Sunday, December 30, 2018

Airpocalypse: Hold Your Breath

It is a real thing. This sci-fi disaster term has been applied to Beijing’s persistently thick smog—Google it to see some terrifying images. It is no secret where it comes from, but it sure would be nice to have a fantastical source to explain it all away. The ancient gods will oblige in Xiao Yang’s Airpocalypse (trailer here), which is still showing in Los Angeles and other major cities.

In this superhero movie, Thor is the bad guy. In his mortal guise as Bai Xuejing, the God of Thunder has become China’s richest mogul through his brand of home air purifiers. He also happens to be responsible for the haze enveloping Beijing. The plan is to completely obscure the watchful eye of heaven, allowing his to once again heft his enchanted hammer.

The haze is also good business for Ma Le. His suicide prevention counseling business had been struggling, but now he is working around the clock. For reasons that do not make much sense, he is called in to give an emergency session for Bai, who mainly wants to gloat over his cosmic shenanigans. Ma Le initially assumes the industrialist is off his rocker, but it all starts to make sense when the God of Longevity accidentally transfers his mojo to the counselor. Soon he is teaming up with three more fallen gods, the God of Wind, the God of Rain, and Cai Ming, Mother Lightning, to bring order back to the world.

So, Beijing’s pollution is not just for documentaries and art films anymore. Although Xiao and his battery of co-writers (Huang Yuan, Ben Liu, and Zhang Shaochu) address the phenomenon in a light comedy-fantasy context, it is still quite obvious this is something that is on the minds (and in the lungs) of Beijingers. It is definitely a thing. Naturally, the film is not about to point fingers at the Party cronies and the regulatory officials looking the other way, but calling out Airpocalypse and linking it to depression and suicide is still pretty significant.

Directing himself, Xiao settles into the role of Ma Le, developing a more forceful persona as the film progresses. Du Juan nicely projects Cai Ming’s icy façade, while hinting at her compassionate warmth hidden within. Wang Xiaoli, Yi Yunhee, and Chong Yuan are not shy about mugging for yucks as the Gods of Longevity, Wind, and Rain, respectively, but we have seen shtickier. However, as the God of Thunder, Xiao Shenyang does not seem to be sufficiently enjoying his villainy.

There definitely seems to a Ghostbusters influence discernable in Airpocalypse, especially an arctic spirit, who resembles Slimer. However, it is based on an all too real reality. Xiao also finds a way to wrap it up in a way that is a little bit different and off-center from what viewers will probably expect, but still manages to be upbeat and satisfying. Yet, Airpocalypse is most interesting for the stress and anxiety it reflects. If you want to psychoanalyze a nation take a look at its genre movies. In this case, Airpocalypse is definitely a deep dive into Beijingers’ heads (guess what, they want the smog to go away, but painlessly). Watchable as a light afternoon diversion (that some of us can read stuff into, if we are so inclined), Airpocalypse is still playing in LA, at the AMC Atlantic Times Square and AMC Puente Hills.