Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Alternate Title:  Welcome to the Club

One sentence synopsis:    During the Chinese civil war, a platoon of PLA soldiers must destroy a rampaging mountain warlord with an impregnable fortress and thousands of troops.

Things Havoc liked:  I once stated that there was a fine art to hagiography, and the same is true of propaganda. Propaganda gets a bad reputation these days, but all it is is media designed to influence people's opinions in one direction or another, and I shouldn't have to tell any of you that film has a long and rich history of the stuff. I don't just mean wartime cartoons about Donald Duck or Superman battling Hitler, though there is that, but also action films, particularly over here in the US, almost the entire genre of WWII action films, from Casablanca, filmed during the war, right up through 2014's Monuments Men and Fury. And yet despite Hollywood's domination of the worldwide cultural landscape, at least in film, propaganda movies are certainly not unique to the United States, as everything from Bollywood war epics to Turkish Rambo to last year's Stalingrad will attest to. And so in that spirit, it is perhaps time to turn our attention to the latest import from China.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a propaganda film from the People's Republic of China, and before we go any further, it's important to note that when I call a film 'propaganda', unlike most people who use the term, I don't mean to cast aspersions on the material itself. The long and rich history of nations glorifying themselves in film is far too important to our cultural heritage to throw the whole thing under the bus simply because of its partisanship, and it would be the height of hypocrisy for someone who unironically enjoyed everything from Captain America to the original Red Dawn to come down on a Chinese film maker for making a film about Chinese soldiers being badass. That said, Chinese propaganda isn't something we see a whole lot of around here, and so it might be instructive to see just what our erstwhile rivals have to say.

It is the winter of 1946, shortly after the end of WWII, and the long-deferred war between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalists) has exploded back into full flowering, even as large swatches of the country are overrun by bandit armies in sufficient numbers to merit the term. A small force of PLA (People's Liberation Army) troops are sent into the snow-covered mountains to engage with one such bandit army presently in occupation of a massive, fortified arsenal, complete with artillery, tanks, and hundreds upon hundreds of men. Uncertain of how his handful of troops are to protect the local villages from marauding armies of bandits, platoon commander, Lt Yang (Zhang Hanyu) sends a veteran scout, Shao Jianbao (Lin Gengxin) to infiltrate the bandit compound, gain their trust, and permit the PLA forces to seize a decisive advantage when it comes time to fight. Much of the film is taken up with Shao's efforts to weasel his way into the bandit forces, and as Lin Gengxin is the best actor in the entire affair by a country mile, this is a decent idea. The villains of the piece are straight out of the snarling, over-the-top, Peking-operatic school of cinematic villainy, with every snapped piece of evil dialogue accompanied by melodramatic gestures and crazed Zoolander looks hurled at the camera like weapons. The effect is not tremendously subtle, but it does work, and a particularly standout scene involves Shao performing a theatrical recitation of the events that led him to join the bandits while surrounded by a cavernous hall full of thousands of snarling bandits, all of whom are brandishing automatic weapons at him. Going big or going home is a well-worn path for action/war flicks like this, particularly the ones on the sillier end, after all. And there's nothing wrong with a bit of melodrama to liven up an obviously preposterous situation.

Neither is there anything wrong with the action beats here. Someone in the production staff of this movie appears to have watched 300 (or God help them, Wanted) at some point, because the action bears the marks of Zack Snyder quite strongly. Gunfights are punctuated with liberal use of slowdown-speed up routines, particularly an opening engagement in and around a train station, wherein each bullet fired by the platoon snipers seems to take five minutes to actually land. Yet I remain a fan of this technique, particularly when compared to the Shaky-Cam option (something Chinese action cinema, with its rich tradition of martial arts films, does not seem to have ever been infected with), and the action overall is of at least decent quality, not an easy thing to do when one is competing with Hollywood extravaganzas. I liked the consistent touch of every weapon in the bandits' arsenal, no matter how esoteric, being an American gun (propaganda, remember?), while the PLA are all using Russian/Chinese weapons. The rarer melee sequences are also done well, with shots stolen, in the main, from either Snyder or Rodriguez' films. Once again, this is not a criticism.

Things Havoc disliked:  Allow me, therefore, to offer things which are criticisms.

Propaganda films have come a long way in the US since the days of Audie Murphy. Yes, we've still got shameless dreck like the new Red Dawn or White House Down coming out periodically, but there's been so much more, as propaganda, and war films in general over here, were indelibly marked by such experiences as Vietnam and the Iraq war. It's impossible to look at movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Jarhead, Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty in the same way as one might look at John Wayne's Green Berets, as the nature of American nationalism has evolved over time to reflect the somewhat more complex relationship that the American public has with its own military history. By no means is this a uniquely American phenomenon. Post-Stalinist Russian war-cinema is positively Dostoyevskian in its embrace of bloody fatalism (some would regard this as reversion to the Russian mean), while German films of the same nature tend to be about how war is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone ever (there are more German films about Stalingrad than Russian ones). China however, caught up in its sudden emergence onto the world stage as a great power, and playing heavily on the Nationalism card (not to mention with a film censorship board considerably stronger than any over here), has not yet had time to temper its initial, exuberant instincts towards war propaganda, with the ultimate result, however culturally parochial it might sound, that this film, like a lot of Chinese war cinema, feels an awful lot like something Hollywood might have made in 1957.

What do I mean? Consider the actual scenario on offer here. A platoon of PLA troops, maybe twenty or twenty-five in total, are pitted against a force that I would conservatively estimate as being fifty times larger than them. These aren't "long odds", these are the sort of odds that the British faced during the Zulu wars, with the slight exception of the fact that the Zulu in this case are armed with tanks, grenade launchers, and machine guns. Lots of films present their heroes as being outnumbered, certainly, but this film is so stacked against the heroes that when they defeat their enemies, the reaction is not awe or even thrills, but gut-busting laughter, as the cold odds against the heroes are so great that they can only win by either transforming spontaneously into Superman or by having their enemies suffer sudden attacks of acute mental incapacity. Both are on offer here. A battle sequence midway through the movie involves the platoon repelling an assault by three hundred machine-gun-and-bazooka-wielding bandits, killing two hundred and fifty of them for the loss of ONE soldier, whose death is treated with ten minutes of solemnity in the aftermath. Later, in the climactic fight, the troops slay hundreds of men, engage in protracted gunfights, take out tanks and storm fortified positions, all without incurring any casualties whatsoever. Are we expected to be impressed by the achievement of having won a battle where the other side was firing blanks? What tension is there to be wrung from a film where the heroes are all invulnerable, thanks to the unshakeable faith they have in the rightness of Chairman Mao?

Yes, yes, I know that this is not the only film to make this mistake, not even recently. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing to have a movie with an invincible protagonist. John Wick did this, as did the Taken films, and The Expendables, and Shoot Em Up, and 47 Ronin and a hundred other movies. The difference is that those movies (the good ones anyway) were not intended to create tension, but to present a spectacle, the unavoidably awesome spectacle that is one man or group of men slaughtering another in artistic fashion. Tiger Mountain on the other hand, when not dealing with the antics of its villains, is as somber as a church sermon, as soldiers stand about talking in low, reverential tones to one another about how much they want to protect the "little people" of the villages they are passing through, and try to outdo one another in the heroic sacrifices they are able to make. It would get saccharine if it weren't so boring, and loooooong stretches of the film are comprised of nothing but this, presumably as a sop to the Chinese film censors who would no doubt blanch and faint at a portrayal of the PLA with anything approaching the verisimilitude of something like Platoon. None of this is helped by a completely unnecessary framing story, set alternately in New York and Beijing, where the grandson of one of the characters in the story learns that he must give up the materialistic ways of America and return to China to get in touch with his cultural and historical roots (or something). The film cuts back and forth between framing story and main story rather disjointedly, leaving me at least completely confused at more than one point as to what the hell was going on. And while there's nothing wrong with the themes of returning home to one's roots, the clumsiness with which this point is hammered home is strong enough that it even shines through the subtitling process, one which usually softens awkwardness like this.

Final thoughts:   I have great respect for Chinese cinema, particularly Chinese historical action cinema. Movies like Red Cliff or The Flowers of War deserve to be spoken of alongside their Occidental counterparts, to say nothing of more fantastical wuxia fare like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the Hong Kong blood operas of John Woo and his inheritors. But a bad film is a bad film, and ultimately, all politics aside, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a bad, boring film, one which comes across as contrived, dated, and quite crudely made overall. The campiness of its villains and one of its leads does earn it some points, and I'm hardly about to, as an American, criticize China for glorifying its own soldiery. But cinematic propaganda of this sort has a long, complicated history to it, one that it does not do to ignore when one is trying to make a film about how amazing your nation's troops are. In short, there is nothing wrong with the concept of this movie in theory, but if China wishes for this sort of thing to be taken seriously by an audience used to the rest of the world's fare, then judging by this film, they have a long way to go.

Of course, if you look only at Michael Bay, so do we.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  Goin' down to Alabama to see the King.

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