The flaw of Forbidden Kingdom

(This post is spoiler-free.)
I saw Forbidden Kingdom yesterday: it’s a decent movie, with entertaining fight scenes; if you go in hoping to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform some entertaining kung fu, you won’t be disappointed.
However, it’s actually a movie about hanging out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and consequently the main character isn’t (despite the movie posters) either of the two Hong Kong stars, but a teenager played by Michael Angarano. I’m sure there’s a strong constituency for the “going on adventures with Jackie Chan and Jet Li” story, but for those of us who just want to see people get kicked in the face, Angarano’s character only gets in the way. On the other hand, there’s plenty of good fighting so it’s not a big disappointment, and having a broader audience helps movies like this get made, so I can’t really complain.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is made infinitely worse through the egregious use of one of my least favorite plot devices: the ordinary teenager from the real world who gets transported to a fantasy kingdom (which he then must save before returning home). As far as I’m concerned, any narrative that employs this lame plot is digging itself a huge hole right at the start, and will have to be exceedingly brilliant to make up for it. There are lots of good reasons to avoid this plot, and especially the implementation in Forbidden Kingdom:

  • It’s lazy writing. This plot is a way to avoid a couple of the challenges of writing in a heroic fantasy setting: the need to explain the special rules of the fantasy world to the audience, and the lack of a character the audience can relate to in a cast populated by legendary heroes. Dragging in a character from the real world is an easy solution to these problems that saves the writer from having to do anything sophisticated (such as a show-don’t-tell approach to presenting the setting, or writing complex heroic characters with realistic flaws and motivations).

  • It insults the audience. Because it’s really not that hard to stick a relatable character in a heroic setting—even young children recognize that the farmboy or the hobbit is supposed to be the audience stand-in. The “ordinary teenager from our world” is the most literal interpretation of the relatable character (short of a Choose Your Own Adventure story told in the second person) and suggests that the writers didn’t think the audience could handle anything more subtle.
  • It strains suspension of disbelief. A self-contained fantasy world is easier to accept than one in which people from the modern world are randomly popping in and out. Furthermore, it wrecks the sense of otherworldliness to have someone walking around wearing jeans and spouting American slang. There’s less immersion with a constant reminder of the real world in the center of the frame; a good fantasy should make the audience temporarily forget where they are.
  • It contains disturbing racial overtones. This plot device would have been bad enough if the teenager had been from Shanghai. But the use of the Boston setting and Michael Angarano suggests that the filmmakers decided that, in a film set in Fantasy China, a Chinese lead wouldn’t have been white enough or American enough for American audiences. Now, it may be true that the film will make more money with an American lead (although it’s interesting that he doesn’t appear on the posters). Nevertheless, such shameless pandering is ugly. And equally disturbing is the imperialist notion that powerful warriors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li couldn’t save China until the American (with no special skills or talents) showed up.

Now, I don’t want to say that this plot can never be done well, but it takes some excellent writing to save it. The anime Fushigi Yuugi is one example where this trope succeeds, due mostly to strong plotting and characterization. The film of The NeverEnding Story does a good job but keeps the real-world protagonist at a distance from the fantasy world for most of the narrative. On the other hand, one of the several flaws of The Chronicles of Narnia is its repeated use of this device.
More generally, I think the approach of inserting ordinary, relatable characters into a story about legendary heroes is way overused. In the fantasy genre, I much prefer stories without an obvious audience stand-in but with heroes who may have extraordinary abilities but have complex and human personalities. My favorite Chinese fantasy films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated House of Flying Daggers—take the latter approach.
Going back to Forbidden Kingdom for a moment, I’ve just spent a lot of time trashing its plot, but of course in a movie like this the story is secondary to the spectacle. So this shouldn’t be considered a pan of the movie as a whole; however, this glaring flaw in the story does detract a bit from the experience.

6 thoughts on “The flaw of Forbidden Kingdom

  1. Zifnab

    Well put. That’s the main flaw of the movie, though I don’t think it bothered me as much. I’d have preferred a movie with the same overall plot (because I like legends/myths/prophecies) where the ‘real’ world never entered it.
    Speaking of House of Flying Daggers, I need to add that to my list of movies I’ve been meaning to see, I keep forgetting about it.

  2. Mason

    House of Flying Daggers is indeed very good.
    I’m not bothered by the real-world person being inserted if it’s done well, and I can handle it even if it’s done only reasonably.
    AG: Did this bother you at all in Stardust? Couldn’t you interpret that movie of having some level of this insertion?

  3. Mike^2

    As a literary technique, yeah, it’s not a strong one. But in context I think it works here.
    All the other major characters are purely one-dimensional and straight out of old and familiar stories: the Monkey King, the Drunken Master, the corrupt regent, the absent God-Emperor, the vengeful orphan. The White Witch-Bride was one I wasn’t familiar with, but from C’s description it’s just because I don’t watch much Chinese drama.
    Angarano’s character was also a familiar story – it’s been told many different ways, of which a few have been mentioned. I’ll add a couple to the list, just because: Last Action Hero and Captain N.
    He’s, in his own way, also a legendary hero. It’s just a different kind of legend.

  4. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: Stardust didn’t bother me at all–it’s an interesting case, since it does have some of the elements of this trope. But even though the town of Wall is in some sense meant to be part of the “real world”, it’s not a world that’s familiar to me–in fact, small-town 19th century England is a setting much more associated with fantasy. And thus Wall is more contiguous (geographically and figuratively) with Stormhold than with (say) modern-day Berkeley, CA. So there’s no problem with suspension of disbelief and no sense that the audience is being pandered to.
    Mike^2: It’s true that Forbidden Kingdom relied heavily on archetypal characters, but some archetypes are more effective than others. And I do mean this post to be an indictment of the entire Guy from Our World archetype rather than just its implementation in Forbidden Kingdom. (My point about racial issues won’t apply to every use of it, but I think the others do.)

  5. Lemming

    Wow, did anyone (besides AG, who presumably whacked it) catch that spam?
    Seriously, I’m impressed. It’s almost like the spammers are *trying*.
    Oh, and topical, right. The movie was lots of fun, if silly. The same thing bothered me, but I easily overlooked it and just enjoyed the pretty moving pictures. iG didn’t care for it at all, fwiw — and she watches a lot of the old-school kung fu serials.

  6. Josh

    The relationship of the ordinary world to the special world in terms of film story doesn’t necessarily have to be consistent, but for me there has to be a sensible way between them. This is often the problem: it’s too easily thrown away as something that shouldn’t be explored and if the means to go to the special world isn’t coherent, then it’s a fairly inexcusable method to skip over a glaring hole in the story.
    There are plenty of examples where this story works. One of my favorites involves a Delorian, and that is one of the most random, inexplicable, unexpected ways to venture into the special world possible: it’s quite clearly accidental. But the accident was given depth (the entire previous scene was actually the introduction to the “special world”, with the explanation of why the flux capacitor makes time travel possible), and then the necessity of the hero to escape from terrorists accidentally caused the time travel.
    For Stardust, the special world is quite simple: there’s a wall, and beyond the wall is “the unknown”, and we already know what exists beyond that unknown since that atmosphere has already been established from earlier scenes (which show us the world we are watching is, in fact, rife with magic). Tristan’s call to adventure is of course the decision to go beyond the wall into Stormhold to fetch a star, which again establishes a fairy-tale kind of atmosphere for the entire story.
    So, whether you’re Jack Burton going after your truck into San Francisco’s Chinatown, or Miaka Yuuki actually seeing a vision of a phoenix and being called by destiny to open a book that comes to life, this entrance into the special world can work in a ton of ways. What bothers me, more often than not, is when that transition is not respected or paid proper attention to. This often has the suffering from “we want to get to this part of the story” syndrome.
    If someone just happens into a mystical MacGuffin which just happens to thrust them feet-first into a plotline in a world entirely different, the transition is intensely grating. Think of if The Matrix had happened without Morpheus… Neo happens to buy a red pill to keep him alert while he hacks and that red pill makes him wake up into the special world.
    I haven’t seen The Forbidden Kingdom, and I hope to see it soon so I can go further into this, but it sounds like the movie suffers a bit from this problem. Especially since the point of the movie (as the advertising shows us) is to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li together, so the director moves as quickly as possible into that point. I could be wrong, though.
    The Bostonian transported into Ancient China does sound like a hackneyed attempt to americanize a hong-kong style movie. Once again I want to see for myself, especially to see what in particular this american kid adds to the story. If he is entirely central to the mission (as, if you will, Miaka Yuuki was as Suzaku no Miko), there is a degree of logic to that. If his role in the movie is more or less tagging along to provide Americanized dialogue, that’s another story entirely.
    In the end, certain parts of the film have to be sacrificed if they don’t serve the overall story. One might end up cutting a plotline even though it’s one of the funniest scenes, or it makes a character more relatable, simply because it is inconsistent with the story. And most things the audience resents in a movie is inconsistency with story.
    That’s why Pirates 2 and 3 were so wretched… they had no idea what story they wanted to tell, and meandered back and forth hoping that Johnny Depp mugging for the camera would make up for that problem.
    From what I’ve heard the kid in The Forbidden Kingdom is more or less to give us the story of a boy whose dream comes true by being transported into a martial arts world. If the filmmakers were doing their jobs right… they wouldn’t need the kid in the movie. They’d be giving us that feeling by watching it.
    Now, to finish, my prediction for what I see in the Forbidden Kingdom is a kid who’s a bit of an odd duck and definitely a scene of him getting bullied at school. He wanders into an ancient chinese shop wherein a wizened old shopkeeper explains the ancient magic whatchamajigger that takes him back in time. He does so, hangs around making outside commentary to the story between fisticuffs of more able-bodied Chinese actors, and when he is whizzed back into the future in the end, he’s learned how to stand up for himself.
    That’s my prediction, at least. And my problem with that kind of movie is it half-asses things a bit. You have the Observer (audience character) of the Boy in The Princess Bride or Sebastian in The Neverending Story. Then you have your totally involved heroes who work to achieve what they can. The problem with the fish-out-of-water scenario, just like voice-over, is it wants to have its cake and eat it to: have a character involved in the story but still detached enough to make a running commentary.
    Of course my thoughts may change entirely when I see this movie. But I’m betting against it!

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