Forbidden Kingdom: just watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon instead.

September 26, 2008

My mum netflixed Forbidden Kingdom, and we watched it tonight. It had Jackie Chan and Jet Li, which was enough for me! Except that, in the end, it wasn’t.

The premise: a generic guy from our world who loves kung fu movies gets transported to a Magic China (no resemblance to the real China) because he is the chosen keeper of the Monkey King’s staff, and he must return it to its rightful owner.

Maybe I’ve just watched too many movies, but mediocre films are painfully predictable nowadays. A drunk guy rides up just as White Guy (our hero, whose name I can’t remember) is about to be kidnapped? Clearly, Drunk Guy is a kung fu master! And lo and behold, he rescues White Guy. Sparrow (The Girl, and the only one whose name is used with enough regularity for anyone in our family to remember), she’s seeking vengeance for the terrible destruction of her town? Clearly, White Guy will slay her enemy for her! Drunk Guy (who becomes White Guy’s teacher, along with The Monk) gets hit with an arrow right next to the Big Bad’s castle, where there’s an immortality elixir? Clearly, White Guy is going to disregard everyone’s advice and risk the fate of the entire country by running off to get the elixir for his friend. His big confrontation isn’t going so well? Clearly, Monk and Sparrow are going to come running in to save him at the last second!

And so on. I found myself getting very impatient with the fight scenes, wishing they’d just get them over with already. They were mostly really boring, which surprised me– usually there’s nothing I enjoy more than a kung-fu action scene, the more drawn-out and ridiculous, the better. But this time around, I was shouting snarky predictions and playing with my dog.

It also fell into a number of annoying cliches. White Guy was the only white guy in the whole movie (cool!) but he also was able to save a country that had desperately been trying to save itself for 500 years. He never surpasses his masters in kung fu, at least, but that just makes it more annoying that he gets the ultimate victory.

Also, although the Evil Witch gets to fight men at two points– kicking White Guy’s ass, and ultimately losing to Drunk Guy– Sparrow (The Girl) never gets to fight anyone but the Evil Witch. She confronts the Big Bad, but she does so by saying, “Hey! Over here! It’s me, the youngest daughter of that man you killed! I am here for revenge! Wait a second while I take my jade dart out of my hair, swish my luxurious locks around, and–gack!” (Big Bad kills her.)

White Guy rushes to her side (taking an agonizingly long time before picking up the jade dart, the only thing that can defeat the Big Bad) and then rushes off to kill the Big Bad for her (by snaking up behind him, and waiting for the Monk to send him flying right into the dart), then rushes back to Sparrow’s side to hold her while she chokes out “I thank you” and died. This is particularly “touching,” since up til this point she has spoken entirely in the third person (like Suede from Project Runway, and about as annoying.) This is when I called it that she’d mysteriously appear in the Real World, and mysteriously be infatuated with White Guy. It took another half hour, but I was right.

Speaking of Sparrow: she and the witch exchanged two lines of dialogue.

Sparrow: She should have killed you, witch!
Witch: Not if I kill you first, orphan bitch!

Would you consider this to be passing the Bechdel test? I think it follows the letter but not the spirit of the law. Especially since the Witch was even less developed as a character than Sparrow; Sparrow at least had your typical revenge plot, but the Witch just wanted to become immortal. No explanation of where the Witch came from or why her hair was white or anything– just that she was working with the Big Bad to get a sip of that elixir.

A note on the elixir: the narration explicitly stated that only a sip was needed to make a person immortal, and yet when Drunk Guy eventually got the bottle (also an easily-predictable act, though the process of throwing and bouncing it across the room to him was a lot of fun) he just guzzled down the entire thing. There was enough to make everyone in the movie immortal twice over, but the just drank it all. If he’d been less greedy, Monk and Sparrow both could have lived! (Well, maybe not the Monk, since in one of the other few cool things the movie did, it turned out that he was one of the Monkey King’s transformed hairs.)

There were fun things about this movie– as I said, the twist about the Monkey King’s hair (which makes sense, since in the beginning of the movie her turned one of his hairs into an automaton to fight the Big Bad). Actually, everything about the Monkey King was pretty endearing– he was very silly, and there was this great sequence where he made his magic staff fight on its own.

However, overall, I’d say you should just go watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon instead. The fights in Forbidden Kingdom were lackluster, the costumes over-the-top (the Big Bad wore gobs of blue eyeshadow; made me think I was back in junior high), the plot thin, and the execution shoddy. All I wanted was some fun kick-assery, but it couldn’t hold my interest.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and getting female action heroes so very right.

September 12, 2008

In yesterday’s post I was a little whiny about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but I didn’t want anyone to think that it wasn’t still a great movie. In fact, it’s a remarkably great movie– it’s a great action movie that nevertheless has great women in it!

Most movies tend to do one or the other– Lara Croft’s movies are great action movies, but she’s not a great female character; movies like Mamma Mia are great on women, but are not action movies. It’s fantastic to see a movie with multiple, well-developed female characters in a movie that isn’t about omg shoez. Because I love action movies– especially sci fi action movies– but I also don’t love misogyny, and too many of the former are ruined by the latter.

Common tropes of action movie women: There’s only one. She’s super-awesome at everything but not awesome enough to actually do anything plot-important. She doesn’t fight men. She doesn’t fight the Big Bad. We don’t pay any attention to her life goals, only her cleavage. (She has some pretty impressive cleavage, and her hair and makeup are always perfect, even after big fights.) She’s handed off to some guy as a prize at the end of the movie.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon includes a stunning NONE of those traits! Let’s go through them one at a time:

1. There’s only one. Bzzt! So very fail! We have three action heroes with XX chromosomes this time around, and they even talk to each other!

2. She’s super-awesome at everything but not awesome enough to actually do anything plot-important. Okay, so they’re all awesome– walking-on-water awesome– but not in the Mary-Sue-ish “supermodel who also happens to be a top scientist with a knack for marksmanship” way that actually makes women weaker characters (check out the link), but in a “trained my whole life at this particular skill” way that is central to their motivations. And boy do they ever affect the plot! The whole movie revolves around Jiao’ ability to keep running and keep defeating excellent fighters, and Yu and Jade Fox both accomplish some vital goals with their skills. In other words, they’re awesome because they’re action heroes, not because they’re fanboy fantasies.

3. She doesn’t fight men. Hahaha! Haha. Ha. Oh, my. This movie is full of mixed-gender fights! I think most movies avoid these pairings because culturally, it’s not fun to watch a woman get beaten up, and, I guess, it’s too embarrassing for the Action Hero to get beaten up by a GURL. This movie neatly sidesteps these issues by making the women into action heroes too, and making them more than strong enough to hold their own, so even when a man is winning, it doesn’t feel like he’s beating up on those poor women; he’s just winning. And even then, only Li is able to hold his own– Jiao had the most fantastic action sequence in which she cleared a restaurant of burly men. She just wiped the floors with them! Or, I should say, destroyed the floors…the restaurant didn’t fare too well in the fight either.

4. She doesn’t fight the Big Bad. Usually the problem here is that the Big Bad is male, and, of course, women can’t fight men. This movie doesn’t quite have a Big Bad– from Li’s point of view, it’s Jade Fox, who is indeed fought by a man, but from Yu’s point of view it could very well be Jiao, and Yu has a great fight with Jiao. Yu even won, except that she didn’t follow through by killing Jiao, and so the girl escaped. And Jade Fox isn’t really a villain to anybody but Li…even if, technically, the big fight scene wasn’t Female Hero vs. Villain, I’m going to give it the point, since it was a sufficiently complex movie to avoid stuffing anybody into a Villain box, and that’s cool in it’s own right.

5. We don’t pay any attention to her life goals, only her cleavage. Oh ho ho. This is another one that just sounds ridiculous when you try to apply it to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. None of these women are subjected to scenes intended to titillate– not even when Jiao’s bathing; instead of sensuous shots of water droplets rolling down her back, we see her splashing water into her exhausted face, and then move on. Moreover, the whole plot is driven by three women’s desires and choices (and one man’s). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wins this one, hands down.

6. She has some pretty impressive cleavage, and her hair and makeup are always perfect, even after big fights. Nope! Again, these women are refreshingly un-objectified (although they do look very pretty sometimes, when the situation demands it.) And they get downright messy when they fight– hair falling everywhere, sweat on their faces, even exhaustion if they’ve been stressed for a while– and they don’t restrict themselves to pretty facial expressions, either. The focus is on the fight, not on their beauty. Awesome.

7. She’s handed off to some guy as a prize at the end of the movie. Again, no. I think this movie could have pulled off having one of the female heroes decide to run off with a man of her choice, but instead Yu, Jiao, and Jade Fox are single, dead, and dead, respectively. Jiao even goes to see her loverboy, and then chooses to die instead of settling down.

All in all, amazing, and highly recommended. Why can’t more movies get it this right?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Jiao Long; and independence.

September 12, 2008

A commenter asked me to critique this movie, and boy am I glad I did. I saw it a long time ago, back when all movies held something new for me, and before it was hard for me to find movies where women kick ass.

There are three main women and two main men. Among the women, we have Jiao Long, teenaged ass-kicker; Yu Shi Lien, middle-aged ass-kicker; and Jade Fox, old ass-kicker. The men are Li Mu Bai, semi-retired ass-kicker in love with Yu, and Luo Xiao Hu, nomadic ass-kicker in love with Jiao. This movie kicked ass. (And now I’m done using those words. Sorry.)

The only downside was that I watched an English-dubbed version (as opposed to Mandarin with subtitles), and the words didn’t match the lip movements; this is only a problem because I am partially deaf, and I rely pretty heavily on lip-reading when dialogue is tricky. It’s not always a problem– usually it’s super-easy to guess based on the half-heard syllables I get– but when things get really interesting, I have to focus really hard to follow.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s my major complaint: sometimes, because I am partially deaf, I could not hear all the awesomeness.

This movie is primarily about Jiao, who is at a crossroads. She has three paths: live the high life as the governor’s daughter, but marry a boring nobleman; run off with Jade Fox, her former mentor, or with Luo, her nomad bandit lover, but never receive proper training in Wudan martial arts; or become Li’s student, but admit someone else superiority over herself.

Because really, much of this movie’s drama is driven by Jiao’s refusal to allow any one else to have power over her. When Luo robs her on the road, she chases after him and nearly fights his entire group in order to retrieve her comb. Because even though it was just a comb, he had taken it from her hand and smiled at her powerlessness, and she could not allow him to “win” like that. (Also, I think she was intrigued by him and his life — in her aggressive self-reliance, she is seeking freedom, and his life looks very free indeed.)

Now, as a feminist, I obviously think it’s laudable for a woman to fight for her right to self-determination. All people should be able to control their own lives (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness– I’m more American than I thought), and feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

However, I think Jian’s insistence on her autonomy causes a lot of the pain in this movie. Jade Fox accuses Jian of deliberately mistranslating the training manuals for her, simply so that Jian could be more skilled than her own mentor. This may or may not be true– I would also easily believe Jian’s explanation, that she hid her natural gifts so as not to hurt her mentor– but Jian’s continued resistance to Li’s mentoring surely caused everyone much heartache. She did need the training, the discipline, and Li lost his life chasing after her trying to give it to her. Jade Fox lost her life, too, in the chase, and Yu lost the love of her life, which is nearly worse, her grief was so great. And poor Luo, too, of course– he finally finds his way back to her, and she refuses him because she’s in such a muddle about her training.

Actually, looking back at it, the whole thing reminds me a lot of Thelma and Louise; she tries her hardest to refuse the world imposed upon her, but in the end her running comes to naught and she commits a transcendent suicide. It’s even a cliff both times. Is that really the only way these stories can end? Is it really Patriarchy Or Death?

I certainly hope not…but if I fling myself off a cliff someday, you’ll all know why: I’m trying to outrun the patriarchy.

(Check out my next post on this film here!)