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 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

A Movie Weekend

The buildup to this is semi-complex, but I don’t want to be too specific. Perhaps you will see my dilemma.

Back during the last Crapfest, pal Dave gave me back a DVD that had been on perma-loan to him, which was The Prestige. He had borrowed it long, long ago, back when he was living in an apartment, in fact. I had dropped in for a visit, and had stopped at a Hollywood Video (to show you approximately how long ago this was) to raid their pre-viewed DVDs. One of them was The Prestige, Dave asked to borrow it, I said sure, why not, knowing full well it would be a long time before I got around to watching it, anyway. This was also back when I was wasting every evening of my life playing City of Heroes, which squandered many a movie watching hour. Don’t regret it, I enjoyed playing it with my friends. But I’ve now walked away from that particular teat.

Anyway, Dave handed me back the DVD, and off-handedly stated, “You know, I never guessed that (EXTREME SPOILER).” There was a brief pause, after which I said, “Well, now I guess I don’t have to watch it.” There was a brief scene after that, but Dave was far more upset than I. There is, as Penny Arcade points out, a statute of limitations on spoilers. That I had managed to successfully avoid that particular spoiler for 6 years is remarkable, but Dave was innocent of wrongdoing. Even so, he felt really badly about the whole thing.

About a week after, I sent him an e-mail suggesting we get together to watch The Prestige, because, after all, he had said he wanted to watch it again, and I wanted to watch it for the first time. Earlier that year, when he found out I still hadn’t seen Inception, he urged me to come over and “watch a good movie for a change.” Well, I spoiled that by watching Inception one lazy Sunday morning. Much as I love my wife, Dave would have been a better movie-watching companion for that particular movie. Lisa enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the multiple layers of the central caper, which is something Dave and I would have chewed over with gusto.

So. We watched The Prestige.

I like Christopher Nolan movies because you have to pay attention. And I like them because he doesn’t make that hard, at all. The Prestige has a very fluid timeline, constantly jumping back and forth through the chronology of the two main characters, but it is never confusing in that respect. The tale of an increasingly destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, there is a lot about setup, artifice, and pay-offs, and when Nicola Tesla is brought into the mix (a nicely strange turn by David Bowie), things take a turn for the downright weird. As Dave rightly pointed out, every scene means something different on a second viewing, and the movie is as meticulously constructed as a stage illusion. The seeds of Dave’s spoiler run throughout the movie, and I flatter myself that I would have spotted them, though as Dave points out, we’ll never know for sure. Ah well.

There are a couple of “oh, come on” moments for me, a couple of minor plot points that don’t affect the story that much, I just get curious. Nolan’s eye for casting remains solid. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both great choices, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson and Piper Perabo. Michael Caine is Michael Caine, which is pretty much what you pay him for these days. I swear to God Nolan cut-and-pasted at least one Caine speech from this script into one of the Batman scripts.

Good movie. Quite recommended.

Dave had, just that day, received a disc from Netflix: Cowboys and Aliens. Neither of us had seen it, so into the player it went.

There’s your setup right there: amnesiac Daniel Craig has a high-tech super-weapon locked onto his wrist, aliens keep flying overhead and lassooing innocent people. Hardass cattle baron Harrison Ford recruits Craig to attack the alien’s main base and rescue the people, which is okay by Craig because it seems to be tied into his missing past. In short, this is Terminator: Salvation in a Western setting.

It is also 20-30 minutes too long and wastes a lot of good actors in insignificant roles, like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. There is quite a bit too much time spent marshaling forces for a final battle that seems scattered and, like the movie, over-extended. Can’t find fault with the visual effects, at all, and the actors are a solid lot. It’s entertaining. but not enough for a whole-hearted recommendation. Netflix, definitely.

Well, that was Friday night. Saturday night, I usually have The Show, but as there were no reservations, that was cancelled. This is usually a cause for moping more than celebrating, because missing out on that small paycheck puts my fragile economic ecology in danger. But, I thought, none of that this week, dammit. Last Christmas, I got my wife her favorite movie in the world, Doctor Zhivago, on Blu-Ray. I had never seen Zhivago, so I figured it was high time.

Well.

What a dreadfully cramped trailer for a Panavision film!

Zhivago is, no surprise, the life story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), Russian poet and doctor, and Lara (Julie Christie), the woman whose life keeps intersecting his. The chronology of this relationship passes through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, more than enough turmoil for a historical romance. On Twitter I opined that this was the longest chick flick ever, which is the sort of thing you say when you are limited to 140 characters.

To be sure, it’s still shorter than that other over-long chick flick, Gone With the Wind, and it covers two vast conflicts instead of GWTW‘s single Civil War – and that is the larger story I took away from my viewing. My wife prefers to think of Zhivago as a great love story; I think of it as the tale of a man buffeted along by events much larger than he. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous movie – director David Lean, cinematographer Freddy Young, and Omar Sharif’s dreamy countenance provide a very compelling look at how poets view the world. GWTW is very obviously compacting a whole lot of novel into its last half-hour, and I never got that impression with Zhivago – Lean doesn’t make short movies, but those movies are very full without obvious compression.

I’ve long been a fan of the Arthurian legends, probably dating from the first movie I can recall seeing in a theater: The Sword In The Stone. A good friend through college constantly took me to task on this: “How can you possibly like it? It’s a love story based on betrayal.” (Likely because I didn’t focus on the love story, I was more taken with the idea of armored knights as a force for good, rather than medieval stormtroopers, but that’s neither here nor there) Zhivago‘s love story is also one of betrayal, as Yuri falls in love with Lara during their time in a makeshift hospital at the end of WWI. It is to the credit of the characters that nothing comes of it, Lara telling Yuri, “I don’t want you to lie to your wife because of me.”

Yet, after fleeing the wretched conditions of Moscow after the worker’s revolution, Yuri seeks out Lara, and the inevitable betrayal occurs; though both are married, Lara’s husband has been given up for dead (He has in fact reinvented himself as the terrorist insurgent Strelnikov), but Yuri’s wife, mere miles away, is pregnant with their second child. Zhivago is taken from this personal turmoil to another turmoil, as he is press-ganged into a Red Brigade bringing justice (and a whole lot of death) to White Russian forces. During his servitude, his family escapes to Paris, allowing him to live in sin with Lara and her daughter for a time, until the World steps in again.

As is the case with Gone With The Wind, this is not my cup of tea. I can appreciate the craft that has gone into this, the efforts at authenticity, the sheer awesomeness of the cast – but I still honestly cannot connect with what my wife considers to be a great love story. She loves it, I accept that. I shrug and continue on.

That was also the weekend my landline cratered, and because I have DSL, I was incommunicado through everything but my smartphone. So Sunday morning, while my wife was out at the movies with her friends – I had seen everything at the cinemas I had wanted to see; her friends went to Cabin in the Woods and she went to The Lucky One, that pretty much tells the tale – I finally watched Chushingura.

Chushingura, it seems, is the general term for fictional re-tellings of the tale of The 47 Loyal Ronin, which looms large in the landscape of Japanese culture. In the early 18th century, a corrupt Master of Etiquette is dissatisfied with the bribes offered by one of the younger lords, and goads that lord into attacking him in the Shogun’s palace, a breach so serious the young lord is sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his clan dissolved. His retainers, now all ronin – masterless samurais – bide their time, as retribution against the offended Master is forbidden. Finally, after two years of pretending to be workmen, monks, and in the case of the Chamberlain, a dissolute, drunken womanizer, forgetful of his duty to his dead master – on the second anniversary of the ritual suicide, the remaining 47 gather and attack the household, finally avenging the death of their master.

This is the 1962 version of the story, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, and I strenuously wished I had been more familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin before I had seen the movie. There are a lot of characters in play throughout, and I’m not just talking about the 47 ronin – wives, hangers-on, courtesans, brothel entertainers, not to mention the crew around the spectacularly corrupt Lord Kira, who feels an existence based entirely on lust and greed will grant him a long life, and that other samurai are fools for their predisposition to die at the slightest provocation. It gets dizzying after a while. Familiar faces like Takashi Shimura helped anchor me, but I still found myself confused as relationships proliferated as the fateful evening approached. Toshiro Mifune, featured prominently on all the advertising materials – especially the ones destined for Western eyes – has only a supporting role, as the lancer Genba Tawaraboshi, who is the hard-drinking badass we always love to see Mifune play.

So curse my blind ignorance, I am unable to make an objective judgment of Chushingura. It is well-made, acted and directed, and on those points alone I rank it highly; though how effective it is as a re-telling of a major legend, I must leave to those more knowledgeable. What it is, I can tell you, is a damned fine snapshot of the layered society in Japan at that time, the grinding rituals of proper etiquette, deference, and station; and the sometimes incredible insanity of the bushido code.

Then that evening, I watched Lolita. The next time I have a weekend like this, I really must find shorter movies.