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[Viewpoint] Clueless global hybrid, now showing

Brace yourself for a disconcerting image of Asia and Asians in the movie ‘I Come with the Rain.’

Nov 09,2009
As a scholar of global culture, I was intrigued by a recent release, probably still screening in some theaters. The movie sports at least four titles as of the moment, three of which are translations of its English title, “I Come with the Rain.” The cast list also reads like an actors’ assembly convened by the United Nations, complete with that august body’s usual marginalization of women: an American (Josh Hartnett), Japanese (Takuya Kimura), Korean (Lee Byung-hun), Canadian (Elias Koteas), Chinese (Shawn Yue), Spaniard (Eusebio Poncela), token-female Vietnamese (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director’s wife), plus a handful of gun-toting Filipinos and a roomful of naked Filipinas presumably standing in for all the other nationalities left unrepresented.

Tran Anh Hung, who wrote as well as directed, had done a few films earlier, mostly set in Vietnam (including “The Scent of Green Papaya,” actually shot in France), and generally well-received by art-film connoisseurs. I Come with the Rain appears to be his bid to acquire hit-maker status, drawing on his ability to interweave a wide array of characters in fascinating Oriental locales. Unfortunately, the attempt misfires so resoundingly that only a marvel greater than what Kimura’s miracle-working character can conjure up will enable the film to achieve wider release elsewhere before it shows up on video and the Internet.

I Come with the Rain isn’t wanting in good intentions, so I found myself rooting for it to take off even after its hopelessly anachronistic climax. The challenge of maintaining exclusivist high-art aesthetics must have clashed with the thriller genre’s requisite of catering to as wide a viewership as possible, and while this may have resulted in an occasional masterpiece - witness Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” or Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” - in this instance what emerged is an indeterminate hybrid comprising several arresting concepts that fail to coalesce in the end.

The movie’s narrative signals its problems from the get-go. After a cleverly misdirected opening, where Kline, a detective, is overpowered and bitten by an angst-ridden serial killer, we flash-forward to a couple of years later, where Kline, now permanently traumatized, is summoned by someone who claims to own the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company.

This man is never seen by Kline or the audience, preferring to convey Kline’s assignment via a menacing lens and a speaker set.

We learn that the CEO’s son, Shitao, has fled to Asia, and Kline has to track him down in his last known whereabouts, an orphanage in Mindanao, Philippines. Upon reaching the place, Kline is informed by another detective that Shitao had been killed by the henchmen of a powerful mine operator, but Kline replies that he has evidence that Shitao has turned up in Hong Kong, where he intends to go next. Why Kline does not fly directly from Los Angeles to the former crown colony is anyone’s guess - I thought at first that the director was preparing to link the U.S. with its neocolonial stronghold, the Philippines, as well as with its war-on-terror campaign on the country’s Muslim minority.

As it turns out, Mindanao’s main function is to provide scenic contrast with the first-world settings of the U.S. and Hong Kong: jungle foliage and fauna, muddy roads, congested slums, disabled expats, Sapphic go-go girls, youthful killing machines, oh my. Far be it for me to espouse political correctness and positive images for any group, but one wonders what a fellow Asian might have in mind when he insists on depicting misery in the third world: just in case the people living there had no idea how underdeveloped their condition is, perhaps?

I Come with the Rain sustains this impressive display of cluelessness upon reaching Hong Kong. The major Asian characters, presumably long-term residents if not natives, speak mostly English, even to one another (Lee Byung-hun valiantly compensates with well-timed outbursts of rage, from all those Toeic review sessions maybe). And if Tran Anh Hung had any symbolic purpose in casting a Korean to play a sadistic Chinese gangster who literally crucifies a supposedly genuine faith healer played by a Japanese - well, these bouts of against-the-grain inspiration are just beyond me.

Tran may have also missed out on the lament of most Hong Kong film scholars - that recent movies made by their own enfants terribles tend to portray a universalized space that is no longer recognizably Hong Kong in character. This is a trend increasingly being manifested in national cinemas that have succeeded in appealing to a global audience, starting with the festival distribution circuit: Filmmakers no longer need to connect with their own mass audiences so long as their output can be supported by a large enough number of fans in the West. The fact that I Come with the Rain isn’t home-grown in Hong Kong points up this problem even more egregiously.

What makes thrillers and horror films ultimately worthy of attention is their willingness to face abjection, an all-too-human condition that more wholesome genres shy away from. I Come with the Rain provides its share of hair-raising situations, but winds up advocating a redemptive ending modeled on the passion of Christ. How Tran ever came to believe that such a resolution (an Asian Messiah, how radical-chic) would complement his too-precious notion of infusing a “low” genre hybrid with high-art values is a lesson on the dangers of intellectual inattention. Apparently the early-Church memo stipulating that salvation was meant for everyone (the secular definition of “Catholic”) missed him by a millennium or two. I Come with the Rain, sure, but I got trapped in the puddle of my own pretension.

*The writer is an associate professor for cultural studies at Inha University.

by Joel David



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