11 July 2008

Forbidden Kingdom

I dragged Fibonacci to see Forbidden Kingdom Wednesday. The primary plotline is, well, a standard one. Prophesied hero starts out as a bungling misfit, gets better as the movie goes along, and manages to save the day. So in that sense, there are no surprises. The surprises come in how well done it was. Also, it borrowed a great deal from Chinese myth, and I always find it refreshing to see non-Western sources utilized. Plus, it's the first movie ever to feature both Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

I encountered one person describing Forbidden Kingdom as "The martial arts version of the Wizard of Oz." There's a bit of truth to this, only Dorothy would have needed to rescue the Wizard from the Witch before she could go home. Also, no Toto. It can't be the Wizard of Oz with no Toto. But we do have a boy from our world magically transported to a mythical realm and needing to find his way home. He does wind up with three companions: a drunken scholar warrior, a silent monk, and an orphan bent on revenge.

The premise of the movie is that the Monkey King has been imprisoned by the Jade Warlord and has turned the Celestial Kingdom into a depraved tyranny. The only way to stop his reign of terror is to return the Monkey King's magical staff to him.

The Seeker, prophesied to be the one to return the staff, turns out to be a kung-fu-movie-obsessed teen from our world, who needs to learn real martial arts in a hurry. Though they were brief I was impressed with the training sequences. There was a bit of genuine taiji philosophy thrown in, and used "correctly": i.e. a beginning student would have very little idea what it actually meant. Also, they showed a standing meditation variant, with a much deeper stance than the one I've trained in, plus a bit of iron shirt style training (in this case, attacking bamboo both to strengthen muscle and to learn how to absorb force). Of course, I tend to remember the fabled words of a taiji master. "Yes, very useful ... if you're ever attacked by a stand of bamboo." ^/^

The timespan is difficult to judge, but as the Seeker's hair grows about 3 inches in the course of the movie, presumably the journey took a few months. That's not a completely unreasonable timespan to gain martial proficiency, particularly if that's about all that you do. It took Ben Lo either 1 or 2 years to become Cheng Man Ch'ing's best push-hands student: the one who fended off challenges to Professor Cheng. As far as I know, he was unbeaten. Someone (whose name I should remember) fought Ben Lo to a draw, and then Professor Cheng came out to face the interloper, who was quickly and soundly beaten, and immediately asked to become Professor Cheng's student. Anyway, back to the movie.

Two of the Seeker's companions embody two of the major religions in historical China. The Silent Monk (Jet Li) represents Buddhism. The Drunken Scholar (Jackie Chan) represents Taoism. Both schools emphasize a "middle path," but, by and large, the Buddhist path tends to lean more towards asceticism, and Taoist schools with more Buddhist contact tend to lean more that way as well. So we see a rather dour Silent Monk, and a very relaxed Drunken Scholar. Naturally when they first meet, there's a bit of a conflict, and there's a very nicely choreographed fight scene. They're pretty much evenly matched, and that fits the balance between the two schools that has developed in China over the centuries. There are some very famous, and very bloody, conflicts between the two sects, especially when Buddhism was first introduced to China.

Then there's the Jade Warlord. He supposedly rules under the Mandate of Heaven, but, by becoming a despot, he should have lost that mandate. That quibble aside, he represents the worst despots in Chinese history. A lot of Chinese thought was born in the Warring States Period. Despotic warlords were the norm. Life for ordinary people was chaotic, bloody and short. The Monkey King stands for someone who will stand up to the despots, and make them look like fools in the process.

The last of the major characters is Sparrow. The Jade Warlord murdered her parents when she was a baby, and her only goal is revenge. Revenge seems to define her entire existence; there's no room for anything else. That's not a healthy way to live in any philosophical system, so it's pretty clear that this will end badly from the start. I think Sparrow represents the bitterness and anger that can develop under a tyrant, as well as the self-destructiveness that they can bring.

In essence, then, Forbidden Kingdom can be seen as a microcosm of Chinese history. It can also be seen as just another quest movie, and most Americans will probably do just that. Either way, I thought it was a lot of fun. In particular, I liked that the prophesied Seeker would have been helpless without guidance from his native companions. There are certainly some corny bits, but, eh, no movie's perfect.

Oh, as far as I know, this tale is not one of the traditional Monkey stories, but it fits right in with the ones I have heard of. Just a few links for more information:
Illustrated Monkey Tales
Analysis of Journey to the West (often called simply "Monkey" in the west)
Just a touch of geography.


John said...

This is one of my new favorites.

It was really cool to see the way Jackie Chan and Jet Li act. Both do "goofy" really well, but completely differently.

Qalmlea said...

Definitely awesome to see those two together. After the choreographed fight wound up at a draw, I wondered which of them might win in a real fight. My guess would be Jet Li, but only because I've heard that Jackie Chan doesn't practice as much any more.