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Spelunkings of a Geisha

Monday, 16 January 2006 — 4:19pm | Film, Full reviews

I saw Brokeback Mountain before Christmas, but my review was held off until last Thursday, since the paper was on hiatus. The problem with being one of the last people to write 500 words about Brokeback is that there is very little to say about it that has not already been said, to the point where one could probably devise some kind of systematic indexing scheme for stock criticism about how it’s not just a gay cowboy movie, but speaks universal truths about forbidden love. The claim is true enough, but so much of the movie’s assets lie in nuance and subtlety – specific scenes, and specific gestures in specific scenes – that to haul it back to the level of capsule summary and holistic judgment is like restating the parallel postulate for everybody’s benefit when what you really want to do is examine transformations on hyperbolic surfaces.

The film is likely to pick up a whole heap of Golden Globes tonight, which I’m not watching thanks to Scrabble. I’ve never been suckered into the faux prestige of the Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press has received a lot of undue attention by fortuitous statistical correlation to the Oscars alone – occasional, at that. And this year, they shafted both Munich in Drama and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in Comedy. I remember when they had the class and courage to shower quality animation on an equal level with live-action.

I usually don’t do a year-in-review of film until about February, and this will probably be the case again, though the only exciting omissions on the list of movies I watched in 2005 are Crash and Walk the Line. I’ll catch up soon enough.

But first, a few words about Memoirs of a Geisha.

Now, one might wonder why I’m drawing attention to such a middling melodrama of no great consequence. Indeed, I found Geisha to be terribly underwhelming, though only rarely outright terrible. (To its credit, it sports pretty pictures of cherry blossoms and a lush musical score that is unique in the John Williams oeuvre, though in the general case the instruments and pentatonic melodies of the Far East are nothing new.) I want to talk about it because it is receiving a lot of undeserved hostility from folks on high horses who haven’t earned their spurs.

First are the postmodern other-thumpers who wave their Edward Said in the air and dismiss offhand the validity of a story about sexualized foreigners told in the mode of western romance. I contend that this is a misapplication of Orientalism.

Orientalist critique serves to reveal unexamined prejudices that are specifically not contained in the text, and calling the artist on it. In Geisha there are many. That’s fair. But the danger that Orientalism counteracts is the possibility that some secluded bloke might take mythologized falsities for historical fact.

Orientalism is not a blanket injunction on all works of tourist’s-eye-view fiction. We make allowances for factual inaccuracy in fiction all the time if it contributes to good fiction. Once contextual correspondence is out of the way, and those inaccuracies have been identified, it’s the textual system that counts. I find it far more patronizing for western audiences to be prematurely offended on the behalf of other cultures without an understanding of the difference between inaccuracy and offensiveness. As a romance, the Geisha story as presented in the film is weak for a number of reasons, but its western perspective isn’t one of them.

Then there are those who are deeply offended by the casting of three high-profile Chinese actresses as the principal players in a story set in idyllic fascist Japan, whose soldiers were off raping and pillaging in Manchuria at the time. There’s no other way to put it: the claim that actors of one Asian ethnicity can’t play characters of another is flatly ridiculous. Nobody complained when House of Flying Daggers starred a Japanese actor – and that was in no less romantic a role (martial arts expert, passionate lover, you get the idea). Were Polish Jews offended when a big-nosed American named Adrien Brody was cast as the lead in The Pianist?

Heck, Canadian actors play Americans all the time, and we hate Americans. At least, that’s what the Liberal Party tells me… some of the time.

To defer to one of the greatest film directors of all time: if Anthony Quinn can play Auda Abu Tayi and Omar Sharif can play Dr. Zhivago, all bets are off. Does Auda Abu Tayi serve? No!

If there’s any hump to get over at all once we’re past the biggest one (appearances), it’s not cultural consciousness or genetic heritage. It’s language. Sure, you can play it safe and genuine and go with an all-British cast for a British film, as was done to great effect in the Harry Potter films. But even Audrey Hepburn pulled off Eliza Doolittle the guttersnipe flower-girl and Eliza Doolittle the fair lady. Dialect coaching works wonders.

That’s probably the one aspect where the Chinese/Japanese discrepancy actually comes out in Geisha – language. Apparently, English in a sufficiently Asian accent was enough, and nobody took the care to note that there are actually noticeable differences between a Chinese accent and a Japanese accent. (It’s generally, but not always, in how they handle the Ls and Rs.) At any rate, it’s not a discrete either-or proposition, and if you listen carefully, even a Mandarin accent sounds different from a Cantonese one. Michelle Yeoh speaks in a sort of nether region that actually serves to make her character one of the more regal ones in the film. Gong Li, on the other hand, just sounds uncomfortable. But it’s not her fault she got horrible lines. “I will destroy you!” Yeah, whatever.

Here is a legitimate reason to subject Memoirs of a Geisha to endless mockery:

“Did Mother ever tell you about the eel and the cave? Well, every once in a while, a man’s eel likes to visit a woman’s cave.”

I’m told it’s straight from the book.

And you can stop giggling now.

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An old Cyberian proverb

Wednesday, 14 December 2005 — 5:20pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

And lo, the slacker looked upon the face of deadlines. And it stayed its hand from blogging. And from that day, it was as one dead.

There’s been a lot to say lately – busiest movie month of the year, after all, plus a somewhat amusing election campaign and about an hour a day catching imaginary fish, planting imaginary flowers and arranging imaginary furniture in my other, more rustic life. (By the way, if perchance you have the game and your town’s starting fruit is something other than apples, get ahold of me and we’ll discuss a trade.) Only now am I compelled to post, though what I have to say is closer to the shallow end of the trivia-analysis continuum.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a model remake. Never does it entertain pretensions of burying the 1933 original: far from it, Jackson’s film is a loving tribute, in every way made by a cineola for his fellow fans to cherish. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, but then again, he’s working off a story that doesn’t have quite so much meat on the bones, and it shows as soon as the embellished human relationships constructed before we get to Skull Island wear out and fade away. There’s no doubt that the Kong story is one of the Great American Legends and a piece of our cultural history, even speaking as a Canadian – but for all its poignancy, nobody could mistake the story for being materially complex.

But at its core, the new Kong isn’t so much a remake as it is a faithful adaptation of some of the most iconic moments in cinema. Kong rolling the sailors off the log, Kong unhinging the jaws of a tyrannosaur, Kong reeling in the vine that Ann and Jack are descending – it’s all something to behold this day in age when special effects have reached the saturation point where we can take them for granted as reality and direct our attention to how they advance the story. Merian C. Cooper’s original, as dated as the model work looks today, still holds up because of what the animators made the models do. They didn’t just stomp around trampling and devouring – they had mannerisms.

And then there are the overtly tributary moments, as lovably indulgent as Uma Thurman wearing the Bruce Lee track suit in Kill Bill. I don’t want to spoil them all, but at the same time, I can’t let them go unmentioned. When Carl Denham is escaping in the taxicab, he queries his assistant about which actresses are available as an emergency replacement. “Fay is a size four,” he suggests – but alas, he is told Ms. Wray is doing a film over at RKO. Snicker, snicker. Then there’s the scene he films on the ship between Ann and the actor Bruce Baxter (played by Kyle Chandler, who is wholly new to me and at the same time one of the highlights of the movie). It’s note for note the same scene as the one between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot, down to the way either Bruce turns his head to the right as he mutters, “And I’ve never been on one with a woman before.” And then there’s the Broadway marquee the night Denham opens his show – an exact reproduction.

It’s very much the same approach that Jackson took with his Tolkien adaptation. The source material is not only treated with reverence – it’s taken as historical fact.

There’s no shortage of movies in the past twelve years that have wanted to be the movie that this King Kong is, chief among them The Lost World and Ang Lee’s Hulk, but as recent as bits and pieces of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A lot of people have likened it to Titanic: a landmark spectacle that obscures a human element that pales in comparison. A fair comparison, sure, but only if we consider on top of it that the Naomi Watts’ take on Ann Darrow and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Kong make for what I think is clearly one of the great screen romances. In fact, I prefer the relationship between Ann and Kong here to that of the original film. When you see them skate in Central Park, you’ll know what I mean.

But enough praise for now. What I was most interested in going into the movie was how Jackson’s film would address the primitivist, and perhaps even racialistic assumptions inherent to the the 1933 version’s worldview.

To me, the most curious thing about the ’33 Kong was its morally ambiguous position – indeed, its refusal to comment on what to make of Kong’s ultimate demise. Is it a triumph or a tragedy? We’re never told: the Robert Armstrong Carl Denham enunciates the immortal last line as if it were a proud declaration of his own cleverness, tickled by how conveniently the fall of Kong fit the beauty-and-beast theme he had envisioned all along.

The answer to the triumph-or-tragedy question is left to depend on the attitude of the audience. Is it sympathetic with Denham and company? Or does it plead for an absent mercy when Kong, atop the Empire State Building, cowers in self-defense and wishes the airplanes would just go away so he would be left alone (and alive) with his terrified little Ann? Do we applaud when the monster falls – or is man the monster?

The answer is immeasurably complex, and I’m not going to repeat seventy years of film scholarship to establish my own thesis on the matter – at least, not on this particular December evening. But here’s a primer: it is a distinct possibility that the interpretation of the Kong myth has, since its initial release, been completely turned on its head.

King Kong ’33 presumes a chain of command between all living things, an ordering of the world from the barbaric to the civilized. In a sentence, Kong beats dinosaurs, Kong beats hooting and hollering natives, but the civilized man beats Kong, or does he. The sights to behold on Skull Island are, to quote, things “no white man has ever seen.” Denham treats the island and its inhabitants – first the natives, then the creatures – as subjects of entertainment for developed places where entertainment exists.

You can talk all you want about King Kong as purely escapist spectacle (it is) and heck, even one of the greatest films ever made (it is) – but I can’t fathom how it would be possible for anyone to ignore that its presumptions are inherently colonialist. Being a proud son of the colonies myself, I’m not passing judgment – I’m just telling it as it is. At the extreme, King Kong is spoken of as a metaphor for the black man that steals a blonde beauty, and doesn’t discard her as a human sacrifice like those inadequate native-girl offerings. It’s really not at all a stretch.

The damsel-in-distress archetype is colonial discourse, and is reflected in spades in the pulp adventure fiction of the early twentieth century, most prominent among them the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (It’s also deflected in the anti-adventures of Joseph Conrad, which you’ll notice Jamie Bell’s character reading in the Jackson remake.) Back in March I wrote a post about how this comes to the fore in A Princess of Mars, when John Carter travels to the Red Planet and beats back the brutes with the force of compassionate love, which he is capable of and they are not.

Or, to put it in filmic terms – it was beauty killed the beast.

So Kong’s defeat is a triumph to those who see themselves atop a ladder of civilization (or an Empire State Building, for that matter), a position worth defending against the invasive pretenses of an ascending monster. But as a tragedy, the one we sympathize with is Kong, a creature who consistently acts in defense of himself, and in defense of Ann Darrow. The central question, then, is whether or not he has the right to protect Ann so vigourously; whether it is an act of care, or an act of possession. It is, moreover, comparative: how does Kong’s right to Ann compare to that of Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll, who in his initially misogynistic gung-ho masculinity makes him a microcosm of the same beauty-beast dichotomy?

The movie winds up back in New York with Kong a captive, Driscoll a hero and Ann his fiancée. But the last time we see Jack leaves him defeated in much the same way. Nobody really gets the girl, but the girl sure got the ape.

A civil rights movement, a global postcolonial backlash and a Peter Jackson remake later, I posit the modern audience that watches the 1933 King Kong almost invariably errs on the side of tragedy. When Denham announces to his audience that Kong, once a king, comes to the civilized world a captive, there is something deeply ironic about it. Kong cannot be held captive, and he dies on his feet. (Okay, so he dies on his back. But he is on his feet when they shoot him.) In that sense, King Kong is as useful an exposé of primitivist attitudes as it is a celebration, and the work itself tips the balance neither way.

It is the modern sensitivity to the civilized subduing the savage that dominates Jackson’s version, a sensitivity that puts a limit on whether or not it can be done. Observe how the new film differs.

Now the natives aren’t just a scantily-clad ritualistic tribe that lives in huts – they’re snarling, mace-wielding murderer-folk with bad teeth. Like the orcs in The Lord of the Rings, they demand no sympathy because they do not resemble anything like what we would call a human society – they’re clearly monsters, and the sailors have nothing to feel guilty about when they gun them down.

But not so with King Kong. In this one, his love goes requited. (A good thing, too, because nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter like you-know-what.) Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome – who knows – but the Naomi Watts Ann Darrow is thoroughly sympathetic and thankful for a creature that, by the end of the movie, turns out to be probably the most human character in the story.

Not that it’s an indictment of man, though, because the same change occurs with the new Jack Driscoll as played by Adrien Brody, now no longer such a man’s-man beast-among-men but a meek playwright thrust into romance and adventure quite against his will. And so this film, like its precursor (let’s not even bother acknowledging the 1976 one, which doesn’t fit into this comparative study), refuses to point fingers and say, “He’s a villain.” There are monsters, yes – the now-inhuman native folk, the tyrannosauri, the arachnids from the Legendary Missing Spider Sequence – but no villains to whom we can assign a face.

Denham is still in many ways reprehensible, yes, but he’s far from villainy: as in the original film, he’s more of an architect of circumstantial misfortune. And Jack Black’s delivery of the last line is telling. Unlike Armstrong, he isn’t smug about it. He says it with awe, wonder and perhaps a tinge of regret. It’s like Fortinbras surveying the bloodbath in Elsinore: the observer in the drama, and the audience outside it, are left with a characteristic aftertaste of terror and pity.

Beauty kills the beast, but man doesn’t really rescue the beauty. It’s the hero who dies, simian as he may be.

Great film, and Wellington Santa Claus has delivered a worthy Christmas present once again. I’d feel very comfortable putting the new King Kong next to my generation’s monster classic, Jurassic Park, for reasons that are not solely alphabetical.

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Sin City opens; Pope unavailable for comment

Wednesday, 6 April 2005 — 9:45pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film, Full reviews

Lately, I have been putting off the writing of those “movie review” things that certain readers ask me for when approaching me in person at those rare opportune moments when I emerge from my cavern to, among other activities, watch movies. I’ll present my reason, or excuse as the case may be, in the form of several premises.

Dispute these if you must, but let me propose the following. One who is most likely to benefit from a review in the traditional sense is one who has not seen a movie, which then allows me to exercise my relative position of discursive power to encourage or discourage the related expenditure that goes into said movie depending on whether it will lead to the betterment of one’s life and understanding of the much-ballyhooed “human condition” – or, alternatively, fund terrorist cells. Such reviews will normally consist of evaluating the different structural elements of production and how they add up, whilst approaching the narrative in vague terms so as to avoid spoiling the experience.

Reviewing a film, however, is not the same thing as critiquing it. The two are not mutually exclusive, but even when they work together, the former is just an extension of the latter, and reduces to the affixation of value judgments to certain interpretive products. The problem with these stickers that read “this is good” or “this is bad” is that not everything invites the label. As for everything that does, it gets tiresome after a while.

As a writer I far prefer engaging in critique removed from the judgment of whether or not something “works,” where I can tackle something and rationalize it for what it is, and only then go back to evaluate the argument’s validity.

At the level of critique, it is impossible to give a film – or any story, really – an adequate treatment without an examination of endings and spoilers. In other words, I much prefer to discuss movies with a certain audience in mind, that being the audience that has already watched the movie. Sometimes, that audience may never get to that stage without a prior recommendation, which is why I’ll occasionally tell people to get out, see the movie, come back and read the rest of the post.

Of course, there are always the party-crashers who read the whole post anyhow, either because of a slip of the vertical scrollbar or the fallback that “I won’t see it anyway.” So here’s my advice: don’t be a party-crasher. Go see Sin City.

I’d go into what an excellent film it is and justify that claim of excellence with one example after another, but that would get boring after a while. Here’s a capsule summary of my recommendation: Robert Rodriguez has just directed/”shot and cut” his landmark film, the performances driving the three protagonists (Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen) are endearing enough to draw one’s exclusive attention amidst the visual flourish, and as for that visual flourish, wow.

There. That’s your review. Get out, see the movie, come back and read the rest of the post. Now, let’s get a-critiquin’.

You will see a lot of people call Sin City a film noir genre piece and leave it at that. I would argue that it is on the whole quite a different beast, though I should clarify that this is not merely a semantic claim under some authoritative definition of noir, but my effort to draw attention to what makes Rodriguez’s movie unique in substance.

What interests me is how so many people will take a look at Rodriguez’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novels, admire it for its production design and say “that’s noir” without identifying any specific similarities beyond the presence of pulp archetypes like disenchanted detectives, pernicious prostitutes and corrupt coppers. Yet they make special note of the amplified comic-book physics as antique vehicles soar above the pavement and a landed punch sends a thug across the room. They cite the explicit violence and casual nudity as distinguishing marks of the film. They fail to notice that the obtuse, centrifugal expression to be found in Sin City places it at the other side of the world from what makes film noir tick.

Film noir is not about sex, booze and violence. It is about concealment and innuendo. The lines of noir dialogue you remember are the suggestive propositions. That is precisely why film noir flourished in the era of Hollywood censorship, its defining female archetype the femme fatale seductress with something to hide. It should tell you something that the narrative mode most closely associated with noir is the mystery, a story of secrecy and revelation. It’s when you don’t see sex, booze and violence that film noir is at its most effective.

Let’s take a look at the Howard Hawks film of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe (the 1946 theatrical cut, for the purposes of this discussion). In many ways, I consider both the film and book to be the defining noir story, even though they differ in some very significant ways, and even if it was The Maltese Falcon that “started it.” The Big Sleep was, at the time of its release, one of the most chilling thriller pictures on record. Promotional posters advertised it as “the violence screen’s all-time rocker-shocker.”

It’s hard to imagine this day and age, but it used to be that even one murder was a big deal. Casablanca was advertised as an action picture on the basis of the gunpoint threats and the grand total of two onscreen shootings. Nowadays we talk about the desensitizing effect of seeing the body count run into the double- and triple-digits within the span of a two-hour trip to the cineplex, but back in the day, every snuffing counted.

In The Big Sleep, the trail of corpses beats a lower bound of seven, in a bullet-ridden domino chain of crisscrossing motives and passions. And still, every snuffing counted. After Marlowe kills Canino, the one death he inflicts in the whole adventure, he feels and expresses a modicum of regret sufficient to warrant a kiss from Lauren Bacall.

The censorship regime did its own wonders for film noir’s self-assertion as a mode of storytelling specific to the cinematic medium. The central act of blackmail that sets the plot in motion – dirty pictures of Carmen Sternwood – is referred to in vague, implicit terms. Carmen is fully clothed when Marlowe finds her posing in front of the camera at Geiger’s residence. Marlowe’s amusing charade with Agnes in the bookstore is as someone with an interest in “rare books,” if you take my meaning. And then there’s the 1946 cut’s addition of that legendary dinner between Marlowe and Vivian, arguably Bogart and Bacall’s best scene together in all their collaborations, where they discuss sexual positions with the euphemistic vocabulary of equestrianism.

Chandler’s novel was itself was a rejection of chivalric ideals in favour of a new, gritty realism. Observe the scene (excised from the film, it goes without saying) in Chapter 24 where Marlowe discovers Carmen lying naked in his apartment, and notices an unsolved chess problem nearby:

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

This, from the novel that defined the modern conception of hard-boiled private eye fiction beyond its foundations in Hammett’s Falcon. And to think that on film, yet more of it was left unsaid. Is concealment not what put the “film” in film noir? I hope I have dispensed with the notion with sufficient conviction.

With that out of the way, we lead ourselves back to Miller and Rodriguez with a blunt rhetorical question. Do Sin City and the words “realism” or “censorship” even belong in the same sentence? And I hope you’ve seen the film by now, because in answering that question, I’m going to spoil the film like crazy.

The case for the “no” side is obvious. The exaggerated sensationalism of sex and violence in Sin City places it in an ironic position antithetical to the realism inherent to its generic influence. This is not a negative criticism of the film, but of ignorant critics – both the proponents who will tell you what a good noir flick it is, and the detractors who see it as an exploitative abomination no more than a thin and pale mimetic imitation of the classic noir oeuvre. This is a film to be evaluated on its own terms, and any comparative study would do well to make note of differences instead of merely repeating the observable similarities.

That said, the observable similarities tend to appear in the film at its most critical heights of dramatic tension. For all the amputations, beheadings and castrations in the picture – and that’s just the ABC of Sin City‘s alphabet of gore – it is with the occasional, hardly-noticed spurt of concealment that it makes a brief return to the noir tradition, when what matters is not what you see, but what you don’t.

Perhaps the most noirish scene in all of Sin City is its opening scene, based on the story “The Customer is Always Right” and starring Josh Hartnett as a hitman unaware of his ultimate purpose. The composition exhibits a constructed whiff of nostalgia, and the characters are so fresh off the stock as to remain anonymous. The sudden, silenced jolt as he does away with his unsuspecting “customer” hearkens back to the decisive shot fired at the conclusion of the best noir mystery of the last few years, Spielberg’s Minority Report. Beyond the precision of the staging and the colour palette (black and white, a red dress and blue eyes), it all feels like an elevation of traditional noir conventions to a Platonic ideal. But the movie is just beginning, and something feels off about the scene beyond its manifest artificiality; later, we see that it is a deception in the face of the tone that follows.

The three stories that make up the movie proper aren’t nearly as subdued – what, with Kevin eating hookers and mounting their heads on the wall and Marv subsequently feeding his remains to the dogs in “The Hard Goodbye,” the entire Dwight chapter (“The Big Fat Kill”) centering on a game of hot-potato with Jack Rafferty’s severed head, and Hartigan ripping out a pair of pasty happy-sacks in “That Yellow Bastard.”

The violence does not provoke suspense, though – and it should be noted that it is altogether infrequent next to how some would describe the film. While it is in a sense extreme, it incites disgust at worst, but more often a sort of base and bloodthirsty pleasure. When the skinheaded thug played by Nicky Katt (the voice of Atton in the ending-free computer game Knights of the Old Republic II) is shot through the chest with an arrow, it’s damn funny.

But to me, the violence with the greatest impact is that which is concealed or shrouded – and I don’t mean offscreen. Of all the gunshots fired in the course of this 126-minute thrill ride, the best was saved for last. And you’ll notice that when Hartigan does himself in, it occurs in reverse silhouette, in the same negative space as when Dwight is drowning in tar – backgrounded as what is not present, a white cutout in a blank canvas. It is onscreen, yet it is absent. Or, in the case of the Yellow Bastard’s own ignominious end as he is pounded into a pool of piss-toned gunk, the pounding is obscured, and Hartigan’s rage is all the more visible precisely because the audience is distanced from its expression.

Shot after shot, Sin City drowns you in imagery you cannot fail to notice, thrusting it into the foreground. Film noir doesn’t do that. But every now and then, when you’re not looking, it hits you. It hits you the hardest when you don’t see it hit you, and that’s when film noir rears its shadowy head.

My point, to sum it up, is that one would do Sin City an injustice to praise or dismiss it as merely a parasitic digital-age iteration of a timeless genre infused with the aesthetics of sequential art. It is a dialectic synthesis of different philosophies and as a result, something both original and special.

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The Knights Who Say "Knee!"

Monday, 14 February 2005 — 1:27pm | Film, Full reviews

Mid-February is a special time in that it is when filmgoers who do not have the fortune to catch early limited runs in Los Angeles, New York or Toronto ring in the new year. ‘Tis the season to write year-end summaries and forecasts for the season ahead.

I will do just that with the 2004 harvest in good time, as I have now left that year behind (aside from never having gotten around to the likes of Collateral and Hotel Rwanda) and seen the first theatrical release of 2005 worth mentioning, Ong-Bak.

On the surface, everything that happens in Thailand’s signature hit film is old and tired by what we have come to expect in North America. Tony Jaa plays a country boy who goes to the city, finds his former country-boy cousin turned urban gambler, fights in an underground boxing ring in a quest to recover an artifact of value from a drug kingpin, gets involved in an explosive car chase, and has a climactic final showdown with a baddie hopped up on steroids. We’ve seen it before, we might think.

That is, until we realize that the country boy comes from the villages of rural Thailand and ends up in Bangkok, a city of nine million – a disparity that really has to be seen to be understood, should you ever get the chance to visit the region; the underground boxing ring doesn’t feature just any boxing, but the ancient art of Muay Thai; the artifact of value is a sacred Buddha image of paramount importance to the villagers; the explosive car chase is on tuk-tukstuk-tuks! – and the final showdown makes for one hell of a good fight scene.

The novelty of Ong-Bak can be identified thus: can you name another Thai action flick you’ve seen? Didn’t think so. And what makes Ong-Bak interesting is that it is a celebration of all things Thai short of the blues compositions of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I mean, a tuk-tuk chase!

In all seriousness, the thing that this movie will be remembered for is that it fills a gaping void in modern martial arts cinema, in that we really, really needed a Muay Thai superstar like Tony Jaa to burst onto the scene. Someone of his calibre is long overdue, and very welcome. Ong-Bak unreservedly exploits all of the distinctive characteristics of Thai boxing, particularly its emphasis on pummeling your opponent with your joints, not just your fists and feet of fury. Elbows land on skulls with an audible crack. Knees land on, um, people, with a sickening crunch.

The film sells itself as being free of CG and wire-work, but that’s just one of many ancillary benefits of an ethnic fighting flick being produced outside of the American studio system. The one that really shows is the length of the action sequences. It is rare nowadays to find continuous action sequences, rip-roaring urban chases and extended duels that comprise the majority of a movie without being repetitive, and nigh on impossible to spot this ever happening in an American-made product. Comparisons to 1980s Jackie Chan are entirely accurate, aside from the lack of slapstick comedy and Sammo Hung.

In terms of storytelling, everything of significance is flat-out obvious, but it is still worth noting. The obligatory string of one-on-one fights against increasingly burly Anglo-American thugs in the underground fight club are a prideful demonstration of the superiority of Muay Thai; if you follow martial arts cinema at all, you probably know that the superiority of the hero’s discipline is a recurring secondary theme whenever foreigners are present. (Or final-fight foes hopped up on steroids, for that matter.)

Then there’s how the evil mob boss atop the chain of command is a wheelchair-bound tracheostomy patient who speaks with an electronic device and smokes through his throat, but deifies himself as a god; recall that the plot revolves around the recovery of a stolen Buddha head, and you have a neat little parallel motif of headless idols going on.

And there’s a tuk-tuk chase!

Now, for some criticisms: like I said earlier, the premise of the film is about as standard as you can get from a modern action flick. Without the undercurrents that are distinctly Thai, which are thankfully almost ubiquitous, Ong-Bak would not be much of a film at all. There is only one reason to watch this movie – a very good reason, mind you – and that is to see superstar Muay Thai combat committed to celluloid. It would be nice if eventually, Tony Jaa is cast in something of real cultural significance and mythic quality; Thailand has a rich tradition to draw from, a tradition that is underexposed in the Western corpus.

The editing is tight for the most part, but one particular device grows tired very quickly due to overuse: the preponderance of sportscast-like instant replays of every particularly impressive stunt. I realize that the filmmakers may have been very impressed with certain takes, but for the sake of continuity and pacing, it is customary to pick your best angle and stick with it. Using such a device is excusable if done sparingly, but there are so many ooh-inspiring hits in Ong-Bak that the filmmakers just couldn’t get enough of it. Well, I did.

The last issue, and one that is actually an impediment to some of the fights, is that some scenes are shot in lighting that is so dim as to obscure the action. Yes, underground boxing clubs should be dark, but the thing about movies is that even in darkness, the audience can still see. Here, that is sometimes questionable.

There is a minor problem with the Magnolia Pictures edit that is in release here in North America, and that would be the addition of music that feels very much out of place. Dan Kaszor, who as I’ve remarked on many occasions is one of the few fellow U of A students whose knowledge of film I vouch for and trust, says in his Gateway review that the original music was none too great either, but one has to wonder if it were perhaps more tonally consistent. Personally, I don’t think foreign films should ever be tampered with upon local release, but I have the disadvantage of not being a major studio boss.

But these gripes aside, I recommend Ong-Bak for its offering of what is currently a one-of-a-kind experience in some respects. If it leads to the explosion of a burgeoning Thai boxing film industry of which the international community is aware, with Tony Jaa as its headlining celebrity, the world will be all the richer.

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Mo chuisle, mo chuisle

Saturday, 12 February 2005 — 11:28am | Film, Full reviews

Predictability is an accusation of unpredictable relevance. When applied to literature, and film in particular given its inherent linearity and tempo, you often hear it used as a pejorative term. Apparently, stories are no fun if you can see the ending a mile away. Sometimes this is the case: the appeal of M. Night Shyamalan’s terribly overrated The Sixth Sense rests so completely on the wallop of its final revelation that for the perceptive types who pay attention to the clues before them, the movie is over as soon as they figure it out.

We like it when movies creep up behind us and smack us upside the head. We like it when gaps are filled in ways that surprise us. For recent examples, see Memento, Minority Report and A Very Long Engagement. For classic examples, see Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back. But we remember these movies for their crazy twists not because of the shock value that comes of each successive discovery, but because every twist makes the story all the more compelling. You can go into Kane knowing full well what Rosebud is, or Empire knowing that Vader is Luke’s father, as I’d wager almost everybody does nowadays given how those epiphanies have become a part of our cultural consciousness – and the curious thing is, the film is all the better for it.

But that does not give us adequate grounds to say that predictability is necessarily something to avoid; again, it’s not about shock value. If you take a look at film adaptations of popular material, the most difficult thing to get over the first time through is what you can’t predict: deviations from a story with which you are already familiar. Here, we seek the comfort of a story we already know.

My point is, you can’t open a can of plot twists, sprinkle it all over a story and call it compelling. Sometimes you get an otherwise masterful film like House of Flying Daggers where the plot twists feel like chores that have to be done in order to lay out all the necessary elements of understanding that make the character dynamics work. When everything is on the table, it all makes sense; but here, unpredictability is not the source of causation. The film becomes compelling; the twists do not make it compelling.

I argue above that it cannot be universally considered a fault for a story to let the audience outpace it within reason, and nowhere is that clearer than in Million Dollar Baby.

If you have watched a lot of movies, boxing or otherwise (and truth be told, even if you have not), you will anticipate every single thing that happens in this movie. You will know exactly who wins every fight, who lands every punch, and every outcome of every critical decision the characters make, well before it happens. Part of it may be because the boxing movie has become such a defining subgenre of American film that we are all well aware of its techniques – not just how the director and editor time the punches, but how they build up to them in little spurts of tension and release.

How is it, really, that a boxing scene makes you, an audience member, feel like you are “part of the action”? I would posit that it involves a lot more than how visceral it is, how close the camera gets, and how resonant the bone-crunching sound effects are. To be a part of the fight, to be part of the experience of the boxer, also involves a replication of a certain anticipatory spider-sense. And in Million Dollar Baby, this is what happens both in and out of the ring. The sense of anticipation extends to the overall narrative flow.

But if you can see everything coming, how does the film keep you hooked?

Well, there’s the rub. You can see everything coming, but as a passive filmgoer in a darkened theatre, you are absolutely powerless to do anything about it. And in much of the film – particularly its final act, which is very much about helplessness – you can see it heading somewhere very uncomfortable. Here’s a movie where everything follows the natural progression of events that you should and do expect. You cheer for Maggie as she delivers a first-round knockout match after match, because she does what you expect of her, and more. You cringe as you perceive just how much harm is about to be done to her, but have no way of warning her of anything.

At the same time, that makes Frankie, Clint Eastwood’s character, an easy elicitor of audience sympathy. He is very much the same familiar character that Eastwood has defined for himself in his self-directed period, the William Munny archetype of an aging senior haunted by regret and seeking repentance. Like boxing, you’ve seen him before. But there are moments in the film where, as the cutman in the corner, he is just as helpless as the audience. Great storytelling, or what?

It is difficult to pinpoint how Eastwood pulls off this anticipatory elegance. Maybe it comes from a natural technical aptitude for foreshadowing. Maybe it comes of experience. In any case, Million Dollar Baby presents a curious contradiction – everything about it feels so familiar, every element feels borrowed (which is mostly the case), but the story draws you in anyway.

Curious, too, that in spite of its apparent predictability, I have been reluctant to speak of it in terms that are anything less than vague. But go discover it for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

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