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The American, Tron, and the “new” Harry Potter

Well, I’ve seen a few movies in the last few weeks, went into all of them blind (because no, I still haven’t read the Harry Potter books) and there are two things I can say about those films.

The first is that you can tell a lot about a movie by how badly Koreans took it. The American, a European film featuring George Clooney, has been getting some pretty negative reactions online in Korea. People are reporting things like a quarter of the audience getting up and walking out at some point in the film. Lots of people are complaining about how it’s so “boring” and “pointless.” (Of course, they said that about brilliant films like 지구를 지켜라! (Save the Green Planet!) and 고양이를 부탁해 (Take Care of My Cat), too. Somewhere in his book on Korean pop culture, Mark Russell lists off all the best features of the former movie, and then observes: “It didn’t stand a chance.”)

Suffice it to say, if Korean audiences are, on average, hating a movie, the chances are that it’s either an abominable stinker, or quite wonderful and interesting and just a little different.

Well, for the record, Miss Jiwaku and I saw it the other day — for me, it was a test of how much I’d recovered from my food poisoning — and we thought it it was the latter — wonderful and interesting and just a little different. It’s a rather dark little movie, and while there were a few bits I wasn’t clear on, I enjoyed it immensely. It’s nice to see bits of Europe instead of bits of Vancouver-as-California or Toronto/Montreal-as-NYC. It’s nice to see a film at a European pace. And Clooney is a good actor, as this film aply demonstrates, even if it is a familiar sort of character for him.

The film has a very paranoid feel, but also something of the sense one gets from reading Graham Greene: an American abroad being part of that, but also an American stuck in a world that is within his reach, but beyond his grasp. Indeed, I think this is part of what I liked about the fact that there are things I wasn’t clear on, even as I watched the film: there are things that aren’t supposed to be clear about it, though the general story seems comprehensible enough.

It ends up being a story about whether love is possible in a world where one must survive by one’s wits, by one’s ability to kill those who might kill you without remorse, but it also becomes a story about whether life is possible under those circumstances. And I think the answer the film suggests is that it all depends on how you define “life,” as well as how willing you are to stick to an unsatisfactory definition of it.

As for the new TRON: Legacy we saw this in 4D with a big crowd of friends, and if those friends hadn’t suggested it, I would have given it a miss. I strongly suggest you learn from my mistake, because you have much better things to do.

First off: if you haven’t experienced 4D, well, the idea is that you get a 3D film, and then add in another “dimension” of experience. I think a lot of the technology is a few decades old, and taken from amusement park rides: your chair shakes and changes shape at dramatically opportune moments, little plastic doohickeys slap the backs of your legs, and the air currents are manipulated in the theater, both on a macro scale (which is okay — these are the best-ventilated structures I’ve been in for years) and on the micro-level, by means of little fans in the neck area of the seat back.

I had very low expectations going in. I guess they weren’t low enough, though, because I was groaning at a number of points. Miss Jiwaku whispered into my ear, at the start, “Oh, it’s a Disney movie,” and there was a 4D experience: our hearts sank. The sad thing is that the real-world plot didn’t just suck, it was… well, here’s the thing. I know, as my friend Charles commented when I explained why I hated the film, that Hollywood [almost] always handles anything to do with computers at the level of a high-functioning retard, but trust me: the handling of the computer stuff in the opening of this film insults the intelligence of that hypothetical, imaginary retard. I mean, if you don’t know what an OS is or does, go on Wikipedia. OSes aren’t live TV broadcasts. When people talk about some piece of software being “the most secure version ever” that doesn’t mean what you think it means. And I still don’t know how the protagonist hacked into the software, altered it, and escaped in a couple of minutes without touching a keyboard…

But it gets worse. I’ll just say, we all expected the “conceit” to be a bit dumb. What we didn’t expect was that the virtual world that was to be revisited in the sequel would be boring, too. It was. Had I had the same level of expectations as one of my friends (with whom we saw it) maybe I’d have enjoyed myself a little more. “I expected a black background and blue glowing lights in the foreground.” Which is, to translate as she did, “No expectations.”

Okay, sure, but the thing is, I’m getting tired of going to SF films with no expectations. I’m tired of SF — the kind of literature I find the most challenging and intelligent of almost anything I read — to be so poorly translated into media. It is not so bloody hard to make an intelligent movie.

Then again, it probably is hard to make an intelligent remake of TRON. But… then, why bother?

Oh yeah. Money.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1), though, is a pretty good counterexample, though.

I don’t know whether the folks behind this film love the book series, or were attracted by the money, or both. I’ve had mixed feelings about the past films, even though I’ve never read the novels. (Yeah, yeah, I know, but it’s not because I’m an elitist or hate them. I just haven’t gotten around to them, okay?) But this film felt like a project where people were trying to really tell a story, to make it look good, and to give it some depth.

Sure. huge sums of money are changing hands, but that’s not the whole of the point, and you can tell when you see the film.

My favorite scene was the part where you learn about the Deathly Hallows; it’s an animation narrated by Hermione, and it is absolutely gorgeous, as well as at least partly inspired by the shadow-puppet tradition we see in Southeast Asian puppetry (called wayang kulit in Indonesia, for example):

The film is, as several friends have commented, pretty unrelentingly dark, and pretty unrelentingly merciless on the characters. My impression was that in some earlier Harry Potter films, some of the story problems were easier to solve, and were often the problems of other characters–this or that classmate or teacher being the baddie-of-theyear, swapped in to start trouble–but in this narrative, though there is no shortage of villains and villainous plots —

— the core story problems are all very nicely anchored inside the hearts and minds of the protagonists themselves: their own weaknesses, their own failings, their own problems.

The villains are, of course, just a little cardboard, still, and to be frank it’s hard to imagine how they could be otherwise without hearing the story from their point of view. That said, I’m assuming the films are faithful to the books and, yeah, I’m impressed that Rowling took all this Muggle-blood/half-blood/Wizard-blood ideology to its logical extension, ie. eugenics-embracing totalitarian rule by magic-users. (Or that seems to be what is going on, anyway.)

I appreciated that each of the primary characters is struggling with his or her own problems: Harry with the responsibility he must bear (as usual) but also the need he has to keep his little group together if the world is to be saved from his enemy; Hermione and Ralph Ron struggle to keep their relationship — and their sanity, really — as they’re pulled along on this mad quest.

But the “quest” involves a lot of “go hide and wait” and one thing I was impressed with, regarding that, is how the waiting didn’t bore me. The other thing that struck me was how utterly in reverse the dynamic was with other characters from outside the core group. When I left Canada for Korea, I figured I needed a big book to read on the plane, so I began reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, in a big fat single-volume edition of the kind that were plentiful when the films were coming out. I remember observing that I felt a lot like Frodo at the time, when a flight attendant gave me and a few other people a second meal just because the plane was so empty and the people in first class were all sleeping (and it was, yes, first class food that she’d been snacking on); I remember being given a place to crash when I was passing through Vancouver, and being so grateful; I remember arriving, perplexed, and some random middle-aged Korean guy helping me find which bus I needed without even being asked to help.

All of this, for me, echoed the way Frodo and his friends, on leaving the Shire, got help from stranger after stranger, as if they were simply being sent help from the universe itself, as a kind of cosmic endorsement, a sign of approval that they were headed in the right direction. Plot coupons do indeed lie ahead, fellas.

Well, this pattern cannot, and did not, hold, of course. Normal life settles in, and you find that some people are eager to help you, while others are eager to screw you over… and the majority just don’t know you from Adam (or Eve, or Lilith, take your pick). You end up not so alone, but certainly left with time to gaze into yourself and see what’s in there.

The interesting dynamic in the Potter books is that, one or two villains aside, Potter has spent a number of his adventures getting help from those around him. But it’s a perilous world, and Potter’s radioactive now. He himself isn’t toxic, but his presence certainly is, and the world has finally eaten away at that protective buffer he has enjoyed for so long. The interesting thing is that, now, each way he turns in search of help, he finds a potential (or actual) betrayal or heartbreak.

And the very interesting thing, the thing I am curious as all get-out to learn, is how Rowling resolves this in terms of his eventual triumph… because, yes, we all know Harry’s going to have to win in the end. But… will he have to go it alone, or will he have to find a way to bring Hermione and Ralph Ron along? I’ve noted in the past that Korean narratives seem often to tend to emphasize how joining a group or being a part of a group is the way to success (a popular example is The Host, where a group forms, suffers a setback that causes it to split up, and then must re-form, in altered composition, to succeed in their big bughunt), while Western ones tend to drive the protagonist to finally “go it alone” to do what others cannot (the Alien franchise and Sigourney Weaver’s heroics come to mind).

I’m guessing it’ll involve a little bit of both. If you’ve read the books, don’t tell me.

We saw Harry Potter at the IMAX in Yongsan station, having missed the chance to see it on the biggest IMAX in Korea (and supposedly the biggest in the world in constant commercial operation); honestly, I highly recommend seeing it on a very big screen if you can. I would be surprised if it isn’t re-released into theaters again this summer, when Part 2 comes out, so bear that in mind, if you haven’t seen it this time around. Or, hell… you can still see it now in a bunch of theaters, in Korea anyway.

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