and Byambasuren Davaa
Some analysts anticipate that within 50 years, China’s economic power—and therefore its culture—will dominate the world: A global noodle franchise will crush McDonald’s; fashionable women will have surgery to make their eyes slant; your grandchildren will sing along with the Mandarin lyrics of the latest teen-pop hit. More than a few of those analysts are Chinese, of course, but even multinational entertainment factory Disney seems to buy into this potentially unsettling future. The studio’s latest, Around the World in 80 Days, is a Sinocentric slapstick update of the novel by Jules Verne, the 19th-century French writer whose work has inspired a string of Anglo-American adventure-fantasy movies—including a hit 1956 version of the same tale.
As a work of Asian cultural imperialism, the latest iteration of 80 Days is actually rather mild-mannered. Jackie Chan is the name above the title, but he plays a mere underling, Passepartout (“Goes Everywhere”), to Steve Coogan’s inventor/adventurer, Phileas Fogg. And the movie’s damsel in distress/love interest is not, as in the original, a young Indian widow saved by our heroes from throwing herself on her husband’s pyre, but a blandly feisty French artiste: Monique La Roche (Cécile de France, L’Auberge Espagnole’s Belgian lesbian) is a painter who despairs of being taken seriously by those sexist Impressionists.
Still, it’s French valet Passepartout—a none-too-secret identity for Chinese do-gooder Lau Xing—who provides much of the story’s locomotion. Verne’s itinerary skirted China, traveling by steamer from Calcutta to Hong Kong, Yokohama, and then San Francisco, but Passepartout/Lau Xing books the 2004 route straight to his home village. That’s because he must return a jade Buddha, sacred to his clan, that he retrieved from the vaults of the Bank of England. Naturally, as he circles the globe, Lau Xing repeatedly battles the Chinese rogues who stole the statue and now want it back.
If this sounds much like the plots of Chan’s previous forays into 19th-century America and Europe, Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, that’s surely intentional. Chan and his longtime business partners, Willie Chan and Solon So, are among 80 Days’ 13 producers, executive producers, and associate producers. With the cooperation of scripters David Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein, they’ve revisited most of the features of the Shanghai films, including playfully fractured history, lighthearted action choreography, and pompous, long-winded foils to Chan’s terse, heavily accented character. Several of the bit players have worked previously with director Frank Coraci, whose credits include The Wedding Singer and The Water Boy, but just as many are linked to Chan: childhood pal Sammo Hung, Shanghais co-star Owen Wilson, and versatile Hong Kong actress Karen Mok, here billed as Karen Joy Morris.
The filmmakers slickly integrate these elements into a narrative that’s not that far removed from Verne’s. Fogg is a London inventor engaged in a bitter rivalry with Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), the royal science minister. Kelvin bets Fogg that he can’t circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, and Fogg suggests that the wager’s stake should be nothing less than the post of science minister. In Verne’s novel, Fogg is pursued by Inspector Fix (Ewen Bremner), who has mistaken the voyager for a bank robber. In this version, Fogg is following Passepartout, who really is a bank robber, but who has pinched only what rightfully belongs to his people. To further villainize Kelvin, the movie makes him part of the conspiracy to filch the cheesy-looking jade Buddha, in collaboration with dragon lady Gen. Fang (Mok).
80 Days doesn’t exactly challenge the imperial European mind-set of such Victorian-era fabulists as Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Karl May, which has been only slightly modernized by the recent Hollywood flicks that pit the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis against bloodthirsty Arabs, Asians, or Africans. Despite the Chinese influence and the many references to foreign climes, the movie has a back-lot vibe and a food-court approach to cultural diversity. It was shot mostly in Germany (which subs for London, Paris, San Francisco, and New York) and Thailand (which impersonates India and China), and the cinematography and production design stress the locations’ artificiality, segueing from episode to episode with animated renderings of the world that aren’t much more cartoonish than the live-action sequences. If 80 Days doesn’t venture quite so far into geographical fantasy as The Terminal, whose protagonist hails from a fictional nation, it’s not because Coraci and crew have any interest in what the world really looks like.
This is one realm in which the Hollywood and Hong Kong movie industries have a long-standing affinity—neither has much patience with naturalism. Indeed, 80 Days is most inspired at its most stylized, such as when Passepartout battles his Chinese attackers with paint in a Paris atelier, in the process completing the half-finished canvas behind him. Adding to the air of theatricality is Coogan’s Fogg, who wanders through the proceedings with a detached mien, commenting on the action as if he were a sort of MC. (Coogan-watchers will note that this is exactly what he did in the Manchester-music-scene saga 24 Hour Party People, although it made more sense in that context.)
Chan has long craved planetary superstardom, and to this end he’s developed a genial comic persona that’s more akin to Buster Keaton than Bruce Lee. With Around the World in 80 Days, he’s almost created the ideal vehicle for himself: The movie is innocuous, old-fashioned, and a little shoddy, yet blessed with physical grace, intermittent wit, and impeccable mass-market instincts. Still, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that Chan’s increased control over his career has brought him only an expanded version of the same role he played 24 years ago in his second Hollywood venture, Cannonball Run: the Asian sidekick in a middling chase picture.
Whereas the makers of major-studio picaresques tend to scoop all cultures into a blender, filmmakers Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa keep things specific. Their The Story of the Weeping Camel depicts an entirely different world than that of 80 Days—although this one’s not exactly real, either.
Ironically, their modest but lovely tale of life among the Gobi Desert’s dwindling stock of Mongolian nomads is remarkably similar to Asshäk, Tales From the Sahara, another ethnographic fable that had its local debut at this year’s Filmfest DC. The latter movie is set among the Tuaregs, who wander the Sahara and—like Falorni and Davaa’s four-generation Mongolian household—center their lives on family, music, camels, and goats.
In the tradition of such trailblazing Robert Flaherty studies as 1922’s Nanook of the North, Weeping Camel combines precise documentary detail with a dramatized narrative. Writer-director Davaa, the granddaughter of Mongolian nomads, and writer, director, and cinematographer Falorni, an Italian who met Davaa at a German film school, arrived in the Gobi in March, camel-birthing season. Davaa hoped to make a film that would depict a musical ritual traditionally used to soothe distraught animals. This goal was bolstered when a mother camel rejected a newborn white colt after a protracted birth.
The colt is bottle-fed—and looks quite vigorous—but the nomads believe a camel that’s estranged from its mother will not long survive. (Neither, of course, will a nomadic tribe that doesn’t take care of its animals.) So the family sends its two young sons, Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar) and Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar), to the closest settlement to summon a musician who can play the customary comforting tune on his two-string violin. That’s essentially the movie’s whole story, save for such asides as a sudden sandstorm and Ugna’s craving for a TV after he see the wonders of electric-powered entertainment in the local town.
Like the Tuaregs, the Mongolians recount an ancient myth to explain the character of the camel—although the Mongolian tale doesn’t involve Allah, and it explains the beast’s seeming alertness rather than its apparent grin. Otherwise, however, the Mongolians seem even less inclined to metaphor than their Muslim counterparts. Harsh climates encourage pragmatism, of course, and it’s likely that the members of the family captured by Falorni’s camera don’t think of their existence as poetic. Still, when the weeping-camel ceremony is completed, they adjourn to their yurt with the violinist to sing more songs. The moment embodies the film’s charm, which is both simple and elemental: The Story of the Weeping Camel is a gentle, almost childlike tale, but its crux is nothing less than survival. CP