Trangressive Typologies

Shangguan Wan’er, it was said, wore her hair in a lopsided bob, in order to cover up the scar on her face from where Empress Wu went for her with a fruit knife. It was an argument over a boy, of course – the drunken Wu had been fondling a sleeping gigolo and bragging about how he made her heart melt, and Wan’er had foolishly reached out a hand to touch him. So, at least, reads the Secret Record of the Director of the Guiding the Immortal Cranes Bureau, a racy work of historical fiction purporting to have been written in the 900s, but more likely to date from a millennium later. It’s just one of the lascivious works cited in Rebecca Doran’s Transgressive Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China, the kind of book that makes you wonder why everyone isn’t studying Chinese history.

Doran is interested in what she calls “the historical period of female power”, from the time that the charismatic Wu Zhao was called back from a Buddhist nunnery as a new distraction for the Gaozong Emperor. She rose swiftly to power behind the throne, first as his empress, then as his interpreter following an unspecified illness likely to have been a debilitating stroke. She ruled behind the throne for the remainder of Gaozong’s life and the truncated reigns of two of their sons, before seizing power herself in the 690s. But Doran, like many other Tang historians, extends the period of female rule beyond the life of Wu, noting that an entire generation of women grew up during her reign, and came to regard equality, or more, as their birthright.

Shangguan Wan’er, Wu’s minister and speech writer, once regarded as the greatest poet of her generation, remained a power-broker after Wu’s death, and latched on to Wu’s grand-daughter Anle as a possible second empress regnant. Anle was brought down in a palace coup by Wu’s daughter and grandson, but the daughter, Princess Taiping, clung on to her own power base for several more years before her ally betrayed her. Depending on how you define it, the “historical period of female power” either spanned Wu’s adulthood and aftermath, c.650-713, or just the last two decades of that period – her years as empress regnant, and the “second generation” of the women who tried to emulate her. After 713, Wu would be vilified for twelve hundred years. It was only in the 20th century, and even then initially for shady political reasons, that Wu began to be reclaimed as a feminist icon, and her period in power regarded as anything but a woeful mistake.

Doran takes as her starting point the Biographies of Exemplary Women from the Han dynasty, because for centuries this book served as the template for good female behaviour. It was a touchstone for all the (male) historians who wrote about Wu and her imitators, and formed the basis of their disapproval. She also examines the life of Empress Dugu of the Northern Zhou, who controversially insisted on monogamy from her imperial husband – regarded by medieval protocol wonks as a “fatal mistake” sure to undermine palace harmony and dynastic vigour. In doing so, she points to the glorious chaos of the century before the Tang dynasty, when a series of tin-pot and occasionally barbaric dynasties contended to become the new Sons of Heaven, with a set of intrigues sufficient to make Game of Thrones look like Emmerdale.

Doran moves on to the reigns of Wu’s sons Zhongzong and Ruizong, and the kind of poetry and imagery that was popular in a world where their mother really ran the show. As Wu began manipulating the news of her era – Fortean phenomena, observations and media, all pointing to a coming paradigm shift – she pushed an agenda rooted in incredibly modern terms. As she argued at the epochal feng-shan sacrifice in her husband’s day, if the world was truly a constant cycle of yin and yang, dark and light, female and male, then women deserved an equal shot at public life, at power, and ceremonial roles. This, in the eyes of her chroniclers, was her dreadful sin, daring to push an equality agenda in a patriarchal world. Doran uncovers delightfully obsequious comments from fawning poets and courtiers, keen to praise Wu and her imitators for simply showing up, for their grace and their wondrous cultural achievements. She also delves deep into the surviving works of Shanggaun Wan’er, and their place in the history of Chinese poetry.

Then things get weird, as Doran examines the Comprehensive Record of Affairs Within the Court and Without, a Tang dynasty fantasy in which a minister is sent to hell over a bureaucratic mistake, witnesses the future of the Ruizong Emperor, and is then restored to the human world in time to live through it all, like some medieval Chinese variant on Back to the Future. She also reports on a common Fortean phenomenon in Wu’s era – transsexual chickens, regarded by Wu’s cronies as examples of her greatness, and by her detractors as symbols of the awfulness of the age. In once farcical scene, a courtier recalls the presentation of a three-legged fowl to Wu, who insists it is an auspicious event worthy of note in the dynastic chronicles, even as her son Ruizong points out that one of the legs is clearly fake. Wu tells him to shut up, but even as she does, the leg falls off.

There’s something quite wonderful about Wu and her courtiers bickering about auspicious bullshit, and Doran’s ongoing citations of gossip and innuendo from the time, such as the nursery rhymes and pop songs that slyly alluded to palace putsches and scandals, and the stories written when later writers tried to grapple with the sheer oddness of her reign. Needless to say, much of the disapproval directed at Wu and her imitators would be framed in familiar, materialist terms, lampooning them for flighty, grasping, gold-digging consumption. Doran begins with a famous poem about Anle putting on her make-up as the soldiers bash down the door to her chambers, observing that there are similarities in the story with the “painted” Jezebel of the Bible. There’s plenty of fun to be had with what today would be called tabloid sniping at Anle and Taiping’s pimped-up chariots, ridiculously opulent palace cribs, and bling-bling fineries.

Doran finishes with a prolonged discussion of the “gender anarchy” of Wu’s era, as described by both apologists and attackers, a sort of topsy-turvy Saturnalia of sexually predatory women and ineffectual men, the elevation of bad-boys and charlatans, and (worst/best of all), the Office of the Crane, Wu’s 120-strong personal harem of pretty boys. One of whom, of course, was the cause of that fateful catfight between Wu and Wan’er. When he was inevitably butchered in the coup that ousted Wu in 705, Wan’er tenderly carried off his penis and presented it to the grieving Empress. That’s what it says in the Secret Record of the Director of the Guiding the Immortal Cranes Bureau, anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God.

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Sheriff

The Finnish police are left baffled by a double murder in a Turku house – a former cop ritually sacrificed and his girlfriend shot in the head. Private investigator Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired by the dead girl’s godmother to look for clues, and soon deduces that everybody has been looking in the wrong place. The police assume that the female victim was merely collateral damage; Vares realises that she was the real target, and her mutilated boyfriend merely a smokescreen. But why would anyone want to kill a highly-respected accountant?

The latest, and so far, last of the Vares films displays a visible stylistic shift from Hannu Salonen, a Germany-trained thriller director who would go on to make Arctic Circle (2018). It restores the comic-book freeze frames and mottos from the earliest films, and has a super-processed, enhanced look that fiddles with odd lens choices to stretch human figures or flatten out backgrounds. Audi is one of the film’s sponsors, but I don’t see any Audi product placement – perhaps it is worth more to the company to pay the Finns to repeatedly abuse, blow up and roll a bunch of Volvos.

Vares does some actual detective work, being ideally placed to notice that, like him, the murders sit on the borderline between the everyday and the criminal underworld. Through his druggie associate Antidote (Jasper Pääkkönen, presumably just before he got his role in Vikings), he is introduced to a council of criminal kingpins who bankroll ventures that fall outside the scope of the mainstream economy – deposits for contraband smuggling, down payments for getaway cars, and, if my own bitter experiences are anything to go by, mortgages for expats. His quest drags him into Finland’s black economy, with its own set of rules and protocols, and surreal daytime speakeasies where men sit on leather sofas and listen to Puccini. In other words, this the Vares series’ answer to Shadow Line, caught between the police and the criminals, each using their own methods in the pursuit of the murderer.

The new look and new director, not to mention the introduction of Shostakovich (Jukka-Pekka Palo), Vares’ self-styled patron from the underworld, could amount to a soft reboot for the whole series, since the novel Sheriff was the first of a sub-trilogy within the long-running novel sequence. Writer-director Salonen has made some brutal decisions with the regular cast, relegating Vares’ usual drinking buddies to a couple of cameos in the closing scenes, and recasting the journalist Ruuhio. Previously played by the clean-cut, ever-youthful Mikko Lempilampi, who presumably has better things to do shooting the same year’s Girl-King, he has suddenly been switched for my favourite Finnish actor, Mikko Kouki, who looks utterly ridiculous here as a gum-chewing slob with a man-bun. I don’t understand why they bothered to say this character was Ruuhio at all; it would have been surely been less disruptive to just give him a different name.

They certainly didn’t keep the original name of squeeze-of-the-week Milla (Karoliina Blackburn), a motorcycle-riding hacker who is swift to reveal to Vares that she only pretends to be a lesbian to hold off unwanted suitors. In the original book, she was known by the actionable pseudonym Harriet “Harry” Potter, the now-obscured origin of a joke in the script that points out the only thing she has in common with the schoolboy wizard is that they both like girls.

The publication of the English translation of the Sheriff book in 2015 permitted me the chance to read a Vares novel and to notice some asides that are not repeated in the film. For example, in the book Vares is momentarily troubled by a vision of himself, strapped to a bed in an asylum, while a nurse reads out newspaper headlines about catastrophic flooding on the Finnish coast. Is this a nightmare? Or is it a premonition about the events of the science fiction coda, Hard Luck Café? He is also brooding about a case that he failed to solve, the death of Mirjam in the snow a decade earlier, as chronicled in Frozen Angel. Meanwhile, an aside reveals that his friend, the author Luusalmi has only ever published a single book, making a mockery of numerous past claims about his erudition. It’s almost as if the chickens are coming home to roost in this late addition to the Vares canon, as both author and hero look back over their past adventures and try to make sense of them all, dredging up some of their earlier claims for a bit of tardy due diligence.

Sheriff, as the book repeatedly reminds the reader, is the Finnish title of the film better known in English as High Noon – one of many Western references buried within the Vares books. But Sheriff also seems like an attempt by author Reijo Mäki to engage with something that has been lurking at the edges of his world for years. Every now and then in Vares stories we get a glimpse of the wider criminal underworld, an entire wainscot society with its own rules, regulations and regulators. In Sheriff, Vares finds himself digging into the mechanics of one of the institutions of this shadow world, a criminal bank prepared to loan money at high rates to high-risk, illegal propositions. It’s not quite The Wire, but more John Wick, as Vares comes to realise the subtle codes he has ignored, inscribed on the very walls of some of the criminals he is chasing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Civilisation

“Aboard the Dingyuan, the wounded, half-blind William Tyler stumbled through the carnage. His ears were still ringing from the blast, and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. Up ahead, he saw a friend of his, Lieutenant Wu. Even as they exchanged greetings, a man standing nearby was torn apart by an enemy shell, smearing gore and entrails across the deck.

“‘So this is civilisation,’ said Wu. ‘This is what you foreigners are so keen to teach us.’”

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements.

From Truant to Anime

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Mari Okada’s memoir of dismal schooldays and her escape to the not-that-glamorous world of anime screenwriting.

“Mari Okada’s memoir of two decades in the anime business begins and ends with the disastrous premiere screening of Anthem of the Heart in her hometown of Chichibu – a huge event in the middle of nowhere, inconvenient for all attendees, with a film that stops playing halfway. As the screenwriter, she fumes impotently as the patrons wait and flunkies try to look busy, and watches with head-shaking resignation as the celebratory fireworks, timed to coincide with the end of the film, are launched too early while the audience is still waiting for it to restart.

“From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to Anohana and The Anthem of the Heart is her account of how she got to that place, as the writer of a standalone film. Her writing is distinguished by a constant resistance to the performativity of Japanese life, refusing to play the game of empty accolades and fake-news proclamations that all is well. Instead, she presents a compelling portrayal of a life (and industry) that constantly ‘fails up’, until she becomes one of modern anime’s rare hyphenate talents.”

Tango of Darkness

At least, for once, we aren’t looking for someone who’s killed a girl. The six-year-old cold case Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) rakes over in Tango of Darkness (2012) is the murder of crooner Harry Koivikko (Jani Muurinen), found on the floor of a seedy flophouse in Turku. Like the partitive grammar case that fixes Finnish nouns if no other declension is available, Vares shambles through this movie picking up other people’s mess. His drinking buddy, journalist Ruuhio (Jussi Lempilampi) has already solved the mystery, but has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Vares must solve the case again in order to find out what has happened to Ruuhio, turning even the drama in this film into a case of reheated leftovers. Meanwhile, hard-man Veikko Hopea (Jussi Lampi), last seen locked in a fridge in Frozen Angel (2007) gets out of prison. “Hmm,” I said to the sofa, “I wonder if we’re going to watch him travel across Finland at occasional intervals throughout the film, only to arrive in the nick of time to save Vares from a bunch of other criminals?” No spoilers; I’ll let you guess. He also orders a room-service haircut from a Russian hooker called Olga, and then inveigles her into a blowjob, so… you know, that’s a bit of comedy business.

The film permits a brief glimpse into Finland’s tango culture, an odd relic of fifties nightclubs and dance-hall customs that continues to flourish in the domestic music scene. It does, indeed, launch a number of local pop stars, including Jari Sillänpää, a man with whose work I have become familiar with over the years because I am often mistaken for him by drunken Finnish cougars. The Finnish tango scene is big enough to support a number of artistes touring small-town venues with CDs in boxes, as long as they keep more or less to a repertoire that neither scares off the young nor annoys the old. Their lives, loves and scandals also seem to form the main material for the blue-collar press whenever a week goes by in which a ski-jumper hasn’t beaten his wife. Ballroom dancing’s enduring popularity, even in the 21st century, is a quaintly unifying element of Finnish life, responsible for, among other things, a bunch of guaranteed cross-generational floor-fillers at Finnish parties, as well as a talent show on Finnish television that I call Pixie Ballgown Accordion Smackdown. The quintessential Finnish dance-hall classic is “Satumaa” (The Fabled Land) written by Unto Mononen in 1955 and most famously sung by Reijo Tapale in 1962. It’s become a doleful staple of the male tango singers, and is a lament for a fairytale paradise forever beyond a man’s reach. At Kalevalanmaa, the centenary celebration of Finnishness put on by the Finnish National Opera in 2017, a performance of “Satumaa”, set at a country dance, was the cue for an audience singalong. In this film, it also lends its name to the hostel where Koivikko’s body was found, which has become a place of pilgrimage for his female fans.

The book on which this film is based, Pimeyden tango (1997) was published the year before the novel that was previously adapted into Kiss of Evil. In other words, beneath the skin, we are still dealing with a younger author writing a younger Vares, seemingly the sub-set of stories in which his job is to saunter in years after the police have given up, and inadvertently tie together the vital loose strands. Sometimes, as here, this is simply by presenting himself as bait to lure the criminals out of hiding, like a beer-soaked, gumshoe Christ. True to Reijo Mäki’s original novels, Vares is not present in several scenes in which motivations are explained and seemingly random deus ex machina events are set up. We, the viewers, know why certain events occur, but he presumably wanders off simply baffled by what has just happened to him.

As for the regulars, the biggest continuity change comes in the form of Vares’ neighbour Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi), a sometime stripper and formerly his driver of choice, who is now apparently in a relationship with Ruuhio the journalist. Vares tools around town in another Volvo, suspiciously like the one that got blown up in Garter Snake (2011). “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if this Volvo will meet a similarly explosive fate.” No spoilers, right? Vares is tracking the supposedly unfaithful wife of a local businessman, unaware that his client is a nutjob liable to want him dead if he doesn’t deliver the right evidence. “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if the client will try to have him killed, but accidentally kill someone else who has just killed another person who was going to kill Vares?” Perhaps I am getting a feel for the way that plots work in the Vares films, but if so, I have miscalculated the degree of screwing that goes on in this one, with Vares failing to bed absolutely anyone on camera. He does spend a while flirting with the sassy back-up singer Donna (Lolla Wallinkoski), a woman whose sole job in this movie is to convincingly hold a tune, at which she spectacularly fails. “Do you want to hear my new single?” she says to Vares as they drive along in his doomed Volvo, before turning on the stereo and subjecting us all to a caterwauling crime against music. She’s the 1997 Miss Scandinavia, although Finland isn’t in Scandinavia, so your guess is as good as mine how that happened.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Solo

Budgets were cut back for the tail-end of the Dredd audios. In order to have full casts in some of the other episodes, Big Finish asked me how small I could go. I wrote Pre-Emptive Revenge for just three actors, but there had always been a running gag that Toby Longworth could do all the voices himself… and then the director John Ainsworth said: well, why not? So I wrote Solo, in which Toby plays literally every part, and that freed up a couple of actors to bulk out the casts on someone else’s script.

It began as a pastiche of Chinatown, but then I was inspired by a powerful image in the Korean movie Joint Security Area (a body lying on the border, since ripped off by The Bridge and The Tunnel), and something I read in a book called Rattling the Cage, about the case for animal rights. The rest just happened… It’s really Toby’s masterpiece, right down to the moment when the Solo tries to cross the border towards the end, and I wrote the direction: “Solo replies, with the voice of Toby Longworth.” That’s the only time you’ll ever hear him out of character… or characters…

Ignoring Anime

Eiga Geijutsu (Film Arts) magazine is not afraid to call a spade a spade, infamously publishing both a Ten Best and Ten Worst list each year about Japanese movie releases. But in this year’s round-up of the highs and lows of 2017, editor Haruhiko Arai has refused to consider animated works.

The films that have particularly irritated him will be familiar to many readers of NEO magazine. One is Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which prompted Arai to ponder at a screening whether the enthusiastic movie-goers enjoying themselves around him had seen any other films recently.

Well, no they hadn’t. The huge box office figures for Your Name imply that many people who went to see it were either coming back for seconds or had not been to a cinema for a while. But how on Earth is that a reason to exclude it from consideration? It is surely an indication that Arai’s movie ratings are ignoring the opinions of the public. I, myself, make a living out of ignoring the opinions of the public, but Arai has not even afforded Your Name the backhanded compliment of calling it crap. He just stuck his head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t there.

Ignoring things, says Arai, is part of the problem with modern anime. He is disgusted by Your Name’s uplifting spin on tragedy, and regards it as a betrayal of history. He feels much the same way about In This Corner of the World, for presenting a childish innocent as a victim of war.

His reasoning is unexpectedly sound – frankly, it’s thought-provoking criticism. Your Name does indeed flaunt bad-taste brinkmanship by offering a reset button on an allegorical Tohoku earthquake – part of Shinkai’s incredible achievement lies in getting away with it. And ITCOW does rehash that old anime staple that regards WW2 as some sort of inevitable natural disaster visited upon the unsuspecting Japanese. But neither comment justifies pretending that the entire animated medium isn’t there anymore! In discounting two of the best anime of 2017 on spurious ideological grounds, Arai risks consigning his own magazine to the doldrums of film criticism. Instead, he argues that anime viewers are somehow cine-illiterate, unaware of trends and tropes in film itself, dumbly consuming pointless pap without any understanding of film as a medium. So I guess that tells us all where Miyazaki can shove his Oscar.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #175, 2018.