Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

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My most immediate impression of this film is how luscious all the practical effects look. Everything is wet and fleshy and there’s a great sense of tactility that always seems to be missing when one watches a CGIed film.

The film has an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes that’s really left me scratching my head because it’s such a neat little horror film, so much so that I’m not quite sure what else critics could ask for. It’s at times like this when you really question the value in giving everything a rating.

Sure, the second half/third act of the film falls into some pretty tried and tested horror tropes. But not every film needs to be ground-breaking! C’mon!

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Anyway, very briefly, Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is about a small town, family-owned morgue and crematorium outfit that receives a Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) one night and has been tasked with identifying Cause of Death. The whole film takes place in the span of one night and over the length of time it takes the father-son team to complete the autopsy.

The workaday treatment of the horror of conducting an autopsy is very much in line with André Øvredal’s other critically acclaimed offering Troll Hunter (2011). Troll Hunter is a mockumentary that follows a troll hunter on his hunt for trolls in the dark woods. The matter-of-fact way in which trolls and the hunt for them by a professional troll hunter are presented in the mock documentary effectively normalises their existence – even their more supernatural attributes like being able to sniff out Christians (as if Christian blood gave off a different scent).

Similarly, Autopsy very quickly normalises the idea of working in a morgue cum crematorium and conducting autopsies. This setting on the outset of the film makes it very easy for Autopsy to turn tensions up to eleven-ty when the supernatural shit really hits the fan.

Autopsy feels to me like it’s part of a tradition of foreign horror films. Very much like the original Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2000) there’s a great atmosphere of dread and an attempt to explain what’s going on but at the end of the day there’s no real explanation and the horror or the curse lives on and gets passed on to the next unsuspecting soul.

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What tickled me even more is that the film flirts with the idea of offering an explanation only to undercut this at the end. The police-procedural format and the fact-finding dive into the innards of Jane Doe does everything to ramp up the supernatural tension in the film. Each unusual, logic-defying discovery leads to more confusion and more confirmation that there is something not right with this body. But when it comes to supplying characters and audiences with an explanation, there is none.

This refusal to offer any kind of working explanation for what the curse is or how to undo it is a smart move because all too often, horror films fall flat when they try and tell you why the supernatural happens. Oftentimes it’ll involve calling in an expert academic who will pull out some dusty tome with step-by-step instructions on how to vanquish the evil. In the case of Autopsy, the film sidesteps all of that unbelievable logic.

Instead, the processes that so often bring rationality to a situation, like an autopsy and forensic findings that help to provide evidence to solve a murder, only reveal these quaint, antiquated traditional/ herbal practices meant to subdue evil. They only confirm the body’s supernatural state, but say nothing about the source of its power.

We’re led to believe at first that each new layer that the forensic father-son team peel back and discover is releasing some kind of evil that, till that point, had been bound by the moon flower, and the shroud with the roman numerals, and the tattoos, but then we remember that the blood drenched murder scene that opens the film was also caused by the body with all its ritualistic trappings still intact.

Then we’re led to believe that maybe the piercing analysis offered by forensic science might suggest some kind of solution to this 17th century mystery. Nope. No dice. The body of Jane Doe just continues to fuck with everyone right till the very end.

I read some reviews that tried to rationalise the signs left on the body as marks of misogyny and that the trail of dead bodies is some kind of revenge for this. I suppose the signs of corsetry, Jane Doe’s backstory, and the deaths of the two male protagonists might lend themselves to this theory. But it doesn’t account for the female characters who die, and there’s also nothing to prove that the evidence of violence on the body was inflicted by men only.

The way in which critics and characters try to explain the body of Jane Doe really reflect the etymology of the word “autopsy” – Autos meaning “self”, and optos meaning “seen”. There’s a suggestive layering of self and other in the etymology of the word that is exemplified by Tommy Tilden (Brian Fox), the father, who puts his cat, Stanley, that has been gravely injured, out of its misery and believes he can do the same for Jane Doe. But really, it seems that he is the one who wants to be put out of the lingering misery of surviving his wife.

The open-endedness of this text (and the body as text) really leaves it up to the viewer to conduct their own autopsy to discover the meaning of the film. The lack of an explanation for what caused/created Jane Doe, what she wants or why she does what she does gives the audience a lot to work with. The film also frustrates the traditional horror narrative ending which is a return to the status quo and a reassertion of the norm – of logic and rationality. Instead, just like with what we’ve seen of Asian horror films, the inexplicable horror just gets passed on.

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Ghost in the Shell (1995) Vs (2017)

From the 2017 live-action remake trailer itself, I already knew there were two major narrative alterations to the original 1995 Original Video Animation (OVA) that I didn’t like and didn’t agree with. Watching the film only confirmed my suspicions that these were poor changes to make.

For the purposes of this entry, I will refer to the 1995 OVA as Ghost (1995) and the recent remake as Shell (2017) cuz that’s how i feels about them >_<

Existential Crisis in Ghost (1995)

In Ghost (1995), having android parts was more or less status quo. There was no evil corporation out to exploit their human customers. This streamlined the animation’s philosophical enquiry into the nature and value of human existence. It allowed the film to create multiple characters that functioned as clear foils to one another, with each character adding more and more focus to the central question of what is a “ghost.”

There are the side characters with token android enhancements like the super speed typing android fingers, or Batou’s electronic eyes. These characters represented the norm. Then, there were the two extremes – Togusa who was transferred into Section 9 because he is mostly human, and Major Motoko Kusanagi who is all android, except for her human brain. In a poignant exchange between Togusa and Kusanagi, the film weaves in an explanation of how these characters are meant to function as counterpoint to one another (without sounding like heavy-handed exposition):

Togusa: … There’s something I’ve wanted to ask ever since I’ve started. Why did you transfer a guy like me from the Police Force?

Major: Because we need a guy like you… except for a slight brain augmentation, your body is almost completely human. If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable. And there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple. Over-specialise and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.

Togusa, thus, is the human element – random, creative, supposedly not overspecialized the way the other members of Section 9 are. Much like the random mutation in a genetic code, he is generative of new potential, he introduces diversity/diversification. And to be sure, this film is about the evolution of humanity, from man to android. Togusa’s role in the thematic scheme of things is reinforced by how he is the one to spot that Section 6 has been infiltrated by someone wearing thermoptic camouflage. Unfortunately, in the live-action remake, Togusa plays a much reduced role.

So, together, these three categories of characters places the human experience in this fictional world along a spectrum and implicitly asks audiences to consider what constitutes humanness. This line of questioning is mostly carried by the main character, Major Kusanagi who struggles with her identity .

If we have an android limb or android organ like a liver that can help us breakdown alcohol faster, are we still human? Most people would say, yes. But in the case of Kusanagi who only has a human brain, is she still human? If you say, yes, what does that say about the way we value the brain – repository of memory and experience – as the locus of identity? Is humanness found in the brain/mind or the body? If you no longer look like you, are you still the same person? The Ghost in the Shell manga, actually has Batou sourcing for a male android body to store Kusanagi’s mind in; at the end of the OVA, Major’s mind is transferred into a child android body since her original body is completely destroyed.

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The film also asks if having a completely android body, changes the brain/mind and makes a person less human? Consider the end of the film when Kusanagi rips up and destroys her own body trying to disable the spider tank. The lack of self-preservation instinct, the willing and careless destruction of the body, is something most humans cannot fathom, but is something Kusanagi with her android body can do despite her human brain. It’s an act that screams how unlike a human she has become.

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What further complicates the film’s focus on questioning the boundaries of authentic human existence and its value is the introduction of the Puppet Master – a spontaneously occurring Artificial Intelligence. With the appearance of the Puppet Master, the value previously attributed to Togusa gets short-circuited. In the face of a fully sapient, hyper-intelligent being, the value of human identity and human consciousness is undercut. It would seem that all we’re left with is the next step to the evolutionary process, the true hybridization of man and machine. This is represented by Kusanagi’s decision to join the Puppet Master at the end of the OVA.

By joining with the Puppet Master, the text opens up. It becomes generative, it prompts thought experiments, and intelligent guesses about what comes next. What is this larger existence/android consciousness that Kusanagi now gets to experience?

In some sense, I can’t help but feel that Her (2013) is like a spiritual sequel that represents what this other android-consciousness-led world is like. When Samantha (Scarlett Johansson)  tells Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is having 8,316 other conversations while she is talking to him and admits to being in love with 641 others, there is an expansiveness to the cybernetic universe she exists in, and a freedom from human taboo because she’s not just involved in polyamory but polyamory on such a massive and inconceivable scale.

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Instead, we got the 2017 Live-Action remake. Right off the bat, instead of asking audiences questions and giving audiences an opportunity to work things out on their own, we’re given a hefty chunk of exposition explicitly telling us what a “ghost” (Your mind! Your Consciousness!) is and what a “shell” (Your Android Body!) is.

Instead of a spontaneously spawning AI like the Puppet Master, the villain is the company. So while it’s still a film about Man against the Machine, it’s man against the corporate machine. Unfortunately, by celebrating the human individual, the narrative shuts down the exploration of an alternate state of consciousness – one that is larger and beyond our own. Instead we sink back to a human consciousness that occludes all other possibilities. This is selfish and restrictive.

And while Shell (2017) does try valiantly (?) to explore the mind-body split, using race (supposedly) to augment the discussion of identity by suggesting a post-racial future, this narrative thread only fed the flames of the film’s white-washing controversy.

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So, spoiler alert, but the trajectory of Major’s search for her identity, leads her to discover that she’s been Motoko Kusanagi all along! A Japanese woman’s brain trapped in a white woman’s body! And don’t let me get started on the gravestone they gave her……….. ergh. So ugly. Tolong arh, more effort, can or not?!

The thing that struck me the most about this film is how the trajectory of her search takes her into the past instead of the future. This closes off the text, takes away the generative potential of the original narrative, and ultimately makes for some very regressive story-telling.

I understand that the film tried to do with race what the original did with gender, which is to turn it into a lyrical mode of expression, and a means by which to explore the subject matter. However, in order for race to have been used more successfully, it would have to have been seeded much earlier, and with greater frequency throughout the text.

This leads me to the other thing I didn’t like about the remake – the way the took gender out of the equation.

Gender in Ghost (1995)

The female body in Ghost (1995) is more than just the character’s physical form, it is the means by which the subject matter of the OVA is rigorously interrogated:

It is also possible to argue that, rather than making Kusanagi a feminist icon, Oshii is instead using her vulnerable female body and the “feminine” lyrical mode of the film itself to underline the vulnerability of all human beings in a world that is increasingly governed by oppressive and incomprehensible outside forces.

  • Susan J. Napier, “Doll Parts” from Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle

This means the female body and elements associated with the feminine lyrical mode like water to represent the fluidity of the female identity and its potential for hybridization  makes Ghost (1995) a film that uses gender as a tool or technique to express ideas about the subject matter.

What’s more impressive is how these ideas are often represented subtly, and non-verbally.

This actually reminds me of my first contact with the film. I was in Secondary 2, and the year was 2000. Back then, Singapore still had Premiere 12 as a channel, and every month there would be Wednesday night movies, all programmed to fit a theme. Ghost in the Shell was one out of 4 animes being shown that month (the others were Spriggan, Wolf’s Rain, and Yu Yu Hakusho).

I remember turning the TV off after the first 5-10min of the OVA after watching Kusanagi disrobe to activate her thermoptic camouflage. I immediately thought it was one of those exploitative OVAs that fit the stigma that anime had that all of it was hentai in some way.

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Looking back now, that reaction wasn’t so far off from the truth. It is uncomfortable watching the nude female form on broadcast TV. It is awkward to get nude-ish to fight. The sense of discomfort and awkwardness comes from the enculturated knowledge that the female form is delicate, vulnerable, kept hidden.  Yet the film really plays up its use of the female form. From Kusanagi’s creation sequence to her thermoptics get-up to the final fight in the film where her body is completely torn up.

The dislocation of gender from denotative meanings is represented most acutely by the Puppet Master. As a non-gendered (over-gendered?) AI, he is a male voice issuing from a nude female body. Kusanagi’s own dislocation between mind and body is seen in her lack of embarrassment from being almost nude a lot of the time. This is seen in not just her thermoptic suit but how she undresses in front of Batou and he is the one who is embarrassed.

So for audiences the cognitive dissonance comes in the form of female bodies not behaving like female bodies – Major who is an accomplished fighter, male voices in female bodies, destroyed female bodies.

This cognitive dissonance helps to imbue Kusanagi with a subtle sense of otherness where even her smaller gestures add up to make audiences doubt her humanity despite her human brain.

Kusanagi’s otherness is also reinforced by how attempts to humanize her continuously comes from external sources – namely Batou. In the OVA, his attraction to her, his awareness of her femaleness and his need to clothe her, help to include her as part of the  human race. Kusanagi even says at one point:

That’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated.

But eventually, her Otherness, her femaleness, her predisposition towards hybridization because she is woman, lead her towards union with the Puppet Master.

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All of these subtleties were of course jettisoned in the Live-Action remake because there was no Puppet Master, no AI, just a Japanese boy (Hideo) in a caucasian android body.

Film Musicals: La La Land Vs…

La La Land (2016) has scored for itself six Golden Globes and has been nominated for a bunch of Oscars which it looks on track to winning too.

The thing is no matter how beautiful this film looks, or how passably melodic the songs are, it still looks like a film that has only gotten so far because of Hollywood’s undying penchant for sucking its own dick.

To be sure, La La Land is a beautifully shot film. Like visually – stunning. Just beautiful. The use of primary colours popped and the panoramic shots of LA were breathtakingly beautiful. The use of primary colours as a motif for fantasy and the blending of the colours into more drab and realist tones also a subtle touch to show the collision between fantasy and reality.

BUT even the well-publicised news of Ryan Gosling spending 3 months learning how to play the piano so he could do the piano bits himself, is not enough to distract from the mediocre singing from the two leads that often left me cringing in my seat waiting for the songs to be over.

The fact of the matter is that there are so many other films that have focused on similar themes and done so in a more streamlined, more succinct manner.

The two main lines of tension in La La Land is firstly, the struggle to straddle the line between being true to yourself and your artistic vision versus selling out in order to become famous and make a living from commercializing your art; and secondly, how the romancing of one’s art can get in the way of the romance between two people.

With regards to these two lines of narrative tension being perfectly intertwined and balanced in a single narrative that works, we can look back 40 years to Martin Scorsese’s New York New York (1977). There you had a real powerhouse, Liza Minnelli, to belt out the title song.

You also had the dramatic use of music/art as the very thing that drives a wedge between the couple (Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans & Robert De Niro as Jimmy Doyle), such that you really felt the tragedy of the ending where even after both parties have made it (Jimmy with his night club & Francine with her successful singing career), the healthiest thing they both could do for the sake of their own sanity was to stay far away from each other.

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Granted that at 2hrs 43mins, the film can feel a little overlong but it tracks their relationship from attraction to marriage, pregnancy and divorce, blending in the developments of their respective musical careers at every step of the way.

Another film that uses the romance between a man and a woman to talk about musicians and the music industry is the 2014 film, Begin Again, starring Adam Levine and Kiera Knightly. In Begin Again, a musician couple – where one half represented the indie music scene and the other, whatever it took to become a commercial success – function as a stand-in for a story that is about more than just a girl in love with a boy.

It is another narrative that ends in the eventual dissolution of the romance between the two lovers. Personally, I felt these two films were more succinct than La La Land because as I was watching La La Land, I kept asking myself why an actress and a jazz musician? What’s the connection there? Worse still, what’s the conflict there? The conflict always seemed more personal, in a way that was completely unrelated to their art, than professional or career-driven because when they finally meet with success in the end, there was nothing concrete that prevented them from being together other than the fact that they gave up too early on each other instead of sticking it out to the very end.

The thing about New York New York and Begin Again is that the male and female leads are both musicians and there’s a real conflict of professional ideals mixed in with the romantic hardships each couple faces that eventually prevents them from getting back together. Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle would have destroyed each other if they got back together and Greta (Kiera Knightly) and Dave (Adam Levine) couldn’t because they were each pulling for aspects of the music industry which, according to the way the film set it up, were in direct conflict with each other.

With Begin Again, I also liked how it introduced another element, a music producer (Mark Ruffalo), and spent a huge amount of the plot on the difficulties of producing an indie album that eventually had to welcome and embrace the ambient sounds of the streets since Greta’s makeshift band couldn’t afford to book a studio to record in. Fortunately, that resulted in an inspired piece of work.

Arguably, Begin Again ends with some ambiguity, unlike New York New York and La La Land, with two radio friendly versions of the same song, “Lost Stars”. It leaves it up to the audience to decide which version they prefer and consequently, who they side with, and which side of the tension between indie and commercial music they fall on.

Speaking of the sounds of the street, another film that came out in 2016 that has achieved both critical and popular success and was nominated for the best comedy/musical category at this year’s Golden Globes too, is Sing Street.

Undeniably based on the romanticised version of how the Beatles came to be, Sing Street is about a group of school boys from Dublin forming a band. Although a homage to great bands through the ages like The Cure, Duran Duran, The Jam, Motorhead, etc., this film also had a split focus between visuals and music but managed to marry the two quite effectively by inserting a young model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), as the female star in the band’s self-made music videos, and having the band lead’s (Cosmo played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) clothes and hair style change comically based on whichever strain of music was influencing his songwriting at that point in time.

The shy awkward tones of male voices breaking in the midst of puberty blend together in a heartfelt narrative of small town artists wanting to break away and make it in the big city. Both La La Land and Sing Street feature the film musical trope of having the music overtake the visuals at the height of the film’s narrative and emotional tension to weave an internally focalised illusion of what the musician sees.

In La La Land this is in the much talked about climax at the end of the film where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays the theme song on the piano one last time in his club as he and Mia (Emma Stone) share a fantasy of what their lives could have been. Easily the best moment in the film but also an overly melodramatic and highly manipulative one aimed at bringing audiences to tears.

In Sing Street, this comes before the final sequence in the film about two thirds?three quarters? of the way through the film when the band books the school hall to make another music video and Raphina doesn’t show up. We’re left with Cosmo’s version of how he imagines the music video to look before he and the audience crash back to reality at the end of the number.

What I liked better in Sing Street is that the film musical’s predictable use of this syntactic element of the genre was not left to the end as a climactic scene. Instead, the film ends on a much more subtle note. The young lovers, Cosmo and Raphina, leave on a tiny motorboat with the intention of sailing to England from Dublin to find their fortune in London.

It’s meant to be an uplifting scene with the smiles on everyone’s faces and the rousing soundtrack in the background but this is where soundtrack and visuals clash in a highly satisfying manner. They leave in the midst of a blinding rainstorm, nearly collide with a cruise ship, bring nothing with them except the clothes on their backs, their demo tapes and portfolio of head shots. In the background, Cosmo’s parents are getting divorced, the family is going to lose their house and the kids will have to shuffle between mum and dad. Without any indication of whether they succeed in their journey or drown at sea, the film ends with a decent amount of hope pinned on their endeavour amidst the crashing waves of reality that results in a lovely feeling of ambiguity as you leave the theatre.

I suppose by this point everyone if feeling like, “What the hell? Why are all these musicals so ambiguously depressing?!”Well, if you want a light-hearted romantic comedy with a happy ending, there’s always Music and Lyrics (2007). Again it features the tension between staying true to one’s artistic vision and compromising for the sake of commercial appeal. Except, this time the slant on the music industry is the tension between performer and the lyricists. Anyway, this one ends happily with Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) getting together just as how his melody and her lyrics are eventually performed the way they are meant to be performed.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say about La La Land and how while it looks great, narratively speaking it didn’t quite hit the spot for me.