7/30/10

The Legend of the Evil Lake (Lee Kwong-hoon, 2003)

For the American fan, a few key events really define Hong Kong cinema of the early 2000’s. The British left the colony to Chinese govern. Leslie Chung died. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even with its subtitles and flying people wearing funny clothes, was huge over here. And then South Korea. I suppose that the lack of fan-subbing for Chinese language television in those days might have something to do with it, but it seemed like everybody at the time predicted that South Korea would replace Hong Kong, citing Korean movies they felt were suitable replacements for the sort of film that Hong Kong wasn’t producing at the volume previously had. Bichunmoo, Sword in the Moon, and Legend of the Evil Lake were said by some to be new Korean wuxia movies.

Bichunmoo certainly could be called that (as could director Kim Young-Jun’s follow up, Shadowless Sword), but Legend of the Evil Lake is really not a wuxia movie. A remake of Shin Sang-Ok’s 1969 supernatural horror come romance, A Thousand Year Old Fox, director Lee Kwong-hoon’s update does make use of Chinese locations and martial arts choreography/wire work by Hong Kong veteran Yuen Tak, so the comparison is understandable, particularly when the opening scene seems intentionally reminiscent of Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair.

Lee’s film tells more or less the same story as Shin’s. General Biharang, a decorated officer busy with uprisings across the kingdom, catches the eye of the Queen of Shilla, causing suspicion in the court. Biharang’s affections, however, are the sole property of his beloved wife, Ja Woon-bei, a commoner whose father had ties to rebel groups before his death. Scheming court nobles, looking for a way to control Biharang, dispatch soldiers to kill Ja Woon-bei. While fleeing from them, she pulls a sacred sword from the ground that has imprisoned the ghost of Auta, a tribal leader with occult powers killed by the first king of Shilla, beneath a lake for a thousand years. Auta takes possession of Ja Woon-bei’s body, and seeks revenge against the descendent of his killer.

There are a number of striking differences between the original film and its remake, the most immediately notable being that the cast of the 2003 film is much younger and fresh faced. The remake also plays its cards early, starting off with a sequence in which the first king of Shilla defeats Auta (not a fox-demon this time). The scene has lots of wire work, CGI effects and gallons of blood -- a violent depiction of genocide that seems at odds with the rest of an essentially sentimental film -- which is all rather spectacular.

But while I thought that Shin’s film was spastic, The Legend of the Evil Lake is comparatively laborious. Much of the dialog about rebel uprisings seems incidental to the plot, outside of giving a reason for Biharang’s inability to protect his wife. And even with a comparably slower pace, the characters seem even more underwritten than in A Thousand Year Old Fox. Probably the worst change comes to the ending. Whereas the original left the viewer with an impossible image that still resounded with mythic intensity, the remake ends on a cheesy scene that is actually more sentimental but without anywhere near the visual punch.

Legend of the Evil Lake flopped at the box office, which was probably inevitable given how expensive the production looks (costuming, cinematography and the people are all quite pretty). It’s mostly forgotten now, and probably won’t be one of those movies waiting to be discovered and reappraised by a different audience in another decade. But it’s interesting to look back on how people perceived it when it was released. And I’m glad that South Korea never became the “new Hong Kong.” Recent films like The Restless not withstanding, the Koreans don’t make anything that feels like imitation Hong Kong genre flicks any more (and in reality, they made more of them before anybody was trying to use them as a surrogate). It’s better to appreciate the country in its own context.

7/29/10

WingerDinger Dead

In a recent article for the National Review titled “Gated or X-Rated,” Jonah Goldberg and Nick Schulz liken the internet to the Wild West, an image of almost unparalleled romance for a subsection of conservatives who get a tingle up their collective leg when listening to the recorded speeches of Ronald Reagan. The article is a decidedly na├»ve and typically old-media series of observations in support of Apple’s model of internet access -- heavily regimented for consumers who want their internet filtered through pre-fab applications -- and an argument for the creation of a “.kids” domain name. Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Schulz believe this to be constructive and non-restrictive way of setting up a safe zone for kids who want to enjoy the internet without stumbling into an “I’m twelve and what is this?” sort of situation.

Now, I actually like Goldberg (rote disclaimer: even though I don’t always agree with him), at least in print, and I’m not familiar with Schulz. But however much their writing entertains me with its sentimental view of the internet as a vast expanse of open information frontier that nourishes libertarian spirit, their proposal of a new domain is a really, really terrible idea.

Perhaps it isn’t as obvious to them, because, unlike me, they have real lives and don’t venture far past the right wing political blogs with which they agree and left wing political blogs to which they publicly take exception. Being more internet savvy than I would like to be, I have seen more than one instance of that Wild West encroaching like a band of cattle rustlers (or perhaps more like raiding Visigoths) into the gated communities (their terminology, not mine) already set aside for children. The Habbo Hotel raids would be a good, though relatively harmless and funny example. Less easy to appreciate are the posting of flashing gifs on an epilepsy support forum.

Less funny and more than a little disturbing is the recent explosion of interest in “Jessi Slaughter” (Google if you must) an eleven-year-old “crunkcore” fan whose antics brought her more attention than she knew how to handle -- attention that she actively sought. Not only did she taunt her online bullies (before her videos were posted to image boards, many of the online detractors were about her own age), she posted highly suggestive pictures, and is possibly involved in a scandal involving the lead singer of some shit band called Blood on the Dance Floor, who currently faces allegations of sexual assaulting a sixteen year old girl.

But that’s the internet.

So, WingerDinger Productions. This site was the subject of two previous posts, both of which covered the hopelessly silly nature of their discussion. The sight was recently trolled, its owner, Hellsing920 (Emer Prevost IRL), driven off YouTube by false DMCA notices and its community exiled to a new forum. The original site, a cheap .webs domain, was “hacked,” and was redirecting to “last measure,” then the hacker’s own YouTube channel. The bandwidth now used up, WingerDinger’s initial incarnation is gone. There were two major problems that converged with WingerDinger that will afflict any sort of .kids site that allows children to interact on the internet. The first is that kids are stupid and the other is that kids are easy targets.

Target.
It isn’t hard to figure out that WingerDinger’s userbase was comprised mostly of people under or around the age of eighteen, and like any comprised of socially awkward kids, the community was prone to navel-gazing (they wrote their own article on TVTropes), cheerful displays of ignorance, and an utter disregard for nuance, critical thought, precise expression and good humor. The website’s owners and creators of its actual content were mostly older -- Hellsing920, I believe, is only a few years shy of thirty -- but they attracted, due to the nature of their videos and webcomic, an audience of kids who were no more prudent than their online idols. Granted, imprudence is to be expected from those who have a ways to go before they’re a few years shy of thirty.

Part of the issue here is what the internet has evolved into and why a wider range of people, including kids, want to use it. Hellsing920 raised the ire of a lot of YouTube users in videos where he would spew incorrect information in as loud and obnoxious a manner as he could muster, and when people responded to correct him, he would accuse them of being petty and pat himself on the back for having gotten a rise out of them.. In a lot of ways, this is the internet equivalent of showing somebody your dick and then calling them queer. This made him a hero to a seemingly impossible number of less than clever kids.

In a brief conversation we had before YouTube finally suspended his channel, Hellsing920 told me that his internet “persona” was based on all of his “negativity and cynicism” and claimed that he was successful based on how often he “pissed off people.” He also agreed with me when I told him that his fans were stupid, but didn’t seem especially open to the idea that his videos and persona attract the sort of fan -- young, male, insecure and not especially bright -- that rewarded his ignorance with attention and praise (in his defense, I hardly stated this explicitly)..

This is the nature of YouTube, many message boards, and most social networking sites -- and practically every site attempts to “network” its users these days -- an attention whoring competition. Emer had over nine thousand (no meme intended) subscribers before YouTube banned his account; his fans equated that “success” with his “negativity and cynicism” and hoped to emulate it with their own online personas. One of the trolls, while discussing the then upcoming raid on the WingerDinger site, asked something basically along the lines of “is there anything these kids don’t hate?” It was a reasonable question given how many threads consisted of “_______ is so overrated” or “_______ needs to die.” In response to an earlier post on the subject, WingerDinger member KBMadhouse actually pointed out that the forum was overwhelmingly negative.

Between the brittle egos, the stupid videos, and the desperately negative forums, it was inevitable that WingerDinger would eventually get trolled. It just happened that they caught the attention of some unusually competent ones who worked them over pretty well.

A .kids domain would eventually attract the same kind of attention, especially one that allows any sort of interaction. There are plenty of High School Musical and Twilight fans whose eyes were assaulted by Goatse and Tub Girl over the years who can attest to that. Furthermore, even if adults, the predatory and puckish alike, could be kept off of a “.kids” domain, children would still be exposed to the stupidity of other children (do you want your kids talking to Jessi Slaughter?). Of course, one gets the impression that Jonah Goldberg and Nick Schulz think of the internet as something through which actual content is accessed. If they want to limit their kids to accessing only the sites that provide real information and keeping them away from all of the things for which people actually use the internet -- gossip, porn, and ego-wanking -- well, I hate to say it, but: there’s an app for that. Buy Apple.

But that isn’t why most kids want to use the internet. I’m not saying that WingerDinger deserved to get hacked; but that “for all intensive purposes,” it’s a great example of the role that internet plays for the kids that use it. They aren’t looking for irregular Latin verb conjugations; they're desperately seeking attention and validation, often through shared hatred or brand idolatry. The best way to prevent children from experiencing the lawless frontier of the internet will always be to keep them from playing on it.
The Last WingerDinger Image I'll Ever Post.

7/19/10

"Scarlet Emeralds" and "Faucets" of a Teenaged Mind

As he mentions in his Ogre Battle 64 review, Lightwing23 and I decided a few months ago to challenge each other to review various things, with an explicit agreement that we would not suggest things solely for the purpose of watching each other rage with the righteous anger of a nerd-Achilles. I reviewed Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce (which I actually liked) and Gamer Grub (which I’m rather iffy about) at his request, while he’s written about Ogre Battle 64 and Disgaea at mine. I know he loves both games, which means he better get ready; I’ma try to make him rage.

He decided to dub his contributions “Filling Goldenpigsy’s Trough,” which I can only hope was not intentionally, uh... homoerotic. I considered naming my own articles on this theme with something about “light wings” and “absorbency,” but that’s really too juvenile, even by the standards at this blog (please don’t be surprised by the fact that I have standards). And I really couldn’t come up with anything that made sense anyways.

Lightwing wanted me to write a review of Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans, 2001), one of the movies I probably forced him to watch when we were in school together. When I finally got around to looking for my DVD, I couldn’t find it. It’s not on my shelves and I’m wondering if I lent it to somebody who never bothered giving it back. So in its stead, I will review Jim Theis’s abominable The Eye of Argon, which I actually convinced Lightwing23 to read (he gave me his copy of the Wildside Press edition). Sorry, dude.

The Eye of Argon is 7,000 word novelette originally published (as a joke) by OSFAN, an Ozark area science fiction/fantasy fanzine, in 1970. The author, Jim Theis, wrote it at the ripe age of sixteen, which is all too obvious when reading it. Through a somewhat convoluted series of events, a Xerox of the story made its way among genre authors, editors, and aficionados, who read it out loud at conventions. The goal, as I understand it, is to read as much as one can with a straight face. It sounds mean, but according to Lee Weinstein’s introduction to the print edition, Mr. Theis actually attended the readings. Good sport, that guy.

The Eye of Argon is basically Conan fanfic, only somehow more generic than the progenitor of the swords-and-sorcery genre. Grignr, the protagonist, is a barbarian adventurer chafing against the decadence of society. Sound familiar? The story contains all the requisite elements and sequences: A scene in a tavern in which “The barbarian seated himself upon a stool at the wenches side, exposing his body, naked save for a loin cloth brandishing a long steel broad sword ...” (one wonders how the his loincloth brandished anything, unless one opts for the obvious Freudian interpretation), a scene in which the barbarian is captured and imprisoned, a vicious cult, and a Lovecraftian monster which Grignr battles.

I’m guessing from the jail scene that Theis was very fond of Robert E. Howard’s “The Scarlet Citadel,” a personal favorite of mine as well, because this part of The Eye of Argon reads as though it were written with a copy of Howard’s story right beside it. I think it’s also fair to assume that poor Jim wrote at least a few passages one-handed, if the following indicates anything (Wildside Press kept the grammatical/editing errors intact -- I quote as is):
“’Thou hast need to occupy your time, barbarian’, questioned the female?
‘Only if something worth offering is within my reach.’ Stated Grignr,as his hands crept to embrace the tempting female, who welcomed them with open willingness.
‘From where do you come, barbarian, and by what are you called?’ Gasped the complying wench, as Grignr smothered her lips with the blazing touch of his flaming mouth.
The engrossed titan ignored the queries of the inquisitive female, pulling her towards him and crushing her sagging nipples to his yearning chest. Without struggle she gave in, winding her soft arms around the harshly bronzedhide of Grignr corded shoulder blades, as his calloused hands caressed her firm protruding busts.
‘You make love well wench,’ Admitted Grignr...”
One can also assume from this passage that Jim Theis had not yet experienced the joy of touching a woman (though he clearly fantasized about it).

Detailing every laughable passage in The Eye of Argon would actually reproduce the story in its entirety, especially the latter chapters -- and half chapters, this being the only published work I’ve ever encountered that denominated chapters 3 1/2 and 7 1/2 -- in which the prose becomes so dense with nonsensical adjectives and laborious description that I found it impossible to understand unless read out loud (preferably in a funny voice). It is best, for sake of brevity, to merely isolate some of the funniest examples of language butchery.

“He dickered with the notion...”

“Glaring directly down towards her was the stoney, cycloptic face of the bloated diety. Gaping from its single obling socket was scintillating, many fauceted scarlet emerald ...”

"’What are you called by female?’
"’Carthena, daughter of Minkardos, Duke of Barwego, whose lands border along the northwestern fringes of Gorzom. I was paid as homage to Agaphim upon his thirty-eighth year,’ husked the femme!”

"’Your sirenity, resplendent in noble grandeur, we have brought this yokel before you (the soldier gestured toward Grignr) for the redress or your all knowing wisdon in judgement regarding his fate.’"

“The slut should have picked his qurray more carefully.”

And so on. Twain wrote of Fenimoore Cooper that he broke 114 of the 115 major literary rules, as well as several minor ones. Among the lesser, Cooper failed “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” As seen from the above passages, Theis uses the wrong word’s second cousin incorrectly.

When Pilgrim, Lightwing23 (and Mrs. Lighwing23), RockManXZ24 and I used to hang out together, we had a great time of reading Tara Gilesbie’s infamous Harry Potter fanfic, “My Immortal,” out loud, usually headed up by yours truly. The Eye of Argon is actually funnier, if only because its author is so completely earnest, rather than a possible (though amazingly thorough) internet prank. It might be a horrendous assault on the English language brimming with teenage hormones and wish fulfillment and a blatant pastiche of narrative devices and characterization from the old guard, but The Eye of Argon at least flows from beginning to middle to end -- one mark out of 115. I guess that puts Theis over Gilesbie and on the same level as Cooper.

7/18/10

Map a Labyrinth; Lose Your Friends

After two years of intermittent, intense play, I think I’ve finally experienced enough of Etrian Odyssey 2 to tell you guys what I think of it.

Doesn’t that sound silly? If you read any of my other posts about video games you’ll probably know that I really love this series and actually have a strong affinity for the whole “dungeon crawler” sub-genre of RPGs. In fact, you might expect me to heap scorn upon those who clearly didn’t understand the game or just generally wrote twaddle about how it wasn’t what they expect from a game made in 2007. I have a habit of liking games that, for example, Game Informer hates. I really, really liked Nightmare of Druaga, and I still consider it the best example of the Japanese take on the Roguelike (I haven’t played Shiren 3; I don’t have a Wii) that developer Chun Soft has been tooling with for years. I also used that review as an opportunity to heap scorn on the reviewers who didn’t get it. Mistakes were made, and I can admit that. I can also admit that you probably already know what I think about Etrian Odyssey.

Talking about Etrian Odyssey 2 will sound remarkably like talking about its predecessor; the differences between the two are so slight. Etrian Odyssey sees the player’s guild of adventurers traversing a thirty tiered labyrinth buried deep in the earth. Its sequel actually has the guild travelling up the equivalent of the Yggdrasil. The first game involves a meter that builds in battle which will allow the characters to boost their stats for one turn when full, while the second has a similar meter, but it allows for the use of a special skill when full. Otherwise the games are the very much the same in terms of how they really play.

You’ve got a group of adventurers whose classes you decide, and a labyrinth that you chart on the DS’ touch screen. That sums up the majority of the game. This series is part of a sort of Renaissance among Japanese developers that’s happened almost entirely on the handhelds. Quite unlike the majority of the gaming journalists (professional and amateur) out there, I think that RPG development in Japan is actually healthier, more varied, and more interesting than what’s going on here in the west, owing to renewed appreciation for classic gameplay tailored to contemporary tastes. Etrian Odyssey and its sequel capture the sense of danger that made older computer role playing games so addicting by not holding the player’s hand. You have to be careful; you don’t know when a super-powered enemy (called FOE’s in Etrian Odyssey) will pop out and chase your party down. Planning, character development and party build are all vital aspects that are fun in and of themselves. If you don’t like these elements, you don’t really like genre. But at the same time, each game rewards players for experimentation. None of the classes are useless if one keeps in mind how they will work with the other members of the party.
But what’s so fun about graphing a map on the DS? I don’t know. It’s not even nostalgia, since I didn’t play Bard’s Tale or Wizardry on the Apple II. Yet there’s something about marking down progress that really motivates me to play. More so than in games that either display a map in full or auto map in detail, the manual cartography in Etrian Odyssey actually adds to the sense of having conquered a section of the labyrinth. A lot is often made of the idea of exploration in RPGs and how it is important to creating a sense of progress, a sense of how far the characters have gone from their usually quaint origins at the beginning of the game. But exploration usually means so little in JRPGs that when Sting did away with it for Riviera: The Promised Land, the result was actually a much smoother game than it might otherwise have been. Creating a customized map actually makes the process more interesting, particularly when the layouts are as complicated as those in these games, and more personally rewarding.
I think it’s more than just pretend cartography that made EO into a cult property. Etrian Odyssey and its sequel boast music by fan favorite Yuzo Koshiro. The graphics are well rendered and the character designs are probably somebody’s idea of cute, although I think most of them are weird looking and a few border on creepy (the shop keeper in the second game is a full on moe-blob with simpering dialogue to match). But those things are incidental to the series’ success. Simple mechanics triumph, particularly when the games are balanced in the player’s favor. There are challenging aspects (including post-game content) but Etrian Odyssey is really quite easy to figure out.
The DS brims with role playing games of every possible variety, and most of them try to stroke the nostalgia that resonates so strongly with video gamers. Etrian Odyssey hearkens back further than any of them (The Dark Spire excepted), with no angst ridden teenage heroes or malevolent planet-sized evil that became de rigueur on the SNES and (especially) the Playstation, and no item creation systems or dating simulation segments. It doesn’t need those things to entrance the player with its promise of further progression. People think that Japanese RPGs are games designed to be interactive stories, because the term “JRPG” has come to mean Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy 7 clone. But with both Etrian Odyssey and its sequel, the game is the game (and for the record, the earliest Japanese language RPG, The Black Onyx, is a first person dungeon crawler). The medium has freed itself of the message -- a relief after suffering through so many stories about spiky haired teenagers saving the world from some analog for the Christian God or Catholic Church.
The upcoming Etrian Odyssey 3: The Drowned City looks to be even more intimidating, including a customizable ship for seafaring and character classes with even more specialized abilities, which will make party formation that much more critical. But it also looks to have the same inviting, colorful art direction, and the same promise of simple gameplay done right. Some people don’t like that, but there are plenty of games for them on the consoles.
I also have to express my gratitude that neither game records the hours spent playing, as my cumulative time in hours easily reaches into the hundreds.

7/14/10

The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010)

M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series is both his worst movie yet and this year’s equivalent of DragonBall: Evolution. Eyebrows becom raised as soon as the casting was announced, a not-inconsiderable number of fans wanting to know one very particular thing: “where are all the Asians?
This was something that happened with DragonBall: Evolution as well. When the casting of Justin Chatwin as Goku disseminated throughout the fandom, message boards became battle grounds, every topic strewn with rhetorical land mines. Any assumption, any viewpoint taken as axiomatic with regards to race, or its depiction in anime, or even about the nature of race relations in Japan and America was pounced on by those who held contrary viewpoints as axiomatic; no forum thread remained safe from the bickering about whether Goku was “white or azn.” I was there for this, trolling both sides on the IMDb board, where the arguments are still going a year after nearly everyone stopped caring.
This screen cap was taken today.
The reason why attention migrated from DragonBall: Evolution so quickly was because it was an awful film. A camcorder job leaked onto the internet probably hurt ticket sales more than any negative review or argument over inappropriate (and racist, some would argue) casting. It was a terrible adaptation and a terrible movie.
An example of the erudite discussion on the IMDb board for The Last Airbender
Shyamalan’s The Last Aribender actually takes the opposite approach, slavishly adhering to the plot of the first season of its source, cramming twenty twenty-two minute episodes’ worth of content into a single hundred minute movie. The plot, roughly stated, is that the fire nation is warring against the earth and water nations, after having eradicated the air tribe. The Avatar, the one person capable of communicating with the spirits and controlling all four elements, has been missing. Katara and Sokka, two members of the water tribe, find a young boy encapsulated in ice, Aang, who is the avatar, frozen in ice for, like, a century or something. Accepting the role of the avatar, Aang must bring about peace, while being pursued by the fire nation’s Prince Zuko, who must regain his honor by capturing the avatar.

It sounds exciting, sure, but the constant exposition, told in dowdy voice-overs that sometimes narrate things as they happen on screen, sucks anything resembling energy or emergency from the narrative. The characters are flat, and the few times that they actually interact with each other, the lack of personality becomes painfully noticeable. This is amplified by the casting of a relative new-comer and total unknown for the major roles. Noah Ringer is not an actor, but a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do who the casting directors scouted during an open call in Texas. If you thought that the martial arts films of the 70’s had wooden acting, you will likely walk away from The Last Airbender with your preconceptions in check.

It’s actually really hard to figure out what was going on with Shyamalan during the filming of this mess, much less the writing and editing, beyond self-satisfaction and hubris. There’s a particular scene in which the fire nation emperor, Ozai, is filmed in a manner rather reminiscent of Dr. Claw. But we, the audience, have already seen his face. We have already seen how he humiliated and dishonored his son. We know what he did to the air tribe. There’s no reason to shoot dialogue like that -- no tension to be built and no characterization to be furthered. It’s the scene that made me wonder what happened in the editing room. The best visuals in the film are the ones that render the cartoon in live action, and that work was done by ILM.

Shyamalan also bragged about how he would film in long takes, because anyone can film with multiple cameras and construct a scene with editing. This is fine, except that the camera work during the fight scenes is either bad -- the choreography taking place out of frame (an early fight scene where Dev Patel’s character, Zuko, spars with four guards is especially bad in this regard) -- or the choreography itself fails to synch with the special effects. Compare this to the Pang Brothers’ The Storm Warriors, which has similar special effects shots that are comparatively more interesting to watch. More often, the choreography just isn't that good.

A director known for slow burning thrillers, Shyamalan has no business adapting an anime-inspired martial arts cartoon show. Worse, he seems to have finally come unhinged. Either he thought that doing a summer blockbuster would reestablish his name as a director of technical skill or he genuinely thinks that he is a visionary who can do no wrong. There’s some evidence that Shyamalan has a huge, though very fragile ego, recorded (albeit adoringly) in Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, an account of the tumultuous filming of Lady in the Water, the film which really turned Night’s career for the worst. Shyamalan fails to do right by the fans who would have been the film’s biggest supporters, changing little things that actually matter (the script used for writing in the film is gibberish, the cartoon used actual Chinese letters), while not reworking the plot to actually fit a one hundred minute film. The whole of it is mystifying.
Granted, making a "Last Airbender" film in live-action would be a no-win scenario for anybody. It isn’t possible, with an American adaptation of anime or an ersatz Asian themed cartoon show, to please one part of the audience without alienating another. The Last Airbender will eventually be forgotten, like DragonBall: Evolution, by all except the righteously indignant. A year from now, I’ll check the relevant IMDb board, and were I a betting man, place money on there being at least one thread in which people fight with each other over racism, perceived or otherwise, in relation to the film and its casting.

Typically, when reviewing an American attempt at a kung fu or wuxia/fantasy movie, I comment on the way that it distorts the milieu or themes normally found in authentic films. It’s difficult to do that with The Last Airbender because of everything that’s happening around it. I cannot watch it without wondering about its director, who is capable of great work, making such an ugly, cheesy film. I can’t watch it without wondering how many people in the audience find the casting curious, if not inappropriate or offensive. I can’t help but laugh about how angry the fans of the show must be that they spent money on the 3D showing.

This "review" spun out of control and became a long rant. But that’s because the movie really is that bad. It has the worst writing this side of George Lucas. Lines like “this is our chance to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs” sound like place fillers in an unfinished draft.

7/9/10

The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price

It is almost always a pleasure to read a novel by a fellow Sinophile, particularly one as peculiar as E. Hoffman Price, a contemporary of pulp staples like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and C. L. Moore. One might uncharitably describe his fiction from that era as racist due to his trading in stereotypes common to the time in which he wrote (much has already been made of Howard and Lovecraft’s portrayals of non-whites as dangerous “others”). Yet, his bio, printed at the end of the 1979 paperback for The Devil Wives of Li Fong tells us Price received the title of “Tao Fa” from the “Venerable Yen Pei of Singapore,” the name by which he was known in San Francisco’s Chinatown where he worked as a gourmet who specialized in Chinese dishes, specifically shark fin soup and tea smoked duck.

Also peculiar is that The Devil Wives of Li Fong is a retelling of the Madame White Snake legend, also the basis for Tsui Hark’s 1993 film, Green Snake, which is one of my favorite movies. Price changes certain elements of the original tale -- the names have all been changed, for example -- but the basics are the same. A failed scholar meets two immensely desirable women, who happen to be snake spirits attempting to take a short-cut on the wheel of life, whom he takes as his wives. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, not trusting spirits who attempt humanness without the benefit of reincarnation, attempt to tear them apart.

Price, clearly proud of his studies in East Asian culture, somehow pulls off the tricky business of writing a light read brimming with idiomatic dialogue and descriptions of Chinese magical and religious practices that thankfully fall just short of laborious. And the shocking part, if one were to judge the book by its tawdry cover, is how accurately it renders Chinese idioms, magical practices and religious beliefs from that period. It’s among the best examples of a fantasy that actually manages an authenticity of sorts, in the sense that it grounds its fantasy in Song dynasty China rather than a hodge-podge pan-Asian fantasy world where discrepancies can be dismissed as intentional anachronism. (It doesn’t hurt that Price is adapting a legend set in historical China) Even more unusual: actual historical events, like the conflict of Taoists and Buddhists in the imperial court, figure into the plot.

Aside from Price’s meticulously rendered setting, The Devil Wives of Li Fong is really a fantastic, light summer read. The dialogue, even when heavy with philosophical and religious underpinnings, is frequently hilarious, displaying a level of muted passive-aggressiveness not typically seen in the genre outside of, for example, Jack Vance’s work. The characters are endearing, perhaps even more so given how tremendously un-politically correct their situation is (Sworn sisters/Snake Women Mei Ling and Meilan share Li Fong as a lover). Price also writes one of the least embarrassing sex scenes I’ve read in a paperback with embarrassing cover art.

There are flaws, though I would rather not dwell on them, as I consider them nearly inconsequential. Instead, I’ll note that there is some unusual thematic weight to The Devil Wives of Li Fong. One of the interesting things about the various adaptations of the Madame White Snake story is how often they treat themes of identity. Identity consistently plays a part in Price’s narrative, the most obvious instance being Mei Ling and Meilan’s attempts to bypass reincarnation and simply become human. They seek to achieve humanity by taking on its form and fulfilling the duties of human women (again, Price is either oblivious to or unconcerned with being politically correct). But Li Fong also chooses a new self. In different instances he wears the role of a learned healer rather than an absconding senior apprentice, of a learned man rather than a failed scholar.

By performing these roles, Li Fong comes to fit them. By acting as humans, Mei Ling and Meilan hope to live themselves into that reality. There is constant conflict between what these characters are by nature and birthright and what they are by inclination, or circumstance, or choice -- a theme that one might think fitting for the decorated American soldier, Edgar Hoffman Trooper Price, a pulp writer who became the dharma Tao Fa, known amongst people with whom he had no real relation besides that he chose to relate to them.

7/5/10

The Lost Swordship (Li Chia, 1977)

The Lost Swordship was the first DVD I bought from the Rarescope label launched by Toby Russel and distributed in the United States by the now defunct BCI. I knew little about the film, aside from it being a Taiwanese production based on a Gu Long novel starring Tien Peng, an actor I find usually agreeable, if not good. There was little question that I would buy this disc, and the others released by Rarescope, even if I didn’t like them. It didn’t matter that I had no special interest in Choi Lee Fat Kung Fu, or in the heavily damaged print of Showdown at the Cotton Mill, or in the silly Italian-Shaw Bros. co-production, Amazons and Supermen. I would own these because they were rare, and because I wanted to do my part in helping finance more DVD releases of truly obscure movies.

For every movie that I thought was a dud (I don’t see what the fuss was over Showdown at the Cotton Mill aside from its scarcity and a really great end fight), Rarescope promised at least a couple of movies that I would kill to get a hold of in widescreen. I still want They Call Me Chivalry, Sword of Justice, and Monk’s Fight.

But I would also add that I was surprised by how much I liked a few of the movies, particularly The Lost Swordship. It is not unlike the other competent adaptations of Gu Long stories from around the time in terms of its narrative structure, but what sets The Lost Swordship apart from the films directed by, say, Chu Yuan is its mise en scene. Chu Yuan’s spectacular artificiality makes everything feel as though it were just one giant urban sprawl, that the forests through which the protagonists occasionally travel are just parks in the giant city that is the “martial world.” (Personally, I find it quite fitting that a Hong Kong film maker would choose to film it like that.)

Li Chia, director of The Lost Swordship, deserves credit for a number of things, but the one for which I thank him most is that he does more than just try to mimic Chu Yuan. The plot -- a byzantine affair revolving around protagonist Lu Nan-Jen’s family legacy, a martial arts style called “the fragrant sword,” which does not actually exist -- contains no surprises for people familiar with Gu Long, whether through his novels or the movies based on them. But Li absolutely nails the visuals. Rather than indoor sets that always look cheap or under-furnished in comparison to what the Shaw studio could muster, Li composes his film out of location shooting, natural looking sets, and even some smart, muted color schemes. In particular, it is hard not to notice that Tien Peng’s costuming towards the end of the film complements the mise-en-scene so well. Light brown against vibrant greens and other natural earth tones? My God, it’s actually... tasteful.

Not that everything is perfectly matched. The shredded skirts that the female villains wear are ghastly.

Li Chia was actually a director of some repute, having made melodramas and historical war pictures, including the very expensive 1966 Warring States period epic, Fire Bulls. His product is a cut above those of his peers in spite of it having a plot and characters which more than resemble those found in many other films, many of which feature the same actors. I would chalk this up to Li being a “real” film maker. He was clearly not content just to have some cool fight scenes, although the fight scenes in The Lost Swordship are quite decent, Li at least tried to make a movie with characterization and a coherent plot. The end result is really just a Taiwanese melodrama in which fight scenes break out. But isn’t that more than good enough?

Rarescope is gone, sadly, and missed. My buying almost all of their discs didn’t seem to help them that much. There was a brief period when Rarescope, BCI, Image, Crash, and Fusian all released Hong Kong/Kung Fu movies on a fairly regular basis, providing some great entertainment and even a chance at a few gems, like a decent copy of Pan Lei’s unusually deep action-drama, The Sword. But The Lost Swordship is special simply because, in spite of the expectations engendered by the nonsensical English title, it’s a competent genre flick that came out of nowhere. If you like wuxia movies, you should have bought a copy back when Rarescope was still in business.

7/4/10

Gamer Grub

I don’t know why my blog seems to have become the review hub for vaguely food-like products geared toward that nebulous demographic known as “gamers,” but since Lightwing23 enjoys reading the torment they cause me, he was kind enough to bring me an example that he discovered at (correct me if I’m wrong) the center of navel-gazing brand centered idolatry, Hot Topic.

Gamer Grub, “energy snacks” packaged in soft plastic and filled with “select vitamins” and “neurotransmitters,” is a bit less offensive to my sensibilities than some of the other products that get referred to here at the Gilded Trough. At least in the sense that it includes natural ingredients, like nuts or chocolate depending on the flavor, Gamer Grub could at least be described as actual food, albeit heavily processed, gross tasting food. Lightwing brought two flavors, Pizza and PB&J. I tried pizza. RockManXZ24 said that the PB&J Gamer Grub was inedible and got rid of it before I had a chance to actually try it.

It couldn’t really have been worse than the pizza flavor, though, which tasted stale and vaguely like mozzarella, garlic and oregano. It reminded me of pizza flavored Pringles that I ate a long, long time ago. Honestly, the best thing about them was the texture. Like any decent, stereotypical American, I love things that crunch. I can’t speak for the other flavors, but I might have liked the Pizza Gamer Grub if not for the pizza flavor. The flavoring is too strong, too salty, and leaves a weird, persistent aftertaste.

But the selling point of this product is that it won’t leave gamers with greasy fingers while they’re trying to play. This probably works if you pick up the soft package and tilt it into your mouth, but if you actually pick the snacks out with your fingers, you’ll wind up with a lot worse than grease on your keyboard or controller; the fake pizza spice and cheese stuck to my fingers like Cheeto dust. The promise of performance enhancing vitamins and neurotransmitters (amino acids from the nuts, I’m guessing?) is quite silly and won’t actually do anything to help your concentration that a good meal before your gaming session (or during a break) wouldn’t. And how long do you have to play a game to need a snack to boost your concentration? Maybe there’s a whole bunch of hypoglycemic gamers out there that I didn’t know about. Maybe there’s a lot more gamers who just need to pace themselves. Gamers can use other things to help their concentration that will probably annoy much less. Like nicotine or meth.

I like a lot of nasty, processed snack food, so maybe one of the other flavors would actually sit better with me. The idea of food by demographic still pisses me off, which is why Lightwing23 brought it to me. He came into town bearing “gifts,” including a copy of the Wild Side Press edition of the legendarily bad The Eye of Argon. I told him about that one, and thus bear some of the blame for the pain he inflicted on himself by reading it. What pals we are.