Ghost, Shell, City

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
ghost-in-the-shell-poster-10
Based on my limited knowledge of Japanese sci-fi manga, I initially thought the film Ghost in the Shell is a remake of anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (EVA) or a western adaptation of EVA. Even when I saw Scarlett Johansson’s posters on the street, I still thought she plays Rei Ayanami in EVA and it didn’t occur to me that this is actually a different piece of work.
Major Kusanagi
Left: Rei Ayanami(EVA).Right: Major Motoko Kusanagi(Ghost in the Shell)
Aside from my ignorance to Japanese sci-fi manga classics, Major Motoko Kusanagi actually does share some similarities with Rei Ayanami. They both have purple hair and red eyes, have limited or no emotions, and were built to fight as some kind of augmented human-like robots that are superior to normal human beings both physically and mentally. Being faces of the future world, they have tough bodies, but they are also longing to develop their own identities and connections to the outside world.
Major Kusanagi demonstrates what a “Ghost” would be capable of once she overrides the power that comes with the “Shell” and has established her own thinking and execution system. Scarlett Johansson did a great job expressing Major’s frustration and struggle of being a robot that takes orders and a proper mastermind that makes the decision, though this is not the first time Johanson plays a character that is surreal and from the future. Her recent characters include the seductive girl in  Under the Skin (2013) , the mentally enhanced Lucy in Lucy (2014) , and most impressively, the digitally augmented female voice of a virtual girlfriend in Her (2013). Johansson has given these “super-humans” a female voice with her appearance in these movies by following a path of creating female “super-humans”  that are expected to be prettier, sexier and smarter in all dimensions. Yet their fragile and complicated minds are as mesmerizing as their physical charm.

Major Kusanagi’s jump from the top of a building into the dark, gigantic urban jungle background is inevitably the highlight of the film. As a cyberpunk movie, Ghost in a Shell inherited the futurist and postmodern urban setting like the ones from Blade Runner (1982), with ubiquitous high-rises, flickering digital screens and rotating animated projections. Though obviously a duplicate of the skyline of Hong Kong, the 3D effect of  city created by the latest CI technology has improved tremendously compared with the augmented film scenes in Blade Runner from the 80s. One day when the digital technology is mature enough to present such settings via virtual reality glasses, it would probably be another step closer towards the cyber-world that is depicted in the movie.

Ghost in a Shell City
Top: Ghost in a Shell (2017). Bottom: Blade Runner (1982).

Gone with The Wasted Times

Wasted times

This is a film about 1930s Shanghai and its gangster past during the chaotic Japanese occupation period.

As a Chinese film, it is a nice piece of work that entails a sophisticated storyline and a unique style of art-house aesthetics, while still maintains its clear commercial intentions. With an all-star cast, it depicts the stories happening around three leading characters including a ruthless gangster leader (You Ge),  a Shanghaiese- speaking Japanese spy (Tadanobu Asano) and a lustful concubine (Ziyi Zhang) of a gangster boss. Each of them was after something they wanted during the wartime, and all thought that they had had  full control of the situation during the process of pursuing, while the end is pretty much tragic for all of them.

To me the film pays tribute to a wartime era where everything was unpredictable, all relationships seemed fragile, and people’s fate could turn into different directions at a blink of an eye. This might be the case for any wartime stories, however there seems to be an extra level of fascination involved when they are told in the 1930s Shanghai — back then a city under influences of different political parties, east and west cultures, while the local gangster groups still dominated the backend of the city’s criminal activities, and determined the ways things should be done in many circumstances.

I especially like the touch about the lives of a few supporting roles who have side stories that are peripheral to the main storyline. They include a maid who served the gangster family loyally but died as a victim as the result of a revenge spree by an enemy group, a dying gangster chauffeur who got rescued by a prostitute and then fell in love with her, and an actress who rejected the courting from the gangster’s top leader and hoped to get back with her estranged husband. They help the audience to catch a glimpse of people’s mentality during that era, where everything had some sort of unspoken rules, but they could also be steered away as lust and caution intervened.

The Chinese title, which literally means “A history of disappearing romance”, conveys a sense of both nostalgia and melancholy. With the end of war, aspects of the wartime humanity, genuine or distorted, all started to fall apart and became powerless, to a point that all comments seem absurd and further interpretation no longer seem necessary.