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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Dance of the Dragon 龙之舞 is... er, special

Fann Wong and Jang Hyuk in DANCE OF THE DRAGON

My dad suggested yesterday that I should try to go to the cinema and catch DANCE OF THE DRAGON, a film I've never heard of starring Fann Wong and Korean actor Jang Hyuk ('Volcano High' and 'Windstruck'). He said that he heard the film had won numerous awards at some film festival lately, which made me a little curious, so I tried to check its info on the newspapers, and on its tiny poster, it listed out the glorious awards it won at the inaugural WEST HOLLYWOOD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (WHIFF), including BEST FILM, BEST DIRECTOR, BEST ACTOR (Jang Hyuk) and BEST ACTRESS (Fann Wong).

So I went online to find reviews about the film, and managed to stumble upon somewhat positive reviews of the film here and here, and was... convinced. I was also intrigued by its cast and crew (seemingly all white, including co-directors and writers John Radel and Max Mannix, the latter an Australian). A Singaporean film with an international cast and crew? Might be interesting.

I called Sebastian and we went to see the movie together at 1-Utama. Interestingly, there were only three people in the cinema, him, me, and some old guy sitting in the back row. I have to say that I was very glad the cinema was empty, as it allowed us to make non-stop commentary during the film, mostly sarcastic remarks and complaints, critical evaluation of the filmmaking techniques and the script. To the old guy sitting far behind us, thank you for not being a douche and ask us both to shut up, I'm sure our running commentary added many layers of the entertainment to the film for him.

I went in really wanting to enjoy the film, or appreciate it. But early in the film, I began to feel that something was... a little off. I began to spot common filmmaking mistakes often committed by new filmmakers (it's the first directing credit for Radel and Mannix), especially those who have to make a movie set in a country with a culture other than their own.

At the risk of being accused of being xenophobic, I always feel a little wary when the latter happens, because, often, the filmmakers will end up exaggerating the exoticism of a culture, missing its subtlety and complexity, painting it with broad strokes, turning things into caricatures. Yet this exoticism becomes a selling point for foreigners despite its actual lack of authenticity.

Frankly, this was actually something that bothered me a lot during my days in Perth when I was first studying film. I believe that it's great, and even essential, for a filmmaker to display the uniqueness of his own culture, traditions and beliefs when he is making a film. That's why I often berate other aspiring filmmaker friends for trying to emulate too much of Hollywood and getting rid of whatever that makes him or her unique from Hollywood. Yet by exoticizing too much of that particular culture, one ends up dealing with stereotypes, and a cop-out method to cover up a film's actual technical and artistic shortcomings.

So the film begins with a voiceover of the Korean boy Tae talking about old stories of DRAGONS his father told him when he was a kid. When he runs into his stern and perpetually solemn father, the first thing the old man asks is whether the kid remembers the most important ways of life he had taught him. And the kid solemnly complies because he is an obedient Asian who has a generic solemn and disapproving father. I'm Asian, but I don't have a generic solemn and disapproving stern-faced father whose first line to me whenever I see him is whether I remember the ways of lief he had taught me, so that's why I managed to retain my sanity.

Tae's father is so disapproving of Tae's secret passion for ballroom dancing that when he sees Tae practicing ballroom dancing by himself with a book he picked up, the old man reacts as if he had just found the kid's porn collection, and throws a horrifying tantrum. And then in order to have his kid forget about his dreams of ballroom dancing, he sends him to Taekwondo class, and watches in sheer disappointment when young Tae gets his ass kicked by some smaller kid. It reminds me a lot about a Simpsons episode where Homer was worried that Bart was becoming gay.

The adult Tae (Jang Hyuk) normally spaces out and has lengthy flashbacks of his childhood and his disapproving father (whom you know that underneath his cranky demeanor, he's really just an old guy who really loves his son but doesn't know how to express it because, you know, we Asians aren't that good at articulating how we feel, and we'll probably have to wait til the last few parts of the film where he finally shows his love and pride for his son. Yawn).

Tae is taking lessons at a dance academy in Singapore opened by Fann Wong's Emi (because 'Amy' isn't Asian enough), a former dance champion with a weak ankle who is now reduced to only teaching, but she secretly yearns to return to the stage, and we can see her yearning because there are really a lot of scenes of Emi angsting alone, starring longingly at her dresses, having a stylized flashback of her childhood. Tae usually doesn't have a partner in classes, so he's sometimes partnered with Emi, he's a hunky Korean guy, she constantly looks at him longingly, so he ends up looking at her longingly as well when he dances with her and after a few seconds I know that there is some sort of sexual tension between them. Which reminds me of the Simpsons movie where Homer said he needed to kiss Spiderpig to dispel all these tension. I don't know, but my mind worked rather strangely when watching the film.

Despite Emi's constant cockteasing, Tae finds himself cockblocked by Emi's badass martial arts instructor boyfriend Cheng (who is also a former champion with an injury that stopped him from competing actively anymore). Cheng is played Jason Scott Lee, and I feel excited every time he appears because I haven't seen him since SOLDIER ten years ago. In this film, Jason Scott Lee shows some dramatic chops not seen since THE JUNGLE BOOK and DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY. Cheng is a complex character who threatens to beat the crap out of Tae because he's not happy to see the oh-so-subtle attraction growing between Tae and Emi during her lessons. He is an overpossessive and overprotective dude who doesn't pay Emi that much attention, to poor Emi's consternation, so he decides to step in and warns Tae to 'stay away from his girl', or he'll kick his ass. Cheng seems so shaken by the sight of Emi partnering with Tae that I can believe that he is even more devastated than Vincent Cassell after Monica Bellucci got raped in IRREVERSIBLE.

Cheng's an interesting character who alternates between being a one-dimensional jerk / bully of a boyfriend, and someone who is supposed to earn audience sympathy because there is a 'huh?'-inducing subplot that pops out of nowhere which involves Cheng doing dirty deeds for gangsters and later getting himself beaten up badly because he is honourable enough not to carry out the triad's dirty deeds, and only acts like a one-dimensional jerk in front of Tae, and to a lesser extent, Emi.

Cheng challenges Tae to a fight, and that scene of their match made me gape in confusion, because instead of having to fight each other, the match is (I think) really about them trying to execute a series of (maybe) taichi moves and see who stumbles first. I don't know, it is so heavy with Asian exoticism that even an Asian like I was bowed over by the Asian exoticism of that particular scene, sorry.

The film tries to defy conventions, yet it also plays with cliches, leaving one as uncultured and unrefined as I a little baffled. A film about ballroom dancing? I wanted to FEEL more of Tae's love for ballroom dancing, his obsession, the justification for his existence. But because most dancing sequences were shot and edited in such a limpid manner that I don't find myself fascinated by his fascination for the ballroom dancing. I just didn't understand why was all dancing scenes shot so tightly, and focused solely on the upper torso of the characters. I've never seen so little feet or leg movements on a film supposedly about dancing, is that an experiment? A supposed attempt to break conventions? I don't know. Even if the leads aren't such good dancers in real life... er, no stunts?

I also find myself flabbergasted by the development of Tae and Emi's relationship. Right, so they stared longingly at each other during that scene where they first danced together, there is sexual tension. But I just don't understand how did they become that amazingly close because that scene is later followed by another which has angry Cheng seeing, from a distance, Tae and Emi walking out of a coffee shop. What happened in the coffee shop? What did they say to each other? How did they connect? Is this an attempt at Ozu-style transcendental cinema where the most important thing happens off-screen so that instead of having any emotional investment on the characters and its plot, I'm supposed to feel more for its atmosphere? To immerse myself not into the narrative, but the storytelling?

But how can I feel anything when almost the entire film has an overwhelming and swelling soundtrack by Ricky Ho that dictates how I should feel about a particular scene instead of allowing myself to decide? It's all right at first, but towards the end, I almost felt relieved when we reached a scene that had NO music at all.

Also, at one scene of the film, I felt a little mortified when I heard a very slightly-modified version of 'LIZ ON TOP OF THE WORLD' by Dario Marianelli's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (the one with Keira Knightley in it) soundtrack being... borrowed. My jaw also dropped open when Enrique Iglesias' Hero is used during the climatic ballroom dancing scene. Of all songs... why Hero? Even memories of Jennifer Love Hewitt's pretty face in the music video cannot wash away my hatred for that song.

Maybe this is another daring filmmaking choice by the filmmakers, since HERO is the last song I would think of using in a climatic ballroom dancing scene. Of course, aside from that song during that climatic ballroom dancing scene, I just don't understand why the dancing scenes were shot so tightly, if so many cuts were used, then why go only for one camera angle? Why focused only on the upper torso of the leads? There are so many possibilities what can do with dancing scenes. Look at the famous 'solo dance' scene in Shunji Iwa's HANA AND ALICE:

The solo dance in HANA AND ALICE

The cinematography by Max Mannix is good (Mannix, apparently, had won numerous cinematography awards in Australia), the production values are fine, but I feel that numerous settings and locations are too... designed. Not realistic enough (the supposed tiny shithole Tae is living in is decorated even better than my house), not stylized enough, just something too obviously put together by the art director. And the decent cinematography is wasted because the film's mise-en-scene is a little... lacking (visual strategy of a film, the shot blocking, the way scenes are staged etc.). The acting's serviceable, but there's really not much for the leads to work with because of the lackluster script, which is surprising, because John Radel also wrote the screenplay for this year's critically-acclaimed TOKYO SONATA by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

I find it a little amusing that I actually agree more with Teddy's hasty judgment of the film based only on the trailer he saw. It's really not that good a film, to me anyway. But I'm interested to hear what others have to say about the film too.