Saturday, March 16, 2013

ND/NF ’13: Emperor Visits the Hell

Before the legendary journey there was a sojourn through Hell.  Emperor Li Shimin would eventually sponsor the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s western pilgrimage in search of sacred texts.  However, he must first return from an unplanned detour through the underworld.  Luo Li gives the early chapters of Journey to the West an arthouse modernization with Emperor Visits the Hell (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Li Shimin is a municipal boss, who murdered his father and brothers to ascend to his “throne.”  When Dragon King, a local gangster, shortsightedly refuses to comply with an order from Heaven, he asks the “Emperor” to protect him from Heaven’s Executioner, who just happens to be Li Shimin’s counselor, Wei Zheng.  The imperial mayor does his best to occupy his advisor, but he bores the man to sleep.  Much to his surprise, the oblivious Wei decapitates Dragon King in his dream, which pretty much does the trick in real life too. 

Somewhat disappointed by the quality of Li Shimin’s protection, Dragon King haunts the ruler as an angry ghost.  Eventually, he drives the man to his death.  All is not lost though.  The faithful Wei has some high placed contacts in the kingdom below.

Li Shimin’s tale is one of many discrete chunks of the great Ming era novel that have been adapted for film and television.  However, it is a downright bizarre choice to reboot in a contemporary setting.  This is not a bloody combat-driven tragedy like Coriolanus.  Rather, the mythic elements, such as Dragon King’s decision to forestall the rains at their appointed time, are at complete odds with Luo’s grubby modern day conception.  Yet, he keeps doubling down, essentially emphasizing the contrast between the modern trappings and the fantastical story.  It is just a weird vibe to take in.

Frankly, Hell looks a lot like Union City through cinematographer Jie Ren’s lens.  There is no fire and brimstone, just drab offices and dilapidated slums.  Li Wen’s Li Shimin is also a rather cold fish, at least until he gets hammered at the concluding Return of the Jedi-style feast (doubling as the actual wrap party) and proceeds to go off the contemporary state of things.

Although drained of color and deliberately artificial looking, Luo still presents some intriguing images.  While decidedly post-modern in its approach, the film is much more about subverting narrative tradition than authority.  It lends itself to all kinds of critical literary analysis, which is great if you are covering ND/NF, but it is impossible to recommend it to anyone looking for a movie to get emotionally caught up in.  A coldly cerebral film intended for the like minded, Emperor Visits the Hell screens Thursday (3/21) at MoMA and Saturday (3/23) at the Walter Reade as a selection of the 2013 New Directors/New Films.