Hey, That’s MY Mythology!

Well, here it is. The post that was giving me problems. The post that gave me writer’s block for over a month. Let’s see if I can actually finish the sucker. Perhaps being quick and brutal will work?

I honestly do keep intending to get back to the edifying side of cinema, but I still find myself being self-indulgent about my viewing choices, if only to maintain my sanity. The return of the Daily Grindhouse Podcast is partially responsible for that, but I’d be lying if I said escapism wasn’t a major contributing factor. What I am finding is that I really enjoy the latest crop of overblown spectacle movies made possible by advances in CGI technology, and I am eating them like candy. Sweet, sweet over-produced candy. What this says about me as a cinephile, I am not sure. Am I a problem, rather than a solution?

Who cares, I’m enjoying myself.

I’m thinking this started with the two Monkey King movies and was cemented by League of Gods (and bolstered by my previous love affair with Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons). What I am finding is that the Chinese are very good at making this sort of thing, and making them entertaining, but the American movie industry… not so much. There are exceptions, of course, like the Wachowskis and James Gunn, but the important difference there is they are essentially dealing with their own mythologies (Marvel’s, in the case of Gunn), while the two movies setting this column off indulged in cultural appropriation for their mythologies, and bungled it.

From that last sentence, you might assume that we’re starting with the 2013 47 Ronin, and you would be right.

The story of The Loyal 47 Ronin is one of the great tentpoles of Japanese culture; the intro to this movie assures us that “the story of the 47 ronin is the story of Japan,” and to a point, that is correct, if overly general. The trouble is that the movie then proceeds to take that story and alter it so unmercifully and cavalierly that it’s kind of amazing that it didn’t spark off an international incident.

The actual tale of the 47 ronin concerns a clan of samurai whose lord, Asano Naganori, is driven by a venal court official to assault him, and is compelled to commit seppuku for that offense. His clan is dissolved, and those 47 retainers lie in wait for a year to visit their vengeance upon the man responsible for their lord’s downfall. It’s a great story, and there are many, many book, play and movie versions of it – the one I’ve seen is the 1962 Chushingura, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.

And now, with this version, after that Japan-centric intro, we meet Keanu Reeve’s character as a child, leading into the adult Keanu aiding his adoptive father Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) in a hunt for a strange beast straight out of Princess Mononoke. These beginning segments in what we are told is “the story of Japan” seems to me similar to being told that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was “the most faithful adaption of the novel” ever and then sitting through a lengthy pre-credit sequence that occurs nowhere in that novel.

Keanu is Kai, a half-Japanese orphan raised by the Tengu bird demons in a cursed forest. Lord Asano will still be duped into attacking another lord, but this time it’s due to the evil Lord Kira (Tananobu Ason)’s consort, who is a witch (and Rinko Kikuchi, to boot). Lord Asano’s eldest son, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is thrown into a pit for a year, then released and exiled a week before his sister, Mika (Ko Shibasaki) will be wed to Kira. So that year-long plot to avenge the fallen lord is replaced with a rushed, artificial deadline, and Oishi must find the despised Kai, who was sold to a coastal fight arena before Oishi was thrown into the pit. Because he knows Kai loves Mika and will do anything for her.

Apparently this version of 47 Ronin started as a straight historical drama like, say, Gladiator. But somewhere in the pre-production process, the suits decided they wanted a magical fantasy adventure for some of that sweet, sweet Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings money. And so the torturing of the storyline to accommodate mythical monsters and magic and Keanu Reeves began.

Now, I was a Keanu fan even back when everybody was still making fun of him for Johnny Mnemonic. It is probably his presence that got the project the greenlight. His inclusion as a half-breed alone wouldn’t have derailed the movie too badly. But past that, 47 Ronin stands as a monument to wrong-headed studio interference, with an increasingly chaotic storyline and least one obvious snipping out of a subplot and character (Yorick von Wageningen’s Kapitan, the pirate with the full-body skeleton tattoo who is on the poster for God’s sake) for the sake of more weirdness and at least one battle scene that changes nothing going forward.

In trying to put myself in the place of someone Japanese seeing this Hollywood mangling of my history, the best I could come up with (as a lifelong Texan) is a movie stating that Santa Anna and Sam Houston grew up together and the Battle of the Alamo was all due to a witch’s interference and Davy Crockett was a werewolf. Also for some reason the history books don’t mention the samurai warrior with power armor fighting alongside Jim Bowie. (Hollywood, you still haven’t returned my calls)

There were a few things I liked about 47 Ronin. The Tengu were neat. It was nice to see so many Asian actors in a Hollywood movie. They did not Hollywood-up the ending too much, everybody still had to commit ritual suicide. Those few things are still not enough to warrant a recommendation to any but Keanu completists. I am legendarily forgiving toward movies, but this one is just not very good.

This experience did not exactly make me look forward to seeing Gods of Egypt, even though I found it a superior movie in almost every way. In it, we told the Gods of the title are alien beings with certain powers, golden blood and who are half again as tall as humans. Osiris (Bryan Brown) is handing over the kingly crown to Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), only to be murdered and usurped by Set (Gerard Butler). Set takes Horus’ eyes, the focus of his power, and banishes the blinded god. It is going to take a human thief, Bek (Brenton Thwaites), egged on by his girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton), still faithful to Horus, to get the god back his eyes and overthrow Set, whose main purpose (besides the usual grinding of the faces of the poor) is to assassinate their father, Ra (Geoffrey Rush) and bring eternal darkness to Earth.

Looking at that synopsis and that cast, there is one thing that is going to jump out at you, and that is the major criticism of the movie: its very whiteness. The overwhelmingly Caucasian population of this Cradle of Civilization feels like something out of the 1950s Biblical Epic era.  Ridley Scott, defending the casting in Exodus:God and Kings, rather (in)famously pointed out that the movie would not be financially viable without white actors. There’s a good deal of actual controversy on the actual skin tones of the ancient Egyptians, but the truth of Scott’s statement, though ugly, is inescapable.

The story of Gods of Egypt, past your standard action adventure boilerplate, is strange and exotic enough that I think I could have enjoyed it as much if not more if posited as a tale of some strange fantasy lands, like League of Gods, without the hijacking of another culture’s history and mythology.

Nice job turning humans into hobbits, though.

But if we’re going to talk about hijacking another culture’s history and mythology, though, we’re going to have to continue on to The Great Wall, which I had actually been looking forward to seeing.

Matt Damon plays William, a medieval mercenary who journeys to China, chasing rumors of an explosive black powder that would make his work much easier. What he finds is that titular Wall, and it turns out that the reason it was built is a meteor crash-landed in the nearby mountains, and every few years the inimical life forms that it brought swarm, attack and eat anything in their path. William will immediately throw in his lot with the elite troops trying to turn back this alien horde, and maybe even defeat it for all time.

After the last two movies in this post, one might be forgiven for looking askance at Damon’s role in this movie, but he provides a time-honored device: the audience surrogate, the outsider to whom things must be explained, so the audience gains necessary information somewhat painlessly. William does provide an interesting clue to fighting the monster, correctly interpreted by the Chief Strategist Wang (the always welcome Andy Lau), leading to a master plan that, according to the rules of fiction, requires one last desperate shot at the very last moment, the climax of Star Wars if it involved lots of gunpowder and an alien queen.

It’s the predictability of that plot that is the only thing that truly works against The Great Wall. It’s a well-built story, the characters are interesting, the monsters are pretty unique and well-designed. I love the fact that there is a strong female leading the troops (Jing Tian, looking so beautiful and perfect that whenever she has a close-up, I find myself waiting for the cut scene to end so I can get back to playing Final Fantasy). But the only thing that can be truly called unique in its setup is that the Chinese apparently invented weaponized bungee-jumping.

There are six writers credited overall for The Great Wall, and none of those names are remotely Asian. I suppose that puts us back at my earlier, blasphemous re-telling of the Alamo, with a very important exception: the director is Zhang Yimou, one of best and most prestigious of Chinese directors. Damon isn’t a white savior, he is one cog in a group that comes together to defeat the enemy. There is heart in this movie, and that heart is not overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Though I really would have liked to know Zhang’s thoughts on the movie’s central concept.

In the midst of all this the movie version of Ghost in the Shell came and went, and with it the subsequent furor over the practice of “whitewashing” which was more or less the basis of this column (and one of the Daily Grindhouse podcasts. If you listen, you can hear hear me grunt a lot, because it was recorded at Jesus o’clock on a Sunday morning). I still haven’t seen it, but I’m told the ghost in Scarlett Johnnson’s shell is actually Asian, but even with that we’re still in Ridley Scott territory. I’ve been too busy with personal drama and my country’s imploding structure to actually keep up with any finger-pointing at the failure of that film at the box office, but my money’s on “action movies with females don’t sell” more than the whitewashing controversy or the very idea that people might not  want to see an Americanized, live-action version of anime. There is a very strong fanbase for anime here in the States, that is undeniable – but that doesn’t mean that fanbase actually wants to see their stories in another medium, or that any other demographic can be bothered to go see it, no matter how many anime-adjacent movies like Pacific Rim are actually successful.

At least this might finally put paid to that Americanized version of Akira. Though, really, I wouldn’t put any money on that. We white folk love our little cultural thieveries.

Buy 47 Ronin on Amazon

Buy Gods of Egypt on Amazon

Buy The Great Wall on Amazon

Buy Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

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