Monday, March 27, 2017

Laomagination: Phi in the Shell, or Cyberpunk, Cinema, Compromise and Resistance

This month, we'll see the release of the live-action American version of the cyberpunk film Ghost in the Shell, which was one of the highly influential anime of the 1990s.

The live-action film has been subject to intense criticism for white-washing, cultural appropriation and fetishizing, as well as departures from the source material. An interesting text to read these days is the 2015 essay collection Techno-Orientalism  edited by Greta A. Niu, David S. Roh, and Betsy Huang to get a sense of the many issues that merit conversation.

This isn't to say there aren't opportunities to do such a film well. History obliges us to look at the exchanges between Akira Kurosawa and US and European cinema, for example, notably The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven.

We might look at works such as the American adaptation of Infernal Affairs, which drew strong influence from the Hong Kong film, but also localized it enough to create an arguably interesting but not necessarily superior film. More often the results are works like Dragonball Z or Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, or Godzilla. 

While Ghost in the Shell did not make as much of a personal mark on me compared to Akira or Fist of the North Star, among others from that time frame, I think it asked some interesting questions about identity, law, that are unfortunately at risk of being left by the wayside in the name of style. Compare the original trailer to what we are being asked to be interested in in the live-action version.

There are significant and to ironic issues of erasure and extreme body theft with this production that will likely be ignored as the world awaits what they hope will be a new Matrix franchise.

The most likely response will be "It just looks cool, and that's all I wanted to see."  I appreciate that, but that's not all that science fiction or fantasy can be, and I hate to see us collectively settling for less. Compare it to the approach used in the recent films Ex Machina or Moon. We must encourage and strive for the interesting conversations that can help us reframe and reconsider our existing assumptions.

Speculative literature, film and art can and should be stylish and sexy, violent and transgressive, original, yet fully informed by our traditions both in the US and around the globe. 

From what I'm seeing, the production is problematic, not unsalvageable, although my opinion could change in the final viewing.

As an artist, I think it would be more daring to create an original property and a modern take that addresses the challenges of our times with an unflinching eye. But barring that, I should note this could easily have been done as a story that obliges us to go seek out the original films and manga connected to the concept. Just recap the least you need to know, and move forward, letting the audience catch up to the saga as it wants to.  If this was a genuine sequel to the other material, rather than what looks like an American effort to show "we do your stories better," I'd be more enthused to see what the results are.

Ghost in the Shell is largely about jerking around with people's memories and narratives, a theme that resonates with me and other refugees and immigrants at a very personal level. So, what if we found out in the likely sequel this really is the original Major Motoko Kusanagi we met in the 1995 film but somehow she HAS been renamed and shoved into this new body to relive this variation of her "prior experiences," getting renamed Mira to see what happens. If I was brought in to salvage things, that would be one approach I'd certainly consider. 

Many people clearly put some very hard work into the visual look of this film, a future world that's going to be cosmopolitan and multiracial, even as I wonder how many American audiences will read so much of it as a dystopia when others of us would see it as a point of tremendous progress. In a cityscape not unlike the iconic Blade Runner billboard of the Korean woman dressed a geisha, we have:

Which is certainly a very interesting and not unimaginable extension of where we're headed as an ad-infused world. Looking at this cityscape, I do ask myself what would happen if we'd replaced the geisha with the Quaker Oats guy, the Samuel Adams spokesman, or a French maid. Or are audiences expected to read this much the same way that Serenity and Firefly shows a Chinese-dominant future where the majority of Asians are coolies, bar girls and futuristic rickshaw drivers.

The premise of the original Ghost in the Shell series is that New Port City is host to Public Security Section 9, a special operations task force of ex-military and police detectives doing counter-terrorism work while contending with Machiavellian intrigues, corruption and cyber-crime.  It's a culture where people have accepted a wide-range of cybernetic body modifications from the simple to a full-body prosthetic, as is the case for the lead character we typically follow in these stories, Major Motoko Kusanagi. Of course, if you have a machine, it can be overriden and we often get stories wrestling with the classic line from Blade Runner that noted "Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard." Overall, gratuitous cheesecake aside, it's a compelling premise as we see more members of our society addressing issues of identity and humanity, and I can see why so many have returned to this universe to ask some interesting questions of what would happen.

In Akira,a great deal of the controversy with the live-action film comes from the question of localization. That the themes we love most about it are also deeply interwoven into a tale of Japan, and the climatic explosion in Neo-Tokyo has much more cultural weight to the Japanese who've experienced an atomic bomb. Efforts to bring Akira to American screens with a more American sensibility in New York, for example, earn a lot of eye rolls because Hollywood has time and again demonstrated an almost willful inability to handle such material intelligently.

I'd ask is Ghost in the Shell the type of story that only makes sense in Japan or Asia, and if not is that a strength or a weakness. The Godfather, for example, is a story that can ONLY take place in America. Even as we have criminal organizations and sagas such as Better Luck Tomorrow or Infernal Affairs, The Godfather story is so centered on exploring the American dream, immigration, family and a fall from grace it couldn't really be ported over to, say, Colombia or Cambodia with ease. Around the World in 80 Days doesn't work well unless you begin in England, because classically the English culture of that time lent itself far more readily to gentlemen's bets and near absurd levels of adventurism. But you could plausibly do Peter Pan in Asia. Could The Joy Luck Club have worked if it was retold as a story of different Irish families coming to America so audiences could connect?

Could Ghost in the Shell have been created or adapted in Laos? Or among Lao Americans? I wonder how we would have treated the subject matter differently given our history and where we tend to put the focus in our imaginative literature. What would Phi in the Shell entail, given women's traditional roles and the nature of Lao justice and government? How would all of this play out in a Laotown quarter of America?

In the big picture, the challenge for many of us creating works of imagination in the Lao American tradition will be how to responsibly integrate our influences from both Asia and the US, appreciating that much of the material we have been exposed to, to date, has been filtered through the media consumption needs of the US that has benefited from establishing Asians and Asian Americans as an exotic other.

How do we effectively build an interest for our cultural perspective and approach without throwing ourselves under the bus? We need to push ourselves to be ahead of the curve. We need to be able to present enough of our work in our own words, on our own terms that still has reasonable mainstream appeal without compromising ourselves and closing doors of expressions and exploration. This is not an easy task and certainly deserves a much wider conversation.

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