Sunday, October 05, 2003

I'm living under a fortune teller! And I saw "Equilibrium." And other things.

Yes, it's official. I've written down the words on the new sign atop our front gate and run them by my Korean buddy.

I'm living under a fortune teller. She'll look at your face and divine stuff about your character and your future. She'll talk "philosophy" with you (the word is ch'eol hak, which translates "philosophy," but in this case we're not talking about Plato, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Russell, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.... it's not philosophy in the Buddhist or Taoist metaphysical sense, either; to me, it's a bunch of superstitious garbage, but that's my opinion as a scientific skeptic).

This lady will look at your p'yeong saeng sa ju-- the four pillars of your life (year, month, date, and hour of birth), and determine your fate.

"Born at six AM on August 31st, 1969? You should have died already, ripped apart by alligators while you were taking an especially vicious dump. Your last words were supposed to have been in French: 'L'état, c'est moi' or some such. Curious. I'll have to check those charts again."

If you're married, she'll give you a reading on your marital harmony (goong hap).

You in business? Working on projects? She'll talk sa eop (work, projects, enterprise) or mae mae (buying and selling) with you, to aid you with your fiduciary commitments.

And finally-- you need to name your kids. So jak myeong, literally "making names," will be the order of the day.

If you ever need your fortune read, come visit. The lady lives just upstairs.


What do you get when you take that Mac commercial from the 1980s-- the one that references Orwell's 1984-- and turn it into a 90-minute story with over-the-top (and highly unusual) martial arts? You get "Equilibrium."

There's a huge temptation to compare this film to "The Matrix," but in many ways it's apples and oranges. There's little of philosophical/metaphysical interest here, and Christian Bale (whom I'd never seen act before, but he's apparently in "American Psycho") is several orders of magnitude more talented than Keanu Reeves as an actor.

The plot is fairly simple. Society is in the midst of being turned into one huge emotion-free zone. This was a "humanitarian" decision made by "Father" when it became obvious to him that war, violence, etc. were destroying civilization. His solution: the elimination of all feeling. People are now expected to live conformist lives, dressing the same way, doing and thinking the same things, always under the watchful eye of Father, who is on every huge monitor screen spread liberally throughout the realm of Librium (sounds familiar, ja?). No aesthetic stimulation is allowed. No art on the walls, no "literary" literature, no open vistas from your high-rise apartment (windows are covered with gray-tinted material to block the potentially inspiring view).

And of course, you have to take a drug called Prozia, which keeps your emotions at bay. Skip a scheduled injection, and you're likely to discover you're human. Which in this world makes you a "sense offender."

Sci-fi regularly dips into religion for its tropes, and "Equilibrium" is no exception. The main character is named John Preston-- a biblical first name and a surname derived from the Latin word for priest (see here as well). Preston is part of an elite force, the highest echleon of law enforcement in this society: the Tetragrammaton enforcers. They're called "clerics," and their job is to find sense offenders, destroy their possessions, send them in for "processing" or kill them on the spot. Grammaton clerics are masters of a scientifically developed martial art whose syllabus includes "gun-kata," an art you practice barehanded but also with firearms. The idea behind gun-kata, which is based on gun battle statistics, is that you learn firing postures and body motions that both minimize your chances of getting hit (by placing you in the most statistically improbable position in relation to your opponents) and maximize your killing efficiency.

All that technobullshit aside, the trivia is that this was indeed a theatrical martial art developed specifically for this movie, and the result-- for us fight choreography junkies-- is some amazing fight scenes. They aren't like what you see in the "Matrix" films, being neither special effects-heavy nor "wire-fu" in style. In many ways, gun-kata is back-to-the-basics martial arts with a very Japanese accent. Some scenes in which Christian Bale takes on multiple opponents at close quarters reminded me strongly of Jeff Speakman's kenpo technique (yes, arguably Chinese... sigh... but kenpo [Chn. chuan fa] did "japanify" when it migrated), and the fights involving katana were a dead giveaway about the Nipponity of it all.

Once again, I was out with my buddy Jang Woong and his wife Bo Hyun. I think they felt burned by our previous moviegoing experience, "Bulletproof Monk," so "Equilibrium" came as a relief. Bo Hyun in particular was taken with the fight scenes. Jang Woong said he felt like massacring his office co-workers that efficiently.

"Equilibrium" isn't much more than a reworked 1984, with lots of gun battles and a happier ending. Because it's a sci-fi movie, it does stick to the usual rule: The Black Guy Dies. But Taye Diggs's unusual fate made the Korean audience gasp in horror this evening. The audience reaction was cooler than the death scene.

A lot of critics razzed this movie in the States; I can see why. It doesn't always make sense: people on Prozia aren't supposed to emote, but we see grins, hear angry, passionate speeches, and even catch people cracking full smiles. Preston, after he falls out of favor with the rest of the Tetragrammaton, still seems able to sneak a large supply of weapons into high-security areas-- literally up his sleeves. If you're not into fight choreography, then you won't be engaged by the violence, either. There are quite a few plot twists-- perhaps enough to annoy some viewers. But all in all, I found the story and action to be better than what "Bulletproof Monk" had to offer, and gun-kata struck me as an original twist on movie fighting.

Maybe not the best movie to see in theaters (I imagine it's long gone from US screens, anyway, if is any indication), but it's not bad as DVD-for-the-evening material. Oh, yeah-- the Big Bad Villain is Angus Macfadyen-- the dude who played Robert the Bruce in "Braveheart." And he turns in a fine gun-kata performance at the end, too. Hats off.

[UPDATE: I should've noted that "Tetragrammaton" refers to the four Hebrew letters making up the name of God: YHWH. These clerics are doing God's work, you see. More religion-in-sci-fi for yo' ass.]

As we were driving along, Jang Woong and I started talking about Korean troop deployment. I mentioned the Marmot's recent Korea Times article, and brought up the fact that a very pissed-off Korean commenter (at the Times site, not on the Marmot's blog) complained that Korea's contribution to Iraq would be forgotten, just like its contribution to the Vietnam War has been forgotten in the US. Jang Woong laughed and said, "Just like we've forgotten who helped us in the Korean War, right?"

So don't come away with the impression that all Koreans are closed-minded pricks. They aren't. If a person is defined by whom he hangs with (dis-moi qui tu hantes et je te dirai qui tu es), then friends like Jang Woong make me look pretty good. World, Jang Woong. Jang Woong, world.

Oh, yes-- couldn't leave without another Korean note, this being a link I found through Satan's Anus-- a Post article about horrors in North Korea. It covers a lot of fertile ground, including something I'm very interested in: NK defectors who adapt poorly to South Korean society. But the most noteworthy paragraph comes at the end, in a section titled "Burden of Guilt," dealing with the defector Pak Do Ik, who defected to South Korea and is doing well as a businessman. One of Pak's ideas:

...he has a business plan to develop a "North Korean guerrilla training theme park camp" that would let tourists experience Stalinist army training and -- for realism's sake -- deny them food for several meals.

Yeah, and I think every South Korean who utters "one people" nonsense needs to go through that camp for several years, isolated from South Korean society, then come out at the end and see whether they still think of themselves as one people with their compatriots.

No comments: