doubt, this raised NDP2018 from being “as good as anything out there” to “head and shoulders above the rest”. For me, at least.

Woo Yun Sum NDP 2018
Mdm Woo Yun Sum

Which brings us to….

Rousing finale. Every NDP show strives to end on a high. Sometimes, it feels contrived, as the show leading up to that point was weak or unengaging. This year, however, the audience was kept enraptured throughout, with many people later comparing their “teary moments” of the show. By the time Charlie Lim arrived for the finale with his evocative and gorgeous version of We Are Singapore, the mood was sky-high.

Aisyah Aziz, Charlie Lim & Joanna Dong at NDP2018
Aisyah Aziz, Charlie Lim & Joanna Dong

A word on the song. Charlie is not just an incredibly talented musician, he’s also someone who can speak for the generation that is often most disconnected with Singapore. And his message comes through powerfully in his contribution to this time-honoured favourite:

If all that we are is what we believe
Then I know I’ve got to be the change I want to see
How easy we forget that everything takes time
No, nothing’s ever perfect, but I still call you mine

Within the theme song at the finale, was the highlight for me. The placard challenge was when the entire seating gallery was turned into a giant message of “We Love Singapore” as the audience raised their placards to the chorus of the theme song. It was a powerful moment, and one which will live long in NDP history.

NDP 2018 Placard Challenge
NDP 2018 Placard Challenge

And there you have it. If you didn’t manage to catch the show, you can watch the Mediacorp broadcast on Toggle, or try out the fun 360 live stream version on YouTube.

Finally some last words of appreciation:

Starting with Exco Chairman, BG Alfred Fox. Thank you for the chance to be part of such an unforgettable journey. The amazing team chemistry reflects your leadership style – warm, humble, humorous, team-oriented. Without you, this show wouldn’t have gone as far.

To Show Chairman, COL Goh Pei Ming. You constantly surprise me with your thoroughness and diligence in overseeing the whole show, your thoughtfulness for your participants (hand-signed cards, Father’s Day cakes etc), and your willingness to listen to ideas and feedback. You deserve every accolade given about this year’s show!

To Creative Director Boo Junfeng. From the first retreat where you shared your ideas, to the day when it all came together, you demonstrated great clarity of vision and an unerring sense of what looks and feels good. Your championing of the common people’s stories and preference for simple yet elegant solutions to technical challenges gave me a clear understanding of why you’re such a highly regarded filmmaker. I look forward to seeing you someday walking up the stage to receive your Oscar!

To Music Director Sydney Tan. We’ve crossed paths before in previous NDPs, but this was the first time we’ve really had a chance to chat. I’ll say it first – I was a little starstruck being able to work with you so closely, and what you’ve done with this year’s soundtrack hasn’t helped at all – I’m in  awe of you even more now. You’ve made an indelible mark on Singapore’s music scene with your work, and I count you among our greatest local talents. Let’s continue to serve together!

To Charlie Lim. It was only a couple of fleeting conversations, but I appreciate your candour and warmth. I know you’ll do even greater things someday for the local and global music scene. Thanks for the great NDP song. Every time someone sings it, it’s a reminder of the flawed beauty of this country, and our place in it.

To my old friend Mr.X. Buddy, you’re the glue that holds the show together. Your silky voice is more familiar to the people at NDP than even the Prime Minister’s, I’ll bet. We’re not done yet, not by a long shot. I’ll see you around next year!

To Peter Loh, the Technical Director, you are Mr.Fixit. No problem, big or small, can’t be solved, as long as you’re in the room. So many times, people appreciate the stars and performers, forgetting that without the lights, sound, and other moving parts, nothing is going to happen. Thanks for your hard work and dedication to NDP every year!

To MICappella. You guys rock, seriously. And sorry for stalking you so many times for a photo. My own past life in an acapella group makes me very biased towards you guys among all the performers. But you’ll notice I finally left you all alone after the last one, when we finally managed to get all six of you together for the shot. Keep making people smile with those awesome pipes.

MICappella!
MICappella!

To the cadre of NDP veterans, I can’t even name you all. Dennis, Jessie, Judith, Lay Hong, Raymond, See Leng, Shah, Stan, Jean, Clarence, Zaini, Poh Soon, Sally, Javier, Yongfa, and so many more I’m forgetting right now. Without all your skills and experience, we would have a really, really awful show. Thanks for faithfully coming back every year and doing this!

To all the other performers and participants, especially our TOUCH Motivators, you guys are the reason the parade and show could even go on. All your hours of rehearsals led to something that we can forever be proud of. Singapore watched all of you give us the best birthday party ever!

And finally, to the thousands of SAF soldiers and other unsung heroes behind the scenes, thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re the best. We’re so grateful for your blood, sweat and tears. You remind me why I’m so proud to be a Singaporean.

Happy National Day, everybody.

NDP 2018 Finale Fireworks
NDP 2018 Finale Fireworks

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. THIS GENERATION’S LORD OF THE RINGS. (SPOILER-FREE REVIEW)

Every once in a while, something epic appears on the big screens. Fifteen years ago, it was the Lord of the Rings. A movie (or movie trilogy, to be precise) which people said could never be made, due to how epic the books were. And yet Peter Jackson, with the help of Weta Digital, somehow managed to pull it off. It helped that the book was filled with strong writing and majestic settings; all that was needed (which was still a lot) was to translate that into a vision for the big screen.

And now, after eighteen movies and ten years, Marvel Studios has accomplished their version of this. Avengers:Infinity War is a sprawling, almost three-hour long epic, bringing together just about every character that has thus far appeared in the MCU. Just about. There are a couple of notable absentees, and a couple of surprising cameos.

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Let me start by saying, I loved it. It was spectacular, as expected. However, what I didn’t expect was to leave the cinema with a heavy heart. It felt strange. In hindsight, I suppose that is the mark of a good movie, one that really draws you in and gets you emotionally invested in the outcome. Still, it felt awful, slightly. Like the ending of Inception, where you wonder if Dom actually made it back to the real world to see his kids, or was he stuck in a dream version. It was satisfying, and yet not. Infinity War felt a little like that. I know it’s because this is just half-time, and there’s a whole other movie (Avengers 4) which will resolve everything. But you can’t help feeling a bit “what the heck” when you leave the cinema.

I’ve recently launched the first book of my young adult epic fantasy trilogy, and I’ve had friends tell me they can’t wait for the next book to see what happens. As in, they really can’t wait. They are a bit annoyed that the saga carries on only in six months’ time. One friend even said, when I passed her a copy, that she’ll only read it one month before the next book is due to come out, as she hates to be kept in suspense for a long time. Infinity War made me feel the same way – I know things will sort of turn out ok in the end, but the end is one year away. For now, the effect of the first movie left me with a bit of “arghhh”.

That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. Far from it. It’s great on many levels, but has lots of flaws too. Let’s get started with what I loved about it:

I loved that just about everybody was in it, and given reasonably equal screen time. Of course, the main drivers of the story, Iron Man and Thanos, had a lot more than the rest, but you don’t get the sense that “minor” characters like Winter Soldier and War Machine were completely sidelined. They had little bits where their stories were fleshed out more.

The fight scenes were by far the most epic in any MCU movie yet. When you’re facing a villain as overwhelmingly powerful like Thanos, it takes just about everybody working together to try to bring him down, and that made for a great spectacle. I could watch those scenes over and over again. And the Black Order, Thanos’ children, were shown to be very powerful, and more than a match for Earth’s heroes (and Asgard’s as well, come to think of it). Some fans were upset with what they assumed was the Black Order being “nerfed” in order to let “mere humans” defeat them (Black Widow, Cap, Falcon, from one of the final trailers). I can assure you, this wasn’t the case. You will enjoy watching the Black Order. They really do kick ass. So much so that Thanos was almost not needed for most of the movie (but rest assured, he does more than hold his own in several crazy scenes).

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I love the banter between Star-Lord and Tony Stark. Two oversized egos clashing head on, was hilarious. But even earlier, Star-Lord clashes with Thor, who is definitely wayy out of Peter’s league (now that he is no longer a half-Celestial, after the events of Guardians of the Galaxy 2). But in terms of snark and ego, I think Peter beats Tony and Thor, hands-down.

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Seeing Dr. Strange fighting, with a lot more confidence in his powers and a lot more tricks up his sleeve. Can’t wait for his next movie, whenever that may be.

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Telling Thanos’ side of the story. He’s far and away the best villain in the MCU so far. Loki? Just an angry kid by comparison. Thanos is powerful, ruthless and ambitious, yet not one-note or one-dimensional. He is a being burdened with the weight of destiny, or so he believes, and is willing to pay as high a price as necessary to fulfill that. It is compelling to watch, and you almost feel sad for him at some points. Almost. Don’t forget he kills a lot of people along the way. That quickly reminds you, nope, he’s the baddie here.

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Making time to show some emotional arcs, so that there is a proper payoff later in the movie. As shown in the trailers, there’s bits involving Thanos and Gamorra, bits involving Wanda and Vision, bits involving the Guardians. These are all important because choices made later in the movie would have felt shallow and contrived if the backstory and emotional depth had not been laid down earlier.

Really cool new tech. Mostly from Iron Man, who has such an insane new suit that it’s almost unbelievable. You start to think that he’s got a pocket dimension stored in his wallet, so that he can keep pulling out new things from seemingly nowhere. Fun to watch, nonetheless. And Thor going about his business, that was some great stuff too. And the character he meets out in space, awesome too. Can’t help shake off his performance from another major franchise, though. I keep seeing his Game of Thrones character instead of who he is playing in this movie.

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Now here’s some things which I wasn’t too impressed with:

Wayyy too many characters. Yes, this sounds like I’m contradicting myself. I’m not. I think trying to cram so many characters into a single movie means that you’re gonna struggle to give enough screen time to all of them. I like seeing everybody in the movie, but I can’t help feel that the treatment of most of them was very cursory. Some characters have one or two lines in the entire movie, others, who have had several solo movies already, play bit parts here because they aren’t essential to driving the main plot forward. Still, there was no way around this problem, and I think in the end, the Russo brothers did a masterful job trying to balance all the competing interests.

The Battle for Wakanda felt a little contrived. Maybe I’m just a little jaded from seeing massive set-piece battles involving hundreds (thousands?) of faceless enemies (Chitauri from Avengers 1, Ultron-bots from Avengers 2, army of the dead from Thor: Ragnarok, Hydra soldiers, and so on). That’s why I loved Dr. Strange and Cap:Civil War so much. The enemies weren’t hordes of henchmen – they were compelling and interesting enemies. So, for me, ironically, the weakest part of Infinity War was the big battle on the plains of Wakanda. A lot of punching and kicking, but it just feels like more of the same. The fighting against Thanos personally, against the Black Order, now those really felt like something fresh and worth watching.

Not enough of Thanos’ side of the story. Yeah, I know I said that I was happy they told his story. I’m saying that I wish they went even deeper. Like his philosophy was mentioned, but it felt very rushed and in passing. Would have loved to see a bit more about how he came to his worldview and his assumptions about the right solution to the problems of the universe.

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The ending. Yeah I know this is to set up the next movie, but still. And when you see two major characters either make seriously silly mistakes that lead to the final outcome, or  do nothing to prevent bad things from happening, you feel a bit like “eh? c’mon that’s rubbish!” But, ok, let’s just leave it as “it’s easy to know what’s the right thing to do when you’re sitting in a comfortable chair rather than fighting out on the battlefield.”

But, to be fair, these are small grievances. The movie is as good as I’d hoped, maybe even better in some ways. Some people won’t like parts of it, probably the fans who loved the comics and wanted to see certain things done a certain way. But for the rest of us, I think there’s enough here to enjoy. This is a watershed moment – this movie will go down in movie history along with some of the greatest out there, if anything simply for its ambition and boldness.

Oh, and do catch it on IMAX 3-D if you can. It’s worth the price for this kind of action.

Paperback Edition Of My Book Available In Singapore

I’ve just received from the printers the paperback edition of my book! This is quite an interesting experience – being self-published, the printed books come to my house, instead of heading off to a publisher, and then from there to brick-and-mortar bookstores. My decision to go primarily into e-books from the beginning still holds – it’s just that a lot of my family and friends prefer to read hard-copy books. It’s really for them that I went and had a bunch of paperback books printed locally. And I do understand why – I personally also find it easier to read physical books than e-books. Eventually, though, I think we’ll all have to make the switch.

Discussions with bookstores to carry these are ongoing, I’ll update here once the book becomes available in stores! For now, you can get your hands on one of them by dropping me an email at jy@michaelban.com. Each book costs S$12/-.

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Do get yourself a copy or two today, you won’t regret it! The responses and reviews from people who have finished it are very positive (the book’s been out less than a month, so reviews are only starting to come in):

Reviews on Goodreads

You can also check out the free sample chapters on Amazon.

GO TAKE A LOOK TODAY!

Little Friends At Home

I love having a pet. There’s something really special about having a creature in your home that you take care of, lovingly and diligently, and watching it go about its business. There’s nothing more therapeutic after a hard day’s work than just to stare at a pet doing whatever it is that it does.

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Our current pet(s) – a pair of guinea pigs named Spott and Louie

My growing up years involved having a dog at home. I lived in a house, so we were able to keep larger dogs. My father always saw the dog as a guard, not so much a pet, hence we seemed to always keep fiercer black ones. We had a Boxer, then a Dobermann, and finally two Rottweilers in quick succession. The Boxer was mild, and stayed with us a long time. His name was Sargeant. The Dobermann was a little hyper, but still quite friendly. I forgot his name! And then we had a timid Rottweiler (!) named Bobby. And finally, a monster of Rottweiler, named Rocky.

The last of these was nasty – we had Bobby somehow escape from our house and never come back, so my dad went out and got a replacement at short notice. Right from the off, I knew something was wrong with the new one. He was very bad-tempered, and would threaten to bite us for no reason.

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My fears were realised when we took it to the vet to get him immunized. My sister held his hind legs, while I held the front paws. Rocky, still not fully grown, stared at me with eyes full of fear. The vet stuck a needle in his ass, and he yelped in pain. He jumped up and bit me on the hip. Thankfully, the bite was more a reaction than an attempt to hurt me, and the teeth never got through my jeans. Since that day, Rocky and I never got along – he always stared at me warily, as though blaming me for that traumatic day. But the worst was yet to come.

This story is the most bizarre thing you’d probably read today. I came home from school one day and found a chicken wandering in my neighbour’s back yard. Yes. A chicken. In an urban neighbourhood. In Singapore. We had no idea where it came from. Presumably, neither did my neighbour, who must have decided to keep it awhile until he figured out what to do with it.

Problem was, our houses were separated by a metal fence with bars that were not very narrow. Dogs and people couldn’t cross through, but chickens could.

A couple of days later, we heard an almighty commotion from the backyard. My sister and I rushed out to look, and saw Rocky ripping the chicken to shreds. Either the chicken had crossed over by mistake, or had wandered near enough to the fence that Rocky had grabbed it by sticking his head between the bars. Either way, there was blood and feathers everywhere as the dog was killing the chicken.

My sister panicked, and did the worst possible thing she could have done – she rushed out and tried to pull the chicken away from Rocky. The dog, maddened by the taste of blood, turned and bit her on the hand. She screamed in pain, and my dad, who had by now also arrived, tried to help her, and got bitten as well, though not as deeply. We finally got my sister away to safety, and left Rocky to ravage the chicken.

My sister was losing blood from the hand wound and nearly passed out from the shock. We called an ambulance, and got my sister and my dad to the hospital. My sister needed stitches and a couple of injections – my dad’s injury was thankfully just a small scratch.

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We called the SPCA after that, to ask what to do with the dog. They advised us that the dog needed to be put down. After tasting human blood and attacking its owners, it was a danger to all of us. We were sad but knew that it had to be done.

From then on, we had no dog. My family, in particular my sister, were scarred by what happened.

Until several years later, a church friend asked if I wanted a puppy. Her dog had just given birth to a litter, and she was looking for anybody who wanted to adopt one. I was very eager, my dad not so. However, I managed to persuade him that this time, I would take care of the dog personally and raise it carefully. Plus, the dog was a Border Collie, known for its friendliness and intelligence. Dad agreed, and we had a dog again. This time, it was mine, not the family’s, and I took pains to train him properly.

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Cobi turned out to be a great dog, and I loved him a lot. He stayed with us for almost 11 years. By the time he passed away, my wife and I had twin babies and had just begun living apart from my parents, so my family didn’t get any more dogs.

For a few years before we moved out, while we still lived in my parents’ house, I kept marine fish as well. It wasn’t inspired by the movie Nemo or anything. I had just stumbled across a marine fish shop one day and was totally fascinated by the fish, which looked so much more beautiful than the freshwater types like goldfish and guppies.

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Clownfish, the most “famous” type of marine fish

For a few years, we had an expensive and elaborate setup to keep a 6-foot marine fish tank in our house. It was only when we had our twins that we decided to shut down the thing and sell all the fish and equipment, because we had no time to take care of it. But for the time we had it, we were absolutely in love with it.

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Cleaner shrimp

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Flame Angel, the most beautiful fish I ever owned

Since we moved out, because we lived in a smaller house and had two frisky kids to worry about, we never really considered getting another pet. Until of course, the frisky kids started to grow older and began to ask for a pet. It didn’t help that they were watching movies like “Bolt” and cartoons like “Paw Patrol”.

Becky, in particular, wanted a puppy. Well actually, she wanted a cat, but I said no. I don’t like cats. They’re annoying and stuck-up, IMHO. Haha. So she said, can we have a dog instead.

My wife and I briefly considered it, but decided that a small dog which could live in apartments was a bit too difficult, plus we weren’t ready for a dog that would stay within the home, jumping on our beds and leaving hair everywhere. My own journey as a dog owner had always involved leaving the dog outdoors in our yard and driveway. There was ample space for the dog to run, and Singapore weather was not harsh like in temperate countries. With lots of shade and places to play, the dogs enjoyed it.

But now, having to keep a small dog indoors, we decided against it.

Instead, we got the girls a pair of guinea pigs. One each. And the love between them and the pigs is great. The pigs are still rather new to us, about four months here, so they aren’t ready yet for floor time or to be carried too much. But we’ll get there. In the meantime, my wife is having fun with them as well. She likes them a lot as well and keeps buying all manner of food, bedding and toys for them online.

So after everything, I’ve come full circle, back to being a pet owner, though now it is really my kids who are the ones playing with the pet(s). Someday, though, I wouldn’t mind getting a dog again. Border Collie or Beagle. That would be nice. In the meantime, it’s pigs for me.

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Louie, curious as ever.

It’s Ready!

After months of writing and re-writing, my new young adult fantasy book is finally ready! I’m much happier with this than my earlier attempt, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself reading it. The pace is much zippier, and the main character, a lot more fun.

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It’s available as an e-book from Amazon.

The first few sample chapters are free. Go take a look at it now, you won’t be disappointed!

For those who prefer to read the Paperback version, please drop me an email at jy@michaelban.com. Depending on your location globally, there are different options that will work best for you.

Marvel’s Black Panther: A Tricky Social Conversation Handled Elegantly

Just came from watching Marvel’s Black Panther. The buzz on the Internet has some saying it’s the best Marvel movie ever, some not very happy with it. I personally think it’s a great movie, not quite as entertaining as the other Marvel movies, particularly the best of the recent crop like Civil War, Spiderman: Homecoming, and Thor:Ragnarok, but far deeper and loaded with social commentary. It’s possibly the opposite end of the spectrum from Thor:Ragnarok, a candy-floss light flick full of jokes. In Black Panther’s case, the humour is kept low, due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. But what it lacks in laughs, it more than makes up in heart.

From this point onwards, there’ll be SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you should bookmark this page and come back later when you’ve finally caught it.

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The movie works for me on many levels.

As expected of a Marvel movie, the special effects are tremendous. It is first and foremost a superhero movie, so it doesn’t disappoint in the action. Wakanda itself is portrayed as a high-tech city hidden behind a cloaking device, and what we see of it is impressive. Unfortunately, due to constraints about the movie length, we don’t get to see more than what was hinted at. But even then, the tech is way beyond what the rest of the world has. It rivals even the best of what Stark and SHIELD can offer: cloaking tech, hover tech, beam weaponry, energy shields, concealed weapons that can grow into full-sized spears, and more. The only strange thing is that while the elite soldiers in Wakanda get beam weapons or things of the like, Black Panther himself is armed only with claws. It’s a narrative that works for comic books, but realistically, if he’s the king and protector of his people, it would make sense to give him a couple of plasma cannons up his sleeves as well, or at least one of those killer spears that shrink to the size of a mobile phone (presumably). But, those are minor complaints.

The movie makes the effort to humanize the villain – which is something good storytellers do. Pixar is a master at it – the villains usually have some understandable motivations for their behavior (see the bear in Toy Story 3, or Syndrome in the Incredibles). In some Pixar movies, there aren’t even any real villains at all – see Cars 1, or Inside Out.

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Marvel has done well in showing that not all villains are evil – some are simply misguided, and some act out of a deep pain and bitterness.

For me, the best Marvel movie so far was Captain America : Civil War. While it was like a mini-Avengers with so many heroes in it, what I loved most was the fact that the enemy of the Avengers was not an army of identical looking aliens/robots/creatures, but each other, in a way. Conflicting ideologies and the way to resolve them have been at the root of many of the worst wars in human history – land grabbing and world domination have not always been the cause. In Civil War, the trigger for this clash of philosophies was actually a man, not a supervillain like Loki or Thanos. And not just a cookie-cutter villain – a man driven by a deep hatred and anger, having lost his entire family in Sokovia because of the actions of the Avengers and their creation – Ultron. This made the movie much richer and believable, and Black Panther follows a similar path. Interestingly, Black Panther himself was introduced as a character in the MCU in Civil War.

Black Panther’s main villain (I would say Ulysses Klaue is a secondary villain) is given similar treatment – his motivations are clear, understandable, even, because of what happened to him and his father.

Killmonger is driven by a mixture of (i) anger and sorrow from losing his father when he was just a small boy (ii) feeling abandoned by his father’s community (which he found out about through the book) and (iii) a general sense of injustice about how black people have been treated over the years, especially while Wakanda sat by and did nothing. While his actions and behavior are reprehensible, one cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy for how he ended up there. And the director, Ryan Coogler, makes the effort to show this journey – by giving Killmonger his own scene with his father just like T’challa had. And even the confrontation between Killmonger’s father and T’chaka was played to show that neither was entirely right or entirely wrong – the choice between protecting your people (as defined by your country and kingdom), and protecting your people (as defined by Africans in general, including those in America descended from former slaves).

What is actually interesting is that the child version of Killmonger doesn’t cry for his father’s death, but instead says “everybody dies, it’s just the way it is around here.” That in itself, is a social commentary about the violence on the streets of inner city America. But the older version of Killmonger sheds tears for his father, and it is this reversal that is most effective – a kid growing up in a tough neighbourhood, shrugging off death like it was an everyday occurrence, and a grown-up, highly trained fighter with dozens of kills to his name, crying for his own late father. It’s a beautiful moment, and gave the movie a lot of depth.

African culture is portrayed respectfully and in detail. The movie goes to great lengths to try to show how an advanced African nation might integrate technology with ancient traditions. The spears carried by the elite guard are not just ceremonial – they are made of vibranium and have immense destructive potential. The ceremony for crowning a new king is a mix of ancient and modern practices, and the Wakandans do not shy away from using their tech for missions that they deem important for national security. The diversity of Africa and its tribes, along with the great outdoors, is captured for all to see, without being too preachy or slow-paced. Much of it, of course, is from the original comic book source material, where an African nation is the world’s most advanced nation, and way ahead of the rest of the world in many areas. Nonetheless, to flesh it out visually in a movie took some skill, and I think the director did a great job.

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Finally, the wider social commentary about slavery and the oppression of black people is handled tastefully. This is the core of the story – what drives the plot. The subject matter is highly sensitive – even today, racism is a very hot potato of a topic, and between #blacklivesmatter and the allegations of police brutality and discrimination against minorities (specifically those of African-American descent), this issue is still very much live and in the balance. While Trump’s racist rhetoric seems aimed mainly at Latinos and illegal immigrants from the Middle East, in truth, his ignorant views attract a lot of support from white supremacist groups, for whom black people in America are equally unwelcome.

This has been the greatest tragedy of America – from its founding till today, it has never fully shaken off its painful past. Slavery may have been abolished a hundred and fifty years ago, but racism in many forms persisted even up till the seventies, where whites and blacks went to different schools and sometimes different washrooms in the same school. “Segregation” stayed around far longer than “slavery”.

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Black soldiers were kept separate from whites during World War 2 – it was only in Vietnam that integration began to really happen.  In view of all this, the movie could have been one long angsty diatribe – how whites have oppressed blacks for years and now is the time for revenge.

Instead, it takes a much more nuanced and balanced view. In fact, the main villain is driven by precisely this dangerous mindset – that black people need to rise up and be the new oppressors instead. The opening sequence, set in 1992, shows two black men plotting something which looks like an armed robbery. It could just as easily have been an assassination plot, or an act of terrorism. They are later revealed to be Wakandan spies, though one of them did not know this about the other. The movie makes it clear that violence is not the solution, that death only begets more death. T’challa recognises this – in fact, the movie repeats the line many times, that using superior technology to kill others is not “the Wakandan way”. Thus, while the movie takes a sympathetic lens to the injustices that the black community were subject to, it does not veer to the extreme where the answer is to respond with “an eye for an eye”.

Furthermore, the actions of the Wakandan kings over the years are also portrayed as contributing to the problem – it is the reason why T’challa, previously so respectful of his father and ancestors, makes the angry statement that they were all wrong. The bigger social commentary is that those who know injustice is being done, but do nothing, in order to protect themselves, are at some level to be blamed as well. And while the culpable in the movie is the kingdom of Wakanda, it can be argued that anybody in the real world who deliberately turns away from those in need is guilty of this.

The movie ends on a melancholic note – while we cannot erase the past, we can choose to live differently. T’challa is told this – that he should not hold himself responsible for the actions of previous kings, but must now choose what kind of king he wants to be.

The whole story is wrapped in an elegant manner – the final scene of Killmonger’s death.

At this point, he utters a great line, which I love. He says that he chooses to die rather than be imprisoned in Wakanda, and asks that his ashes be scattered in the ocean. He then says that he will join his ancestors, who jumped off the slave ships bringing them to America, knowing that they would drown in the ocean, because they felt that death was better than bondage. That the ending is played so slowly and dramatically shows that the director is intent on driving home the message – that the choices facing many black people are stark and painful, and lead to desperate acts. In fact, much of the inner city crime on American streets is precisely because of the lack of good choices for the poorest of the urban poor. The cycle of poverty has to be broken, otherwise it leads to generations of crime borne out of desperation.

This is just a movie, at the end of the day. But sometimes, it takes seeing something like this, not a scathing commentary, but a carefully crafted tale of sadness and choice, that hopefully makes us all more conscious of our own shared humanity with others, who may not share the same skin colour as we do.

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Let’s take to heart the message of T’challa at the movie’s end:

“We must find a way to look after each other, as if we were one single tribe.”