Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Art Of The Kill

So far this Spring, I have mostly been too busy to keep up with too many new movies, though I made a point to get out and see some of my more anticipated films of this year, which I would say, held up to my expectations pretty well.  Within a few days of each other I saw both The Raid 2: Berandal, and Jia Zhangke's highly acclaimed A Touch Of Sin (天注定), and I would be remiss if I didn't find a common, though strikingly different, feature used within the two of them.  Both films, though incredibly violent, carry themselves very differently, and while I would say that I've had my fill of bloodletting for the foreseeable future, they also had me thinking about violence in general; what draws us to violence, in both entertainment/storytelling and in real life?  Why do people seek violence in entertainment, and what causes others to seek and cause violence in their own lives?  Rather than write a straight review of either film, I thought it would be more interesting to look at things within a larger scope, but also to examine violence with an eye trained towards Asian cinema, as it may pay to take a look at the climates of where these films originate or take inspiration from.
2011's The Raid (Serbuan Maut) was maybe one of the most inventive and entertaining martial arts/action movies in I don't even know how long.  The raw, intense, and over-the-top violence was a shot of adrenaline to the action film community, who for so long had been overtaken by either big budget, Michael Bay-sized emotionally empty blockbusters or poorly financed, aesthetically bankrupt brawlers; and while it's hard to say that The Raid changed the film community at large, it at least changed audience expectations and proved that it was possible to elevate what would have been a simple genre film with sharp camera work, spare, yet effective plotting, and crisp editing, for just under a million dollars.  A sequel was sure to follow, and wouldn't you know it, did, only three years later.

When evidence of said sequel started showing up online in trailers, audiences of the first film shook as they wondered whether filmmaker, Gareth Evans, would be able to top the first film, as it set a high benchmark not only for himself, but for the action genre as a whole.  What genre fanatics were torn on was whether they wanted more of what made the initial film so special, or something brand new that lived as it's own beast, propelled by the same kind of balletic violence they had now expected from Evans' production studio, Merantau Films.  As is always the case with action films, the goal is to always top the previous installment somehow, and with the success of The Raid, filmmakers all over the genre rushed to up the ante in an unspoken (or pretty spoken, if you ask Sylvester Stallone) competition.

The point to all of this, I suppose, is that maybe it's not necessarily the violence itself that Gareth Evans is promoting so much as he's promoting the genre itself.  Evans has stated in several interviews about the kind of film fan he is, and what films he grew up watching, and while corruption within the civil services is a real problem in Indonesia, The Raid 2's sly winks and deliberate homages to classic martial arts and gangster cinema almost alleviates it from any social responsibility.  There is a scene in The Raid 2 in which one of the lead characters, Uco, is having an altercation with a singer/escort in a karaoke bar, and while the scene is momentarily unsettling, I quickly reassured myself that Evans, as a filmmaker, seems uninterested in displaying sexual violence the same way as he would a carefully choreographed fight scene.  The point is to provide a moment in which the audience recognizes a character flaw and removes any doubt about Uco or his role in the film.  The violence in The Raid 2, I conclude, though serious, is more suitably taken as a choreographed martial arts epic rather than an acute social examination.
The violence in A Touch Of Sin, then, is perhaps far more impactful, due to the film's firm and unwavering look at a true, unforgiving, and rapidly modernizing mainland China.  Each of Sin's four separate vignettes on personal violence are based on real life events, and their short, sharp moments are felt even stronger than Evans' only slightly longer-running ballet of wince-inducing action.  In The Raid series, we involve ourselves in the exploits of rookie cum undercover cop, Rama, as he infiltrates an underground crime syndicate after toppling one of it's former under-bosses.  If all of that sounds a bit fantastical, it is; Rama is a fictional character in a fictional version of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city.  His mission is one of pure exploit and escapism, though tinged with a darkening world that feels believable because the rules within it are so similar to our own.  Guns kill quickly and easily, and the impact from punches and kicks feel as if real.  As an audience, because of these rules, we believe that Rama's feats are possible.  It feels believable that he could clear a room of adversaries due to his superior skill and righteousness.  We see him hurt, we see him bleed, and because of that, we sit on the edge of our seats knowing in our gut that one more hit could kill him, much in the same way that Jackie Chan made us believe in real life superheroics (one of Evans' favorite action movies, afterall, is Chan's own balletic masterpiece, Police Story).

Jia Zhangke's protagonists, by contrast, are real people, not reasonable facsimiles thereof.  Rather than heroics, we face four real, unsettling, and often heartbreaking moments in which a person is drawn (or rather led?) to violence.  In contrast to The Raid's nonstop barrage, Sin gives us time to breathe between every moment, and it's in contemplation of every moment that it's impact is felt.  The death of a single factory worker, whose act is based on the Foxconn suicides of 2010, is more important than the swift demise of henchmen #s 14-32 in a single scene of The Raid.  The days and moments leading up to the dramatized account of the Deng Yujiao incident and the moments after frame the act of violence in a way that is both anticipatory and pensive; as an audience, we are forced to contemplate Xiao Yu's actions, and it's hard not to anticipate them as we watch the film.  Her segment comes at a place in the film where we already know what to expect, and if we are familiar at all with the actual event, it's a sick pit in our stomach as we wait for the pitch to finally turn feverish (or at the very least, where we find Xiao Yu's breaking point to be).  As news stories and accounts of incidents file up, Zhangke's film becomes sadly predictable, and I think it will sit with many viewers as a chronicle of a time in China when life seems very cheap; what is so fascinating with Sin, though, is it's ability to keep us engaged through it's predictability.
In their own ways, both A Touch Of Sin and The Raid 2 reminded me a bit of  the films of Takeshi Kitano, who is no stranger to violence (both in real life and on film), but has a sensibility about him that I have always really admired.  A nihilist at heart, Kitano has never had a problem showing us darkness, but the differences, specifically, between 1993's Sonatine and 1997's Hana-bi are staggering in tone; similar acts take place, though the way the audience views them is very different.  He is treating the audience much like children in the way at some moments he invites us in as if to say, "look at this, learn," in some instances, and "this is not for you to see" to others; but we trust his judgement, because he's usually right, and it's nice to see an artist guide his audience every once in a while through both extremes.  What Kitano lacks, though, is an eye for artistic violence, as to him it just exists.  I don't think it's too far of a stretch to think that maybe his aesthetics for filmed violence were shaped in some way by the work of Kinji Fukasaku, who was set to helm Takeshi's directorial debut, Violent Cop, before stepping down due to illness, or scheduling, or some other story I remember reading forever ago.

Fukasaku's own Battles Without Honor & Humanity (仁義なき戦い Jingi naki tatakai)series could be seen as a kind of precursor to some of the violent films we see today, even beyond Takeshi Kitano.  To Fukasaku, crime was unglamorous, and the yakuza, who up until then in film were often revered as folk heroes, were dirty, underhanded degenerates who killed, raped, and stole out of desperation and greed, and were not, generally, the heroic men of the people popularized in the the fiction of the time.  Fukasaku had enough true accounts to ever mistake the fictional yakuza for what they really were, and combined with his documentary-like style of filming, to audiences of the time (I can only imagine Takeshi was among that audience), it was a shot in the arm both cinematically and socially.  I again find it not such a stretch to imagine that Fukasaku's films were perhaps at least in some way influential to both Gareth Evans and Jia Zhangke, whose films celebrate both the cinematic and brutal humanity depicted as far back as the early 70s.

The difference between The Raid and A Touch Of Sin, I conclude, is in cinematic tradition.  In the case of Evans, perhaps, originally a westerner, his connection to many social aspects of the cultures he viewed were superficial.  That's not to say that Evans is a superficial director, and I actually would argue that he is a socially responsible filmmaker who in fact has great respect for the culture he represents in his film (allegedly, Sydney Pollack was said to have had very little respect for his Japanese cast while filming 1974's The Yakuza, and accusations of it's "promotion of 'yellowface' behavior" lasts to this day).  Again, Evans' films celebrate the balletic momentum of the wuxia film traditions (to make an interesting note, even the title of A Touch Of Sin is a reference to another wuxia film, King Hu's A Touch Of Zen), combined with modern sensibilities and classic "one-upmanship" within the genres his films represent, and are therefore not irresponsible when measured against the films of Zhangke, whose films have always carried a social overtone, and have yet to veer too far from being specifically Chinese.  One could argue that Evans could never make the films he makes outside of Indonesia, but I feel like his films have a little more of a global lens with which he views things.  To adopt a culture and grow in one are very different, and though one is not less admirable than the other, it feels rather inescapable in terms of pedigree.
It's hard to be able to sit back and say a film has zero social responsibility, but in having the choice of what cinema we choose to watch, the responsibility ultimately comes back to us as the audience; we are in a pretty wonderful position in 2014 for cinema to have such a global reach, and whether that influence be social or purely aesthetic, we can take from them what we choose.  It's interesting to note that Sin was censored in China (allegedly, though few notes have been found saying exactly that, despite the film's trouble finding domestic distribution) not for it's violence, but for it's social commentary.  The largest difference between the two films is that Zhangke asks us to reflect upon the consequences of that violence, whereas Evans is content to let his audience be namely that: an audience.  Though the protagonist in both films could be viewed as the angry antihero, pushed beyond the limits of rational humanity, of the two only Sin asks the audience to step into the shoes of his characters, while The Raid forces us to view Rama as we would through a shark tank: aware of danger yet safely beyond it's reach.  Neither film is wrong for it's decision, as ultimately the two films are incomparable (a little late for that, wouldn't you say?), and it is up to the audience to decide what the limits of their morality is, whether that be an explosive gangster yarn or the simple question of human decency.

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