kaigou: this is the captain. we may experience turbulence and then explode. (3 experience turbulence)
[personal profile] kaigou
Spent the last three weeks either frozen in overwhelmed stress, or churning mentally through everything on the to-do list (and only managing to get motivated to tackle in the last-minute panic of being down to the wire), thanks to various relatives visiting for graduation week. Somehow I managed to make it through almost five days of parent & step-parent visiting without throttling anyone, or regressing into a petulant sixteen-year-old arguing with my father. Except for the last little bit of Saturday evening, when I was already exhausted from the morning at graduation followed by an afternoon and evening of a stream of guests for an open house, and I'm still rather pissed at my dad, but haven't decided what to do about it. Eh, well. Now I sit here, feeling like I should be going go-go-go in frantic mode, yet... there's no longer any reason to be frantic.

Meanwhile, got a copy of Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since Early Modern Times. (Also got The Signore: Shogun of the Warring States which is a really misleading sub-title, since Nobunaga was never shogun, but otherwise it's a great book, except it caught the MiL's eye and she asked to borrow it to have something to read on the plane. Figures.) Anyway, Gender Pluralism is a fascinating text. Well-written, nicely foot-noted but not overwhelmingly so, balanced between interpreting folklore/legend (ie Siva and other archetypal role-model gods) and contemporary eye-witness reports of the various cultures. Especially, doesn't conflate "this is acceptable, even expected, for gods" (ie intersexuality or bisexuality) with "this is therefore just fine for humans" since the opposite is too often true. All in all, fascinating text on systems of gender understandings that aren't dominated by the West's man vs woman premise.

Also, between following only three series this season (Mouretsu Pirates, Sakamitchi no Appollon, and Eureka Seven Ao), also been mainlining... wuxia. That's right, wuxia. I've come to the conclusion that wuxia is China's analogue to epic fantasy in the Western world, but with more fart jokes. Analogue as in: highly romanticized and somewhat sanitized take on ancient times, with magic and the usual extra heapings of chivalry and 'odd band of merry fellows'. Except that wuxia's band of merry fellows seems to be more likely to include fellow-ettes, who do their own fighting, thank you.

So, watched Strange Hero Yi Zhi Mei and it didn't have a sad (Korean-happy) ending where rocks fall and everyone dies. It did, however, have a third-quarter bad guy whose costume and style absolutely had to be an homage to the lead singer of Dead or Alive (best known for "You Spin Me Round", if you're not up on your 80s music videos). Add eyepatch and random maniacal laughter, and you're all set with Bad Guy Model No. 5, Unlimited Edition.

Curious culture observation, however. Of the quartet o' Robin-hood like characters that form Yi Zhi Mei, one is a dan (a female impersonator in opera, sort of like the Japanese onnagata, I think). In the quartet, Xiao Mei takes the role I'd normally expect to be given to a woman: he's obsessed with money and sparkly objects, he's best-suited at infiltration and disguises (as befits an actor, too), fights with a seemingly innocuous, non-sharp object (fan), speaks in a soft voice, and most damningly of all, he's the group's healer. Xiao Mei means 'little plum,' iirc, but the suffix -mei can also be used to indicate "little sister" or "beloved". So "xiao mei" could also be heard/punned as "little sissy". Most of the time, though, his nickname amongst the rest of the band is Mei-mei, which could be "little sister", but it could also be taken as "Mei" (plum) and "-mei", so "little sister plum" or even "beloved plum".

I think they were aiming for bromance hints, but the actors just didn't play it that way. Frankly, I spent the first five or six episodes (once the quartet got together) having to fight past seeing the quartet from Sungkyunkwan Scandal in the roles, except with Moon Jae Shin as the brains, and the uptight Lee Sun Joon replaced by a bruiser. (The fact is, Song Joong-Ki -- who played a similar heart-of-the-group archetype in Sungkyunkwan Scandal -- can act circles around Ma Tian Yu, who just doesn't have half the screen-presence of Joong-Ki.) But when you compare the back-stories and character development for the four roles, Xiao Mei is the only one who doesn't get a love interest, either in the story's past or present.

Having Sungkyunkwan Scandal on the brain made the contrast even more noticeable, but I haven't watched enough wuxia to know if this is a genre-wide pattern or not. If you're not familiar, Gu Yong Ha (played by Song Joong-Ki) is a merchant's son, and is as materialistic and prissy as they come. He prefers the finer things in life: the latest fashions, the latest toys, and the only reason he's attending university is because it's his family's best chance to move from merchant-status to nobility-status (via govt bureaucracy position). He's a gentle soul with a sharp wit and quick mind, playful, but also the most likely of the four to show strong emotion. At first introduction, he has loads of the stereotypical (western) marks of being gay... yet he's a total ladies' man. When he's not hanging on his best friend (Moon Jae Shin), he's surrounded by women.

ETA: it took me all day to remember the word I couldn't recall while posting: metrosexual. Cripes.

The same goes for when I've seen similar strongly feminine-coded men in Japanese live action and anime: the addition of feminine-coded behavior, dress, or style is more often a signifier of being a total ladies' man than of someone disinterested in, or even unattractive to, the opposite sex. (Though curiously, in Korean and Japanese stories, it's the stoic, stand-offish character who reads to me as more quintessentially aromantic, since those -- most often main -- characters never show any reaction to, interest in, or even experience with, the opposite sex. Until the script says they've met their OTP, in which case they fall like a ton of silently-suffering bricks.)

Regardless, it seemed odd to me that in Strange Hero Yi Zhi Mei, Xiao Mei is treated more like the aromantic (and somewhat fragile and naive) member of the quartet, rather than the charming, seemingly dilettante, at moments even bordering on sinister, ladies' man I've come to expect when hit with an overload of feminized-markers. (The only times Xiao Mei shows any hint of sinister-sexy is when he's flirting with one of the other two guys in the quartet, and frankly, the actor plays that flirtation too harshly; he doesn't have the chops to manage Joong-Ki's ability to make it seem like a mocking flirtation that might, or might not, mask more.)

After that, for no reason that I can figure (except maybe a speedy torrent), I watched Chinese Paladin 3, until I got tired of the silliness. I almost made it to the end, too, but a few episodes shy of wrapping it all up, I couldn't take anymore. I generally like all the actors and actresses, but the romantic machinations in the secondary OTP were killing me. I mean, sure, it's not like they went the K-drama route and gave anyone a fatal disease, or cancer, or faked out the "separated at birth" near-cest routine, but in hindsight I might've preferred that. I can handle someone reluctant to spill the beans about facing death, but to have the entire romantic line (and the secondary hero) thrown into a tizzy because the girl's scared... of losing her looks? Really? That's the best reason they could come up with? I just wanted to smack her for the stupidity, though I did cheer when a tertiary character basically said just that. The abrupt and blunt call-out, though, felt like a direct line from the screenwriter about the ridiculousness of the complication. (Then again, this movie and its prequel/sequel are both based on RPGs, so it's not like you can really expect Cannes-level plotting.)

What's cool about Chinese Paladin 3 is that it's almost textbook for the ethnic variety that I've read is emphasized in Chinese pseudo-historical and historical live-action (including wuxia). When the characters ostensibly travel from place to place, you don't get place-names to tell you this, as you would in Japanese or Korean dramas. You get actual visual change: the architecture changes, and more importantly, the background characters' dress changes. At one point, the background was filled with characters going about their business in Manchu-inflected clothing (tighter sleeves with the horseshoe-curve over the back of the hand, and fuller skirts on the men's robes). Skip forward a few episodes, and the characters are now in a market surrounded by extras dressed with turbans, center-buttoned robes, and the women are wearing veils in what looks like a strongly Islamic-influenced (southwest, maybe?) area of China.

That's one thing I've noticed in comparing backgrounds between Korean, Japanese, and Chinese dramas: in Japanese and Korean, the backgrounds are almost always homogenous, regardless of actual geographical location. A story set in the north part of the country gets almost the same extras (including clothing, architecture, and food) as a story set in the south. The rare exception seems to be in creating a distinction between urban (Tokyo, Seoul) and rural (pretty much anywhere else), and that's mostly in terms of simpler architecture and less-colorful/ostentatious clothing. But in Chinese productions, it seems almost a point of pride to regionalize the story's current location via different architecture, clothing, and so on. It's like you get extra points for each additional ethnicity you can squeeze into a thirty-episode series.

Then again, the impression I get of cultural attitudes in Japan and Korea is that even if you spent five generations or five hundred years in the country, if you're not ethnically and genetically one of the chosen people, you will forever be a foreigner. Your children's children will still be on the outside... compared to the attitude of (mainland) Chinese friends I've known, which also reflects the apparent intended attitude I've caught in Chinese productions, which is: it doesn't matter who you are, or where you came from. You come to China, and you'll never make China anything but China... and in a generation or two, you'll be Chinese, yourself. China isn't assimilated by anyone else; China does the assimilating, thank you. So I guess that makes for a certain level of confidence or security when it comes to showing, and accepting, a wide variety of ethnicity in popular media.

Anyway, back to wuxia. Right now, I'm watching The Young Warriors, which is a fictionalized telling of the Yang Clan (but before the rocks fell and they all ended up dead). Okay, so it's apparently a whallop of idols, but they're generally holding their own. Even Hu Ge (as Sixth Brother) isn't hamming it up even half as bad as he usually does, and Eddie Peng (Seventh Brother) is his usual charming, if goofy self. The little actress playing Eighth Sister just steals every scene she's in, though. She's not too cutesy, nor too old-speaking nor young-acting. She's clearly the darling of the family (between being the youngest and the only girl), but she's not spoiled so much as just as strong as the rest of the family. Best part, with her: Fifth Brother offers to cook for the girl he likes, but he can't actually cook. Eighth Sister offers to do the cooking for him (which really amounts to having her two personal servants come help)... but in return, he has to teach her the Yang Spear-style. He goes one better, and promises to teach her the Yang sword-style, too. This is a nice change from pretty much any other culture's version I've seen, where the little girl would've wanted him to play dolls with her, or get her new dresses, or some other stereotypically little-girl gendered expectation.

If you're not familiar with the history, the Yang family was a large brood of seven sons (plus Eighth Sister, a later Ninth sister, and a tenth boy-child who was adopted). All of them ended up fighting as generals in the Song Dynasty in the never-ending war against the Khitan (Liao Dynasty). I think the first three died in battle, as did the seventh; the fourth was captured young after a battle and kept in Khitan before he managed to get free and come home. Fifth Brother eventually became a monk. Sixth Brother was the sole survivor, who married a princess of the former dynastic line (Zhou). His son went on to marry a female general and brilliant strategist by the name of Mu Guiying. Sadly, the series about her -- Mu Guiying Takes Command -- hasn't been subtitled, and I'm not good enough to track sound and characters at the speed of Chinese subtitles. So either I wait until a group adopts it, or I come back and watch when I've got better skills.

Truth is, Young Warriors is more historical drama than wuxia, though it uses a few of the wuxia tropes. (It's similar to Strange Hero Yi Zhi Mei in that respect: you get mention/use of 'lightness skill', some wire-work, and veering into unlikely la-la-la-magic-clause plot contrivances, but there's next to no actual divine/celestial intrusion.) As history, it's still sanitized, romanticized, fictionalized, and dramaticized, but the actors obviously have great chemistry, and even when dialogue-less, the various brothers are, well, quite brother-like. The eldest three brothers tend to fade, though, since they're older, married, and serious, and the focus is really on Fifth Brother, Sixth Brother, and Seventh Brother. I think Fourth Brother returns from Khitan in this series, too, but I haven't gotten to that part yet.

In the home-front, the three wives are even more wallpapery than the three eldest brothers (their respective husbands). I can't tell any of them apart. It doesn't help that you pretty much never see the three women alone, so it's hard to get a sense of individual from any of them, which is also much the same for the three eldest brothers. More often than not, the three brothers are treated like a group, and present as a group, so they fade into the background for me.

The one home-front character that doesn't fade is Mom. The Yang matriarch is awesome. According to legend, she was second-in-command to Yang Senior in the army, before they got married and she retired to raise their family... but she's clearly not lost her skills. When Sixth Brother gets himself in a scrape, it's Mom who comes to his rescue and kicks ass. When Sixth Brother has a crazy idea of how to find the bad guys, Mom is right in there with him, and not as the brains of the operation but as equal brawn. (She's far more ruthless than her husband, and apparently can be impulsive when it comes to protecting her children, but the scenes between Dad-Yang and Mom-Yang show a couple that's pretty equal in terms of their reproaches and responses.)

It's rather sad, actually (though I get that Young Warriors is focusing on the youngest brothers before, well, everyone died in battle), that there's almost no time spent on the elder sister-wives. After all, when the various Yang brothers fell, one by one, in battle, it left the Song dynasty without the backbone of its armies' leadership. So Mom Yang picked back up the spear, and her daughters-in-law did the same, and they all went out and led the Song armies to victory, proving it wasn't just the men in the family who were scary-awesome. There are several movies and series focusing on the women of the Yang, but I haven't gotten around to those, yet. In short, just think of if Mulan grew up, had kids, and what she'd expect from her sons and daughters (and son's wives). Or maybe just multiple Mulan by nine.

Currently downloading Dan Ren Wu (Big Shot), because I haven't seen anything with Nicolas Tse, and I figure the romantic storyline should be a nice change after Young Warriors (hedging my bets that the series will have some rocks fall, since it is the Yang Clan and they're kind of known for the rocks falling part). Also sitting around waiting for someone to show up and seed The Holy Pearl... which apparently is a Chinese live-action retelling/adaptation of -- I am so not making this up -- Inuyasha. Noticeably, Kagome (now Ding Yao) is not a school girl, but an archaeologist's daughter in her mid-twenties; if nothing else, wuxia doesn't seem to fetishize the prepubescent/adolescent female half so much as K-dramas and J-dramas. The whole bit about the sacred jewel has been Chinese-ified into a pearl leftover from when Nuwa created the world, and Wen Tian (the Inuyasha role) is now a human-dragon hybrid.

Me: I'd never heard anything about a live-action television adaptation of Inuyasha, but then, as soon as you have a jewel in pieces and a half-demon male protagonist, people always start crying that it's Inuyasha.

CP: It's not like Takahashi invented the idea of a sacred broken jewel.

Me: Or the idea of half-demons. But we'll see... if I can just get a seed. I'm just not convinced it's really based on Inuyasha. I mean, it's only thirty-two episodes! You can't possibly adapt Inuyasha in only thirty-two episodes.

CP: Unless each episode is ten hours long.

Also, my copy of The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China just arrived. Yay!

ETA2: I could've just cut to the chase and linked to [personal profile] dangermousie's list of things learned from wuxia. I'd add more, but then I realized some things are universal -- from wuxia to romcoms -- like when one character starts the story insisting on undying hatred. If the object of hatred is same-sex, then the story ends with forgiveness (even if mid-rock-falling). If the object of hatred is opposite sex, Houston, we have OTP.


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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