Saturday, April 26, 2008

Forbidden Kingdom: We're All Coming of Age

Mark Rahner of the Seattle Times says of Forbidden Kingdom, "It might take a Zen master to explain exactly what audience this is aimed at." I left the Tibetan temple behind long ago, like any worthy Bhoddisatva bringing Nirvana to the world, and my koans might be a bit rusty at this point, but I’m going to give it a shot. Sit, my son, before the peace of Benefit of the Doubt, and be enlightened by the Tao of Media Commentary.

Like tiger with face of Easter Bunny, Forbidden Kingdom presented itself in a way that may have confused some critics and audiences. The original trailer showed fascinatingly-costumed, exotic martial arts characters, slow-motion martial arts, beautiful settings, and enigmatic effects. The unknowning trailer-surfer may anticipate a slow, beautiful, well-shot kung-fu opera, in the style of (if not the scope of) Hero, or Curse of the Golden Flower. These expectations are waves that have been dashed against the rocks of popular cinema.

Perhaps this confusion was at work in Mark Rahner’s mind. Seeing Forbidden Kingdom as a work of authentic kung-fu, he may not have been prepared to accept it for what it was. When the tiger’s fluffy pink visage fell away, it revealed itself not as an updated kung-fu epic, but as another update, and another kind of epic. The audience looking for beautiful wire-fu may have been disappointed, but those of us who saw the truth were pleased with its revelation.

The movie was actually a return to the coming-of-age fantasy movies of our youth. I personally didn’t get wind of this until I was about to go see the movie, and the synopsis said something about an American teenager who loves kung-fu movies, and who finds an old staff that takes him to ancient China. Many of us may have wanted a grand, semi-artistic kung-fu adventure to frame the combined talent of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and in this we may have been severely disappointed. Fortunately, many of us were also raised in the 80’s and early 90’s, where the true thematic inspiration for Forbidden Kingdom was born.

If you remember Neverending Story, Last Action Hero, and Labyrinth, and even before these, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, then you may have been able to appreciate this movie for what it really offered. The cheesy dialogue, the absurdly liberal rendering of ancient China and traditional folklore, and the comically implausible training sequences and montages... these were all in keeping with that well-established mythology that we grew up on.

There are a lot of interesting precedents here, too. The earliest of the examples I’ve mentioned above are Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and you could also class the Narnia Series with these. These examples are "coming of age" stories that involve a temporary flight into a dream world, whether it’s the hallucinatory, disturbing, and politically-relevant Wonderland of Alice, or whether it’s the whimsical, profoundly psychological Neverland of Wendy and Peter.

The "worlds of our imagination" have changed in recent years, though. Starting with Neverending Story, the storytellers have started to acknowledge the mediated, represented component of our dreams and fantasies. In Neverending Story, Bastian finds his inner universe in the pages of an old book, and he enters it through the mind of Atreyu, its main character. This brilliant film was a staple in many of our childhoods, and it set some profound precedents for honest, sensitive, and troubling portrayals of adolescence and fantasy.

Last Action Hero pulled the fantasy-world coming-of-age story further into the present. This was one of The Governator’s less popular films, a thoroughly light-hearted but deceptively self-conscious popcorn flick about a kid who gets pulled into the unrealistic world of action movies. In that short space between Neverending Story (1984) and Last Action Hero (1993), we watched our cultural imagination move from the world of books to the world of movies. The troubled child building his life around reading became the irresponsible kid obsessed with action flicks. Even so, we were still following the same track: growing up within the space of our imagination, whether that space was built from words or film clips.

The Forbidden Kingdom follows this formula a step further, showing us the inner world of a teenager who can’t get his head out of kung-fu flicks. He ends up facing his fears and building his personality in an alternate-reality Orientalist China, filled with mysterious maidens, silent monks (what a badass character), and Drunken Masters. This is the kind of place where a kid can become a kung-fu guru in about three days worth of training, and where henchmen are available at dime-store prices, but only if you’re evil. It’s also a world well-populated with self-conscious kung fu movie references, many of which I’m sure I don’t understand in the slightest.

The coming-of-age fantasy tropes were EVERYWHERE in this movie, and that's part of what made it both lighthearted and interesting. The bullies at the beginning were right out of Neverending Story, and one of the most charming elements was the appearance of Lu Yan and Golden Sparrow in the real world, a technique right out of Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy's fantasy companions turned out to be dream-versions of the people in her real life. It was also an endearing, and brilliant, casting decision to cast Michael Angarano as the main character... Angarano isn't the tricked out pretty-boy we're used to seeing in every action movie these days. He has the quirky facial features of an awkward high-schooler, and this is a noble concession to make to those original 80's and 90's movies, where we could really believe that the main character was a normal kid.

Many of our parents will roll their eyes at the idea that our imaginations are being built on Hong Kong cinema, just as (with Last Action Hero) they may have been dismayed that their kids’ fantasy world were being built around violent, unrealistic action movies. We may look back fondly on Bastian, whose inner universe came from old books and fairy tales, and we may be nostalgic for Neverending Story’s innocence. The point, though, and the lesson that this whole genre has for us, is that no matter how we form our flights of fancy, they will always allow us to pass safely through childhood and face the real world on the other side. A personality formed through kung-fu is no less authentic than one formed in the pages of a young-adult fantasy novel read in a school attic.

And aside from the ADHD-ridden 13-year-olds that Mark Rahner mentions, I think I know who Forbidden Kingdom was aimed at. It was aimed at those of us who grew up through the media, reading fantasy novels, acting out kung-fu movies and ninja cartoons, and ultimately entering our adulthood through those scraps of fantasy. When we saw those other "coming of age" movies, like Neverending Story and Last Action Hero, we understood that we were those adolescent characters (Bastian, Danny, and now Jason Tripitikas), growing into whole people by embracing our fantasy worlds. This movie was aimed at us... in particular, it was aimed at me.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Wong Kar-Wei's My Blueberry Nights: A strange familiarity

I know, it's been a month. I've been working on my thesis. That's my excuse. Here's a post with some substance, though, and hopefully these will become more regular very soon.

Wong Kar-Wei directs aesthetically. His films are not designed for your twenty-first century American ADHD sensibility... you’re going to have to give up your explosions and sex scenes and learn to appreciate long pauses and pregnant looks, drawn-out emotional revelations, and stares into the uncertainties of characters’ souls. You may come out of his films feeling like there’s suddenly a lot of random overstimulating shit going on in the world, but at the very least, you’ll find the beauty in the mundane interstitial moments, standing alone in the city streets.

My Blueberry Nights is Wong’s first American production, and he seems to be pushing the "American" aspect pretty hard. He casts Jude Law, Norah Jones, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz in the primary roles, and he follows his main character from neighborhoody New York to dive-bar Memphis, Tennessee, and then to the dusty flats and flashy personalities of Las Vegas. In keeping with the American-made aesthetic, My Blueberry Nights is faster-paced, and has more closure, than Wong’s other work, though it’s not a Bruckheimer film by any means.

Wong is sort of an eighties futurist, from what I can tell. Take a look at his commercial for the Phillips Flat-Panel TV... the neon lights and the fiber-optic sensibility, complimented with oceans of reflective glass and plastic, are what we probably thought the future would look like back when we were first being introduced to ergonomic product design and artificial polymers. Wong experiments with other atmospherics, of course... much of 2046 took place in gilded-age classical architecture, just slightly run down, so that it integrated the epic sensibility of an old city with the pseudo-normalcy of tragic, emotional everyday life. He did something similar with the Nevada desert in My Blueberry Nights, providing a well-rendered vision of an empty Southwest, where his characters could be alone with their emotional dynamics. Despite these breaks, however, it’s always that nightlife neon decadence that runs through Wong’s films.

Wong’s New York and Las Vegas seem like the ideal locations for his stylistic tastes. They both have that neon thing going on, and you’re likely to find those avant-garde fashion tastes and shiny, artificial cars in both cities. However, Wong rarely actually visits the most hyperstimulating parts of the cities he's trying to depict. He never depicts Times Square or Wall Street... he shows a neighborhood café in New York, and he provides a number of long shots of subways traveling above-ground. In Las Vegas, he depicts some small-time casinos and a lot of deserted outdoor landscapes, but I don’t remember seeing much of the strip (I may have been in the bathroom at the time, though). Even so, his visuals seem replete with those ghosts of neon lights reflected off wet pavement. Is he displacing the stylistic center of the city into its margins? Did he see the outskirts of New York and Vegas as containers for the spirit of Times Square and the strip?

Even if it seemed abstractly appropriate in New York and Vegas, Wong’s Memphis, Tennessee definitely doesn’t seem like the right place for his sensibility. His characters... particularly Sue Lynn and her boyfriend... looked like Manhattan fashion models, and all their cars... even Arnie’s truck... look like they've just been picked off a lot and waxed to perfection. The bar where Elizabeth works glows like a downtown nightclub. This isn’t the Memphis of the popular imagination, and though it may be a worthy spin on it, it doesn’t seem to jive with the Southern mythology we’re all so familiar with.

These slight missteps make Wong’s United States seem a bit alien. Perhaps he sees Hong Kong wherever he goes, and perhaps those neon lights are just the optics of Wong’s dreams and imagination.

The city compliments the characters, though, and these really are figures of American mythology. Jude Law’s Jeremy is a perfect Brit turned small-town romantic, charming and well-adjusted in a little neighborhood café. Norah Jones’s Elizabeth is an icon, as well, an innocent, trusting girl who devotes herself to exploring the world in the aftermath of a personal romantic tragedy. Arnie, Sue Lynne, and Leslie are all equally iconic pieces of American character mythology. These are the compliment to Wong’s slightly alien portrait of the landscape – his American characters are so familiar that they almost seem abstracted and imaginary... archetypal... even stereotypical, though that word is probably too harsh.

So it’s largely a mixed bag of traditional, mythological Americana... why does it work so well? It works because those settings and characters are really just a framework for Wong’s characteristic storytelling. The settings are nice, and the characters are endearing, but what makes it a good movie is the obsessive attention to the emotional intersections and turbulence between these characters, all of whom are still clearly discovering themselves. This is the ripple of confusion that underlies all of the established rhythm of Americanism. Even your most artificial settings and your most recognizable characters are the products of their own issues, desires, and failures. Even the most familiar building becomes fascinating when its framework is laid bare.

It might also be a little narcissism talking. In each of the on-screen characters I saw fragments of my own experience of New York, and this is probably why them seem so recognizable. In a sense, I recognize them wherever they go, and I identify with their hope and sadness. That's the mark of a good director -- it’s Wong’s skill with nuance and uncertainty that makes the movie possible.