Skiptrace (2016)

In press junkets for his previous film Chinese Zodiac, much was made of Jackie Chan’s “retirement” from action films, somewhat to the actor’s chagrin. The 62-year-old Chan was obliged to run damage control on his own career, pleading that he was certainly going to make more films, but that his advancing years made him less likely to perform his own stunts or do anything mental. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual in Skiptrace, in which Chan can be seen fighting his way through a Russian factory, leaping from a collapsing Hong Kong slum, and dangling from a man’s trousers on a perilous ravine zipline. It’s only when you look closer that you see the occasional stuntman substitution, or that Chan’s co-star Johnny Knoxville, a man famous for shooting himself out of a cannon or eating a goat’s testicles on many a Jackass, is volunteering to take some of the harder knocks.

As Chan’s foil Connor Watts, Knoxville initially seems to be appearing in two different movies, on the run from the Russian mob, and framed for murder by a Macao casino syndicate. Benny (Chan) is the weary Hong Kong cop sent to bring in the fugitive Watts, unaware that he is carrying a cellphone that would solve Benny’s decade-long quest to unmask the criminal kingpin known as the Matador. For reasons not entirely clear (if they can cross the border, they can surely get on a plane), the impecunious pair is obliged to travel by land from Irkutsk to Hong Kong, with a travelogue narrative that focuses almost entirely on either end of the 5000-kilometre journey, ignoring most of the central Chinese locations they would have had to cross in favour of the ethnic hinterlands of Inner Mongolia and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Chan and Knoxville traverse a bunch of picturesque settings – a lantern festival, cormorant fishing on the Yangtze, the mountains of Guilin, entire mountainsides of rice terraces – all as a backdrop to the formulaic knockabout action that has made Chan a global superstar. Critics in America have been quick to site this film in Chan’s late period in Hollywood, alongside other foreign buddy franchises like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese. The characters plough through local colour like tourists on a speedboat, inadvertently asserting privileged disdain, even as they document diversity. One wonders what the reaction would have been if he had made a similar road movie traversing the United States, and how various local communities would have reacted. Hahaha, the Navajo are all drunken brawlers; heeheehee, the Sioux are toothless swindlers; hohoho, those Negros sure love a good sing-song!

Parts of the film seem to have been flung together against the clock, including a couple of moments in which the actors shrug off sudden drizzle, and a closing act in which two scenes appear to  have been included out of order. Jokes about Chan’s inability to swim might seem tasteless in the light of the death by drowning mid-production of cinematographer Chan Kwok-hung. A recurring jump-cut motif propels the narrative along by discarding large chunks of exposition and development, but also papering thinly over plot holes. At least two key elements of the story – justice for the murderer Victor Wong (Winston Chau), and Knoxville’s shotgun marriage – are revealed as self-resolving problems for which the actions of the characters are entirely redundant. But this, too, is a faithful evocation of the breakneck pace of pre-Handover Hong Kong action films; Harlin’s movie is a note-perfect pastiche of Chan’s 1990s heyday, opening with a manga-in-motion series of comics cutaways, introducing the cast in a pop-art style. Fun veritably seeps out through all this movie’s cracks, from an opening sequence in which Chan initiates an attack on a bad guys’ hide-out, armed only with a bra and negligee, to a sequence in which Fan Bingbing tries and largely fails to conceal how much she is enjoying a fight scene in which she takes out her attackers with a taser and a fish tank.

There are several easter eggs for certain sectors of the audience. I failed to spot the Finnish flag that Harlin habitually hides in his films, but did note the snarling cameo for wrestling star Eve Torres Garcia, and the oh-so-meta moment when Knoxville, obliged to sing his way past an honour guard of tribal girls, chooses to belt out “Please Understand My Heart”, a Jackie Chan hit from 1991. The gangsters in pursuit, on the other hand, mumble their way through a half-hearted rendition of “You Are My Little Apple”, the novelty hit of 2014. And in an utterly bizarre musical interlude, Chan whips up a bunch of Mongols into a rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.

Meanwhile, in an odd moment of political cheekiness, Chan’s character expresses his desire to retire and run an alpaca farm, noting that these animals are a symbol of freedom. That they may be, but they are also a notorious icon of Chinese internet dissidence, striking an oddly right-on note for a man who has spent the last decade in alliance and cooperation with the authorities.

Strangest of all, despite a worldwide release in dozens of countries, Skiptrace has yet to appear on UK movie schedules, nor at time of writing has it been submitted to the BBFC. Harlin’s status as a local boy saw his film released in Finland last weekend, where I sat amid an audience of usually stoic Finns, laughing their tits off at was surely their first-ever Jackie Chan film. You can see this movie in the United States, in Holland, in Singapore… but it seems strangely absent from UK schedules. Is a distributor saving it for the Christmas feel-good rush, or has its kitchen-sink assembly of kicks in the goolies, an Adele sing-along, on-screen horse-poo  and white-water rafting on inflatable pig-skins failed to include anything that will interest a British audience? Something for everybody, even the Finns… but not the British…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, which is also a road trip about two bickering buddies, forced to cross China undercover. This article originally appeared on the Funimation UK site in 2016, but has since been deleted.

Hiroshima

“Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima (1953) uses the tense normalcy of everyday life as a framing device to retell the story of the city’s bombing, not merely the explosion and immediate aftermath, but the stunned reaction of the Japanese authorities to the utmost devastation of a ‘new type of bomb.’ It is plainly intended as a didactic experience, focussing in particular on the young victims of the attack – even its title is written in easy-to-read hiragana, evoking a childish incomprehension of the forces at work elsewhere. To truly appreciate it, however, one needs to understand the politicking and arguments around its release – refused exhibition by many 1950s cinemas, it was buried at the box office, ostensibly for its unwelcome engagement with issues that Cold War Japan was still trying to suppress.”

Over at All the Anime, I review the new blu-ray of Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima.

 

To The Distant Observer

The cameraman is in my living room. The director is in Brighton or somewhere like that, skyping in on a laptop perched on top of a stack of books so that we have the same eyeline. COVID-19 doesn’t prevent the recording of my appearance on Channel Five’s forthcoming history of the last thousand years in China, to be broadcast in the autumn.

Scorned (1939)

Itinerant pedlar Takala (Eino Kaipainen) arrives at a thriving industrial town, where he befriends the locals, settles down as a shopkeeper, and soon goes into business as a subcontractor to the local factory. His business partner Toikka (Kaarlo Kartio) doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and Takala is ruined by a business rival, forced to sell off his shares in his own company.

Local girl Verna (Ester Toivonen), with whom Takala has had a turbulent flirtation since she was a teenager, flounces off to sob in her room, and Takala leaves for the big city. Both Takala and Verna end up marrying other people, while the outbreak of the Great War leads to changing fortunes. Toikka makes a pile as a war profiteer, while Takala is literally stabbed in the back by striking workers at his paper mill. He is thus conveniently hospitalised for the upheavals of the Finnish revolution and civil war, ready to return triumphant in a tense negotiation over the mill’s future, in which he and Verna, both now conveniently single again, join forces to vote the evil boss off the board.

Released in March 1939 in the short gap between The February Manifesto and The Activists, and hence somewhat eclipsed by two of the biggest films of 1939, Halveksittu is just as much about the transformations of the 20th century as they are. In a subtle, grass-roots way, it charts Takala’s progress from penniless pedlar to wealthy industrialist, in a liminal period that sees Finland itself go from Russian Grand Duchy to independent republic.

Based on Lauri Haarla’s 1930 novel A Man Scorned (Halveksittu mies) the film was criticised in the media for retaining much of the original’s “hollow pathos” – presumably the newspaper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti would have preferred a few more car chases. A review in Uusi Suomi more cannily noted that the film attacked two distinct sub-sections of Finnish society – the Swedish aristocracy, who are defeated by honest Finns, and the Finnish Reds, who are depicted here as thugs duped by demagogues. Writing and directing the adaptation, Jorma Nortimo jettisons much of the novel’s consideration of Takala’s early life, preferring instead to concentrate on the turbulent 1910s. The resultant story valorises the Goldlilocks-level Finnish middle class that remains the national ideal to this day – not too rich and Swedish, not too poor and Red, a just-right White.

The need to cover two or more decades leads to some desperate costuming decisions, not the least Ester Toivonen’s first appearance dressed as a schoolgirl and shopping for a live squirrel, and early scenes in which she inadvisably tries to act as if she has a mental age of about six. In one scene, she leaps enthusiastically onto her father’s lap, and the actor Yrjö Tuominen visibly winces in pain. Later on, her cosmopolitan but loveless marriage is neatly encapsulated in a single scene, in which she flips dolefully through a photo album of all the places she has been, only for a cigar-chomping Gavelius to come in and call her a silly cow.

One is left feeling rather sorry for the spouses who are jettisoned so that the central couple can rekindle their true love. Siviä (Laila Rihte) is Takala’s loyal shop assistant, who worships him from afar – only we see her simpering in wonder as he faffs around in his shop and leaps over his own counter. Gavelius (Joel Rinne) is the monocled dastard to whom the broken-hearted Verna turns for solace, but his sole purpose seems to be to whisk her away for a three-year hiatus, and then leave her a fortune which will allow her to buy her way back into Takala’s heart. Clad in black, and grey at the temples, Takala and Verna stride arm in arm from the conference room as if marching up the aisle to their own, long-delayed wedding. Reader, find someone who looks at you the way that Ester Toivonen looks at Eino Kaipainen when they’ve just joined forces to enact a hostile take-over of their local saw-mill.

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

Palm Beach Finland

On one of those heady summer days when the thermometer climbs into the low teens, there’s been a killing at “Palm Beach, Finland.” It wasn’t always Palm Beach, of course. But local entrepreneur Jorma Leivo thinks he can turn it into a Mediterranean-style resort, as long as he keeps the lifeguards in skimpy shorts, builds a giant pink flamingo and somehow acquires the Koski family home, which inconveniently sits on the land he needs for the deep-water marina.

Antti Tuomainen’s novel dispels much of its mystery in the opening chapter. We know exactly who has killed a thief in the kitchen of the Koski residence – two thugs sent by Jorma to scare Olivia Koski out of the house she has just inherited. And we also know that Jan, the holidaying maths teacher, new in town, is an undercover police officer investigating the crime. So there are no sudden revelations here – the reader is there to watch as the cast fumble and stumble their way towards a resolution, each of them chasing a nebulous dream that could conceivably be realised with just one smallish cash injection.

Everybody is living on the edge, tantalisingly within reach of a big break. Jorma’s visions of a Mediterranean resort on a Finnish beach merely require the acquisition of one final parcel of land. Chico, the local loser, just needs to do one dirty job in order to get the money for the guitar that will make him a rock star. In the most Finnish of dreams, Olivia has pipes that need re-doing, and builders’ expenses that keep escalating. And now the sinister gangster Holma has rolled into town, offering a five-figure sum for anyone who can help him find out who killed his hapless brother.

Considering that Jorma’s resort has 1980s-themed colours, and chalets named after the cast of a well-known Florida cop show, I am surprised that nobody thought to call this book Niemi Vice. It is, after all, the little cottage on the cape (niemi) that is the epicentre of all the violence, which includes an exploding shed and that most Finnish of torments, an attack on someone’s sauna. In any self-respecting Scandi-Noir, Jan Nyman the investigator would be the hero, but Tuomainen’s novel is an ensemble piece, with none of the characters quite perceiving where they are in a chain of obligations and vendettas, each of them making promises they can’t keep, about money they hope to get, for a service they hope to render.

Much like the work of Reijo Mäki, Tuomainen’s fiction revels in the disconnection between the melodrama of a hard-boiled, American thriller and the jejune realities of Finnish small-town life. These echo the ironies to be found in his The Man Who Died, which revolves around skulduggery in the rare-mushroom world, and Little Siberia, in which ne’er-do-wells in a one-horse town race to acquire a precious meteorite – it has spent aeons traversing the universe, only to end up crashing through the roof of a drunken rally-driver’s Audi. Palm Beach Finland comes similarly loaded with a sense of the absurd, not least in the character of Chico, whose life-changing encounter with the spirit of Bruce Springsteen is brought about by inhaling the toxic fumes from a fire started with painted wooden slats.

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

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

“Have you ever bought a disc just for the extras? A couple of times, I’ve caught myself doing just that – ignoring the film and going straight for Brian Blessed’s commentary on Flash Gordon, or the writers’ chat by Palahniuk and Uhls on Fight Club. There are some films I know so well that I don’t feel the need to actually watch them again any time soon, but I am always up for knowing more about them. And in that regard, the new Blu-ray edition of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is a dream come true.”

Over at All the Anime, I dive deep into the Arrow Academy release of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, the extras on which are literally three times as long as the film itself.

A Short History of Tokyo

“This is a fascinating historical tour of one of the world’s great cities, exploring Tokyo’s long past with an eye to its present form and its bustling contemporary population. Clements digs deep into place names, and into the wider context of Japan’s long history, to offer an account that visitors to Tokyo – whether first-timers or old regulars – will no doubt find invaluable in helping them to make sense of a city that can sometimes feel overwhelming in its size and vibrant complexity.” – Chris Harding, author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present

“Concise, engaging history charmingly told by an expert on Japanese culture, who loves the city and knows its neighbourhoods well. Helpful guide to important leaders and notable places in Tokyo history that will delight both armchair travellers and visitors to the city.” – Alisa Freedman, author of Introducing Japanese Popular Culture

“…a volume on the city that offers more than a guidebook while remaining compact.” – Times Literary Supplement

Apparently, A Short History of Tokyo, the updated paperback edition of my 2018 Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, is out now.

Qiu Jin

Executed on this day in history: Qiu Jin.

She read forbidden pamphlets, printed by the revolutionary overseas Chinese organizations in distant Japan, and she wrote The Song of the Precious Sword, in which she accused China of being in a coma. China, she wrote needed to wake up and remember its great past. It needed to listen to the tolling of the bell signified by the “white devils” who occupied Beijing. It needed people like her to risk their lives, pick up swords, shining brighter than jewels “in the light of the sun and moon.”

There! There it was, a sun-moon reference to the lost Ming dynasty – a clarion call to rebels. And if that were not clear enough, the song included a call for suicidal resistance, recalling the infamous assassination attempt on the man who would become the First Emperor.

Don’t you recall Jing Ke’s visit to the court of Qin? / When the map was unrolled, the dagger appeared! / Although he failed to stab him there in the palace / He still managed to rob the evil tyrant of his soul!

Qiu Jin sometimes liked to use a pen-name meaning the Woman Warrior of Mirror Lake, likening herself to a wandering heroine from a fantasy novel. Her writings obsess constantly over swords, using terminology lifted from heroic romances. She idolized the Song dynasty hero Yue Fei, writing at least two songs of her own to the tune of his The River All in Red:

My body will not allow me / To mingle with the men / But my heart is far braver / Than that of a man.

It was in Beijing that Qiu Jin stopped wearing make-up and started attending protests in men’s clothes. Arguing with her wastrel, abusive husband, who wanted to take a concubine for himself, she walked out on him and their two children. “I have pawned my hairpins and my rings,” she wrote, “to travel across the ocean.”

The author Lu Xun, then a young medical student in Japan, witnessed her brandishing a knife before a crowd of Chinese ex-pats and telling them they could stab her with it if she bowed to the Manchus. Qiu Jin published several short-lived magazines and polemic articles in Japan, working towards a theory of revolution that argued that China’s men had failed, and that the country could only become strong again through the education and liberation of its women. Alluding to the medieval feminism of Empress Wu, she wrote that women in ancient times were fully the equals of men. Referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then a hit in translation among Chinese literati, she compared the status of women in China to that of Negro slaves in America.

Women, she said, had to stand up, and that involved unbinding their feet from centuries of oppression. “These… shoes,” she wrote, “condemn us to inaction. This must change!”

In Japan, Qiu Jin began work on an epic poem, Stones of the Jingwei Bird, a reference to a drowned princess, reincarnated as a bird, who drops pebbles one by one into the sea in a vain attempt to fill it. A powerful, on-the-nose allegory of China, it was set in a fantasy realm, whose ancient Yellow kings had once been great men, but whose descendants were increasingly somnolent and distracted, and whose modern successors were in a state of permanent slumber. Their ministers were befuddled and myopic, prepared to bow to the throne even when a foreigner sat on it, looking only to their own self-interest, and pointing at “primitive books” that justified “keeping women in fetters and ensure that they remained stupid.”

Foot-binding, she wrote, was merely the most obvious, painful, pointless hobbling of women in Chinese society, and Chinese society could not see that by holding back its womenfolk – from education and liberation – it was holding back its own ability to resist foreign oppression. And in her fictional allegory, the Queen Mother of the West, ancient Daoist deity, sent a divine squadron of “golden lads and jade maidens” to study in Japan and return to China to save it from itself.

She returned to China, travelling third-class, dressed as a man and wearing a sword for protection. She was fulsome in her praise for Japan, which had proven the power of modernization by winning the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Back among her friends in Shanghai and Shaoxing, she encouraged them to get drunk and perform sword-dances. In 1907, she accepted the post of principal of the Datong School for Girls, where her students would sing lyrics like her Lament for China:

So why do we find it impossible to surpass these white men?

It is because we are locked in a prison of darkness…

Qiu Jin blamed white men for China’s troubles, but she also blamed men in general for ruining women’s potential. In particular, she blamed the Manchus – the symbol of her rebel organization was the character Han, asserting a desire for return of Chinese rule to the Chinese.

From A Brief History of China, by Jonathan Clements.