I'm reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a work of fiction based in part upon historic events, which is written in the period style and language of the narrator. I'm usually uncomfortable with this sort of thing. In my experience attempts to reproduce historical styles or dialects are too often a distraction, an affectation which seeks to add 'flavour' to the tale but in reality does little to add true depth or believability to the writing. The characters themselves are often just caricatures, or clumsy and one-dimensional embodiments of historical movements or trends. But this story is very different.

Adam Ewing is a Californian writing around 1850, and Mitchell does a superb job of catching not just the written mannerisms of the time, but also the mindset of the fictional author. Ewing is no mere caricature, and far from being simply a mouthpiece for the prevalent beliefs and assumptions of his time he is informed by his own unique understanding and humanity. There is, in short, a feeling of palpable reality about both him and his journal.

The journal begins on the Chatham Islands. Ewing is a passenger on board The Prophetess, and is ashore while repairs on the ship are undertaken. Here he hears the story of the terrible fate of the Moriori people. Mitchell gives this history as heard by Ewing a vibrant, living pulse. Not all of the accounts that Ewing hears agree on exactly what happened or how it should be interpreted. Ewing himself has his own feelings about the story, and the casual racism of his era and upbringing is offset by his own personal humanity and intellect in a completely believable way.

There is only one jarring note, and that is the inclusion of an asterisked footnote in the journal which begins, "My father never spoke to me of the dendroglyphs..." and which is signed J.E. We have already learned that Ewing has a son named Jackson, so this must be a later interjection by him. Seeing this footnote does rather break the boundaries of the tale, which up to this point has been completely absorbing. However, this should be no surprise to anyone who has read any of Mitchell's earlier works. Nor should the fact that, just a little further into the

 

"Sixsmith,

Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits. Exactly what happened, but instead of a crashing noise, an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats. My wrist knocked a Ming vase off its pedestal – E-flat, whole string section, glorious, transcendent, angels wept. Deliberately now, smashed a figurine of an ox for the next note, then a milk-maid, then Saturday's Child..."

I'm reading Letters From Zedelghem, apparently. I'm reading Letters From Zedelghem and I'm ready to punch David Mitchell in the teeth.

Mitchell is an absolute master of style and genre. He slips them on and sheds them with the seeming comfort and familiarity of pairs of old worn-in jeans. It's a cliché of effortlessness taken to extremes: yes, the work of a true master is often seemingly effortless, but with Mitchell there's the nagging suspicion that perhaps this is genuinely effortless, that it causes him no more problems than breathing out.

He's also an astonishingly gifted and eager story-teller. Every tale he tells is touched by other tales, incorporates other tales, leads to other tales. It would be exhausting were it not so exhilarating, because at every turn Mitchell's enthusiasm to tell his stories is precisely held in balance by his skill. He appears poised at the exact edge of fiction's creation, a place where even an often-told story suddenly becomes present and alive, and imagination does not pause but instead flows on from one vision to the next.

This is exactly what opium is like, by the way. A quote from The New York Times Book Review on the back of my edition of Cloud Atlas reads in part, "He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine...". Precisely that.

But Mitchell is also, I strongly suspect, a knowing and frighteningly skillful manipulator of the reader. I'd already read Ghostwritten and Number9Dream when I began Cloud Atlas, so I knew what to expect. Namely, as soon as you're completely enmeshed in the current dream, you'll be jolted awake and dropped into the next, still vaguely delirious with the previous vision.

Ewing's Journal ceases suddenly mid-ocean, mid-story, and, in case you were in any doubt, mid-sentence. The first thing I did when I bought this book was to strum through the pages, flicker-book style, to check the chapter headings at the top of each page. It was immediately obvious that this was another novel in the form of a series of shorter stories, each of which would probably contain reflections and resonances from one or more of the others. That's exactly how Ghostwritten, Mitchell's first novel, is constructed. But the power of Mitchell's vision and prose is such that, even with the knowledge that the current tale is going to be snatched away from you (and juxtaposed, and re-contexted, and even criticized) it's impossible not to be carried along for the ride.

So, from the middle of the ocean and the middle of an earlier century, we are suddenly thrust into the middle of a correspondence between Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith in Letters From Zedelghem, which tells the story of Frobisher, a young composer and all-round bounder who, in 1931, goes to Belgium to escape his creditors and to offer his services as amanuensis to a faltering elderly composer, Vyvyan Ayres.

During his audition at Ayrs's mansion, Frobisher remarks on feeling "a certain frisson sitting on Vyvyan Ayrs's own piano stool beforehand..." where the various furnishing had all witnessed, "the conception and birth of Matryoshka Doll Variations ...."

Here's where Mitchell earns his punch in the teeth, although not until my second reading of the book. Because Matryoshka Doll Variations is precisely what you'll be reading here. This book is made up of six stories, each of which contains, sometimes in a literal sense, the previous story, as well as aspects and echoes of the other stories. The way this phrase is dropped in here betrays a level of manipulation bordering on mockery. It's essentially a stage whisper by Mitchell; "Look, you're reading a book, and it works like this, and I'm revealing it to you right now and you'll still be sucked in regardless." It wouldn't be so infuriating if it wasn't true.

There in Ayrs's mansion, Robert Frobisher finds a manuscript, half of which is missing. Its title is, of course, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

And it probably won't surprise you to learn that Frobisher's story is cut suddenly short. Here we are in 1975, in the next story, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, in which a journalist happens to meet Rufus Sixsmith and eventually reads the letters sent to him years earlier by Robert Frobisher. Or rather, she reads around half of the letters...

Half-Lives is of particular note here, because it illustrates Mitchell's power so well. The First Luisa Rey Mystery is an action-packed yarn about a gutsy young investigative reporter, and as such belongs to a genre that I genuinely dislike and recoil from. I'm simply not interested in reading stuff like this. Add to this the absolute knowledge that it's going to be cut off suddenly in mid-stream, factor in the 'falseness' of the context in which the story appears (you already know it's going to be part of another tale... probably a book someone in the next story is reading?) and there is surely no possibility of any kind of involvement in Half-Lives other than cold intellectual curiosity. And yet a few pages into it I'm completely emotionally engaged. Yes, it's a fluff genre, it's rife with clichés, it's hugely predictable, but Mitchell demonstrates exactly why it's been so overdone. Simply, it's because this sort of thing can be enormous fun. It just a Bloody Good Yarn.

And this brings me to the essence of one of the core feelings Mitchell's work gives me: it's that feeling of being manipulated on a level that I can't even properly comprehend. Usually, when people play with our emotions and responses it's possible to know what's happening and to see something of the manipulator's means and intentions. But here I'm not so sure. Possibly there is a sackload of cynicism here, with Mitchell laughing behind his hand as he exploits the cheesy conventions of a jaded genre, with the absolute confidence that his beautiful prose will make you swallow it whole and smile. Or possibly there's just a staggeringly gifted writer with enough exuberance and love of story-telling to turn any tale, in any genre, into something fresh and new enough to remind the reader of why it became a genre in the first place.

That tell-tale reference, Matryoshka Doll Variations, and many many other little comments and hints like it, lead me to believe that even if he's not sniggering about it, Mitchell is playing with the whole idea of fiction in ways that I don't have the capability to fully appreciate. This, I have to say, is incredibly unsettling and hugely attractive to me, and it's something I haven't felt about a book or a writer since I read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

The next story is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, set early this century. Cavendish is a vanity publisher who is sent a manuscript about a gutsy young investigative reporter...

Next up is An Orison of Sonmi~451, set in the relatively near future. It's pretty much pure science fiction, although possibly speculative fiction would be a better description. Readers of Margaret Atwood will likely have heard that description before, and indeed Atwood is one of the writers who comes to mind when reading this story. Annoyingly, the current Wikipedia article mentions both her and Phillip K. Dick in connection with Sonmi~451, and since those are exactly the two people I wanted to mention, all I can do is echo their names here. Of all the stories, this one has the least believable link to the previous tale. This is a very minor matter in the scheme of things though.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is the final story. Sci-fi again, set in the far future. This is what Isaac Asimov would have written if he'd been able to write literature. And here in the far future, it's a tale told by an old man to a collection of avid listeners around a camp-fire. The link to the previous story is perfect. And what do you know, for once we get to hear a story all the way to the end!

The irony of this is, we're only half-way through Cloud Atlas at this point. I'd already guessed where this was going, admittedly partly because of my flicker-book preview, and perhaps you've guessed too by this stage. Specifically: we're now taken back to each of the previous half-finished stories in reverse order, and each of them is brought to a conclusion. The Matryoshka dolls are reassembled.

This 'review' is already too long, and all I really want to do here is to get you to read the book. And if you love stories, you really do need to read it. If you love writing, you need to read it (although it may make you want to give up). If you love puzzles, you need to read it. I've omitted to mention several strong themes of the book as a whole, two of them central themes. I've also completely overlooked Frobisher's great composition, Cloud Atlas Sextet, the structure of which is a model of the structure of the six stories which make up the book.

I've also so far failed to state the one thing which should perhaps be self-evident, but here it is anyway: Mitchell writes like an angel. There are some passages and turns of phrase which are genuinely illuminated, where the use of language is so precise and perfect that it is poetry, but always in the service of narrative, never out of place or for its own sake. This truly is the realm of Nabokov, although Mitchell pretty much earns himself another slap by casually slipping the phrase "speak, memory", the title of Nabokov's memoir, into one of the stories.

One last thing I've omitted which I think requires a mention, and that's any form of constructive criticism. First of all, let's not leave this unsaid any longer: Mitchell is a genius, and Cloud Atlas is probably a masterpiece. It seems not to matter what he writes about, and he makes every genre his own. But after reading the book I felt I wanted something more from Mitchell, and I think I've finally figured out what that is.

In comments published in the back of later editions of Lolita, Nabokov recounts how he first wrote Lolita as a short story which later developed the "claws and wings" of a novel. That phase seems particularly apt here.

Nabokov's masterpiece is 300 pages of the most exquisitely crafted poetic prose, all of it in the service of a narrative about one of the most morally repugnant individuals ever committed to print. That's one of the features which gives Lolita such a biting edge and imbues it with such acute poignancy.

Mitchell's writing clearly already possesses the wings, and he flits everywhere on them. That's not to say that Mitchell's writing is inconsequential, and he tackles some big themes, both in Cloud Atlas and in his previous writing. But he does, after all's said and done, let the reader off fairly lightly, and I'd like to be challenged by him at some point in the future. What I'd really like to see next Mr Mitchell, are some claws.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
First published 2004
ISBN 0340822775

"Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past, and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."

Cloud Atlas is the name of the latest film by the Wachowski Brothers siblings and Tom Tykwer, adapting the novel of the same name. Running time: 172 minutes, which is very near three hours. It stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and a very large handful of others, playing—literally—a variety of roles. It is a movie about adventure, discovery, and taking a good hard look at yourself and the state of humanity, much like the other movies the Wachowski siblings are known for—The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta. (Of course, those same Wachowskis gave us Speed Racer, so some may take this with a grain of salt.)

It consists of six different stories, being told at various eras in time. They are connected both causally and spiritually, if one buys into those radical new age holistic spiritualities. What's interesting about this movie that, by nature, you cannot write an effective synopsis without writing six smaller synopses, or some abstract, metastory sludge that is not indicative of anything. An interesting consequence of this is that it is entirely impossible to spoil for someone without their active consent and participation. There is nothing you can say that will ruin the movie for them that doesn't take a half hour and potentially a couple of diagrams to convey.

This all in mind, we have two options to continue. I can go on with describing Cloud Atlas to some depth and breadth, so that you can understand it better before you choose to walk in—and I will, soon enough—or you can take it on faith that this movie is the most excellent thing to happen to movies in a long time, and put off finishing reading this writeup to go watch all three glorious hours of it and take everything in. I can assure you it is totally worth it, to enter completely blind and leave thoroughly surprised, as I'd somehow managed to do.

If—and hopefully when—you do choose to watch this movie in a theatre, do not leave to use the restroom in the middle of the film: be sure to empty out before watching, and bring a drink and quiet snack.




An upperclassman in the mid-1800s suffering from a curious malady keeps a diary of his sea voyage home to the mainland United States.

A 1973 journalist whose life is threatened by a hitman has to solve the mystery surrounding a nuclear power plant and an elusive document.

An old, world-weary man sits by a nighttime campfire and recounts the story of the events that transformed his village and his future.

A young man writes letters to his sweetheart about becoming the amanuensis to an old composer, and later starting his own musical career.

A "fabricant"–turned–revolutionary details to her captors the circumstances under which she escaped the Neo Seoul authorities and learned the truth.

A neurotic publisher gets in a bit of a rub with the wrong people, and subsequently finds himself hiding out in an oppressive old-folks home.


Cloud Atlas is an epic, in the truest sense of the word. When I stated above that it is six stories in one three-hour movie, I lied. It is one story, told from the perspective of six different time periods, all different, yet all fundamentally the same. It spans three hours and a hundred stunning visual effects not out of style, or some needed right to brag, but out of the sheer necessity of proper storytelling. It is full of emotion and adventure, and will surprise you more than once. The scope is just immense.

Cloud Atlas watches almost like a time travel movie, even though no time travel is involved. As you skip from time to time, things in the future are explained by the past, and things in the past remanifest themselves in the future, in extraordinary ways. Soon, as one scene jumps into another, you are first left wondering as to how they might connect, and then utterly amazed when they begin to do so. It becomes a game of "what's going to happen next", with momentarily saddening moments of "damn, I wanted to see more of this part!" right before you are immersed in the next cross-temporal segment.

Interestingly enough, the movie was filmed in almost two halves, concurrently, by separate film crews: the Wachowskis directing the 1931, 1973, and 2012 scenes, and Tykwer doing the remaining three. The interesting thing is that the movie jumps between these two "different styles" so seamlessly that you don't even notice. In and of themselves, the six storylines are different types of story: Luisa Rey's mystery-thriller investigation is vastly different from the hard-and-fast sci-fi scenes of 2144 or the comedy of Cavendish's later life.

A cloud atlas, according to Wikipedia, is "a pictorial key to the nomenclature of clouds." There must be something mystical about clouds, being so malleable and so varied, yet so recurrent that we might have cloud atlases. In reflecting this, Cloud Atlas shines: it is a comprehensive atlas of people and their struggles, and how they can recur and influence each other throughout time. We can see what storms arise and what patterns emerge, and how they lead from one to another in the most curious of ways.

One overarching theme that you can pick out seems to be the overcoming of boundaries and of taboo. Every one of the six stories has some sort of triumph, some form of stepping outside of oneself and beyond. People are bound by boundaries, but by being cognizant of those boundaries, they can be overcome.

This movie is beautiful. It is shocking. It is frightening. It is eye-opening. There will be blood. There will be tears. Some may be yours. A few of them are definitely mine. There will be a sense of confusion; of despair; of temporary solace; of surprise and wondrous epiphany. A killer becomes a hero. A man becomes free. A famous critic becomes a stain on the pavement. A letter becomes a link to the past. A stuffed shirt becomes a pop culture icon. At no point will you be bored by Cloud Atlas.

I have not yet seen Cloud Atlas a second time. I don't expect it'll be any less satisfying than the first.

N.B.: As much as I might sound like I'm avoiding a great number of content-related spoilers with this "in-depth review" above—and indeed, I'm hiding some very important nuggets of movie content in my descriptions, in more ways than one—this is still really pushing the envelope in terms of changing how you might see the movie. I know that the whole try-before-you-buy issue is a little weird with movies, so a good trailer or a comprehensive review are very nice in that regard, but I cannot stress enough the fact that this movie is absolutely golden, and the less you know coming in on your first time, the better.




"An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution." –The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas

Addendum, for better or worse: I have now seen Cloud Atlas a second time. Besides the prescience (ho ho, that was a pun) necessary to tell my parents when to shield my younger sibling's eyes, I also noticed many things that simply escaped me the first time. Be aware, for I will assume that you, the reader, have also seen it at least once, by now.

The other half of Ewing's journal was being used to prop up a table in Vyvyan's room, and it can be seen in the second shot of the bullet casing from when Frobisher shoots Vyvyan. It also happens to mark approximately the halfway point of Ewing's story, as I gather it had in the book. Also, curiously, Broadbent, Vyvyan's actor, plays the captain of the ship in the 1849 era, while Whishaw plays both Frobisher and a cabin boy that the captain boxes behind the ears just before Ewing reveals Autua, the stowaway.

The name of Sonmi~451 absolutely permeates the culture of the post-Fall Earth, even more than I thought on the first viewing. When Zachry gets the reading from Abbess, the shaman-woman character played by Susan Sarandon, she tells him to nail the thought to his memory, in reference to the Fabricant execution method that Sonmi finally succumbs to at the end of the movie. Furthermore, as Sonmi is finishing recounting her tale to the Archivist, she says that heaven is like a door that opens, and on the other side, she will see Hae-Joo Chang again; this is interleaved with the scene of Jim Sturgess as Adam Ewing reuniting with his wife, played by Doona Bae, in 1849, which absolutely blew my mind. (For those who failed to see it, Bae and Sturgess also play Sonmi and Hae-Joo, respectively.)

And speaking of not-so-superficial casting choices, you probably noticed Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes in 2012, but did you catch Ben Whishaw as Tim Cavendish's sister-in-law and once-lover, Georgette? Also, neither Weaving nor Hugh Grant played any protagonist roles—unless you sympathized with 2144's Seer Rhee, who's clearly just an unfortunate restaurant owner, overdosing soap addict, and general hedonist.

The most curious thing about the film would have to be the feeling of satiation. I've only seen it twice, but both times I left feeling full, both as a moviegoer and as a philosophizing human being. It could be that it's just three hours long, but I wouldn't want to see it a third time right this minute, because I think I'd need a little while to sit and digest this buffet of eye-candy and moral food for thought.




RAW INFORMATION PORTION

Cloud Atlas, 2012

Starring: Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Produced by: Stefan Ardnt, Grant Hill, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenplay by: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Based on the novel by: David Mitchell
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 172 minutes
Budget: $102 million
Box office: approx. $130 482 868 worldwide as of 25 Apr 2013 ($27.1M domestic, $9.6M opening weekend)

Thank god for IMDB!

The novel is built upon the inner conflict of the protagonist of first story. Adam Ewing, an American solicitor on a business trip through the South Pacific becomes directly involved in the conflicts between people from primitive and modern societies. The other five stories build on Ewing's reflections, interpolating the logical conclusions of these conflicts, leading finally to his own conclusions about the role his life plays in the future of humanity.
Adam Ewing inhabits the most historically informed of the six nested short stories: the author has devoted significant attention here to historical accuracy. There really was a tribe in the Chatham Islands called the Moriori who were conquered by the Maori just as Ewing witnesses. Ewing's narrative style is credibly of the period; it reads similarly enough to American authors of the period such as Edgar Alan Poe and Emily Dickinson. (That the author David Mitchell is British hasn't impeded his ability to craft American voices.)
The subsequent stories are visitations at times further and further into the future: the life of a young composer in 1931, an investigative reporter in 1975, a vanity publisher of our own time; a human clone in a future civilization on the brink of collapse, and finally a survivor of the final collapse. With the exception of the reporter's story, presented as a pot boiler mystery, these others also have an epistolary narrative style like Ewing's chapters. Each inhabitant of her time reveals certain aspects of the state of her world.
Each story demonstrates the hubris of those who seek power over others and the doom of all humanity when we all accept social stratification as the "natural order". The theme of heirarchy is echoed in the novel's structure; readers and critics are forced to acknolwedge its existence. Science and history show that such inequality between people is decidely unnatural, as does this novel.

I assert that it is entirely Adam Ewing's story, including the parts projected into the future(s). As Ewing comes to the end of his own adventure, it is as if he had peered into the future and had seen the composer, the reporter, the clone, and the aftermath survivor. Of course he is (or thinks he is) deciding on a particular new course in his life based on his own experiences. But because we have seen humanity's future history we know his conclusions are correct. Ewing vows to fight the so-called natural order, even though his lot is favorable in it, because he fears it will be humanity's downfall; having seen the future for ourselves, we know he's right.
There is much more a critic can say about Cloud Atlas. Like Bob Dylan, for example, David Mitchell has filled his prose with potentially symbolic language without always driving home the point. There is plenty more to say (as many critics will have done by now) about determinism and materialism. There is a film now produced by the Wachowski film draws further meaning from it some of which otherwise isn't explicit in the novel yet illuminates the original text. I present a certain subjective view here, similarly, and don't mean to say my view holds water in every other light but this is the meaning I personally drew from a casual reading.

The notion was to have six stories, each divided in half at a critical point, that nested: the journal of the seafaring lawyer was read by a young gay composer, who mentioned it in letters read by an investigative journalist, who was a character in a police procedural mystery manuscript set in the early 70's, being read by a contemporary London vanity press publisher, who is writing a campy comedy about how he had been trapped inside a sadistic old-age home, which was viewed as an inspiration by a rebelling Korean replicant in the near future who was being interviewed by the Corporate Juche (it's as bad as it sounds) before being executed for terrorism, a holographic recording of which was considered the Messiah legend of a post-future tribe member from Hawaii who was retelling the story of his journey to his current off-planet home for his son.

Each would be (mostly) in the same continuity, but with an unreliable narrator: the journal was thought to be a piece of antislavery propaganda, the letters forged to provide a romantic backstory for an obscure piece of music, the two contemporary stories were "just" fiction, the replicant might have been a cat's paw for the terrorists, and the tribesman is described by his son as a champion thrower of bull. Each featured, somewhat in the manner of Blackadder, the same character as hero, the same character as villain, and a third, lover/helper to the hero, with various characters having prescient dreams (forward and backwards in time), imagery, phrases, and so forth to tie the whole story together. Chronologically, they form a parabola, from savagery to high civilization and thence back, with the Hero, the Villain and the Lover switching genders, social classes, and ethnicities. 

Unfortunately, this is being done by the Wachowski Siblings. As much as they're renowned for making action/adventure/philosophical mindscrew movies that make money, they also throw whatever subtleties of character and/or morality into the dualistic meat grinder of populist Hollywood screenwriting, that is, Affluent Heterosexual White Males are Powerful and Bad, everyone else is weak and Good, and exists solely to be rescued by white people -- they can't do it by themselves. Homosexual men's love is truer, realer and in every way is more special than heterosexual love, as long as one or both of them dies by the end of the movie. Also, Asians are more powerful and money-hungry than White people, unless they're sweet and noble girl servo-replicants (we do have a Bechdal test winner, however). Love triumphs over all, Big Oil is ready to risk nuclear cataclysm in order to cement its hegemony over the energy industry, and The Weak are Meat for the Strong to Eat, except that you, yes, you, know better. Get that?

Pardon me if I'm not flattered. If anything, history shows that the Oppressed and the Oppressors, the civilized and the backwards, tend to switch places over time: the Fertile Crescent was one of the wonders of the world, until the Persians invaded, and then fell to Alexander's Greek armies, only to rise to prominence once again under Islam, and from thence, to the uneasy place they are now. In some ways this is true of this movie: Halle Berry is clearly of a much more advanced part of the world than Tom Hanks in the post-future segments. However, she still needs rescuing while she deals with mountains and cannibal rival tribes, and ultimately begs for him and his daughter to come with her because the Star People have lost their mojo or something, and need him to come and teach them how to live on a new planet. 

Then there's the supposedly mind-bending fact that every actor plays several parts, to at least nod to the structure of the book, with men playing women, young people playing old people (and somewhat vice versa), and everyone pitching in as a Korean. To which I say I liked it better in "Angels in America", where I really could believe Emma Thompson could play an Italian-American nurse from Noo Yawk, Merryl Streep as a rabbi, and everyone pitched in as an angel. We may have gone past the era of blackface in American entertainment, but somehow Asians are still fair game, and having everyone wearing rubber masks just doesn't cut it. On the other hand, we have Doona Bae, the sole actual Asian, playing a middle-aged Latina woman, and doing so with panache (though trying to cast her as a Sweet-Young-Thing in '49er San Francisco just doesn't cut it either.)

This film was supposed to have cost $100 M to make, and it shows. The Neo Seoul parts are take-your-breath-away gorgeous, for about five minutes, and the Merchant Ivory-like story with the composer made me want to run in and snatch their lifestyle. The Seventies police/journalist procedural looks just right, all earth tones and car chases (like Bullitt). But most of the film, especially after the first hour and a half, is just pointless: having scrapped the simple Matrioshka doll plot structure in favor of elaborate flash-forwards, flash-backs, and flash-arounds, sympathy for the characters erodes to the point where you wish the stupid replicant chick would quit yammering Solzhenitsyn, and die already. In a fire. Screaming. In agony. Begging her captors to spare her.

What is being underlined here is the problematic relationship between big-budget and high-concept films: given the nature of the film industry, it's natural that studios will want to get their money back on a film that could have funded ten less ambitious movies.  But in order to do that, they have to put backsides into seats, and the way to do that is to dumb down the content, throw in car chases, shootouts, and kung fu, include shoutouts to random target audiences like "recovering people" and "born-again Christians" (remember "Wilson" in "Castaway"?) or bend plots to skew towards the lucrative young male demographic (the whole book "Forrest Gump" is based on the notion that he finally turns her down, not that he gets her, only to see her so conveniently die, thus heading off any question of how they're actually going to live together). Or, to pick a non-Tom Hanks film, how the original story of "Total Recall" would have worked better with Rick Moranis (yup!) than with Schwartzenegger: it's supposed to spotlight an unlikely  hero, not someone with ACTION HERO written on his forehead. We can have our eye candy, they seem to be saying, huge budgets, exotic locales, and special effects galore, or we can have actual stories and characters. But at what cost?


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