When western audiences first saw Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, they marveled at the wire-fu acrobatics – sword-fighters flying across ancient rooftops, spinning in the air, fighting each other at impossible angles.
But most of all, they marveled at how feminist the film was, how the women characters were all strong individuals who were equally matched with the men in terms of personality and sword-wielding badassery. They praised Ang Lee for finally giving women the cinematic treatment they had long been denied.
That is, until someone pointed out that Asian cinema had always had strong-willed, compelling women characters. Shaw Bros had its fair share of female martial artists such as Cheng Pei-pei and Ivy Ling Po. One needs only to look at a film like The 14 Amazons with its matriarchal clan, giving cinematic feminism a headstart 30 years before Crouching Tiger came along. Along the way, Hong Kong continued its streak of “feminist undertones” with the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Brigette Lin Ching-hsia … OK, admittedly also Cynthia Rothrock (!).
Seeing critics and filmgoers gushing about the feminism in Mad Max: Fury Road, it begs the question why there is still a dearth of gender equality in Hollywood movies, especially when it comes to the action genre. Surely there is; otherwise why would a film like Fury Road with its women on the run become a signpost for the seemingly glaring lack? But if we were to compare Fury Road to, say, any of James Cameron’s films, George Miller’s “feminist agenda” doesn’t quite stand up.
Most of all, Fury Road is a film of contradictions.
Law of opposites
Charlize Theron has suddenly gained a whole new reputation as an actress. Forget that she had previously completely transformed herself to play a serial killer in Monster. Forget that she was already playing a tough-as-nails, albeit looney, female character. Here is Charlize Theron in a different kind of looney role. She spearheads the “feminist movement” of this film, leading a bunch of beautiful women into the punishing desert wasteland to escape their fate as “breeders” for the disfigured leader of a strange desert cult that seems to have taken some inspiration from Norse mythology.
They leave a parting message on the wall of his harem – “We are not things.” This is not just a message for their slave master. Don’t objectify women, so the film calls out to us. Then we are introduced to the women who are very interestingly named – The Splendid Angharad, Toast the Knowing, Capable, The Dag, Cheedo the Fragile. And they are also very interestingly dressed, clad in scanty cloth, obviously their “slave clothes.” And having doused themselves with much needed water after their long, hot trek in the war rig, the scene becomes akin to a wet t-shirt contest. If the film is throwing a challenge to its male audience members to adhere to the aforementioned message, then it’s certainly not making it very difficult for them to fall by the wayside.
In James Cameron’s films, the women not only fight side-by-side with the men, but often, if not always, are also elevated to become saviours of the men, from certain death or from the men themselves or both, by way of love or just simply respect. But for all Theron’s Furiosa is about, matching Tom Hardy’s mumbling Max Rockatansky strength-for-strength, cunning-for-cunning, for nerves of steel at balls-to-the-wall velocity, she still needs a man to save her, as do the other women. For all its feminist ambitions, Fury Road is still a testosterone-fueled wild ride, even though all the male bravado of the pursuing lunatics out to recapture the female slaves do admittedly come to naught, castrated even, by the fleeing women’s steely determination to survive.
What is more immediate and interesting than the feminist angle of the movie and its critique of patriarchy, is how the film ridicules religious extremism and blind faith. This, in light of recent times, is more important to fish out of its simple, straightforward chase-action tides. Immortan Joe, the leader of the cult, is revered by the war paint-wearing War Boys as some kind of a living god, whose mere glance is taken as a free membership card to the hallowed halls of Valhalla.
The whole of the cult is informed by a reverie of grotesquery – a gallery of deformed, demented socio- and psychopaths. Satoshi Kon used the same metaphor well in Perfect Blue, grotesqueness defining mental state. In Fury Road, it’s used as mockery or derision of those who would enslave the masses and subjugate women.
The War Boys are young men who have been brainwashed to believe that dying in battle is instant martyrdom. “Witness!” they cry, before spraying paint on their mouths and going kamikaze on their enemy’s ass. That’s only one gear-change away from a real-world bomb-strapped religious extremist looking for a shortcut to heaven.
Even so, the film gives a sympathetic turn to one of the War Boys, as if to say, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Which is true of all the indoctrinated, whether their follies are fueled by a crazy leader’s destructive ideas or just the circumstances they are forced to live with. Which is also why the War Boys, among others in the cult, are physically normal. Their grotesqueness is only painted on; when the paint is removed, they are actually rather nice boys.
The first Mad Max film is a simple revenge film. Whittle it down to its bare essentials, it is another Charles Bronson “vengeance is mine” flick, so beloved in the first film’s era, dressed in spaghetti western characteristics. It is a film about a man who has nothing left to lose and everything to blow up and kill. It is about what happens when lawlessness finally catches up with the law, and not the other way around.
The second film, The Road Warrior, begins to portray Max Rockatansky as more of an observer in a world gone haywire. He is also insane enough now to eat dog food as his regular diet, and has taken on more of Clint Eastwood’s nameless drifter’s personality and place in the world, a man willing to take on anything in the name of survival, but whose conscience gets the better of him.
By the time, Beyond Thunderdome rolls around, Max is somewhat relegated to secondary character, a supporting role to not just Tina Turner’s punk queen, but to pretty much everyone else. It would seem that George Miller was running out of ideas about what to do with the character, or else he was becoming more enthralled with the idea of an apocalyptic wasteland and its possibilities than with the continuing saga of the lone survivor.
In Fury Road, Max has become merely a device to drive the film’s action. Like in Thunderdome, he is overshadowed by a female character who seems to be the lead, even if her name is not the title of the film. At times, his dialogue isn’t even audible or consists only of grunts. Upon closer inspection, however, it would seem Max is a stand-in for us, the audience. The confusion initially rained upon him in the opening minutes when he is captured by Immortan Joe’s people is our confusion. The moment he decides to get on the side of the women is also the moment we realise things are not quite what they seem. All this is, of course, with the assumption that you went into the cinema without knowing anything about the film.
If it is true that we are Max, then we are effectively being invited to share in the quest for hope and redemption in a world that seems hopeless and doomed. And that may be the undertones driving audiences and critics to hail Fury Road as a masterpiece. It is tapping right into the contemporary psyche and drawing out emotions by the stealthy way of clever storytelling.
Personally, I don’t think Fury Road is a masterpiece at all. But it’s intelligent action filmmaking. To quote a well-worn cliche, less is more. Or more accurately, adhering to the “less is more” rule when all else is way much, is simply a brilliant balance. In the miasma of violence and gasoline fumes; in the bustling, heady blender mixing up wall-to-wall action setpieces, visual onslaughts and over-the-top elements of style; the expositions are kept well under minimum requirements. Words are economical. Furtive glances speak louder.
And with its classic style of action (ie. no shaky cam or extreme slo-mo), we can only hope that, in view of its current box-office boost and word-of-mouth excitement, Fury Road will herald a return to old-school practical action and once and for all, minimise the reliance on CGI.
We can dream, can’t we?