12/12/11

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 2011)

Although it is generally known under the title for The Sorcerer and the White Snake, the title card for Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s latest film has the English title “Its Love,” which sounds not a bit unlike a really cheesy telenovela – the kind which my mom used to watch on the Spanish language television networks, much to my dissatisfaction, when I was a kid. Like “Asi el Amor” or something. It’s actually a fairly appropriate comparison, as The Sorcerer and the White Snake features enough soft focus and lingering close ups of beautiful people casting longing looks just past the camera to fill a week’s worth of episodes of the goofiest Mexican soap opera.
It’s the latest cinematic version of the White Snake legend, a story about a snake demon who takes human form after a thousand years of meditation, falls in love with a mortal man named Xu Xian, and marries him. As this violates the natural order, fanatical Buddhist Fa Hai seeks to split them apart. Motion picture renderings of this legend run the gamut from the quaint, like the Shaw Bros. Huangmei styled Madame White Snake, to the utterly bonkers, like Phantom of Snake, which places the story in 2000 AD Hong Kong. They vary about as widely in quality as well.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake is one of the growing number of made-for-China films from old-guard Hong Kong film makers. Like Jingle Ma’s Butterfly Lovers and Frankie Chan’s The Legendary Amazons, Ching’s latest film covers well-worn material. And while I cannot speak to The Legendary Amazons as I have not seen it, I can say that Butterfly Lovers and The Sorcerer and the White Snake aim for the same audience of teenaged Chinese girls. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And Tony Ching has made a better film than Butterfly Lovers in all respects. It is considerably better written, better acted, looks much less low-budget and etc. But it does as much for me as Butterfly Lovers did. Other versions of the tale have aged quite gracefully. The Japanese film, Love of the White Snake, is pretty close to timeless. Tsui Hark’s Green Snake is one of my favorite movies; for all of its dated pre-handover commentary, there is a meditation there on love and destiny and human nature that is unusually deep for as commercial a director as Tsui.

So what of The Sorcerer and the White Snake? I don’t know. It seemed to me like an easily forgotten exercise. The computer generated effects, which dominate every part of the movie, are hardly impressive compared to western films, and there is neither interesting design nor thematic weight to hold them up. Jet Li is on hand to play Fa Hai, whom the script portrays as essentially well-meaning, but his athleticism means quite little when CGI chaos floods the screen. He showed himself quite capable of handling dramatic roles in Ocean Heaven, but his character has none of the depth seen in Tsui’s Green Snake. He is well-meaning throughout, and that is all we know of him. There is no unresolved doubt, no hypocrisy, and no sexual tension with his sworn enemies. He’s one note.

Likewise with Xu Xian. Raymond Lam is competent enough in the role, but we only know that he likes to help people with his herbal medicine and that he loves Bai Suzhen. He finds no moral dilemma in her deception (she does not tell him that she is actually a snake demon), nor in their breaking of natural law. He’s one note too.

That we know so little about these characters beyond the intensity of their feelings makes the climax fairly dull, unnecessary even. There is nothing to be resolved; it’s a light show. Spectacular, yes, even with less than impressive cgi, but it is still an empty display.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a showcase for pretty people and often ugly computer effects. It is inoffensive, and likely to entertain its intended audience with its talking cgi animals (mice, bunnies, and turtles). There’s nothing especially wrong with it, and it is clearly the film that Tony Ching intended to make. But it seems to me that it does nothing that I could not find in any other film of its type. Ching Siu-Tung was once a director who pushed visual boundaries with his fight choreography and wire-work. Now he’s directing family film pablum.

Or maybe I’m just burnt out on cgi filled costume films.

11/28/11

The Entropy of Fairy Telling

Lightwing23 e-mailed me the other day, fresh from seeing the splendorous absurdity of Immortals, to inquire about my thoughts, which I provided. I’m sure my readers are shocked.

He also mentioned that he wanted to see more of Tarsem’s work, recalling the adulation I heaped on his previous film, The Fall, but that the trailer for Tarsem’s upcoming Mirror, Mirror dissuaded him. In his words: “There aren't enough bad things to say about that trailer… [It] looks like such crap that my colon actually responded, like ‘hey, speaking of that, I need to, you know, unload.’” Ouch.

He contrasted that with his reaction to the trailer for that other Snow White adaptation, the Kristen Stewart vehicle, Snow White and the Huntsman, which he also thought looked terrible but appreciated the possibility of seeing it as a crossover between Twilight and Marvel Comics’ Thor (Chris Hemsworth plays the role of the huntsman).

I think they look awful in complimentary ways, although I must admit to being far more ambivalent towards Snow White and the Huntsman and its awful following of a truly awful fad. The attempt to take old stories and rework them for contemporary cinema has taken a particular tack which can be summed up as such:

1) Insert large-scale battle scenes.
2) Incorporate sub-Tim Burton surreal imagery.
3) Make it grim/dark/grimdark.
4) ????
5) Profit!

This method can be seen in a number of recent films, but not so clearly as in Tim Burton’s own imagining of Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. Burton’s inventiveness has declined over the years, to the point that his films now resemble bland computer driven theme-park rides. His Alice in Wonderland is a pastiche, yanking elements from both its literary namesake as well as Carol’s Through the Looking Glass and "Jabberwocky," with a dash of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia to embitter the pot.

We have the cowed Victorian stereotype Alice learning about herself and picking up a sword and armor to do battle with the Jabberwocky in a toothless cartoon world presented to the audience as a dangerous jungle of phantasms. It plays on current trends (action-gurl being the most obvious), as though the original source could benefit from a twenty-first century sensibility and still maintain its integrity. The film could not any more miss the point.

Snow White and the Huntsman looks to follow in its footsteps, albeit without the whimsy that made Burton’s film bearable. The trailer opens with ominous music and narration, the voice of the evil queen. The trailer treats us to images of such startling originality as creepy forests, milk baths, and clashing armies. And, most impressively of all, we see Kristen Stewart, the eponymous character, in a suit of armor wielding sword and shield, sans helm or helmet.

Wondering what possible service a tiny young woman like Kristen Stewart could serve in a massive melee is deafened by the consideration of what purpose massive battle set-pieces could serve in a film based on a fairy-tale like Snow White. It seems almost inspired by Catherine Hardwicke’s recent bomb, Red Riding Hood, another supposedly gritty reimagining of a fairy-tale in which everyone’s skin and hair looks nothing less than perfect, even when chased through the woods by a marauding were-creature.

Films like these are vapid entertainment, which fairy-tales, the most humble folk literature, were most certainly not. I recall a passage from Gene Wolfe’s Castleview:

"They kissed, and it was not (as Mercedes has always heard it was supposed to be) before she knew what was happening. She knew perfectly well what was happening -- that a whole world, new and strange, terrible yet wonderful, was unfolding for her. She understood, when their lips touched, exactly why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty has been awakened by a kiss, knew what those old grandmothers of eight hundred years ago had been trying to tell her, and knew that they had told her, their coded message coming clearly across the years, and that those dear old grandmothers--the bent crones at the firesides--had triumphed, their word not lost with the crackling of the sticks in their fires. That she and Seth or some other like Seth would someday ride on one white horse, laughing in the sunshine."

I’m also reminded that when Seth and Mercedes uncover a book and sword in the illusory castle of Morgana le Fey, Mercedes forgets the book, preferring the sword.

The ultimate purpose of fairy-tales is to transmit those truths about life which the young cannot know because they are young, to assure them of a magic that is not that of occultists or (as it must now be said) generic fantasy novels and video games. They tell children – and remind the teller – of true magic; they tell us that the entropic world in which we live, a world of the arbitrary cruelties of circumstance or fate, is not the whole of things.

What films like Snow White and the Huntsman do is ignore the book for the sword (I hope Mr. Wolfe would forgive me for appropriating his words). The finality of the tale might be similar, or even the same, but its audience leaves with quickly forgotten images of pandering simplicity: girls in armor, clashing armies, and eroticized evil.

If Snow White and the Huntsman looks likely to fail as a cinematic fairy-tale, Mirror, Mirror looks likely to fail as anything but an unwitting parody of Snow White and the Huntsman. While the former follows the trends of Burton and Hardwicke, the latter marches down the trail blazed by Shreck.

Shreck’s message – that you are fine no matter how grotesque, smelly, annoying, disgusting or objectionable you or your actions are – is an ugly reversal of the fairy-tale that compliments the grating insouciance to which most mid-tier children’s films of recent vintage aspire. Mirror, Mirror is similar in that respect. “Snow White?” one of the dwarves exclaims in the trailer, “Snow Way!”

The best I can say for Mirror, Mirror is that it might provide a little amusement, much as Shreck did, with knowing performances and pop culture references. Tarsem’s expert visual sense certainly could not hurt it. But for all of the minor amusements of the movie itself, probably the best thing about Mirror, Mirror is that it seems almost to have been an unwitting parody of Snow White and the Huntsman. At least it seems to realize that it is itself ridiculous, even if its writers mistakenly took their source material for being ridiculous too.

11/22/11

David Gaider is a Virgin: a review of Dragon Age: The Calling

I do not usually make predictions as I read – I have no inclination to do so and hardly believe that anybody who reads for pleasure does – but I knew immediately what I expected to happen at some point in Dragon Age: The Calling when Fiona, the elf mage, gets into an argument with King Maric of Ferelden. She accuses him of being a poor father. He gets angry and tells her that she doesn’t know the first thing about him.

And all I could think was: “Oh no. He’s going to fuck her.”

Dragon Age: The Calling is the sequel to David Gaider’s debut novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, which was awful. The Calling opens with King Maric, who successfully expelled the Orlaisian occupation and regained his kingdom in the first novel, holding court with the Grey Wardens, an order of warriors dedicated to fighting the darkspawn, considered irrelevant by the major political bodies as the darkspawn are quarantined in the underground ruins of the Dwarven civilization.

Maric agrees, with the flimsiest of reasoning, to accompany the Grey Wardens on an aimless quest into the Deep Roads based on the questionable visions of their new leader. And off they set, meeting with mages, fighting with darkspawn, slaying dragons, and making stilted conversation. If The Stolen Throne used fantasy plot #5, The Calling is written according to fantasy plot #1: the dungeon crawl. This plot is the bread-and-butter of licensed fantasy fiction, a travelogue through a particular location often interrupted by interminable battles and sex scenes written by people who do not seem to have ever been in a fight or a woman.

As readers of The Stolen Throne will recall, the Deep Roads were already the location for the most boring portion of David Gaider’s first novel. They are the setting for the majority of this novel. It is safe to say that plot is not Gaider’s strong suit, and he attempts to make up for it here by narrating incidents. The plot itself is just substantial enough to fill a two-hundred page paperback. The Calling is just a bit shorter than my hardback copy of Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardour.

At 440 pages, the narrative structure of The Calling shakes under the weight of all the incidents Gaider packs onto it, especially when so much of the narration is on the order of “he thrust his sword into the darkspawn.” I could easily forgive the contrivance of Maric accompanying the Grey Wardens on their quest in the Deep Roads if those incidents were not so similarly contrived, described in such beige prose.

I previously praised Gaider for having moved on from his reliance on adverbs. It seems I spoke too soon, as we get such descriptions as: “The water was littered with bits of flotsam that pooled at the edges, lapping wetly against the stone…” How else would water lap? Particularly grating is the statement that “Fiona was glad to be getting out of there finally.” Say that out loud; every time I do, it comes out as “thud.” And it follows – somewhat less gracefully and grammatically – the same formula as nearly every sentence from The Stolen Throne. X does Y, Zly.

The childish humor also makes a return. When talking about dreams and visions, Maric, King of Ferelden, confides in the Grey Wardens: “I once dreamed Loghain brought me a barrel of cheese. I opened it up, and there were mice inside. Made of Cheese.” When faced with an insurmountable horde of opponents, one of the Grey Wardens mentions that he has very few arrows, to which another replies “I’m running out of clean smallclothes.” I cannot roll my eyes enough.

Probably the worst of the extraneous bits is the encounter with the demon, which traps Maric and the Grey Wardens in dreams tailored to their deepest wants. Maric realizes first that he is trapped in an illusion, breaks free, and travels across the Fade (Gaider’s term for the world of dreams to which the consciousness travels when asleep) to help the others. Only Fiona, the elf-mage Maric will so obviously boff at some point, has a bad dream. Maric and company find her tied up, her back whipped raw by the demon’s avatar, a handsome gentlemen from Fiona’s memory. The sexual tone of this scene is patently obvious, and it sets up what I can only refer to as the fantasy maiden’s mating call.

The fantasy maiden’s mating call is when the fantasy novel's masturbatory object signals to the protagonist that she is ready for him to fuck her by telling him about some sort of horrific abuse she survived as a child. It could be sexual, physical, or supernatural, but the telling of it always ends on the tip of the protagonist’s erection. Fantasy authors (and writers in other genres, to be fair) mistake this as good characterization; the characters share important details about their pasts which lead to mutual affection. Unfortunately, its not only a cliché, but somewhat creepy.

Fiona, who has just physically and mentally relived the sexual torture she tells Maric that she experienced from the time she was seven until she was fourteen years old, informs Maric of her past. He tells her about his – he saw his mother killed in front of him. Granted, he eventually avenged her, regained his kingdom, and now rightfully presides over it, but both he and the narrative seem to think that this is a rough equivalent to the torture that Fiona underwent. And it puts her in the mood. They do it only a few feet from where their fellow spelunkers sleep.

Now, as a straight male, I am not one to speak about women’s issues. It is not my place. But even then, I find this scene offensive; not even so much for its subtext, but for its utter contrivance. It rings spectacularly false, from the moment it starts until the actual sex ends in (thankfully) abbreviated fashion.

The fetishization of the elf mage becomes even more blatant when Maric, knocked unconscious during a battle, looks up at Fiona, who is cradling him in her arms. “He looked up at Fiona’s face and thought only how beautiful she was. Those dark eyes had seen so much suffering.” So she’s covered in “black ichor” as Gaider redundantly puts it, bruised all over, and has confided in Maric a past fraught with horrific abuse, and Maric, thinking he will soon die, leaving his very young son in charge of a kingdom, can only think of how hawt Fiona looks, that he wants to comfort her, and tell her that things will be okay.

I cannot continue to read or write this review; I cannot see. My eyes are so permanently rolled.

My review of The Stolen Throne received numerous comments to the effect that I set my standards too high for a fantasy novel, particularly a licensed one. Putting aside the ability of supposed fans of the genre to denigrate it as a whole with their low expectations, I have to point out that I am only judging Gaider’s writing according to his own metric. In a recent interview at the New York Comic Con, Gaider said about Dragon Age as a whole: “It's also character-driven, and thus concerned more about the human condition than it is about being epic.”

That statement is utterly gob-smacking when juxtaposed to The Calling, which is the very definition of plot-driven and ham-fistedly characterized. It is the apotheosis of tie-in literature, the quintessence of all those malignant aspects I previously enumerated. The Calling, and its author, have nothing to say about the human condition. They trade in only the worst kind of fantasy; neither entertaining nor escapist, but dull and imprisoning in its rote plot and tortured prose. It is the sort of fantasy writing that does not evoke the imagination; it does not challenge the reader. It is not fantastic in any sense. The Calling panders.

A little bit of humility would behoove a writer who is fairly new to prose fiction, but it occurs to me that David Gaider is not, and likely never will be a writer a prose fiction, nor humble about his position. He is a pretentious writer of game books. The Calling is a Fighting Fantasy book or a D&D campaign in which the player makes no choices, builds no characters, and participates in no adventure. We only read Gaider’s fantasies as told to himself, relevant only to those who share them.

11/16/11

Immortals (Tarsem, 2011)


I left Tarsem’s newest film, Immortals, thinking that it was the best bad movie of the year (Ebert called it “the best looking bad film you will ever see). Its advertising campaign proudly referred to it as coming “from the producers of 300,” as sure a sign of its quality as any. Supposedly based on Greek mythology, it tells the story of Thesus, a bastard peasant, as he helps to save Greece from the schemes of King Hyperion, who searches for the Epirus Bow in order to free the Titans.

Theseus, for those who do not know, was not a bastard or a peasant in Greek Mythology; he was jointly sired by Aegeus, king of Athens, and Poseidon, each of whom slept with Aegeus’ wife, Aethra, on the same night. The Minotaur was not a giant man wearing a bull mask, nor was the labyrinth a temple gravesite. Hyperion was a titan, not a warlord who tried to free the titans. The titans, generally speaking, were not depicted as blue skinned monsters with animalistic tendencies, nor did the gods follow a “Star Trek” style prime directive in their relationship to mortals. Zeus frequently states that mortals must rely on themselves, that men have limitless potentials and etc.

Immortals makes use of the “digital backlot” technique popularized by Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, its heavily stylized visuals reminiscent of 300. The aesthetic here is that of a comic book adaptation, with everything that entails. The cast was chosen, as best anyone can tell, based on their looks. And not necessarily whether or not they look right for their parts as ancient Hellenic warriors and priestesses and Olympians. It seems a distinct possibility that casting was done according to how good each member looked in a costume.

But Eiko Ishioka designed those costumes, so, yeah. And if Immortals rests entirely on visuals (and it does; the plot and dialog are either formalities or excuses) those visuals, for once, carry the movie. If a town etched in a cliff side, whose distance from a deadly drop could be well measured in feet seems like a geographical and technological improbability, and obviously a computer generated façade, it is also an image of extraordinary romance. If the action sequences which make use of Hong Kong style fight choreography, with spinning fighters and whipping chains, seem like anachronisms, they are at least visually pleasing and compellingly so. If Micky Rourke, Frieda Pinto, and Henry Cavill’s acting leave something to be desired, their faces and bodies leave nothing outside of visual satisfaction.

Immortals is the work of Tarsem, director of The Fall, The Cell, and the upcoming Mirror Mirror. Ecstatic visuals are his modus operandi, and Immortals, he admits, was a willing departure from the tableaux visuals of his previous films, in which he used photographic tricks to create his vision. It is true that Immortals bears his trademark sensibility – from the early depiction of the Titans hanging from bars by their teeth, to visions of an Olympus free of clouds and sunlight, the audience knows that this film is not a retread of previous cinematic versions of Greek myth – but it is also true that reliance on computer generated images diminishes this vision. For all that the images appear unique; it is abundantly clear how those images were created.

Some would place Immortals as a descendent of 300, or of Clash of the Titans, or of the Ray Harryhausen films of a bygone era, as a special effects showcase and a shallow, if not outright misuse of mythic sources. I think the real antecedent would actually be Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, another work of a true auteur and dynamic cinematographic virtuoso. Like that film, Immortals is well worth viewing for its style alone, but is similarly forgettable for every moment that its characters speak rather than act.

Immortals is obviously less personal than Tarsem's other films. It watches very much like a summer blockbuster, in fact. But it would be a wonderful turn if summer blockbusters could actually attain this level of visual splendor regardless of their hackneyed scripts.

11/7/11

The Eight Immortals (Chan Hung-Man, 1971)

I probably should feel somewhat remiss that before I watched this movie (and subsequently perused a Wikipedia entry) my only knowledge of the eight Taoist immortals came from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, where he plays a young Wong Fei-Hung who learns “eight immortals drunken boxing” from Beggar So.
The Eight Immortals is an anthology film, telling traditional tales of the immortals before bringing them together for an action-packed finale. The film uses a framing device to tie them together – a pair of itinerant story tellers in contemporary (for 1971) Taiwan entertaining their listeners with music and banter. They begin with the tale of Lu Tung-Pin, who helps a woman to reunite with the man she loves. Then there is the tale of Iron-Crutch Li, whose crutch turns into a peach tree, which bears fruit with curative properties. And it goes on from there.
The film’s raison d’être begins about half-way through, after introducing the eight immortals and the incidental characters who will be reunited for the finale – an assault on the manor of the evil “red demon from the Chinese mainland.” The red demon kidnaps women, extorts enormous amounts of capital from the peasantry, and is actually a pig-demon in disguise, whose queen is a rat-demon. It is not difficult to guess that this is intended as a thinly disguised dig at the PRC.

This portion of the movie is also relentlessly grim, and contrasts starkly with the introductory scenes in which the immortals sing and crack jokes while helping ordinary people with their ordinary problems. The first part of the film resembles the sort of whimsical fairy-tale films of Alexander Ptushko, while the second part is like a Harryhausen effects show-case by way of Chang Cheh. The Red Demon not only rapes the kidnapped servant girls, he eats them, and the film graphically shows the latter. One servant girl – the now married young woman helped by Lu Tung-Pin in the film’s first segment – is tortured and branded on camera. When the eight immortals succeed in killing the red demon’s queen, her true form is revealed with a cross-fade from the actress to a dead rat. A real dead rat – with its head crushed in a pool of blood.
The cognitive dissonance caused by the whiplash between the lackadaisically paced introductions of the immortals and the brutal finale is the result of the film’s production origins and era. 1971 was the year of Chang Cheh’s The New One-Armed Swordsman, easily the most violent and bloody Chinese language film of its time, and a considerable financial success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese genre films had grown increasingly violent since the beginning of Shaw Brothers’ “New Wuxia Century,” which brought the sensibilities of Chang Cheh to the forefront of a genre normally reserved for child-stars and cute teenage starlets like Fung Bo-Bo and Connie Chan, respectively. The violence and sadism in The Eight Immortals is clearly intended to keep the movie relevant, as far as violence and sadism can be characterized as such.
While the general zeitgeist of early seventies genre film explains the finale, it is the involvement of Taiwan’s CMPC production company that explains the earlier sequences of the immortals and their interactions with the mortal townsfolk. The Central Motion Picture Corporation was the Kuomintang’s subsidized film unit which introduced ideologically tinged films and film movements, such as the wave of “healthy realism” melodramas from the 1960’s. The introductory sequences usually serve the purpose of “promoting morals,” like respect for elders, rendering fair service, reciprocity, etc. Even the story-teller framing device can be read as the promotion of humble means of entertainment during a time of modernization.

But it’s fairly obvious that the major selling point of The Eight Immortals was not the inculcation of national values, but a wacky, violent, special-effects driven fantasy. And the effects can get very, very weird. Miss Ho, the lone female immortal, at one point attacks the red demon with a giant peach, which opens up to reveal a huge pig’s head, which spits a dart out of its mouth. Iron-Crutch Li uses his crutch as a flamethrower. The demon-queen, fearing an immanent loss to the immortals and their army of angry peasants, lifts up her shirt and shoots poison gas from her belly-button.
The long and violent action sequence will probably be of most interest to the audience to whom Fusian tried to sell The Eight Immortals, and that audience will probably yawn for the first half of the movie, if not balk at all of the singing (and there is a lot of singing). But I actually quite liked the first half for all of its quaint whimsy and old-fashioned moralizing. The barely concealed political posturing is funny too, and if the action is sparse for the first half, the assault on the Demon King’s manor is a masterpiece of absurdity. The Eight Immortals is a fun movie in the same vein as the stupendously silly Monkey Goes West series from Shaw Brothers director Ho Meng-Hua.

10/25/11

Ling Huan Shao Nu (Wang Cheng, 1992)

As mentioned in my review of Drunken Dragon, I review things out of order. In keeping with the season, I’m watching horror movies, or at least horror-tinged movies. And as much as I would love to write an overview of the whole Hello Dracula film series, I can neither find the movies nor information about them in English and even the Chinese Wikipedia page is, perhaps understandably, less than comprehensive.

The Hello Dracula films are Taiwanese, jiang-shi (hopping vampire) themed children’s films. Taiwan’s film industry produced a gaggle of fantasy movies in the eighties, of which Hello Dracula is one of the best, in part because it is one of the oddest, and one of the least appropriate for its intended juvenile audience by western standards. Ling Huan Shao Nu (灵幻少女) is the final film in the series. The movie I previously reviewed, I believe, is the second, although I reviewed it under the impression that it was the first. There are six films starring Liu Chih-Yu as Ten-Ten and Gam Tiu as her grandfather, and another film (3-D Army) with a different actress playing the part of Ten-Ten.
Ling Huan Shao Nu opens with Ten-Ten chasing her grandfather, who has abruptly left, into the woods, where hopping jiang-shi vampires accost her to the iconic theme of John Carpenter’s Halloween (this will not be the last time that it plays, nor the only bit of music pilfered from a western film). Ten-Ten wakes up, suddenly, accidently punching her adopted sister Yuan-Yuan in both eyes. Grandpa dispatched Yuan-Yuan to bring Ten-Ten to the altar, where they, and fellow disciple Ah-Tsun, will pay homage to their deceased elder. Cue goofy dance routine – a staple of the series – here.
Grandpa charges Ah-Tsun with clean-up duty after the ceremony finishes, but Ah-Tsun decides that he will practice his Daoist magic instead. He lets a spirit loose which makes a bigger mess than what he initially had to clean. Ten-Ten helps him contain the spirit, and Yuan-Yuan tattles on them, and then leaves them to clean the mess up themselves.
Ten-Ten and Ah-Tsun plot revenge using an out-of-body spell that allows Ah-Tsun to possess the body of the visiting Mr. Chen to torment Yuan-Yuan. If you are wondering if this is headed anywhere, the answer is no. After punishing Yuan-Yuan for telling on them, it’s off to Mr. Chen’s home, where a malign spirit haunts the Chen family. Using the same out-of-body magic to confront the ghost, Ah-Tsun gets separated from the battle. And while Ten-Ten and her Grandpa fight the evil ghost, Ah-Tsun meets Orchid, the ghost of a beautiful young girl who wants to reunite with her lover in the afterlife, but is betrothed against her will to the King of Ghosts. Ten-Ten, Ah-Tsun, and Grandpa then beat up the King of Ghosts, saving Orchid from an eternally unhappy marriage.
 
With the Chen family safe and the King of Ghosts out of the picture, Ten-Ten and Ah-Tsun try to help Orchid, who, having missed her opportunity to reincarnate, is destined to wander the earth as a lonely ghost. Ten-Ten uses Daoist soul-transference to send Orchid on her way. What this means, I have no clue. But it apparently awakens Grandpa’s old nemesis and fellow student Jomoro. Jomoro plans to kill Grandpa and Ten-Ten, but Grandpa uses the last of his magic to teleport Ten-Ten away before he dies, with Ah-Tsun’s soul transferred into the body of a turtle and Yuan-Yuan killed in battle -- nobody bothered to transfer her soul into a barely sentient animal. And then the Daoist family's home explodes, and the credits start to play.
 Like the other movie in the series that I have actually seen, the goofy comedy slowly descends into bloody morbidity by the end of Ling Huan Shao Nu, and the worst part is that there is no resolution to the conflict. This was the last film in the series released. But unlike the previous movies, which had clear indicators of a temporal setting (such as the Republican army troopers led by Boon Saam), Ling Huan Shao Nu seems completely unconcerned with verisimilitude or internal consistency. The jiang-shi vampires only appear in the opening dream sequence and the ghosts and evil spirits Ten-Ten fights wear costuming straight out of Tsui Hark at his nuttiest.
It is that lack of concern with not only believability, but historical and mythic precedent that makes Ling Huan Shao Nu quite fun to watch. Rather than jiang-shi, the Daoist team has to fight horse riding ghosts in suspiciously European armor and skull faced villains and ambiguously gendered warlocks. Cheesy special effects fly all over the place, the young lady who plays Orchid seems to channel Joey Wang as she flutters about on wires, and the actor who plays Ah-Tsun wears a vest of exploding fire-crackers as punishment for tormenting a procession of ghosts. He walks away without a scratch, much less a second degree burn.
And if the final film moves at an even more break-neck pace than its predecessor, it’s also easier to follow. And thanks to the cast being older, it’s also less unsettling when they handle dead bodies or flirt whilst surrounded by dead bodies. But even so, the final scene is so bloody that I cannot comprehend what sort of kid could watch this movie without scarring his or her psyche. And that too is kind of what makes Ling Huan Shao Nu fun. It presents the macabre as a joke, but that last scene is kinda horrifying.

10/18/11

Axing of the Coffin (Fu Ching-Wa, 1969)

When it comes to legendarily silly re-titles, Crash Cinema actually beat Dimension Entertainment for the title of “best ever.” This 1969 supernatural melodrama, the first film of director Fu Ching-Wa, found its way onto DVD through some rather fortuitous circumstances. Some guy, recently returned from a trip to Taiwan with a bunch of film reels, posted on what was then the “kung fu fandom” message boards, wanting to know what he should do to sell his newly acquired film legacy. Somebody wanted to know what he had, and he posted an impressive list of titles, all obscure, with some, like Pan Lei’s The Sword, thought to be lost in their original format.

I’m guessing that the movie I just finished watching was on that list under the title Chuang Tzu Tests his Wife. But that doesn’t sound so cool to the sort of customer who buys DVDs at the brick’n’mortar, and, although the reel has embedded subtitles, it has no on-screen English title. So Crash Cinema, one of the companies to which the individual who posted at “kung fu fandom” was directed, could rename Chuang Tzu Tests his Wife whatever they wanted when they released it on DVD. And they chose an attention getter, I have to admit. Axing of the Coffin: it sounds like the title of an Iron Maiden tribute album.

This movie is actually a remake of the very first movie filmed in Hong Kong in 1913, and the very first Chinese film production internationally distributed. Chuang Tzu (in pinyin: Zhuangzi) marries a young woman, and decides to test her loyalty by faking his own death. While his wife prepares funeral arrangements, a young man comes to call on Chuang Tzu for tutelage, but takes an interest in the young widow, which she reciprocates, forgetting the funeral arrangements and enjoying the new courtship. When the young man reveals himself to actually be Chuang Tzu, her shame and embarrassment lead her to suicide.

Axing of the Coffin apparently follows the plot of the original film, which I have not seen, but makes additions, such as the villainous Chi Hsuan who attempts to take the young woman by force before Chuang Tzu marries her. Saved from the advances of General Chi, Szu Chin enjoys a happy marriage with Chuang Tzu, frolicking in a garden playing with butterflies. Chuang Tzu’s occupation as a travelling sage takes him abroad often, leaving Szu Chin lonesome for his company. A meeting with a woman who refuses to leave her husband’s grave. The encounter gets him to thinking about his wife’s loneliness and need for companionship, and inspires him to test her loyalty to him.

The original story sounds sadistic enough, but the update further supplements its exploration of Chuang Tzu’s jealousy with a sequence where he tests his wife by disguising himself as the Chi Hsuan and threatens to rape her. Szu Chin passes this test handily; threatening the apparition of Chi Hsuan with her own death should he touch her.
His second test is even more elaborate, as he fakes his own death, disguises himself as a younger man who courts Szu Chin, and fights Chi Hsuan who returns, for real this time, to try to marry Szu Chin. Chuang Tzu, still in disguise, kills Chi Hsuan and marries Szu Chien, but pretends to fall ill to a strange disease which only a concoction made out of fresh human brain tissue can cure. The only fresh source of human brain tissue, unfortunately, is in what Szu Chien believes is her dead husband’s coffin. So she proceeds to pick up an axe and try to extract Chuang Tzu’s brain herself.

At this point, the goes into full out horror mode, with Chuang Tzu rising from his grave and floating around in optical printing effects and spooky blue lighting. He chases the confused and terrified Szu Chien about their home, demanding to know why she would be so disloyal to him.

As his magic disappears and Szu Chien realizes that it is morning, Chuang Tzu appears behind her in the flesh. Ashamed of herself, Szu Chien flees into the woods, Chuang Tzu chasing after her, and hangs herself. Chuang Tzu realizes the grave sin he has committed against his wife, and holds her body, calling her name.

In some versions of this story, Chuang Tzu turns himself and his wife into butterflies, and as they flutter away together they slowly turn into dust as they fly away together. The film seems to set this up in scenes where Chuang Tzu and Szu Chien admire butterflies together. This sort of mystical ending would put Axing of the Coffin in line with other fairy tale-esque horror films of the time, like the Korean film The Thousand Year Old Fox, but the ending as it is strikes an appropriately melancholy note.

Axing of the Coffin is actually more unsettling in its premise than its horror segments. The supposedly wise Chuang Tzu really seems to get off on toying with his wife’s emotions, and I wanted her to actually run off with a good-hearted young scholar by the end of it. But, I have to admit that the horror sequence is an entertaining showcase of late sixties effects work and cinematography. The sequence benefits from an effective performance from the lovely Sam Juet-Jam. But the standout is Tung Lan as Chi Hsuan. Often cast as a villain in Shaw Brothers films, he snarls his way through the scenery like its just delicious.

This movie probably is an interesting little curio, but it is difficult to imagine that there is too much of an audience for faintly misogynistic, mystical Chinese tragedy these days, especially given that it features none of the outrageous grotesqueries of later Taiwanese and Hong Kong horror films and strains to create the sort of atmosphere seen in similar films, like Bao Fang’s Painted Skin or Li Han Hsiang’s The Enchanting Shadow.

9/22/11

My Blade, My Life (Chen Ming-Hua, 1982)


Pearl Chang receives a lot of attention from cult movie sites because her most seen movies – the ones widely circulated with English dubs – are more than a bit crazy. She’s an interesting character: a female director and producer in a segment of Chinese language film where the only other women to play major roles were Mona Fong, Kao Pao Shu, and occasionally Hsu Feng; an actress so uninhibited that she very often goes so far over the top that she leaves the rest of her often wild films well below her.

The Pearl Chang movie that everybody, it seems, sees and reviews on their blogs is Wolf Devil Woman, occasionally asserted to be a very loose adaptation of the Liang Yusheng novel that would eventually inspire Ronny Yu’s classic The Bride with White Hair. If this is true, the film itself provides little evidence to believe it. Everything that has been said about it is true. Pearl does slay an innocent bunny, the villains really do dress like Klan members, and the direction is all kinds of brilliantly awful. And Miss Chang’s direction is rivaled only by her performance, a snarly, foaming at the mouth performance.

Pearl Chang’s other widely seen films – widely seen, I would assume, because they received English dubs – are less wild, although they seem to lie well outside the mainstream of even the more fantastical genre films from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Matching Escort, I believe, is meant to be semi-comedic, but the rubber and foam decorated sets are trippy by any standard. And Miraculous Flower, while nowhere near as bizarre as Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort, contains some of the most audacious wire work seen outside of a Robert Tai film.

But Chang’s oeuvre is hardly one-note. Her television work, serials like Bodyguards and Angry Sword Kang Hua, would hardly give one the impression that this is the same actress who would grab a defenseless crab, break it open and eat its guts as she does in General Invincible (Cheung Pang-Yee, 1983), more or less in one take. Pearl plays somber characters, respectable swordswomen and proud martial artists, just as capably as she goes over the top. This versatility can be seen in her films too, as in China Armed Escort (Chen Ming-Hua, 1975), King of Fists and Dollars (Chen Ming-Hua, 1981), and in the morose, spaghetti-western and chambara influenced The Elimination Pursuit (Cheung Pang-Yee, 1983).
It is this sort of performance that we see in My Blade, My Life, a wuxia picture in the mode of the more action-oriented Gu Long adaptations. Pearl plays Lu Du Shing, a travelling sword-fighter whose only goal is to kill the famous swordsman, Peerless Swallow.

Unfortunately for Lu, Peerless Swallow is in absentia from the martial world. Everybody is looking for him, including his pretty fiancé, the heir to a wealthy manor and nominally the leader of its martial arts clan. Without Peerless Swallow around to police the martial order, the less respectable elements raise no small amount of chaos. Peerless Swallow impersonators attempt to wrest control of rival organizations, an apparently religious “Yin-Yang sect” attempts to forcibly convert the unwilling, and the jealous Cheng Chien-Sheng hatches a bizarre scheme to marry himself to Lu’s fiancé to gain wealth and power.
Lu really just wants to kill Peerless Swallow. Dressed as a man and treated as such (although, in the wuxia film tradition, the disguise is rather transparent to the audience), Lu finds herself in the company of a stranger who calls himself the representative of Peerless Swallow. He is an excellent martial artist, and the only friend that Lu has made in the entirety of her journeys. But he is also sick, poisoned from a previous battle. And as they travel together, his true identity is exposed. He is Peerless Swallow, which will be obvious to the initiated viewer because perennial wuxia hero Ling Yun plays him.

My Blade, My Life plays out very much like a Gu Long pastiche – its plot is much less baroque than the way it is presented – and would be very much typical except that the Pearl Chang plays the lead. As mentioned, her acting is far more subdued than in her more infamous films, but she still gives a strange and – I can think of no better way to express it – uninhibited performance. Her demeanor here is icy, and the character she plays has given up her identity as a woman in order to take revenge. Pearl walks with an unexplained limp, hobbling around until a fight breaks out. Her character is so quick that her opponents die after a single stroke, but when she fights a skilled swordsman, the limp inexplicably disappears, and she bounces off of out-of-frame trampolines or flies about on wires.

The frigid demeanor recalls roles played by Hsu Feng or Angela Mao, but quiet moments between her and Ling Yun’s Peerless Swallow, the sometimes exaggerated limp, and the occasionally brutal fight scenes (Pearl shoves chopsticks into a random mook’s face, in one of the most memorable), bring her character to a more human level than the sort of idealized woman-fighter-in-drag often seen in wuxia pictures of this vintage. Pearl is such a dynamic presence without the snarling and wild gesticulating seen in her other films that it’s almost hard to believe that those are her best known roles. I honestly like this subdued Pearl Chang quite a lot.
Pearl Chang is not the only actor to play against type. Yueh Hua, Chen Sing, and Tsung Hua get roles as minor villains; Lily Li is a ditzy little girl who can’t fight; Cliff Lok plays a jealous, mendacious swordsman – quite a departure from his goofy sub-Fu Sheng comedic heroes.
And My Blade, My Life, for all that it presents a less wacky Pearl as its lead, still puts out a suitable portion of weirdness for those specifically attracted to it. The Yin-Yang Sect’s lair, for example, takes the Yin-Yang motif to highly improbably ends. Not only is the interior evenly split between stark black and stark white, but its members costuming is bisected as well. The leader, played by Yueh Hua going against type, carries the motif to his eyebrows.

If that description does not make it obvious, the makers of My Blade, My Life imbue far more creativity into their product than what is typical in Taiwanese genre-films, and they have a budget to match. Produced by I Film Co., at least a couple of sets will be familiar to fans that have seen the Yueh Hua starring Drunken Swordsman (Cheung Git, 1979). The cinematography from Yip Ching-Biu – who also filmed The Whirlwind Knight (Sek Kin, 1969) and The Dream Sword (Li Chao-Yung, 1979) – is familiar, if less interesting than his previous work.

My Blade, My Life is a really good wuxia picture. That it stars Pearl Chang engenders expectations that differ from its goals, but it is likely more in line with what Miss Chang’s fans expected from her at the time of its release. Those of us who watch these movies as a hobby (and given the effort it often takes to acquire them, it is very much so) often forget that their makers never thought that people on the other side of the world would watch them thirty years later, let alone write about them on a giant information database. Our perspectives become a bit skewed by this distance. My Blade, My Life will serve as a testament to this fact for some, but for others – and I suspect for the audience for whom it was initially made – it is just a really fun little genre excursion.

And boy do I love Pearl’s costume.

9/14/11

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

You may have noticed that most of my game reviews start out with a recollection of a conversation with my good friend RockManXZ24. We talk about video games a lot; it was a common point of interest when we met in the sixth grade; it continues to be a common point of interest now that we’re adults.

Our most recent conversation about video games occurred just after I finished Persona 4 (which I’ll review later), and just as I was about to finish The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. He had just finished playing through the demo of Dragon Age 2, and we talked while he plowed his way through twelve-year-old n00bs in Halo 3 multiplayer. Our topic: are Japanese otaku more intrinsically sentimental than American nerds? Our conclusion: possibly, yes.

Few games convey that sentimentality better than The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, with its gentle J-pop theme song and its teenage heroes dancing around their veiled romantic feelings for each other. It is a game cast in the familiar JRPG model, concerned more with telling its story than with introducing the player to complicated game mechanics or micro-managed character progression. This seems, to me, slightly unusual for developer Falcom, as even their recent games, in spite of their cutesy art style, employ fairly sophisticated game mechanics. On the other hand, The Legend of Heroes series began with a fairly rote Dragon Quest clone.

But while the Falcom of old often experimented with their game design – look at their early action-RPG Sorcerian for a wild mixture of side-scrolling action with Wizardry-esque character/party building – the development team now focuses mostly on polishing conventional gameplay to mirror sheen. Ys 7 feels like it could be a remake of a classic Playstation era game, and I mean that as a compliment. Trails in the Sky, while originally released for Japanese PCs in 2004, feels like a classic game that has aged extraordinarily well.
That doesn’t mean that the gameplay is dated – far from it, in fact. The battle system is turn-based, laid out on a grid, much like a tactical RPG. It reminded me a bit of the Korean game, Astonashia Story, or NIS’ Rhapsody (as it was originally released on the PS1), only done properly. The turn system uses random bonuses, and the player can manipulate turn order with carefully timed magic and special attacks to utilize the bonus turns. It makes the battles far more interesting and involved than many turn-based JRPGs.
On top of that is the orbment system. The orbment is part of the character set-up, and it decides which magic attacks the character can use. Equipping a fire or earth element quartz to a character’s orbment will allow them to use a fire or earth spell, and it will also raise their attack or defense, respectively. This allows the player to make a character an attack or support unit as he or she sees fit, and it also helps to mitigate the necessity of buying the sometimes prohibitively expensive equipment available in the game’s shops.
While playing through the game, the player can choose to complete side quests which award money, experience, and items; particularly if the job is well done, as the game grades the player’s performance. But the player can easily forgo the extra quests and focus specifically on the main plot if he or she so wishes. Since fighting enemies awards materials more than experience, it eliminates the incentive to grind, although level-grinding is an option, however tedious.
But, again, the real focus of Trails in the Sky is its story, its characters, and its setting. The very Japanese aesthetic will turn off those who find anime style art and story-telling anathema – it is actually rather trendy to complain about games being “too Japanese” right now – but Falcom has done a great job of evoking that aesthetic without pandering to a certain questionable contingent of Japanese consumers, quite unlike certain other Japanese developers.
 The story follows two teenage kids, Joshua and Estelle Bright, respectively the daughter and adopted son of military legend Cassius Bright, as they become initiated into the paramilitary/mercenary organization known as the Bracer Guild. As they start their careers as junior bracers, Cassius suddenly disappears, and Joshua and Estelle undertake their journey around the continent of Liberl to become full-fledged members of the guild, running into a planned coup against the reigning Queen of Liberl and helping to foil it.
It is actually a very typical plot for this type of game, in which the protagonists start off on a journey of personal interest that eventually folds into a larger conflict with clandestine forces of unmitigated evil. Trails in the Sky does a very good job, it must be said, with not letting the plot get away from itself. The conflict here is local, and stays that way. Too many JRPGs play their cards too quickly and leave the player wondering why a couple of kids are the only ones who could possibly save the world. Here, it is two teenagers with specialized training foiling a plot of national importance with the help of veteran mercenaries and, it is explicitly stated by the protagonists, a lot of good fortune.
And, of course, there are budding feelings of the two main characters. Most of the narrative is played from the perspective of Estelle, a tomboyish type who prefers action to introspection, who is confused by her feelings for her adopted brother. Joshua is cool and level-headed, and more than a bit mysterious. He obviously has feelings for Estelle too, but in typical Japanese fashion, the two can hardly be arsed to actually speak up and tell each other how they feel until the very end of the game. It is to the writer’s credit that the characters do not realize their feelings for each other because Estelle gets kidnapped and Joshua has to save her. In fact, Estelle is never really imperiled; she’s competent and capable, in spite of her hot-headedness. The game treats her and her relationship with Joshua respectably.

That the characters are likable, their banter well written (and excellently translated, thanks to American publisher XSeed), and the pacing well planned help immensely. Fans have often compared playing Trails in the Sky to reading a book, which the game invites not only with heavy amounts of text, but by segmenting its narrative in chapters.
And did I mention sentimentalism, yet? Everything about the game is so sweetly realized that I didn’t want it to end, and since the game finishes on a cliff-hanger it didn’t. I can only hope that XSeed will find an available avenue to publish the next two games (possibly the PS Vita?), as the story here is the main draw, and for once it is actually worth the effort to sit down and read. Trails in the Sky is a great example of the story-telling that made JRPGs so much fun to play when I was younger, an example of the story-telling that the sub-dungeons and dragons western RPGs always lacked. It’s a cheerful journey, rather than a grim clash of good’n’evil.
Trails in the Sky is also a good indication that the JRPG is hardly as stagnant as some have said. It is one of a few recent JRPG releases where I have not tapped through the dialog without paying attention, a high-quality, story-driven game which rewards players for smart playing. I loved it. Falcom is one of the most underrated developers outside of its small, but growing fanbase, and I hope that their development for the PS Vita will garner more attention. Major thanks and good vibes to XSeed for their excellent work in bringing attention to this oft neglected dev team.

8/26/11

The Eleventh Son by Gu Long

If you want to read professionally translated wuxia fiction besides the work of Jin Yong and are not Chinese literate, you have two options: the almost laughably verbose Blades from the Willows by Huanzhulouzhu, or Gu Long’s The Eleventh Son, which is written almost entirely in short hand. Gu Long was a contemporary of Jin Yong, and while Jin Yong adaptations ruled the wuxia film and television offerings of the nineties, Hong Kong and Taiwanese film makers of the seventies and early eighties adapted Gu Long with wild abandon. Shaw Brothers studio director Chu Yuan set off the Gu Long spree with successful adaptations like The Magic Blade, Killer Clans, and Swordsman and Enchantress. The last is an adaptation of the subject of this book review.

The plot centers around Xiao Shiyi Lang (literally “The Eleventh Son” of the title), who gets mixed up in a plot to steal the “Deer Carver” saber, an extraordinary blade in the care of the “Six Ideal Gentlemen.” But the real meat of the story revolves around the love triangle built between Xiao, unfairly referred to as the “Great Bandit,” Lian Chengbi, the leader of the Ideal Gentlemen who have it in for Xiao Shiyi Lang, and his beautiful wife, Shen Bijun. Xiao absconds from the search for the blade before it is recovered, and in the process ends up saving Shen Bijun from the villainous “Little Mister,” who not only stole the blade, but killed one of the ideal gentlemen and burned down Shen’s ancestral home, framing Xiao for the whole mess.

After saving her life multiple times, Shen finds herself caught between her duty as the wife of the cultured and respected Lian Chengbi and her sense of justice. Lian and his associates intend to kill Xiao Shiyi Lang regardless of his innocence or his efforts to save Shen’s life. Her growing feelings for Xiao, his barely concealed feelings for her, and the quickly revealed corruption of the leaders in the “martial order” complicate Shen’s situation further.

Gu’s themes are drawn rather broadly and he has no problem interjecting himself in expository passages. The story makes Xiao into a sort of martyred free spirit, a noble vagrant victimized by the hypocrisy of an upper-class in the martial order who seek to control everything through duty, coercion, or simple lies that nobody bothers to question. We witness Shen Bijun caught in her duty to her husband, who is as close to true gentleman that anybody described in the novel seems to get, and her love for Xiao Shiyi Lang, to whom she owes a degree of loyalty and not just because she loves him. Lian is not a horrible person, but he is neglectful and a part of the unjust confederacy of martial artists that wants to do away with the righteous Xiao because he is powerful enough to endanger their schemes. But Shen’s own sense of righteousness will not allow her to be unfaithful to her husband or to abandon Xiao.

And besides the personal drama, Gu draws a martial order controlled by a sub- Nietzschean puppet master who fancies himself beyond not only conventional morality, but humanity. He claims to be a god, and the novel spends an extended interlude illustrating one of his ludicrous methods of controlling people and conditioning their behavior. There’s a sort of free will versus determinism argument happening in these chapters, which reflect a similar conflict happening in the rest of the plot: the conflict between Xioa’s free-spirited wandering and the duty of the martial world, between Shen Bijun’s duty and her feelings.

It’s a shame that Gu’s characterization falters after the first act. Xiao, who Gu casts very well as a lovable rogue in the early portions of the story, is a sad-sack drunk for much of the rest of the novel, and is thoroughly unlikable. Shen is much too fragile and helpless, which, when contrasted against the other female characters in the novel, is presented as something of a virtue. Xiao seems to enjoy her neediness; it’s almost seems to be what he loves about her. I’d consider that a character flaw, but Gu sentimentalizes helplessness and victimization -- alcoholism too.

Gu Long was famously alcoholic. Drank himself to death, in fact. He also had notorious affairs and two illegitimate children. I find it difficult not to read Xiao as a stand-in for the author, a handsome, impossibly stoic, unusually intelligent, superbly masculine, painfully misunderstood stand-in. The author is tied up in knots of self-pity regarding women and duty and alcohol. It seems we’re reading his wish-fulfillment fantasies. This leaves something of a bad aftertaste, as it becomes increasingly clear that it is the author, rather than his protagonist and narrator, who is tied up in knots about women and sentimental about his addictions.

The plotting gets a bit unclear as well. As soon as Xiao abandons the search for the Deer Carver, the narration does too, although a careful reader will realize that the plot-line is actually wrapped up once the villain and his motives are revealed.

But for all that, The Eleventh Son is fantastic entertainment, owing much to Gu’s idiosyncratic style. I mentioned the film adaptations of Gu’s work, and it seems to me that his writing style lends itself well to cinema.

Watching Chu Yuan’s adaptations, and the Taiwanese films of directors like Cheung Paang-Yee, I thought there would be a touch of Mervyn Peake in Gu’s writing. Chu Yuan makes the martial world a sort of urban-wonderland, thanks to the artifice of Shaw set design and studio shooting, in which ancient China seems like a giant urban sprawl beset by occult martial clans and mad schemes concocted by conniving mad geniuses hiding behind the scenes. Of course, there’s also the films of Li Chia, in which Gu’s martial world is one driven by interpersonal drama loosely hanging on the machinations of conniving mad geniuses, set in a quaint, bucolic Chinese countryside.

Both are actually valid interpretations, as Gu draws everything in short-hand. His setting is a barely defined ancient China, of which era I couldn’t rightly tell you. There are no sprawling descriptions of scenery or internal monologues. The narration takes place in short paragraphs of equally short declamatory sentences. A typical example:

"Shen was so outraged that her fingertips went cold. She couldn’t keep from lifting her head—

She had been too embarrassed to look at Xiao, but when she looked up, she naturally turned her eyes to his face.

She found his face ghostly pale, his eyes full of pain, and the corners of his eyes twitching uncontrollably.

Xiao was clearly enduring serious anguish.

He wasn’t a man who would reveal his pain easily."


If it seems like this is a “see spot run” style of writing, take my word that it belies a pretty sophisticated sense of pacing. The style makes for a very quick read, and the short-hand also works when characterizing minor characters, with which Gu demonstrates a real flair. I don’t know what it would look like in the context of the setting, but when Gu describes a character as “dressed like new money,” it gets the point across.

Less impressive are authorial intrusions which offer “insights” into human nature. “Dying is a painful thing for most people,” Gu informs us. Well yeah. Most examples are about on this order. Very often Gu uses the authorial position to extol the virtues of drinking, about which I think I’ve already rendered my opinion.

If I sound like I’m down on this novel, I assure you that it’s actually very entertaining. The best aspects are the good bits of characterization, the wacky prose style that works in spite of itself, and the bizarre plot points that tie themselves up in a round-about manner. And if there is something pitiable in the nature of the melodrama, it is equally heartfelt, and therefore compelling, so long as the reader can muster his or her sympathy. The Eleventh Son is an odd thing. It clearly fits into a generic category, but it is also a very personal and idiosyncratic. I have a feeling that “idiosyncratic” is the best available word for Gu Long, his style, and his work.

Sadly, this is still the only Gu Long novel available in English from a mainstream publisher (there is a self-published translation of Gu Long’s The Flower Guarding Bells, available from Lulu). I’d really like to read more of Gu’s work, as I don’t get the impression that all of it is so transparently masturbatory. Rebecca Tai’s translation is actually very good compared to the amateur work available on the internet, and I have heard from those who have read Gu Long in Chinese that she very well captures his style. I’d love to read the sequel to The Eleventh Son, as this volume ends abruptly, and right when the characters start to become interesting again.

Of all the wuxia that I have read (admittedly not a lot) this is easily the most personal and the most uniquely expressed vision of the martial world. And that curries a lot of favor, in spite of my misgivings. I devoured it in two sittings.

8/22/11

Drunken Dragon (Chui Chung-Hing, 1985)

I’ve a habit of reviewing things out of order. Drunken Dragon (aka Exciting Dragon), one of those wonderful movies that became available thanks to Toby Russel’s defunct Rarescope DVD label, is something of a coda to a series of movies orchestrated by the Yuen Clan. For those not familiar with the expansive world of Hong Kong genre film, the Yuen Clan refers to the progeny of the great Simon Yuen, a Mainland Chinese immigrant and Peking Opera practitioner who made a name for himself in the film industry as a performer and fight choreographer in the golden age of Cantonese language serials, directing action scenes in Wong Fei Hung movies and playing a villain in countless films. He used his position to place his sons in roles as stuntmen and bit-players, and they eventually worked their way up to leading roles and action-directing positions in the seventies and eighties.

The most famous member of the clan is Yuen Woo-Ping, world-renowned now as the action choreographer for influential American action films like The Matrix. But before he became the go-to guy for Hollywood’s ersatz martial arts cinema, he directed a series of classic kung fu movies, pushing the boundaries not only of traditional, old-school fight choreography in a series of films starring Jackie Chan and Hwang Jang-Lee; and he pushed the limits of wire-work, good taste, and sanity with a four-part series of mostly unrelated films starting with The Miracle Fighters.
These films (The Miracle Fighters, Shaolin Drunkard, Taoism Drunkard, and Young Taoism Fighter) feature more or less the same elements: broad slapstick and situational comedy, Taoist magic that figures heavily in the fight scenes, bizarre imagery that usually combines practical effects with virtuoso physical performance, and Woo-Ping’s brother Yuen Cheung-Yan in drag as an old lady. While the majority of the production work on these movies was done by Yuen family, a certain Chui Chung-Hing worked on the script for Shaolin Drunkard, his first writing credit. Chui worked mostly as a stunt-man and actor up until this point, usually in small parts in classically styled kung fu movies. I assume that it was his experience with the Yuens that inspired him to direct his own film, and Drunken Dragon, his first directorial effort, is an unofficial addition in the genre that can only be described as Yuen Clan movies.
The film starts with a gang of villains, Tung Fu (Phillip Ko Fei in a fright wig) and his two minions, attacking a Buddhist monastery in search of some sort of magical McGuffin. The priest guarding the item defends it from inside a boat that he rows across the floor, apparently crippled in a previous fight. Tung Fu’s assistants, a big guy with a flame-throwing candle on his head and squirrely guy who likes to throw saw blades around, transform themselves into a sort of human go-cart, with the saw blades acting as wheels of death and the flame-throwing candle as jet propulsion system, and proceed to kill the monk by sawing through his boat and his leg-stumps at the same time. Tung Fu thinks he has what he came for, but the chest in which it’s contained is locked, and trapped, and only the Seven Star Armor can protect whoever tries to open it. So Tung Fu sets off to find the Seven Star Amor.

At this point, the movie shifts to a new location, where Gao Jia (Suen Kwok-Ming) and his Granny (Chiang Sheng in drag, playing the part normally reserved for Yuen Chueng Yan) await the arrival of Gao’s fiancé, Miss Tiger (the... uh, rather full-bodied Chow Mei-Yee). Miss Tiger arrives and is roughly twice the size of Gao Jia, pugnacious to a fault, and prone to solving problems by beating the crap out of the offending party. Miss Tiger manages to make an enemy of the town bully, who nearly botches a magic ritual Granny performs while trying to cure a townsperson of a magic poison. But Granny’s Seven Star Armor protects her, and the ritual comes through as a success.
Unfortunately, Tung Fu has already arrived in town, and finds out about Granny’s secret possession. Gao Jia, meanwhile, is getting tired of his friends teasing him about being a kept man. He is a talented practitioner of martial arts, but Granny is better, and Miss Tiger more frequently employs her own considerable kung fu. After losing a brutal fight with Tung Fu’s gang, Granny sends him to train with her old classmate, Ko But Lee.

Ko holds a grudge against Gao grandfather – he was in love with Granny, but she didn’t choose him. He’s less than willing to train the grandson of the man she chose, but after hearing that Gao’s grandfather is dead, he thinks that he can win Granny’s affections, and relents. So Gao Jia begins training with Ko, whose home is outfitted with odd almost steam-punk (bamboo-punk, in this context?) style technological innovations, and whose training methods involve reflex training with huge wooden mallets, strength training involving the breaking of rocks with a sledge-hammer, and endurance training involving a cart which is reigned to Gao, and on which Ko sits, reading and smoking his huge pipe.
Gao Jia returns to town for Granny’s birthday, only to find that Tung Fu has already killed her, although he hasn’t found the Seven Star Armor. That’s because Gao Jia took it with him for training. Tung Fu, Gao Jia, and Ko But Lee fight it out, but Tung Fu bests them. So Gao Jia returns with Ko for more intense training, and Tung Fu comes for the armor. Revenge is taken; the end.

The interesting thing about Drunken Dragon is how it sort of shifts from its initial Yuen Clan inspired weirdness to a standard, if especially brutal, kung fu movie. By the point that Gao Jia actually starts to train seriously for revenge, the film plays out like a condensed version of the typical Hong Kong kung-fu pic: train, then fight. And while The Miracle Fighters climaxes with orgiastic weirdness, Drunken Dragon’s final fight scene is typical of the era, with fast-paced fighting and dangerous looking stunt falls through furniture and staircases, no Taoist magic or tricky gadgets or even wire-work in sight. It’s a great fight, but it’s almost a let-down given the wild creativity on display in the film’s opening.
While the film does showcase some mean-spirited humor – when Miss Tiger runs to great Gao Jia, the film jump cuts to a POV shot of a pig running at the camera – there’s some sweetness there too. Gao Jia confides in Granny that he really loves Miss Tiger, and doesn’t really mind that she’s so big, since she loves him too. And Leung Kar Yan as Ko But Lee effectively renders his character’s love for Granny, even though the majority of his performance is scenery chewing and mugging. It’s a reprise of his role in The Miracle Fighters, and he’s as gloriously over the top as he was in that film.

But I think that Drunken Dragon can best be viewed as an experiment for Chui Chung-Hing, rather than a Yuen Clan rip-off. Chui would go on to be a major player in the glut of Taiwanese made fantasy movies of the eighties, directing Hello, Dracula, action directing Chan Jun-Leung’s Child of Peach, helming its sequel, Magic of Spell, and capping off the movement in 1990 with his ludicrous fairytale film, Twelve Fairies. All of the visual panache of those films has its roots here, in Drunken Dragon. And even without that, there’s some brilliant fight choreography happening here, which should sate the action hounds out there.
Worth a watch, this one, and the DVD can be had for cheap.

8/21/11

Conan: the Brobarian

Here’s my real problem with Conan the Barbarian: it’s called Conan the Barbarian. I find this problematic, as the title immediately recalls the John Millius film from 1982, but more importantly, I find the title problematic because the film only barely resembles the literary creation which it purports to adapt. This too reminds me of the 1982 film.

But I was expecting that, and entered the film hoping that it would at least be a fun diversion, like the movies that came in anticipation or in the wake of the Millius Conan -- movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer. In that respect, I think that a lot of people will like this film. It’s gratuitously violent and self-consciously politically incorrect. The film is intermittently silly; so silly, at points, I suspected its tongue firmly planted in somebody else’s cheek.

Conan the Barbarian features a non-plot comprised of premises borrowed from other fantasy films – not even from other fantasy stories or novels. Its narrative events are set-pieces, all. Dialog, what little of it is there, is often badly conceived and delivered worse. Visual elements are lifted whole-sale from other films. Khalar Zym and his daughter Marique, the film’s villains, travel in a boat carried across the land by slaves and elephants, in a similar manner to what Werner Herzog staged without the benefit of cgi in Fitzcarraldo. The Cimmerians have a race where each contestant holds an egg in his mouth and tries to reach the finish line without breaking it, as also seen in the Kevin Reynolds directed Rapa Nui. A forest set carriage chase is set up and plays out rather like a similar chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A character is tied to a wheel like the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, again, with similar results.

It’s all familiar. It’s all stuff that people generally like.

Imagine if somebody tried to make a Conan film based on a few plot synopses of Howard’s stories, the knowledge that the character had become a comic-book staple, and a few viewings of the classic with AH-Nold. That’s what this is like in terms of fidelity to the source texts. The less said about the disparity between the literary Conan’s treatment of women with this film’s Conan, the better.

Does this sound less like an actual review – that thing in which I tell you what was in a movie, and then tell you what I thought about it – than it does the ineffectual ranting of a wanky fan? It does. But please understand: I never intended to write a proper review of Conan the Barbarian. I meant to write something like what Theodore Dalrymple did in 2009 on the occasion of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and again in 2010 with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I intended to write a tribute to the author. It would explain his importance to the fantasy genre, how his life reflects certain aspects of depression era Texas, how he understood something about civilization that was as pertinent in the twentieth century as it is in the twenty-first. And I would illustrate that last point with a quote from Theodore Dalrymple's Our Culture, What’s Left of It: “The fragility of civilization is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century.” I really, really wanted to end with an assurance, as Dalrymple did, that no movie, however bad, could sully the writing of so accomplished an author.

But I can't. The writing may not be sullied, but it does little good when people use a bad film adaptation as evidence for why they shouldn’t bother reading it. I cannot assure anybody that this Conan the Barbarian will not perpetuate stereotypical complaints made about Robert E. Howard's supposed sexism, no matter how different this movie is from his writing, or how different his writing is from those people's assumptions. People will use this film to further push Howard into the ghetto of critical antipathy, labelled, at best, as puerile "for-boys" wish-fulfillment. At worst, that ghetto also bears signs that say "racist" and "misogynist."

Did I like anything about Conan the Barbarian? Yes. I though Jason Momoa did a fine job with a bad script. At some point during the re-writing process, somebody saw fit to sneak in references to actual Robert E. Howard stories. We find out, for instance, that the events of the film happen after the events of “The Tower of the Elephant!” A couple of bowdlerized lines from some of the stories can be heard. And as far as dude-bro entertainment goes, this hits the right notes. As in: there’s blood’n’titties.

Call it something else, fellas. Bronan: As on the Tin. That’s my pick.