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98 Days: Bollocks

As mentioned yesterday, Li and I went to see The Forbidden Kingdom, the new Jet Li/Jackie Chan movie. It did have a couple of saving graces — the fight scene between Jackie Chan and Jet Li is absolutely worth the price of admission; the slapstick scenes in which Jet Li and Jackie Chan fight by manipulating the arms and legs of the hapless gringo in the lead role are pretty funny; Li Bingbing in a leather bustiere, I mean, yow — but basically it sucked pretty hard.

In particular, massive amounts of suckage came from its reinterpretation of a portion of 西游记 Journey to the West in a way which was not only totally inaccurate but provided massive amounts of unnecessary backstory for Chinese audiences. (I realize that the movie was intended for an American audience; I’ll address that later.) From the Wikipedia writeup:

Later that night, seated in a restaurant, Lu tells Jason a story of how the Monkey King caused havoc at the banquet celebrating the Jade Emperor‘s forthcoming 500 year period of meditation and drank of the elixir of immortality. The Emperor took a liking to the Monkey King and decided to award him a heavenly title, much to the chagrin of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), a heavenly general. The Emperor then left the Jade Warlord in charge of heaven before retreating to his period of seclusion. The Jade Warlord later challenged the Monkey King to an un-armed duel, but turned him into stone when Monkey set aside his magic staff, the source of his powers. But before he was fully immobilized, the Monkey King cast his staff away. Lu ends the tale by stating a person known as the “Seeker” will be the person to find the staff and free the Monkey King.

Let’s try to recast that in a more Western analogue:

2000 years ago, Jesus ran into a temple in Jerusalem and interrupted a birthday party being held by Satan, lord of all that is unholy. The two began to fight, and at first it seemed as if Jesus held the upper hand, as the massive candy cane (the source of his powers) that he wielded was clearly superior to Satan’s Mantis Fist; however, Satan, seizing upon the presence of Jesus’ girlfriend, Mary Magdalen, grabbed her and taunted Jesus by mocking Thanksgiving, Jesus’ birthday. Jesus, now angered, lost control and began to pummel Satan about the head and neck with his candy cane, invoking the mystical “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” mantra, whereupon Satan, exploiting Jesus’ weakness of occasionally being an egg-bearing rabbit, imprisoned him for 5000 years inside a block of stone, saying that only an intrepid Chinese explorer from the 21st century would be able to release him.

Actually, that would be an awesome movie.

Anyway: this reminded me of a god-awful TV movie that aired a while back, in which, again, it fell to a random white dude to save a mythologized China with the help of a wisecracking Monkey King and a remarkably easy Bodhisattva Guanyin, played by Bai Ling. (So I guess one could add to the above description that the intrepid Chinese explorer could only save Jesus with the help of the Virgin Mary, who by the way is totally up for whatever.)

Not that textual and historical accuracy are prerequisites for awesomeness. (I think my outline of the “rescue Jesus with the magical candy cane” movie above proves that.) But really — you’ve got Jet Li and Jackie Chan together; this movie is already super-sweet. Why go out of your way to write a plot “relevant” to the gringos in the audience? For the box office? Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did just fine overseas without needing to graft on plots about callow American teenagers sent back in time to rescue the Qin(g) dynasties. You’ve already got two names – in fact, the only two names – known to foreign audiences for kicking ass and taking names; you could insert them into pretty much any plot you wanted without the need for ridiculous crap like this. Dropping some random white guy into the story, I guess just to fulfill the bildungsroman requirement, only distracts from the ass-kicking.

Another pet peeve, not attributable to the writers: I saw the Chinese-dubbed version of the movie, and the voice used to dub the American lead actor was an egregious example of “foreigner Chinese.” I watched the credits but didn’t catch who they’d got to do it, and so I couldn’t tell whether it was a Chinese person (in which case the guy truly put in a virtuoso performance — wrong tones, clumsy intonation, semi-retarded diction) or an actual foreigner. Either way, it seemed to sum up all of my criticisms of the movie: if you’re going to do something, why not do it right?

5 Comments

  1. John wrote:

    My wife got the pirated DVD of that movie, but I didn’t bother to watch more than a fight scene or two. That Shia clown just annoys me. I’m glad to see that I seem to have made the right decision.

    Good to see you writing again!

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Jesus, that’s too funny!

    The whole family saw it together here in the windy city. I had a similar feeling like yours. It’s kinda like when you are craving for 水煮肉片, but only get the 厦门or台湾version: there is some lame satisfaction to it, but boy wouldn’t it be nice if it could have gone all the way!

    I had to pick up my jaw from the floor when Jackie Chan asked Jet Li if he is from Shandong (山东): he mentioned Shandong! he mentioned Shandong! and that is where I am from! The child was equally excited! To me, that single line is worth the admission and the insane 3 dollar bottled-water.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  3. @Ji Village News — now you know how I feel when people mention Philadelphia!

    Saturday, May 3, 2008 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  4. Lu wrote:

    Much as I loved this movie (the saving graces you mention were totally worth the money and had me smiling all the way home), I have to agree that the story is crap. But then, who needs a story when you get Li and Chan to fight together. I’m keeping an eye on the 二輪, I really want to see it again.

    The subtitles were beyond bad (Jin Yanzi consistently talked about herself in the third person), and the dubbing somewhat mystifying: why dub Li in Mandarin when he speaks that already, and why dub a (reportedly) Chinese-speaking foreigner with foreigner’s Chinese? And if the foreigner can speak Mandarin, surely Chan can manage too?

    Monday, May 12, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Kai wrote:

    Jet Li and Jackie Chan didn’t save the movie for me. Not even the girls. I acknowledge that both were cool and all, but it was just that bad.

    Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

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