Crash Course: Shawscope Vol. 1 – Part 1

Two things I really love: kung fu movies and buying things.  Fortunately for me Arrow Video recently provided me with the means to scratch both of those itches with the release of a big fancy blu-ray boxed set called “Shawscope Vol. 1” featuring twelve movies straight from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, the premiere Hong Kong studio for the creation of top of the line Kung Fu movies from the late 60s through to the early 80s.  Naturally I’ve had the thing pre-ordered for months and relished the moment when Amazon finally delivered it to me.  So, this dropped into my position in January, there are twelve movies, and there are twelve months in the year… it seemed like my destiny to turn this into a year-long watchathon where I take in one of these movies a month over the course of 2022.

King Boxer (1972)
Before we get too into this it is perhaps important to know that us westerners have a somewhat limited notion of what the “Shaw Brothers Studio” is.  To us the studio name is synonymous with 70s kung fu movies when the studio has existed in some form since 1925 and made all sorts of movies over the course of their existence.  With that in mind it’s probably notable that this blu-ray boxed set opens not with one of the studio’s most impactful movies in Hong Kong but rather with the film that is primarily a landmark in the export of their movies to the international market.  The people making King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death) almost certainly didn’t expect such great things from it, but it happened to be the movie that seen by a Warner Brothers buyer who cannily knew there would be an appetite for martial arts cinema in 1973 off the heels of the success of the “Kung Fu” television series and a dubbed version of the film would go on to great B-movie success around the world just in time for an even greater explosion in interest when Enter the Dragon hit.  Of course that success may have been less coincidental than legend would suggest as King Boxer was plainly a movie meant to be something of a response to Bruce Lee’s recent Hong Kong success with rival studio Golden Harvest.  Unlike many of the Shaw Brothers’ earlier films this was set in the early 20th Century rather than ancient times and a lot of the fighting is done with bare fists rather than swords.

The film was helmed by Jeong Chang-hwa, a Korean emigre who worked under the Chinese pseudonym Chang Ho Cheng, and would be the last movie he made for the Shaw Brothers due to behind the scenes quarrels with Run-Run Shaw.  If I were to take issue with anything in the movie it might be his direction as he makes some rather odd choices in terms of lens choice and depth of field here and there and I would also say that while star Lo Lieh is pretty good you can certainly see why he never quite had the star power of a Bruce Lee or a Gordon Liu.  Aside from that and some expected cheesy moments this is a pretty damn solid bit of kung fu cinema.  It has a number of colorful villains for the lead character to defeat (one could almost argue too many) and it gets kind of gory here and there, particularly in a scene where a dude gets his eyeballs plucked out.  Quentin Tarantino has cited the film as a favorite of his and you can definitely see the influence, most directly in its musical motif in which it uses an excerpt from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme song to heighten certain moments, and Tarantino uses the same music in a similar way in the Kill Bill movies.  That said, this should generally be thought of more as the beginning of something for the Shaw Brothers and not the high water mark, they definitely had bigger and better things in their future.
***1/2 out of Five

The Boxer From Shantung (1972)
While King Boxer was likely selected for this boxed set because of its importance in bringing Shaw Brothers films to the world, The Boxer From Shantung was the more important movie with “boxer” in the title in Hong Kong.  Of course aside from the titles these movies don’t have a lot in common aside from the fact that both were sort of meant to be responses to the success of Bruce Lee as both focused in on unarmed fisticuffs rather than swordplay.  What’s probably more important is that this film was the creation of Chang Cheh, who is probably the most important director to work at the Shaw Brothers studio and is the man behind six of the twelve films in this Shawscope boxed set.  Cheh was something of a mentor for John Woo (who worked as an assistant director on this film) and was instrumental for the development of what is called “heroic bloodshed” within the genre and this movie would certainly be an example of that.  Things in the film start out fairly straightforward with star Chen Kuan-tai arriving in a town and getting enmeshed in the criminal goings on there, a bit like Yojimbo or The Man with No Name but this guy isn’t really an antihero.  A highlight of this early section is a scene where he challenges a western strongman (Italian wrestler Mario Milano) who’s the center of a circus attraction challenging people to try to knock him down and no one else seems to be able to phase.

Later the movie starts to engage in bloodier “heroic bloodshed,” particularly in its extended finale.  I’m not sure if this is the movie that introduced the trope but all the bad guy gangsters in this run around wielding this small hatchets that they threaten people with Kung-Fu Hustle style and in the final scene one of these hand axes ends up planted in the hero’s gut and he then spends the next ten minutes or so fighting people off while trying to keep his guts in place.  That probably sounds more graphic in print than it feels in the actual movie, this is candy colored Hong Kong blood we’re talking about here.  In America this movie was retitled The Killer from Shantung and was released in a heavily cut down version with nearly 30 minutes missing.  I doubt that version of the film was any good but I do kind of feel like that distributor was correct that this could have used some trims.  At about 135 minutes this is the longest movie in this boxed set by quite a bit and the pacing suffers as a result and I also found the story to be kind of basic and not terribly interesting.  Some of the bigger set pieces here are more than worth seeing but there are limits to how much I can really endorse the overall film.
**1/2 out of Five

Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
The first two Shaw Brothers movies I looked at from Arrow’s set were both “bare-fisted” martial arts movies made in reaction to the emergence of Bruce Lee.  Like the last film this one is directed by Chang Cheh (though some suggest choreographer Lau Kar Leung had more control) but shows the studio and filmmaker kind of moving forward into what is called their “Shaolin Cycle.”  This informal grouping consisting of six or seven movies made between 1973 and 1976 are not really a series in the sense of having a real continuity between them but they are all about the legendary Shaolin group and many of them share some of the same “historical figures” between them and I think they expect audiences to have some familiarity with the legendary events even as they take all sorts of creative liberties with them.  This film, Five Shaolin Masters, is set after the Shaolin temple has been burned down by Qing Dynasty soldiers in a sneak attack and follows five survivors as they try to regroup and find a way to fight back.  In a lot of ways this feels like a movie that started with its climax (five separate fight scenes that the film cuts between) and then they wrote the screenplay backwards from there finding a way to lead up to that.  On the bright side, that climax kind of slaps.  Each Shaolin monk has a different fighting style and strategy and that delivers five pretty solid fights that remain compelling even as the film cuts between them.  On the not so bright side, the film never quite gives any one of the Monks a unique enough personality and aesthetic to stand out as characters through much of the rest of the film given how many characters are being stuffed into this thing’s relatively short runtime and much of the material leading up to the climax feels a bit messy.  Not the best movie the Shaw Brothers ever made by any means, but hardly a dud.
*** out of Five

Shaolin Temple (1976)
In their boxed set Arrow pairs the film Five Shaolin Masters with the film Shaolin Temple, both of them films about the Shaolin style of kung fu from director Chang Cheh.  One could view Shaolin Temple as something of a prequel to Five Shaolin Masters as the earlier film begins with the Shaolin temple being burned down by Qing Dynasty troops and then deals with the aftermath while Shaolin Temple is set at the titular temple and depicts the treacherous events that led up to the temple’s destruction, but the films aren’t really in continuity with one another and the characters from the earlier film aren’t all represented here.  The other big distinction between the two is that Five Shaolin Masters was made while Lau Kar Leung was still working as the fight choreographer (and some would suggest ghost director) for Chang Cheh while Shaolin Temple was made after Leung had split from the master to become an accomplished Shaw Brothers director in his own right (almost certainly the second most important filmmaker at that studio).  This is interesting because Shaolin Temple in many was feels like a precursor to one of Lau Kar Leung’s most famous directorial efforts The 36th Chamber of Shaolin… to the point where you wonder if Leung made that film in order to one-up his former mentor.  Both films are set at the Shaolin Temple and focus on them allowing outsiders to train there and focus in many ways on training moreso than combat.  It interestingly uses that “trick people into learning martial arts by having them do chores” trick that would be made famous by The Karate Kid.  It has a few too many characters for its own good and is a little rough around the edges (the film’s score is really poor and out of place) but once it gets to that finale where the pupils are fighting off waves of Qing soldiers it does find its mojo and kind of redeems it.  Definitely a Shaw Brothers deep cut, but worth a look.
*** out of Five

Mighty Peking Man (1977)
In the west “Shaw Brothers” is synonymous with Kung Fu in much the way “Hammer Films” is synonymous with horror, but the actual truth is that “Shaw Brothers” was an all purpose film studio that made all sorts of film in a wide variety of genres, and while Arrow’s boxed set mostly conforms to the studio’s reputation as the maker of martial arts epics they did choose to include one film that hints at the broader width of their work and that’s the 1977 film Mighty Peking Man, which sought to capitalize on the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong with its own (bordering on plagiarism) version of the same story.  The reason this particular non-Kung Fu movie was selected for the boxed set was almost certainly a function of it having been championed by Quentin Tarantino back in the late 90s, in fact he distributed it on VHS back in the day as part of his short lived “Rolling Thunder” boutique label.  Tarantino is a man of eclectic tastes and I feel like his endorsements generally come from a place of sincere enthusiasm but I can’t help but feel that his interest in this movie is at least a little ironic because whatever enjoyment is going to come from this thing is going to be its camp value.  The story is a shameless ripoff and its effects work is largely sub-Godzilla.  It’s got some laughable rear projection and some elaborate if rather unconvincing miniature work throughout and the Gorilla costume is not very good, but in something of a charming way.  What’s much more convincing are some of the animal effects in the first half as the crew go through the Indian jungle looking for the monster.  There a scene where a dude ends up fighting what sure looks like a real tiger and another scene where the film’s female Tarzan puts a full grown leopard over her shoulders like a fur shawl… not sure how they pulled that off.  Anyway, speaking of that female Tarzan, she was played by a Swiss actress named Evelyne Kraft and spends the whole movie (including sections where she’s brought to Hong Kong) in a fur loincloth and tiny bikini top which occasionally results in noticeable nip-slips.  What makes it all the weirder is that while this doesn’t have the kind of budget that something like De Laurentiis’ King Kong it wasn’t made for dirt cheap either and some of the fundamental filmmaking is not terrible.  It’s an odd movie and one that would make a solid choice if you’re going to have a “bad movie night” with friends, but don’t make it into something more than that.
** out of Five

Challenge of the Masters (1976)
Within the context of the Shawscope boxed set I’ve been looking into Challenge of the Masters marks the first appearance of two very important figures: it’s the first official directorial effort we’ve gotten from Lau Kar-leung and the film is also the starring debut of the actor Gordon Liu.  I say “official directorial effort” because Lau was a fight choreographer on several earlier films we’ve looked at like Five Shaolin Masters and rumor has it he more or less ghost-directed a lot of movies in that capacity for his mentor Chang Cheh.  He finally broke from Cheh in the late 70s and really hit the ground running as the director of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies right away and would become one of their leading directors throughout the late 70s and 80s.  As such he has a more manageable filmography than his mentor (who toiled for decades making dozens of movies in several different genres).  Challenge of the Masters was his third film after making a pair of less remembered minor efforts and this and the next movie we’ll be looking at really paved the way for his fifth film and major breakout: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.  That film would also propel star Gordon Liu to fame and he gets his debut starring role in this movie.  Liu was practically family with Lau Kar-leung; he trained in the martial arts with Lau’s father Lau Cham, who took Liu in as his godson.

The Gordon Liu you see here is a little different from the one who would become famous two films later, in part just because he hasn’t shaved his head yet here, which certainly makes a difference given that that would basically become his trademark.  Here he’s playing a character named Wong Fei-hung, who was a historical figure who lived in southern China from 1847 to 1925 and whose life has been heavily mythologized and featured in dozens of Kung Fu movies where he’s been played by everyone from Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey), and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master, which was a parody of other movies about the guy).  I believe there were several movies about the guy before this as well but this one was notable for being something of an origin story for Wong, and looked at him when he was first being trained.  In this sense you can see how this could be a precursor to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in its focus on training, albeit without the Shaolin elements.  What this doesn’t have is a particularly cool fight sequence for all this training to be leading up to and instead ends with this weird ceremony/competition involving firecrackers that I never really got my head around and felt a bit tangential to the fight training.  Kind of a transitional film, but a deep cut worth knowing about if you’re getting deeper into these movies.
**1/2 out of Five

To Be Continued in Part 2


Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 2

[This is part two of a two-part series looking at modern box office blockbusters in China, Part 1 can be found here]

Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s been about two months since I saw the first Wolf Warrior, which was in many ways a movie I rather stubbornly watched just so that I could then watch this sequel, which is the one that really matters from a cultural and perhaps more importantly from a business perspective.  The first movie was a modest hit, but this sequel was a phenomenon, one that made almost ten times as much money as its predecessor.  Having raked in $870 million dollars at the international box office this was at the time the highest grossing Chinese movie and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie ever made.  It’s since been surpassed by at least one movie (we’ll be getting to that one) but as of today it still sits at number 78 on the ranking of highest grossing films worldwide right between Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Star Wars Episode III- Revenge of the Sith.  More importantly than how much it made was when it made it.  Prior to 2017 there were some signs of how big Chinese productions could get, like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid which broke the $500 million mark, but this one really blew the doors down and after that it was really off to the races with China producing a string of movies that would approach similarly lofty numbers.  That’s all pretty impressive but it is also quite odd.  This was certainly a movie of larger ambitions and a larger budget than its predecessor, but it was at its heart still basically an unpretentious action movie made for just $30 million, which is not exactly a shoestring budget but by Hollywood standards it’s not much.

The film clearly exists within the same continuity as Wolf Warrior but references to that earlier film are mostly kept to a minimum.  Here Leng Feng is no longer a member of the military but is working as a mercenary and his adventures bring him to an unnamed African nation where he happens to be right when rebels start staging a coup that he finds himself in the middle of.  The exact politics and motivations of the rebel army is pretty hazy, as are their various evil plans, which seem to involve kidnapping a Chinese scientist who has developed a vaccine for a plague that’s going around in the country.  The film also once again has much of the trouble coming from a team of villainous international mercenaries led by an American, this time played by Frank Grillo (who was reportedly recommended to Wu Jing by the Russo Brothers, who he consulted with).  Where the first Wolf Warrior had some silliness to it, it did still basically try to keep one foot in the world of realism and the trappings of its military milieu and wanted to make the Chinese army specifically look cool and badass and it generally took itself a little more seriously in that regard.  This one is a lot bigger and more outlandish.  It’s not quite to the level of something like The Fast and the Furious franchise, but it’s getting there.  

The focus this time is less on the army, which our hero is no longer technically part of though they definitely assist at key points, than on Leng Feng specifically as something of an avatar for Chinese heroism writ large.  Additionally the film’s African setting was likely responding to something of a call for films that would promote China’s Belt and Road initiative, a wide ranging soft power play that the CCP was and is undertaking in which they invest in infrastructure in the developing world.  Not everyone in China is thrilled about seeing their tax money going to such an effort so there’s an effort being made by the government to sell it to the populous.  The film’s depiction of Africa and its people is certainly not very authentic and borders on the condescending in a lot of ways, but there is a reason it’s going out of its way to make the plight of the Africans one and the same with the plight of the Chinese.  The Frank Grillo character, by contrast is an avatar for Western racism, power hunger, and arrogance.  The film ends with him telling Feng that he (and by extension the Chinese) will always be inferior, only to have the tables turn on him and have Feng respond to this attitude with “that’s fucking history” right before delivering the killing blow in traditional action hero form.  Then the movie ends with title cards literally reading “To the citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, never give up hope.  China’s strength will always support you.” Subtle.

This brand of pandering patriotism is almost certainly a big part of why the film proved so successful.  As an action movie unto itself Wolf Warrior 2 is at best merely okay but it managed to find a way to deliver party approved patriotism but do it in a very Hollywood style of flag waving action heroism rather than the stayed historical re-enactments the industry usually used for this kind of content.  In fact that may have been something of a double edged sword for Wu Jing as it would seem that the powers that be in China had somewhat mixed feelings about the film’s success.  Despite the film having a post-credits stinger there has not yet been a Wolf Warrior 3 and I’ve heard it is because the cultural ministry has in fact rejected a screenplay for the sequel that was submitted.  I think this is because for all his patriotism, the character of Leng Feng still has some of that “rogue action hero who plays by his own rules” to him and this movie rather notably seems more interested in boosting him as an individual hero than making him part of a team.  By contrast Operation Red Sea, which came out the next year and is probably a superior action movie generally, is more about a team effort in a conflict and I suspect that’s closer to the message the party wants to send.
**1/2 out of Five

Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)
Like with Wolf Warrior 2, Detective Chinatown 2 was a sequel that leveraged the rapidly increased power of the Chinese box office in order to make the follow-up to a moderate hit into an unprecedented blockbuster.  This movie made $544 million worldwide.  To put that in perspective that’s more than twice as much as Borat made worldwide and it did it more or less in just one market.  The film hues pretty close to the first Detective Chinatown to the point of almost following a formula and in a lot of ways I probably could have stuck with that first movie and gotten the gist of what the whole series had to offer but there were two key differences here.  Firstly, the film has a noticeably much larger budget which allows them to film in various landmarks that I would have thought difficult to book and lets them play a Taylor Swift song over several scenes.  More importantly, and what made me particularly interested in seeing this one; unlike the Thailand set first film this one was set in New York City, giving me insight into what a major American city looks like when viewed through a (heightened) foreign lens.  The film picks up a few months after the first leaves off.  Qin Feng has been going to college but during some time off has come to New York, where a bunch of similar amateur detectives have been assembled by an eccentric Chinatown millionaire who has put up a reward for the person who finds the person who killed his grandson, who may have been murdered by a serial killer who is harvesting people’s organs.  But his crazy “uncle” is waiting for him when he gets to the airport and sort of tags along with him the whole time for unclear reasons.

Now, before we get too judgmental, I will say that Hollywood has a long history of making movies in foreign countries that look at said countries with an inauthentic tourist’s eye the emphasize dumb stereotypes in ways non-local audience are perhaps a bit blind to.  This can go both ways however and the New York here is pretty bizarre.  Some of this is likely intentional; the people making this would likely be the first people to say this was not supposed to be a realistic travelogue and instead bartered in comedic exaggeration but, man… In this movie New York is filled with homosexual biker gangs (homophobia seems to be a problem in this whole series), there’s an absurd number of guns, and the police chief is played by a Donald Trump impersonator. I can laugh off a lot of this (which is a privilege that many of the countries Hollywood shoots in don’t necessarily have), but the one thing that was pretty consistently jarring was how little the film knew how to deal with African American characters and a strange scene where a character is teaching what appears to be a gun toting inner city gang was… not cool.  I’d call all of this a flaw but the truth is that it probably made the movie more interesting for me, albeit unintentionally, than it would have otherwise.  Beyond all that, eh, the comedy doesn’t really translate.  I think I chuckled twice and the story can’t really stand on its own otherwise.
** out of Five

The Eight Hundred (2020)
With their film The Eight Hundred China seemingly did the impossible.  For the first time ever the number one film at the worldwide box office was not an English language film made with Hollywood money and was instead a film from The People’s Republic of China.  Of course that achievement comes with the mother of all asterisks: it happened in 2020, the year most of the world’s theaters were closed for business.  In fact the second highest grossing film of that year was also an Asian production, the Japanese anime blockbuster Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train (though different sources seem to favor that later film, not sure what’s going on there), and even with all the advantages both of these movies had their $461 million and $447 million takes was still wasn’t that much more than the $426 million that Hollywood’s one pre-pandemic hit Bad Boys for Life managed to bring in.  Still, a number one is a number one and this accomplishment will still be in the history books forever as one point for Team China over Team Hollywood in the epic battle for the future of worldwide movie-going.  Interestingly the movie that did this was arguably a bit of a step back in terms of the content that was gaining popularity in that country.  Previously the big narrative about the Chinese box office was that they had been taking notes from Hollywood and were starting to move away from the tired patriotic historical war movies and toward fresh patriotic contemporary and fantasy movies.  The Eight Hundred, though made with very modern production values, is very much a World War II movie interested in highlighting a patriotic war achievement and sounds a lot like the kind of thing people were sick of being fed by the CCP for years.  So I was prepared for a pretty dumb propaganda movie, and while that element is there I was actually surprised to find this thing to actually be pretty good.

The film is a dramatization of the defense of the Sihang Warehouse, an event that occurred late during Japan’s 1937 invasion of Shanghai during the second Sino-Japanese War.  By the time the film starts the Japanese had already basically won the battle and overwhelmed the city outside of a few foreign concession-zones occupied by foreign powers that the Japanese could not attack lest they provoke those countries into the war.  Late in the battle remaining Chinese forces held up in a warehouse that was right across the river from one of these concession-zones, meaning that the Japanese could not simply carpet bomb the location, and proceeded to engage in a last stand in the vein of The Alamo or Thermopylae.  The idea being that such a defense would boost the morale of the rest of the Chinese forces and also because this whole spectacle was playing out in full view of the foreigners across the river it would boost international sympathy for China’s plight.  There were actually only a little over four hundred soldiers in that warehouse, but the numbers got inflated to eight hundred as misinformation to the enemy and the name and legend stuck. 

So, it’s not too hard to see how this could be a story that would be turned into a pretty chest beating bit of flag waving, but perhaps deservedly.  I’ve done some cursory research into this battle and it does appear to be a legitimately impressive bit of military history that doesn’t require too much embellishment to work as a story about the “glories of the Chinese spirit” and while there are a couple of scenes here that seem to been added to impress the CCP the film is mostly just guilty of some standard issue Hollywood style creative license.  In fact it may well have been a little too patriotic for the Chinese censors.  As it turns out, China actually has somewhat mixed feelings about this historical event in large part because the soldiers doing this glorious defense are not necessarily “good communists” but are instead members of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army.  The CCP line on this military is that it was basically crushed by the Japanese, not because of any failings of the Chinese people but because of “class oppression within the ranks… the misdeeds of its officers and its evil oppression of the people,” so glorifying one of the few “glorious” achievements of this army has not necessarily been in the party’s interest, which is probably why the only two previous films about this incident were 1938’s 800 Heroes (made as wartime propaganda just a year after the events) and 1977’s Eight Hundred Heroes, which was actually made in Taiwan, a country which for obvious reasons is much more proud of Chiang Kai-shek’s army.

These ideological concerns actually did get this, a movie that to outside observers looks like pure propaganda, into trouble.  An organization called the “Chinese Red Culture Research Association” heavily criticized the film for its depiction of the Chiang Kai-shek’s army and the Republic of China’s flag (which is heavily featured in a scene where the soldiers try to keep it flying while under fire from a Japanese airplane).  The film was actually withdrawn from the Shanghai Film Festival right before it was supposed to premiere in 2019 and thirteen minutes were cut from it (no clue what was taken out) and would only finally come out a year later (which turned out to be a year with clear box office disadvantages).  Despite all that the movie appears to have rebounded and become a major blockbuster and that’s because it’s a pretty solid war movie.  Director Guan Hu lays out the dynamics of the situation at hand well and stages the various skirmishes of this battle with conviction and the cinematography by Cao Yu is really impressive.  Now, I saw that as someone who’s a reasonably big fan of movies that recreate World War II battles, so preferences around these things may vary but I think it’s mostly a worthy entrant in the genre and some of the more nationalistic edges that Chinese blockbusters often barter in do fit better here than they might elsewhere.
***1/2 out of Five

Hi, Mom (2021)
Though they are basically commercial non-entities outside of their home country, almost all the Chinese blockbusters I’ve looked at up to this point have at least gotten nominal U.S. releases.  They make very little money and I assume they just played in a few theaters in areas with large ex-pat populations, but they did at least play and can also be found on American streaming services or on physical media.  The exception to this is Hi, Mom, a 2021 movie in which a woman seemingly travels back in time to the early eighties and meets her mother.  As far as I can tell this movie has never had any kind of release in the entire Western Hemisphere outside of a single festival appearance in Italy, meaning that in order to watch it for this I needed to track down a not-so-legal copy of it on the third rate streaming side Dailymotion. So, full disclosure, this may have affected my viewing.  This domestic-only release may have been because the film was not originally expected to have seen anything near the success it eventually did.  The film was a sleeper hit that grew to be a massive success because of word-of-mouth, out-grossing Detective Chinatown 3 when it opened last year to become the third highest grossing movie at the worldwide box office in 2021, the third highest grossing Chinese movie ever, and to this date it holds the record for being the highest grossing movie ever to be directed by a solo female filmmaker.  That filmmaker was the comedian Jia Ling, who also wrote and starred in the film after becoming something of a celebrity through various TV sketch comedy appearances. This was actually her directorial debut and it appears to have been rooted in some very personal experiences so you can tell this was the moment where she really wanted to cash in her public clout and it seems to have paid off spectacularly for her.

Though the film is a comedy of sorts, it’s rooted in a rather painful aspect of Jia Ling’s life.  She lost her mother at the age of eighteen in 2001 in an accident and felt like she hadn’t “made her proud” and in this movie she envisions a woman who also experiences a loss like this in 2001, but then she imagines this woman through some vague unexplained magic being able to travel back in time to 1981 (the year before she was born) and interacting with her mother when she was the same age.  To the western viewer that basic concept instantly reminds you of Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic Back to the Future, which also had its teenage protagonist going back to a sentimentalized time in its country’s history to interact with a younger version of their parents and gaining some new understanding of them as a result.  However, there are some pretty profound differences between the two movies.  For one, Back to the Future is much more interested in the mechanics of time travel and becomes something of a thriller in which Marty McFly is rushing all over the place to prevent dangerous time paradoxes.  China’s censors actually have something of a history of frowning on the very concept of time travel for… reasons (something about believing that if people can change the past they’ll start thinking too hard about changing the present), so this movie simply presents time travel as a magical realist conceit, a means to an ends that isn’t taken too seriously and (spoiler) is ultimately proven to just be a dream. 

But the more profound difference between the two movies are the character motivations.  Where Marty McFly spends much of the second half of Back to the Future desperately trying to make sure that his mother still ends up with his father in order to preserve his own status quo, the protagonist of Hi, Mom does the opposite.  She is so consumed with guilt and self-loathing that she tries to actively break up her father and mother in the past so that her mother would marry a richer man, making her more happy and (presumably) eventually giving birth to a child (and only one child, of course) who will make her more proud than the protagonist did.  That’s kind of a dark concept that the film dilutes a bit by not making the cause and effect of the protagonist’s actions as palpable as they were in Back to the Future (she does not, for instance, start to disappear as the timeline becomes corrupted).  Whole papers could probably be written about the differences in the Chinese and American outlook on life by comparing this aspect of these two movies, though Hi Mom does not ultimately endorse its protagonist’s outlook on herself and the movie does ultimately have a cathartic and self-esteem affirming ending that even Hallmark would probably approve of.

So why did this become such a smash success?  Well, a lot of reasons.  For one, the film is engaging in 80s nostalgia in a way that is very timely to a Chinese audience.  The Youtuber Accented Cinema argues that this era and milieu of Chinese history used to feel very quaint and old fashioned to Chinese millennials raised on foreign influences from the United States and Japan have recently begun to re-evaluate this older era of their parents for its Chinese purity.  But perhaps the even bigger reason for its success was the pandemic, which kept a lot of Chinese migrants separated from their families in rural regions for extended periods of time and there was a sort of overwhelming catharsis in seeing a movie like this which has a gooey and affirming message about the yearning for family reunification and it really had people weeping in the theaters.  Looking at the movie as an outsider I’m a little more on the outside when it comes to the movie’s nostalgia and humor, and there are other decisions here like Jia Ling’s decision to cast herself (a 38-year-old old woman) as an eighteen-year-old teenager that seems a bit strange.  It’s not a movie for me, either culturally or just in terms of what my taste tends toward, but I see the appeal.  In fact of all the movies I’ve looked at for my series on Chinese blockbusters this is the only one I can imagine Hollywood trying to do a remake of.
*** out of Five

The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)
In my review of The Eight Hundred I noted that that movie marked the first and only time that the highest grossing film at the worldwide box office was made outside of Hollywood, but we came within an inch of that happening in 2021 too.  Up until December of that year China’s historical epic The Battle at Lake Changjin stood at the top of that year’s box office having raked in $902 million dollars almost entirely from the domestic box office of its home country.  That makes it the highest grossing Chinese movie ever and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie of all time.  On top of that Hi, Mom was sitting in second place on that same list and Detective Chinatown 3 was also in the top five so China was really in a dominant position… then at the eleventh hour Spider-Man: No Way Home swung in and saved the day for Hollywood, ultimately earning more than a billion dollars more than China’s patriotic war film did.  That is a good reminder of the limits of China’s box office numbers: unless they’re able to make movies that people outside their own borders care about they probably won’t be topping charts like that again, at least not without another x-factor like pandemic theater shutdowns giving them a leg up (they don’t appear to have even gotten close this year).  But $902 million is nothing to scoff at, what is this movie that managed to score that much cash?

Well, as it turns out The Battle at Lake Changjin is a much different beast than a lot of the other movies I’ve looked at for this series.  Where movies like Wolf Warrior, while nationalistic as hell, did represent a different and more Hollywood influenced brand of mainstream Chinese cinema.  This one though, this is exactly the kind of government sponsored historical movie commemorating an anniversary that this national cinema was infamous for and which those other films were seen as something of an antidote to.  These kinds of movies (among others) are known as “main melody” movies as they express the prevailing themes of the party… in other words they’re straightforward and unashamed propaganda.  The exact definition of this “genre” is a bit nebulous so it could probably be used to describe several of the movies I’ve looked at, but it 100% describes this one.  The movie was one of several made as a the result of a mandate from the top to make movies about the Korean War, or “The War to Resist US Aggression” as they apparently call it in China as part of a wider interest under Xi Jinping to hold that conflict up as an example of how China is able to defeat those damn imperialist Americans and The Battle at Lake Changjin (known in the west as The Battle of Chosin Reservoir) was seen as their defining success.  Of course who won that battle is somewhat in the eye of the beholder: it did force the U.N. forces to retreat and was something of a turning point in the war, but the Chinese did suffer significantly more casualties despite outnumbering their opponents four to one.  One nation’s “victory” is another nation’s Thermopylae-esque stand or at least Dunkirk-esque escape, but the truth is that there wasn’t a lot of glory to be found on this battlefield at all, it was an extremely brutal battle fought in the freezing cold and was absolute hell for all involved. 

The film was helmed by not one, not two, but three different filmmakers each with a fairly impressive resume.  First there’s Dante Lam, whose work we looked at when discussing Operation Red Sea and seems like a more natural suspect to make a modern war film.  His two collaborators are perhaps more surprising to see on a project like this; there’s Tsui Hark, a Hong Kong filmmaker whose probably best known for the Once Upon a Time in China films and other innovative martial arts films, and then (somewhat disappointingly) there’s Chen Kaige.  Kaige was a contemporary of Zhang Yimou who is best known for his excellent Palme d’Or winning drama Farewell My Concubine.  Despite its international acclaim the Chinese government absolutely hated that movie, which I suspect has something to do why it’s never gotten a Blu-ray release.  It seems however that Kaige has gotten back into the good graces of his government, probably by lending his talents to movies like… this. 

Make no mistake, this is a very strange and distorted view of history.  The movie certainly tries to suggest a degree of authenticity by quoting all sorts of tedious details about what numbered regiments were involved in various aspects of the battle, but the movie distorts the numbers involved in each side and also willfully ignores a lot of obvious context like the fact that the North Koreans were the aggressors in this whole thing or that the U.N. troops eventually recovered and continued the war long after this battle.  While the film was largely ignored in the United States these and other distortions did lead to quite a bit of controversy in South Korea, and I would imagine this would be a very strange movie to watch as a Korean because it’s a movie about the Korean War that is basically devoid of onscreen Koreans.  The film does not bother to depict any North Korean troops fighting alongside the Chinese or South Korean troops fighting alongside the American troops and it’s also decidedly uninterested in muddying the waters with the fact that America was fighting as part of a U.N. coalition that also included troops from the U.K. and several other countries.  Instead the whole conflict is sold entirely as a fight between China and the United States; bringing up the actual Koreans whose country they’re fighting over runs the risk of reminding people that the ultimate legacy of this battle was the protection of the North Korean state, which is… not something to be that proud of.  Better to just make it all about “US Aggression” and ignore those pesky little details.

I could try to litigate the historical accuracy of this all day, but there is an actual movie here I’m supposed to be reviewing, what’s the actual appeal of this that sold so many tickets?  Well a lot of that is just the sheer size of the production.  The film’s final battle scene is legitimately huge, with a whole lot of extras running at each other and there is a scale to it that’s impressive, but hardly unprecedented.  There are a couple decent action details here and there, but I would not recommend this to most people just as a spectacle (granted, I had to watch it on a laptop monitor given that it isn’t streaming anywhere in this country).  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a character piece as this is another one of those ensemble war movies, which is a genre I can get behind occasionally but the characters here seem particularly weak in part because they seem to have been given very little space to really express any kind of doubts about what they’re doing or even just any serious regrets about the horrors of war. As Chinese war movies go I think The Eight Hundred is superior to this on almost every level, and not just because it’s telling a story where the Chinese are in a more authentically heroic position, on most cinematic levels it’s just a better movie.  So there are ways for China to make flag waving war movies that work but this didn’t hit that mark and the fact that audiences still flocked to it I think suggests a little bit of a regression in large scale Chinese cinema. 
** out of Five

In Conclusion
And with that I’m going to end my journey through contemporary Chinese blockbusters.  I think the movies I watch tell something of a story about the rise of this industry but also a somewhat unsettling story about how this industry seemed like it would ease up through western influence only to quickly revert back into even harsher nationalism.  In some ways that kind of mirrors misplaced optimism the western world had about China as a whole, who does not seem to have allowed western influence lead them in more democratic directions as many had hoped, rather all the money and success seems to have basically vindicated and increased the popularity of the country’s often regressive regime.  And with their increased home grown success they’ve also come to see less and less need for Hollywood.  When I first came up with this series I was doing it to get an idea about a market that Hollywood was increasingly pandering to and wanted an idea of what the local tastes they were trying to emulate, but increasingly both Hollywood and America writ large have been going through a slow divorce with the middle kingdom.  China is letting fewer and fewer Hollywood movies into their country and are finding increasingly cryptic reason to disallow movies, which has certainly come at the expense of Marvel, who haven’t been allowed into the country since the pandemic.  A couple movies still get played over there; this year’s biggest winners seem to be Jurassic World Dominion and The Bad Guys, though only the former broke one hundred million in that market.  The thing is China’s homegrown movies have had a rough 2022 as well.  Across the board China’s box office is down 35% over last year as the pandemic problems the western world faced in 2020 and 2021 started to hit China harder.  So the future of this market is not very clear; maybe the boom is over or maybe it will bounce right back and become more and more dominant. 

Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 1

“We must on no account reject the legacies of the ancients and the foreigners or refuse to learn from them, even though they are the works of the feudal or bourgeois classes. But taking over legacies and using them as examples must never replace our own creative work; nothing can do that. Uncritical transplantation or copying from the ancients and the foreigners is the most sterile and harmful dogmatism in literature and art.” — Mao Zedong, talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 2nd 1942

For much of the 2010s it was no secret that The People’s Republic of China was becoming an intensely important market for cinema.  If you look in the trades you’ll see article after article about movies making hundreds of millions of dollars there and of studio executives bending over to pander to that market.  I’ve been reading about it in Erich Schwartzel’s book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” and meeting the demands of the CCP has been pretty all encompassing for that whole industry for a decade.  We have not, however, heard many stories of the trade routes going in the other direction.  Depending on your view of Taiwanese sovereignty the highest grossing movie from mainland China in America is 2003’s Hero, which kind of predates the current boom, and even that (and many of the other wuxia films from that wave) were Hong Kong co-productions.  As far as I can tell the highest grossing purely Mainland Chinese film in the United States is 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which made all of $6,566,773, slightly less than such “commercial” products as Amour and Fanny and Alexander.  But that doesn’t mean Chinese movies aren’t hugely profitable, in fact they’ve managed to set worldwide records largely using only their own domestic market.  These are some of the biggest global blockbusters in the world and yet I’m largely unfamiliar with them.  I’ve seen plenty of Hong Kong movies and some of China’s artier offerings like some of the “Fifth Generation” films or the works of people like Jia Zhangke, but like most westerners I’ve ignored the movies they’ve made for the masses and I feel like having some familiarity with what’s popular in this increasingly important market would be useful at some point.  Honestly I’m not sure how much I’ll like these or even if I’ll like them at all.  These are not movies made for outsiders and a lot of them look extremely nationalistic to the point of essentially being propaganda, but I’m going to try to watch with an open mind and see what I can learn.

Wolf Warrior (2015)

Wolf Warrior is the lowest grossing movie I’ll be looking at in this series; the film’s sequel is a record setting phenomenon that I’ll be covering at a later date but this original was actually a much more modest success at the Chinese box office.  It and its sequel are infamous for their patriotic chest beating, to the point where term “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” has come to be widely used to describe Chinese diplomats publicly using confrontational tactics to appeal to home audiences who want to see their country talking tough on the world stage.  It would, however, not quite be correct to call this a government commissioned work of propaganda of the over “Battleship Potemkin” variety.  China does make those kinds of films, they tend to be dry re-enactments of historical events that the party wants to commemorate often on key anniversaries and primarily enjoyed by old people, and this wasn’t one of them.  It’s certainly a film that is interested in working in harmony with the CCP’s propaganda goals to gain their favor, and it’s also trying to exploit the nationalistic impulses of its audience the way that something like the Rambo series has been known to, but it was by all accounts not a film that the government had a lot of interest or faith in while it was being made and its origins are actually downright capitalistic.

The film is very much the passion project of its writer, director, and star Wu Jing.  Wu was a martial arts actor who had been toiling in Hong Kong and Mainland China since the mid-90s with middling-at-best success, sometimes using the westernized name “Jacky Wu.”  Wolf Warrior was the project Wu believed in and thought could be a breakout and invested a lot of his own money into.  The official story was that Wu watched the Chinese military doing a rescue operation after an earthquake and was so moved by their heroism that he wanted to make a movie to honor them… which is certainly a story with a ring of Public Relations to it.  I have a hunch that his real motives for making a movie of chest beating patriotism was a bit more cynical, but maybe he’s more of a true believer than that.  The film looks at a guy named Leng Feng, a military man who’s a bit of a rebel within the ranks (a somewhat unexpected character trait given the conformism you would expect to be prized in communist propaganda) who gets in trouble during an operation for going against orders to shoot a criminal who’s holding a hostage.  That slain criminal’s brother, a drug lord, then orders a hit on Leng Feng that is going to be carried out by a group of western mercenaries in a surprise attack on a training operation he’s taking part in.

So, the film’s story is pretty loopy.  We don’t really get to know Leng Feng very well beyond the fact that his patriotic zeal occasionally leads him to be insubordinate, and I must say I can see why Wu never really broke out as an actor prior to this, I wouldn’t say he has a ton of screen presence and often kind of blends in with the rest of the soldiers around him.  The film also isn’t great at keeping things simple and occasionally goes down strange roads like introducing a pack of actual (poorly CGIed) wolves for a scene or oddly offhandedly throwing in a sub-plot suggesting that the bad guys (who are supposedly employed by a common gangster) are trying to steal DNA to make bioweapons that would target China.  Interestingly, the lead bad guy mercenary is played by Scott Adkins, a British martial artist who is something of a king in the world of direct-to-video action movies.  I’m not too familiar with his work but this kind of highlights to me why he’s never really been able to break into the big times himself; he seems more like a stuntman who tries to act than an actor who does his own stunts, though I should perhaps reserve my judgement as I doubt he brought his verbal A-game to a movie intended for audiences who don’t speak English.

Adkins’ presence does kind of signal something about the movie, however, as the production values and ambitions here are not dissimilar from what I might expect from one of his direct-to-video movies, which is to say that it’s not a completely shoestring operation by any means and has some action chops under the hood but it’s also inelegant and not particularly tasteful or rigorous.  There are some action scene here that show some glimmers of potential to be sure, they’re competent but not very creative or artful and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen executed better elsewhere.  The cinematography is also drab and the sets are simultaneously way too high tech to be believable while also being cheap looking in a way that gives away the film’s relatively small budget. This is very much a film that clearly put all its effort into making its action scenes look decent and show off a bunch of military gear for certain kinds of audiences to gush over.  So, yeah, very much in line with the standards of those direct-to-video actioneers.  Lower your standards like that and this is a passable movie, but not one that has anything to really offer anyone not interested in the Chinese film industry or the film’s blockbuster sequel, which is what I’m guessing is what you have to see to really judge what this franchise is about.  I’m not going to jump into that one right away, but it’s on the to-do list.
** out of Five

Detective Chinatown (2015)

Comedy, straightforward unpretentious comedy, is probably the genre that’s the hardest to export.  Even if they tell stories that are relatively universal they rely a little too closely on linguistic idioms cultural norms that don’t quite translate and they have a timing to them that subtitles can be a bit too clumsy to match.  Some comedies are so intrinsically smart and well-made that they transcend all language barriers, but when it comes to the low brow populist stuff there really doesn’t tend to be too much of a need to explore the world’s offerings.  As such “low” comedy tends to be something of a boon for local filmmaking markets.  If you look at the box office receipts of any country normally associated with “art” cinema and you might be surprised to see that the movies you know from that country are actually vastly outgrossed by dumbass comedies you haven’t heard of.  For instance the year’s highest grossing non-Hollywood film in France is something called Serial (Bad) Weddings 3, the third installment of what appears to be some kind of Meet the Parents type thing.  Similarly in Spain the highest grossing local film isn’t one of the festival favorites like Alcarràs or Lullaby, it’s something called Father There Is Only One 3, the third installment of some kind of Cheaper by the Dozen type thing.  And of course it stands to reason that China would want its own Hollywood style mainstream comedy series, and the one that swooped in to take that slot was a little franchise called “Detective Chinatown.”

Like with Wolf Warrior the Detective Chinatown is a franchise started in 2015 which made money with the first film but didn’t start setting box office records until the sequel.  The series largely rests on the shoulders of a guy named Wang Baoqiang, a comedy star who feels kind of like a cross between the affable seediness of a Vince Vaughn with the wiry temperamentalness and commercial instincts of an Adam Sandler.  Wang scored a pretty sizable hit with the 2012 film Lost in Thailand, a sort of road movie comedy set in Bangkok.  This movie brings Wang back to Thailand, this time as an immigrant living and working as a police detective in that city’s famous Chinatown.  He is not, however, the film’s protagonist.  Rather he’s a drunken scoundrel more interested in vice than in real policing, a sort of much less depressing and more redeemable version of the character from Bad Lieutenant.  The film’s actual protagonist is played by Liu Haoran and is that character’s nephew, a young man of about eighteen who was passed over for entrance in the police academy and is planning to travel to Bangkok to shadow his police officer relative, unware that his uncle is actually going to turn out to be a very lousy role model.

The two actors have a pretty recognizable dynamic: Liu Haoran is the straight man while Wang Baoqiang is the boorish fool and the two dislike each other but must work together to solve a mystery while on the run after their falsely accused.  I could easily see a Hollywood comedy using the same basic concept, in fact I’m pretty sure a Hollywood comedy has used this concept even though I can’t quite come up with an example off the top of my head; it clearly follows existing formulas.  The most obvious counterpart is The Hangover, though it has a smaller ensemble and it’s generally a tamer and less raunchy movie.  Make no mistake the comedy here is pretty juvenile.  The movie has several jokes about people getting kicked in the balls, which probably gives you a good idea of how high the brow is here.  I didn’t find it very funny to be sure, but again, this is a movie made for a fairly localized audience.  I’m not familiar enough with the Mainland Chinese comedies that came before this to really say but I’m guessing that aspects of this were at least a little less familiar to the audience it was intended for, at least in terms of movies made by and for China.  Or maybe not and the people with taste there have about as much resentment for this as we do for crappy cookie-cutter Sandler movies.
** out of Five

Operation Red Sea (2018)

I’m jumping forward a bit in my examination of China’s modern blockbusters to a year after the 2017 release of Wolf Warrier 2 (a film I’ll come back to in part 2), which was something of a game changer at the Chinese box office.  In the following years there would be an acceleration in ambition in mainland Chinese cinema both in terms of the size of the films and how they were marketed.  China wanted its own films to be as big of a deal, at least with their own audiences, as Hollywood’s megaproductions and if they could make inroads at the box office outside their borders then all the better.  One of the first beneficiaries of that newfound ambition was the 2018 film Operation Red Sea, which was also building off the relative success of the director’s previous film Operation Mekong, to which this is something of a spiritual sequel.  Both “Operation” films were directed by a guy named Dante Lam, who we’ll encounter again with at least one movie film in this retrospective and who can probably be fairly described as one of contemporary China’s top commercial filmmakers.  Lam was born in Hong Kong and began his career in that system, though notably his first film came out in 1997, the year of that city-state’s handover from the British to the Chinese.  He continued to make Cantonese language films in Hong Kong for many years, most of them not exported very widely into the west, and over time these films came to be made for mainland audiences and with Operation Mekong (a film about Chinese authorities tangling with cartels on the border with Southeast Asia) he seems to have fully crossed over to Beijing’s system.

Operation Red Sea claims to be based on a true story, but that’s highly dubious.  The event it’s based on was the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015 as that country’s war escalated.  In reality this wasn’t terribly dramatic; a Chinese navy ship pulled up to the harbor, the Chinese citizens got on board, then the boat left.  But the film envisions this as this highly explosive Black Hawk Down like situation filled with shooting and explosions in which the Chinese military covered itself in glory while protecting its citizens.  Of course the film doesn’t claim to be a direct depiction of history, in fact it’s set in the fictional country of Yewaire and in general the film is not supposed to be taken as a work of serious geopolitics, it’s an action movie.  So what we’ve basically been given is an unashamed Bruckheimer style action flick in which the Chinese military shoots the living shit out of terrorists in the Middle East.  This is something that Hollywood has mostly shied away from during the last twenty years what with the United States actively being in a war in this region.  The politics of movies like American Sniper and Lone Survivor are dubious to say the least but they’re nothing if not revenant and maudlin takes on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.  It would kind of take an outside country pretending to be more militarily engaged with the world than it really is in order to make something like this… even if the morality of doing so is still probably dubious.

Islamophobia is as much of a real issue in China as it is anywhere and one need not look much further than the repression of the Uyghurs to see the serious consequences of it.  So I would say it’s more than a little uneasy watching a fairly irreverent movie where the Chinese military goes toe-to-toe with fanatical terrorists wearing keffiyeh, largely removed from any real world scenario.  Having said that, if you can put all of that aside, the action in Operation Red Sea kind of slaps.  The film revels in pretty much every kind of military action you can imagine: firefights, tank battles, sniper duels, hostage rescues, etc. and while there’s some wonky CGI here and there it mostly remains grounded and practical in its methods.  The film sets off some very impressive seemingly practical explosions and it’s also not afraid to get pretty bloody at times.  That legacy of Hong Kong action is still there beneath the surface and Lam has been given a pretty large budget to work with.  What really holds the movie back is that it kind of lacks interesting characters to get behind, at least from where I sit.  The film is very much an ensemble without a central protagonist, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, but if you’re going to do this you need to give your characters some pretty strong distinguishing features so that the audience pegs who these people are really quickly and remember them when they recur.  One way to do this is to get an all star cast so that the audience reacts to each person instantaneously through association.  Maybe the people here have a high profile in China and thus accomplish that, but I certainly didn’t recognize them, so a lot of the characters here didn’t really stand out to me outside of perhaps their role in combat, otherwise they were kind of boring.  I don’t know that I can entirely get behind this thing, but as a production it has impressive elements.
*** out of Five

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Almost none of the movies I’m talking about in this series of looks at Chinese Blockbusters made even the slightest bit of money at the box office outside of China.  Most of the movie do get nominal releases in the United States which I think are mostly targeted towards Chinese immigrant and expat communities, but the tactic doesn’t seem to be even close to being as successful as the releases targeting the Indian diaspora here have been.  Generally speaking even the biggest of them have plateaued in the three million range for U.S. box office, even for movies that get decent buzz like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (a film that would be in this series if I hadn’t already seen it).  I don’t think distributors are putting their full effort into a lot of these releases by any means, but I doubt they would increase their results by all that much if they did so I can’t say I blame them.  The only movie in the series that did even slightly better at the U.S. box office was the 2019 science fiction epic The Wandering Earth, a movie that made $690 million in China and an additional $10 million internationally, of which almost $6 million came from the U.S. box office.  That’s still chump change, but it’s more than double what Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Red Sea, or Detective Chinatown 2 were able to do.  And there’s an even bigger asterisk on that because the movie was actually picked up by Netflix, who had nothing to do with the film’s production but do license it for streaming to this day and one can imagine that its theatrical release (which was done by a separate company) might have been a touch higher.

None of this is to say The Wandering Earth is actually good, because it very much isn’t.  To its credit the stupid propaganda content is at a minimum beyond the fact that it depicts Chinese heroes saving the world in the way the United States usually saves the world in Hollywood disaster movies, and that seems fair enough.  However the reasons the world was in peril in the first place are bonkers.  The film is set in the “distant future” of… 2061.  Apparently in that forty years it’s discovered that the sun is expanding to the point where it’s going to consume Earth fairly soon, so the world’s solution to this was to build a series of high powered rockets across the planet’s surface which are to be used to propel the earth out of its orbit and actively move it across the solar system until it connects with the nearest other star (Alpha Centari) and join its orbit… yeah, I’m not expert but I’m pretty sure that whole idea breaks every law of physics on the books.  It picks up about seventeen years into this multi-generational mission where humans are now living underground (because the “wandering” does a number on the conditions on the surface) and there’s also a space ship following the mobile planet to help navigate.  Something then goes wrong and the Earth stands the risk of being pulled into Jupiter’s gravitational field and killing everyone, but this may be averted through some effort.

So this is sort of a disaster movie of the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin school but one of the Geostrom and Moonfall variety that takes on a premise so ridiculous that it’s kind of a non-starter.  There’s also some Armageddon thrown in there in the way a whole family is swallowed up in this whole disaster scenario (including a family patriarch/astronaut played by the Wolf Warrior himself Wu Jing) and from a technological level it’s also drawing from Gravity in that there are some action scenes set in the vacuum of space and an interest in long and sort of show-offy shots.  The film was made for $50 million, but does look more expensive than that (I’m guessing money goes further in China than in Hollywood) and I would say its production values are indeed impressive though certainly not top of the line.  Director Frant Gwo does display a few solid flourishes and there are some action scenes here that are certainly serviceable, but they aren’t worth seeing the movie in and of themselves and they’re in service of this moronic concept.  Add on a lame comic relief character and you’ve got something pretty lackluster.  That said there are a couple interesting ideas to be found here (I might have wanted to know more about the social order on the Earth surface for one) and it looks like there will be further explorations of this world: The Wandering Earth 2 is due out in January 2023.
** out of Five

Ne Zha (2019)

The history of animation in China is almost certainly a deep subject that I have no real qualifications to talk about with any authority.  As best as I can tell Chinese animation was historically more TV focused, but books could probably be written on the subject and there’s probably a lot I’m overlooking.  However I don’t think I’m talking too far out of turn when I say that for whatever the country’s animated output is it doesn’t have much of a long legacy of exporting their animation to the west, certainly not when compared to the cornucopia of animation coming from their Eastern neighbor Japan.  But as China becomes a bigger film market and tries to expand their domestic film production into more genres that was typically covered by Hollywood that’s becoming less and less true.  There was a “Journey to the West” spinoff called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in 2015, there was a movie called White Snake that they tried to sell to western audiences a couple years ago, and there have also been some odd co-production attempts like Over the Moon.  But the most commercially successful animated movie to come out of the Chinese film industry, by far, is a 2019 film called Ne Zha. This movie grossed $726 million dollars worldwide, which puts it right between Pixar’s Up and F9: The Fast Saga on the all-time charts.

Ne Zha is an irreverent adaptation of the 16th Century Chinese classic “Investiture of the Gods,” a work that isn’t as famous as “Journey to the West” but is nonetheless considered an extremely major work in Chinese literature.  The story here concerns a pair of orbs created by “primordial being,” one of them a demon orb and the other a spirit orb.  And these two orbs fall to earth followed by some other celestial beings that are supposed to keep them in check.  The spirt orb falls into the hands of an (I think evil?) dragon, who fuses it with his son (who appears to be half human?), while the demon orb accidentally fused with the newborn son of two nobles.  This demon child, Ne Zha, then proceeds to get into all sorts of mischief with his powers.  I don’t know anything about this centuries old 650 page work beyond what’s in its brief Wikipedia summery, but it sure doesn’t sound that much like the movie I just watched, so I’m guessing this is either an adaptation of a small sub-plot in the book or it’s even looser an adaptation than it looks like.  I’m guessing that my unfamiliarity with this mythology did affect my watching of this as I’m guessing a lot of the film’s charms come from the way it re-invents familiar myths for its intended audience.  It would be the equivalent of someone watching Disney’s Hercules without any sort of background in Greek mythology.  This is, however, a movie made for children and families so it’s not completely inaccessible.

The film itself is a work of CGI animation that is clearly trying to go head-to-head with the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Etc style.  On a technical level the animation is certainly a few years behind but not dramatically so.  Certain shots are impressive and do some inventive things with action and physical comedy, but other shots look kind of rough.  What translates the worst about it is almost certainly its comedy, which leans towards the scatological at times.  The Ne Zha character can also be a bit abrasive both just in what he is (which is a bit ghastly) and his mannerisms.  I would be lying if I said I was entirely able to keep up with all the mythological shenanigans and related plot developments that happened, some of the rules of this world remained a bit unclear to me.  And some of that piss and fart humor is just a total nonstarter for me.  There are some good bits periodically though so you take the good with the bad.  Ultimately its tonal dissonance wasn’t for me but I can see why through another cultural lens this would be pretty impressive and why it made bank in its home country.
**1/2 out of Five

This will continue in a second part which should come out sometime next month

Crash Course: François Ozon

It’s kind of crazy that I, despite generally trying to keep up with world cinema, have never seen a film from the French Auteur François Ozon.  For pretty much the entirety of the 21st Century this guy has been a fixture of the European festivals and usually also gets American distribution for his many, many, well received films.  The guy has almost two dozen movies, most of them well liked, under his belt and yet I’ve never gotten on board.  Why is that?  Well, as omnipresent as Ozon has been over the last twenty five years he’s perhaps better known for his body of work than he is for any individual film.  There’s a bit of an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” quality to how his movies tend to be received: he’s constantly a fixture at festivals and usually gets good marks but at least stateside he never seems to be the center of attention either among critics or at the arthouse box office.  So, I’ve never felt a ton of pressure to finally show up to one of his films and without that pressure skipping his movies has always kind of been the path of least resistance because with how long he’s been making movies it’s always felt odd to show up to whatever his latest has been without catching up ahead of time and knowing the context of what I’m getting into.  Well, I’m finally doing that catch up.  Now, this is going to be a slightly awkward survey because I do think I need to make sure to see what is probably the closest to being his signature film, 2003’s Swimming Pool, but then I’m going to jump forward about ten years and spend the rest of the Crash Course focusing on the more recent work he’s done in the 2010s, which is easier for me to obtain and would also be more relevant to preparing me to tackle any new work from him as it comes along.

Swimming Pool (2003)

Swimming Pool came out in 2003, when I would have been about 15: film literate but not yet regularly attending new foreign cinema.  So it’s a movie that’s timed about right to be known by people of my generation and sure enough it’s the Ozon movie I’ve heard about the most over the years.  That it would be more famous amongst people I know is probably because of three aspects of it: 1. it’s something of a bilingual movie that’s about 50% in English, 2. it features a great deal of female nudity, and 3. it has a twist ending in an era where movies with twist endings were very popular, especially among so-called “film bros.”  I’m not really sure why it took nearly twenty years for me to catch up with it, I guess there were always just other priorities.  The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a mystery writer who’s in a bit of a rut, so her publisher (played by Charles Dance) invites her to stay at his French vacation home while it’s empty.  She takes him up on the offer but shortly after arriving there the publisher’s college aged daughter shows up, not knowing the place is already occupied and the two need to share the place.  This becomes kind of tense because the daughter turns out to be a straight up nympho that seems to compulsively get topless and brings home a new man every night.

So what we’ve got here is a small movie with a pretty small cast that’s primarily set at one location.  It’s sort of a thriller, but not really.  It’s not really built on suspense sequences and aside from one scene of violence danger doesn’t really pervade the film.  Instead it’s kind of an unusual battle of wills between these two women that takes a pretty radical turn at a certain point and becomes something else… or does it.  The film is also partly about the artistic process as the protagonist tries to overcome her writer’s block and starts to view this new house guest as a possible subject for her writing and the knotty ethics involved in that.  In fact the film’s final twist rather firmly seems to place that as the film’s central theme but that isn’t entirely apparent on a first viewing.  Overall this was a movie that I found… interesting.  In a lot of ways it feels kind of like a throwback to domestic semi-thrillers of a previous era, especially the almost identically titled La Piscine, which this comes close to being a remake of in some ways.  I’m don’t necessarily think this movie would have blown me away when it first came out, but it’s a strong movie worth knowing about.
***1/2 out of Five

In the House (2012)

François Ozon’s 2012 film In the House was considered a bit of a comeback for the director which won quite a few festival awards despite not quite becoming a breakout at the domestic art houses.  That’s unfortunate because it was produced slickly enough that I think it could have become a bigger deal than it was if it was promoted correctly.  The film is set in contemporary France and focuses on a high school teacher literature teacher at what appears to be some sort of private school where a star pupil named Claude has caught his eye.  This student, has turned in a writing assignment in which he describes his time tutoring at the house of a wealthier classmate.  The story describes this house with a great deal of disrespect towards the classmate but a certain obsession with his house and the life of his family, and especially his mother.  The writing ends with a literal “to be continued” at the end, which leaves the teacher in something of a dilemma.  He likes the prose in the story and wants to encourage the student to continue both for the students development as a writer but also because the teacher is interested to hear more, but encouraging the student to continue to embed himself in the family life of his classmate for voyeuristic reasons is not exactly healthy.  As further installments are turned in it seems that this game is becoming more and more dangerous (or is it?) but also the teacher has become more obsessed in seeing it through.

Though it doesn’t always feel that way, the film is steadfastly told from the perspective of the teacher character.  We see many of Claude’s shenanigans at the house on screen, but these are all framed as dramatizations of the writing he turns in to the teacher.  The teacher believes these writings to be fictionalized to a great degree, so we’re never sure whether that’s the case or if they’re total fabrications or if they’re in fact disturbingly factual and this kid really is kind of a stalking creep to this other family.  So that’s a suspense element throughout the film, and it doesn’t take a great follower of cinema to view this combination of suspense and voyeurism as something of an unexpected riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a film that is openly referenced with the movie’s final shot).  Indeed these re-enactments of the kid’s writing are on one level the kid’s own voyeurism on the family, but also the teacher’s voyeuristic interest in the story the kid is weaving, and also the audience’s voyeuristic interest in the whole story as cinemagoers.  So that’s all very clever and exhistential, but the movie never does really turn into a conventional thriller despite threatening to a couple of times, and it’s focus on the writing process in the context of an anti-thriller invokes Ozon’s own Swimming Pool.  All in all it’s a really cleverly crafted and interesting drama that I enjoyed quite a bit.
**** out of Five

Young & Beautiful (2013)

For a self-identified gay man (who as far as I can tell has never claimed to be bisexual), François Ozon sure seems interested in the sex lives of promiscuous young women.  Between this and Swimming Pool two of the three movies of his I’ve looked at are kind of fixated on the sex drive of an unusually active young woman and how the world around her responds to this.  The central character here is a seventeen year old in a bourgeois home who loses her virginity on a summer vacation fling and then, upon returning to Paris, finds herself becoming a call girl to various usually middle-aged to elderly clients.  If Swimming Pool (a film this establishes a clear kinship to in its closing moments) is like a response to La Piscine, and In the House is like a response to Rear Window, this would seem like a sort of Ozonian take on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) in that it’s trying to take a somewhat non-judgmental and procedural look at someone’s choice to engage in prostitution, but the protagonist’s age and financial situation adds a layer of mystery to the proceedings.  The film is trying to explore what drives this character to enter this line of work.  She doesn’t need, or seem to even spend, the money she earns while doing this.  She acts alone and doesn’t seem to be pressured by anyone.  She also doesn’t seem to express much in the way of physical satisfaction from these sexual encounters, and simple teen rebellion doesn’t seem to really explain it either.  Eventually her “side-job” is discovered and the film looks at the way the people respond to this and the, usually not great, ways they try to “cope” with the fact that this family member was acting as a “whore.”

It reminded me of other movies from around that time like An Education and The Diary of a Teenage Girl about teenage girls finding themselves essentially groomed by older men but also finding their way out these abusive situations and finding some degree of normalcy later on.  Those were, however, films made by female directors adapting other women’s autobiographical works and were also based around situations where the central protagonists have a bit less agency over their situations than this one does.  I do wonder if this is another place where Ozon’s homosexuality comes into play because in a lot of ways this story might seem a bit more plausible if, instead of a straight teenage girl at its center there was a gay male teenage hustler exploring his sexuality by turning tricks because he’s stuck in a situation where there’s no other healthier way to do it.  That would certainly add a bit of a different dimension to the film’s third act as it would give the family a much different thing to need to respond to after learning about the protagonist’s behavior.  I’m not sure if that would be a better movie though as it would in many ways make this more of an “issue film” than a character study and the film might get more out of the unusualness of the situation at its center.  It’s a tough film to talk about and a tricky one to recommend, but it’s certainly well-made and I ultimately quite liked the way it handled its subject.
***1/2 out of Five

The New Girlfriend (2014)

Though François Ozon is a gay man, this is not always central to his filmmaking.  He’s made plenty of films where “queer” themes are front and center but he has also avoided being defined entirely by his sexuality.  The three movies of his I’ve watched recently had some elements of queerness on their peripheries but they were by and large movies about decidedly straight people.  His 2014 film The New Girlfriend, is however much more clearly a work of LGBT cinema, though it’s about the T and to some extent L and B parts of the acronym rather than the G which Ozon has personal experience with.  The film is about a seemingly straight and seemingly male person who was in a heterosexual marriage to a woman but shortly after she gave birth to his daughter this wife dies of some unnamed disease leaving him alone with this daughter.  All of this is told from the perspective of this wife’s lifelong best friend Claire, a seemingly straight woman in a heterosexual marriage, who visits this widower unannounced and is surprised to find him in the house wearing a dress and behaving like a woman.  Now I’ve been dancing around pronouns with this character, who alternately goes by David and Virginia, never declares himself a true transwoman over the course of the film, does not seem to be dedicated to living as a woman 24/7, and may instead be some sort of crossdresser or genderqueer person, the film is not big on labels.

As this scenario might suggest this is not really an “issue” movie that’s trying to give a particularly sensitive or representative depiction of trans issues.  Instead it gives us a very Gen X version of gender fluidity that is broadly tolerant of this person’s choices but is also perhaps trying to shock and challenge its bourgeois audience with the outrageousness of the situation.  The whole scenario wouldn’t be totally out of place in a Pedro Almodóvar film, perhaps because of their shared affection for melodrama (both filmmakers are big fans of Fassbinder).  I don’t know that this movie will be winning any GLAAD awards for its depiction but maybe not every movie about trans issues should be watched in stifling “representation matters” terms.  In fact I think if this movie suffers from anything it’s that it’s not wild and reckless enough.  There’s a sort of weird emotional affair at the center of the film between Claire and “Virginia” though rather specifically not “David” which certainly operates on very melodramatic terms and never quite gets as sordid as I think Ozon wanted it to be.  This is perhaps a movie that came out a bit too late, it sort of feels more like it should be a product of a slightly earlier time (maybe even just four or five years earlier) when trans issues were a bit more taboo and there was more of a reason to use outlandish projects like this to explore them.
*** out of Five

Frantz (2016)

François Ozon has continued to seem kind of hard to pin down for me as every time I think he’s going to zig he instead kind of zags.  When I start seeing him as something of an impish provocateur he’ll make a movie like Frantz which is a pretty sincere bit of classical filmmaking.  This film is ostensibly a remake of a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film called Broken Lullaby which I haven’t seen and which was itself based on a mostly forgotten 1920s French play by Maurice Rostand.  Its set right after World War I and concerns a French veteran of that war traveling into Germany to lay flowers at the grave of a dead German soldier named Frantz for mysterious reasons.  He encounters the Frantz’ fiancé and when asked says that he knew him before the war when Frantz was living Paris.  This seems genuine, so the fiancé comes to know this French soldier and while her family resents this man and every other Frenchman for what happened during the war, they eventually come to accept him as well, but it turns out he’s harboring a bit of a secret that could change things.

[Spoilers] I will say that I was a little surprised by the nature of that “dark secret,” but because it was shocking but more because it wasn’t particularly.  Given some of the sexual provocations that Ozon has been inclined towards in the past I was pretty sure that it would be revealed that Franz and this Frenchman had been homosexual lovers, but no, the secret was closer to what you might have expected from a version of this story from a previous era: the Frenchman had killed Frantz on the battlefield, felt immense guilt about it, and was aware of the fiancé his time in Paris from a letter he retrieved on the man’s body.  So the film isn’t really trying to subvert the melodrama of this situation with modern sensibilities, rather it’s kind of trying to make a straightforward old fashioned melodrama using modern tools.  The film is partly in black and white and partly in color, with the color sequences which seem to come into the film during moments where the characters are able to put their grief aside during moments of love or moments when they’re experiencing beautiful things like music.  The film is also interestingly bilingual with both principal characters being fluent in both French and German and speak both when appropriate and the whole film is very much about the two country’s perceptions of each other during this tense moment in history.  I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the film where this German woman finds herself in a Parisian bar when the patrons burst into a rather martial rendition of “”La Marseillaise” which feels like something of a retort to the famous scene in Casablanca where this same song is sung heroically.  All in all this is an interesting little period piece but I’m not sure it ever quite finds that “x factor” to make it truly memorable.
***1/2 out of Five

By the Grace of God (2019)

On January 6th 2002, The Boston Globe published the article “Spotlight: Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” as a result of the investigation that would later be chronicled in the movie Spotlight.  So it’s been over twenty years and we’re still witnessing the fallout of what ended up being a worldwide pattern of conduct by this institution.  By The Grace of God is a film that dramatizes one of these stories, one that’s not dramatically different than the others (unfortunately) but which is perhaps representative of the situation at large.  The film looks at the investigation into a priest named Bernard Preynat who appears to have molested dozens if not hundreds of children on church sponsored camping trips over the course of decades and the church responded to this through their usual sleazy tactics of moving him around to different parishes and by the 2010s they somehow still had him working with children despite numerous complaints and the guy did not even seem to be denying his guilt.  That last part is what’s truly baffling about this case, this wasn’t something that emerged early in the church’s abuse scandal: they had been dealing with it for over a decade and yet they were still standing by this guy beyond any and all reason and saying shockingly tone deaf things about the case like one moment where (for reasons that defy explanation) a church official said at a press conference that “by the grace of god” the statute of limitations on this priest had already expired.  In fact by the time this was released in France the priest still hadn’t been defrocked (though he would months later).

This is not, however, a situation where the Church’s issues were uncovered through investigations by journalists or the police, both of whom seemed to have involved themselves in the situation rather belatedly.  Instead this mostly seems to have been uncovered through organizing by the victims themselves.  In particular the film focuses on three of the men involved in this organizing including the man who filed the initial police report and the person who did much of the grassroots organizing.  The three represent varying degrees of “brokenness” by what happened to them and different relations to the church in the wake of what they experienced.  The film essentially shifts perspectives between the three of them as it goes, starting with the successful family man and continued church goer who first reported it to the eccentric but stable atheist who did the organizing to the third victim who has been left traumatized and dysfunctional by what happened to him.  Along the way we get a pretty detailed account of everything they went through, each time thinking they’d caught this guy red handed only to see nothing happen as a result.  François Ozon remains pretty restrained and matter-of-factual in his accounting of all this.  He’s sort of an odd choice to direct this as this isn’t really material that’s suited to his usual playfully provocative style, but he clearly saw this as material worth adjusting himself to.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion
And that’s a wrap for my François Ozon crash course.  I was by and large impressed by what I saw but don’t think any of these movies were new classics and I do sort of get why there’s been a bit of a plateau on how enthusiastically Ozon tends to be received.  On the other hand, given how prolific this guy is I don’t think I’ve really gotten the full picture by watching these six movies and kind of suspect that I didn’t really curate an entirely representative sample for myself.  I definitely plan to check out more eventually, for now I’ll just say he’s pretty good.

The Best Animated Feature Gauntlet – Part 3

This is part of an ongoing series looking at the recipients of nominations for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  A more detailed explanation can be found at the beginning of part 1 and part 2.

The Boss Baby (2017)

On February 3rd 2008 the online brokerage firm E-Trade debuted an advertisement during Super Bowl XLII in which someone dubbed over an infant with a bunch of stock trading jargon in order to convey that their web tools are so easy a child could do it.  I always hated those ads, and I would have thought any other rational person would have as well, but life is full of surprises and apparently they worked because the company kept making them.  Then for some ungodly reason Dreamworks Animation decided they wanted to rip off this campaign in the form of a 2017 animated movie called The Boss Baby in which Alec Baldwin voiced an infant who wears a suit and promotes synergy and shit.  When I first heard about that I said “What the fuck is this this shit?” and once again assumed that was the reaction anyone else in their right minds would have, but once again I was surprised to find that this unholy thing was a blockbuster that earned over half of a billion dollars worldwide.  Why?  Even for a kid’s movie this thing looks dumb as hell.  Why would any parent want to expose themselves to this stupidity while Moana, The Lego Batman Movie, and Hidden Figures were all still in theaters.  Hell, even something as distasteful as the Beauty and the Beast remake would at least not be humiliating to have to buy a ticket to in the way that this thing is.  But having now reluctantly watched the film I can say: this thing is even weirder than it looks.

When I glanced at the movie’s advertising back in 2017 my assumption had been that it was about some adult CEO being turned into a baby for some reason and learning some kind of Freaky Friday-esque lesson from the experience but that’s not it at all.  Instead of something simple like that, this posits a fantasy world in which babies are manufactured on a conveyor belt in what is presumed to be but is never labeled heaven and then sent down to earth… presumably to be magically inserted into women’s wombs at full size (still not clear on the logistics of that, what happened to the fetus stage?), except that a small percentage of these conveyor belt babies who aren’t ticklish are set aside to remain in maybe-heaven to be their bureaucratic overseers and in order to do this are fed magical formula that instantly gives them the mentality of an adult CEO while physically remaining babies for some reason.  This particular boss baby is then sent down to earth on a mission to discover why people are suddenly loving puppies more than babies and then infiltrates this family while wearing a full suit and carrying a briefcase.  It’s is established that the mother was pregnant before his arrival so I’m not clear if he emerged from this woman’s pussy wearing the suit or what.  Anyway, having to type out this absolutely insane and overly elaborate concept straight out of Children of the Damned is even weirder than having to watch it, and it only gets stranger from there as it gets into the backstory of the villain, a former boss baby who is trying to use magic from maybe-heaven in order to create an army of permanently young puppies that will end reproduction on earth, or something.

So, do I need to explain why all of this is absolutely deranged?  I don’t think I do but I must note that when I call this “crazy” I don’t mean it’s crazy in some amusing or entertaining of “so bad it’s good” kind of way. It’s more like writer Michael McCullers and/or source material author Marla Frazee starting with this bad “what if a baby was a boss” joke and finding the stupidest way to reverse engineer their way into bringing it to life.  Some cynics would speculate that this was some sort of capitalist propaganda created to make the titans of industry seem cute but… nah, I think this was just a bad joke that got out of hand that they tried to turn into a real movie by turning it into a really inelegant metaphor (is it even a methaphor?) for early sibling rivalry.  And the thing is, there was talent involved in the making of the film.  They put $125 million dollars into this and made some slick animation choices and there is a degree of energy on the screen, but it’s all in service of this all-time terrible concept and a bunch of weird awful jokes about infant butts.  Oh, and don’t get me started on the film’s truly blasphemous use of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” half a star off just for that.
* out of Five

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)

This is probably going to end up being a pretty short review, not because there’s anything particularly wrong with this second film in the Shaun the Sheep franchise but just because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it that I didn’t already say about the first film.  The film was made by Aardman a good five years after the apparent success of the original film and four years after what was at the time the last TV episode in the franchise, so it was probably made for an audience that probably had a bit more hunger for more of this sheep’s antics than I did having just seen the first movie a couple weeks ago.  This one ups the stakes a bit by having aliens land near the film’s central farm and what is essentially an alien sheep pops out of it and starts hanging out with Shaun, it’s basically a child alien sheep though and the government eventually comes looking for it so… the movie is basically E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial but with farm animals and Claymation.  It does still have most of the usual charm you’ve come to expect from Aardman and the Claymation is certainly interesting to watch even if this is hardly their most ambitious project in that regard, but I guess I just didn’t feel that pressing need for more Shaun the Sheep.
*** out of Five

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Kung Fu Panda sure seemed like a big deal in 2008 and today it kind of feels like the animated franchise that time forgot.  Had it not been for the universally beloved Wall-E that first movie almost certainly would have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  In fact it actually did win Best Animated Feature at the Annie awards, the animation specialty awards show that is known to have a bit of a contrarian streak at times. It wasn’t exactly taken super seriously by critics but it was definitely viewed as the best work Dreamworks had done and signaled a bit of a turnaround for that studio.  Hell, even I liked it when I caught up with it a handful of years later for one of my various animated movie retrospectives.  But by the time the sequel came out three years later it felt like a lot of people had moved on from it, and by the time the third movie came out in 2016 people had really stopped caring… to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure there even was a third film until I looked it up today.  And these days people really don’t seem to care about these movies, they seem to have been memory holed like a lot of Dreamworks’ lesser movies and I think that’s because they live in a sort of middle ground where they aren’t really good enough to stand the test of time like some of Pixar’s better movies but also aren’t stupid enough to feel like relics of the past worth laughing at like Bee Movie or something.

But watching Kung Fu Panda 2 I think the sequels might have also hurt the legacy because this thing, while hardly embarrassing, is kind of weak and lacking in inspiration.  It’s pretty obvious that this is the kind of sequel that’s made less because anyone really had good ideas for where to take the story and more because the last movie made enough money so it would be foolish not to keep the IP going.  The titular panda voiced had already pretty much completed his natural character arc in the first movie so this sequel mostly just needs to give him and his friends a new adventure to go on while also seeing if they can have him try to uncover some shit about his past that no one was really asking for.  The character’s Jack Blackian antics feel more out of place because the panda is no longer supposed to be an underdog and is instead supposed to be this kung fu fighting chosen one and the movie kind of never really finds the balance between making him an action protagonist and making him a buffoon.  That said, a decent amount of what made the first film good is still here.  The animation still holds up and they do still have a knack for making martial arts set-pieces using these weird animal characters and the film does give you more weird animal characters if that’s what you’re looking for.  I can’t hate on this thing too much, but I also would have been fine to have skipped it and I don’t plan on checking out that third movie.
**1/2 out of Five

Shark Tale (2004)

Well, I found a Dreamworks movie that’s worse than the Shrek movies.  It’s probably not the only one (Bee Movie sure looks bad) and I’m not on the outside looking in on this opinion.  I distinctly remember most people calling bullshit on this movie at the time too and it’s nomination was mostly a function of 2004 being an exceptionally weak year for animation.  There were only three nominees that year; this, runaway winner The Incredibles, and Shrek 2 and unless they wanted to dip into the anime well their only other obvious possible nominees were other embarrassing failures like Home on the Range and The Polar Express.  Maybe I’m overstating how much this was rejected, this was number one at the box office for three weeks after all, but this is kind of where the critics firmly decided they were team Pixar rather than team Dreamworks and however popular it was at the box office the public did not express any popular love or respect for it like they did for the Shrek movies.  And the reason this was rejected is very obvious: Finding Nemo did it first and did it better.  There’s been a lot of speculation that Dreamworks’ first big release Antz was made because Jeffrey Katzenberg knew Pixar was working on A Bug’s Life through insider information and ripped off the idea of a CGI bug movie.  That’s never been adjudicated in court or anything so I’d normally not accept those mere rumors, but this one sort of confirms a pattern, it’s too much of a coincidence to believe they just happened to have two ripoff Pixar movies in this short of a time.  But even if this is a coincidence there was a big difference between this and Antz, namely that Pixar beat them to theaters this time by over a year and unlike the Antz/A Bug’s Life duel of 1998 which was seen as something of a toss-up the quality difference this time was readily apparent.

Thing is, even if this also beat Pixar to theaters I think its inferiority to Finding Nemo would still be apparent, and I say that as someone who’s not even the world’s biggest Finding Nemo fan.  Ignore its questionable content and sense of humor the basic visual design here is plainly inferior.  Someone at Dreamworks seems to have gotten it in their heads that when the fish in this aren’t actively swimming forward they should sort of “stand” upright like humans and awkwardly tilt their heads forward.  Why?  It looks soooooo stupid.  The story involves a family of sharks who are made to resemble the Italian mafia having to deal with a sibling of theirs who wants to be a vegetarian rather than an aquatic predator.  That’s in and of itself stupid of course, sharks are carnivorous and no amount of willpower would allow them to survive on vegetation but it’s hardly the only cartoon to struggle with this issue, The Lion King just kind of waves off the frightening idea of a aristocratic class that literally eats its subjects and I have no idea what the predatory animals in Zootopia are eating but I digress.  This vegetarian shark is tasked with eating a weird looking fish voiced lackadaisically by Will Smith who got in trouble with gambling debts and in the process of this botched hit the vegetarian shark’s brother is killed by a coincidental anchor drop, which the Will Smith fish takes credit for to the acclaim of the public while also making him a marked man by the shark mafia.

So, the story kind of resembles The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, but instead of using that setup to explore legend and mythmaking in the west it uses it to tell a lot of bad parodies of The Godfather that would make no sense to kids.  The film actually generated a degree of controversy when it came out with its use of Italian-American accents being viewed as demeaning by such organizations as The Columbus Citizens Foundation, The Order Sons of Italy in America, The Italic Institute of America, The Italian American One Voice Coalition of New Jersey, and probably several other such organizations that apparently exist.  I don’t particularly care about that (Italians are plainly just white people now) but these organizations are not wrong that the movie is kind of lazily rooted in shallow stereotypes and is just generally hack work.  And man, I’m sad to say that Martin Scorsese is in this thing as the voice of a pufferfish.  I was aware he was involved but had assumed it was a momentary cameo, but no, he actually has a decent sized supporting role here and it’s just sad to see this master filmmaker debase himself like that.  I can only hope he donated his payment to The Film Foundation or The World Cinema Project or something because while I expect this kind of shit from De Niro, Scorsese should be better than this.  Anyway, does this really need more explanation?  The movie’s shittiness was obvious from the second the trailer dropped and while I’m glad that good taste kicked in before this could be turned into a franchise but the fact that it got as far as it did is pretty fucking sad.
* out of Five

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Despicable Me 2 is a film with the unique distinction of being the only sequel to ever be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar when its original had failed to be nominated (that’s excluding examples like Toy Story 3, where its predecessors predate the existence of the category).  That means that to prepare for this review I needed to watch the original Despicable Me on my own time, much to the confusion of my Letterboxd followers when I logged it in the September of 2020.  Anyway, I’d like to go into some detail about why that movie sucked but the truth of the matter is it wasn’t bad in a terribly interesting or memorable way.  In fact, I barely remember it.  On my original logging I called it “in one ear and out the other cinema” and boy oh boy was that true.  I would have preferred if the rest of the world had forgotten about it as well but instead it made a bunch of money and seems to have remained popular with kids.  The thing is, the kids didn’t seem to give a shit about the main character Gru or any of the shit about him adopting three orphans as part of some stupid scheme, all they seemed to care about were these side characters called the Minions.  I don’t think I need to explain what these round yellow fuckers are, if you’ve been alive in the last decade you’ve probably had plenty of them shoved down your throat in advertisements and whatnot.  I don’t really get the appeal of them and find them and pretty much everything else in this series kind of annoying.

That this sequel got nominated while its predecessor didn’t should not be viewed as an indicator of improvement.  There were only three nominees in 2010 when the first movie was eligible while there were five nominees in 2013 when this one was up.  Beyond that I can only assume that this got a rosier reception out of its association with the Pharrell Williams song “Happy,” though that song didn’t really take off until it was nominated either so that theory is questionable too.  Anyway, this would be yet another sequel that kind of has to grasp at straws to find a new conflict for its main character after having pretty adequately closed out their arc in the first movie.  This seems very interested in having their reformed former Bond villain pastiche main character find a wife for some reason and in typical Parent Trap fashion his adopted daughters seem oddly obsessed with this and interested in meddling in his love life.  I must say this is a trope I’ve never understood even a little.  I didn’t grow up with a single parent but I think I can say with a degree of certainty that if I did the last thing in the world I would have ever wanted to think about is hooking them up with someone.  Aside from that shitty nonsensical love story this just has an action plot where he goes up against some sort of weird Latino stereotype villain who’s evil with seemingly no motive.  The animation is decent and there are a couple of visual gags here and there that are at least somewhat visually inventive, but I doubt it will leave much more of an impression on me than the first one did.
*1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

Well, I finished it, so what have I learned? Probably nothing.  Well, I guess what I learned is that I mostly have good instincts about what to avoid because there were very few surprises here.  I thought I’d maybe discover a couple of diamonds in the rough, but aside from some movies like Surf’s Up and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron being a little better than I expected I would say most of these were movies I would have been find to have kept on skipping.  That’s not to say I regret the undertaking.  There’s always a degree of satisfaction in accomplishing something you set out to do in and of itself and there were quite a few movies here like The Boss Baby and Shark Tale that I’m happy to be able to trash with more credibility going forward.  And also there are some inherent bragging rights to be had for having seen every Best Animated Feature… I mean, the number of people who would actually be impressed by the brag is kind of small but I’m still going to see it as a moral victory.

The Best Animated Feature Gauntlet – Part 2

This is part of an ongoing series looking at the recipients of nominations for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  A more detailed explanation can be found at the beginning of part 1.

Surf’s Up (2007)

Ah, the penguin craze of the mid-2000s, what a stupid stupid fad.  Coming off the inexplicable box office success of the blockbuster 2005 documentary March of the Penguins it was determined that the public had penguin fever and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to exploit this supposed fascination.  They even made a big budget CGI animated film on the topic; it was called Happy Feet and it was directed by George Miller of all people and it was very forgettable.  Somehow that fucking thing won the Oscar for Best Animated feature for 2006 and was one of the most “you had to be there” wins in the category’s history.  One would think that that stupid-ass movie (and its sequel) would be enough to satisfy the public’s hunger for animated movies about arctic waterfowl but apparently it wasn’t and the next year Sony Pictures Animation gave us yet another one… and in this one the penguins were surfers for some reason.  Now, like a lot of narratives that whole recounting is a bit simplistic and ignores the fact that big animated movies like this actually take years to produce to completion; both of these movies were almost certainly being made before March of the Penguins became a surprise box office success and all of these movies proximity to one another may well have been one big coincidence… but that’s certainly not what it looked like to outside observers and by the time Surf’s Up came out in the June of 2007 it certainly looked to most casual observers like the lamest of Johnny-come-lately bandwagon jumpers.  That is unfortunate because, despite outward appearances, Surf’s Up is almost certainly the better of the mid-2000s animated movies about penguins. 

What differentiates this one, aside from the surfing is that it is a computer animated mockumentary, essentially a very large budget parody of extreme sports documentaries like Riding Giants or Step Into Liquid.  It would be like if a major animation studio in a couple of years decided to make a parody of Free Solo starring an octopus.  This is not exactly a great idea for a movie but it is an idea for one, which was more than I was expecting and the film does take its gimmick fairly seriously and manages to be pretty spot on in its adherence to certain sports doc clichés that aren’t necessarily super obvious to people who don’t watch a lot of them.  Key to all of this is actually a pretty dedicated voice performance by Shia LaBeouf who makes this central penguin sound like an authentically withdrawn and mumbling teenager who’s trying to put up a tough façade, which fits well with this mockumentary gimmick and works better than the brand of exaggerated bumbling awkwardness we normally get from teenage characters in these movies.  So that’s an element I find interesting but I also don’t want to oversell this thing.  The animation is only okay, the story would feel more like a straightforward set of clichés if not for the mockumentary format, and there are comedic moments and soundtrack selections that are pretty lame.  Were it not for very low expectations this would not standout as much of anything and at the Oscars it was clearly a distant third behind Ratatouille and Persepolis and is probably not worth revisiting if you’re not doing some sort of retrospective of Oscar nominated animated films.
*** out of Five

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (AKA The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!) was the feature length return to the stop-motion style that made them famous after a probably misguided foray into computer animation.  In 2006 they followed up their Academy Award winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with a film called Flushed Away, which took models that were designed in the Aardman style but were then translated into computer animation instead of rendered through stop-motion.  The idea was presumably to bring the Aardman charm and humor to the screen but eliminate the arduous stop motion process and be more in line with what kids were coming to expect from their Hollywood cartoons.  The movie got some respectful reviews at the time but it didn’t light up the box office and it’s not very well remembered today and the decision to switch mediums certainly strikes me as a bad idea given that they basically sacrificed their signature craft which made them stand out.  They followed that up with another computer animated film called Arthur Christmas, which also wasn’t a disaster but also didn’t really make much more than their stop-motion films do and on larger budgets and ever since then they’ve largely stuck to their stop-motion roots.

This is not to say that The Pirates! Band of Misfits is devoid of computer animation as they do incorporate it in some places, namely in the ocean that the pirate ship sails on, but for the most part it’s nicely elaborate stop motion like we expect from the studio.  In the UK the film is called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, which is the title of the book the film is adapted from, the first in a series of books with titles that all end with “in an adventure with [insert historical group]” which kind of makes them sound educational, which is probably what the international distributors were trying to avoid (I think similar decision-making was involved in changing the title of the first Harry Potter book).  The thing is these books are not really educational, it seems like their whole premise is that they bring in 19th century historical figures like Napoleon, or Karl Marx, or in the case of this one Charles Darwin, but treat them in ways that has less respect for historical accuracy than Inglourious Basterds.  In fact the whole premise of the series is completely anachronistic as they have these pirates existing in the 19th century when pirates as we know them were largely the product of the 17th and early 18th century.  To give you a hint of how little of a fuck these books give, this one ends with the pirates fighting a katana wielding Queen Victoria on her borderline steampunk personal ocean liner.

Beyond the historical playfulness and the animation style I’m not sure there’s really a lot going on here.  The story is something of a workplace comedy on board a pirate ship bring run by a rather inept captain who renders the pirates kind of harmless through his bumbling.  There’s a goofy story here where the captain discovers his parrot is actually a dodo bird that has somehow survived extinction and essentially becomes valuable McGuffin in a tug of war between Darwin and Victoria, but describing it like that probably doesn’t convey how little the film takes any of this seriously, which it doesn’t at all.  It’s very much a “romp” more than any kind of story with real takeaways, but it’s not an unenjoyable one and there is some inherent value in Aardman’s mastery of this Claymation medium and this one lets them let loose with that on a larger more widescreen scale in a lot of ways.  There’s generally something of a ceiling on how enthusiastic I’m likely to get about an Aardman film, it’s a studio that largely gets by on charm moreso than any kind of real substance but they’re in good form here.
*** out of Five

Shrek 2 (2004)

The Best Animated Feature Academy Award has proven to be a pretty durable fixture after two decades despite a somewhat shaky beginning and no matter how long it lasts it’s probably never going to live down the fact that they gave their inaugural trophy out to one of the most rancid cancers eating away at popular culture: Shrek.  Good lord do I hate fucking Shrek.  It’s a movie that’s dumb on it’s very surface but what’s really galling about it is that it’s a movie that’s kind of like a dumb person’s idea of what satire and parody is supposed to be.  It’s a series of very obvious jokes about fairy tale archetypes that are maybe a rung or two above what one might expect from the Friedberg and Seltzer school of spoof movies, and yet the damn thing seemed to make an insane amount of money and was by and large critically tolerated.  What’s worse the movie seemed to usher in a certain dumb attitude that has pervaded mainstream animation and pop culture more widely.  As critic Scott Tobias put it last year in an excellent take-down on the film’s twentieth anniversary: “it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time.”  Somehow that piece managed to make Tobias the “main character” of Twitter that day as waves of deluded dipshits accused him of being a contrarian troll as if this piece of shit movie is somehow above criticism, a whole generation blinded by what I can only assume is pure nostalgia into thinking this movie deserves even the slightest bit of respect.

Now, to be fair I haven’t seen the original Shrek since shortly after its original release, when I would have been about fourteen and that wasn’t necessarily a period in my life when I was at my most open minded.  Turning on the film’s box office record breaking (and Oscar nominated) sequel I was ready to accept it if it turned out the franchise actually had more going for it than I remembered.  Nope, if anything this was actually even worse than I expected.  The film isn’t remotely funny.  I remember the first movie at least having a couple of chuckle inducing moments but I watched this thing stone faced the whole way through.  And as a piece of storytelling this is largely a lazy retread of the first movie where Shrek becomes self-conscious about whether Fiona can really love an ugly dude like him, something they seemingly got past in the last movie.  What’s more Fiona does not actually say or do much of anything to give him this impression, it’s mostly something he intuits from her parents being snooty assholes to him and much of the film’s plot could have been circumvented if he had just had a conversation with this person who is supposedly his true love.  From there we don’t get much else of value.  I have no idea why Puss and Boots became some beloved character outside of this, he’s a total nothing of a character and the bad side characters from the first film are shoehorned into this contrary to any real logic.  If there was ever anything remotely valuable or clever about this story it was used up in the first movie, this second one has basically nothing new to offer on top of it.  Terrible movie, terrible franchise, I hope to never have to see three or four.
* out of Five

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)

When the Best Animated Feature category was introduced in 2001 pundits thought it’s inaugural lineup would be pretty predictable.  Shrek and Monsters Inc were pretty much guaranteed to get in but the third slot was a bit less clear but most critics thought it would be filled by Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, an animated indie for adults that would represent the artier side of the medium.  While movies like that would go on to have a better shot in future years, the Academy clearly wasn’t ready to “go there” on year one.  Instead they filled that slot with, of all things, a glorified pilot for an upcoming Nickelodeon show called Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.  Some think this snub happened because they didn’t want to muddy the waters with an R-rated movie, others think the animators voting on the nomination did not view the rotoscoping work in Linklater’s film to be “true animation.”  But really there’s no excuse because even if they didn’t want to reward Linklaters film they certainly had other options.  For one thing, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was right there.  Nominating that would have been a nice bone thrown to the modern face of traditional animation and there certainly would have been symbolic value in pitting Dreamworks, Pixar, and Disney against each other in the first of these categories.  And if they didn’t want to do that, there were some solid anime choices out there in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Metropolis and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.  Hell, even the misbegotten bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within would have even been a more interesting choice than fucking Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius

So, looking at the film was it actually any good?  Of course not, it’s barely watchable.  I have no idea what the Academy animation branch was smoking when they nominated it.  I’m not going to sit here and recount all of its flaws in detail but to be brief: the animation is wretched both in terms of technology and design, the story is absolutely loopy, there’s this weird streak of casual childhood misogyny in it that’s treated as a running gag, it is ostensibly about scientific genius and yet it casually ignores anything resembling scientific accuracy, and the main character is probably the least sympathetic or interesting person in the whole movie. However, I would really feel silly taking time out of my day to write any kind of review of this thing in earnest because, frankly, this is not a movie that was ever supposed to be watched by a thirty four year old man over twenty years after it was made.  This isn’t a family movie; it’s a children’s movie of the kind that exists to get five year olds to shut up for five or so years and give their parents some sanity.  It was made for half of Shrek’s budget and a quarter of Monster’s Inc’s budget and it was always kind of supposed to be disposable trash. Railing against it would be like railing against, like, The Paw Patrol Movie or something.  I’ll save my anger for the mindless Academy voters who elevated into a position that suggests that it should be judged like a real movie by adult observers, which is a level of scrutiny it never pretended it was going to stand up to.  I’m honestly not sure why they even submitted it, it certainly didn’t help the film’s reputation, though I guess it got someone twenty years later to rent it from Netflix so maybe it worked out for them.
½ out of Five

Puss in Boots (2011)

I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it when I reviewed Shrek 2 (because I knew this movie was in my future) but watching it I was absolutely baffled that the Puss in Boots character from that movie was considered to be some kind of beloved standout character.  Why?  There was absolutely nothing to him.  The original Puss in Boots fairytale is about a feline who uses his wiles and trickery in order to raise the social standing of his master and thus himself, and the character in that movies doesn’t resemble that even a little.  Instead he’s basically Zorro, a decision I guess was made to capitalize on the fact that they got Antonio Banderas to voice the character (even though it had been a good six years since he starred in The Mask of Zorro and that movie’s pop culture footprint does not seem that large).  The whole one joke (if that) character seems to be predicated on the incorrect belief that seeing a cat speak in a Spanish accent is somehow inherently funny and after the character is quickly foiled in his inept assassination attempt on Shrek he basically doesn’t do anything besides hang around with the characters as they go on their journey and since Banderas is not a comedian it doesn’t really lead to any additional attempts at comedy.  But I guess people ended up liking this character for some reason because he did not go away, in fact they gave him an entire spin-off in the form of the 2011 film Puss in Boots.

In a lot of ways this spin-off does feel different from the Shrek movies and mostly for the better.  It takes the fairytale world of the Shrek movies a little (and I do mean a little) more seriously than those movies do and it dials down the anachronisms a bit.  You would not, for example, see people watching televisions in this one and it’s less interested in being a parade of random fairy tale cameos.  It’s also a more modern film and the animation generally holds up a bit better and there’s more of an emphasis on adventure here that occasionally lends itself to some decent set pieces.  So on paper all of that is an improvement, and indeed it is, but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have plenty of problems of its own and the biggest of them is that it still stars this version of Puss in Boots who remains a total snore.  In Shrek 2 this character is largely defined by his ineptitude and this movie is never quite able to decide whether they want to retcon him into a slightly more competent adventurer (thus turning a one-joke character into a zero joke character) or kind of keep him bumbling.  The film takes forever to get going because it wants to give a whole backstory for this cat which isn’t interesting and which no one asked for, or at least no one should have asked for.  When it does get going it mostly just feels like a standard animated movie, but one with a boring protagonist and in a silly and unappealing world.  If it’s better than the movies it sprung from its only because the bar is so low and it only deserves so much credit for getting over it.
*1/2 out of Five