Saturday, August 10, 2013

Web Work Review: Kung Fu Cooking Girls

So I was trolling around deviantART one day and I read about this animated short called "BatMan in Shanghai", made for the DC Nation Shorts. It's title pretty much describes what it is: an alternate-universe Batman tale set in 1930s Shanghai, in which versions of Catwoman, Bane, and Batman fight over some scroll. And it was good. But then I heard the same team who made it, who call themselves Wolf Smoke Studios, did this other animated short called "Kung Fu Cooking Girls", which is also a more or less a case of Exactly What It Says On The Tin. And it was good. But it got me thinking a lot more than the other one, so please indulge me this opportunity to vomit the contents of my over-active mind.
Having a running time of about six minutes, not including credits, the plot of this video is simple enough. A traveller walks into a village, discovers himself to be hungry, and is called upon by two rival food vendors. One is a Chinese girl selling dim sum (shrimp-filled dumplings), and one is an Occidental (presumably American) girl selling sub sandwiches. They compete to get his attention, only to forget about the man and fight each other directly. Eventually they forget all about the man, who crawls over to yet another restaurant, and finally gets something to eat as the catfight rages on until the credits roll. This sort of love-triangle story archetype is a dime a dozen, something you might find in rom-com anime like Ranma 1/2 or Tenchi Muyo!. Essentially, this tale teaches the moral that if you keep trying to one-up other people, you'll lose sight if what's really important, in this case, doing business with a customer. But by presenting a conflict of East versus West, it permits me to inject my own crazy interpretations, so let's have at it.

The Chinese girl, heretofore referred as Girl Number One in a vague Lonely Island reference, certainly lives up to the expectations set up by the title of this film. She uses kung fu in her cooking: first she throws the shrimp fillings in the air and, with lightning-fast reflexes, catches them in their buns, and to top it off, she cooks them by levitating the basket in a sphere of chi. Simply awesome. I do love a girl with huge... talents. (And I meant that both literally and as a Sailor Moon in-joke.) The Western girl (Girl Number Two) is certainly overshadowed in this department (although her speed at assembling that sandwich is nothing to sneeze at), but she makes up for it in sex appeal, all but flirting with her potential customer (why not call him Steve, just to wrap up the "Just 2 Guyz" reference) in a getup lifted from Gurren Lagann's Yoko. Not that Girl Number One is lacking in this aspect either; I'm guessing she doesn't have a bra under that apron-top-thingie. Regardless, Girl Number One calls Girl Number Two out on this, and on the lack of technical skill in preparing her food. Meanwhile, what sort of smack can Girl Number Two talk about Girl Number One's food? That it's not worth feeding to the pigs. Well, that's just your problem, lady. The way I see it, responding to objective criticism with a subjective insult is just petty. And at the end of it all, the two girls expend all that energy and waste all that food (as complained by "Steve" himself), only for "Steve" to find another place to eat altogether. It's tempting as a viewer to emotionally latch on to either of the two girls, but in the end "Steve" is the protagonist, so it's nice to see his conflict (read: hunger) resolved.

So based on what I just described, the inferrence to draw would be that the Chinese take greater care in not just the preparation of food, but everything they do, whereas their Western counterparts just don't understand the tradition and diligence that goes into making great works, right? Well, it's not that simple, and in fact it falls apart if we were to apply it to real-world macroeconomics. As I have been led to believe, America and allies have been doing most of the industrial innovation in the past few years, as opposed to China being ripe with cheap production labour. Granted, that role has the potential to change -- the quite likely potential, at that -- so we can't apply that to the movie. Besides, it's not as if Girl Number Two is completely out of Girl Number One's league; when they fight each other directly, they're pretty much evenly matched, and their fight ends without conclusion.

But what if the behaviour of the girls could be a representation of Chinese and American mindsets about each other? As mentioned before, Girl Number One can get rather hot-tempered in her attempts to prove herself to "Steve" and Girl Number Two who, in turn, goes for sex appeal over technical skill in doing the same. This may, more plausibly, be seen as a commentary on the mentalities of China and America, both as nationalities and as people. Communist nationalism aside, it is imaginable that the Chinese, and for that matter many other peoples of the East, take offence at the heretofore unrestricted dominance the West has had over politics and culture over the past century or two. Meanwhile, the way in which Girl Number Two attempts to connect with "Steve" suggest that both the works America produces, along with the tastes of American consumers, are geared towards the lowest common denominator. Man, when I put it like that, I really come across as siding with Girl Number One, if not the Chinese as a whole. But who's to say Girl Number One really is better? It's never revealed, but is there possibly any talent she lacks but Girl Number Two possess? (Besides the obvious "talents".) See, this is why you should never draw these kinds of inferences without knowing the whole story.

Why am I telling you all this, especially if it may never even have been intended by its creators at all? Think about it: with China's economic power growing as it has been over the past few decades, the country stands to play a far bigger part in more than just the economic sector. What I mean is that we may soon encounter pieces of media that are not only produced, but conceived in China. Like this film, having been produced by a Shanghai-based studio. So as potential viewers of this media, we need to brace ourselves for what sorts of ideas will be presented therein. If you're worried about the next generation of the Red Scare, I wouldn't. Ever since the end of the Cold War, and the death of Mao Zedong before that, it feels like the Chinse government has become less concerned with spreading the Communist revolution than with just the usual amassment of riches. So we can expect more depictions of rivalries between China and the West, if not on an ideological level, then on economical or cultural terms.

But enough about the message that "Kung Fu Cooking Girls" may or may not be trying to promote; is it any good? Well, the plot is action-packed and concise, with no more main characters or minutes of running time than it needs to get its point across. Enough visual stylings are borrowed from Japanese anime for it to feel familiar, but are used just loosely enough to create a completely new aesthetic identity. The animation is a little sketchy, with roughly drawn outlines barely containing their colours, but for a short film produced by five people (not including music and voice acting), would you really expect a whole lot more? After all, they've got the frenetic pace of the fight scenes down pat, although considering the great Chinese tradition of martial-arts films, I can't say I'm surprised. But most importantly, I had fun and it made me think a little, which I for one value above all other qualities. The future of Chinese media is yet to be set in stone, but for now? Godspeed, Wolf Smoke Studios. Take the time to perfect your craft, and you may one day become animation's equivalent of Girl Number One.

The Call: 5 dim-sum out of 5 (A)

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