Lodestone Theatre's first musical production revamps 1885's controversial opera, The Mikado, and celebrates Asian American theatre with dose of politics and sweet harmony.
Spring is festival season here in Los Angeles, especially for fans of Asian and Asian American cinema. But rare is the new festival that combines innovative programming with a love for contemporary world cinema.
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Chi Tung and Brian Hu return as backseat drivers itching to discuss the merits of two spankin' new action vehicles, Wilson Yip's S.P.L. and Jackie Chan's The Myth.
Chi: Having left off with a discussion of the fantastical (Miike's The Great Yokai War; Suzuki's Princess Raccoon), I thought it would be fitting to keep the same train of thought in examining the Hong Kong action genre and some of its recent "piece de resistances." An obvious target would be Jackie Chan's The Myth, which true to its title, places the mythical -- which has always been an unmistakable element of the wuxia tradition -- front and center. I counted no less than five of its tried and true trademarks: reincarnation, the art of levitation, the power of the mind over matter, time travelling, eternal life, just to name a few. The film is also notable for a more dubious reason: it's not very good. But then that's hardly surprising: The Myth is one of those blasted co-productions. Meaning it's all for diversity and representation -- so long as that gives our Jack-o an excuse to parade the Asian continent's most exotic beauties.
Brian: It's interesting that you juxtapose myth and transnational co-production. Co-productions between companies from different countries tend to come packaged in an aura of cultural harmony and cooperation, which is certainly the case with The Myth, which features a Hong Kong slash Hollywood megastar, a Korean model slash actress, and a Bollywood up-and-comer. What makes The Myth interesting is the way that the story so blatantly privileges "Chinese" culture over the others, despite the transnational label. While the film is sold as transnational, the film itself is about the preservation and survival of Chinese myths and artifacts (or more accurately, what is considered mythical to a 2005 HK/Chinese audience). This nationalism or cultural superiority is disturbing when compared to the way the film ridicules South Asian religion as naive and backward, while Jackie Chan and company have the right to demolish sacred buildings and desecrate religious figures. Meanwhile, the South Korean actress is dubbed in Chinese and becomes a literally "timeless" Chinese beauty/symbol/icon. So much for multinational harmony.
Chi: So much for multinational harmony indeed. Despite its pretenses of a multicultural community, The Myth is pretty much Jackie up to the same old tricks, although there is a pretty neat scene in the film having to do with mousetraps and assembly lines that only Jackie at full throttle could pull off. The Chinese superiority complex is hard to ignore, especially when Chan insists on being Mr. All-everything -- physically, emotionally, morally, spiritually, he's the centerfold, and everyone else should be thankful that they get to share screen time with him. What's funny then is that his status in his Hollywood films is almost exactly the opposite; he seldom gets the girl or the accolades, just Chris Tucker mocking his Chinglish. I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that as beloved as Chan is in Asia, he should tread more carefully when he attempts to play cultural ambassador. Buster Keaton he may be, but Cornell West he most certainly is not.
Brian: Yeah, Jackie can't resist being the cultural ambassador and representative of "Chinese cinema" around the world. Recently, he proposed a big budget Chinese film starring himself, Andy Lau, Stephen Chow, Tony Leung Chia-wai, and others to "save" the struggling Chinese mainstream cinema, and understandably, his suggestion drew criticism from pundits questioning his authority to make such propositions, as well as actors left off of his all-star cast. As much as I agree with him that the only way to beat Hollywood in the Asian market is to go high-concept, if the result is the kind of insular nationalism that The Myth (and to some extent Zhang Yimou's Hero) perpetuates, I'm not sure I'd be very enthusiastic. While the Crouching Tiger and Flying Daggers blockbusters have their place, especially since they remain Chinese cinema's lonely rays of financial optimism, I still have faith in the relatively smaller action films that play down high-profile spectacle and try to interrogate contemporary issues and mythologies by concocting a new Chinese mainstream cinema out of familiar genre traditions. Infernal Affairs, Kung Fu Hustle, Men Suddenly in Black, and Seven Swords come to mind. You've seen Wilson Yip's new S.P.L. How do you think it fits in?
Chi: S.P.L. was clearly groomed in the tradition of mid-'90s Hong Kong shoot-em-up flicks. Where it differs from, say, A Better Tomorrow or Hard Boiled is its weapon of choice. The cops and robbers in S.P.L. have guns, but they don't really use them -- preferring to wow with roundhouse kicks and iron fists instead. Of course, this might have to do with the fact that two of wuxia's masters are experiencing a bit of a rebirth -- I'm talking about Mr. Donnie Yen and the portly genius of Sammo Hung. There's even a knife fight in the alleyway between Yen and a superthug (the up-and-coming Wu Jing, who reminds many of a more impish Jet Li) that hearkens back to old Chu Yuan and King Hu swordplay pics. You spoke of playing down high-profile spectacle -- if there's such a thing as low-profile spectacle, then S.P.L. definitely qualifies as such. There's a gritty, noirish feel to the film, which lends it definite street cred, with contemporary Hong Kong as nihilistic center of the universe. I don't know though; many are calling S.P.L. Hong Kong's best and most brutal export since Infernal Affairs. I agree with the brutal part, but S.P.L. has neither the finesse nor virtuoso acting of its predecessor. Bringing me to my next point: whatever happened to Hong Kong being the mecca for the action/crime genre?
Brian: The easy answer is that Hollywood has stolen all the great talent - John Woo, Jackie Chan, Yuen Wo-ping, Tsui Hark, Jet Li, Ringo Lam - but I don't think that's a sufficient explanation. If anything, that's just a way to hide Hollywood's imperialism in the Hong Kong market and blame it all on the directors for "selling out." What's really going on is that Hollywood, the hegemonic machine that it is, has assimilated the action style of its Hong Kong competitor into its own production line, and has somehow convinced Hong Kong audiences that knock-offs like The Matrix are essentially "American" products. I'm not sure why local audiences have fallen for Hollywood's pillaging of Hong Kong film traditions; I'd imagine this is another case of Hong Kong's cultural amnesia. A second explanation could be that Hollywood films have successfully sold the illusion that digital effects are superior to other forms of special effects such as wirework, trampolines, and editing tricks, and Hong Kong films such as Storm Riders and The Legend of Zu simply have not used digital technology as successfully. As for a new mecca, I'm happy to say that Hollywood hardly has the monopoly on talent. In fact, my favorite recent action/crime films are from all over: Mexico (Amores Perros), South Korea (Oldboy), Brazil (City of God), Hong Kong (Infernal Affairs), Iran (Crimson Gold), China (House of Flying Daggers), and of course the U.S. (Kill Bill). All of these films have found new ways to utilize the action genre to articulate transforming local/global identities. I like that there's no single mecca, and I especially like that all of these films are actually getting recognition and distribution the world over.
Chi: I thought we were done talking about multinationalism. Oh well -- I'll take the bait anyways. Luckily for us, Hollywood has only figured out how to duplicate the aesthetic, not the cultural and regional subtexts that make a film like S.P.L. so uniquely Hong Kong. Much like The Myth, however, there's a whiff of redundancy that S.P.L. just can't quite escape; we applaud the galvanic action sequencing, but as for the by-the-numbers police procedural storyline and paper-thin moralizing -- we've heard it all before. And better. I suspect that there's a more compelling reason for the choppy dialogue and dimestore philosophies that the cops and gangstas in these types of films espouse (maybe you could elaborate), but I think Hong Kong could learn a thing or two from some of the films you mentioned. While I would argue that Amores Perros and City of God -- along with Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers -- are prone to lapses in believability or accountability, they certainly make up for it with first-rate storytelling and splashy narrative devices, neither of which S.P.L. or The Myth can boast of. The Myth, in particular, insults the audience's intelligence time and time again, and if Western critics think that's just because Jackie Chan has earned the reputation of being a lightweight action icon, I'd strongly urge them to watch Police Story. We could go on and on about the benefits of this worldwide surge of stylish and sophisticated action films, but I choose to close a bit more myopically. In many ways, The Myth and S.P.L. represent the old Hong Kong -- violence that's one-dimensional; characters that are sloppily diagrammed; nationalism that's both profane and perfunctory. Perhaps by this time next year, the Hong Kong action genre will be thriving once again, and we'll look like a bunch of knee-jerk prognosticators, but I kind of doubt it. Or maybe we just need your boy Johnny To to make some more films.
Brian: Johnny To -- now there's a Hong Kong auteur still at the top of his game. My hopes are high for Election and its sequel. Anyway, you're right that despite the corny dialogue and philosophizing, these Hong Kong action films give us other sorts of pleasures. Your assessment of classic Hong Kong action ("one-dimensional characters that are sloppily diagrammed, nationalism that's both profane and perfunctory") is also a spot-on description of the Hollywood product. So what is it that makes us prefer Hong Kong action? The choreography? The x-rated violence? The smooth sexuality of Chow Yun-fat? A change of scenery? The hyper-creative editing and mise-en-scene? Our own biases as Chinese Americans? A combination of all of these, probably. The point is that despite vulgar nationalism and cheesy banter, I'd choose a film like The Myth or S.P.L. over a Hollywood action film any day. I grew up on Woo. I learned Chinese watching Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. I was wowed by mind-bending montage and poor subtitles. And then I witnessed Hong Kong action's unmemorable fade out. I have something invested in Hong Kong action and it's hard to let go. Hong Kong action is like a has-been older brother: when he was great, I was his biggest fan. Now he's fixated on past glories and spewing immature aphorisms that sounded better when I was young, yet I pick fights with detractors and watch faithfully anyway. Cause hey, he's family.
Date Posted: 12/8/2005