The Forbidden Kingdom

Before watching the movie:

The Forbidden Kingdom.
Relativity Media 2008.

I barely remember this being a thing when it came out. Maybe martial arts movies were especially common at the time, but they never interested me much, and I completely ignored whatever I might have seen advertising this movie.

I was so ignorant about it that, no doubt thanks to how hyped up the Jackie Chan and Jet Li pairing is, when I saw the description saying that a modern-day martial arts movie fan gets stuck in ancient China to have adventures, I wondered which of them would be the modern-day character with no direct fighting experience, which is a silly question because that would be a comedy slapstick fish out of water role that Jackie Chan would be attracted to like a magnet. However, they’re both masters of ancient China and the modern-day protagonist is a white American the domestic marketing doesn’t seem to want you to know about. I feel like this poster comes closer to telling the story I’m now prepared to see, but it’s not in English, so I didn’t use it.

After watching the movie:

Jason Tripitikas is a wimpy Boston teen who thinks only of Kung Fu movies and occasionally pretty girls. He’s developed a rapport with Hop, the old man who runs the pawn shop in Chinatown, because his store is the best place to get new movies. When a gang of bullies finds out that Jason is friends with “the guy who cashes the checks”, they use him to get access to the store so they can rob it, and in the altercation, Hop gets shot, and gives Jason a staff that needs to be returned to its rightful owner. The staff pulls Jason into another world, an Ancient China terrorized by the Jade Warlord, an immortal who assumed dominance over the Middle Kingdom when the Jade Emperor left to meditate for centuries. Jason encounters Lu Yan, a master of Drunken Style who might be an immortal, who tells him about the legend of the Monkey King, tricked and defeated by the Jade Warlord, who sent his magical staff into the world to find the one who would return it to him and free him from being turned into a statue. Jason convinces Lu to train him in Kung Fu so that he can return the staff, and along the way they are joined by Golden Sparrow, whose parents were killed by the Jade Warlord, and a Monk who has been on a mission to find the bearer of the staff for so long he can’t remember why.

I saw some mention that at the time, this movie was considered overdone with visual effects. Maybe 11 years of Marvel movie dominance has tipped the scales, but I didn’t have any problem with the story being illustrated with extensive, stylized, foregrounded effects. Nothing was unconvincing for the tone they were trying to set, and that’s the only thing that can bother me about effects work.

This feels very much like a Chinese Kung Fu movie made with Hollywood production apparatus. The design looks like a classic Chinese movie design made by American workshops. It doesn’t come off as an American interpretation of Chinese style, it’s an Epic Chinese Kung Fu Movie that happens to have been made for American audiences.

I’m a little confused about the conceit through which Jason can understand characters who are talking to him. The most direct way it’s addressed is Lu telling Jason he can’t understand because he’s “not listening”, but from then on it seems that the only English spoken is meant for Jason to hear. When Jason is not present, and sometimes even in asides made when Jason is present, they speak in subtitled Mandarin. I thought at first that Lu being able to speak English to Jason came from being magical, which seemed to be borne out by Golden Sparrow outing him as an immortal, but when it became clear that she herself is not an immortal, and later still when apparently an entire monastery can speak to Jason, I’m really just not sure what the rule is supposed to be.

Lu and the Monk’s comic rivalry lighten the movie, but also they’re the real heroes. Jason has to get his moments as the protagonist, he improves a lot through training and almost holds his own in a duel against Ni-Chang the white-haired witch. However, Lu, the Monk, and Sparrow carry most of the heroic fighting. Jason gets the heroic finishing moves basically because the bad guys are distracted by the real fighters. In a cinematic landscape full of “white man learns to do the not-white people’s thing better than the not-white people” movies, it’s nice to see a movie that can admit that the protagonist is just passable next to the pros even after a couple of weeks’ training.

The epic tone made the movie feel a little bit like a “Chinese Mythology Edition Lord of the Rings” adventure (and there’s even a parallel in the underqualified young man carrying a magical artifact to a dangerous place surrounded by very skilled friends in order to defeat the evil besetting the land plot). I’m pretty satisfied with this as an American Chinese Epic. I’m sure there are criticisms that can be made about how it treats the two cultures, but it felt a lot more respectful than it could have been, thanks to being co-produced between countries. This is a great Kung Fu movie to show someone who doesn’t like Kung Fu movies, and I think that’s some of what they were going for.

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