Stepping into Van Gogh’s France

You don’t need to leave Asia to immerse yourself in Parisian charm. In the heart of Seoul’s shopping district, Dongdaemon, L’Atelier occupies the eleventh floor of the Hyundai City Outlet. Outside the miniature Paris, a young woman wearing a nineteenth-century inspired dress directed us to a curtained wall. In seconds, the grand curtains were drawn, revealing a grand door. A regal voice blares above visitors, going over the finer points of the visit and reminding you to enjoy the experience. Then the double doors swept open. A visual masterpiece that shows its audience Paris as famous painters saw the city, the site is divided into five unmissable sections named after real locations in the City of Love.

Five sections of l’atelier

Moving Pictures and Charming Streets

Stepping inside, we left the modern world behind and entered an idealized nineteenth-century Parisian square called the Place de Tetre. The flooring is decorated to give the appearance of cobblestone. To our left is “Patisserie Gloppe”, a quintessentially French bakery café displaying fresh bread on the left and allowing a peak into the café on the right. Like much of the immersive installation, animated videos of people in nineteeth-century attire and settings add authenticity and a sense of life beyond a visitor’s personal experience. Across from it sits “Boutique Paquin”. Looking through the window, you can see middle-class women preparing for a hat-making course. These two store facades immediately set visitors into an understanding of what the L’Atelier experience will be like.

Past the Place de Tetre sits a room of static and moving portraits. L’Atelier Gallery showcases artistic heavyweights. Largely featuring accurate remakes of Paul Gauguin’s portraits, the gallery adds a sense of magic with animation bringing the works of Van Gogh and Degas to life; the postman shuffling as he watches the audience and the ballerinas stretching and twirling on stage.

The Artists’ District

Taking a glimpse into an artist’s creative space, visitors weave single-file through the art studio of Maurice Utrillo. Paint tubes, finished canvases, and empty bottles lie throughout the studio in their own specific spaces, an organized chaos that many see as synonymous with an imaginative mind. Bridging the space between L’Atelier Gallery and Montmartre, the decision to stage Utrillo’s workspace specifically is an ode to the French district that lies ahead. Born in Montmartre, much of his work comprised of cityscapes of the Paris he loved.

Flowers at La Madeleine

With a sunset comprised of bold shades of purples, pinks, and oranges, the sky blends together in an artist’s passionate strokes. Flower stalls stand to either side, their bright colours tinted an orange-red from the setting sun. Tables stand in the middle of the space, visitors either reading the free French gazette or colouring in the masterful scenes created by their favourite artists. A neat row of vibrantly painted shelving units hold dainty pots of flowers and plants, curating the natural beauty and giving it new context.

In the Musée de I’Orangerie, Monet’s garden landscapes come to life. Starting in a blank white hexagonal room, the sounds of chirping birds and trickling rivers fill the air as the walls and floor become flooded with the moving images of Monet’s work. Butterflies scuttle here and there, lily pads shift their course, and fish deftly avoid the moving feet of awestruck visitors. Led through some of his most renowned works on springtime France,  the interactive experience provides audience members with new appreciation for the country-loving painter.

Uncovering the Man Behind the Masterpieces

In the Place Lamartine, a veil is lifted from the mysteries surrounding Van Gogh’s character. In “The Study of Emile Zola”, a time-travelling historian discusses some of the Dutch painter’s most famous works, such as “Sunflowers” and “Starry Night”. He interviews miniaturized versions of people who were at the periphery of Van Gogh’s life, such as his stern but fair landlady and the postman who regularly delivered correspondence between the brothers. Giving no sign that his discussions with these Lilliputian characters – impressive CGI that interact with the spaces and objects around them – are peculiar, the audience is drawn into the strangeness of the setup. As such, the subject matter discussed, Van Gogh’s perceived peculiarity to his contemporaries, is normal by comparison.

Further along, visitors can head into an impressively large square. Here sits The Yellow House, a lodging in Place Lamartine. Briefly, Van Gogh had rented four rooms in the house, capturing it in a series of paintings. One of these showcases his bedroom, which has been lovingly recreated for the curious to explore. The bedroom is sparsely decorated. Laregly engulfed in shadows, its main features are a single bed, a worn jacket that hangs on the wall, a rickety chair, and a blank easel.

The easel is brought to audience’s attention in “Van Gogh’s Dream”. A charming musical of Van Gogh’s journey through France and his wondrous vision of the world, the thirty-minute musical paints the cityscape in his overlapping brushstrokes, giving character to even something as inconsequential as the floor below our feet. Using a mixture of live action and CGI, the transitions are easy to follow as the character of Van Gogh sticks to a uniform of brown slacks, a blue sweater, and straw hat throughout. Never forgetting the love of his work, the actor is earnest and tender in his portrayal of a troubled artist loved after his time.

A Starry Ending

The twilight of L’Atelier, the lights are dimmed low in the Place du Forum, stars shining on CGI streets and street lamps glowing in warm tones. Here lies the Café Terrace at Night, a renowned Van Gogh portrait. Tables and chairs lie on the cobbled streets and the café’s wooden porch. In the distance, a CGI figure that bears a striking resemblance to the misunderstood artist is busy at work capturing the scene.

Across from the outdoor setting is the Night Café, its interior a burgundy red room crowded with more tables and chairs. It is reminiscent of the bar Van Gogh would visit. Here, much as it would have been in his time, “absinthe” is on offer – its true nature a sugary cocktail drink. “Van Gogh’s coffee”, black caffeine local to the region, would have been all the poor painter could have afforded when he wasn’t inclined to imbibe in heavier substances.

Beyond the café’s lies the post office, a common sight for Van Gogh, who wrote to his brother often. Covering Vincent’s basic living costs, Theo Van Gogh believed in his brother’s work and was one of the few to advocate for it. While their connection was tense, their love for each other was unconditional. A few months after Vincent’s death, Theo himself passed away.

Things to Know Before You Go

Shows Run All Day

Three minutes prior to each show – “Van Gogh’s Dream”, “The Study of Emile Zola”, and “Monet’s Garden” -, exhibit workers in Period-inspired clothing will walk around the area and announce the show’s beginning soon. Shows run from ten in the morning to six at night, so if you miss one, take the chance to wander around the area until the next show is ready!

Everything is in Korean

If Korean is not your mother tongue, fear not! Prior to entering L’Atelier, visitors can download the app on their mobile devices. Here, free English audio guides are available so that guests may enjoy and understand the France that their favourite artists loved.

Bring a Sweater

At the risk of sounding like a Mother Hen, it is better to bring one than wish you did! Set completely indoors, L’Atelier is not afraid of using air conditioning. At times mimicking the autumn and winter months, it is best to bring something to keep yourself bundled up.

If the swirling patterns and lively colour palettes of Vincent Van Gogh speak to you, a visit to Seoul would be incomplete without a day spent in L’Atelier!

Experiencing the Magic of Studio Ghibli

In its thirty-four years of history, Studio Ghibli has enchanted its viewers with its persevering message of hope through adversity, strength in difficult times, and conviction when all seems lost. Framing complex topics such as environmentalism, personal identity, and the preservation of culture and tradition in worlds of magic, spirits, and anthropomorphic animals, Hayao Miyzaki helps his audience understand the doublespeak of politicians through fantasy, and shows us time and again how important it is to believe in yourself and fight for positive change.

From now until November 3rd, FTLife Tower in Kowloon Bay is holding a two-floor exhibition of some of Studio Ghibli’s most famed works. Containing detailed dioramas and life-sized models of well-known characters and sets, “The World of Studio Ghibli’s Animation” allows us to step into the immersive worlds that coloured and shaped many childhoods since the mid-eighties. Listed below are five iconic scenes brought to life in the Studio Ghibli exhibit.

A Witch and Her Cat inside Gütiokipänjä Bakery

While Miyazaki made the young witch and her cat recognizable worldwide, Kiki’s origins stem from a Japanese book bearing the same name as the film. Set in a fictional Northern European town, location scouting was mainly completed in Stockholm and Visby (both Swedish areas), explaining the island town’s distinctly modern German aesthetic. Gütiokipänjä Bakery, a name melding together the Japanese words “bakery” (“panya”), and “rock, paper, scissors” (“jankenpon”), was a place that became home to the wandering witch. The sudden decision to help the bakery owner return an item to a customer would launch the entrpreneurial girl’s delivery service.

Understanding the need to pay her dues, the exhibit’s own Gütiokipänjä Bakery shows Kiki and her companion, Jiji, going through a slow shift – something that people of all ages can relate to. No detail is overlooked in this rendition. To the far left, a blue cash register sits beside a vase containing two sunflowers and sprigs of baby’s breath. More flowers and plants rest behind and beside the cashier table. Mouthwatering loaves of bread are on display by the window, in the display counter, and behind the working girl. The sign for her delivery service hangs on the windowfront. The bakery’s door, spring green in colour, shows flour, milk, jams, and baguettes, neatly arranged on a wooden shelving unit.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Another adaptation of a children’s book, both versions are set in Ingary, a fictional monarchy located somewhere in the southern United Kingdom. A hodgepodge combination of metal and small single-storey red-roofed houses, the behemouth mobile home is kept together and powered by the fire demon Calcifer, whose physical form is chained to the fireplace. The world-unto-itself that is the moving castle lumbers along on short, spindly legs. Its façade, a crude imitation of a face, adds to the mystery surrounding the wizard, Howl.

No exhibit that includes this film would be complete without the colossal residence. Every angle of the moving castle’s model speaks of its miscare. Different sections are coloured in subtly *different tones of grey, copper, and mould-like blues and green. Like its animation counterpart, the castle is a blend of sharp angles and curves. It is at once machine and monster. The peculiar home is immediately out-of-place with the pastoral scenery. Behind, snow-topped mountains and a deep blue sky lets viewers know they are seeing countryside springtime. In the foreground, fluffy white sheep are clustered outside of a farmer’s house, a quaint abode with a thatched roof.

A Spirit on the Train

Tried to show “No-Face” the view. Like Queen Victoria, he was not amused!

An original creation by Miyazaki, Spirited Away falls into the coming-of-age genre, one that Studio Ghibli uses time and again. Set in the spirit world, the young protagonist Chihiro must rescue her parents in this world of characters that have become consumed by materialism and avarice. She works Yubaba, the owner of a bathhouse for spirits, a powerful witch who transfigured Chihiro’s gluttonous parents into pigs. It is here that she meets “No-Face”, a spirit that reflects the personalities of those around him, becoming corrupted by the greedy workers at the bathhouse.

It is a thirty-minute wait to pose with “No-Face”, and there isn’t a single visitor that passes the opportunity. The spirit, so volatile and destructive in the bathhouse, is now still and calm as the train he is riding heads closer to the home of Zeniba, Yubaba’s twin sister. The long bench that “No-Face” sits on is a soft red velvet. To the far left, a comically large package sits. Below it is another package, both being delivered to some unknown location. Outside, the sunset is coloured in pastel pinks and purples. The shifting light of the ocean’s reflection is imitated through clever lighting.

The Fall of Laputa

A visual steampunk fantasy come alive, “Castle in the Sky” is an action-packed thriller that warns of the corruption of government and corporate entities in the pursuit of valuable resources. It is a reminder for humanity to remember its connection to the earth, and not abandon it in godly pursuits of power. Sheeta, an orphaned descendent of the Laputan royals, is in possession of an amulet containing “volucite” cystals. These crystals keep flying cities in the air, and their power leads to Sheeta and her friend Pazu being chased by a government agent and air pirates.

Tinted in a dramatic red light, the scene depicted is Laputa, the legendary castle in the sky, in flames as pirates and soldiers alike have opened fire. Sheeta stands on a collapsing column, in the clutches of a robot that is part of ancient Laputan technology. As the last remnants of the sky city fall, Sheeta and Pazu reach out for each other, the pair happily starting anew back on land.

A Very Fluffy Spirit

Another addition to Studio Ghibli’s collection of coming-of-age films, “My Neighbour Totoro” explores the double challenges of the illness of a loved one and moving to a new home. Set in postwar rural Japan, sweeping landscapes are strongly featured. The steady signs of a country regaining its prosperity after loss, audience members experience the simplistic joys of countryside living with the protagonists Satsuki and her younger sister, Mei. Following two adorable, large eared spirits to a large, hollowed camphor tree, here the characters are introduced to Totoro, a gigantic, rotund grey and white creature who speaks by bellowing out roars that make little Mei laugh.

Depicted in the exhibit is the scene where the sisters and Totoro wait at the bus stop for a giant cat that doubles as a magical flying bus. The soft pattering of the rain plays around patient visitors as they wait for their turn to photograph with the pair. Low lighting emphasises the night, and the falling rain is cleverly shown through active bluish-white light streaming behind the characters.

Things to Know Before You Go

Like & Share

Just before entering FTLife Tower, you’ll be asked to like and share the event’s Facebook page. Doing so gives you the choice of receiving either a paper crown or paper fan to commemorate the experience. Both show Totoro’s silhouette, within which famous scenes from Studio Ghbili films are arranged in neat squares and rectangles. Given the Hong Kong humidity, I opted for the fan.

Free Wifi

Many visitors want to capture their experiences and post them live, and “The World of Studio Ghibli’s Animation” is happy to help. Free wifi lets people update to Instagram minutes after posing with their favourite characters, letting more people know about the nostalgia-filled exhibit.

Get Ready to Shop

At the end of the visually enthralling exhibition lies a pop-up store filled with Studio Ghibli memorabilia. Everyday items such as towels, kitchenware, stationary, and bags are made utterly adorable with characters such as Jiji and Totoro. Hyper-realistic plush toys, puzzles, and enamel pins are too cute to resist. Of all the people I saw in the store, only a handful left without purchasing a thing. Most bought at least three or four, unable to make a choice between a Totoro-themed face towel and a life-sized plush version of Jiji’s girlfriend, a snow-white cat. After battling between several items, I finally left with an enamel pin of Totoro wielding an umbrella as he roared.

If you love the intricate worlds and unique characters of Studio Ghibli films, this is one exhibit you won’t want to miss!

Nuremberg: the medieval and the modern within easy reach

Our first day in Nuremberg was a charmed one. The sun greeted us, its bright glow gently coaxing us outside. We didn’t need to be told twice. After an energising breakfast of muesli and fruits, we geared up and headed out to carpe diem. Modern and classical architecture sat side by side, perfectly complimenting one another. Our first stop of the day led upwards, to the Nuremberg Castle. Its structure first established on the rocky cliffs in the eleventh century, the Imperial Castle was an important point for court gatherings and royal visits between the mid eleventh to the late sixteenth century. Inhabited only when the emperor came to visit, the structure stands as a symbol of status and power. Inside the grounds, a chapel – well fitted with era-appropriate religious artwork – and a museum dedicated to royal artefacts, greeted us. While most of the descriptive guides were written in German, it did nothing to dissuade our interest in the displays. Art appreciation knows no barriers. And the incredible intricacy and meaning imbued in centuries-old works only makes its beauty even more captivating. My friend had to pry me away from the golden crown on display. It’s a good thing he did too; otherwise we could have lost the day in that dimly lit room.

As per every Tuesday, we headed off afterwards in search of a café and a bookshop. Stopping along the beautiful Pegnitz river, Café & Bar Celona called to us. Situated on the south side of the Fischbrücke bridge, the quaint café is situated in the middle of the shopping district. Sitting outside, we watched as people strolled past us. Every passerby was all smiles, and why shouldn’t they be? Because even with light rain spattering on and off throughout the day, the temperature was ideal late spring weather; warm enough to wear summer clothes, fitted with a light breeze that justified taking a jacket along. To satiate our sweet tooth, we both ordered a mousse. My friend opted for a white chocolate mousse and an Americano. I ordered a milk chocolate mousse and a boozy hot chocolate. My spoon sliced through the dessert like soft butter. Its crunchy topping balanced the velvety texture of the mousse. Paired with the hot chocolate, Celona was an absolute delight. Thank heavens for its delicious treats, because as we sat down to order, my dear itouch died. And silly me, I forgot to pack a charger cable. So I retrieved Alfonso, an adorable penguin I bought at The Deep aquarium in Hull, from my bag. The sight of him brought an immediate smile to my face. Chuckling, my friend flagged down the waitress and we placed our orders.

Properly fuelled and sugar running through our veins, we squared up our tab and went to the next stop for the day. Thalia, a popular chain bookstore in Germany, boats over two hundred stores throughout the country. Visiting the Thalia in Nuremberg, it was easy to see why. Fitted with four floors of technology, working spaces, a café, a lecture space, and of course, books, Thalia was fabulously organised. Everything was clearly and boldly labeled. Colourful displays, such as the garden house, were a neat summary of aesthetically pleasing stationary, books, and décor. The International section, situated on the top floor, was a blend of top sellers and unique finds. Detailed opinions from staff members were lovingly written out on white cards and placed in front of the respective novels. If I had all the money in the world, I would’ve started my shopping spree in Thalia. So even though a myriad of books called to me, my wallet firmly insisted on settling for one. And what a wonderful choice! Having fallen in love with the film, my friend pointed out the novelised adaptation of The Shape of Water. A collaborative work between Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus, the book adds further depth to the characters the audience was introduced to onscreen. To avoid spoiling too much, the inner conflict of Lainie Strickland – the antagonist’s wife – was a refreshing change to her unchallenging Stepford depiction onscreen. All but dragging me out of the literary Narnia, I clutched the ocean blue book in my arms, eager to delve into the mythical world.

Hello, all!

Good evening!

It’s barely still Tuesday, but I’m counting it.

A born and bred TCK (Third Culture Kid), I grew up surrounded by friends and family who would regale us with fantastic stories of travels and travelers, filling my young heart with the desire to have a firsthand experience of these wonderful events. When I was a little older, I began flitting back and forth between Canada and Hong Kong. I would never trade these circumstances for anything, for they provided my contradictory mind with metropolis and mother nature in equal measures.

Now living in the UK, it would be a shame to stay still when there are so many countries at my doorstep.

For everyone whose eyes devour books, hearts yearn for new places, and souls calm when surrounded by nature, I invite you to follow me in my adventures.