Watching Ghost in the Shell in Mong Kok
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
First off, let me say that I didn’t expect to like Ghost in the Shell, distracted as I was by the controversy over Scarlett Johansen’s casting in the role of a Japanese character. After all, Hollywood’s “whitewashing” of characters and narratives involving non-white people is a serious and disturbing issue, I find this particular case to be a bit less straightforward.
In the film we learn the protagonist, now known as Major, was so severely injured in a terrorist attack that only her brain could be saved. Scientists from a mysterious and powerful robotics corporation build her a robotic body, or shell, in which her brain – and her soul or ghost – survives and functions. In this new form, Major is a badass terrorist-fighting cyborg warrior.
So, Major is a robot with a human brain, or a human intelligence with a completely synthetic robotic body, depending how you look at it. As her physical form is entirely manufactured, she can in theory look however those who manufactured her wish. When you consider that characters in Japanese comics and animations often have Caucasian features, this muddies the waters further.
Secondly, I haven’t read the original manga or seen the 1995 anime version of Ghost in the Shell, which I will now seek out, so I have no points of comparison.
Now that’s out of the way, I can admit that I enjoyed the film. I know it’s been mostly panned by western critics and bombed in western cinemas. Apart from the whitewashing issue, many have compared it unfavourably to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated version – accusing it of sanitizing and dumbing down the source material.
I can only judge the movie on its own merits and as a Hongkonger watching it in a cinema in Mong Kok, the film certainly has resonance. Writing in Quartz, Vivienne Chow found the film to be “… a poem to Hong Kong, the unnamed central character in this sci-fi feature.”
And it’s a living entity with an edge, a dark underbelly that made it such a compelling, living canvas for Oshii in his 1995 feature and for Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. It is, for instance, hard to imagine Singapore playing a similar role.
But it’s more than the locations. As the film unfolds, Major discovers the origin story she was spun is bogus and she has been implanted with false memories. This sets her on a path to uncover the truth about who she is, in a world where lines are blurred between humans and machines.
As Chow points, out there are parallels between Major’s journey of self-discovery and Hong Kong’s own struggle to define its identity after its transition from a British colony to a special administration region, and some would say colony, of China.
Indeed, how could a film that deals with the issues of blurred and shifting boundaries, identities, of a forced erasure of the past and the reclamation and coming to terms with memories NOT find resonance with Hong Kong audiences? It is made all the more poignant by the fact the protagonist’s journey takes place in front of us on our very own streets.
In recent years, Hongkongers have been able to see more explicit representations of their unease, fears and struggles on the screen, in features such as the dystopian indie film Ten Years. Despite failing to win mainstream distribution when it was released in 2015, the film became a sleeper hit and went on to win Best Film at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards. In the wake of the film’s unexpected success and following 2014’s Umbrella Movement, more locally themed films are expected.
But that hasn’t always been the case. The lucrative rewards of the Chinese box office and the domination of Hong Kong-Mainland co-productions means films with sensitive subject matter rarely get made. Low-budget independent films struggle to get distributed.
Against this background, I have sometimes found the most unlikely movies speaking to me in the most unexpected way. The one that stands out is How to Train Your Dragon II, which I took my then 6 year-old daughter to see in the summer of 2014.
The year 2014 was a tumultuous one in Hong Kong, marked by debate over whether it would be possible to fight for the right to fair and direct elections for the city’s leader through one-person-one vote, via a mass civil disobedience movement called Occupy Central (which later morphed into the Umbrella Movement). All the while, Beijing was ratcheting up the pressure and making it clear it would only allow universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s leader if it could first screen the candidates.
Towards the end of the animated children’s adventure film, an evil mega-dragon called the Bewilderbeast hypnotizes the good dragons to attack our hero’s village, Berk. It being a children’s movie, the good guys win against the odds. Nothing special about that, but then our hero’s voice-over tells us:
This is Berk. A bit trampled, and busted, and covered in ice but it’s home. It’s our home. Those who attacked us, are relentless and crazy, but those who stopped them, oh, even more so! We may be small in numbers, but we stand for something bigger than anything the world can pin against us. We are the voice of peace, and bit by bit, we will change this world. You see, we have something they don’t. Oh, sure, they have armies, and they have armadas, but we… we have…OUR DRAGONS!
Sitting in a cinema with my little kid in Mong Kok in 2014, this hit me hard, and I could feel myself tearing up. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on me – I was watching a corny and cliché scene from a kid’s movie and reading it as a statement on Hong Kong.
I wasn’t as emotional watching Ghost in the Shell in Mong Kok in 2017, but there are a few lines that linger in the memory. One is spoken by the scientist who “created” Major, Dr Oulet, who tells her, “We never needed your consent.”
The other is what Major announces at the end of the film that, “We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.”
These lines hit close to home, but there was also something unsettling. I get that Major has reclaimed her past and has decided to own it without being defined by it. I understand that she has chosen to live among humans rather than accept the offer by Kuze (a complicated villain and earlier prototype of human robot) to evolve along a different path. But what I don’t understand is why after all that, she decides to work for the man!*
*And I don’t mean her immediate boss, played by Takeshi (Beat) Kitano, and who is all kinds of cool and extremely badass
July 2017 Update: I’ve now watched Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime version of Ghost in the Shell and am struck by both the similarities and the differences between the two films. The original film is slower, more didactic, more philosophical and in a sense, more universal. Visually, there are some striking similarities – some of the scenes seem to have been recreated shot-by-shot. Yet the loving tableaux of Hong Kong-inspired street scenes in the anime are more elegaic than in the live-action version. The story, however, is different in some essential ways – particularly the ending. And this does make me sympathize with the fans who see the climax of the live-action movie as a cop-out. I had written earlier that I didn’t understand why, after her journey of self-questioning and discovery, Major would choose to work for The Man. Well, in the Oshii version, she doesn’t and the ending is both more intriguing and satisfying.