A Post

Hello. It’s November, a month where some people opt to forgo shaving for no other reason the alteration (and sometimes fundraising). It is also a month where foolish people try and write a 50,000 word novel with in its thirty days.

Reader, I am one of those fools.

In light of National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been writing pell-mell to try and reach my goal, and, as such, am going to forgo my usual rant essay this week (the last couple had been prepared in advance! I’m sneaky like that).

So maybe check out an older post. I’ve been in a science fiction mood (owing in no small part to the release of The Mandalorian and what I’ve been writing), and I really think it’s an important genre, as I rambled about on Christmas Eve three years ago. Or look at my new fancy website www.joshuatong.com.

I know this is a cop out, and you oughta expect another one next week and possibly the week after, but trust me, I’ll be back going on and on about Star Wars and whathaveyou soon enough.

But seriously, The Mandalorian is so good and it wears its spaghetti western influence on its sleeve, and not just in the gruff cowboy trope, but its use of comedy and more. That, however, is a post for another day.

Cheers,

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Is It Good For?

I’ve logged a really unholy number of hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. It’s a fun game, and there’s just so much to do. Plus, I’m easily distracted and so merrily go off assassinating nation leaders and taking part in conquest battles. It was during one of those conquest battles where I was fighting alongside the Spartans/Athenians to wrest control of some nation-state or another from Athens/Sparta that I finally got ahold of what Odyssey’s stance is on war.

Before I go any further, yes, the game has a stance on war. Any story that deals with the topic absolutely does. The Call of Duty games fall pretty firmly into the camp of wars must be fought to stop the bad guys. Star Wars sees all-out war as a tragedy (note that the start of the Clone Wars was a downbeat) and sees scrappy insurgencies as the recourse of good guys when others idle around to let evil men run rampant. The ultimate goal of the heroes is peace, not to fight more wars. Tolkien presents war as a place for honor and glory in The Lord of The Rings, but he is not blind to the horrors of warfare. The veteran of World War I spares thought for the horrors of warfare. The first time he sees a battle between Men – not Men and Elves against Orcs, but Men fighting Men – Sam is decidedly unsettled, wondering of a fallen foe “what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.” Tolkien appears to believe that peace would be preferred.

But can a war story be anti-war? There’s a quip by François Truffaut saying that no war film can be anti-war. There’s a nugget of truth there, no matter how terrible what is presented onscreen, ultimately there will be some pleasure on behalf of the audience for it to work narratively; warfare will be glorified to some extent. I’m not sure if I’m entirely onboard with that.  Dr. Strangelove is a bitter satire of nuclear politics that makes no glory of soldiering, but it’s also not a movie about a war so much as it is about the idea of war. Comparatively, The Hurt Locker does have soldiers doing badass stuff, but we’re also privy to the personal toll it takes on them; epic guitar riffs are meant to be discordant with the reality. It’s hard for a movie to be anti-war.

And video games? Spec-Ops: The Line is fiercely anti-war, and all your badass glory is The Hurt Locker’s discordance ramped up several notches. You’re mowing down fellow American soldiers and burning civilians with white phosphorus. You are not a good person. The Metal Gear Solid games praise the honor of soldiers, but director Hideo Kojima has little good to say of the countries who send them to die. Naked Snake grows disillusioned with the United States in Snake Eater after the Americans order his mentor to betray the country to embed herself with the Soviets to weaken them then ordering Snake to assassinate her — to his commendation and her degradation. Perhaps the absolute that there can be no anti-war films (or games) is too stark a statement, perhaps it’s often a lot more nuanced than that.

So back to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. You are awesome. Kassandra (who you play as lest you’d rather pick Dude McBlandman) kicks all the ass. Spears are stabbed into enemies, opposing soldiers sent running in awe of your might. Conquest Battles — big fights between the warring factions — are another chance for you to prove your martial prowess (and get some sweet loot). Now, Kassandra is a misthios, a mercenary, and so she can fight for whichever side she wants. But here’s some ludonarrative dissonance. As part of the story I’ll be helping Sparta take over a country, then hop across the border and fight for Athens, slaughtering Spartans. Which, okay, I’m a mercenary. Makes sense. But, due to the way the game works, I can roll up into a war camp, kill everyone except for the unkillable NPC who gives me the Conquest quest, and when I talk to said NPC he’ll be happy to see me despite the ground being littered with his dead compatriots. Ah, video games.

And war.

As far as Odyssey is concerned, war is pointless and random. Today’s allies are tomorrow’s enemies; the allegiance of any nation-state is up for grabs at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, it’s all meaningless, small pieces being moved around on a bigger chessboard whose players have no concern for the pawns. If Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is to be ascribed a position on war, and it ought to be since it is a game that takes place during one, it is one of nihilism. No matter how much the narrative may account for a just war or honor, ultimately, it’s just the same dance over and over again with different partners.

But it’s really fun, though.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Shoeless Superheroes

Today we’re going to talk about one panel from a comic:

noshoes.png

It’s from Agents of Atlas issue #3 by Greg Pak and Nico Leon with colors by Rachelle Rosenberg and lettering by Joe Sabino. At this moment, the titular agents are meeting in their secret headquarters to discuss some potentially nefarious shenanigans that are happening.

And, naturally, all these superheroes have taken their shoes off.

Okay, so, the Agents of Atlas are all ethnically Asian. You’ve characters like Amadeus Cho and Cindy Moon, Korean-Americans based out of New York and Pearl Pangan from the Philippines and Lei Ling of Shanghai. There’s even a handy map on the credits page to offer an easy rundown:

AOA Map.jpeg

Look at that multi-nationality! | Greg Pak, Nico Leon, Rachelle Rosenberg, Joe Sabino / Marvel Comics

 

 

Yes, there’s a gut reaction to dismissing this sort of team-up as being pandering; it’s just Marvel realizing they’ve got a dearth of Asians and are mashing them all into one comic to highlight them and hope that combined their combined appeal can move books. Consider it tokenism but on steroids. Yet Atlas is able to get past that by applying verisimilitude to its fiction. An early beat during their War of The Realms introduction has the diverse cast (and yes, they are diverse: there’s a world of difference between being Chinese and Korean) sitting down to eat and bonding over the myriad of ways to prepare spam. It’s a quick gag, but one that quickly conjured up memories of how I’ve been served it in the past.

So the third issue and the lack of shoes.

I wrote not too long ago about how much I loved a beat of Always Be My Maybe that involves running kids taking off their shoes indoors and that same sentiment is in play here. It’s an absolute darn delight to see that tiny bit of detail. I take my shoes off indoors! And so do Silk and Shang Chi! There’s even a genkan where the shoes are left and fuzzy slippers available for indoor use. This ain’t some half-assed representation. It’s a small detail that’s really big in that it very much establishes that a) these characters are Asian beyond being drawn/named such, and 2) when given the opportunity will embrace that part of their culture.

There’s a narrative component to it too!

What’s it mean that they took their shoes off when going into their headquarters? Understand that taking your shoes off somewhere belies a sense of respect and comfort/intimacy. You don’t take your shoes off at the office or the movie theatre, but you definitely do in someone’s home and, in some parts of Asia, restaurants too. When someone like me — who’s been taking his shoes off in houses his entire life — sees this, it instantly communicates a lot of information about the people and where they are.

The Agents of Atlas are comfortable in their headquarters. Not like “ah, I’m comfy here,” but they treat it like a home. Sure, they’re all still in costume, but it’s somewhere they can take their shoes off. For someone like me, that feeling of taking off my shoes when I get home is a little marker that “yep, I’m back.” Thus seeing this being acknowledged in the comic is a delightful nod that immediately establishes how these characters feel about where they are.

It also helps with the conflict! In the scene we find ourselves in, Amadeus Cho, leader of the Agents, is wary of newcomer Isaac Ikeda — a hero in the employ of the entrepreneur responsible for the aforementioned potentially nefarious shenanigans. Amadeus didn’t invite Isaac; he’s surprised to even see him in the headquarters. Maybe he’s paranoid (he’s not quite sure), but he doesn’t want Isaac in their secret base, and for Isaac to be there — in this place where they’re able to take their shoes off! — isn’t unlike a roommate bringing home that super sketchy dude from the bar. This is made clear in the dialogue, of course, but the complication of the shoes adds an additional subtextual layer to it all.

Oh, diversity and representation. How I do harp on them. But this is why! This panel brought me such joy! This detail means so much to me because it’s something that I understand and speaks to me from a frame of reference I’m familiar with. Look, I’m a biracial third-culture-kid who’s an immigrant on both sides of the Pacific; I take the wins where I can find them. And yes, that means a comic where the superhero team takes off their shoes indoors. It’s important!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Let’s Rank Star Wars Movies!

There’s a thing going around on the internet where people are ranking the Star Wars movies and, of course, other people complaining about people ranking the Star Wars movies. Now because I am who I am, I saw this and thought “Hey, that’d make a great rant essay!” since it’s an opportunity for an introspective look at the Star Wars movies (and definitely not an easy copout).

Of the ten movies to choose from (we’re omitting Clone Wars for obvious reasons), it’s pretty easy for me to put what I’d wager is tenth: Revenge of The Sith. Hold on, you say, Sith as the worst? In a world where Phantom Menace and Clones exist? Yes, strawman, yes. See, Sith is almost entirely reliant on us caring about Anakin’s arc, given that it’s about his fall and how that shapes the galaxy. The problem is that Sith doesn’t sell us on that, with Anakin’s big moment being the equivalent of the sitcom trope of a character walking in on two others in a compromising position and one saying “this isn’t what it looks like!” It’s frustrating, especially since the Clone Wars show would later go on to characterize Anakin in such a better way. Oh, there are some cool moments to be sure, but ultimately the movie is let down by its failure to execute a convincing fall from grace. Also, they completely sideline Padmé, which is terrible.

The other two prequels are in close contention with each other. Attack of The Clones is let down by a… not great love story, but one that’s buoyed by a cool third act, Obi-Wan’s detective story, and the amazing piece of music that is “Across The Stars.” I know The Phantom Menace is a bit of a mess, but it’s a lot of fun and Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is one of the three best fights in Star Wars. Plus: Qui-Gon! For me, there’s a decent amount of positives for both movies.

Solo is another one that just doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s certainly a bunch of fun and works well enough (with some great supporting performances and easter eggs that make me happy), but ultimately I’m not sure if it’s really all that more than ‘fine.’ Though it doesn’t annoy me quite as much as Sith, it’s nothing to really write home about it. I think, for now, Solo gets ninth, Phantom Menace eighth, and Clones seventh because, yes, Across The Stars is that freaking good.

The next chunk is when ranking gets tougher. Rogue One scratches so many itches for me (ragtag multinational team! badass woman! AT-ATs!), I want to put it higher. Return of The Jedi has a phenomenal climax, affords Vader so much complexity, and has Ewoks, which also makes me like it so much. A New Hope started it all and The Force Awakens is such a celebration of that spirit of the Original Trilogy that it’s almost difficult to rank one without the other.

Here’s where some of Star Wars rankings get really hairy. We can’t rank them in a vacuum, what with them working together and also being inspired off of each other. I put Solo so low because it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the others. A New Hope is such an odd little movie (it takes a while before we meet our main character, Luke, and before that, it’s a lot of watching robots wander in the desert) but it somehow works so well it deserves recognition — plus it’s what started this whole thing. Perhaps now it’s time for ties: Rogue One and A New Hope are fifth and Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens are third. I know, Jedi over Hope is an unorthodox choice, but its handling of a climactic battle on three fronts is absolutely masterful. Also, I really like Ewoks, man.

Finally, we’re left with Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. I used my make-it-a-tie lifeline last time so I can’t do so now, because that’d really be a disappointing copout (and this post is certainly not a copout, y’hear?). Both movies expand on and play with what’s been established by the prior movies, and both magnificently juggle very dark themes with radiant hope. Though I love The Last Jedi for so many things big and small (including the best Star Wars fight in the throne room and also porgs), I think I have to, cliche as it is, give the title to Empire. Its pacing is pitch-perfect, the romance between Han and Leia is excellent, Yoda lifting the X-Wing will never not be profoundly powerful, and Luke vs Vader is the second-best Star Wars fight. Plus: AT-ATs.

In sum, my ranking is:

1. The Empire Strikes Back

2. The Last Jedi

3. The Force Awakens

3. Return of The Jedi

5. A New Hope

5. Rogue One

7. Attack of The Clones

8. The Phantom Menace

9. Solo

10. Revenge of The Sith

Naturally, these are all my opinion and should be treated thusly. In addition, they are liable to change at any given time and I will not be held accountable for them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Arthur Fleck and Emmet Brickowski

I saw Joker this week. It’s a movie that’s exceptionally well crafted, and also a movie that’s profoundly disturbed and ill-equipped to handle its subject matter to the point where it enters into the realm of very bad taste. This movie is one that kinda really hates women and also merrily parrots the idea that mentally ill loners are the cause of mass shootings but ultimately doesn’t have anything to say about anything, left me feeling really icky as I left the cinema.

So maybe let’s talk about something else I also did this week that I did really like: putting together a LEGO set while listening to music and drinking a beer. The set, Emmet’s Dream House/Rescue Rocket, is based on The LEGO Movie 2, and is, um, exactly what it sounds like. I built the Dream House (you can choose which one!) because it’s absolutely adorable. Though it ultimately plays a minor role in the film, Emmet’s Dream House is actually pretty dang important to his arc in the film.

The LEGO Movie 2 exchanges Bricksburg of the first movie for Apocalypseburg, a world where everything is dark, bleak, and edgy. Except for Emmet. He builds a house on the edge of town for him and Lucy. This house, by the by, is not dissimilar to a house they crashed through shortly after they first met in the prior movie. Which is a very cute touch because, hey, history. Now Lucy hasn’t got any time for domestic tranquility, because this is not what their life is about (it’s dark and broody!), and so dismisses Emmet out of hand.

When Lucy, Batman, Benny, and several other characters get captured by General Mayhem, it’s up to Emmet to go after them. But he needs a ship. So, using his Master Builder skills, he takes apart his dream house and rebuilds it into a rocket (a rescue rocket) to go save his friends. He’s quite explicitly dismantling his dreams in favor of doing the right thing, since, well, they’re worth it. In space, however, he runs into trouble and is saved by the enigmatic, badass Rex Dangervest. Unlike Emmet, Rex is a Master Breaker — a skill he demonstrates by destroying Emmet’s Rescue Rocket.

Rex is undeniably cool: he’s edgy, he has pet raptors, he’s wise to the world and everything Emmet is not. Emmet wants to be him because, hey, that’s what the world of Apocalypseburg needs now, right? It’s 2019; heroes are anti-heroes, it’s a crappy place, and there’s no space for the happy-go-lucky Emmet. Building stuff’s not cool; breaking stuff is.

Joker is a weird movie in that its protagonist’s fate is to become an iconic villain, not terribly unlike Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. But once Revenge of The Sith sees Anakin’s (poorly executed) arc reach his fall, the movie neither lionizes him nor wants us to sympathize with him. We’re not cheering him on as he massacres children in the Jedi Temple or slaughters the Separatist leadership, we’re supposed to mourn his fall from grace. Joker, however, has Arthur cross a line quite early on and asks us to stay on board with him even as he (and the film) goes more off the rails.

Using a vague, unnamed mental illness to ask for the audience’s sympathy, the movie almost wants to bill itself as The Portrait of the Mass-Murderer As a Young Man, though with not point to its depravity other than “look what society made him do.” Joker’s murders are portrayed as him lashing out from his patheticness, a hurting man gaining the semblance of control. It sparks a movement of sorts, with others taking up the cause of a killer clown who puts the wealthy in their place. But here too the movie is muddled. There are only two camps the movie will let you, the viewer, fall into: either you are part of the system that tramples downtrodden people like Arthur, or you are a member of the downtrodden for whom Joker is your martyrial icon. The latter an extrapolation; the film’s finale sees Joker’s unconscious body carried by rioters like a perverse Pietá, and the unruly masses watch him in vigil.

The Joker is a fantastic villain. Mark Hamill’s portrayal of him in the Batman cartoons and Arkham Asylum video games offer a twisted, psychopathic maniac with outlandish plots to steal and destroy. The Dark Knight positioned the Joker as chaos personified, a Hobbesian foil to Batman’s belief in justice and order. That film, with its psyche split into the Freudian trio of Batman, Joker, and Harvey Dent, explored the idea of heroism and villainy, and whether goodness can stand in the face of men who just want to watch the world burn. Joker, conversely, has no such ideas, instead choosing to echo the manifestos of white terrorists I see on the news and play it off as some profound observation about life.

Forgive me, then, if I don’t enjoy a nihilistic film that hasn’t much more to say about nihilism than how it means nothing. Forgive me if I’d rather not watch a film that lionizes the lone gunman and reiterates that mental-illness is what causes mass shootings (it’s not). Forgive me if I’m sickened by a film that climaxes in a self-described mentally ill loner in clown makeup shooting in a theatre of people, barely seven years since a man in clown makeup shot up a theater in real life.

It turns out, in The LEGO Movie 2, that Rex is really an Emmet from the future, who grew disillusioned and believes that the only way to deal with anything is by being gruff and edgy, that there is no space for childish things. But Emmet realizes that, no, his hope and joy is valuable even in a terrible world. Dark grittiness only gets you so far, and expecting everything to be antagonistic and malicious only fosters more of the same. Taking stuff apart is cool and all, but where’s its worth without building something too? Amid an apocalyptic wasteland, it is worth building a bright yellow dream house for you and your loved ones.

This isn’t to say that isolating yourself from reality is the right course of action, far from it. The world’s terrible enough as it is, and though there are times when it’s worth it to engage with it thoughtfully. Emmet, and the other characters in The Lego Movie 2, come to realize that everything’s not awesome, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless, turns out it’s still worth it to try and make things better, you can still choose joy. I do like a bleak and twisted story (Roald Dahl’s “Genesis and Catastrophe” comes to mind, alongside Taxi Driver and Spec Ops: The Line), but I like them to have a point to it all. Darkness can be used to highlight society’s ills and our own relation to them, but grimdark bleakness for its own sake is, ultimately, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What I’ve Been Reading

I like reading. Always have.

University was both a boon and a hindrance for that love, though. Courtesy of my course of study, I read a lot. There were classes where I was going through a different book every two weeks. I read books that I might not have checked out of my own volition, like Jacques the Fatalist and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, along with books I’d wanted to read but never got around to, like Romance of Three Kingdoms and Ulysses. And that’s not even getting into the untold number of articles, excerpts, and the like that offered background and different points of view on, well, stuff.

Come graduation I didn’t have a  syllabus anymore and so didn’t really have much of a direction of what to read. So I read stuff I’d had lying around (Interpreter of Maladies) and books I’d wanted to read but hadn’t had time for (Ready Player One). But of course, there’s still that itch to read more, and, y’know, learn too. So I kept my eyes peeled for books on topics I found interesting. Interviews on The Daily Show led me to Ashley’s War and White Rage and a trip to the Museum of Chinese in America put me on course for my informal postgraduate study of the Chinese diaspora within the United States. For a while there I enforced a policy of one ‘serious’ book for every ‘fun’ book, so following up a Star Wars: Rogue Squadron book with a sociology book about tabletop RPGs, then Trevor Noah’s autobiography and then Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between The World and Me. Sure, I was a little generous with my definitions, but hey, it forced me to read more ‘educational’ stuff.

After a while though, I longed to get back to reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, genres that I love for so many reasons. But there was still the part of me that wouldn’t let me get away with just diving back into old comforts. So I gave myself a simple edict: read more science fiction and fantasy by authors who aren’t white guys. And let me tell you, that has been a wonderful decision.

I remember watching the credits for Arrival and noticing that it was based on a short story by someone with a Chinese last name. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang was added to my reading list. His stories are fantastic. In addition to the titular one which plays with language and time in magnificent ways afforded only by written fiction, there’s also Division By Zero that posits a relationship falling apart alongside the basic laws of mathematics breaking down. Excellent, excellent genre work, but I wanted more.

I found out about Ken Liu with his short story “The Paper Menagerie” and shortly thereafter picked up his short story collection by the same name. Loving how he wives unique East-Asian themes into his stories, I sought out his epic fantasy book The Grace of Kings. The doorstopper sized book scratches the itch of the kid who read The Lord of The Rings over and over again and is always delighted when he opens a book to find a fantastical map. But what the book offered that others didn’t was its clear influence by historical Chinese epics like Romance of Three Kingdoms. Not only that but the books have a dramatic aesthetic that harkens more to the Chinese historical dramas that would play on my grandmother’s tv back in Singapore than whatever period drama is currently fashionable. Because why not base a fantasy series on ancient Chinese history?

One other way I’ve gone about finding new books to read has been by looking at websites’ lists of upcoming genre books, taking note of what interests me. It’s how I came upon S.A. Chakraborty and her book The City of Brass. It’s a fantastical book of magic and djinn — and one that draws on Muslim tradition at that. It’s a neat world and a refreshing approach to fantasy. I dug it, got the second book, and am eagerly awaiting the third once she finishes it.

I’m reading and reading a lot. At the risk of sounding hokey, I’m really enjoying reading new stories by people who aren’t usually the ones in the spotlight. And hey, learning new things is cool.

As I said, I like reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fight For Your Life!

Borderlands 2 has a nifty mechanic called Fight For Your Life. Basically, when you run out of health, you’re not dead yet; instead, you have a little bit of time where you can crawl around and shoot while waiting for a revive. So far, not particularly different from some other games: Apex Legends lets a downed player move, open doors, and mark enemies until their timer runs out, and I know there’s at least one Call of Duty that lets you fight while bleeding out and waiting for a teammate’s revive. It’s a cool feature of competitive shooters: if you down an enemy do you wait it out and risk them being revived, or do you rush in and get the execution for more points (and bragging rights)? It forces the player to make a quick decision about what’s more tactically sound, and hey, more interesting choices are always welcome in a game.

The spin Borderlands 2 puts on it is that it takes the idea of fighting for your life literally. If you’re able to kill an enemy before your timer runs out, you’re instantly revived and back in the fight. It adds an interesting dimension to single player, where running out of health doesn’t mean a game over or having to return to your last checkpoint. Thus the player is now encouraged to be a little more reckless because of the chance for a self-revive. Combat priorities are also slightly shifted, when faced with a large group of enemies it’s not quite tactically sound to take out all the weaker enemies first before dealing with the more powerful one since you want an easy kill in case you have to fight for your life. But you don’t want to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. It creates more choices and tactical options for the player in a firefight; options beyond shoot all that moves. Of course, end up in Fight For Your Life to often in an encounter and you’ll see that timer get shorter and shorter: don’t be too reckless else you’ll have to respawn anyway.

Multiplayer in Borderlands 2 offers yet another space for the strategic interestingness of Fight For Your Life shine. If a teammate goes down during a raid in Destiny it’s in your best interest to revive them quickly since you need their support and if that timer runs out you run the risk of wiping as a team and having to restart. In Borderlands 2, there’s a strategic boon to not reviving your teammate, since they may be able to revive themselves via Fight For Your Life. Risky strategies that involve splitting up become viable. Snap judgements become required, as a downed player can make the call whether or not they’ll be able to kill an enemy to get back in the fight, or if they need a revive. A player a distance away can soften up a foe to give a downed player an assist, but stealing a kill from a downed player can also rob them of their revive and lead to you reviving them as penance.

As my brother and I make our way through our third playthrough of Borderlands 2 (Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode for the win!), I’m noticing a lot of the little details and features of the game that set it apart from contemporary first-person shooters. Much of it is certainly its tone and integration of RPG features that add a nice dose of zaniness into it all. Fight For Your Life, though, is something I haven’t really seen replicated elsewhere, and it’s certainly a nifty addition that I really do enjoy.

Also, yelling “yoink!” into the mic as I steal my brother’s revive kill and before remorsefully reviving him myself will never not be funny.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized