Monday, February 20, 2017

The Great Wall (of Deep, Deep Sighs)

Yeah, look. Just. Look. I went and saw it at the cinemas because I wanted to. Ancient Chinese fantasy and wuxia films are dear to my heart. The consumption of media which is problematic as fuck is normal to me, because the production of media/narratives which aren't problematic is rare. Those of us who don't see ourselves on the screen or on the page are used to balancing enjoyment and criticism simultaneously.

I wanted to like this film, and to an extent, I did like it. But I also wanted - if it was going to be a massive appropriation of history, culture and narrative - it to be a gateway drug, because wuxia films are The Best. Don't argue with me. There's no point. I love these narratives and I wish more people around me shared the love. At the very least, this film could serve as an entry point.

Except it isn't a wuxia film.

Spoilers ahoy.

Having now consumed my problematic media, I chowed down a few articles addressing its problems. Oddly, the two mostly widely accessible articles I've found which do a passable job of addressing the films problems (on BuzzFeed and Vox) both state that it isn't yet another White Saviour Film.

Ummm. Yes, it is. The presence of Badass Commander Lin (played by the badass Tian Jing WHO HOLY SHIT IS GOING TO BE IN PACIFIC RIM 2 HAAAAAAAIIIIIIII) at the end of the film and the fact she strikes the final blow does not in any way cancel out the fact that it took Matt Damon's ability to think outside the box to capture a Tao Tei (more on them later) and the plan to eliminate the Queen Tao Tei was his idea.

No, his character doesn't swan around being overtly smarter, stronger and swifter than those around him. He (thankfully) doesn't go around attempting to enlighten anyone. There's honestly not enough depth in the film to allow for that.

But the narrative still centres him. It is to him that the narrative gifts heroic acts, unorthodox inspiration and the opportunity to masterfully save the lives of the extras around him with some super slick moves.

The first time this happened, I felt my heart break. Those moments of preternatural reflex and anticipation in battle are something particular to martial arts, and to see them granted first to Matt Damon and not any number of the warriors around him - who have all allegedly been training their whole lives for this - was...well. It set a tone from which the film did not deviate. The White Hero was portrayed as impressive. As cool. His counterparts were not, save one.

Commander Lin is awesome. Like, so awesome. Like, her entire command is also comprised of badass women who bungee jump from the wall to impale the Alien Lizard Dogs from Space on spears and then spring back up to get another spear and do it all again. How badass? So badass. The ideals of Chinese beauty being just as narrow of as those of Western beauty aside, her character is solid, steady, and not swayed by the charms of the white man. I cannot tell you how important this is. There is a mere hint of romance present in a lingering and shared look which never develops further than that. She is sure of herself, of her abilities and her convictions, and it is she that teaches him a thing or two about the world, not the other way around.

There is a trope in wuxia of the tragic lovers, who for one reason or another cannot be together and yet spend so much time gazing at each other and admiring each other and respecting each other up until one of them dies. Tragically. Usually in the act of protecting the other from death. I feared this was Commander Lin's fate, BUT IT WASN'T. SHE AIN'T GOT TIME FOR THAT. SHE GOT ALIEN LIZARD DOGS FROM SPACE TO VANQUISH. NOR DID SHE LEAVE HER LIFE TO GO WITH MATT DAMON ONCE THE WAR WITH THE ALIEN LIZARD DOGS FROM SPACE WAS OVER. She was all, like, I respect you, we've been through some shit together, wish you well, baaaai. Like at the end of Pacific Rim, their last interaction could be viewed as unspoken romance...and can also be viewed as not. Commander Lin has an agency, life and destiny all of her own, which exists beyond the narrative of the white man, and FUCK. YES.

(As an aside, despite the film being about a war with Alien Lizard Dogs from Space who just want to eat everything, despite the majority of the cast being male, the only time the camera lingered on soldiers being torn apart, literally torn apart by the Alien Lizard Dogs from Space, was when Lin's all-female soldiers were diving from the wall. And I do mean the camera lingered. Other soldiers also met this fate, but the camera barely gave them a moment's notice. It could be argued that this was because those women were the first casualties during the first assault, thus the long, horribly violent and emphasised deaths were presented to highlight how terrible a foe they faced, but it honestly came across as gratuitous violence against women.)

She's the best thing about this film. It's only redeeming feature you might say. I mean, she's a character with a bit of depth, just a bit, which is more depth than anyone else had. There are no other characters, really. Well, I guess Matt Damon is a character. His character's name is William, but all I saw on the screen was Matt Damon. He gets to learn, make some life altering choices, but this isn't a deep film. Between the two of them, I reckon there's one character. Everyone else is a plot device or a prop. Poor Andy Lau. As Strategist Wang, his sole purpose was to be the mission statement at the start of every chapter telling everyone what had to happen next. Dafoe's character isn't even one dimensional. Pedro Pascal is a foil for Matt Damon and that's his sole purpose, and everyone else has colour coordinated costumes to indicate who is who on the set.

It's worth noting that those dismissing the White Saviour narrative overlook the fact that he saves a nameless foot soldier (who was marked for a tragic death the moment that happened, and yep, no surprises there), he saves Lin when she was surrounded and about the be eaten, and he saves his Spanish Offsider from gaol. Like I said, the final blow may not have been from his hand, but he's the one running around saving everyone.

Did you get that Pedro Pascal's character was Spanish? From Spain? Because just in case you didn't get it, he waves a big swathe of red silk at an Alien Lizard Dog from Space like a matador to a bull. Because he's Spanish. From Spain. He also makes questionable moral decisions because while he's European, being Spanish he's not a proper White European. Which is an important distinction that highlights how good Matt Damon is. Pascal does great with what he has to work with, which is very little. He's as wasted as Andy Lau.

As for those Alien Lizard Dogs from Space...look. Just. Look. Director Yimou Zhang is quoted as saying, "What makes our film unique is that these are ancient Chinese monsters."

Kinda? I mean, the Tao Tei / Taotie are a thing. Not a particularly defined thing, as it were, but definitely the idea of a monster from China's history.

Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Palahniuk also wrote, "Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." Giving them a name from Chinese history doesn't change the fact that they were Alien Lizard Dogs from Space (seriously, in the film they're from space) and sporting an entirely Hollywood CGI monster aesthetic. I'm not yet able to articulate exactly what it was about them as a whole or as individuals, but when these monsters appeared, I knew I was not looking at a Chinese monster. Others may disagree.

Much as this film is billed as being co-created by China and Hollywood (I find it interesting that Hollywood gets to exist as an entity separate from the USA, but the Chinese film industry doesn't), many of the names in the closing titles who were responsible for the look and detail of the film were not Chinese names. Perhaps that's how we end up with monsters that look like they wandered into the wrong set.

Also they were from space.

Is that police-y of me? Possibly. Probably. This film is, however, the appropriation and sanitisation of a history and culture for the purposes of Western consumption. The Chinese movie industry wants some of those juicy Western audiences. There have been in roads made; a lot of credit must be given to Jackie Chan, and since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the great Chinese epic has had moderate success. But, the Western audience doesn't like subtitles. Living in a monolingual world leaves one feeling rather entitled about the communication around them, mostly being that it should be in their language or GTFO. Subtitles turn so many viewers off, which breaks my heart. (Dubbing is an industry which I believe could be an amazing thing. Look at any English dub of anime! Yet so many foreign language films are given dubs which do a great deal to throw the viewer out of the viewing experience. Lip sync being a trivial issue.)

Damon himself has defended his role in the film by pointing out that the film was written with a Western lead in mind, which mostly indicates the lack of critical thinking involved in his response.

Subtitles is one battle. The other is representation.

The recent Jackie Chan film Dragon Blade is another amalgamation of Western and Ancient Chinese epic narratives, which features Jackie Chan being his usual charming, honourable, goofy self and becoming entangled in a feud of succession in the Roman Empire, which has come to play out in his stomping ground. It featured Adrien Brody and John Cusack as Imperial Romans, and as with The Great Wall, featured a great deal of spoken English scenes.

The Romans, however necessary to the conflict, weren't the centre of the film. Jackie Chan was. Even as well known and well loved as he, the box office takings for this film in the USA made 0.1% of the total takings around the world.

The idea that only stories centring around white men, Western white men, will sell to Western audiences, appears to hold true when viewed from the outside. The Chinese film industry wants in on the Western audience. So, the writing of a Western character being central in the film is a marketing move, and a ghastly one. It further compounds the idea that a narrative only counts when it hangs from a white man's shoulders. It is complicit with and practically gives permission for Hollywood's continued appropriation of Asian concepts and culturescapes (the casting of Dr Strange and the live-action Ghost in the Shell being the most current examples of this) whilst erasing the very people to whom these ideas are foundations of identity.

This film is nothing short of a perpetuation of the problems of racism in Western media. It isn't for China's film industry to amend their ways - that is a whole different conversation. It is for the Western world to seriously, meaningfully, no seriously, get with the whole picture when it comes to representation, when it comes to who should be the vehicle for what narrative.

I hoped it would be a gateway drug. But it isn't. It's an empty narrative full of costumes and design which signal something that isn't there.

I was hoping, maybe the film would be a mix of two worlds, the way I am. But it isn't. It's set dressing and posturing. (Maybe that's all I am too.)

I was hoping it wouldn't be what it looked like it was going to be.


No seriously, from space? Why?