Koxinga: A Hero’s Legacy

29167_417389643053_6783804_nKoxinga: A Hero’s Legacy, the documentary I made with National Geographic in 2010, has turned up on Youtube. I am a talking head, all over it like a rash, because of my book on the infamous Pirate King of Taiwan.

 

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Big Game

“Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun…” (trailer)

Big-Game-poster-excerpt

Lame-duck American president Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson (“Call me Bill”) is travelling to a conference in Helsinki when Air Force One is shot down over Lapland by jodhpur-wearing Arab Bastard (he is Arabic, and a Bastard) Mehmet Kurtulus, a “grade-A psychopath” who plans to mount and stuff him. Back at the Pentagon, a bunch of aides wring their hands and send the SEALs all over the place, while the President goes on the run with a 13-year-old Finnish boy Oskari (Onni Tommila), interrupted partway through his traditional manhood ritual, which involves running into the forest with a bow and arrow and bagging the biggest possible game. He was hoping for a bear or a reindeer, but instead finds himself playing impromptu bodyguard to POTUS.

Meanwhile, the President’s real bodyguard, Ray Stevenson, is secretly working with the Arab Bastard, in a troubled and contentious partnership that usually involves shooting a henchman every time they disagree. Tracking the fleeing President and his teenage guardian, they briefly apprehend them, leading to a bonkers escape sequence in which Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun. They go to ground in an explosive shoot-out in and around the wreckage of Air Force One, which eventually seems to result in the blowing up of half of the Finnish countryside.

arab bastard no really its in the plot

As with writer/director Jalmari Helander’s previous film, Rare Exports, Finland itself is playfully stereotyped and archetyped to a wilfully silly degree. If the Americans are shouty morons with lots of guns and expensive tech that proves to be useless, the Finns are a bunch of earnest, grubby hunters with Bowie knives and trousers held up with string. They are enacting a portentous coming-of-age ceremony that involves running out into the woods and killing something. If Helander were not actually a Finn himself, we’d think he was a clueless hack, but since he plainly knows that Lapland isn’t actually a mere 45 minutes north of Helsinki, we can file his more absurd action-movie fudges as a deliberate invocation of a Finland of the mind – a sweetly childish playground of forest adventures and easily-outwitted bad guys, with time out to grill a sausage over a fire. He takes this to extremes with his landscapes, which replace the drab fells of the real Lapland with the breath-taking peaks of the Bavarian Alps, thereby hoovering up German film-fund money for a movie whose Hollywood action style is really a thin veneer over a multi-national Europudding.

With its 13-year-old protagonist and an 80-minute running time, Big Game is carefully targeted at the juvenile audience, despite its Die Hard trappings and the inevitable appearance of Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson’s favourite word, in a Yippie-kay-aye Moviegoer quotable that is long in coming but worth the wait. Helander’s script ultimately paints America as both an aspirational paradise and a corrupt rogue state, while its president is by turns baffled and charmed by Finland’s grim sisu resolve, and ultimately regains his self-confidence and poll rating through the acquisition of firearms and snark.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.   Big Game is released in UK cinemas on 8th May.

History vs Mystery

There will never be a 100% historically accurate Confucius movie. It would be in a dialect of ancient Chinese that literally nobody could understand. The manners and customs would be more alien than the wildest science fiction, and the character motivations truly inscrutable. And no matter how careful the scholarship, it would be open to attack from all sides, because the original source material is already riddled with holes, assumptions and later interpolations.

Our prime source for Confucius, The Analects, is a grab bag of anecdotes and quotations, assembled long after the famous philosopher’s death. A diligent scholar can rearrange the stories in a rough chronological order, revealing a narrative basis for Confucius’s life: his early career as a civil servant, his early successes, his fall from grace in his native state of Lu and his years of wandering. Take things to extremes, applying true academic rigour to the materials, and the historical Confucius evaporates altogether.

Hence, literally any biography of Confucius must involve dramatic licence. As with the First Emperor of China, we are forced to work from the thinnest of material, little more than snatches of overheard dialogue: a cluster of old sayings, and a few incidental details about the history of the period. Hu Mei’s film Confucius, starring Chow Yun-fat, is a brave effort that meticulously walks a difficult tightrope between historical accuracy and entertainment. Continue reading

Rooms with a View

gft_ext1There are pictures on the wall of the Glasgow Film Theatre that show it in its heyday. Bit by bit, it’s got a little more cramped. Where there was once a sweeping Deco foyer with plenty of space overhead, a false ceiling has been shoved in to make way for a bar. And now the little café on the ground floor has been gutted to make way for Screen Three.

Digital filmmaking has created an environment where less theatre-goers have to choose between more films. Where shipping a film print to a destination once involved a stack of reels the size of the average drum kit, you can now Fedex a humble hard-drive containing the main attraction. Projection rooms are getting smaller, but so is the average audience size for the ever-increasing archive of content.

Modern cinema design hence favours increasingly smaller theatres like Glasgow’s upcoming Screen Three, allowing smaller groups of fifty or sixty punters to huddle into a space that increasingly resembles someone’s living room.

I spend a lot of my time in such bespoke mini-theatres. In Soho’s movieland they call them screening rooms, because that’s what they are. And for distributors, exhibitors and reviewers, it’s perfectly fine to relax in a plush chair with a posh sound system to assess next month’s movies for review or consideration. What they miss out on, however, is that vulnerable, ineffable sense of community that one gets from being an audience member, in a crowd, in a truly big cinema. I still cherish memories of The Empire Strikes Back, Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at the vast Empire in Leicester Square. Last October’s Scotland Loves Anime jammed hundreds of fans cheek-to-cheek to laugh and cry and gasp at a roster of films from the apocalyptic Evangelion 3.0 to the intricate Garden of Words. Do audiences miss out on something if they see such epics on a mere laptop? What about if the screen is only marginally larger than your rich mate’s telly? After all, if a giant robot is supposed to be forty feet tall, doesn’t it help the whole movie-going experience if it actually is?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, out now from the British Film Insititute. This article first appeared in NEO # 118, 2013.

Carry on Cossacks

LakeKaban-thumb-300xauto-38328One of the pleasures of long-haul flights is getting to mainline a bunch of movies that you wouldn’t otherwise stand a whelk’s chance of watching. Which is how, somewhere two miles above Novosibirsk, I found myself watching The Treasure of Lake Kaban, a completely bonkers movie set in Tatarstan.

The poster says it all, from the Lara Croft rip-off and the aspirant Bond, all the way to the irritating little dog. Ivan the Terrible scowls at the left – it is he, in flashback, who attacks Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan, causing the beautiful princess Soyembika to bury her greatest treasure in a secret location. Meanwhile, over on the right is an “American” carpet-bagger called, wait for it, Diana Jones.

The tagline shrugs: “Nyet vremeni obyasnyat” (There’s no time to explain). And apparently there isn’t, as a frustrated army doctor-turned-archaeologist, a nutjob who thinks he’s an alien, and a Russian navy conscript trying to find enough cash to buy out his commission, all converge on the small republic, where local colour amounts to a whole bunch of relics of Russian’s Mongol marchland – dances, cossacks, daggers, and most memorably in the gene pool, if the smouldering Elvira Ibragimova (that’s her in the shorts) is anything to go by.

The script, by Georgiy Kirvalidze and Dimitriy Terekhov, is based on ideas by three others – although there is such antic chaos in the movie that one might be forgiven that three completely different films were being made at once. There are allusions to many tourist sites in Kazan, and local legends such as the Zilat, the region’s own variant of the Loch Ness monster.

Played straight, there would have been plenty of majesty and scenery here to out-Dan Brown Dan Brown. But The Treasure of Lake Kaban plumps for madcap “comedy”, all pratfalls and kicks in the goolies, as wannabe rock star Kiril (Alex Sparrow, who is apparently something big in Russian X Factor) gurns and mugs his way around a series of monuments and sewers, trying and largely failing not to stare down the cavernous cleavages of his co-stars and nemesis. The result plays as if the Chuckle Brothers have been put in charge of the Da Vinci Code, with all that that implies.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of the Silk Road, which doesn’t have any monsters in it, but does have more belly dancing.

Indian Giving

Mark Schilling’s latest article in Variety discusses some of the issues facing modern anime, including the ever-growing rush to outsource, plummeting demographics and hybrid contents. Yours truly is briefly quoted with a very conservative estimate of the size of the foreign labour pool — Ryosuke Takahashi puts it a lot higher. Schilling suggests that declining numbers of children are responsible for declining numbers of anime, but I do not entirely agree with this, or at least, not with the way that the data is presented here. The peak of production in 2006 was generated by an insanely high investment interest from abroad, which is still playing out today as all the investors sue each other over what went wrong.