Monday, November 8, 2010

Alterna-BIFF Opening FIlm

$60 is a bit much for cane toads when a bloke doesn't much care for parties so I headed out to Sunnybank to catch the Hong Kong wuxia/mystery film Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame. It was, as promised, a very  classy blockbuster and oodles of fun were had by all ("all" being me and the family sitting behind me). So I'm going to offer up some thoughts using the recent Star Trek as a comparison point - not, I should stress, with the intention of making the tired, untrue "Hollywood's lost it" point but simply because it's the last decent "pure entertainment" I saw.

Star Trek's writers often assigned a single, very clear purpose to each of its individual scenes. There were scenes specifically geared to building the characters early on, such as Spock's appearance before the tribunal and scenes designed to deliver plot, such as Nero's threatening phone calls but only rarely were the two combined. Dee, on the other hand was constantly doing multiple things in its scenes. The initial questioning of the construction workers manages to lay the early ground work for the mystery, establish the minor running theme of superstition vs reason and introduces Pei Donglai as something of a hot head. This approach ensures that Dee gets off to a quicker start and makes for more fluid storytelling throughout.

Also welcome was the actual empowerment of its female characters. As much as I enjoyed Star Trek I had to grit my teeth through large parts of it because its approach to gender is often only just short of risible. The opening sequence, where a male spacecraft captain fights aliens while his wife fights to give birth, encapsulates the rigid construction of gender roles which permeates the film. For all the lip service paid to Uhara's language skills her only active functions in the narrative are to (a) receive a message (which Kirk interprets and uses to save the day) and (b) be a love interest. While Dee is hardly a paragon of feminist ideas it does feature a woman who is a competent, caring and, if need be, ruthless ruler as well as a fighter who is every bit as accomplished as her male counterparts and only loses a battle when faced with an opponent with a quasi-magical weapon.

Another of Dee's strengths is that it actively uses its status as a fictional narrative; inviting the suspension of disbelief to play with its audience. We are presented with absolutely ridiculous truths, like the fact that the Empress' key advisor is a talking deer, and we are forced to consider them seriously because this is fiction and wacky things can be true. Dee succeeds in this because, unlike the long running TV mystery shows which tend to do this thing once a year during Halloween, it immediately introduces these strange elements and does so without any winking at the audience.

Finally Dee is works because it does the simple things right. I feared for the characters because I knew they could die - and they often do. I cared about their deaths because the film is able to present recognisable types without pushing them over the edge into cliche. And I was susceptible to even the weakest of attempts at misdirection because I was engaged by the narrative.

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