Saturday, 15 April 2017

This is Major- Ghost in the Shell Review and Whitewashing.


I'm a sucker for sci-fi/action/futuristic stuff lately so I wanted to see Ghost in the Shell. From an aesthetic perspective it appealed to me, it had a lot going on visually. I expected an extravagantly stylish film. Before I get into the guts of it, lets address the great big honkin' elephant in the room.

White-washing. 

Like this whole Joss Whedon/Batgirl controversy, you have to have been on a social media blackout to have missed the drama surrounding ScarJo and GitS. To make a long story short, many criticised the casting of this film because ScarJo is a white, American actress and many believed Motoko/Major should have been portrayed by a Japanese or Asian actress.

(I gave my 2 cents in the big green chunk at the bottom after my review so if you don't give a donut about the controversy you can read till my verdict and leave it at that, but if you do, go ahead and read the whole darn thing!).

AND NOW I REVIEW!

  • SCAR JO IS MAJOR... Disappointing actually ...

Despite the fact that I don't see it as entirely problematic (or entirely unproblematic either) she was cast to play Major because she's white but the fact remains that she was very ... robotic in her performance. I'm not familiar with the anime, I know it exists and thats about it, so I don't know how "human" Major is supposed to be but it would have been nice to see her "emote" a little, maybe not through her face but her voice? or her eyes? or something. She's supposed to be a soul in a shell but her character lacked a lot of soul. She was convincing though I guess and moved beautifully on screen. 

The scene with Motoko's mother felt incredibly unnatural though this was mostly on the scriptwriters part. Kaori Momoi who played Motoko's mother was fantastic, the emotions poured from her where ScarJo was stuck and stiff (with shock perhaps? Although it seemed to be the same stiffness that dominated the entirety of her performance, it's hard to differentiate). My main problem here was how it came about. Kaori's character invites Major in and immediately drops the "My daughter ran away and killed herself but I don't believe she killed herself" bomb straight away. Now, I'm no expert on the subject, but, I don't invite strangers into my house and then drop all this stuff on them unprovoked. It just came out in an inorganic way, it was essential to the plot to reveal what happened to Motoko and that this is her mother but the way it played out on screen was disingenuous and forced. Props to Kaori for her fantastic performance with such clunky writing to contend with, she really did salvage what she could, but the pacing was entirely off and the dialog did the scene a disservice. Kaori conveyed more emotion in 2 minutes on screen than ScarJo did in her entire performance.

  • VISUAL OVERLOAD

I went for the visuals, not gonna lie, I'm a sucker for stylistic stuff, GitS doesn't fail to deliver with fantastic special effects and prop and set design. I was 200% on board with the eerie geisha-robots ever since the trailers, my only complaint is that we didn't see like 400 more of them, the trailer is pretty much it unfortunately. 
I really liked how it was shot, the colour, the textures, the effects, really it was art in motion. Very few shots are visually boring or stagnant, everything from lighting to the camera angles and movements are carefully considered. Editing of course plays a huge role too. In one of the fights in particular you don't actually see the fight, just flashes of blue light and darkness mashed up with quick, disorienting cuts, it's actually really difficult to watch which only adds to the desperation and danger of this fight. The viewer becomes defenceless which is a jarring change to earlier fights where Major was utterly pwning every n00b that crossed her path. 
I love the glitches as well, the way they just didn't fit in with the world only enhanced the notion that "that isn't supposed to be there". It was an interesting quirk considering the "fake-ness" of the glitches contrasted with the "real-ness" of their meaning. The glitches were out of place and seemed like errors, when really they were one of the more "truthful" glimpses of Major's story, except Major had been brainwashed into believing these "errors" didn't belong. 

  • AND HERE COMES THE TWIST ... that you already saw coming

I dunno if I'm getting too clever I'm not, but this movie was pretty predictable, and I haven't even seen or read the anime or manga or done prior research. I went into the movie blind yet I still predicted every plot twist before it happened.

These may not be in chronological order, but hey, they all happened so heres the "twists" that weren't really twisty. 
*SPOILERS* 
1. When Major gets glitches and has to take her medicine I immediately twigged that the "medicine" which keeps her brain from rejecting the shell was no such thing, it was a memory suppressant to keep Major compliant. 
2. Kuze and Major/Motoko being lovers in their "past" lives. The second they met face to face I saw that coming. 
3. Kuze "dies" and Major lives. He was "suicidal" from the beginning and had a back-up plan, when he asks Major to join with him and makes no attempt to fight the spider-tank, I knew if anyone had to die or sacrifice themselves, Kuze was going to go because Major wouldn't die (Hollywood like it's "happy endings" and keeping protagonists alive for potential sequels and so on). Someone had to be a sacrifice to pull on those heart strings and it wouldn't be Major. I'll admit I did feel bad about Kuze "dying" for a fraction of a second when it seemed like he'd finally found someone like him, something to live for, but it was nonetheless predictable. 
4. Ouelet's sacrifice. From the beginning I knew Ouelet would swap sides. We all knew or suspected that Major was brainwashed/controlled, and Dr O was this sympathetic, kind, motherly figure. When Major was figuring stuff out, I knew Dr O would help her and thus get her self killed. Her character was pretty convincing but her end was so predictable. 
5. Daisuke survives the shooting attack; I knew he'd be fine when he whipped out his gun a couple scenes before his ambush in the car. Daisuke knew what was going on, he was prepared and when he hopped into the car and put his briefcase in that awkward position, I knew he was setting up a shield. It didn't mean he didn't look totally badass when he nailed those baddies in like 6 shots, but I saw it coming long before it happened. 
6. Motoko's mother reveals the truth of Majors past ... everything in that scene was predictable and suffered from clunky scripting but the performance from Kaori saved me from rolling my eyes so far back in my head that they drilled through the back of my skull. 
*SPOILERS END HERE*

  • A CONVINCING ON SCREEN RELATIONSHIP

Batou was an incredibly convincing character. While Kuze and Major's relationship was interesting, I thought Pilou Asbæk's character portrayed the most convincing relationship on screen. He's not Major's love interest, but his admiration for her is very clear. He respects her and cares for her. It can be hard to capture these kind of relationships on screen in such a short time period. Game of Thrones has whole seasons to build up relationships, a movie has 2 hours to go through all the motions and shove in tonnes of plot and action stuff, but Batou's character and his relationship with the main protagonist was captured well. He's the tough guy with a soft heart. We see how bad ass he is quite clearly throughout, but his soft side comes out naturally and beautifully through one simple action. 
He feeds stray dogs ... 
That was an example of good characterisation in my opinion. You can see he's not just a tank with cyborg eyes, he's a gentle giant who also kicks ass. His character had much needed depth, unfortunately ScarJo's, Major, didn't have quite as much depth and I wonder if a slightly less robotic performance could have remedied that. 

  • The Verdict?

I'd give Ghost in the Shell a solid 6/10. The design was spectacular, the props and VFX in particular wowed me, the story and acting, albeit predictable and sometimes a bit stiff, wasn't too bad. The movie did make me think about the whole human/cyborg "what makes a person a person" type questions without it turning into a depressive philosophical mess. 
It wasn't bad by any means. Plenty of room for improvement, but there's rarely a film that pops onto screen entirely flaw-free. The white washing controversy is really the only thing I can complain about at length because to me, it appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction and incredibly mishandled and misinformed. 
I'm all for social justice, but when your social justice steps on the small time cinematographers and filmmakers in Hong Kong who could have benefitted from some good press related to GitS filming in Hong Kong, are you really doing anyone any favours or just standing on a soap-box for the sake of it? 

So the review ends here, but continue reading if you want a female film scholars opinion on THIS PARTICULAR instance of "white washing". (And I stress this particular instance, GitS is one of many films that have problems and lumping everything together and adopting a reductionist approach is a baaaaaad idea. Lets analyse things case by case instead of presuming every single instance is set in the same context and same level with the same circumstances and impact). 

I'm on the fence about this because white washing is a problem, like the lack of females in many leading roles/big projects, but I'm hesitant to voice my concern about this particular case because ...

1. Gearing the blame at ScarJo was the wrong approach. The problem lies with the producers, directors and casting department. An actor plays a role they've been cast to play (lets not get into "she should have turned down the role" because that may be "easy" for a star of ScarJo's calibre to turn down roles but most smaller actors simply can't afford turn away jobs and we shouldn't apply the same expectations to actors on the margin.)
Finn Jones found himself in similarly hot water for playing Danny Rand/Iron Fist, but Finn Jones has nowhere near the same renown as ScarJo. It's ludicrous to expect him to be picky about jobs when his career is still developing, although after all the controversy I don't know what will happen to him next. 
It's a casting director that selects the actor for the role. Blacklisting actors simply for doing their job and being white is an unnecessary attack on actors, yes, the higher-ups may have got the message, but striking them instead of ScarJo strikes me as a far smarter tactic. 
If you get a raw burger at a restaurant you complain to the chef or management, don't attack the waiter! ScarJo might have been an easy target because she was the "face" of the film and her career is unlikely to wither, she'll still be Black Widow in 2 more Marvel Movies and this will all blow over so she doesn't have to worry, but there are plenty of other budding actors who don't have that luxury and we shouldn't set ourselves up to target them as well. If we want to tackle white washing we need an approach that doesn't throw actors under the bus because they aren't solely to blame by any means and the approach that I saw people adopt toward GitS was totally misguided.

2. Major was a cyborg, her "ghost" was supposed to be a Japanese girl, considering we only briefly see Motoko in a flashback/glitch ... Does Major need to be ethnically Asian? It would be a nice touch, yes certainly, but is it completely necessary? I don't think Major could be considered whitewashing of the same calibre when compared to the likes of a Jackie Chan movie being recast with a white actorTHAT is certainly white washing. Major is a cyborg character from an anime/manga, her race is ambiguous at best, the anime is Japanese but the characters aren't all necessarily Japanese themselves. Given the setting/locale, it would make sense for GitS to have more Asian actors, it certainly could have done this and probably should have, but targeting Motoko exclusively and not other characters like Cutter and Batou? I done a little googling and Kuze's character (played by Michael Pitt) was apparently modelled on a Half-Tiawanese/Japanese actor [sources [1][2][3][4] will search for more later]. Where is the outrage about Kuze (a confirmed Asian character in the original text) being played by a white dude? 

If Major is considered extreme white washing, I dread to think of the backlash of an actually confirmed Asian character such as Disney's Mulan (who is ethnically Chinese) being cast by a white actor. This isn't a clear-cut case of whitewashing, certainly debate worthy but perhaps we should be more critical in our criticisms because this isn't as simple as Emma Watson trading in Belle for Mulan or Pocahontas or Tiana, Ghost in the Shell is a "grey area", Mulan is clearly Chinese, did Ghost in the Shell warrant such an extreme reaction? Perhaps so, but where are the Kuze complaints? The fact that ScarJo/Major was the ONLY target in a film that could have had other roles filled by Asian actors seems fishy to me, it screams "I looked at the main character and started yelling without engaging in a little research and critical thinking". 
KUZE WAS WHITEWASHED, Major ...? It's not so simple, yet only one character was subject to ridicule, someone please explain this to me and don't pull the "she was the protagonist/main character" excuse because Kuze was also a significant character, until Cutter becomes the main villain, Kuze is Major's primary antagonist and he is described as appearing ethnically Asian although he, like Major, is a cyborg. If people applied the same standards to Major and Kuze I'd be utterly understanding, both are cyborgs, both were white washed, but the fact it's only Major means that the primary dissenters didn't investigate anything further than a trailer or an angry tumblr post.  

3. There is a lot more involved in a movie than the lead actress or even the casting department. Next time you complain about Hollywood whitewashing again, take a look at who is involved, think about people outside of casting and the main credits. Think of the local folks in Hong Kong (where filming took place) who depend on big productions to bring in money or boost the local industry. Why would the big Hollywood studios try something like this again if it fails first time? Why would they endeavour to make another GitS-esque movie, perhaps with an Asian lead next time when the first one bombed? The Hollywood Execs don't feel the pinch but the folks on the ground in Hong Kong could get hit hard by the controversy. 
I think of Northern Ireland and how Game of Thrones injected a lot into the local economy and really put NIScreen on the map. Because of Game of Thrones, NI began huge investments in developing its film industry, that's part of the reason I moved there. Because of GoT people actually consider filming in Antrim instead of Austria or Australia (or literally anywhere else, before GoT NI didn't get as much attention, now its on the map), and thats great for a small industry like Northern Ireland, it helps small artists and the large companies. So next time you boycott a film for white washing, take a look at who else you hit. ScarJo can jet set around the world to her next project but local cinematographers, gaffers, camera men, catering crew, runners, MUA's and everyone in between don't have that same luxury. The investment from GitS could have had a knock-on affect which helped a small-time director in Hong Kong make his or her big break. 

4. Leading on from point 3, some progress is better than no progress for Asian cinema and stories and representation. Hollywood was telling an Asian story, yes, the casting wasn't quite as diverse as most of us may have liked, but it was a step in the right direction. I get as frustrated as the next girl when I see movies attempt a feminist message but fall flat, but at the very least, each new movie is a step toward telling that awesome feminist story. I watched The Accused in one of my film classes, and of course, it was groundbreaking, but I also had a lot to criticise. Fortunately The Accused was quite powerful and successful, it's shortcomings were by in large outweighed by its strengths. My point is, yes, we want a perfect, diverse Hollywood and we want it NOW, but if we ignore every step toward that end goal, we never get there. GitS was far from perfect, but it was a start toward that goal. 
I want a Black Widow (and Bucky!!!) solo film(s), but mass-boycotting the MCU until they make it won't make that happen, it will only harm the MCU. 

There are other ways to promote diversity in film and that is to MAKE AND WATCH DIVERSE FILMS. Look at film festivals, you will find incredible stuff that you won't see from Hollywood studios here and now, and if you promote that stuff, Hollywood will watch and learn. Boycotting is one way to make an impact but you can be far more constructive and still make a difference. Look at Taika Waititi. NZ film industry is hardly comparable with the Hollywood Powerhouse BUTTTT, Taika is now directing Thor Ragnarok because Boy (2010) put him on the map and it stormed film festival circuits. Then he made Hunt for the Wilderpeople and he'd built up a great rep. Now a bloke of Jewish-Maori descent, from New Zealand, is directing a Marvel movie. Boycotting Age of Ultron didn't make that happen, massive support in NZ and overseas boosted Taika and he was noticed. If we want more POC directors, writers, actors and producers we have to put them on the map. Yeah, it's not fair that we have to do it this way, but right now, it seems to be the best way to change Hollywood. But by all means, complain and boycott all you like, a lot of these angry SJW's like to be angry, and while protesting and petitioning can be a bit of craic, a lot can be said for positive reinforcement rather throwing stones.

To cut a long story short, Ghost in the Shell probably isn't the best example of Hollywood whitewashing given that Major's physically a cyborg and her "ethnicity" is ambiguous. Despite her conscience being that of a Japanese girl, her physical appearance doesn't necessarily need to reflect this even though it would be desirable right? 

BUTTTTT GitS certainly could have included more POC or perhaps have cast an Asian lead. Given that the movie is said and done, they can't do that now, but we can learn from it and I think what we, the audience, need to learn is that boycotting and blaming ScarJo isn't the only/best approach. Hopefully the big Hollywood studios learned from this, but if not, I wish cinemagoers did. Channel your energy into supporting Asian cinema and actors. It doesn't cease to strike me as odd that these dissenters complain about wanting to see Asian actors and yet many do nothing to actively support Asian or even World cinema ... similarly, they complain about Major being white and not Kuze which tells me that 1. They didn't investigate they jumped on a whitewashing bandwagon, and 2. Basically they have no clue. 

I hate to call people ignorant, but that is ignorance, especially when all it took for me to figure this out was one quick google search. Before you criticise GitS for whitewashing Major, take a look at the other characters, Kuze whom has been described as ethnically Asian is played by a white guy but very few posts seem to point this out which would have made the white washing argument infinitely more credible. Leaving out this key point only undermines those who make very valid points about whitewashing. 

I'll stress, GitS certainly had some casting problems but the response from the audience was incredibly narrow and skewed.