Saturday, April 03, 2004

We'll put a boot in your ass. It's the Shaolin way.

It's time for some movie reviews! Miramax finally releases Shaolin Soccer and I finally see Good Bye Lenin!

I've been anticipating the American releases of these films for quite some time, especially Shaolin Soccer, which Harvey Weinstein sat on (no easy ordeal) until yesterday. If some brave soul is willing to take a look into his cavernous asscrack, we may find out what the hell happened to the US release of Zhang Yimou's Hero. Takeshi Kitano's re-make of Zatoichi was among the films previewed before Shaolin Soccer; if Miramax maintains its MO, Americans won't get to see Zatoichi until 2005.

Good Bye Lenin!
Good Bye Lenin! is good; it's well-written, well-acted, funny and moving. That said, as nostalgic reminiscences of failed social arrangements go, it's suffers in comparison to Tilsammans. If you haven't seen Tilsammans, see Good Bye Lenin! before you do (and make sure you do. Tilsammans shouldn't be missed.) The two would make a good double feature. For those who have seen Tilsammans, Good Bye Lenin! is worth the price of matinee admission.

Shaolin Soccer
I found Shaolin Soccer surprisingly thought-provoking, specifically thoughts about the Asian sense of humor. While I was growing up, multiculturalist teachers tried to instill in this young Chinese-American the positive self-image of a dignified and cultivated ancient Chinese civilization that I had difficulty reconciling with the failure of my people's comic cinema to evolve past "Man hit in crotch funny. Man hit in crotch many times funnier." Comedy in the popular cinema of Asia contains enough corn and cheese to keep the entire populations of both Colombia and Venezuela in arepas indefinitely. This characterization applies to East Asia as a whole and even South Asia, not just the Sinograph world. Judging by their cinema, Asians have less of a grasp on irony than even Americans are accused of having - a reputation, by the way, that The Simpsons should have dispelled long ago.

Thankfully, my politics teachers successfully instilled in me an aversion to cultural explanations and a preference for structural ones. Lower ticket prices require a higher number of tickets sold for a film to break even. Despite those low ticket prices, incomes proportionately lower still force most people in Asia to treat movies as an occasional luxury as opposed to one affordable entertainment option among many. Movie piracy is rampant in Asia, hurting the profitability of its popular cinema more than those of other regions. The Hollywood of East Asian popular cinema is Hong Kong, where standard practice is for movies to be shot without sound and dubbed in post-production. Low literacy levels in some countries require dubbing into local languages. Moreover, overseas box office is indispensable to the profitability of films from Hong Kong, with its population of 7.4 million, than films from the United States, with its population of 290 million. For all these reasons, Asian popular cinema tends towards the risk-averse and plagiaristic; its comedy broad like the side of barn. If you need to put another country's moviegoers' asses on seats, you had better make sure your jokes are obvious enough to transcend cultural boundaries. This constraint strongly favors physical comedy over verbal. (Flagrantly defying this rule, the American makers of Shanghai Noon included an Abbott & Costello-esque wordplay routine that could only have been fully gotten by those viewers familiar with both the movie Indian greeting "how" and the uses of its Chinese homonym "hao.")

When watching "funny" scenes in most Asian popular films, I always got the feeling that the cast and crew were trying to hide their embarrassment at having to perform such broad comedy. Were it not for Stephen Chow's complete and utter incapacity for shame, Shaolin Soccer would not work. Chow lacks the self-hatred that characterizes do-anything-for-a-laugh comedians in the West like Chris Farley or even Jim Carrey. (Though Carrey has the requisite dramatic chops, his incessant and obvious Oscar-chasing reeks of despair.) Good-natured like his compatriot Jackie Chan, Chow also lacks the cruelty that permeates French and British farce as well as the work of Larry David. With Shaolin Soccer, Chow demonstrates both that working within the conventions of Asian comic cinema doesn't preclude brilliance and that there's nothing wrong with doing something that's been done before so long as you do it well enough and differently enough to make your take worthwhile. Shaolin Soccer's copious amounts of the familiar corn and cheese did not make me laugh; the panache with which he infuses those ingredients had me cackling and convulsing. Shaolin Soccer is a broad comedy for those who hate broad comedy, so unapologetically and relentlessly over-the-top that you just give in to the silliness.

Miramax cut over 20 minutes from the film for its American release including the most graphic violence, the crudest slapstick and some setup. I oppose bowdlerization in principle (and plan on getting the import DVD to see what I missed) but I have the sneaking suspicion that the pacing probably benefited greatly, not least for an American audience. A man getting hit over the head by a glass bottle may be funny the first couple of times but, after that, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vengeance. That said, if Miramax can remove superfluous bottle smashes and fart jokes, it can surely remove a completely out of place musical number, the only scene I found myself embarrassed to be watching.

Stephen Chow is one of the few comic filmmakers who treats film as a medium of its own rather than an extension of the stage. Chow takes full advantage of the medium, setting Shaolin Soccer apart by using special effects gags that would be impossible during live performance. The over-the-top special effects, amazingly, never feel self-indulgent because they form part of a seamless whole of plot (yes, there is one, simple as it is) and humor. Stephen Chow has quite possibly made the first film where the audience is supposed to laugh at the excessiveness of the special effects. Like Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, Zucker Abrahams Zucker and the Farrelly brothers, Stephen Chow belongs to the tradition of real film comedy, that is, comedy that could be done only in the movies, as opposed to the usual transplanting of stand-up and sketch comedy from the stage to the screen.