Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Jade Warrior

FUN WITH SLEDGEHAMMERS OR
"IN SEARCH OF THE SAMPO"

When did these filmmakers look into my dreams? I am, perhaps, one of a small number who form the ideal audience for this film that spins together Finnish mythology and wu xia action, but I’m sure its magic will appeal to a wide audience—if they can get over the strangeness of the concept.

Admittedly it sounds a bit esoteric: a mixture of the ancient Finnish story collection, THE KALEVALA, and the sword and sorcery of early China—with a little modern Helsinki life thrown in, too. The film opens on the provocative image of a woman with a lock tattooed on the back of her neck. We see her lover wrap his arms around her, then title cards begin to tell us of the ancient story of the Sampo, awkwardly translated on this Bonzai Media DVD as “the happiness bringing machine.”

Well, sort of.

The Sampo was the magic mill forged by the mythic smith Ilmarinen. Out one side it produced salt, out another flour and out the third side, gold. With refrigeration and various chemical preservatives, we forget how important salt has always been as a preservative. Flour—well, the bread is the life. Gold’s value is still clear to us. The point is the same. Everybody wanted it, everybody fought over it, and consequently, it was reduced to rubble.

Next there is the story of Loviatar from the 45th runo of THE KALEVALA. She’s the mother of the nine diseases, the last of which is too horrifying to even have a name (although later in the book, they’re defeated by the eternal sage, Väinämöinen—yes, it does begin to sound like a J.R.R. Tolkien saga; where do you think he got a lot of his ideas?). The filmmakers present this tale as an Chinese legend, however, where the ninth son is a demon so evil that he steals the Sampo.

This conflation is not as whimsical as it first appears. Many scholars have argued for an Asian connection to the story of the Sampo (the most accessible information in English can be found in Juha Pentikäinen’s KALEVALA MYTHOLOGY, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989). Although the Sang Fu [“Sampo”] Temple in Tibet turned out not to be the direct link many eager readers hoped for (see, for example, Helsingin Sanomat’s article “Was the Sampo in Tibet?” ), there is much to connect these seemingly disparate cultures. There may even be a rough parallel between Loviatar’s nine demon sons and the nine major dragons in Chinese mythology (or their nine children).

In the movie, this connection between the two cultures comes through most often in the stoic taciturnity of the characters who feel they must accept fate. There’s the abrupt Ronja (Krista Kosonen) who comes to Sang Fu, the antique shop, to unload the belongings of her ex, the morose blacksmith Kai (Tommi Eronen). We get voiceovers from the archaeologist Weckström (Elle Kull), but her quick eyes say more than her words. The only voluble talker is her partner, Berg (played by the delightful Markku Peltola, best known to American audiences as the nearly silent Man Without a Past in Aki Kaurismäki’s film of that name—I swear, the little plastic duck by Kai’s forge must be a nod to that master of filmmaking himself and his film HAMLET GOES BUSINESS, where the melancholy Dane is the scion of a rubber ducky-making business). Berg becomes convinced that Kai can open the mysterious metal box whose polygon shape his workshop echoes.

The two cultures are linked more directly through trips to the past in both ancient Finland and China. It takes longer to tell than it does to see it—there’s the 2000-year-old man clutching that iron box with Chinese lettering on top, then there are Iron Age Karelians meeting up with a wolf who has two warriors with consummate fighting skills on his heels. One of them is the lovely Jingchu Zhang (RUSH HOUR 3) who plays the titular warrior, Pin Yu. As details accrue, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with a narrative of reincarnation and of karmic checks and balances. While the enigmatic Berg taunts Kai into getting in touch with his mystic past as the descendent of the mythic smith, that past gradually begins to impinge on the present of all the characters, much to their surprise. Kai relives a past life when he was Sintai, the son of a smith with an appointment to meet a demon—until he gets sidetracked by the oldest story of all, love.

There’s an elegiac beauty to this film that its €2.5 million price tag would seem to make impossible. Yes, there’s digital enhancing, but a lot of the credit is due to the detailed vision of every scene and also to the fine cast, in particular Tommi Eronen, who seems to have done yeoman’s work getting in shape for both the smithing demands and the martial arts. While this is not the nonstop fight fest that many wu xia films become, the fight scenes work to direct conflict and add a poetic melancholy. Unlike Ang Lee, Annila understands that wiring should enhance the athleticism of a leap, not replace it. The visual aspects of the fights are well thought out, too, complementing the physical repartee with details like Zhang’s fan-like weapon and a variety of swords. In one scene, Eronen wields a kantele (the traditional Finnish lap-harp, also celebrated in THE KALEVALA) both for its plaintive music and for defense.

Not surprisingly, language plays a huge role in the story, requiring the Chinese actors to speak a few lines in Finnish and the Finnish actors to speak Mandarin. While there is some awkwardness involved on both sides, they do surprisingly well (although Eronen’s Mandarin sounds a little too deliberate and awkward at times). For most audience members in this country anyway, both languages will likely seem impenetrably exotic, but their blending does work as part of the thoughtful blend of cultures, myths and times. There was supposed to be an official Region 1 release in the works (no sign at IMDB though) but you can find it on Amazon and eBay; with luck this film will get to an audience who can appreciate its intricate mysteries, millennia-spanning romances and choreographed fights.

When’s the last time you saw a good sledgehammer fight anyway?

[NB: This originally appeared in Up Against the Wall, but I've trotted it out as I need to write about this film some more; plus I am lazy. And busy. So, nyeh!]

4 comments:

marja-leena said...

Fascinating, Kate! I remember reading about this film a while ago in Helsingin Sanomat and found it in my bookmarks. Naturally, the Finnish and Kalevala connection intrigues me greatly. Thanks for the review! I hope I can get my hands on this film, I rather doubt that it will be in our theaters.

K. A. Laity said...

Hi Marja-Leena! I don't know if the official release was every made in North America, but it is possible to hunt it down.

marja-leena said...

Kate, I found it on amazon.com but won't ship outside US and it's not available at .ca so the search is still on.

K. A. Laity said...

Argh -- try eBay, too!