What have I been up to?

This is more of a personal update than anything else really and a way to put down random stray thoughts about the things I’ve read and watched in the last couple of months.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’ve been watching an embarrassing amount of K-drama but there are comments about one in particular that keep knocking around my noggin and I can’t seem to let go of it.

Joseon Gunman (2014, 22 episodes)

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Immediately, the thing that charmed me about this series is how much it’s like Rurouni Kenshin (1994-1999, manga run; 1996-1998, anime run; & 3 films 2012-2014). Set at the turn of an era, Joseon Gunman is about the influx of foreign influence into olden day Korea. What I liked about the series was the consistency with which this plot point/ thematic thrust about the changing times was infused into various elements of the series.

  1. While it’s a totally common and overused trope in K-drama to have the character undergo a makeover when they become badass, that move in this drama seems totally justified. Forced to flee the country due to trumped up charges against his family, Park Yoon-Kang (Lee Joon-Gi) returns later, after leveling up, as a Japanese man dressed in Western clothes. The image itself of the main character returning and looking so different compresses all the geopolitical tensions of the time into the look of his character – Western colonial powers forcing East Asian countries to open their borders to unfair trade with them; aggression from fellow East Asian countries, etc.
  2. The female lead, Jung Soo-In (Nam Sang-Mi), is a fairly respectable character. Learned for a female character, she often shown running rings around the main character in the first third of the series. She knows science, she knows geography, she deals with gunpowder. And later on in the series she becomes a spy within the palace grounds. I suppose I should’ve said spoilers… oh well.
  3. The villain, Choi Won-Shin (Yu Oh-Seong), is a merchant. But the villain and his daughter, Choi Hye-Won (Jeon Hye-Bin), are fairly sympathetic characters. They struggle with their past as slaves and try and make a future for themselves by becoming astute, entrepreneurial, if a little corrupt, business people. They join the rising merchant class that in the histories of all countries at the time presented a real challenge and threat to the traditional class structures.
  4. I’m not sure if this one was deliberate, but in the first half of the series at least, there was a lot of scenes set at harbours and piers. These settings represented the liminal spaces and the porous borders of countries through which ideologies, cultures, and other foreign elements enter and permeate the body politic.

What else have I watched lately?

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I guess I haven’t had a chance to think about it more deeply but I watched A Boy and His Dog (1975). It’s vision of the post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland is a very effectively rendered one with psychic dogs, roving bands of human cannibals and unseen mutants called screamers that emit a green light. It’s also highly effective in affecting a disconcerting tone with its alternate visions of rape – the normalisation of it, and the industrialisation of it in the name of population control. It’s really a lot of food for thought. Very watchable with a lot to digest.

I also liked how there’s a very clear tonal link/echo in the successful game series Fallout (1997-2015). There’s this jaunty, lively, buddy-comedy type banter in the foreground between the boy and his dog but in the background and punctuating every scene are things like dead bodies (literally everywhere!), and the ruins of human civilisation. So that jarring quality between the dialogue and the setting is very similar to what we see in the Fallout game series. The creators of the series, if I’m not wrong, have actually credited the film as part of the game’s inspiration.

Here are some fun videos from the game to give you a sense of just how disconcerting and discomfiting both the film and game can be:

The last thing I watched and rather liked and just wanted to share with you guys here is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).

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This year has truly been a year of sequels so far… er… with the exception of Alien: Covenant (2017) from what I hear… I haven’t caught it yet. But will soon.

In 2017, we’ve had John Wick 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Split and Logan. Not all of the above are technically sequels but they’ve all sprung from pre-existing franchises and so does this next installment of Guardians.

This film was super fun to watch. A lot of the more serious critics haven’t been really kind to it calling it a CGI-fest, which it is, but this film I felt was really enjoyable because it knew what NOT to dwell on.

Right from the start, the big monster fight was sidelined in in favour of watching baby Groot dance around to the soundtrack. And in the culminating fight at the end, the big fight was again repeatedly pushed to the side in favour of more character-centred moments like Rocket (Bradley Cooper) trying to get baby Groot familiarised with his detonator and people shouting in the background about tape.

Furthermore, while the centrepiece of the film was obviously an address of the question the previous film left us with – Peter Quill’s a.k.a. Starlord’s (Christ Pratt) parentage – the bulk of the narrative actually focused on the side characters and their understanding of parents and family. This narrative direction paralleled the film’s opening that moved away from the big, colourful boss fight to focus on the little guy – the supporting cast.

There was some pretty disturbing revelations about the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Thanos. A huge chunk of the film also went towards developing Yondu (Michael Rooker), a side character in the first film, as a foster father figure to Quill. And there was also the introduction of a new orphan character, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) who finds a new family with the Guardian’s crew.

So what I’m trying to point out here is that family was a central theme and the film was able to really keep a focus on that instead of giving the audience yet another retina searing light show at the end in the form of a climactic boss fight.

That being said I can also sort of see where serious critics are coming from when they call the film as a CGI-fest. I thought the Ravagers story line was particularly weak.

Sylvester Stallone joined the cast this time round as Starhawk – some kind of ravager boss? (I’m not familiar with the comic book franchise but I hear from my fiance that he and his friends featured at the end were the Original Guardians of the Galaxy.) So the guy already has poor articulation, yet they gave him some of the most incomprehensible lines filled with a bunch of space mumbo-jumbo… I have to admit I was frowning pretty hard trying to figure out what he was saying, but then I gave up and spaced out. There was also some pretty heavy-handed cinematic manipulation going on in the ravagers funeral scene in an attempt to make the audiences feel something for a ritual that doesn’t actually exist outside of the film. That actually snapped me out of my suspension of disbelief… cuz they were just trying too hard.

But that being said, the best part of the film is the unending series of running jokes. People coming out of the film will repeat lines like, “You’re beautiful. On the inside.” and crack up! Much to the chagrin of an unsuspecting crowd that hasn’t seen the film. It’s really great fun and full of laughs. It’s not high art or anything but I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

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I think that’s it for this post! See you guys soon!

Marvel’s Doctor Strange

The absolute best thing that Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016) got right is a satisfying ending.

Two problems that have been wearing superhero franchises especially thin for me is firstly, the use of extremely poorly characterised megalomaniacs with an inexplicable obsession with world domination as the ultimate villain.

My list of non-character megalomaniacs, in no particular order, include:

  1. Ultron from Age of Ultron (2015)
  2. Thanos from The Avengers MCU (2012- )
  3. Malekith from Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  4. Ronan & his boss, Thanos, from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  5. Kaecilius’ & his boss, Dormammu, from Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)
  6. Apocalypse from X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
  7. Mandarin from Iron Man 3 (2013)
  8. Enchantress from Suicide Squad (2016)
  9. Talia al Ghul (Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter) from The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  10. Galactus from Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

… I’m sure there are others I’ve missed…

The list of things I do not like about these antagonists is extensive. They are just so poorly characterised in that they are flat characters lacking in nuance making them very unsympathetic and way too easy to dislike, and worst of all, their motivations are oftentimes unclear. They do things because it is in their nature or because of some prophecy.

Incidentally, I have to mention, this is also why I liked Civil War (2016) so much, precisely because it did not feature some CGI giant villain with a world-domination complex. It was on a smaller scale, and featured a very personal apocalypse – a collapse of friendships between some really powerful individuals. I think the personal nature of the conflict made the whole film so much more relatable.

Anyway, the second problem for me with a lot of these superhero films is that when the villains are so comically (hur hur… no pun intended) overpowered, protagonists tend to experience sudden and inexplicable power-ups. These excessively convenient power-ups often stem from the triggering of some hidden ability just so they can defeat these overpowered world-gobbling villains.

For example, from the above list, in Suicide Squad, how did Diablo’s pyrokinesis suddenly transform him into some Aztec/Mayan fire god? They probably thought it was so clever misleading and misdirecting the audience with phrases like “it’s a curse” to make us all think that Diablo was just being melodramatic when it was a literal curse he carried around that gave him his powers. To the unsuspecting audience, it’s like someone flipped a literal “God-mode On” switch with a cheat code in the final confrontation that allowed Diablo to incinerate Enchantress’ brother, another ancient god.

The reason why this didn’t work for me is because the basis of the conceit is the exclusion of the audience. The effect of the reveal is that it then makes the audience feel like the joke is on them for not getting it. But the thing is, at the end of the day, you don’t want to alienate your audience, you want to bring them into the fold and get them intimately acquainted with your characters so they want to know more.

In another example from the above list, how about when Jean Grey could suddenly control her Phoenix power to defeat Apocalypse? Anyone who did not watch the cartoon or read the comic books would be left horribly confused and wondering what the flash of fire bird in the middle of the throw down with Apocalypse was all about… Again, the audience is being alienated.

The thing I appreciated most about Marvel’s Doctor Strange is that there was no convenient solution at the end of the film. The answer to defeating the over-powered CGI intergalactic being, Dormammu, was carefully woven very early on into the plot through the use of visual motif (repeated shots of Strange’s broken watch), parallel fight scenes between Strange and Kaecilius, and later on Strange and Dormammu, and some fairly consistent characterisation of Stephen Strange (Strange’s ego as his sole motivation to win and his eventual acceptance of having to lose to win). It was also especially pleasurable to see a villain being defeated with cool logic instead of a CGI fest of flashing colours (not that there was any lack of this in Doctor Strange…)

The thing about using rules that have been clearly established in the movie/narrative universe is that the viewer feels like s/he has been rewarded for having invested time and energy paying attention to the twists and turns of the plot. Consequently, the audience feels like s/he is being treated like an intelligent being rather than a pair of eyeballs to flash some CGI colours at. And therein lies the pleasure in a process-driven, tightly plotted storyline.

I appreciated even more that the logical coherence of the film did not stop at the level of plot but stretched to a visual coherence in the CGI as well. In the trailer, a lot of the special effects didn’t just remind me of Inception (2010) but also of someone turning a kaleidoscope. But as I watched the film and paid attention to its rhetoric about study and enlightenment, spirituality, religion, and math (programming) and magic (spells), I began to think of how in Islamic art, because the face of god cannot be represented, the presence of the divine is indicated through the perfect alignment of repeated patterns of different geometric shapes without any gaps or overlaps. This sort of art is called tessellation. And the CGI effects the film chose to go with bore a strong resemblance to it. Personally, I thought this was a good choice and a good fit between the visuals and the narrative/thematic thrust of the film.

Some examples of Islamic tessellation in mosques:

As a final note on Doctor Strange, did anyone else get the feeling that when the Ancient One was giving Strange a run down of what’s what this must have been what Loki’s early magic lessons were like? Cuz all that talk about spells and programmes and the multiverse reminded me of the bifrost and how magic is just undiscovered science, but also of Loki’s ability to world walk using pathways along the branches of yggdrasil.

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