The Mummy Returns and the Trivialization of Movies
Directed by Tsui Hark
In his shrewdly timed academic study Planet Hong Kong (Harvard University Press), Prof. David Bordwell analyzes the trivialization of movies. It comes at the precise moment crouching critics have revealed themselves to be hidden nerds. What Bordwell discovers about Hong Kong action films goes way beyond their mind-boggling fascination for Westerners. Bordwell's serious endeavor (Planet Hong Kong was at least a four-year project) inadvertently details what has gone wrong when movies as diverse as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Renny Harlin's Driven, Tsui Hark's Time and Tide and Stephen Sommers' The Mummy Returns try to pass for legitimate entertainment. His book's title is a slick admission of cinema's dreaded "globalization."
Anyone who's sat through the movies listed above can't be too happy about Bordwell's theory. He intends praise and respect with Planet Hong Kong, a thoroughly detailed attempt to "understand the interplay of art and entertainment in one [nation's] popular cinema." But a sharp reader should be skeptical when Bordwell starts to wonder: "How did cheap movies made in a distant outpost of the British Empire achieve broad international appeal, while European filmmakers bemoan their inability to reach even their own national audiences? How did Hong Kong filmmakers manage to create artful movies within the framework of modern entertainment? What can these films tell us about storytelling in a mass medium?its history and craft, its design features and emotional effects?"
With these gaga hypotheses, Bordwell ignores what is "cheap" or not edifying in the contemporary development of action movies that follow Hong Kong formula. Truth, in fact, may be the other way around?that Hong Kong imitated the cheapest aspects of the Western film industry. A Hong Kong shoot-'em-up like Time and Tide can't manage the visual continuity or sheer tension of junk like Speed or Aliens, it's just faster. But Bordwell operates out of typical Western infatuation with both the New and the Other. He does that first by suggesting the failure of "European filmmakers" (and implying that Hong Kong supplied the answer to that industry's problems) but then forgetting that altogether different conditions hold for American filmmakers: Hollywood never loses its grip on the popular audience; its ever-tightening hold on the pop imagination is what, in Bordwell's clever terms, makes "artful" blur into "entertainment" to a confusing and not helpful degree. And yet Bordwell won't concede that Hong Kong's example might be equally meretricious.
In its most devious arguments, Planet Hong Kong seems part of the media putsch that was designed to garner money prizes for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That was all that propelled its myth as "one of the greatest films ever made." (Now that the Academy Awards are over, no one's even talking about the movie.) Critics who declared, "It has everything we want from a movie," really only wanted one thing: mindless distraction. And that petty hunger merely brought above ground the satisfaction of Hong Kong cultists who, after years of obscure devotion to far better films than Crouching Tiger (such as Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China II, currently reissued at Film Forum), finally got mainstream attention. They felt relief that through Crouching Tiger's promotion, American money was legitimizing their esoteric taste, and that "art" cinema had at last been brought down to the level of exploitation cinema.
Academics like Bordwell are not comfortable with the phrase "dumbing down"?and pop cultists resent it?but the fact is, that phenomenon is an integral part of the recent globalization of pop culture. Hong Kong and Hollywood don't translate without it. Look at the surefire hokey reiteration of multiculti pop tropes in The Mummy Returns. The intrepid white adventurer (Brendan Fraser), his curator wife (Rachel Weisz) and now their prodigal progeny (Freddie Boath) extend their fight with Middle Eastern grave-robbers into the next generation, posterity and probably even more sequels. There's no apprehension about disgracing foreign customs and no shared cultural appreciation?just pell-mell f/x and slapstick sacrilege. Movies like this, as spurred by the profit motive (and cultural hegemony) as anything from Hong Kong, tend to neglect intellection, emotion, beauty, reflection.
The Mummy Returns doesn't pretend to be more than a fast-paced sequel to the 1999 hit, and those Hong Kong terms are what's wrong with it. It becomes an anthropological disaster when director Sommers' emphasis on thrills happily rides roughshod over the niceties of history, politics and spirituality. Everything in it was already done better in Spielberg's Indiana Jones trilogy or Karel Zeman's The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. And 60 years after Gunga Din it still posits the valiant white-man hero (and black or dusky bad guys) as an ideal for the global market. The only excuse this time is the filmmakers' certainty that a less-demanding audience doesn't mind being sent through the wringer once again. Why even bother asking them to account for the film's illogical events or its stubborn championing of Eurocentric ideology?
Credit Bordwell's forthrightness in tracing this style of irresponsible pop cinema to Hong Kong. (The author of The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer is nothing if not a thorough scholar.) Like a scientist discovering a virus that looks beautiful in the microscope but is deadly in the atmosphere, he's in awe of the circumstances of today's pop cinema?though deceptive about its multinational roots. Bordwell puts himself in a position, like Fraser in The Mummy Returns, of being a cultural interloper who justifies the kinds of omnivorous geopolitical stunts that even Indiana Jones learned were inappropriate. In Planet Hong Kong he recounts important points of recent Chinese social history as a metaphor for that infernal blurring and its inherent insensitivity. Bordwell does this by describing modern Hong Kong (where we used to get cheap sneakers) as "a city whose chief religion is purportedly 'moneytheism.'" He details how "Broadcast television, introduced in 1967, intensified the modernization of Hong Kong culture." Then he notes the acceleration of pop visual forms ever since. Next, Bordwell discusses the late 70s emergence of "the new gang-chan-pian [Hong Kong-made films], characterized by swift pace, Cantonese slang, and the absence of Confucian moralizing."
He locates the turning point (coterminous with Star Wars) where a nation's cinema became a clear reflection of its political economy. Entertainment by a socially fatigued generation would ever after captivate a naive one. Thus Hong Kong (and American) action movies became more and more febrile and juvenile. "After 1984," Bordwell writes, "discussions of local [Hong Kong] identity were intensified by the impending handover to China." He quotes historian Choi Po-king's observation, "For the first time, the makers of cultural products for the local market were people with primary allegiance to Hong Kong itself." Thus, a nationalistic justification for indigenous forms of exploitation cinema were stirred, to be rivaled only by the West's new appetite for trivia and a penchant to indulge its exotic twin. (Too bad Bordwell glosses over the important intersection of blaxploitation and Bruce Lee's kung-fu movies in the 70s.)
Avoiding snobbery about what used to be called mass entertainment, Bordwell takes the other, defensive route of overrating populism. His explanation of Ge-ying-shi, Hong Kong's crossover media, is just a fancy rationalization of what our marketers call "synergy." He's also wide-eyed when mentioning how Hong Kong's "big stars ruled the golden slots [of theater booking]" even though the practice is as pernicious as Hollywood blockbusters clogging theater chains. An alternate snobbery is apparent when Bordwell observes, "For younger admirers [of Hong Kong flicks] the films offered downmarket pleasures... Less committed to Hollywood's standards of value, the barriers came down easily. Fans primed to enjoy downmarket pleasures were able to embrace the movies' transcultural force." Unfortunately, Bordwell misses the acquiescence to ruthless capitalist entertainment symbolized by the 1997 "handover" of the British colony and the continuance of high-speed big-screen nonsense. (Enthralled by Orientalism, he neglects the evidence in an African film like the 1995 Haramuya that showed the deleterious effect of action movies on the Third World body politic.)
Instead, Bordwell defends industrialized filmmaking for what he calls its "creative dimensions. It obliges filmmakers to become expert in some quite unusual human accomplishments. It's no small matter to tell a story cogently on film or to lead a jaundiced audience to feel deep emotions." But what's "deep" about most action movies? Bordwell praises Hong Kong action pics for exactly the things certain American directors are derided for doing. He cites Kirk Wong's 1988 Gun Men as "a barefaced steal from Brian De Palma's The Untouchables ," foolishly debunking De Palma's pop-estheticism yet accepting Wong's prescription for "A film that tries very hard to please the audience all the time."
Here's where Bordwell disregards the genre revisions of the French New Wave and the American Renaissance simply in favor of Hong Kong fashion. He ignores how De Palma, Walter Hill, Spielberg, Tim Burton opposed industry ruthlessness with personal idiosyncrasy?at their best they endeavor to make audiences think all the time. In celebrating Hong Kong rabble-rousers, Bordwell allows, "An emphasis on striking moments leads naturally to a scavenger aesthetic," but overall he esteems Hong Kong's "commitment to vivacious moments," as if that were not the essence of exploitation cinema everywhere in the world.
Becoming even more cultish, Bordwell says that "international audiences, fans or not, respond to some core appeals?how the story is told, how images and music are combined, how widely-shared human feelings are aroused and shaped. These transcultural appeals are matters of artistry, the artistry of entertainment." That's a tautology. Planet Hong Kong is a respectable, serious book, but in the rush to latch onto a trend, Bordwell mistakenly serves commercial rather than the philosophical/esthetic goals. Inured to how Spielberg, De Palma, Hill continue to transform pop cinema, Bordwell (who likes banal Michael Mann) wants a hip, young thesis. He's meticulous though strangely out of touch. The mummified academic returns.
Before walking out on Time and Tide (maybe reacting against Bordwell's whitewash) I noted the basic Starsky & Hutch esthetic. Its mix of crime and violence is capitalistic manipulation, replete with fetishized money?the drug of a bored pop audience. Masterful Tsui Hark's stylistic flourishes are curt, not for beauty, just for effect?bad pop style. It indeed suggests some foreign temperament, but most importantly the examples of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Peckinpah's The Killer Elite and Boorman's The General prove it's not an art temperament.
To tell a story well used to be the hallmark of movie craft. After the enshrining of Hong Kong exploitation, only getting audience attention matters?and Tsui Hark's artsy version of Tourette syndrome suffices. Despite fancy tricks the storylines are tv-trite. Tsui Hark can do spiffy shots (a twirling bullet cartridge knocking a glass off table, a camera falling down an airshaft) but something stupid done elaborately might as well be done badly. Time and Tide's setpieces go on way too long. It's pacification, time killing and, yes, a celebration of violence?not character or nature or the universe.
You have to be stupid (socially and morally unconscious and indifferent to suffering) to enjoy this junk. Teen taste meets elitism?that explains the West's Hong Kong craze. (And it's primarily a boy's thing. Kung fu's a good substitute for guys who don't like to dance. That explains why similarly feverish Indian musicals have not developed a Western cult. Aficionados who compare Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton forget that Keaton was hardly violent or aggressive, but they project their own adolescent fantasies onto him and Chan.) Time and Tide offers no conscientious perspective on crime. The film's most moving sequence is a teeming ghetto gunfight. Tsui Hark shows narrative efficiency is not his trait, head-busting and squib-bursting efficiency are. It climaxes with a fake f/x of the burning tenement (pigeons symbolize the unseen inhabitants). This is offensive trash compared to cityscapes by Antonioni and Francesco Rosi, who connected their art to their feelings about the modern condition. Tsui Hark disregards urban misery cuz it's easy to just exploit it.
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