Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ancient Chinese Warfare

Ah another book read amidst the excitement of volunteer work. This was written by Ralph D. Sawyer who is one of the most respected Chinese Military Historians in the world and it would seem with good reason. A previous work that I had read of his Seven Military Classics of Ancient China is utterly superb though it is mostly translation (albeit in the process of translation inevitably the translator becomes almost a second author). I won't go into particular detail about that book here but suffice to say it includes writings from not simply Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) but also from the T'ai Kung, Wu Qi and several other "Great Captains" of Chinese history.

I am not positive but I believe Pinyin was the latin alphabet style chosen for Seven Military Classics but for some reason a different type is utilized in Ancient Chinese Warfare. Having read and re-read Moss Roberts' Three Kingdoms translation and taken a few rudimentary Chinese courses I'm used to reading Pinyin which led to some confusion. Presumably almost anyone reading this book would be at least somewhat familiar with Pinyin which is definitely the dominant form utilized in China itself; as Chinese typing would show (you can even test this yourself using the alternate language features of Microsoft Office).

Ancient Chinese Warfare is a fairly interesting book covering an enormous span of history in just a few hundred pages; this inevitably leads to some glossing over of various periods and of course the admittance that not much is fundamentally known about the era apart from assorted legends. The Yellow Emperor and such Three Kingdoms-mentioned examples as "Yao yielding to Shun" are referenced and Sawyer does at least attempt to justify how such a myth would come into being, be it a pure fiction based on history or a fictionalized version of a historical persona. I was most interested in these aspects of the book, those sections that dared to assert different ideas and theories; but the book does not consist entirely of these.

I realize conjecture is not a particularly good basis for history but it is definitely a more interesting way to discuss history about which not much is known. When dealing with limited facts painting something of a picture by yourself via such assertions isn't the worst thing and one can easily get bogged down in pedantry if you stick merely to what is "perfectly" known and understood at the time (though certainly some aspects of history that are supposed to be fact are disproven in wide swaths in future publications). There is a lot of discussion of minute details such as the approximate yet seemingly exact dimensions of various Shang and Xia settlements; which I do find somewhat valuable. However they are repeated in the case of every individual city; instead some sort of comparison or frame of reference could have been utilized to expedite this process. I eventually started simply glazing over these.

There is however a very important and interesting point that Sawyer makes regarding the massive walls of Ancient Chinese cities. In the era prior to Siege equipment walls were only needed militarily up to a certain point yet some of these constructs were utterly massive. Sawyer suggests that this was a way of forcing the local culture to embrace ethnocentrism; as they existed in proto-Urban environments that kept out the various "barbarian" civilizations that roamed the steppes or wilds of China. This is an interesting sociological foundation for the eventual massive uniculture in China which exists today; a single extremely assimilation prone culture with only some mild amount of variability. While diversity is hailed as the reason for America's success with some regularity (and no doubt some cynicism) it is nonetheless impressive how efficient a group which is 90% one ethnicity can function. Again this is not a proven fact but in stating this interesting element Sawyer posits a thought provoking theory which seems to have a great deal of validity; this is what makes historical writings much more interesting and indeed useful.

Sawyer goes on to discuss the development weapons and chariots based on archaeological evidence. Horses especially are discussed and their usage as a sort of prestigious and terrifying presence on a battlefield. While horses themselves may be skittish their sheer size is often enough to inspire terror and cause men to break from defensive formations (though if said formation simply held its ground it would likely be victorious). The bow and arrow too is well documented and discussed and various Chinese tales regarding particular archery performances. Both of these things have reflections in Three Kingdoms in the person of Lu Bu; who's feats of archery put an entire army to halt and who was matched with an enormous and impressive horse Red Hare (later to be granted to Lord Guan).

Perhaps the biggest fault in the book lies in the abortive discussion of Shang's downfall at the hands of Zhou; instead a sort of "product placement" paragraph is placed that suggests reading the as of yet unpublished successor to this book discussing Western Zhou. However it strikes me as absolutely mandatory to discuss the downfall of Shang in discussing pre Spring and Autumn period China; as the politics of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou are extremely influential in China to this day. The battle of Muye may well be one of the most important events in the entirety of Chinese history and while much of the details remain difficult to discern exactly it is essential to discuss it in any history concerning either Ancient China or simply the Shang; if you are to discuss the mythical Yellow Emperor or Yao yielding to Shun it then becomes paramount to discuss the (much more likely to be) historical descendants of them and their further example of supposed "Virtue."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is basically an ideal version of “Monsters vs Robots” and is just as dumb as that sounds but is extremely self aware of its own dumbness. If you compare it to Transformers it utterly annihilates it but that’s sort of a useless comparison because the Transformers movies are by and large horrible. The film has extremely well constructed action scenes and CG and is probably the most coherent prolific amounts of CG action picture out there. Note I still don’t think that necessarily makes it the best nor does it compare to non CG action movies; but it’s certainly miles better than the shaky cam Michael Bay action type of film.

The humor in this movie is not bad but it’s sort of all cliché driven; which is fine there’s just not an original scene of humor that breaks new ground or anything. Nothing really iconic and no particularly original characters either. Idris Elba is fucking incredible as per usual but he’s also by far the best actor in the film (apologies to Ron Perlman who is also awesome in a 5 minute role). And that’s where this film sort of starts to run into trouble, the whole affair is completely predictable and while it is visually stunning with very few flaws I still want some amount of creativity in the mix.

I don’t think this movie has to be so dumb either; it’s overthinking it to say that giant robots are completely unnecessary but in the world where you make giant robots wouldn’t you use them as military assets?  Basically in the movie they send robots out 1 at a time against monsters in 1 on 1 or 2 on 2 fights; but they could easily send 4 or 5 for each and probably never would have resulted in their apocalyptic situation (also "spawn camping" would work wonders).

Additionally every mech is a melee fighter with occasional ranged weaponry; why aren’t there support mechs and ranged mechs in addition to melee ones? I get melee in order to occupy the monster in a tank role but why not use some sort of logical military tactics in your approach to fighting these monsters? The two auxiliary mechs (of 4) introduced in a really great montage sequence have less screen time in their action scene than they do while being introduced! What would make the final action scene much better is if they fought the really huge monster with all 4 mechs at once and suffered casualties there; but instead it’s just this weird series of mano-a-mano type fights.

All of that said this is a great dumb action movie, it’s not as intelligent or humorous as something like the Avengers and it’s not as funny and stupid as something like Independence Day but if you really like well put together CG action sequences or Idris Elba than this is the film for you. Personally I think unintentional comedy mixed with actual comedy is just straight up funnier so I’d basically always pick Independence Day (which is also much more original) to watch, but it is a little longer than Pacific Rim so if you only had 2 hours and 10 minutes I guess this would be the film to see. It’s probably the third best film I’ve seen this year next to Oblivion and Mud (or fourth best if you count The Last of Us) and is certainly the best giant robots movie ever made.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Man of Steel / The Lone Ranger

Well here’s two films I’ve seen recently that were similar in their merits and faults. Both received largely negative reviews and both were kind of undeserving on that front. These aren’t masterpieces by any measure but they certainly are entertaining action movies that are a little too long and not as smart as they’d like to be. However they’re still perfectly competent and indeed superior to many films that have received better reviews in the same vein.

Man of Steel is a Goyer/Nolan collaboration directed by Zack Snyder of Watchmen fame, and it sort of has all three traits combined in the film. The action is over the top and ludicrous, the care for collateral damage is utterly minimal unless there’s actually visible people dying, and there’s a fuckload of exposition but it’s not super interesting and integral exposition like one might expect from a Nolan picture.

Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, is terribly written; which is kind of a shame given they got one of the best actresses to play her; but this is also a common theme in Nolan pictures. It isn’t directed by Christopher Nolan and thus its mere slightly above averageness isn’t a pockmark on his as of yet perfect career.  Russell Crowe, still awesome in everything and still one of my personal favorites is excellent, and it very much has that Robin Hood vibe where the actors are all acting well and the action is great but it isn’t at its core a very compelling story.  This serves to make it a perfectly fine but not great picture.

The Lone Ranger is a Western and I fucking love Westerns so it’s difficult for me to dislike it on principal. The film is pretty good though to be honest, there’s some nice references to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as well as to Once Upon a Time in the West and I love that shit. However there’s a musical cue that’s pretty much dead taken from Once Upon a Time in the West that means a whole lot for that movie but isn’t really that meaningful in this; which is sort of moderately disappointing. It’s another well acted film with over the top ludicrous action and a fair amount of okay Gore Verbinski/Depp Comedy. It is miles better than the last two Pirates movies but also not as good as Curse of the Black Pearl.

Now the interesting thing is which one of these to watch? Well since the Lone Ranger is a western it’s almost destined to do somewhat poorly so if you’d like to see a sequel (and I would) then go watch that, it is for the most part a better movie. Man of Steel has more impressive action sequences but the Lone Ranger has a semi-interesting plot even if they don’t evoke all of the emotions they’re trying to. There’s no “Half man from the train” for Henry Fonda to brutalize and no amazing comic relief villain but it still tries to do some good things that happened in other Westerns and you have to give it points; the film’s got heart. Man of Steel is guaranteed to have a sequel and does also have the potential to get better but I think it's slightly worse on the whole.