The Forbidden Kingdom - Also bad, but not as bad as DB:E
In my review of DragonBall: Evolution, I commented on the film from the perspective of a genre fan who was tired of mainstream studios crafting pale imitations of the pop-art, culture, and entertainment that I enjoy. The things I expressed reminded me that I had felt the same way (although not hardly in the same abundance) almost exactly a year ago, with the release of Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom. Being far more interested in Kung Fu movies, Hong Kong films and Chinese literature than anime and poorly made fighting games, it would not have been imprudent of me to think that DragonBall: Evolution would prove the less obnoxious of these two attempts by Hollywood to co-opt martial arts movie aesthetics and fantastical kung fu for their own purposes. But for all it does wrong, The Forbidden Kingdom actually manages to do some things right.
For starters, it has Jet Li and Jackie Chan in their first (pray not their last) film together. That alone engenders enough good will to make it worth a look.
When I saw it, I was not only a huge fan of Jet Li and Jackie Chan's films, not only of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema in general, but greatly immersed in The Journey to the West for reasons that are best left unstated for the moment. Going into the film, I knew that it was directed by Rob Minkoff, whose other films were family features like 1999's Stewart Little, and that neither Jet Li nor Jackie Chan actually played the lead roll, deferring to a young actor named Michael Angarano. The film is about Jason Tripitakas, a frequently bullied Boston teenager obsessed with old Kung Fu flicks, who gets sent back in time to a mythical China after getting knocked off the roof a local Chinatown import story during an attempted robbery. While there, he meets various fighters looking to overthrow the Jade Warlord who has imprisoned the Monkey King and is looking for his magical staff, which can set the Monkey free. So Jason goes off with Lu Yan, Golden Sparrow and the Silent Monk to put an end to the Jade Warlord's corruption.
The film starts off with an ugly sequence shot in front of a green screen in which Jet Li as the Monkey King uses his magical abilities to beat up a group of heavies. It's revealed to be a dream of the protagonist -- his wall is platered with classic Shaw Brothers movie posters (which would be absurdly rare if they were real and definitely too expensive to just stick on a wall) and the old Ho Meng-Hua film, Monkey Goes West (1966) plays on a nearby television. This segues into my favorite part of the movie: the opening credits sequence.
The opening credits are played against an animated montage of Shaw Brothers and classic Kung Fu movie posters, including everything from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin to Come Drink with Me to Drunken Master. It's animated and the images are tweaked and it entirely looks like some design kiddie ran a bunch of low quality images through Photoshop and slapped himself on the back for his creativity, but I love it. I was naming the movies as the posters popped up -- which might have been annoying except the friend I was watching it with was keeping up right along with me. Nothing else in the film (save one particular scene) really pinged my nostalgia radar like that lone sequence.
But then, the movie itself started.
From the very beginning, it isn't hard to guess what scene is going to happen next. It follows the same plot as every fantasy film about a present-day child escaping into an other-world. It's obvious that Michael Angarano's Jason Tripitikas will be the "chosen one," that he'll have an exotic love interest, that he'll eventually learn kung fu, and so on. It isn't so much a problem that the plot is predictable, but that it chose the wrong ready-made, boxed and frozen plot.
One of the things that is frequently missed (or possibly willfully ignored) by those trying to parody or pay tribute to them is that it is very rare -- even among the most fantastical of the genre -- to have a "chosen one" as a protagonist. Characters with a destiny to be fulfilled, with special authority over the fate of a nation (or even world) or preternatural aptitude for heroics are common in neither wuxia nor kung fu films. Even though he starts out weak, Jason is going to eventually become a master. But it isn't because he's totally dedicated to making the most of himself and his training that the audience knows he will; it's because he's the protagonist. The whole China wonderland exists solely to give him some backbone, and possibly provide a cute Asian girlfriend to go with his new found kung fu powers. It may not be the usual setting, but there is little question that this is going to be a narrative firmly set in the occidental fantasy mold.
And this is the problem with the film. It's predictability isn't anywhere near as frustrating as its hypocrisy. Why do occidental audiences need a protagonist that looks like them and a fantasy version of China that panders to their every whim in order to appreciate and relate to Chinese culture? If the folks that made this film really cared so much about the genre, why not actually try to get the real deal into the public eye? A good portion of the genre itself is languishing in film canisters in warehouses and garages and basements, turning pink or disintegrating. Even the films that have been remastered or collected by the HKFA aren't necessarily easy to obtain; many are downright impossible to find outside of dvdr and avi file sharing. And yet more inconvenience: almost all of the old Cantonese serials are unavailable on anything other than vcd and even fewer are subtitled in English. Surely making the genre itself available would be a better way to pay tribute to the wuxia, kung fu, and Chinese fantasy films than making a film that imitates their themes and aesthetics in the most shallow way possible.
For one thing, as an adaptation of The Journey to the West, it's awful. There's no real reason for why it had to have a Journey to the West theme anyway, although it is the screenwriter (John Fusco) who receives the blame for those major details made disappointingly minor. The Monkey King could be anything -- he could be the fabled Chinese poo-monster, if the film makers wanted -- because the relation of his characterization to the actual themes is mostly non-existent. It's like Fusco figured "well, this character is cool" and just wrote them into the script. Golden Swallow from King Hu's Come Drink With Me, Lian Ni-Chang from Liang YuSheng's Bai Fa Mo Zhu (by way of the film adaptation), and Lu Yan of the Eight Taoist Immortals are all given this treatment. What's the point of this? Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing's characterizations weren't just high points of Wu Cheng'En's novel, but were deeply connected to the intent -- to the soul -- that the author was trying to convey. These characters pilfered from other sources could be anything; they make no difference.
Hearing characters say "Come drink with me!" or Michael Angarano geeking out over various movies that one would think an obsessive collector would already own are examples of reference that are nowhere near as clever as John Fusco seems to think. But to his credit, he at least doesn't treat martial arts as an assortment of tricks for fighting. And for the most part, the fight scenes are very amusing, handled by Yuen Woo-Ping who has made himself into the most sought after fight choreographer in the world by working on so many high profile Hollywood films (that pale in comparison to the micro budget work he's done in Hong Kong). Michael Angarano received much undeserved anger from fanboys for being the magic whitey in The Forbidden Kingdom, but he clearly worked hard on the film and isn't actually that bad. And at least Rob Minkoff and John Fusco knew enough to not try and have him show up his co-stars. Liu Yifei may not be able to act, but she sure is cute. And Li Bing Bing absolutely rocked the white wig she wears in tribute to The Bride With White Hair (Ronny Yu, 1993) -- the subject of more than a couple of visual references, of which the entire character Ni Chang is one. The lead bully, played by martial arts expert Morgan Benoit, is... embarrassing, but still entertaining, if only unintentionally.
Really though, Chan and Li fighting each other is what makes this film. They are the Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly of kung fu movies. Their fight scene might not look like much to those who don't watch these films, but for those with a calibrated eye, it's exceptional. The length of the takes, the fluidity of the choreography, the timing; it's almost everything that could be reasonably expected from this kind of movie and from these actors at this point in their careers. It isn't perfect (no doubt, there will be fans who are disappointed) but it's the other high point of this movie. It's good enough that it elevates the rest, making it watchable.
And watchability is what makes The Forbidden Kingdom a better film than DragonBall: Evolution. They still share the same flawed idea. If they were rip-offs -- if their most significant flaws were being derivative -- it would be forgivable. There is a difference between derivative and ersatz; between imitation and counterfeit; between homage and pastiche. Films like these are supposedly tributes. They are, in fact, replacements. And as such, they are often unsatisfying to many who have deep connections to the films and themes whose place is being usurped.
Perhaps even worse: these synthetic products continue to befuddle the lazy mainstream film critics who have made strides to contextualize everything from the torture-porn strain of horror films and Italian westerns to 1950's science fiction and mostly ad-libbed comedies. Films like this are what causes some to continue to assume that the genre is little more than fight scenes. In spite of its otherwise amiable Never Ending Story-in-China plot, it's another example of how Hollywood film makers are still just not doing it right.
If anything, it's about as bad (although it's also just as good) as Ronny Yu's ill fated entry into Hollywood, Warriors of Virtue. At the very least, both of these are better than DragonBall: Evolution. But the assault of poseur films is not over. M. Night Shyamalan is going to be filming The Last Airbender this year, which has fans of "Avatar" in a fit. This might just be an attempt to quarter off market share (US studio makes genre entertainment normally provided by non-US studio, audience starts watching US offering and forgets about the foreign) and if so, I will solve the problem on my end and simply stop watching the imitations -- even if it means I'll miss another one of Shyamalan's hilarious train wrecks.