Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hangover, Part Two, Part One: Asians

So, having discussed The Hangover here and here, we now move on to Part Two, the sequel, honing in on an alert reader's request that we spend some time thinking about how the film handles LGBT issues. We're not quite ready yet. We need to deal with something else before we can go there.

So, there were two surprisingly funny moments in a film otherwise as predictable as the look on a vegan's face when you tell her the tofu turkey isn't tofu.

(It's a bull-penis turkey).

Both comic moments came in the closing credit sequence where we're shown photographs from the forgotten night of debauchery; and yes, it's sad that the only two surprisingly funny moments in The Hangover II come in the closing credit sequence.

The first is a sequence of photographs revealing how Teddy (Mason Lee) loses his finger. (If you thought that throughout the film Lee was acting with all the forced mannerisms of a student actor, probably one who is the child of a famous director, you'd have been right.) Teddy chops his finger off when playing the game where you jab a knife as rapidly as possible between your splayed fingers. While it is quite funny in its own right, the joke also speaks to a developed if banal theme in the film. The overachieving Asian youth rebelling against his parents and sabotaging them by sabotaging himself is perhaps passingly familiar as a trope, and some harsh critics might assert that it is a "full-blown clic" (although we would quickly riposte that "full-blown cliché" is a cliché), but the gag at least was part of a narratively-driven, psychologically-consistent development rewarded with a punchline, something otherwise lacking in the film.

The second surprisingly funny scene was also the only shocking moment in a film that smugly tit-toes through the Garden of Transgression like it's the Queen of Shock about to roust the Trespasser of Complacency from his snooze. It involves the tiresome Chow, played by the go-to-guy for any director snapping at a casting assistant, "Let's find an Asian who'll be a stooge for Asian jokes . . . what am I saying? Get Ken Jeong on the line!"

In this particular amusing sequence of photographs in the closing credits, Chow is playing with a gun; as the photographs fly past, we see things getting out of hand until suddenly Chow is holding the gun up against Phil's neck.

It's a fairly mild gag about impulsive, unstable men with their drugs and their bombs and their guns and their bombs.

But suddenly, flashing before our eyes, right after we've seen Chow holding a gun to Phil's throat, there's a reversal. Phil is holding a gun to Chow's head.

Did you see it? And then it was gone. But the final snapshot in the Chow-Phil-Gun sequence in the closing credits was based on another famous photograph.

What famous image served as the exact model for the snapshot?

Let's take half a step back. In this stupid film, there are oodles of Asian jokes, mostly accompanied by the internal laughter I've been describing. Phil makes a crack about the size of Asian women's boobs - which was not the first time a single person in the world would have heard that joke, that day - and we get a cut to Ed Helms. As a white guy about to marry an Asian woman, he laughs the joke off on behalf of all Asians. Being able to speak for the single most populous racial demographic is something of a compensation for committing yourself to small boobs, is it not?

Anyway, the Asian jokes are, as they would say, rame. Thailand or, as Alan pronounces it,"Thigh-land" (I think they were trying for the "If it's not funny the first time, it'll be funny the fifth time, and then it won't be funny again, until the twelfth time, when it once again becomes funny" approach) - anyway, as I was saying, Thailand and Asia are reduced to backdrops, sometimes pretty, sometimes unfathomable, but of no real interest. We get the usual motifs: sex tourism, slurping noodles, small boobs, martial arts, monkeys and monks, all worth a joke or two. And come on, did we expect anything else? I didn't go see The Hangover II for its clever investigation of things Asian - and, that's okay. Not everything has to be about Asia. I get it.

What can we say about Asia, then, based on this film? There are some almost-interesting peripheral figures, but they're mainly not Asian: the Russian mobsters, the fat American . . . and an Arab of some sort? Why were all the criminals not Asian? Was it a radical take on Thai cosmopolitanism or a pointed refusal to fill the screen with Thai criminals? Who the hell knows. The film limits itself to obvious Asian jokes; it seems to imply that Asia is a receptacle for transnational criminality; and, in a film that burps up a new sponsor every few minutes, Asia merely belongs on a corporate continuum from IHOP through Smartwater to Long John Silvers, Fanta, and PF Changs.

But one thing is for sure, with that snapshot of Phil as Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan and Chow as a Viet Cong prisoner, the auteurs wink, blink, or grimace at a whole other set of relations between the United States and Asia. You might say it's weird having a Chinese-American in Thailand standing in for a suspected Viet Cong officer, but having Phil in place of Nguyen Ngoc Loan pulls no punches. What does it hit? I'm not sure. The whole thing has been so mushy and so afraid to move beyond the easily-recognisable stereotype and familiar jokes that it's hard for me to know quite what happened there. But it's the only astonishing moment of comic hubris in a film that thinks it hit the comic hubris goldmine; it's the only unsettling moment in a film full of gags intended to unsettle.

At the end of the film, One Night In Bangkok, the Andersson-Ulvaeus-Rice collaboration most famously performed by Anthony Head's brother, is performed by an off-key Tyson and edited into a bits. The song is one of the great, wry Orientalist tracks in music history, with several of the best couplets in pop history ("Siam's gonna be the witness/to the ultimate test of cerebral fitness/this grips me more than would a/muddy old river or reclining Buddha" - which arguably isn't even the best verse in the song). It could have served as a template for the entire film, with its confused synthesis of erotics and disdain, its contemptuous opinion that could belie a certain underlying respect or appreciation, its insistent focus on the Western in Bangkok, and where reconstructing the night would substitute for chess. But the track is more sordid, more unsettling, and, in its few words more evocative than any of the scenes in the movie, every line is better thought-out, and it is far funnier than The Hangover II. By showing Tyson singing it off-key, the auteurs make a dope of Tyson - it's as if they were embarrassed that twelve seconds of One Night In Bangkok is better than two hours of The Hangover II and so, kamikaze-like, used an ingenuous, gullible Tyson to bring it down.

The alert reader who suggested I address GLBT issues wanted me to do so soon; instead, we've discussed pedophilia, Tyson, and Asians.

We'll get to GLBT issues tomorrow, but I wanted to set the stage: The Hangovers are two cowardly films, pointing or gesturing or feinting towards the darkly taboo but then retreating; as we see manifested in Tyson's tired, flat return, the film is all about pulling its punches, even if the occasional one gets through.


Sven said...

I wish monkeys could Skype. Maybe one eday.

sw said...

Didn't do it for me. And what a waste of a Reservoir Dogs parody?

Sven said...

By the way, I wish you hadn't reproduced that photo with no warning?