The Lost Bladesman (Alan Mak and Felix Chong, 2011)

While watching The Last Bladesman with a room full of fellow Dynasty Warriors nerds, I could not help wondering how somebody unfamiliar with China’s Three Kingdoms era would react to it. I suspect they would be bored. I also suspect that the ones that would not be bored would be looking for “Little Red Book” references, contemporary political issues coded onto historical ones, and barely veiled nationalism or Han racial superiority. I might have too, except that I couldn’t really be bothered to when Donnie Yen is playing Guan Yu. Yes, that Guan Yu, the one to whom Chinese gangsters offer their prayers in return for protection. Can you say -- Testosterone EXPLOSION!? Don't worry, it's not.

The Lost Bladesman is actually a slightly embellished adaptation of one of the most memorable parts of Luo Guanzhong’s The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Captured by duplicitous duke Cao Cao after a lost battle, General Guan Yu finds himself courted by his captor, who admires his incredible physical strength, tactical skills, and loyalty. Guan Yu agrees to kill warlord Yan Liang for Cao Cao, but only under the condition that he lets his hostages, including the wives of his sworn brother and Shu leader Liu Bei, go free. Cao, with the greatest reluctance, allows them to leave, but as they journey, Guan and his retinue come across armed opposition from Cao’s allies and subordinates, not least of which are former allies of Guan Yu’s, even soldiers whose lives he had previously saved.

The film’s epic melodrama comes from the very Confucian sense of duty and reciprocity that governs Guan Yu’s actions towards Cao Cao, the puppet emperor Xian, and the mostly absent Liu Bei. The script portrays Guan as a somewhat naïve true believer; he cannot go against the emperor, the son of heaven, even though he is weak, even though Cao Cao sees no issue with manipulating and disrespecting him openly. He must repay Cao’s kindness, but cannot do so at the expense of Liu Bei, with whom Cao has a nearly personal, ongoing feud. He cannot make his feelings known to Qi Lan, Liu Bei’s betrothed with whom he is hopelessly in love, much less consummate them (this is one of those embellishments previously mentioned).

Writer/directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong clearly want to show the tragedy inherent in idealism. No matter what Guan Yu wants to accomplish, he cannot wring rightness out of the corrupt political machinations of powerful bureaucrats like Cao Cao; and pursuing his own ends earns the resentment of peasants and soldiers tired of war and chaos, willing to compromise with the despotic Cao in return for some semblance of peace. The Lost Bladesman probably marks the first time that the legendarily powerful, physically monstrous, magnificently bearded Guan Yu seems powerless -- helpless even. It actually resembles, a little, Zhang Xinyan’s 1986 martial arts film, Yellow River Fighter thematically, although The Lost Bladesman eventually reaches more believable conclusions (Zhang was something of a left-wing idealist, and, ironically perhaps, it hurts his work).

But while aiming for high pathos, the film often finds itself hitting rank bathos. Part of the problem is rote direction. The cinematography is nice, as far as it goes, but with the cheesy cross-fades that segue between important scenes and Donnie Yen’s non-presence as Guan Yu, The Lost Bladesman feels, somehow, like half-baked leftovers. Scenes of expository dialog spoon-feed themes to the audience, even when the shown events make those themes quite clear. Yet it seems almost like the real meaty thematic concerns get lost in the spectacle of the production, which is appropriately expensive looking – just like every other recent film of this type, of which there are many.
Too often, the film looks for a fight sequence to keep its momentum going, like a genre flick rather than prestige picture. And given that the mainland market is largely middle class, and also willing to compromise with ruthless governmental clout for the sake of maintaining stability, Chong and Mak might have thought it prudent to diminish their own themes. Nobody likes to know that their compromises hurt strong, moral people. Nobody likes to hear a message that indicts them for their cravenness.

Or maybe the script needed another revision to trim out the unnecessary dialog, to more precisely show the tragedy of Guan’s situation, rather than tell it in between spectacular set-pieces.

Either way, it’s unfortunate, especially for poor, miscast Donnie. The fight scenes are well-done (I say this as somebody who has never been fond of Yen’s weapon choreography), but they seem like filler, especially given that they are filmed in a way that would not require a physical talent like Donnie to pull them off; they could have been as easily made with a double filling in for a less martially inclined, real thespian. And a real thespian Donnie Yen is not. He spends much of the film looking lost, and suffers in his scenes across Jiang Wen as Cao Cao.

But, for all that, I think that The Lost Bladesman is almost a nice counterpart to the unrelenting bombast and bromance of John Woo’s Red Cliff. Jiang Wen is the highlight here, as his Cao Cao is believably perspicacious, and even convincingly literate (historically, Cao was a prodigious literary talent). The somber, elegiac atmosphere really works well, and, in spite of a weak lead performance, The Lost Bladesman adequately renders the sorrow of a man caught up in the chaos of an awful, turbulent time in history.
I actually really liked this movie, in much the same way I like the messy films of Hong Kong’s earlier decades. The way I liked Red Cliff, to be frank. It’s much more watchable than some of the blunt political allegories that gained, to my astonishment, so much critical praise in the west. It’s certainly better than Resurrection of the Dragon (Daniel Lee, 2008), but that’s not setting the bar very high. The fact that the guys behind The Lost Bladesman actually tried to make a real movie with a real point makes it stand out amongst its competition.

So it’s a flawed, uneven success, in my book.


What do I have to do to see some elf nipples?

 I’ve never seen the DVD for the second Dragon Knight OVA, Dragon Knight: Another Knight on the Town (bleh, pun), for sale at a discount, and I refuse to bother ordering it. But, as mentioned, I do have the third OVA, based on the fourth game in the series, which was apparently a pretty decent little strategy title that some developer or other eventually ported to the Playstation, with updated illustrations. The DVD I bought a while back is another ADV product, with much of the actual erotic content cut out. Again, there’s some visible nipples here and there, but at 100 minutes, there’s almost a half-hour of sex scenes missing, I presume because ADV couldn’t find talented voice-over actors who would willing feign moans and grunts, though the fact that so many of the female characters appear a bit younger than the American age of consent might have as much to do with that decision as anything, and is quite reasonable. So instead of what might be an above average, fantasy themed hentai – though I hasten to add that, not being a connoisseur of animated porn, I wouldn’t really know – Dragon Knight: The Wheel of Time is a merely average example of low-budget fantasy anime.
The movie starts with Kakeru trapped in a dungeon after a lost battle against Lucefon, a wizard or some such from the underworld. Marlena, another survivor of the battle, gives him a black stone that allows him to travel back in time. Finding himself in the past, well before the final conflict, he teams up with his past self and his companions, hiding his identity with a mask and assuming the name Eto. From the future events he’s already experienced, he knows that Marlena is not merely an elf who wants to kill Lucifon and that only she can help him resolve the final conflict. He only needs to know how to win her over to his side in order to make that happen.

The obvious answer, which we don’t really see in the censored version for the American market, is a good roll in the hay. In fact, the transition for this is rather clearly marked, if you know when to look for it. The missing content always seems to lurk in the background. I would have congratulated the makers of the OVA for their restraint and good taste during a scene where one of Eto’s companions, a female warrior with a bad attitude, decides that she cannot follow him unless he proves himself superior as a warrior and a man. After a sword fight and a knock-out punch, the typical hentai would follow up with a scene in which Eto wows the Amazonian mutineer with his – not to be too blunt about it – penis. This likely happened in the original, unaltered video, as Dragon Knight: The Wheel of Time was intended to be a typical hentai in its original incarnation, but I like that it doesn’t happen. I only wish that somebody had found a way to provide closure to that particular story arc in a way that left both Eto and the warrior-woman’s dignity intact, but the character practically disappears afterwards. It’s a trade-off that leaves neither the viewer wanting sexual fantasy nor the viewer wanting non-porny fantasy happy.
Believe it or not, she's actually about to be saved.
Dragon Knight: The Wheel of Time also takes itself rather seriously, which is something of a departure from the outright goofiness of the first Dragon Knight. There are, of course, some funny moments. Young Kakeru is much like his father, Takeru, in that he’s prone to making bad jokes and is quite immature. Eto, at times, is the same, but as most of the narrative is told from his perspective, the audience hears his internal monologues and philosophizing about the nature of time. In the third episode, he wonders if he’s not the first Eto, if history has begun to replay itself in a loop with the battle routinely fought and fought again with the same outcome. This is pretty heady stuff for an anime that seems like it wants to focus on romantic entanglements and panty shots, and it never quite works because it never develops into anything of consequence for the narrative or the characterization.

Is it worth watching, then, without any of the attractions for which it was originally created? I actually kind of liked it, at least more so than Dragon Knight. The animation is actually better, with more (and longer) fight scenes. I think I liked it more because of my affinity for the visual conventions and character designs of nineties era anime and video games than for any genuine appreciation of the narrative, characterization, or dialog. And much of my affinity for nineties era anime and video games probably stems from my ambivalence towards current anime and, to a lesser extent, Japanese video games. But that’s me.
There’s better anime features in this genre that, not having potentially offensive or illegal content, don’t suffer from content cuts the way that Dragon Knight: The Wheel of Time does. But it did kind of make me want to play Dragon Knight 4, in spite of the fact that I know I’ll roll my eyes at the erotic content and sexualized loli characters. It’s left me with another conundrum, in that sense. Do I bother to play a game that has content I was happy to not see in the licensed anime adaptation? Honestly, probably not. I figure the experience isn't too different from playing a Record of Lodoss War game while thinking about elf tits. And since there's a pretty good one translated in English (for the Dreamcast) it'd be easier to do.


Bioware Fandumb

Indeed, nobody at all believes that I wrote that review of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne for any reason other than to troll Bioware fanboys. If I am a troll, I am one of the rare, righteous ones. I troll with the truth; it is super effective.

I logged onto blogger a couple of days ago to see a huge spike in views and an incoming link from Bioware’s forums. David Gaider has new book, Dragon Age: Asunder, the third of his Dragon Age novels, now set during the same time frame as Dragon Age 2. I haven’t finished reading Gaider’s other novel, Dragon Age: The Calling. In fact, I’ve only just started to read it. David Gaider’s comments in that thread will likely receive due attention when I get around to reviewing The Calling, where my remarks will likely be more pertinent (and pointed). To my surprise, the rest of the responses in that forum thread actually got me thinking.

I posted a response to all of the negative attention my review of The Stolen Throne received not long after it went online. It’s been linked on Bioware’s forums before, to similar reactions, and most of the negative comments accuse me of either being “pretentious” or not having played the games; I admit to the latter in the text of my review, while the former is actually incorrect (few of these people seem to understand what that word means). When I wrote that first response, I thought that the fans were taking issue with the fact that I did not like The Stolen Throne. I was wrong; they do not like that I wrote out the reasons why I disliked it.

There’s a certain line of thinking that runs through many of these posts, a way of viewing things common, at least from what I’ve observed, amongst younger fans of certain media, especially amongst fans of video games. It’s an attitude that informs many of the arguments in the evergreen “video games and art” debate. It revolves around the term “subjective.”

The fanboy/girl’s typical defense of their half-formed thoughts or opinions or appraisals goes like, “well that’s just my opinion,” as if it could be anything else. Another one: “well I liked it.” Yeah. Likely nobody would tell you otherwise. Often they invoke subjectivity directly, under the false impression that if something has a subjective element, that all criticism that surrounds it is inherently subjective as well. Take, for instance, the following post from Imported Beer, in response to my review:

I’m only going to address that last part, as it serves to illustrate my point, and I will try to refrain from snarking at the repeated use of the term “personal construct.” Imported Beer makes two claims in this paragraph. The first is that prose aesthetics are subservient to narrative. The second is that all criticism is subjective, and only personally useful. Basically: “I don’t care what you think, and it doesn’t matter what you think.”

That people of this mindset would denigrate criticism – but only negative criticism aimed at the objects of their fanaticism – is unsurprising. Another Bioware forum-goer, nedpepper, contributed what he calls an old cliché: “Writers write because they can, critics critique because they can't write.” I suppose he’s unaware of how many professional writers of fiction publish criticism of their peers; I suppose he’s also unaware of the semi-colon.

Of course, if everything about fiction is subjective, their evaluations of Gaider’s work do not matter either. They think that they have marginalized an outspoken critic; they have attempted to do so by marginalizing an entire media, the liberal arts, and those who study them. And they do so -- I think -- unwittingly.

Few things in the world are purely subjective. Fiction, for instance, is not. The text is an object. An evaluative critique is based on observations of that object.

Fuckin’ duh.

The only person to respond to the review rather than react to it (sorta) was RosaAquafire, who would later accuse me of “rocking a big dumb bias.” Disregarding that second post, I appreciate that she both read my review and expressed disagreement with points I made rather than accusing me of “elitism” and “snobbery.” But then, she didn’t actually respond in the comments. In fact, none of the posters bothered to write a comment on my blog, in spite of my comments remaining open, even to anonymous posters. Bravely done, fellas.


ADV Went out of Business Over This

Images courtesy of animecritic.com

Here’s a question for the gamers who read (occasionally, I assume) my blog: remember playing Dragon Knight on the PC-88 or MSX? No? Well that figures. What about Knights of Xentar? That one at least got an English translation and a DOS port. No? Okay, well, how about you anime fans – remember the Dragon Knight OVA? Any of them? There are at least three…

I could do that all day. And by all day, I mean at least another full paragraph. No, it does not take me a whole day to write a paragraph (damn literalists!); I’m making a heavy handed point about the breadth of video game and anime products produced by Japan back-in-the-day. You see, there’s a whole eff’n lot. Some of it even made it over here, and certain examples are, as best I can tell, absolutely senseless.

The Dragon Knight OVA I will be reviewing in a moment is a good example. Given that the only game from developer ELF’s popular series to see American IBMs was an obscure and mostly forgotten release, it ought not to have been an obvious decision for Texas based ADV to put out an original video animation in 1998, a good nine years after the game that never came to America or Europe was released in its home country, and three years after the Americanized Knights of Xentar quietly made its way to American PCs. I even recall reading about Dragon Knight in Gamer’s Republic anime review section, and the reviewer being none too kind.

I bought the VHS tape long after the fact, paid a couple of dollars for it at Half Price Books, failing to watch it until recently. It starts off looking like a fairly serious early nineties anime feature with its big-spiky-haired protagonist and his improbably large sword and its equally improbable flimsy handle. He’s Yamato Takeru, presumably of no relation to the legendary Japanese prince, and he’s hungry. He wanders into a castle in a kingdom called Strawberry Fields, and chows down on their foodstuffs. Caught and captured, he’s brought before the queen, to whom he makes a lascivious comment or two, and while Takeru ogles the bevy of beautiful women surrounding him, Luna, a pink-haired bishoujo character in a tiny tunic, mentions that he might be the prophesied warrior who will save Strawberry Fields from the Dragon Knights who kidnap the kingdoms young women and turned their goddess into a stone statue.

When shown the stone relief of the nude goddess, Takeru gets horny. Queen Neina figures that if he is the warrior, he’ll free her kingdom, and if not, he’ll die, so she sends him into the Dragon Knights’ tower to retrieve magic orbs that will restore the goddess and etc. So he heads off with Luna.

Upon entering the tower, he immediately finds a young woman being tortured by lizard-monsters. She’s tied to a chair, naked, and the monsters are whipping her boobs. After saving her, Takeru takes out a Polaroid camera to get some pics, much to Luna’s displeasure. This scene basically repeats itself until the end of the animation, where the kingdom is saved, and Takeru and Luna realize their feelings and etc.

There’s plenty of “and etc.” to Dragon Knight, as much the result of being based on a video game as the video game being based on a simple, adolescent sexual fantasy. The camera gag was kinda funny once, but by the third time, I was ready and hoping for Luna to smash it or for it to turn into a camcorder so some real naughtiness could finally happen. But then, I thought that this was a hentai. Aside from a few visible nipples, though, there’s little in Dragon Knight that one could not see in a televised animation serial or mainstream anime feature from the same period. By current standards, what with Seikon no Qwasar and Queen’s Blade, this is hardly worth the trouble to fap over.

Dragon Knight does make a reference or two to its origins as an adaptation of a game, as when Takeru accidently opens the wrong door and is sent back to town. But for the most part, the humor is fairly juvenile, and not in a humorous way. Compare to something genuinely hilarious, like Golden Boy (another ADV release from around the same time) and the writing seems even more flat and uninspired. If you’re not going to have lots of visually compelling sex, you’ve at least got to have some good banter. Dragon Knight is just corny.

There’s two other Dragon Knight OVAs. Dragon Knight: The Wheel of Time takes itself rather seriously, if I understand correctly. I don’t imagine that that’s an improvement. But I do have The Wheel of Time, so I’ll watch, and regret, and I do it all for you. That Gamer's Republic review certainly is telling; when you can't please anime fans from back in the day...


Mailboxes before Inboxes

If you’ve bothered to peruse what I’ve posted of my book collection over at Library Thing (or looked at the widget on the sidebar), you might have noticed that I love weird shit. Weird shit, usually acquired for a dollar or less: Ranty conspiracy theorists, aging relics of 1980’s era American “Satanic Panic,” journalistic ruminations of hysterical liberals on specific cultural phenomena, bitterly misanthropic, conservative ruminations on cultural phenomena in general, reactionary rambling of all kinds (usually religious), cult survival memoirs, “latter rain” prophetic tracts, a fraudulent grimoire, and at least a couple of Feral House publications. I like it weird.

I picked up a recent National Review, flipping to the “Books, Arts, and Manners” section, as is my habit, finding myself somewhat blown away by Andrew Robert’s review of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, by Jonathan Kay. The big block quote in the middle of the review reads:

“Far from ushering in a world of blissful realism, freedom, and mutual comprehension, the Internet has unleashed the private fanaticism of millions of crackpots into cyberspace.”

This, of course, is correct. I’ve argued that, in a lot of ways, the balkanization of weirdos on the internet has actually devalued a lot of the more prominent professional peddlers of conspiracies who previously worked through more traditional means of print and publishing. I was somewhat more dazed when I read that Kay asserts that

“For the first time in history, ordinary people can now spread their opinions, no matter how hateful or eccentric, without first gaining the approval of editors, publishers, broadcasters, or paying consumers.”


I have evidence too, in Ivan Stang’s High Weirdness by Mail, billed as “A directory of the fringe: mad prophets, crackpots, kooks, and true visionaries.” Before the internet allowed us to read the diatribes of fanatics, kooks, and morons of every persuasion, there was this little thing called “postal service,” hence the title.

Many of the zines and essays and audiotapes live on through internet distribution, some hiding in the margins of obscure blogs and websites and DDL services, others having gained at least some mainstream appeal (like the film reviews of the wonderful Joe Bob Briggs) but the majority seems to have rightfully earned the title of “ephemera.” There’s two reasons to read this book, maybe three, as (they say) your mileage may vary. The first is to get a taste of the pre-digital weirdness that many of us are too young to have enjoyed in its natural state.

Divided into somewhat arbitrary sections, like “weird science” and “New Age Saps,” High Weirdness by Mail proffers brief descriptions and mailing addresses for all sorts of strangeness that one could have, in the late eighties, delivered to their front door, or preferably to an anonymous P. O. box. The accompanying commentary runs the gamut from generally respectful to outright derisive, and is even occasionally funny, though not always intentionally.

Genuinely funny, for example, is the entry on the Christian Dating Club (“Gosh durn it, some of these filthy non-Christian women run around in short pants, right in front of men!! With their LEGS showing!!” pg 290). Others are funny because Stang is a silly pseudo-intellectual. I laughed when he said that Al Goldstein’s Screw was “more effectively antiauthoritarian” than political publications written by real people (also pg 290). Familiar enough with Screw to know that this could only be true for a very particular, highly undesirable outlook on culture and politics, I lol’d so hard that the tobacco spit from my snus came out my nose. Good times.

That leads my to my trepidation in recommending this otherwise excellent tome for more sensible gawkers at the wild world of American weirdness. Stang, for those who do not recognize his name or the referential embellishments on the cover, is the president of the Church of the SubGenius, a sort of parody religion that takes aim at goofy evangelicals and cults and New Agers, i.e. the subjects of High Weirdness by Mail. I made the acquaintance of a couple of SubGenius professors during college and can hear their voices throughout the book. Smart, though not nearly as much as they think they are, smug, and, to borrow from Chesterton, “very logical whenever somebody else attempts paradox.”

There’s a degree of obnoxious self-reference and obvious self-promotion going on in this book that’s off-putting except it describes people even more odiously self-absorbed. Stang occasionally runs off on personal tangents that I can’t imagine anybody caring about less than I do, the worst appearing on page 95, where he not only goes off on a rather dull personal examination of the nature of spirituality, but provides a footnote in defense of his use of Antabuse to treat his alcoholism which runs longer than the text pertaining to his actual subject. I’m sure that a SubGenius member might find this interesting, but the Church of SubGenius was a joke that stopped being funny years ago to anyone except aging nerds. They’d probably call me “pink.”

Ignore that equivocation, as I’m about to give the other reason I liked High Weirdness by Mail. The preface of chapter 14 (“Rantzines”) reads:

“…today’s frustrated world saviors and hometown Hearsts enjoy 4 cent photocopies (with reduction!), cheap laser typesetting, and, most importantly, the relentless spread of “instant pring” copies of a twenty page manifesto for less than five hundred dollars. With a home computer, it can be given the polished look of big-time publications – or at least a close enough approximation to fool the rubes. As far as the average reader can tell, it has a great an operating budget, and hence credibility, as any ‘real’ magazine.

Gutenberg would shit.”

And it goes on from there. Sure, it’s expressed a little differently, but Stang’s reaction to home publishing is not unlike what one might read from Mark Helprin in, say, The National Review (anybody still remember or care about Digital Barbarism?).

There’s a mix of pity and disgust here, whereas most of the descriptions and comments from Stang veer to one direction or the other. But Stang makes the obvious observation, which people like Kay and Roberts quoted above do not, which is that, for all of the unlimited ranting potential of home publishing (or, y’know, the internet), little “appreciable political disruption” has actually occurred. I would point out that home publishing actually produced The Turner Diaries, which inspired the OKC bombing, but that was an anomaly. As another of my favorite authors says, “arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false.” So far, Tea Partiers, Alex Jones fans, and 9-11 truthers have done little quantifiable harm beyond inconvenient rallies, foul media performances, and heckling the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill Maher. Some would not count the last as harmful in the least.

There’s a lot to learn from the not-so-distant past, which seems to me the most chronicly distorted part of history. Of chief importance is the revelation of just how not-different we are (which, ironically, is probably why it’s so easy to misunderstand recently ended decades). But maybe it’s the romantic side of me that finds the complementary lesson of just how much things have changed much more appealing. I’d rather receive low-fi cassettes in the mail than download mp3s from myspace and find kooky fanzines in my mailbox than read .pdf files on a computer screen.

I consumed High Weirdness by Mail in one whole bite. The writing, for all of its often flaccid humor, is smooth and some of the observations insightful and wry, sometimes at the same time. Easy reading, here. If you should read it, don’t do it like me, no matter the temptation. By the end of the book, my psyche was so bruised from the Frankenstein combination of SubGenius bullshit and fringe lunacy that I had to read a large quantity of that misanthropic conservatism I mentioned above to cleanse my palate. Florence King’s self-confessed misanthropy becomes rather quaint when compared to the annoyance provoked by descriptions of ridiculous hippies, sociopathic racists, pitiable UFO devotees, and bizarre religious semi-institutions.

Like burning tobacco juice pushed through the sinus cavities by great mirth, High Weirdness by Mail is good times, but it kinda hurts.