Friday, 17 August 2012

The mysterious allure of Bangkok Dangerous

"With murky cinematography, a meandering pace, a dull storyline, and rather wooden performances, The Pang Brothers' Bangkok Dangerous is unsuccessful” says Rotten Tomatoes, giving it a measly 9%. By most accounts this remake of the filmmaking duo’s own 1999 action thriller was a failure, receiving poor reviews and even poorer box office takings. Seeing it with no expectations last year (2008), I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was, however, in a severe minority even among the group of friends whom had been with me in the cinema, and I found myself the object of playful ridicule following the showing. In this piece I want to attempt to delve into my enjoyment and find out why I liked it while no one else (that I know of) did. Do I have some bizarre fascination in cinematic failure, or was Bangkok (as I will refer to it from now on) in some way genuinely laudable? I am writing this the day after having re-watched the film on DVD.

On revisiting the film, having had many discussions with friends, I was much more aware of Bangkok’s flaws, which, I have to admit, are many. The dialogue is frequently silly to the point of hilarity, with lines like “Somehow when I looked into his eyes, I saw myself. So I became his teacher” and “The face has a million ways of tricking you, but the eyes never lie” peppered throughout the screenplay. Nicolas Cage looks awful, with weird stringy hair and a consistently morose expression (except when with his beloved deaf and dumb pharmacist). The combination of his demeanour, appearance and gravely, bored voice is very, very funny, particularly when saying things such as “uh, banker, yes” while sitting awkwardly in his love interest’s house. When he smiles at her mother, his face seems like it might crack with effort. Overwrought, ridiculous, sentimental – all appropriate adjectives when discussing the film’s scenes which deal with Joe and Fon’s relationship. A pounding, serious soundtrack adds to the unintentional humour.

So far, then, my pleasure in watching Bangkok has been derived from the films’ artistic failures. But so what? I maintain that this isn’t a “so-good-it’s-bad” film in the mould of Plan 9 from Outer Space (though I could happily write an article in the defence of that and Ed Wood’s other misunderstood work). This is something a particular friend of mine has a problem with when we discuss it. I genuinely like the way the film is shot, the atmosphere created, the action, the mise en scène. My unnamed friend cannot accept my stance – that a film such as Bangkok is capable of having both elements of unintentional humour created by poor creative choice or misguided filmmaking sensibilities and other aspects that work in the conventional sense.

I will admit to having an intense love of cheap genre cinema. I maintain that many of these "trashy" films have an independent spirit and charm never found in more mainstream cinema, and that their flaws often shift into beautiful idiosyncrasies to be cherished and admired. I can’t categorize Bangkok in this way (the film cost $40m to make), I’m merely using my admiration for “cult” cinema as one possible explanation for my enjoyment of the film – I saw it as true exploitation, not the preening, self-aware graininess of the recent Grindhouse but an example of genuine, naïve genre cinema in the noughties. I found an honesty in Bangkok that attracts me to some of the cheapo films I like so much. There is little or no use of CGI, the film is self-contained, there are few characters, some inexplicabilities which I can engage with and enjoy. Perhaps this is a perverse kind of cinephilia, but I’m always filled with joy when I see bargain-basement bins, brimming with untapped craziness.

My admiration for Bangkok seems, therefore, to come from a combination of the two sets of reasoning I mentioned in my opening paragraph – firstly my fascination in flawed cinema, my admiration for enthusiastic and well-intentioned cinema, and also my enjoyment of the film as a whole, both in its humour derived in numerous flaws and its simmering, grim, atmosphere. Monte Hellman once said that when he sees a movie he comes out having had an experience unique to him – if someone asks him what the film was about, he may not be able to tell them, but he had a hell of a time watching it. Perhaps I went somewhere my friends didn’t while watching Bangkok.

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