Saturday, April 13, 2013

Live Action: Part 1, Dramas

In the past, when I wanted to watch something, I've tended to gravitate toward anime.  Anime, cartoons, video games-- this kind of animated storytelling is, to some extent, ideal for a "reader" like me that prefers my fiction bursting with magic, explosions, and-- I'll be the first to admit-- pretty (yes, "pretty" is a both an adjective and a noun in my vocabulary).

Just about any digital camera with a decent frame rate can be used to film a good-looking school drama, or neighborhood intrigue, but when it comes to fantasy and science fiction--particularly the flashy, action-y kind-- a director has two choices: find thousands of dollars or make it look really corny.  Sometimes it still comes out to both.

I've been watching more live action dramas these days, as that's the preferred media in Korean language.  The Asians, for years, have held a reputation for not shying away from action and fantasy-- even on a budget.  I've run into some pretty interesting live action shows this way, including fantasy, action, and suspense. But so far, my previous assumptions have remained relatively unchanged.

The fantasies I currently hold in the highest regard, Faith and Joen Woo Chi, still come down to cheesy wire-work and exaggerated hand gestures with awkward-looking computer-generated special effects.  Even on the good end, it looks weird and hokey.  I find myself thinking, "this wouldn't bother me if it were an anime."  and it's true.  At it's roots, anime was invented on the cheap (see Astro Boy and it's 8 frames per second). While I fully acknowledge that heavy action and fast movement in animation can still be costly, whether someone jumps two feet off a chair or fifty feet up a building doesn't make that much difference in your budget and can look just as good.  Someone throwing lighting bolts can look just as realistic as someone throwing a baseball.  Not so when it comes to filming actors performing super-human feats.

City Hunter holds a reputation for being a magnificent action piece. But you can see the money pouring out the ears. Fast-moving fight scenes, death-defying stunts, good wardrobe and set, and not to mention big-name and established actors.  It was developed from an old and popular series and clearly was produced with the high expectations that fact would precipitate.

The suspense genre seems to do the best on field of "we have money to pay good (well, decent) actors and cool original music, but not enough to throw around wild action scenes with special effects." (that's really how expensive it is. EVERYTHING can be top notch, and the budget still wouldn't amount to the money in good stunt work and special effects.) Bloody Monday does a lot of chasing and waving around guns, but the fight scenes are all shoving matches; and a main actor never throws or takes a punch.  That bothered me for a while. At first I chalked it up to the character's personalities, but after a while I expected even the gentle-natured main character to break down and hit someone; not even fight, just hit them.  When it never came to that, I knew it wasn't the writing, it was the technical work.  When they finally did pull out a knock-down drag-out martial arts scene, I knew why they hadn't before, and thanked them for it.  If that show had had the fight scenes it was probably meant to but they were done as that one scene had been, I know now that I wouldn't be able to respect it as much as I do.

So what to do?  Obviously, as with City Hunter, if you have the money, you can make things happen (doesn't mean it WILL happen, but it's possible).  For Bloody Monday, while the content was similar, it was impossible for it to be City Hunter.  In this case, I'm glad that they held back.  Since the focus was on the characters, the story is conveyed just as well when the action is implied. (And to be honest, City Hunter would have been fine too.)  I can see now that I'm much more likely to recommend a good story with no (or little) special effects than a good story with bad special effects (why, is probably an article for another time).

But if we hold fantasy and science fiction to the same rule, we end up with a big problem. Even assuming we only make big budget fantasy productions (like Lord of the Rings and Marvel's various cinema productions), where did those masterpieces come from?  People like george lucas and tokusatsu* artists practiced for generations generating techniques that now look rather silly, maybe did even when they were developed.  Without that base, we certainly wouldn't have anything worth showing now.  As for the little guys, they more than deserve a place, too.

*tokusatsu is a rather unique brand of Asian, particularly Japanese, live-action special effects.  They're used mainly for sci-fi, martial arts, and action productions like Godzilla, Ultra Man, and Super Sentai (Power rangers). It reffers both to the art and the type of production that uses it. In some circles it is even called a "genre" for lack of a better term.

I don't really have a solution, other than "grit and bear it."  I know that I can watch a hokey-looking show and enjoy it for what it represents.  I have to admit, when I recommend it to others, I feel a little embarrassed, but I suppose that's what it means to support something you love.

When I started writing this, I had something completely different in mind, and didn't even know what this bit of it would come out to, but there you go. Maybe I should start a social media movement: "Support a hokey sci-fi/fantasy live action, TODAY!"

To be continued...

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