Orientalist Pastiche – Pacific RimJuly 26, 2013
There is a character in the film ‘Pacific Rim’ called Hannibal Chau. I had scoffed at the idea of a character named as such; prior to his introduction, the film had been a mish-mash of all things Asian from a Western perspective, an Oriental pastiche of images (and sounds, but we’ll get there) if ever there is such a thing. In explaining why he was named as such, the quote that follows reveals everything there is we need to know about the film: “I got the name from my favorite historical figure and my second-favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.”
‘Pacific Rim’ follows the exploits of Yaeger (‘hunter’ in German) pilots fighting against Kaijus (Japanese for ‘monster’). A Yaeger is an huge, monstrous concoction, a robot akin to the Transformers in size and scale. Then again, they are needed to battle the equally huge and monstrous Kaijus, beings who came from a breach on the ocean floor in the Pacific (hence the title). We have as a protagonist Mr Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a down-and-out former pilot who is called back into active service one last time by his commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). By this time, Raleigh was limited to constructing walls, no longer the celebrity superstar hero he once was due to a tragic incident that would scar him for a long time.
Accepting that he would rather die in a Yaeger than in a wall (though one would somewhat question the wisdom of leaving the construction of one metal prison for a constructed metal prison). Of course, Yaegers are a lot cooler than the walls the humans are building in the hopes of keeping out the Kaijus, and so Raleigh would go off on this little adventure yarn all the way to Hong Kong. This is where the Yaegers of the world, in the process of being decommissioned, are being gathered for a final assault on the Pacific Rim, where the Kaijus have been coming out from all this while.
Along the way, he meets Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s assistant, who has a burning desire to become a Yaeger pilot herself. In front of everyone, Raleigh and Mako take off their clothes, and they get very physical as Raleigh uses his long, hard wood…en stick in a training duel. He felt a strong connection with her (surprise, surprise), but Pentecost is incredibly reluctant to let her into the game. The thing is, two people are required to drift as they pilot their Yaegers. Drifting involves the mental connection of the two minds of the pilots required to control each and every Yaeger, for the mental load would overwhelm a single person. In short, the stronger the mental connection, the better the Yaeger is in attack. Conversely, the more chaotic and emotionally scarred a mind is…well, you get the idea.
This is an interesting concept, because it highlights the need for both pilots to work together. It works on two levels here. One, it reconfigures slightly the idea of the hero. Though we look at things through the perspective of Becket, he cannot succeed without the help of others, and especially his co-pilot. It’s a very interesting philosophy, and not one often taken by other films of similar ilk. The hero here literally cannot be the hero, for both pilots become heroes in a sense; one single person is only half a hero.
On the second level, though, it does help to highlight the ability of one pilot over another; at one point of the film, such a situation arose, and that situation was used to define the character further. The pilot was good because the pilot was able to pilot the Yaeger almost single-handedly, without the support of anyone else. It could not be sustained for long due reasons explained in the film, but that very act is a classic example of how plot points helps to define a character.
It’s also great to see Hong Kong being chosen as a major battleground for significant portions of the film. It provided a big battlefield for the Yaegers and Kaijus to do battle in, and the city (and its props!) were very imaginatively used; the close attention to detail saw the usage of the Newton’s Cradle draw enthusiastic applause from the audience. On so many levels, the film serves as a continuation of the destruction porn we’ve seen escalate each and every film summer. I didn’t think a city could be more destroyed than New York in ‘The Avengers’; I was proven wrong a few months back with ‘Man of Steel’ show he’s of a steelier resolve than half of Metropolis (and most of Smallville, come to think of it).
Here, the destruction of the city was still mega, but, wonderfully and beautifully lit with the neon lights synonymous with Asian mega cities, it became a unique visual element to the proceedings. The neonness of the film was plentiful and interesting, and here’s where we get back to the start of the film review.
As I watched the film, I noticed a very strong tendency of the film to view things through a very Orientalist perspective. Orientalism basically deals with formations of Asian identities through Western eyes, and in the film, I felt that there were parts that things were getting to the point of almost mocking or, to put it bluntly, taking the piss out of everything Asian. Of course, I knew that was never the intent of the director, but in trying to put together a film that reflects a more international feel, that’s what it ended up making me feel.
At least nearly. The quote at the top of this review, however, made it clear that this pastiche I had been seeing all this while is not necessarily an accidental collection of signifiers, but a very deliberate and intentional one, made with self-awareness and respect. That line made it feel as if del Toro was saying, “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry…I’m thinking it too.” He knows that he’s taking many different kinds of stuff and putting it together, but he’s doing it almost as if he is self-referentially mocking himself.
Mocking is an interesting idea. I don’t necessarily mean it in a negative way. For example, the montage at the start helps not only to establish the film and set us where we are now (many years into a World War by the year of 2025), but to also define the film’s intertexuality. Most films would use the picture of a fake president, however briefly they may be; here, Obama makes an appearance, lending a touch of real-life gravitas to the proceedings. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (and perhaps even a touch of ‘Wizard of Oz’) references are also fairly obvious, placing Mako in the position of Alice. At times, Raleigh had to tell her to step back from the memories as they were drifting: “Don’t chase the rabbit!” It doesn’t mean that every single time a rabbit is mentioned in a film, an Alice in Wonderland reference is being made, but it’s worth bearing that in mind as you watch this film. Mako’s shoes has a strong emotional resonance connected to this (so does Hannibal Chau’s awesome gold-plated shoes, but that’s more for a different purpose).
And therein lies the key. This movie serves not so much as something completely and utterly new, but as an homage, as a self-aware text, as a film that does not in any way seek to be taken seriously whatsoever. It has the Asians deifying the White People, but it knows that. It has the Americans coming in to save the day, but that’s OK…it’s played by a Brit, in a film featuring other Brits directed by a Mexican. Does it do much to break this established ground? Maybe not, but I doubt whether it was interested in breaking much new ground in that area to begin with. I mean, consider the names used in the film. Stacker Pentecost, Mako Mori, Chuck Hansen, Cherno Alpha, Crimson Typhoon. No prizes for guessing which imagined communities they come from and represent.
What it does break ground in is the casting of fairly unknown actors in the leading roles. Yes, Rinko Kikuchi won acclaim for her role in ‘Babel’ many years ago, but she has not been seen much this side of Hollywood since ‘The Brothers Bloom’ half a decade ago. That pretty much places her in the middle of nowhere when it comes to instant global recognition. A similar case could be made for Idris Elba, who has done fairly well on British television, as well as other minor or supporting roles in other films, but here he delivers a fairly memorable performance for me. His body language and dialogue delivery screams “Don’t mess with me,” and it was a lesson learned by Becket when he once laid hands on Pentecost: “One, don’t ever touch me again. Two, don’t ever touch me again.” It was the delivery of that dialogue that resonated with me. I’m not entirely familiar with the rest of the cast myself, but I didn’t question them much during the film itself, so I guess it’s not a bad thing. I have to point out, though, how interesting I find the similarities between Dr Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and J.J. Abrams to be…interesting. In several moments, I also find myself thinking that it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt up there and not Clifton Collins Jr as Tendo Choi (another great name).
There is a great thing I want to point out, though, and that is the work done by the composer, Ramin Djawadi. He’s a composer I’ve kept an eye on for a long time (though it’s not exactly as if he’s been hiding under a bit of rock either), and I feel that his work here does the film justice. It’s a mixture of fairly European operatic values with harsh American rock guitars, highlighting the (Yaeger) ‘rock star’ elements of the film. The main Pacific Rim theme, especially, helps not only to set the tone for but also to encapsulate the entire film; it’s fun to listen to, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat ever since I saw it…ooh, maybe two days ago. It’s even better to know that Tom Morello lent a few riffs of his own to the score.
So instead of the trailer, and in addition to this excellent picture of Rinko Kikuchi, check out the main theme. Excellent stuff.