Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sayonara, carbonara

In one of several conclusions to Welcome to the Machine (I think I was trying to outdo The Return of the King on the false ending front) I suggested that Radiohead's characterisation of Palo Alto as the "city of the future" had become outdated in the decade since the song was recorded, and that Bangkok and Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City and Bangalore might have a better claim to the title.

When they get round to making the Hollywood blockbuster of the book (I'm thinking Robert Downey Jr as Thom Yorke, with Steve Coogan as the Homesick Alien), I think I might need to revise that further. The 21st-century city par excellence just has to be Macao. For a start, it's a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, and if I don't get a chance every few hours to trot out my line that America doesn't rule the world, it's just keeping the seat warm for China, I get a bit edgy. Also, Macao's economy is dependent on gambling, which makes it as appropriate a metaphor for the present state of global capitalism as anything else. (As the planet's resources reach the point of exhaustion, the only available source of money is, well, other money.)

Above all, it's an utterly postmodern environment, cherrypicking components from around the planet to form something that tries to be a simulacrum of everything, and ends up looking like nothing on earth. The most blatant manifestation of this is the Venetian Macao Resort, which takes its design tips not from Venice, but from the Las Vegas version of Venice. Which, by my maths, makes the Macao one Venice 3.0.

Of course, back in the days when there was no modernism to be post about, Marco Polo avoided the detour to the Nevada desert and managed to build up a pretty successful cultural exchange between Venice and Asia. Indeed, some have suggested (and others, mostly Italians, have contradicted them in a distinctly huffy manner) that ol' Marco introduced Chinese noodles to European kitchens, and the only thing the Italians invented off their own bat was the parmesan. Which brings us, in an appropriately roundabout manner, to spaghetti westerns, and the most recent addition to that genre, Sukiyaki Western Django (Dir: Takashi Miike, 2007).

It should go without saying that plenty of westerns have been indebted to Asia (and particularly Japan) over the years: The Magnificent Seven is based on Seven Samurai; Yojimbo gave us A Fistful of Dollars. And the cultural traffic certainly hasn't been one-way: Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) was a tribute to the Thai westerns of the 1960s; Tampopo, notwithstanding its contemporary setting, was branded as "a ramen western".

But Miike isn't content with a straightforward cover version, a fact that will come as little surprise to anyone who's seen his hyperviolent Ichi the Killer. Ponchos and cigarillos are out, replaced by colour-coded gangs in designer punk costumes that might have been rejected by Sigue Sigue Sputnik for being a little too ostentatious. Add a castrated monk and several dollops of Shakespeare's history plays and you've got an environment in which even Clint Eastwood might struggle to make a mark.

The film is nominally a remake of Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) which, if you weren't lost enough already, also claims to draw its inspiration from Yojimbo, as did Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, which in turn was remade as Desperado. Rodriguez's buddy Quentin Tarantino quoted/borrowed/stole a gruesome ear-cutting scene from Corbucci's film for Reservoir Dogs.

Rather than remake the scene, Miike has borrowed Tarantino, who has a small but significant role as Ringo, which may or may not be a nod to Ringo Lam, director of City on Fire, from which Reservoir Dogs borrowed pretty much everything that didn't come from Django. Confused yet? Smashing.

But, those of you who've made it this far will shout, Tarantino doesn't speak Japanese. That's OK, replies Miike, he can speak English. After all, the Japanese actors will all be speaking English as well, even if they can't. This is the aspect of the film that's attracted the most opprobrium, and meant that for the first time in my life, I was scanning the credits for the dialogue coach. (It's Nadia Venesse, by the way, who also worked on Natural Born Killers, a film written and subsequently disowned by, um, Quentin Tarantino.)

Thanks to Miike's big idea (an odd one, especially since the original spaghetti westerns made so much use of dubbing) many of the actors seem to be trotting out their words phonetically, with little understanding of what they're saying. Hardboiled slang such as "payback's a bitch" and "shit or get off the pot" is moderately amusing when uttered in a thick Japanese accent, but pretty soon it gets rather difficult to understand what the hell is going on.

Which, in any other film, might be a drawback. But in a Japanese remake of an Italian/Spanish remake of a Japanese film, at least one of which is trying to look as if it's set in an American West that was mostly mythical to start with, such a Babel-like scenario feels oddly appropriate. It's like a parlour game stretched across cultures and decades. (Incidentally, I was in a school in Bangkok a few months ago, and a bunch of kids wanted to show me a game that involved whispering into each other's ears, in the hope that the message would get corrupted as it moved along. "I know that game," I said. "It's called Chinese Whispers." A little girl fixed me with an almond eye and announced: "We just call it Whispers.")

When you transport Venice across three continents, it's hardly surprising that any coherent meaning begins to fall away, leaving you with little but a good-looking corpse. Miike's film, like Macao's casino, seems to have got lost in translation, in more than one sense.


garfer said...

The US won't be eclipsed by China, but its days as hegemon are obviously numbered.

Shanghai's the place if you ask me, even if it is mostly an emporium for knock off western luxury goods.

amyonymous said...

this might be one of your most enjoyable posts ever. i liked how it started with radiohead, moved to Macao and ended with the movie that sounds, to me, like something i MUST see for all its weirdness.

and we call the whispering game "telephone." americans, huh? gotta have product placement.

Dick Headley said...

Superb writing Tim. Any comment from me would look like a flaccid addendum.

West said...

Nah, that blond twat from the office has got to be Yorkie, Tim (or should that be Thim?)


FirstNations said...

yup, here's my flaccid addendum. excellent, tim!

amyonymous said...

I just drove past the only theater in LA playing Sukiyaki Django or whatever it's called. i wish i could have gone in and watched it.

Tim F said...

Garfer: Shanghai will become the place when it turns into a themepark simulacrum of its own 1920s/30s heyday.

Thank you Amy. 'Telephone'? That's like calling pass-the-parcel 'Post'.

And thank you, Dick. Although I'm sure you couldn't be flaccid if you tried.

Bob, have I told you about my idea for restaging Macbeth from the point of view of the witches, who are played by Mackenzie Crook (I presume he's the blond twat you mean), Marc Warren and Burn Gorman.

You too, FN. You're even more tumescent than Dick.

Amy again: watch it on DVD. At least you'll get subtitles.