Saturday, August 18, 2012

Movie Review: The Four

The Four (Chinese, 2012)

Imagine that the X-Men lived in ancient China, that they were working for the imperial Secret Service, and that they were fighting zombies.

That is a rough description of the plot of this new film, which features Deng Chao (Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), Liu Yifei (Forbidden Kingdom), Collin Chou (Forbidden Kingdom, The Matrix) and Anthony Wong (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), among others.  The story is inspired by a wuxia novel by Wen Ruian. But other than the setting and a few standard wuxia movie tropes, it doesn't bear much resemblance to wuxia films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero.

Though Wen's novel The Four Great Constables follows the tales of several constables serving the imperial justice system, this movie puts its protagonists in two organizations: Department Six, which is the more typical organization serving the emperor; and the Divine Constables, a group of pardoned criminals led by a former imperial bodyguard, who work among the common people to uphold justice and solve crimes.  Complicating this is the presence of a group female constables from the mythical land of Penglai, who've been sent to assist Department Six.  All three of these groups are trying to solve a counterfeiting plot, but there are plenty of hidden motives and political intrigues to complicate matters.

Nearly everyone in this film has a superpower, not limited to the usual wuxia abilities like qinggong (superleap), qigong (internal energy), running up walls, and performing incredible feats of swordplay. These people can transform into monsters, exhibit telepathy and telekinesis, summon fire and ice, and other powers.  There's nothing that is too obviously an imitation of Western comic book superheroes, with the possible exception of Liu Yifei's character, whose need for a wheelchair is awfully reminiscent of a certain X-Men character (though the filmmakers gave the baldness to Collin Chou).

In addition to the detective story and the superpowers, there are a couple of romantic subplots.  Despite spending most of the movie looking sullen and never smiling, Deng Chao is the object of affection for two of the female characters.  He's an indecisive sort: he can't make up his mind which girl to pursue, and he can't make up his mind whether to join the Divine Constables or return to Department Six.  He's not the most compelling character, and his ability to serve as lead is compromised by the large cast and convoluted plot.

With so much going on, this movie is a bit confusing, especially at the beginning, where it follows the tradition of many Asian films by throwing the viewer in at the deep end and letting you tread water until you figure out who all these people are and what's going on. But once you get past that, it becomes interesting. The interaction between the characters, especially the members of the Divine Constables, is a lot of fun, and it's nice to see Collin Chou doing something besides showing off his martial arts skills. Anthony Wong also makes more than a cameo appearance, putting in an enjoyable turn as the gentlemanly leader of the Divine Constables Zhang Zhengwo. The superpowers aren't overused or overpowering, the villain doesn't do too much maniacal laughing, and the acting is uniformly good.

Oh, yeah, there are zombies, too. It's not a zombie movie, and they're not Western-style gore-coated, brain-eating zombies. But there are zombies, and they're kinda cool.

The Four is supposed to be part one of a trilogy.  If the sequels are produced, I'll take a look.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why I Love the Doctor

I've been a fan of Doctor Who for more than 20 years now.  I've enjoyed the series as he regenerated from his 6th incarnation to the 7th, from the 7th to the sadly brief 8th, and during the long hiatus until Auntie Beeb brought him back to the small screen a few years ago in his 9th version.  I made the effort to see everything I could of his earlier incarnations as well, and grew, like many fans, to have a special fondness for his 4th self.

Like many long-time fans, I was a bit apprehensive when he returned in 2005 with an entirely new production team and actor.  What would the new creative team do with him?  Would he start having romances?  Spend all his time on Earth because the new show had an even more limited budget than the old series?  Would all his prior history be treated as if it never happened?  Would he stop being a Time Lord?  Would he stop being so innately British?

I was immensely relieved when it turned out that the new series runners wanted to behave much as if that hiatus between 1989 and 2005 had never happened.  The new Doctor was the 9th.  They even acknowledged that the American-made 8th Doctor story was part of Doctor Who canon.  The Doctor was still a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He still traveled through time and space in his TARDIS, which still looked externally like a 1960s British police public call box.  I gave a sigh of relief that the BBC hadn't tried to completely re-imagine the concept - just bring it into the 21st century television world.

Suddenly my beloved series had a real special-effects budget.  The aliens weren't just people in ill-fitting rubber masks.  We could see thousands of Cybermen or Daleks instead of 6, because the effects were no longer limited by how many extras and props were available.  But more importantly, and this is why I love Doctor Who more than ever:  The series has a heart.

The old series made me laugh, it made me excited and joyful and occasionally a little irritated.  But to a large extent, despite the history of the Doctor, everything seemed to happen in a vacuum.  There were times when a story would make reference to past events, when you felt there was something the Doctor was feeling, but in some ways it seemed that the Doctor had an even stiffer upper lip than a real Brit.  He didn't often show his heart.  He didn't seem to miss his companions when they left, or even remember that they'd ever been.  He didn't mention his 'granddaughter' Susan.  His human companions were the ones who did much of the emoting.  The Doctor was usually just benevolent or indignant, like a distant relative you don't often see. 

And except for bringing back recurring villains, the series didn't have much sense of its own history.  There were a few plotlines that connected the events of more than one story, such as the Key to Time saga.  But most of the time, once a story was complete, whether it had taken an hour or three hours to tell it, it was never mentioned again.  The companions didn't have conversations about how scary it was to be chased across time by the Daleks, or demand to know why the Doctor had apparently abandoned them at some point in a previous adventure, or make the Doctor explain more about his race and where he came from.  Each story was basically the same basic concept:  The Doctor and his companions arrived somewhere (usually not where they intended to go), there was a monster menacing the local residents or a sinister plot brewing that would result in something awful happening, the Doctor and his companion(s) became separated from each other and from the TARDIS, and the Doctor finally saved the day. 

The new series does many of the same things.  There are still monsters and sinister plots, the TARDIS still doesn't always take the Doctor where he intends to go, he and his traveling companions often get separated, and the companions still frequently serve as the "heart" of the series.  But now the Doctor has a heart, too.  He has towering rages and grief and regret and loneliness.  He sheds tears.  And he loves his companions.  They are not just audience-identification devices to allow him to explain plot elements.  They are real people who are meaningful to him . He misses them when they're gone. We know why he needs them.  He's lonely, he needs company, and he needs someone to keep him humble.  Without them, he might transform into something more horrible than any enemy he has ever faced.

The companions have changed, too. They're not just people who ended up with him out of curiosity, or even by accident.  They want to be there, because they feel a connection to the Doctor. Sometimes they get angry with him, or doubt him, or are even afraid of him. And they're genuinely useful to him as something other than a glorified puppy.  They can do things on their own that will help his plans, and they can make their own plans. 

Some of them have loved him, too, or wanted to love and be loved by him.  Sexuality has entered the Doctor Who universe.  Fortunately the producers haven't let that progress into showing all the details.  The Doctor is, after all, a non-Terrestrial being.  He is somewhat asexual. The producers seem to realize that a 900+-year-old Time Lord having a romance with a human may be the worst kind of May-December romance - though if they have a story that calls for the Doctor to have a romance, they aren't afraid to proceed with it.  They are willing to explore every facet of human experience, not just fleeing from monsters.

Another facet of the series that the new series has eagerly explored is time travel.  Yes, that's in large part what the show has always been about.  But more recently the producers and screenwriters have really played with that concept.  The Doctor doesn't just use time travel to go to the past or the future, he uses it to affect events in ways he couldn't otherwise do.  In the new series we have seen characters grow from childhood to adulthood knowing the Doctor, while he from their perspective never changed. We have seen the Doctor run in and out of his own timeline.  We have seen time bent back on itself until every moment in history was occurring simultaneously.  We have even seen the Doctor and one of his companions living their lives in parallel but in chronologically reverse order. Time travel has become an important element of the series, not just a sort of conveyance, and the writers aren't afraid to make the audiences' brains hurt a bit when we are posed with a temporal paradox.

There are some things that make me less happy about the new series, but I won't go into those here.  Overall I love the new show.  I love everything they've done with it.  I won't lose any affection for the original series, but I'm glad to say that as I've matured and changed, so has Doctor Who. I hope we can continue to grow up together.