Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Made in Japan, Remade Elsewhere: Ghost in the Shell ‘17 & The Devotion of Suspect X ‘17

That these two adaptations of things that were big in Japan a decade or two ago and still see new franchise entries released there - at least, I think there are still new Galileo novels released regularly, and Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society just came out a couple years back, it seems. Naturally, only Ghost got a bunch of write-ups about how doing a non-Japanese version was an affront to everyone, although, to be fair, Suspect is far less-awkwardly localized.

Seeing these as a double-feature made for a really quick turnaround, though - seeing the cheap Imax show of Ghost meant being at the theater at 10:45am, and Devotion started at 12:45pm. Naturally, only the former had the twenty-minute trailer package. But, hey, at least it was freakishly nice when I got out, after having to push it back because Saturday was one of those days when slop just falls straight from the sky.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

As an adaptation of the Shirow manga goes, the new movie has some problems, although the most important one - that Major Motoko Kusanagi never needed this sort of mysterious secret origin, and adding it changes the underpinnings of her character a great deal - probably won't be much of a concern to many, at least not so obviously as "Mara Killian" being played by Scarlett Johansson. It bugs me, though I sort of understand why the filmmakers would go with something a bit more conventional, as my first go-rounds with both the manga and the anime were kind of overwhelming. I don’t like sacrificing what had originally been a sort of subtext about humanity self-evolving away from their bodies for an evil corporation kidnapping people and forcing it upon them, but it’s easier to get a handle on.

The thing is, that sort of pushes Ghost in the Shell toward being a big, effects-filled action movie, and director Rupert Sanders is really not that good at action. He can shoot Johansson jumping off a building toward a green screen, sure, and frame an explosion well enough - he’s actually got impressive visual sense when it comes to setting up a situation or showing the aftermath - but scenes of Mara and her squad actually putting the hurt on someone are fairly weak; there’s always something muting the impact, and he never makes Mara’s stealth mode feel overwhelming. The “spider tank” in the finale is built up in dialogue, but never feels like the grotesque overkill it’s supposed to be.

And yet, taken on it's own evil-dehumanizing-corporation terms, this movie is often pretty neat. It's almost certainly the best a movie like this has looked since Blade Runner, for example, and while it’s the sort where the sheer amount of what Sanders and all stretches the effects budget, it works as style more than is sometimes the case. This sort of woman wrestling with the question of her own humanity is right in Johansson's wheelhouse - she’s done it in enough movies that people are writing about how it’s a trend, and how she’s exactly the person you’d want if ethnicity wasn’t an issue. The latter is something one has to wrestle with, as the basic idea of setting it in a melting-pot nation isn’t a bad one, even if it results in some odd matches between character names and ethnicities, but the reality is a bunch of Japanese characters made caucasian. Even having an international cast doesn’t really help; though Pilou Asbaek makes a fine Batou, the movie gets far less than it seems it ought to from “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and Juliette BInoche.

It's a mess in a lot of ways, but it's far from the disaster it could have been. In a lot of ways, it’s an impressively faithful bit of cyberpunk, and at another time the casting might not have beens such an issue, though it would still have had weaknesses of its own.

Xian Yi Ren X De Xian Shen (aka The Devotion of Suspect X, 2017)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

Like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, Keigo Higashino’s novel The Devotion of Suspect X made the jump from being one entry in a detective series to being a definitive piece of genre work, the sort whose story is immediately memorable even though a lot of mysteries can run together, although few mysteries of that sort are as memorable for their characterization as they are for the puzzles. This Chinese film is the third time the story has hit the screen - there are Japanese and Korean versions, with an Indian television series coming and an American film in development - and while I haven’t seen the others to rate this one in relation to them, it’s a quality mystery, worth a trip to whatever theater in your city shows Chinese movies.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is the latest case for Luo Miao-shen (Ye Zuxin) and Tang Chuan (Wang Kai), the former a detective in the Jiangbei police department, the latter a physicist who consults on cases suspected to involve “high-IQ offenders”. That doesn’t seem to fit Chen Jing (Ruby Lin Xin-ru), a prime suspect in the death of her lousy gambler of an ex-husband Fu Jian (Zhao Yang), but it may very well apply to Shi Hong (Zhang Luyi), who lives next door, eats at Jing’s snack bar every day and teaches math at the elementary school her daughter Xioaxin (Deng Enxi) attends. He is, however, more than he appears, a brilliant mathematician who, when they were younger, went to school with Tang, the pair challenging each other to solve increasingly difficult brain-teasers.

I don’t know how much Higashino’s “Galileo” novels function as brain-teasers versus character studies, but this Chinese adaptation slots in somewhere between those two poles, tone-wise. Su and screenwrier Xu Jia-peng reveal who killed Fu Jian fairly early, and that lets them give the focus to how the characters play off each other, letting how Tang, Shi, the Chens, and an amiable enough fellow who has long been fond of Chen Jing bounce off each other without the audience having to discount what they are seeing and thus holding their reactions at arm’s length. There are still bits to figure out - the filmmakers don’t immediately spill details that don’t necessarily matter - but they feel kind of like side-issues, things that will reflect what’s going on at the center of the story but which the audience doesn’t need to know in order to appreciate the main question of just what kind of man Shi Hong is.

Full review on EFC.

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