12/30/09

The look back

This is probably going to be the final post of the year, so I feel compelled to do one of those yearly wrap-ups that never say anything about anything. Sorry.

Let’s just clear it out now: here’s how 2009 disappointed me, how it thrilled me, and what I’m looking forward to in 2010.

In 2009 I was disappointed, irritated, or pissed off by…

-Video Game journalism, which hit new depths of unwarranted self-importance, and completely sapped any meaning out of the term “hardcore gamer.”

-3-D movies. 3-D effects still don’t add anything to the experience of watching a movie, and those glasses look incredibly stupid and probably aren’t hygienic. 3-D was once the height of kitsch. Why are we taking it seriously now?

-The cult DVD market implosion. 2009 saw the possibility of bankruptcy for Image Entertainment, Dark Sky films ending their retro film line, and the complete demise of ADV, BCI, and Fusian. It was ugly.

-Bioware. Between their stupid trailer for Dragon Age and “David Gaider -- Novelist,” I’m starting to hate them in spite of their mostly competent game design.

-Celebrity deaths.

-Real life. It was a terrible year IRL.

But to be fair, in 2009 I was thrilled, delighted and contented by…

-Dungeon crawlers. After playing Etrian Odyssey 2 earlier this year, I went on a bender with the original Etrian Odyssey, The Dark Spire, Deep Labyrinth, and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. I expect to grab Class of Heroes for the PSP soon.

-The DS, which is easily the must-own platform for this hardware generation. Aside from playing host to all of the games listed above (besides Class of Heroes), the DS also received 7th Dragon (in Japan, at least), Phantasy Star 0, Nostalgia, and an English release of Retro Game Challenge to go along with its already stellar library of games I actually play.

-Vantage Master! Falcom offers this awesome strategy game on their website, in English, free of charge!

-Mondo Macabro’s releases of The Warrior (Jaka Sembung) and Born of Fire.

-My expanding collection of martial arts movies. Of the thirty-five movies I reviewed this year, twenty-three were kung fu movies and seventeen of those were acquired in 2009, including obscure crap like Child of Peach and War of the Wizards. Go me.

-Ashes of Time Redux didn’t suck. Thanks Wong Kar Wai.

-Snus: Wonderful Swedish tobacco.

Last year, I got very drunk on New Year’s and made out with a strange woman at a party where I didn’t know anybody. As my friend Pilgrim was driving me home, I had one of those awful moments of clarity that one typically drinks to avoid, and expressed some regret that the first day of the New Year would be spent nursing a bitchin’ hangover. “Look at it this way: you have an entire year to make up for it.” That was his almost brain-bendingly optimistic response.

In similar spirit, here’s what I’m looking forward to in 2010:

-Falcom games on the PSP in English -- the PSP already boasts Ys 6 and Gurumin, but a recent announcement shows that Falcom wants to license more games for English language release. Considering Ys 7 just came out this year in Japan (and looks way better than 6) I couldn’t be more stoked. Other possible releases include Zwei! and Brandish: Dark Revenant. 2010 could be a nice year.

-A new Gene Wolfe novel, The Sorcerer’s House, is scheduled for release on March 16.

-Maybe -- possibly -- hopefully -- but doubtfully, Tsui Hark’s upcoming Di Renjie won’t suck.

-Let’s hope Magnolia’s dvd for Red Cliff is more sensible than their condensed theatrical version.

The first full year of actual, consistent blogging has been great fun. Thanks to the three people who actually bothered to consistently read it. See you guys next year.

12/28/09

Game Review -- Kyonshi 2/キョンシーズ2

Hello Dracula wasn’t just popular in Taiwan. The mix of the macabre silliness and cute, kung fu fighting kids won over Japanese audiences when the first few movies were adapted into a television series that aired in the late eighties. It was popular enough to spawn toys and a manga by an artist named Yu Hiroe. The most curious artifact of its popularity in Japan? A Famicom game from Hudson!

A first look at it might fool you into thinking Kyonshi 2 shamelessly plagiarizes Dragon Quest, but it’s actually closer to Zelda 2. The goal -- so far as I can tell without any knowledge of Japanese -- is to collect the various jiang-shi zombies scattered about town and return them to the Taoist temple, where Ten-ten awaits to issue orders and generally be a bossy little bitch.
You pick from the four male characters (you can’t play as Grandpa King) at the start screen, although I can’t tell what makes them different, and then you’re free to roam about town, buying and selling stuff and going on fetch quests for the locals. Eventually, you’ll walk into a location where the corpses are hanging out, and then you’ll be in the Zelda 2 side-scrolling mode. A button punches, B button kicks, and jumping is assigned to the up key on the d-pad. It’s an awful layout that doesn’t really affect anything since the enemies hop at your character in a single, unchanging pattern. They have high hp, so hitting them over and over until they die becomes tedious pretty fast.
And for those that don’t know Japanese, the frustrating part will come when the battle is over, and leaving the battle screen shows that there are no reanimated corpses following as they guide their character back to the temple. The player needs to buy Taoist charms before the zombies will hop behind him or her. And it’s not a simple task either, since there are a couple dozen characters to talk to who will give you advice, or sell you items, or serve some other purpose I couldn’t discern. And in order to get certain items, the player has to speak to certain characters while holding other items that must be found the same way.
A lot of Famicom RPGs are opaque in this way, particularly the ones that didn’t copy Dragon Quest by the numbers. Adding tedious combat sequences makes Kyonshi 2 even more irritating than other pseudo-RPGs of the era, somehow playing into the long-held stereotype of licensed video games held in the United States -- borderline unplayable.

Kyonshi 2 isn’t unplayable, but it certainly isn’t particularly great. But with the benefit of twenty years hindsight, it does seem like a nice tribute to the popularity of the Hello Dracula films. It's nice to see a Famicom game based on a Chinese film that isn't a pirate cartridge with artwork ripped from successful Japanese games.

Stuff of interest:
Japanese DVD promo

Liu Chih-Yu and Liu Chih-han on some sort of Japanese morning show

12/27/09

Hello Dracula (Chiu Ching-Hung, 1985)

[This might actually be Hello Dracula 2. Please forgive my ignorance in reviewing this film as the first in the series if it is. Thank you.]
The first in probably the longest running series of fantasy films during Taiwan’s infatuation with the genre during the eighties, Hello Dracula (aka 幽幻道士, Son of Chinese Vampire and Corpse Boy) receives very little attention here in the west, even among cult movie aficionados. It’s generally known only to die-hard kung fu movie fans, and even then, it isn’t widely discussed online, possibly because of the limited availability of both the original film and its sequels. (Granted, I probably just jinxed it and all six movies will end up on edonkey tomorrow morning, and yes, there are six) Of the many jiang-shi (or gyonshi/kyonsi) movies that came in the wake of Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985) this is my favorite.
For those not familiar with the “Chinese vampire/zombie” myth, it was once believed that in order for a human spirit to attain peace after death, their corporeal self should be buried in a pleasant place near their hometown. Taoists were charged with transporting corpses to their home towns, where they would be interred, and the myth of reanimated corpses that would hop along behind the magically endowed Taoist was born from this practice. There’s plenty of speculation as to why they’re so often depicted in Manchu style dress and the reasons why they detect people by smelling/feeling their breath, but that’s all rather academic. Look it up on Wikipedia.

Set in what one assumes is the early twentieth century, Hello Dracula begins with a travelling Taoist transporting reanimated corpses through a dark forest and is accosted by a tiny hopping corpse boy. As the Taoist is getting beaten up by the little corpse boy, another Taoist, Grandpa King, is travelling through the same forest with his granddaughter, Ten-ten, his four other young apprentices/assistants, and the corpse of their former master in tow. Grandpa tells his charges that they should keep out of the forest, because the reanimated corpse of a child haunts it. No sooner does he inform them of the child than the other Taoist and the kid-zombie come crashing into his wagon, causing the corpse of Ten-ten’s former master to reanimate. The still living humans basically run away, happy to escape with their lives.
Back in town, the locals are upset by the idea that zombies haunt the surrounding forests, and the military governor of the town, whose elder brother recently died, demands that Grandpa King keep the reanimated corpses under control. Unfortunately, his chubby assistant, Shih Kua Pih, is a bit of a bumbling doof, and causes various problems with his clumsiness. Further complicating the situation is a group of foreigners who want the corpse for some sort of experiment. The poorly translated embedded subtitles don’t make it clear if said experiment is mystical or scientific in nature, as one of the corpse thieves is at least dressed as a Catholic priest, and his female companion a nun. Neither of them acts their respective parts, what with stealing corpses and doing sexy stripteases to distract the patrolling militia men.
The movie rambles between set-pieces. Ten-ten controls the corpses with a cute song-and-dance routine; the kid-zombie plays baseball with himself; there’s a comedy vignette with the male Taoist apprentices fighting over Ten-ten’s approval. It all boils down to a climax in which Ten-ten is captured by her former master’s zombie and the corpses all get lose and run wild over the town. Mayhem ensues and the audience is served a great display of kids doing acrobatics, ritual Taoist magic and kung fu.

Liu Chih-Yu became a huge star in her role as Ten-ten, and director Chiu Ching-hung clearly chose to showcase her. As far as child stars go, she’s quite tolerable. Her male counterpart, the bumbling chubby kid Shih Kua Pih, is played by Liu Chih-han. He looks a bit older than the other kids and does pretty well with the comedy and the limited action scenes. Gam Tiu as Grandpa King pales in comparison to Lam Ching-Ying, but that comparison isn’t fair. He was a veteran Taiwanese actor and it shows in his performance. Boon Saam as the fat militia captain is quite funny.
Hello Dracula was definitely intended as a children’s film, as were many other Taiwanese fantasy movies. However, to a western viewer such as me, the sights of kids playing with corpses and little child-zombies are a bit unnerving, to say nothing of once scene where one child attempts suicide. Similarly, the Chinese attitude towards religion was always a bit different from that of the west. It feels a tad irreverent to watch a Catholic priest stealing corpses, even if he is doing so for the sake of research and is shown in a generally sympathetic light (it’s his boss that provides the white-devil stereotype). Similarly, the movie seems to have no clue that sexually objectifying a nun might offend some Christians -- unlike European nunsploitation films, where the offensiveness is part of the fun -- and one has to wonder where the Catholic priest learned kung fu. Also, animal lovers should know that animals were indeed harmed during the making of the film.
Hello Dracula doesn’t provide the same mix of comedy, effective horror, strange fantasy and brutal stunts seen in the more popular Mr. Vampire, but it does provide an extensive degree of light-hearted cheer for a movie filled with violent death and hopping Chinese zombies. Chiu Chung-hing also directed Magic of Spell, the sequel to Child of Peach, as well as serving as action director for films like The Miracle Fighters (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1982). Certainly one of the driving factors in Chinese language fantasy/martial arts films, he’s rather underappreciated.

The only other film I’ve been able to see in this series is 3-D Army (Chan Jun-Leung, 1989) which isn’t really an official entry. It’s a pity that these movies don’t even blip on the radar in the West. When watching a movie like Hello Dracula or Thrilling Sword, it isn’t fair to expect anything. These are, after all, movies made for children on the other side of the world in the primitive 80’s. Like most of the others I’ve reviewed, I would probably watch it with my own kids, if I had any. But with somebody else’s? No. Hell, no.

And no, the title doesn't make any more sense after having watched the movie.

12/20/09

Bald is the new lame

Let it not be said of me that I am outright opposed to remakes. I happened to like Werner Herzog's Bad Liutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, even if it basically spoofed the more important theme's from Ferrerra's film (which is admittedly superior). I'm actually looking forward to David Gordon Green's take on Suspiria. Really, I'm quite open to the whole idea of a remake so long as it doesn't suck.

That said, Louis Leterrier's new Clash of the Titans looks pretty dire.

It's difficult to even explain how obnoxious these new fantasy films are becoming without sounding like a film-Luddite or some sort of shrill Harryhausen fanboy. I'm not against the idea of remaking the 1981 Desmond Davis film in a more serious/not campy way. It would have helped if they'd actually, I don't know, treated it seriously. They only took the myth of Perseus seriously in the sense that superheroes and video games can be taken seriously. It's serious because it has seriously cool digital effects! Lots of people have used digital effects to spectacular ends, but looking the trailer for this just irks me. I don't want to see what Medusa would look like if she were designed to appeal to people who spend most of their free time playing God of War. And whatever happened to a palette of more than five colors?

It really does look like it could be based on a video game. You could splice most of that trailer in with the trailer for the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and probably nobody would notice. What's with all the bald, buff guys lately? And why do they all seem to fly through the air to stab at things?

I say this all provisionally, but the trailer doesn't inspire hope. Which is the point of these posts, wherein I try to figure out why I'm having a positive or negative reaction to something I haven't actually seen.

From the trailer, Clash of the Titans feels all too familar, and not because it's a remake. It's more because it looks like a retread of everything from Troy to 300. The market for movies involving myth and swordfighting and ancient warriors has reached full saturation, and the adaptations I was looking forward to (Conan and Solomon Kane) haven't even made it into theaters yet. I love movies about manly dudes hitting each other with sharp stuff, but they've all started to resemble each other, and I need a break from the overdesigned cgi set pieces, yelling, and "inspiring" speeches. If, in the upcoming adaptation, Conan doesn't say more than three full sentences, I'll be immensely happy.

12/12/09

I Dreamed a Dream of a World without Stupid Terminology Pertaining to Video Games

There's a NeoGAF discussion thread (that I found via the Hardcore Gaming 101 forum) wherein a bunch of gamers prattle on in pretend-intellectual speak about the words gamers use to define themselves and each other. I used to edit student essays for a college freshmen rhetoric class, so the tone of this discussion became terribly familiar less than half-way into the original post. But there's something admirable in much of what they say, even if some of the forum-goers aren't as capable of expressing it as others.

It does beg the question of what sort of "gamer" I might call myself. I hate the arbitrary term "hardcore," for all sorts of reasons, the least of which is that it doesn't denote anything concrete. The "esoteric gamer," the terminology proffered by the original poster in that thread, is even worse. Games are already esoteric to those who don't play them, and certain genres of games are obtuse to gamers who don't like them. The word casual now refers to people who play very simple games or buy non-game console software, like Wii Fit. I used to think of "casual" as a reference to people who play lots of Madden NFL 2Kwhatev, Halo, or some other simplified genre excursion. Those people are now referred to as "hardcore" by much of the gaming press, which I suppose is now comprised of little more than Game Informer, 1up, Kotaku and a billion amateur bloggers and forumites and youtube users.

But I also have to admit that I don't call myself a "gamer." Video games aren't my foremost hobby; I spend more time reading and watching movies than I do playing games. But even if video games took up more of my time (and I have been playing them more often, of late) I wouldn't want to personally identify myself with them. I wouldn't want to attach to my identity the title of "gamer." I've seen users on various forums and websites wondering why social networking sites have sections for favorite movies and books, but not video games. I never wondered that.

The matter of self-identification could easily solve itself. You're a "gamer" if you identify yourself as one. But that puts me in an untenable position, as I don't want to ascribe myself that kind of nomenclature, but I probably play more games than most non-nerdy people and know more about game history than the average Xbox Live loudmouth. The games that interest me are usually RPGs. I like dungeon crawlers and silly JRPGs with overly flashy graphics. I love Japanese developer Falcom, whom I make reference (and jokes) to pretty regularly on this blog. I'm also interested in arcade beat-em-ups, Koei/Omega Force games based on Chinese and Japanese history, and games from China and South Korea. I'm starting to think I'll give anything done by Vanillaware a shot.

My tastes are weird, and the games that I like are easily identified as games. I'm a firm opponent of the idea that games are art. (Not that they can't be, but that they aren't, generally) Am I a self-loathing gamer?

I think I've taken shots at Jeremy Parish, Christian Nutt, and Tim Rogers at some point or other on this blog. But really, I think that what they want out of games is more or less similar to what I want. I'll never agree with some of what Rogers puts on actionbutton.net, but I'm fairly (i.e. completely) certain he knows more about game design and the industry than I do.** I'll never agree with Nutt or Parish on some issues either, but the more I read of what they have to say, the less I think we're so different in what we like about video games. Yes, we all want a game that controls well and has fun/workable gameplay mechanics. But I think we're looking for some sort of human warmth as well. For me, that's Falcom's appeal, same for Troika -- even Blizzard at one point. I don't need a brilliant story out of Ys 7 or Temple of Elemental Evil. And I won't get them either. But those games feel as though they were made by people. People I might like.

There's probably a lot of people who feel that way about Valve, or the long defunct Looking Glass, or Treasure. Or at least, something like it.

Video games are made by people who have idiosyncrasies and personalities. I like seeing the evidence of this. Whatever title the game journalists, forum goers and other pedants and didacts would like to assign to this, I'll be happy to take it.

**Please Note: Rogers' site's design makes my eyes shout their safe word. If your eyes don't have a safe word, you should probably sit down and devise one before entering actionbutton.net.

12/9/09

Painted Skin (Bao Fang, 1966)


Mainland Chinese cinema of the mid-1960 has all the spontaneity and human warmth of an algebraic equation, which is interesting when contrasted against the left-wing studios in Hong Kong. Although they’re known for having produced “serious” films -- literary adaptations, like Zhu Shilin’s 1961 adaptation of Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm” -- the progressive studios also made genre films like Feng Huang’s tremendously expensive historical epic, The Golden Eagle (Chen Jingbo, 1964) or Great Wall’s wuxia classic The Jade Bow (Zhang XinYan, 1966). Painted Skin, a film from Feng Huang contract director Bao Fang, is itself a literary adaptation, but fits well with the previously mentioned films as a “soft film,” designed to entertain rather than instruct their audience.

The film frames the narrative as a story being told to Pu Songling. Pu authored the story collection, “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio,” in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. Popular myth tells that Pu collected his stories from local passers-by and composed his collection out of their stories. There’s not much evidence to support this theory, but the film runs with it. It’s quaint and charming in equal measures.

Scholar Wong Chu Wen is an unsuccessful scholar studying to take the governmental exams in order to gain employment in lucrative administrative position. His brother advises him to forget about auspicious dates and omens and rely on his considerable knowledge of literature and history when he takes his exam -- a gentle way of saying “just study hard, you git.” All that goes out the window when a travelling Taoist tells him that success is in his future, and that to activate his good fortune, he should pray at an abandoned temple on his family’s property. Excited by this foretelling, Wong goes to the temple late at night, only to find a young lady. She tells him that she’s running away from an arranged marriage, set up by her cruel step mother, and that her father is a minister in charge of the examinations at the capital. Seeing this as an opportunity, Wong invites the girl, Mei-niang, to hide away in his study, and that he’ll take her with him to the capital.

He doesn’t tell his wife, or his mother, or his servants about Mei-niang and locks himself in his studio to “study,” spending days and nights there. He doesn’t tell Mei-niang about his wife. I trust the reader can see where this is headed.

Eventually, Mei-niang finds out about Hsia-ling, the scholar’s wife, and is incensed. She tells Wong that she thought that he would marry her once he earned a governmental position, but that now she has no chance at a socially advantageous marriage. Wong ruined her by ruining her.

To rectify the situation, Mei-niang decides that Wong should kill his wife, a task that Wong fails at completing. It is then that strange things start to happen at night, and an awful secret about Mei-niang comes to light.

Painted Skin works because outside of the opening scene, it avoids pedantry. “I know that you are using your tales of ghosts and demons to express your sense of justice,” is about as far in that direction as the opening with Pu Songling actually goes. The rest of the story slowly builds to the horrific reveal. Mei-niang is a ghostly spirit, and beautiful female ghosts and fox demons are well known as the natural predators of hapless scholars in medieval China. And while the film doesn’t follow every detail of the story, likely to avoid the disgusting sequence involving lots of (I’m not kidding) phlegm, it’s probably the most faithful cinematic recreation of one of the “Strange Tales...,” excusing its lapses in textual fidelity by framing it as the tall tale that eventually inspired the story that made it into Pu’s collection. Hence, Wong is really a complete dick, and it’s hard to feel bad for him. That’s about normal for many of the male protagonists in the “Strange Tales...”

As for how it is as a movie, Painted Skin exudes that classic glamour that makes golden age Hong Kong cinema so enjoyable. The way that the film fades out whenever something naughty is about to happen is utterly charming. It feels theatrical at times, with its long shots and careful staging, but isn’t un-cinematic. The moments leading up to the ghostly terror actually muster some real tension, and my only wish was that the film spent an extra ten minutes with its depiction of the supernatural. The simple make up effects and eerie atmosphere make for some effective moments of horror. But up until these moments, one unfamiliar with its source material might assume Painted Skin a very bleak period drama, rather than a horror-fantasy. And it’s a very good, if rather dated period drama up until that point.

An always thought provoking comparison is to look at stories that are frequently adapted as cinema and compare the treatment they receive in each decade or era. Comparing this restrained, conservative film with King Hu’s somewhat uncharacteristic adaptation from 1993 or Gordon Chan’s overproduced wuxia-grotesque from last year will probably give a very wrong impression of Hong Kong cinema’s progress. But it’s a fun time, and will provide an excuse to watch this quaint, sweet little ghost story.

12/3/09

2009 Sucks

Earlier this year, legendary director/cinematographer Jack Cardiff, a man whose career spanned the majority of cinema history, died. David Carradine's death later overshadowed those of legendary Hong Kong cinema villain Shek Kin and Shaw Brothers stalwart Ho Meng-hua, director of classic films like Suzanna and The Lady Hermit. Then Lou Albano; then Shing Fui-On. Michael Jackson. Does anybody need to say more?

Another three: Paul Naschy, Chen Hunglieh and Ding Shanxi. I liked these guys, or at least some of the movies they made/appeared in.

2009 is almost over. It needs to hurry up and end.

11/29/09

David Gaider Is Made of Cheese -- A Review of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne


I’d like to share with you the following statement by youtube user hyrulehistorian, posted on Bioware’s youtube page for their new game, Dragon Age: Origins.

“this is legit, im reading the prequel novel right now, and im getting the feeling in my gut that we are seeing the birth of what will become one of the all time great fantasy universes.”

Do I seem hung up on what other people like? If I am, it’s because of statements like that.

As a preface to my review of David Gaider’s Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, I must say something of my stance on franchise novels. Franchise novels allow the terminally uncreative the pleasure of saying that they read without actually requiring much beyond functional literacy. Rather than asking the reader to stick with the author as he or she tells a story, the tie-in novel asks for the player to read up on a familiar setting, characters, or events out of brand loyalty, or to satisfy the inherently nerdy obsession with (entirely made up) minutia and trivia. The plots cannot interfere with each other, or an excuse must be made for why person x is still around when person x previously left/died/inter-dimensionally relocated in one of the previous novels/games/comic books. These products exist solely to market the video games on which they’re based, with the hope that the video games will hook people into buying the novels to learn more about the setting, and the made up lore, or the political/religious/historical conflicts that might be only obliquely mentioned in the game.

Here’s a quote from Game Informer’s (Issue 175, pg 151) review of Mass Effect, which I think illustrates the mindset of somebody who reads tie-in novels, and likely nothing but tie-in novels:

“[Mass Effect] is an amazing work of fiction, a visual work of art, and a property that is so fully realized and so rich in its backstory that its content could fill countless games, books, and movies. This is the next big franchise for science fiction junkies to latch onto, and a huge step forward for video games.”

What does this tell us, besides that editor Andrew Reiner is a giant rube? Think about the idea that the “backstory” could “fill countless games, books, and movies.” That’s pretty much the greatest virtue that anything could have for the sort of audience that reads Game Informer. Despite all of the breathless superlatives Reiner ascribes to Mass Effect as fiction, the one element that he actually delineates is the milieu and the world-building that accompanies it, because that’s all that matters to him. It’s something for the people he thinks are “science fiction junkies” to escape in and over which they can argue, until the next novel or game comes out and provides a conclusive answer. Essentially, it’s there to answer all the questions, raise just enough new ones to keep its audience interested in the next product, and prevent them from thinking too hard.

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne fits well in this line of thinking.
It opens with Maric being chased down by the underlings of traitorous banns (apparently, the word bann substitutes for the word baron in David Gaider’s D&D campaign) who just killed his mother, the rightful queen of Ferelden. Maric escapes capture only to find himself in the company of Loghain, whose father leads a large band of outlaws. The outlaws were once good citizens, until the unfair taxes of the newly appointed King Meghren of Orlais forced them to willingly break the law. Maric doesn’t tell them that he is the prince and that his mother, the rebel queen, has died, or that Meghren’s troops will be looking for him. Consequently, the camp of outlaws is raided, and Loghain’s father demands his son help restore Maric to the rebel army. Of course, Loghain’s father dies, giving Loghain a reason to be emo for a while, and Maric a chance to win him over as a friend who will do all of Maric’s dirty work.

Eventually, Loghain manages to put Maric back into contact with the army. Loghain falls in love with Rowan, Maric’s betrothed, while Maric falls in love with an elf named Katriel as they campaign against the Orlaisian usurper. Then the army suffers a major loss, and Maric, Loghain, Katriel and Rowan have to travel through the Deep Roads (i.e. Mines of Moira) where they encounter giant spiders, darkspawn (orcs), and Dwarves who agree to help Maric regain the thrown. But even after making it safely back to the surface, Maric must face treachery and the difficult reality of a king’s duty.

Does it all sound like generic fantasy plot #5? It is generic fantasy plot #5, and Gaider doesn’t do much to make it worth reading. The pacing in the first half janks about due to it being primarily about Maric’s military campaign, and settles into a rote dungeon crawling sequence for much of the final act. But one might forgive the plotting were it not for the characterization, which reeks of cliché. Maric is blonde, handsome, and noble; he loves his subjects and cares for people to a fault. He’s naïve. He’s unsure of himself and incompetent as a strategist. Yet all the women love him, and he inspires hope among every warrior he meets with what Gaider calls “infectious charm,” and I call grating attempts at sophomoric wit, always ready with some flaccid quip when the tone gets too serious. He’s the self-portrait a lot of nerds paint when they’re being dishonest. He’s destined to not suck.

Loghain is an equally lazy stock character, an angsty, brooding fellow with “piercing blue eyes.” Rowan is too. She’s an Amazonian lady-warrior who wants Marric to see her as a woman, not just a warrior. Meghran is a debauched, violent pussy who has no redeeming qualities or even a personality. Severan, his right hand man and sorcerer, is an equally violent, though much more effective pussy, and has no redeeming qualities or even a personality. Dwarves build tunnels and hit things with warhammers. Elves shoot bows, and… uh, are pretty, I guess. Ugh.
Even Gaider’s writing is leaden and expository, frequently juvenile in the worst places and in the worst ways. Among the more embarrassing aspects of the prose is Gaider’s commitment to adverbs, particularly in certain paragraphs where every sentence contains at least one. For example:

“Maric dug into his stew ravenously. Katriel picked at hers gingerly, sipping on some of the broth. The dwarf all but gulped his down greedily, finishing it long before the others were even half done, and then belching loudly. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand.

‘Not as Hungry as you thought?’ he asked, watching their progress.

‘No it’s fine,’ Maric quickly commented…”

That whole passage is just infuriating. It’s like filling out a list: this person does this, this way. This person does this, this way. This person does this, this way, then does this, this way. That’s not to even mention the context of this scene, in which Maric and Katriel have just walked for miles, injured and without much food or water, and Katriel is picking at her food rather than just eating it. It’s terribly lazy writing, acceptable in a first draft but damning in published work from somebody who claims writing as his profession.

Another gem:

“Maric stared at her in disbelief. He wasn’t quite sure she could have said anything else that would have been less surprising. Well perhaps a confession that she was actually made of cheese.”

Frankly, I’d be less than surprised were the admission Mr. Gaider’s.

In defense of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, there are moments when it isn’t horrible to read. I liked when Maric confronted the banns who killed his mother. I liked that David Gaider at least tried to develop a theme of the unpleasant, even morally reprehensible things that must be done in order to effectively govern, and the guilt that accompanies them. The battle descriptions plod, but Gaider, in his mercy, spares his readers a similar treatment of sex (and rape). I appreciate that the obligatory dragon scene doesn’t involve telepathic communication.

But these moments are few, and they don’t mitigate flawed nature of the narrative, the writing, and the prose, even the setting. The world feels Tolkeinesque -- Dwarves, elves, etc. -- with some French and some fabricated titles. Knights are called chevaliers, for reasons I don’t really care to ponder, although I suppose that Orlais could be some sort of caricatured French empire. Various characters of high rank have titles like arl (earl), bann (baron?), and Teyrn (I’m flummoxed). Worse, Gaider doesn’t seem familiar enough with Medieval custom and manner to know that “your highness,” “your grace,” “your majesty,” and “my lord” all relate specifically to people of different ranks. The portrayal of magic is right out of a video game. All that’s missing is “Magic Missile!” or maybe “Blizzara!” Is all this nit-picky? I don’t care. It annoyed me.

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne also speaks the veracity of that old truism, “write what you know.” Let me amend that: If you don’t know anything, don’t write. Or, if you don’t know anything, write for a video game. Or a video game franchise novel.

David Gaider is the lead writer for Bioware’s video game, Dragon Age: Origins, of which I’ve heard good things. I disliked, immensely, the marketing for that game, and I dislike this novel, which is part of said marketing. There are those who excuse this kind of writing as being purely escapist, not worthy of any praise, but also not deserving of a thorough critique. To this, I say that there is a great deal of escapist fantasy that’s actually engaging, intelligent, and well written. Franchise novels, by and large, aren’t. They’re books designed for people who don’t read, to ensure that they won’t read as much as they watch movies, play video games, and buy enormous card collections and rule books.

It isn’t actually that much fun to rip something like Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne on the internet. But such novels developed a huge market, allowing kids and tasteless adults like hyrulehistorian the undue (mostly imagined) honor of being a “reader” -- the fun of feigning literacy on their youtube and facebook profiles. Consider this a referendum on all video game, card game, board game, and Star Wars/Star Trek/whatever novels. When I go to my local book store and there’s no longer a full three rows devoted to this crap, I’ll take this review down, and replace it with my assurances that David Gaider’s probably a swell Canadian fellow IRL.

 
Be sure to read my review of David Gaider's follow up to The Stolen Throne, Dragon Age: The Calling. It sucks too.

11/20/09

The 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Award...

Just fucking give it to Nick Cave already.

The prize hasn't had such great material to work with since... well, Norman Mailer's last novel. Ok, that wasn't that long ago. So let's just say it hasn't had such great material since ever. I haven't read most of the books on the list. Now I want to.

11/17/09

Game Review -- Orcs and Elves

I don’t have a cell phone that can run cell phone games of any complexity, because I use my cell phone as a phone, not a low-end Gameboy. But games on cell phones are kind of a big deal now, as I was informed by a co-worker who showed off the various games he had on his iPhone -- Mega Man 2, NetHack, and a bunch of other piddly time wasters. It’s funny that yesteryear’s phone/game system, the Nokia N-Gage, failed as badly as it did, only to see cell gaming become massively popular on iPhones and Blackberries. It’s also sad, because the N-Gage was the only way to play Falcom’s Xanadu Next in English, legally.

But what surprises me is the idea that anybody would port a cell phone game to one a commercially viable console. There are a few examples, like Deep Labyrinth on the DS and Final Fantasy 4: The After Years for the Wii’s virtual console, but the concept still baffles me to the point that when I read a review and it simply states that game x is adapted from cell phone game franchise y (and it isn't a puzzle/popcap game) it's surprising.

Orcs and Elves is another cell phone game ported to the DS, and like Deep Labyrinth, it’s a first person dungeon crawler. The DS is already a popular system for RPGs, with both Japanese and western style games (and Japanese riffs on western style dungeon crawlers) readily available, so to stand out, a game either has to utilize the DS’ unique features (touch pad, dual screens) in an unusual way, or just be really, really good.

Orcs and Elves doesn’t stand out. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. It simply means that the stylus/touch pad control doesn’t add anything and that it’s a merely decent game rather than an excellent one. Considering its origins, that’s as good as anybody should hope for. It looks much like a mid-nineties era PC game, and plays similarly with a simple, turn-based system (your enemies don’t move until you do). But it was developed by John Carmack, the man behind Doom, and the cell phone game, Doom RPG. It’s fitting.

In fact, the game can be compulsively playable. The level designs contain a few secrets each, although they don’t really feel like mazes -- they’re cake compared to the more obtuse dungeon crawlers released for DOS PCs. The game limits what you can do with your character, but it never loses its identity as a role playing game. Stats provide the basis for what your character can do, and there’s plenty of potions that will boost stats (for a limited number of turns), and upgrades for the sword, and other stuff that can be bought. The magic system comes from your talking wand, itself a character with more personality than the player’s never-seen avatar. The Wand shoots projectiles which deplete magic points, as do various items and spells activated by tracing a pattern on the touch screen, but not until after they’ve already been selected, making the stylus tracing little more than an interruptive formality.

So what other reason might one play Orcs and Elves? Nostalgia comes to mind most readily, and humor too. The graphics -- pixelized sprites against low resolution 3D environments -- remind me of Bethesda’s old PC games, as well as old fantasy themed PC shooters like Hexen. It seems like the limitations of its original platform dictated that the graphics look as they do, but it also seems that the developers intententionally evoke memories of those older fantasy-themed games. After all, they could have easily added more animation when porting to the DS. It’s nice to see some retro-PC style outside of an indie game, if only on the DS.

Also, the story is preposterous enough to be funny. Particularly as it is relayed through notes scattered about the labyrinth, which are written in first person but frequently include (cough)s and ***Wheeze*** as if the author actually took pains to write out his bodily failings while he died. It’s an old gag (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among others) but the developers seem to think it’s so funny that it’s easy to laugh at in spite of itself.

I beat Orcs and Elves in just under eleven hours, because I was being thorough. Rushing through without bothering with secrets or monster hunting, it’s probably a nine hour game. I don’t know what it was at full price, but I bought mine used and was fairly satisfied with it. The problem: it’s a cell phone game, and that’s probably the best platform for it. The game is playable and fun in short spurts, but tedious when you’ve played it for a few hours, because it’s only meant to be played for as long as you sit on the bus. It’s both unexpected and strange to think that a game might actually work better on a cell phone, but that is absolutely the case with this one.

11/12/09

Arhats in Fury (Wang Singlui, 1985)

In Sung dynasty Sichuan, the monks of a Buddhist temple debate whether they should help repel the invading Jin armies or withdraw entirely from earthly politics, preserving their monastery and their centuries old regulations. When Zhi Xing and his senior return from a journey of punishment for breaking the temple rules, they come across the Jin’s raping and pillaging a small local town. Zhi Xing finally uses his kung fu to defeat the Jins after they kill a small child. While Zhi Xing successfully expels the invaders with the help of the local militia, he also brings their attention to the monastery, where the monks must confront the Jins. The reaction of the abbot and senior monks is stoicism, while the Jins begin to kill them, attempting to provoke a reaction, until Zhi Xing finally responds. Repelling them again, the monks wish to further punish Zhi Xing for repeatedly breaking their rules regarding martial arts, but he is saved by a beautiful woman, one of the leaders of the local militia whom he met during the battle in the town.

The townspeople nurse Zhi Xing back to health, while the Jin armies besiege the Buddhist temple. Of course, this finally causes the monks to reconsider their position on self-defense.

Roughly the first fifteen minutes expound the inner workings of the monastery. The punishments, like the long journey from which Zhi Xing and his master return, are harsh, and potentially life-threatening. The senior monks manipulate the abbot and are more bound to the antiquated rules than he is. The abbot is impressed with the insight of a monk he sent into exile decades ago, but comes back unafraid to criticize the way the temple operates. All this happens before Zhi Xing appears on screen, and while the location shooting looks pretty nice and the temple’s drama interesting in itself, the viewer will probably want to know when the kung fu will start.

Arhats in Fury isn’t an odd movie by the standards of the brief spurt of mainland Chinese kung fu films designed to showcase Wushu made in the wake of Shaolin Temple (Zhang Xinyan, 1982). It has the requisite animosity towards Buddhism -- one of Mao’s many grinds was religion, for reasons that ought to be obvious from the plot description of any of these movies -- the authentic location shooting and the 1980’s mainland aesthetic. It is strange for a director like Wong Singlui, usually associated with Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries. The influence of Hong Kong’s new wave directors occasionally comes out in his direction, but the major influence clearly comes from the propaganda war/action films of China’s film industry. The location shooting is immaculate. The images of monkeys and birds, especially, are striking. It moves from being a straight kung fu picture of the Hong Kong/Taiwan tradition, to typical PRC propaganda, to a wildly aesthetic pictorial of Sichuan.

The aforementioned animals too, make for one of the stranger parts of the movie, as well as the most unpleasant. There is real footage of animal death. The actors kill birds graphically, in one scene. Zhi Xing, apparently, has king-of-the-Sichuan-province powers over the animals, and during one skirmish, calls them in to help fight the Jins. It's a sign of Chinese language cinema's growing pains that the film makers behind a kung fu movie lifted ideas wholesale from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds just because they could. And the images of monkeys communing with the monks, looking as though they’re praying monks or Buddha idols are far more unusual than what would one would typically associate with the genre during the late seventies.

Probably the nicest thing to be said about Lau Jan-Ling in his role as Zhi Xing is that he’s a perfectly capable martial artist. As an actor, he either over-emotes or stares into the distance like he doesn’t know what else to do. The actress who plays his romantic interest, the leader of the people’s militia (another Maoist propaganda element) has a similar on/off style of acting. The actors playing the Jins are camp. The actors playing the corrupt monks have little to do besides look angry.

But all of that stuff doesn’t really matter once people start hitting each other in the face. Arhats in Fury is among the best of this strain of Chinese films. The athleticism of the performers provides enough gloriously choreographed mayhem, but the sheer number of people in certain scenes further adds to the spectacle. The weapon choreography also, is among the best that the mainland offered, exceeded only by The South Shaolin Master (Siu Lung, 1984). If any movie were ever buoyed by its action scenes, it’s this one. Casting most of the roles with wushu experts assures that the fight scenes will impress, and its unsurprising that the only times that the action scenes don’t work is either due to rough editing or unnecessary wire work.

Animal lovers and those sensitive about propaganda will probably not like Arhats in Fury. There is much to be said about its portrayal of Buddhist pacifism, whether it intentionally misrepresents or obfuscates the intentions of that religion’s tenants. The very concept is heavier than the film itself. Whenever you watch one of these films, you have to wonder how much of the screenplay was intended as a way to get past the very active censors, as opposed to what the film makers actually cared about producing. Given the director, I’d think that the real concern was with beautiful location shots and brutal, impeccably choreographed action. But with as much time as is spent with the monastery, I can’t say that for certain.

11/9/09

Nerdy; not a nerd: An Extemporaneous Guide Telling You Things You Already Knew

In the past, I’ve been given more than what I think should be my share of insulting compliments, usually starting with “you remind me of…” and ending with something like “…my brother” or something worse. Usually, this comes from women, thus I cannot tell if they actually mean it or are trying to turn me down in such an obnoxious way that I’m glad to be rid of them. That sounds paranoid, but I’ve as many reasons to believe as to not.

I thought I heard a new insulting compliment the other day, coming from a classmate who told me that for all my nerdy obsessions, my demeanor was distinctly non-nerd. I write a blog dedicated to my enjoyment of kung fu movies, fantasy novels, and RPGs/video games; I thought that she just was dicking with me, until I realized the company that I keep at my university. For your reference: the first day of class, another guy sat next to me, and immediately started talking about his home made arcade unit (a PC in an arcade cabinet running MAME) without any sort of introduction or anything to indicate that he had any reason to start talking to me about his own unique brand of nerd shit.

I don’t claim to have come up with the idea of being nerdy without being a nerd, or post-nerd, or post-geek (ugh) or nerd-cool. But I do know that to some degree, I have attained enough of whatever that is for somebody of the opposite sex to comment on it in what I don’t think was an intentionally insulting way.

Now would be the fortuitous time to proffer a guide to being a nerd or a geek or what have you, not just because somebody acknowledged that I am one without seeming like it, but because the pursuit of what was once considered nerdy has become a part of the mainstream. Frat boys who never heard of Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament play Halo; the academy recognized Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations; everybody blogs and twitters and brags about their gadgety, gimmicky cell phones. The trick to being a nerd in such an environment is to constantly appear to know more than everyone else, both what came before and what is on the horizon. The trick to not appearing like a nerd and a tool is to know what to talk about (and when to stop talking) with people who have only a cursory knowledge of stuff like video games and fantasy literature.

Unfortunately, I have no ability in the writing such things. I can offer basic advice: keep the video-game/franchised t-shirts to a minimum. Shower. Don’t talk about anime. (No, not even Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii) There is never a good reason to vociferously defend the AD&D 2.5 rule set. Ever.

If you have to be seen reading science fiction or fantasy, do us all a favor and spare us the ugly-ass cover art from your licensed, video-game franchise novels. If you’re too illiterate to read literate SF/Fantasy, at least read an old paperback and pretend you’re doing so out of irony. Don’t read Gor, no irony exists there.

I don’t know if it was a regional misconception, but by-and-large, people I knew in high school thought that the appreciation of video games and Japanese cartoons and other nerdy crap denoted a person of minimal athletic and social ability who (assuming he or she wasn’t a devil worshiper or a lesbian) was quite smart. That wasn’t true then, and it still isn’t now. In my experience, it’s the least intelligent people of like interests that tend to be the most insular, if not the most socially retarded. The “cool geeks” and the more acceptable nerds generally included people who displayed actual intelligence as opposed to worthless knowledge of arcane trivia.

But don’t these things go without saying? I recall joking a few weeks ago among friends that although we included female friends and girlfriends and fiancés in our nerdy conversations, we could easily expel them by bringing up something of uber-nerdiness. I offered Nihon Falcom RPGs as an example, and immediately lost the attention of the lone female member of our conversation. Call it Pigsy’s Law: Falcom repels women IRL. That went without saying as well, but I had fun saying it.

That might be the real secret. It’s really all about not being a pedantic asshole.

11/4/09

Seven Swords (Tsui Hark, 2005)

I remember waiting impatiently for Seven Swords to finally come out. Amidst all the hype and expectations -- Tsui Hark returns! Lau Kar-Leung’s final performance! -- and wild predictions of media saturation, the actual product seemed overdue. A television serial with a different cast debuted around the same time as the film, comic books, online RPGs, a sextet of sequels, and other media projects rumored to already be in production. Unfortunately, Tsui Hark’s return to Chinese language film making faced a rather frigid public reception.

The critical response was largely indifferent. Asian audiences didn’t rush out to see the film as the investors and Tsui had publicly predicted; Western audiences generally didn’t see it until the DVD releases, and compared it unfavorably to Zhang Yimou’s films, which were still fresh, or at least seemed so to some.

This was supposed to be Tsui Hark’s return to prestigious, quality film making after a disastrous turn in Hollywood, and a string of hit-and-miss films. It was supposed to be a nearly four hour epic that would finally return the uniquely Hong Kong flavor to the wuxia genre, which, whether you like the older HK films or not, had become redundant under the auspices of “respectable” mainland directors like Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogeng. It had an awesome cast, including old-school actors like Lau Kar-Leung, Chi Kuan-Chun, Jason Pai Piao, as well as brand new talent like Tai Li-Wu, a Peking Opera acrobat Tsui recruited specifically for this film. Lau Kar-Leung (!) choreographed the action scenes. Kenji Kawaii provided the score. Investors from three different countries poured money into it.

What happened? An overabundance of confidence. Nobody wanted to distribute a four hour film, to probably nobody’s surprise but Tsui’s. A truncated version eventually made it to theaters, and eventually to DVD. Whatever Tsui Hark intended, we saw only half of it. Indifference and disappointment ensued. The many rumored projects dissipated into the ether. The internet declared that Tsui Hark had lost “it.” Whatever “it” is.

I watched Seven Swords again today. It starts with natural, heroic beauty, valiant swordsmen racing across the frozen plateaus of Mt. Heaven, fanfare swelling as it transitions to the opening credits. What follows is not a story based on Liang Yusheng’s Seven Swordsmen from Mount Heaven, but the highlights of such an adaptation.

A basic synopsis might go something like, “besieged village recruits seven swordsmen in possession of magical weapons to defend themselves from bounty hunters, after an imperial edict makes them criminals for the practice of martial arts.” And the storyline certainly follows that all too familiar framework. But it is in the nature of wuxia films to be as convoluted as the novels they adapt, and Seven Swords, as loose an adaptation as it is, does exactly that. Love triangles, former political and familial alliances and treasonous intentions -- it’s all a bit complicated. With seven major characters, a two hour running time doesn’t provide much opportunity for plot and characterization and visual splendor and visceral action to serve each of the main characters and all the side characters.

Case in point: the “Joy-Luck” scene. In this scene, Han Zhibang and Mulong release the village’s horses, and run off so that the old and stubborn horse named “Joy-Luck” won’t follow them. It’s an odd sequence, as the music gets real sappy and the camera lingers on the old horse searching for masters that abandoned him. It seemingly pops out of nowhere, as the horse never figures into any previous scene. But an observant viewer will note that Han is always in the stable when he’s in the village. One assumes that in the full movie, Han’s role as the operator of the stable, and the caretaker of Joy-Luck figured into his characterization in some meaningful way. What the audience actually gets is an emotional climax without any buildup. No foreplay; it’s over. I feel cheated.

It is true that many wuxia films, including the ones that earned critical praise, are much too expository. Their characters stand around and talk about what’s happening, and what happened, and what will happen. It’s the barrier between me and Chinese television serials. Seven Swords is opaque, which is no better. All of the guts have been taken out, and what we see of the finer points is infuriating because it looks potentially interesting. Fu Qinzu was once a violent executioner, now trying to atone for his sins. That’s cool, but we never see how Fu has changed, much less what affected him so much that he went from ruthless executioner to avenging holy-warrior. The irrepressibly horny Han and Yufeng, daughter of the village chief, have a romance interrupted by the arrival of Chu Zhaonon who draws Yufeng’s attention with his martial ability and emo brooding. Just what or who is Master Shadow Glow, the crafter of the seven swords?

The audience doesn’t need everything stated outright, but we shouldn’t have to come up with out own explanations to make up for the deficiencies of the plot.

Making a four hour movie, intended to be seen in one part, is mad folly. But I think, maybe, the full version works. Bey Logan claimed it did on his commentary track for the Dragon Dynasty DVD. And what is good about Seven Swords is really good. The production design, unlikely and comic-bookish as it is, looks great. The cinematography captures the rough beauty of northwestern China. Fight scenes utilize too much wire-work, I think, given the attempt at realism set up in other parts of the film, but there are some great moments, particularly during the finale. Speaking of which, the swordplay during the finale is among the best action this decade, reminsicent of the finale to Lau Kar-Leung's Martial Club, if you can believe it.

And mention must be made of Sun Honglei, who, as the villainous Fire-Wind, devoured the scenery and walked away with the film. That guy is clearly having a great time, and really makes the most of his character. Also, many of the actors (Pai Piao, Chi Kuan Chun, Charlie Yeung) can be seen in the background of various scenes set in the village, performing menial tasks. Jason Pai Piao gives a great performance in one scene, and fulfills the role of an extra in the next. The lack of ego is humbling. It makes Leon Lai's consistent non-presence especially glaring. Why does anybody cast that guy in anything? He was equally awful in An Empress and the Warriors. Donnie Yen might not be great, but he's at least trying his damndest to act.

Tsui Hark has always divided people. I’m probably in the minority simply by having no especially strong feelings about him. If a director’s cut of Seven Swords shipped into stores I would buy it. It’s not a good movie, but it’s an interesting failure. In fact, I kind of like it. Don’t forget, I like Green Snake far more than Hero, and I’m looking forward to Tsui’s upcoming Di Renjie with Andy Lau, because I never learn. Your taste probably differs.

11/1/09

IGNorance

IGN.com never provided worthwhile original content, but the site’s visitors never really demanded it. Or at least I don’t think they did, because they have a huge number of visitors and staff for each console, yet so little that’s actually worth reading.

So I knew that Michael Thomsen’s “Citizen Prime: Is Metroid Prime Our Citizen Kane?” would probably leave me in a fit of giggles and self-loathing snobbery. Upon finishing it, the latter was unexpectedly the dominant emotion. I don’t like looking down on people for what they enjoy, or their reasons for enjoying it. What Thomsen writes, however, is so lacking in self-awareness and humility, yet so discordantly earnest, that I want to pretend that he didn’t really annoy me as much as he did. But the more I think about it, the more it irritates me.

If I understand correctly, his argument is that Metroid Prime holds a position in the canon of video games similar to that of Citizen Kane in canon of film, because Metroid Prime utilizes the elements of gameplay to create narrative and thematic cohesion. I’ll let Mr. Thomsen speak for himself:

"In the same way that Citizen Kane harnessed every technical component in film to express its post-mortem reassembly of an irrepressible and heartbroken man, Metroid Prime uses all of its technology to recreate the experience of a woman abandoned on an alien world inhabited by the ghosts of its prelapsarian inhabitants."

Destructoid.com already declared this “one of the single silliest statements you’ll ever read.” (Questionable grammar, but understandable sentiment) I don’t know that it’s in any way arguable that Metroid Prime doesn’t utilize all available methods to immerse its players. But that isn’t really the issue. The real issue is whether or not the mastery of cinematic technique is really the reason why Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane. Apparently realizing this, Thomsen is quick to add:

“The great achievements in any creative medium have always been rooted in empathy, often where it's least expected (e.g. King Lear, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Lolita, The Godfather).”

But Citizen Kane isn’t great because the viewer might feel empathy for Charles Foster Kane. Neither does empathy define the greatness of “King Lear,” and certainly not Lolita (at least, not Nabokov’s Lolita). The directorial and cinematographic methods of Citizen Kane develop the narrative's themes; they weren't designed solely to evoke empathy. And any empathy for Humbert Humbert is of the reader’s own creation; I remain fairly certain that Nabokov, by the end of his novel, did not want for his readers to feel sorry for, much less like a man who sexually preyed upon a twelve-year-old girl. (I fear to read what Thomsen might have interpreted Lolita to be, if his ludicrous conflation of Nabokov’s fiction with the rape-simulator RapeLay is anything to go by.) Martin Amis described Lolita as a novel about tyranny, from the tyrant’s perspective. He’s right: Lolita is not a romance classic, and wasn’t intended as such.

So what is it about Citizen Kane and Lolita and “King Lear” that makes them so important? What doesn’t? Each engages not just hearts and minds, but the soul. Each possesses that ineffable quality that makes us aware that such qualities exist in us. Such works that exist in the canon of worthy human endeavors not only remind us of the mysteries of what it is to exist, but hopefully, cause us to ponder them. They are technically proficient, as any logical critic can see. But other films are technically proficient, as are other novels and plays. Knowing when something is truly great is not a matter of logic, but intuition.

A few decades of hindsight helps too.

Does Metroid Prime really do for the soul what Citizen Kane does? Not for me. The few things that Thomsen claims about the game’s intrinsic worth as a work of art are that it evokes empathy through masterful command of the medium’s formal elements; that the story is told through various visual touches (which aren’t a unique formal element of video games); that the game constantly reminds the player of the role he or she is playing. These, along with some similarities between their respective production processes, are what make Metroid Prime the gamer’s Citizen Kane, according to Thomsen. A generous person could describe such a connection as tenuous, but a person who takes money for his thoughts ought to know better than to so forthrightly state something tenuous not only on a game website, but to ABC News.

Thomsen is serious, though. He takes pains to defend himself from his critics. He’s written follow-up posts on his blog. The reactions from the online peanut-gallery range derisive ad-hominem and incredulous, occasionally profane rebuttals. The consensus is that Mr. Thomsen is either a faux-intellectual or a hipster-douche.

He is one, but not the other. To be a hipster, Thomsen would have to be part of an in-crowd, and he is not. He desperately wishes he were which is why he is trying so hard to defend his segment/editorial. In fact, the question, “what is the Citizen Kane of video games?” is founded in this insecurity of so many video game journalists and fans. Not content to enjoy games for what they are, these people wish for others to acknowledge games as a legitimate form of entertainment, as if that would somehow make it so. Thomsen and his ilk don’t seem to realize that such comparisons only work by minimizing the accomplishments of auteurs like Orson Welles (in this case, by saying that it’s greatness lies in editing and cinematography that create empathy for its central character). In actuality, it only makes video games appear worse for comparison.

Thomsen states the following at the start of his essay:
“Writing about videogames is a strange vocation and not one I had imagined for myself five years ago. There's a well-established tradition of writing for game fans, but I always struggle to justify why everyone else should care. Why does my friend the high school teacher need to worry about Space Pirates? Does my mother, a retired oncology nurse, really need to know the differences between an Ice Beam and a Plasma Beam?”

Basically, Michael Thomsen is insecure; his entire article testifies to this. The florid prose -- “eerie parallels” and “vibrant arrays” abound, and he ascribes Metroid Prime the title of “Odyssey of traversal” which is just redundantly repetitious -- and the vehemently (sophomoric) academic tone of his essay not only remind his readers of his insecurities, they make him look pompous (hence the hipster accusation). That approach won’t make anybody care about video games. In fact, it seems that competitive multiplayer is what attracts people to games, or intuitive, fun control schemes, if the success of the Xbox 360 and Wii are anything to go by.

If it could actually do any good, I’d tell him that his mother doesn’t need to know that the Ice Beam freezes enemies, but the Plasma Beam does more damage. So he shouldn’t worry about it. Chances are, his mom doesn’t need to know about forced perspective, deep focus, or the influence of German Expressionism in Citizen Kane either. But deeply rooted fears over the legitimacy of one’s favored past time are not easily abated.

Games are just games. Acceptance. Let it set ye free.

And don’t forget: you can’t spell ignorance without IGN.

10/25/09

Clutch of Power (Chang Peng-Yi, 1977)

According to his bio on Celestial’s Clan Feuds DVD, director Chang Peng-Yi earned the nick-name, “Taiwanese Chu Yuan” with his many film adaptations of Gu Long novels. It certainly wasn’t because of his cinematic style, if he can be said to have had one.
Clutch of Power tells the story of a group of martial artists fighting each other over a map that records the positions of the Chinese army in the waning days of the Sung dynasty. One particular swordsman, who calls himself the “Spirit of the Sword,” searches for the map not because he cares about the Sung’s impending doom or the invading Mongols, but because of the opportunities it presents him to fight with the top martial artists of China. Filling in the role of the hero is Zhan Yi, a young swordfighter charged with finding a reclusive master, thought to be the only one capable of killing “Spirit of the Sword,” reclaiming the map, and saving China from a couple of centuries of foreign rule. But while Zhan Yi is as upright as such characters can be, the most highly regarded of the martial world fail to live up to the standards taught to their students.
If taken seriously, Clutch of Power is a merciless attack on the authority of elders that totally reneges on its central theme at the end. But then, there’s little justification for taking this movie seriously. One of the major differences between Chu Yuan and Chang Peng-Yi is that Chu seemingly knew that his movies often fell short of the quality for which he strove. Chang doesn’t seem to know much about making a movie. Whereas Chu often tried to imbue his films with an aesthetic sense that marks each as a product of his auteurship, Chang’s films clearly come out of their region and genre. That is to say, they look like Taiwanese wuxia/martial arts films. The images of fighters flipping in the air, silhouetted against a setting sun and fighting in the waning light of a crumbling dynasty all come from the world created from years worth of genre exercises, which took their cues from pulp writers, who took their cues from older pulp writers.

Chang just doesn’t do anything to put his stamp on any of them. I’d not be surprised to hear Clutch of Power was directed by Lee Tso Nam or Ding Shin-sai. Taiwanese Chu Yuan my ass. The only similarity between them is Gu Long.
That’s not to say that I dislike Chang. I’ve liked all his movies I’ve watched thus far. In fact, Clutch of Power is very appealing, or at least should be to genre fans. The fight choreography is good enough, and the pacing moves quite fast without losing the plot completely. The film makers at least attempted coherency, assuming that the English dub accurately represents the film as a whole.

Chinese audiences approach movies like this in a manner that Western audiences might approach films based on Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard or Ian Fleming. Compared to the sprawling narratives of other wuxia authors, Gu Long wrote characters intimately. That somebody might prove himself the best sword fighter in the world, save the Middle Kingdom from evil Mongolians, or explode heads with his chi blasts are largely incidental details; the real appeal of Gu Long comes from characters, dialogue and a Gu’s peculiar style. Chinese speaking audiences wanted movies that felt like Gu Long sometimes more than they wanted films that were actually good.
It’s difficult to understand why the novels and the subsequent films and television serials attained such enduring popularity without knowing the language (only one Gu Long novel, The Eleventh Son, has been professionally translated to English) but Chu Yuan gave probably the best visual representation with elegant, violent, sometimes trippy Shaw Bros. films, usually involving Ti Lung, Derek Yee and Tony Liu. Movies like The Magic Blade were revelatory when Celestial started to release them on DVD. It was like James Bond in ancient China, with Grand Guginol gore scenes and sleazy exploitation being thrust in with martial arts and soap opera intrigue.
Neither knowing the Mandarin (or whatever Taiwanese dialect these movies were filmed in), nor having read the books upon which most of them were based, I cannot tell you whether the dialogue and characterization represent Gu Long well enough that Taiwanese and Hong Kong audiences didn’t miss Chu’s visual sense. I can tell you that Clutch of Power is fun to watch, even if it is the low-budget version of what I typically like. For those not fond of such movies, I assure that this will not change your mind.

10/21/09

Castleview by Gene Wolfe


I don’t know who originally said it, but one professor used to tell my class that you don’t read Gene Wolfe; you reread him.

That’s probably the truest thing that ever came out of that particular professor’s mouth. (For your reference, he described himself as a “Zen Lutheran”) It’s also advice I followed with several of Wolfe’s novels and stories. Castleview probably needs a reread because I’m less sure about what Wolfe is getting at than usual. And it was a pretty quick read... for something written by Gene Wolfe.

The novel is named after its setting, a fictional small Illinois town named Castleview, which is named after its local phenomenon: a castle that appears in the horizon. The inhabitants of Castleview include such ordinary people as the Howards. Tom Howard manages some sort of plant or factory, and is selling the family home to relocate with a better job. We learn of his death in the prologue. His wife, Sally, is a homemaker. His son, Seth, is a starter on the high school football team. His father in law, Robert Roberts, is a car salesman, and getting a bit too old for his job. Recently arriving are Will Shields and Ann Schindler, and their chubby (at least in her own mind) teenage daughter, Mercedes Schindler-Shields. Will bought the car lot, and is Robert’s boss. Ann wants to buy the Howard home. Mercedes likes Seth. Seth at least likes Mercedes enough to make out with her.

But others live in Castleview too, like a giant man who rides an eight legged war horse, and according to legend, kills with his eye. There are unseen trouble-makers who terrorize Lisa and Wrangler, the owners of the girl’s camp Meadow Grass. A strange man named Mr. Fee seems to disappear and reappear at will, and professes a non-Christian religion whose church he would like to build on the Howard family’s property. The long-dead Long Jim consorts with the inhumanly beautiful Viviane Morgan, who might well be a fairy, and hates her brother even more than she loves him. There are sightings of a Sasquatch. And vampires.

Wolfe’s stated purpose for this madness is to show that the contemporary world has not changed so much from the immediate post-antiquity ages as we think, and that the people of what we broadly refer to as the Dark Ages pondered much of what we who consider ourselves sophisticated and urban also find ourselves thinking. He practically slaps the reader with these themes in certain passages, but just because this novel seems more thematically direct than his others doesn’t mean it actually is.

The events of the novel, starting with the appearance of a specter reminiscent of the king of Norse gods, are weird enough. When the illusory castle of the skyline apparently exists, if not as a shared hallucination, than as physical space, what are we as readers supposed to make of it? Is the author telling us that such things as ghosts and fairies actually exist, or that elements of contemporary are analogous to such things? Does Dr. Van Madadh speak for Wolfe in that regard? (Supposing Wolfe speaks vicariously through the mouth of any character is a dangerous move) It gets stranger with Mr. Fee, a character described in bizarre terms and even more bizarre scenarios, who seems to exist solely to cause trouble, both in the narrative and for the reader. What is the book that Mercedes finds with the sword? Preferring the sword, Mercedes forgets the book immediately and so does the narrative. Is Will Shields really the descendant of Arthur?

Nobody ever really clarifies the plans of the fairy people, or what they really hope to accomplish. The appearance of the Green Man at the end of the battle between the citizens of Castleview and the fey folk might be a clue, but if followed to (one of) its more reasonable conclusions, using this moment as a key to understanding the whole narrative makes Wolfe’s purpose for this book far more complicated than it would otherwise be. Castleview contains some of Wolfe’s most direct prose, and it’s still frustratingly obtuse.

But as a fantasy and a horror story, Castleview delivers on its promises. Assuming that you like ghost stories or contemporary fantasy, Castleview is worth reading simply because it’s about as well crafted as such things come. Be aware, though, that in its final chapters, the novel really demands that the reader know what the author knows about its various mythological subjects. Wolfe isn't frustrating because he thinks his reader stupid; he's frustrating because he apparently presumes that we're smart enough to figure him out.

And he's an acquired taste. As far as the Wolfe oeuvre goes, this is probably the deep end of the pool; I admit it is over my head. The Wizard Knight explores similar themes and contains a similar mix of Norse mythology and medieval romance, and is generally considered accessible, even inviting. But for those who fancy themselves Gene Wolfe’s followers, Castleview is worth a read. And a reread too.

10/7/09

Pagan Love Song (Robert Alton, 1950)

Is it possible to make a thoroughly wholesome, family friendly movie based solely on sex appeal? Robert Alton tried to answer “yes” to that very question with his 1950 musical, Pagan Love Song. Musicals, of course, often use song-and-dance as visual metaphors for sex, but Esther Williams did it better, because her musical sequences usually involve swimsuits and underwater writhing. Originally, Pagan Love Song was going to star Cyd Charisse, with Stanley Donen set to direct, but Charisse’s pregnancy and Williams’ dislike for Donen ended those plans. With Williams on board, a new script was written, choreographer Robert Alton placed as director, and a new leading man was found in Howard Keel.

That’s really all there is to it. The plot, if it can be described as such, involves Keel as a school teacher from Ohio who inherits a Tahitian plantation, and meets an attractive half-native woman (Williams) whom he attempts to hire as a house keeper, not realizing she’s actually a wealthy landowner with perfect English. After teasing him for a bit, she eventually befriends him, and falls in love with him. And then... well, that’s just about it. The movie only runs 76 minutes, and a good portion of that is either comedy gags or singing, or Williams in a bathing suit. There’s a whole lot of screen time devoted to Williams and her bathing suits.

All this probably sounds like I’m down on Pagan Love Song, but my only real problem with it is the music, which mostly sounds like the sort of thing one might hear in any Hollywood musical. It’s bland compared to the setting, and Alton only takes advantage of the south sea milieu for a single sequence involving lots booty-shaking women in grass skirts. The greatest sin: Pagan Love Song has no pagan love song.

It actually did well enough when it was released, one assumes due to the star power of Williams and Keel. I think that as bad a film as it is by contemporary expectations (it has a 4.2 weighted average at IMDb) there’s an amusing quality to its feigned innocence. The “water ballet” that plays out in Howard Keel’s imagination is so transparent it becomes funny, although I’m sure that it was pretty hot fifty years ago. The fact that any problems between the characters resolve themselves within minutes (and usually a song) adds to the silliness.

But in 1950, with the memories and consequences of WWII still too recent to be regarded as history, musicals like this one fulfilled a very important fantasy. The white people in Pagan Love Song spend most of their time lolling about without a great deal of clothing (Keel and Williams were both very fit at the time) while beautiful brown people run around with even less clothing, doing all the manual labor. Teaching the native children proves easier than teaching unruly schoolboys in Ohio. Tahiti shows no wounds of the fighting (the location shooting was done in Hawaii) from just a few years prior.

It’s a narrative feature of musicals that incredible gifts of athleticism and musicality come naturally to good people. We never see any hard work going into the music sequences that simply happen in the middle of Singin’ in the Rain or Summer Stock, both of which are about the production of musicals. If you’re good, you can sing good (grammar intentional) in the world of Hollywood musicals. Pagan Love Song is the same, only with the additional promise that uncorrupt paradise exists. Because everybody is so inherently good (maximizing the amount of song and dance) and because the film has no concerns other than showing its pretty people, Pagan Love Song has no conflict. Unless you’re enamored with the leads, it’s boring when it isn’t being stupid.

Stanley Donen actually would challenge the expectation of the genre with Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather (one of my favorites), so it’s kind of a shame that he didn’t have any chance to make something out of this movie. It’s a standard, stupid musical for which I have some ironic affection. Probably worth watching for a laugh if you can catch it on Turner Classic Movies, but if you channel surf a bit while it’s on, I won’t blame you.