Tuesday, November 19, 2013

‘Naked Weapon’: Naked Brutality

When does a trashy movie stop being fun and start being repulsive? I’ve been asking myself this question ever since I saw Ching Siu-Tung’s Hong Kong action film Naked Weapon (赤裸特工2002). Ching is one of my favorite action directors. His credits include the underrated gem The Terra-Cotta Warrior (秦俑, 1989) and better-known actioners like The East Is Red (東方不敗 - 風雲再起, 1993). He also provided the fight choreography for several of Tsui Hark’s action films and all three of Zhang Yimou’s high-profile martial-arts movies. So, seeing Ching’s name on the credits of Naked Weapon instantly told me that the film would be a quality product. But I was not only disappointed — I was revolted.

Now, I don’t automatically fault a film for being a bit on the junky side. Cult cinema certainly has its place, and so-called “trash” aesthetics can have their own positive properties that are as intriguing as the more “respectable” ones employed by more prestigious films. So, just because some filmmakers might not take their subject matter seriously, or just because they might revel in the artificiality of their medium, that is not reason enough to condemn a movie. Films that utilize trash aesthetics include many of John Waters' intriguing works and several enjoyable romps from Hong Kong like Luk Kim-Ming’s Robotrix (
女机械人, 1993).

But Naked Weapon crossed the line from trashy action movie to something more disturbing. Perhaps we're not supposed to take the film’s premise — a secret Darwinian “school” for female assassins where the “pupils” must kill each other to “graduate” — at face value, but the subject is viewed with a solemnly straight face, not with a cartoonish or ironic distance. Coupled with Ching’s fierce fight choreography, the bloody, nerve-racking events faced by the main character, Charlene (Maggie Q), are harrowing in an unpleasant way. Like other films I detest — such as Masaru Konuma’s Wife to Be Sacrificed (生贄夫人, 1974) or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, 1975) — Naked Weapon seems to encourage its audience to take sadistic delight in its lead character's misfortunes.

This unsettling element reaches its pinnacle mid-way in the film when the “school’s” cold-blooded leader, Madame M (Almen Wong), drugs her surviving graduates (presumably virgins) and has them raped by her male guards. The scene is utterly gratuitous, and its gut-wrenching realism erases any ability to view the moment simply as a make-believe fiction. The making-of documentary that is included on Naked Weapon’s DVD interviews Maggie Q and the other actresses after the rape scene was shot, and the women seem somewhat traumatized by the experience. Why would a director want to put his actresses through such an ordeal? For what purpose? Furthermore, I would submit that the scene wants the viewer to identify with the rapists, rather than the women being raped.

Now, let me be clear: I am not arguing against all depictions of rape per se. The aquatic rape scene in Erotic Ghost Story II (聊斋艳谭 II, 1991) and the invisible rape scene in The Eternal Evil of Asia (南洋十大邪术, 1995) were too over-the-top to take seriously as portrayals of violence against women, as anything other than bizarre performances staged for the camera. And there are more substantial films about rape where the viewer is made to indentify with the victim.  Naked Weapon’s rape scene is in a different class entirely: a humorless, realistic moment where the (presumably male) viewer is allowed to relish the sexual suffering of beautiful women. Moreover, Madame M never gets her comeuppance in the story (suggesting that the rape didn’t warrant punishment), and Charlene’s climatic battle with an out-of-left-field villain implies that it was her ordeals with Madame M — including the rape — that enable her to prevail. Rape, the movie implies, is a relatively positive stepping stone toward female “empowerment.”

Some comments elsewhere on the Internet say that the rape scene in 
Naked Weapon shouldn’t be taken seriously. But the moment is played very seriously in this very serious film. Others say that the scene should be taken within the context of the action genre. I disagree: Naked Weapon is already a very grueling film about scantily clad women inflicting pain on each other in order to survive. The action genre mandates neither the Darwinian violence of the “student” assassins against each other (I kept waiting for the girls to rise up against Madame M) nor the male viewer’s pleasure in female suffering. I’m appalled that anyone — especially a director I respect — would find this sadistic portrayal of rape and violence entertaining.

‘Naked Weapon’ Trailer

Originally published at Amazon.com in 2005

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Deficit of Information

I was going to downsize the political posts on my blog, but I need to say something about a newspaper piece that I recently read.  On September 16, 2013, Peter Grier wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor titled “Obama: Deficits Falling at Fastest Rate since WWII. Is that true?”  The piece was following up this claim made by President Obama.  As the article mentions, the Congressional Budget Office says that “through the first 11 months of fiscal 2013, the budget deficit was down 35 percent from the comparable period of 2012.”

Grier’s article asks if what the President said was true, and answers: “Strictly speaking, yes.  The deficit is falling as rapidly as it has in decades. ... But ... one of the reasons it is falling so fast is that it shot up so high in the first place.”  Grier goes on to let the air out of Obama’s balloon: “In 2008, the deficit was about $458 billion.  In 2009, it rocketed up to $1.4 trillion.  It stayed above the trillion-dollar mark for 2010 through 2012.”  

And he quotes the director of the National Economic Council under George W. Bush as writing, “When the president proclaims that the deficit is shrinking at its fastest rate in decades, that’s the same as saying that the speed at which the nation is rolling backwards has decreased dramatically.”  The gist of Grier’s article is that the problems that caused the deficit are “far from solved,” and that Obama shouldn’t be taking credit for a declining deficit during his presidency when that deficit also increased so spectacularly during his presidency.  The tone of the article is definitely anti-Obama.

But in undercutting the President’s claim, Grier leaves out a crucial piece of information: he disparages the deficit shooting upwards in 2009 — without mentioning that the government’s Fiscal Year 2009 began on October 1, 2008, under President Bush.  And that a big chunk of the deficit was due to the Wall Street bailout that year.  Yes, the year’s fiscal spending also included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as “The Stimulus,” but as Wikipedia says: “The CBO estimated that ARRA increased the deficit by [only] $200 billion for 2009, split evenly between tax cuts and additional spending, excluding any feedback effects on the economy.”

For Grier not to mention that the Obama Administration wasn’t responsible for the entire $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009, and for his article not to mention the Bush presidency or the bailout at all, strikes me as extremely disingenuous.  And if Grier were to defend his article by saying that he was only looking at the calendar year of 2009 and not Fiscal Year 2009, that’s still intellectually dishonest.

And so, our political discourse totters along.

Saturday, November 9, 2013