Just for once, I'd like to see a fantasy novel end like this:
At last, the handsome, brave, generous, strong, loving, and glorious Hero Glanksmar faced the vicious, cruel, sadistic, half-demon, snarling, torture-loving Lord Xiangfang on the corpse-strewn battlefield.
"You didn't think you could ever defeat me!" snarled Lord Xiangfang? And without another word, he raised his fearsome, blood-dripping sword Howler and chopped Hero Glanksmar's head off.
Thus began 10,000,000 years of terror and despair. THE END.
At the very least it could end with the hero getting a bad cold. But no, the principal rule of modern fantasy seems to be that things end up happily, and virtue gets rewarded (even if it's unvirtuous). Buffy doesn't die, she just has extended non-living periods before she comes back for the next season opener.
I guess it's probably a way of finding substitute for the reliability of the myths that entertainment used to rely on. The story of Oedipus isn't very nice, the characters aren't very pleasant, and the things they do to one another are rather offputting, but at least we know what happens. In modern fantasy, just because we don't know what's going to happen doesn't mean we don't know what's going to happen. The plots might be more diverse and draw on a larger variety of sources, but we know they're going to end happily. Even - and especially - if that happy ending is going to be extremely unlikely.
So it is with the film Forbidden Kingdom, which I saw this morning. Heck, it's not only the end that's predictable. The routine of cliche starts off much earlier than that, with a dream sequence (cliche!) about warriors fighting on a mountain. The hero wakes up and sees that he has been watching Monkey on television (reference!). He then goes to a Chinese pawn store (derivative!) and is met by a Mr Miyagi-like character (like, you know, Mr Miyagi). When he leaves the store, riding his bike through the slums (cliche!) of some major city, he is surrounded by hoods (you get the point!) and beaten up. Well, after a few more rounds of in jokes and plot twists in completely known expected directions, this kid gets spirited off to another world - a magical world, where dreams and fantasy and wonder are true! And who should he meet but Jackie Chan (well I never! fancy bumping into you here!), a drunk (reference!) who refers to himself as a 'travelling sage'. The kid drops his name - 'Jason Tripitikus' (BOY is that ever a reference), and in a move that surprises no-one, the pair decide to go on a quest. After a brief run in with a roaming mob of soldiers - probably the same roaming mob of soldiers who turn up at successive points in the film in order to get beaten up to prove some dubious point or fulfill some dubious plot convention - the pair are helped to escape by a beautiful, lute-playing woman with a penchant for throwing poisoned darts at people. There's even a horse-chase through a traditional Chinese brothel, to surging Western music... (okay, I'm not sure WHERE that one came from).
This all sounds like a criticism on my part. But it's a criticism that is really only skin deep; you have to take these films on their own terms. Every art-form, from day one, has been riddled with conventions, and they act as sign pointers towards a particular moral or meaning. You can't have art without conventions, any more than you can have art without art. If there is something a little self-conscious, the quality of Monty Python's 'wink-wink-nudge-nudge-know-what-I-mean' character to this film, then that's a problem, but not a big one. I enjoyed the film immensely - it's one of those perfect Sunday films, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Tales from Earthsea.
In a way it was fitting that the film opened up with a dream sequence, because there was something dream-like about this film - the way that it was constructed in separate set-pieces, with the characters moving between them with very little rhyme or reason. For instance, Jason is hurled off the top of an inner-city building by hoods, and the next thing he knows, he wakes up in a village in rural China. If he seems faintly surprised at this, then he doesn't have time to do much about it, because next thing he knows he is surrounded by a bunch of soldiers (there they are again!) Somewhat illogically, when the adventure all ends, Jason is asked what his wish is, and he says 'I just want to go home', apparently forgetting, for the moment, about the hoods and his newly-made friends in this sort-of-China (or wherever the hell it is. Forbidden Kingdom, apparently.) And there is real art in the way that Jason's early betrayal of his friend who works in the Chinese store (under duress) is mirrored in a later betrayal he undertakes in order to save a friend. Underneath all the conventions and predictable twists and turns and references and cliches, this film has a true heart.
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