The Hobbit Is Here

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, if you’re not familiar with it, was written before The Lord of The Rings.  I haven’t read it in 30 or 40 years but I recall it as a fairly light-hearted book, aimed more at teens (Tolkien’s kids, specifically) than adults.  When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, during World War II and heavily influenced by his own experiences in World War I, he continued the world that he’d started in that earlier book.  The Hobbit has had a long and twisted cinematic history.

There was a short animated version done in 1966 as a Czech/US coproduction.

1977 brought a 77 minute animated version made for TV by the Rankin-Bass group, featuring the voices of John Huston as Gandalf, Orson Bean as Bilbo, Richard Boone as the dragon and my late, lamented friend Brother Theodore as the voice of Gollum.

Both were relatively low key, modest affairs of interest to very few outside of Tolkien fans.

Then came Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a massive global success, and it became a given that there would be a big screen big budget version of The Hobbit.  There was massive arguing over who actually had the rights to do it.  Once those were securely in Jackson’s hands, his idea was that he would produce it while directing chores would fall to Guillermo Del Toro.  Del Toro and Jackson had some sort of falling out during pre-production and Jackson ended up taking over as director.

Jackson announced that the 319 page (with illustrations by the author) book was going to be expanded into two movies.  And then three.  Depending on who you want to believe, this is either a desperate grab for money by a starving studio and a director who has had little commercial success outside of Tolkien or the logical expansion of the original story (drawing upon subsequent writings by Tolkien).

Now, just to stir up the shit a little bit more, Jackson decided to shoot the film not just in 3D but also at 48 frames per second.  24 fps has been the standard since 1927, but Jackson said that with the advent of digital there was no reason to stick to that old standard anymore.  Some preview audiences reportedly found the 48 fps projection rate induced dizziness and nausea, others said it was just fine and dandy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, aka part 1 of the new trilogy opened in Hong Kong yesterday, in the U.S. today.  Reviews have been decidedly mixed, with a score of 68% over at Rotten Tomatoes (just 49% from “top critics”).

We went to see it yesterday, 3D and IMAX but not at 48 fps – that’s only available at iSquare and I decided that I’d sacrifice the exposure to new technology and possibly 3 hours of feeling sick to convenience, as the UA cinema at Megabox is just 20 minutes from where I live.

What did I think of the movie?  I rather liked it.  For something with a running time of 169 minutes, it moved along rather nicely.  It is bombastic and excessive and I’m crossing my fingers that this doesn’t mean the entire trilogy will run 9 hours and perhaps run 12 hours in some future home video director’s cut edition.  There are no surprises – but that also translates to pretty solid production design and effects.

Ian McKellan, Iam Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Andy Serkis all reprise their roles from LOTR while Martin Freeman does a terrific job as Bilbo. Benedict Cumberbatch is also there, very briefly and unrecognizably – presumably his role gets expanded in the next film. The riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum is exceptionally well done.  I enjoyed the film, I’m glad I went to see it, I feel no particular urge to rush out and see it again but I will see the two sequels when they come out should I live that long.

On the other hand, there is that feeling of having seen it all before.  If I wanted to be really cynical about it, I could say it’s six movies about people who go hiking in New Zealand and get attacked by CGI a lot.  On the one hand it’s nice that Jackson has done all 6 films.  You get a nice conceptual continuity by having the same essential production design and the same actors throughout.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what Guillermo del Toro had in mind.  And perhaps a different, dare I say fresher, vision might have proven more interesting.

(My girlfriend, btw, who never read the books and knew nothing of The Hobbit and had no idea it was a prequel to LOTR until I showed her the trailer right before we went, absolutely loved the film. She laughed out loud during the comedy sequences and audibly gasped several times during the action stuff.)

Hong Kong Headed For a Crash?

The Atlantic has an article on Hong Kong’s Jittery Housing Frenzy.  The article starts off with an extreme example, citing the apartment on The Peak that sold over the summer for US$60 million.  And then goes on to the recent IMF warning that a slowdown in the HK real estate market could have dire consequences for the local banking system because the property sector represents roughly half of all outstanding loans in the territory.

The Atlantic counters by mentioning that HKers generally don’t default on their loans as well as the fact that the majority of mortgages are on places where people have put down a greater than 50% down payment. But a downturn would obviously affect other industries, ranging from construction to retail.

But the city’s government is unlikely to allow a real estate price correction that could damage property developers or banks. The Hong Kong government tends to aggressively pursue land policies that make sure its property tycoons–such as Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing–and its banking system stay healthy.

Not allowing a house price crash will harm Hong Kong in the long run, as independent economist Andy Xie points out here. He says that the city has been squeezing land supply for over a decade. In Xie’s words, policies that keep property prices inflated, for the benefit of banks and developers, hurt the city overall.

Hong Kong probably isn’t heading towards a banking crisis, then. But it may be on the edge of a social crisis. Hong Kong policymakers might simply react to the IMF’s warning with new plans to restrict land supply. That could ensure that people’s homes, instead of getting cheaper, just get smaller.

The Atlantic also mentions that new HK apartments are referred to as “shoeboxes” due to their tiny size.  I think “shitboxes” might be a more appropriate name given that:

  1. Developers are legally allowed to lie about the size of the apartment, including a percentage “common areas” such as the lobby, the clubhouse and hall ways in the advertised size.
  2. Newer Hong Kong apartment buildings are constructed to look luxurious with gorgeous facades and grand lobbies while the cheapest possible materials are used in the apartments themselves.

That linked piece by Andy Xie hits the nail on the head – repeatedly.

Hong Kong’s economy is suffering. Between 1997 and 2011, nominal gross domestic product grew by 2.6per cent, per capita income by 2per cent, and the average salary by nearly 2per cent every year. Over the same period, the cost of living shot up – oil prices quintupled and food prices doubled – while China’s labour costs tripled. It’s easy to see why Hong Kong people are not happy.

More damaging is how concentrated in property and finance the Hong Kong economy has become. In 1997, aside from the property bubble, Hong Kong was leading the Pearl River Delta’s industrialisation with the attendant high-valued-added activities such as research and development, trade finance and marketing based in Hong Kong.

But the high cost of doing business due to high property prices and rent has pushed away such businesses. The only new business that has helped Hong Kong is retailing to mainland tourists. But selling European products to Chinese tourists is a low-value-added business. Only landlords benefit significantly from it.

The social cost of squeezing supply to support a high price could precipitate social turmoil. While Hong Kong is considered a high-income economy, numerous families, many with members of three generations, live in one room. More than two-thirds of Hong Kong’s land is undeveloped. And reclamation, the main source of new land for Singapore, has potential in Hong Kong. So, while popular perception attributes high property prices to a land shortage, it is utterly untrue. Hong Kong’s elite fuels this misperception because they want to keep people in the dark.

No great city can thrive just on dodgy businesses like property speculation, arbitrage exploiting someone else’s loopholes, or helping powerful people rob their countries. True, such businesses also exist in London and New York. But those cities have diversified activities to provide a decent living for the local populations, even as the elite profit from the dodgy activities. If Hong Kong’s economy is to thrive, it must make Hong Kong people competitive.

Unless Hong Kong cuts property from its economic centre, it doesn’t have a good future. Property isn’t a productive asset. It is worth money only because the people who use properties are competitive. When policy squeezes up property prices by restricting supply, it just prices more and more people out of the modern economy. As their numbers accumulate, discontent will grow.

Hong Kong must control land supply according to its development needs, not to set prices. The city should first set targets for the size of its population and housing conditions – say, a minimum living space of 200 square feet per person – and land supply should follow. The current property bubble will eventually burst, like the ones before, when the US Fed raises the interest rate. And when it does, the government must resist manipulating supply to support prices. It should be viewed as an opportunity to restructure the economy.

So there you have what you should have known all along.  The prices of Hong Kong real estate are manipulated by the government to benefit the billionaire cartels to the detriment of the millions of people who live here.

At the same time, we’re going through this idiotic protest against Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y Leung over some illegal additions he made to his home.  Ole C.Y. has handled this poorly.  He should have made a speech in which he said, “So, what the fuck?  Everyone does it.  How does this impact my qualifications to govern?”  Instead he hemmed and hawwed and issued a bunch of half-hearted denials and dismissals, acting as if he was trying to deny getting a blow job from a hooker rather than putting up a trellis to have a bit of green covering his house. There was even a vote of no confidence held in the Legislative Council, though the motion didn’t pass.

What’s the point of all this?  Here’s my opinion.  The billionaires control the government, with an out-sized representation in LegCo as well as in most government advisory bodies.

Meanwhile, C.Y. Leung’s policies in his six months in office are being seen as anti-tycoon, to at least some degree.  Had Henry Tang been appointed, he undoubtedly would have continued Donald Tsang’s disastrous pro-billionaire slant.

So while it’s not logical to suspect that a no confidence vote might have been anything other than symbolic (does anyone think that if this had passed, China would suddenly go, “Oh, right, C.Y., you gotta go”?) what’s clear to me is that if Hong Kong’s billionaires hate C.Y. Leung, that automatically puts him on my top ten list of good people.

Always on my top ten list of shit heads is Jackie Chan.  This billionaire actor was quoted in 2009 as saying, “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we are not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

Now he’s said, “Hong Kong has become a city of protest. The whole world used to say it was South Korea. It is now Hong Kong…  People scold China’s leaders, or anything else they like, and protest against everything… The authorities should stipulate what issues people can protest over and on what issues it is not allowed.”

Chan, who famously does his own stunts, has probably been dropped on his head a few times too many.


Hong Kong 7’s 2013 Tickets

(Note that I’ve disabled my usual WordPress theme and put in this temporary very plain theme until I get some issues sorted out.)

If you’re looking for tickets for 2013’s Hong Kong Rugby 7’s, always an instant sell-out, there’s a new lottery system in place for HK Residents.  Go to the Hong Kong 7’s web site and you can register your details between December 13th 2012 and February 4 2013 for a “public ballot”, aka lottery, to be held on February 7th.  There are 4,000 seats available via this system.

Note that you can only register once and if you “win” you are only entitled to buy 2 tickets.  You’ll then have from February 8th to February 22nd to confirm and pay for your tickets.  A second drawing will be held on February 25th for any tickets unclaimed from the original drawing.

Perhaps this will be an improvement on previous years when the web site collapsed under the weight of all the people trying to buy tickets online the moment they went on sale.  Or perhaps not.