We’re only a few weeks into 2019 — not even a month — and smog has already engulfed the whole of Bangkok.
This smog is not the kind that looks like wintery fog. (You know, the kind that settles over a city and gives it a romantic feel?) Nor is it the usual pollution that you’re accustomed to as a Bangkoker ever since you were little. This is serious, toxic stuff. Air-quality index-reaching-a-critical-peak serious stuff. You walk outside and you’re suffocated by the fumes. Every breath you take recalls to mind the infographic your friend has just shared on Facebook: If you don’t wear a surgical mask when you go out, the chance of you dying from pollution will increase by five percent!
Looking back on how 2018 panned out for many of us — in Thailand where democracy has become non-existent, in Trump’s United States, in the UK with Brexit, in other countries wrapped up in similar turmoils, in pop culture where many of our childhood heroes are now exposed as abusers — it shouldn’t have been surprising that 2019 has begun with a feeling that we’re already familiar with: that of a thick sheen of toxic smog threatening to choke us to death.
So during a party to ring in the new year, I tried to look for the brighter moments in 2018; to try and appreciate the good bits as well as the bad. And the very first moment that came to mind when I thought of ‘happy’ made me laugh out loud with bewilderment. Whatever I had expected my ‘happy moment’ of 2018 to be, it certainly wasn’t Cher and Andy Garcia singing Abba’s “Fernando” to each other while heart-shaped fireworks are exploding in the background!
The truth appears undeniable: watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again turned out to be one of my happiest experiences in 2018. Seeing extremely attractive people frolicking around on a Greek island while singing and dancing joyfully to Abba — not to mention Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard doing the Titanic pose on a prow of a ship to “Dancing Queen” — turned out to be just the tonic I needed to get through a rough couple of months. And judging from the response online and the worldwide box-office numbers, I wasn’t the only one.
During the last couple of years, we have seen a shift in how much people have grasped onto films, TV shows and music that simply, like Mamma Mia 2, bring mindless joy. Who cares about how Cher and Andy Garcia met in Mexico in 1959, or why they were crossing the Rio Grand as bullets rang overhead when they’re lip-synching so grandiosely to each other? Who cares about whether any of this makes sense? Every horrible thing fades away when the focus is on this one ridiculous moment: the two of them clasping eyes across the pavilion while the song’s first chord strikes.
Another gift that keeps on giving has been the gem that is Paddington 2. There is a reason that when this film didn’t get any Oscar nominations, the hashtag #JusticeForPaddington2 began trending on Twitter. Everything about it — from Paddington himself to every wooly jumper on display — is full of charm and heart. So much heart. The film superbly executes every beat, you feel transported into Paddington’s world where, for just a moment, you start to believe that every bad thing can be overcome with just a warm of cup of tea, a little kindness and some basic human decency.
Like the bear himself says: “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right”. So when I’m feeling down, I like to remind myself that somewhere, in some alternate universe, Paddington exists; that he and the Browns are still living happily together in their London home; that Hugh Grant is still out there doing full-blown dance routines in a prison where, for some strange reason, the inmates wear purple pinstripe uniforms.
To quote my favourite pop-country songstress Kacey Musgraves, there’s comfort in knowing that “everything’s gonna be alright”. Against the vibrant, bombastic feast that is Mamma Mia 2 and the heartwarming fuzziness of Paddington, Kacey’s critically acclaimed new album “Golden Hour” arrived into my life with all the gorgeousness and breeziness of spring. I’ve always enjoyed Kacey’s music for its wry, tongue-in-cheek observation of life. But Golden Hour has struck a chord with so many listeners across so many different genres because it doesn’t just observe life; it feels life. Kacey floats through the album, her voice hovering over every track in such a way that says, “I’m in no hurry here, so I’m just going to take my time”. Indeed, in the song “Slow Burn”, she sings: “I’m alright with a slow burn / Taking my time, let the world turn / I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be alright”.
Anti-heroes — the likes of Walter White, Frank Underwood and Don Draper — now rarely get the time of day; we appreciate them, of course, but it seems we no longer have the energy for them. The worldwide popularity and success of the Captain America character — along with that of Chris Evans and his Twitter account — is proof of this. Steve Rogers has earned a place in people’s hearts because he’s “just a kid from Brooklyn”: honest, selfless, brave, an all-around nice guy who’s just interested in doing what’s right. Steve Rogers doesn’t need to be morally grey to be complex or fascinating. Instead he is fascinating because the writers have put him in grey spaces where his straightforward ‘goodness’ and moral conviction are not always clear cut.
Yes, we still want the drama. The excitement. The thrill of what’s going to happen next. Otherwise we wouldn’t look to entertainment for solace. But during a time when so many aspects of our lives are clouded in toxicity (sometimes quite literally!), all we crave at the end of the day appears to be simplicity. An assurance that goodness will eventually win out. A promise that, no matter how bad things get, “There’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over [our heads]”.