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
screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and
the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
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
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Journey to the West, ND/NF '13