To make a vast generalization, American movies are usually Cinderella stories. They feature an underdog achieving unexpected success and/or finding their dreams. (Read: Bring It On, The Matrix, Stomp the Yard, etc.) The rags-to-riches theme is something that Hollywood never tires of rehashing. The Forbidden Kingdom is a typical underdog movie (complete with self-improvement montages) clothed in a pastiche of Chinese culture. It’s a film that reads like a hundred other movies and is more interested in signaling that it’s a kung-fu film than in actually being one. The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan (its biggest claim to fame), is pretty simple: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It’s the culturally-confused bastard child of Enter the Dragon and “Rocky”.
Forbidden Kingdom opens with a strangely unrealistic vision of the Monkey King (Jet Li) fighting an army on the heavenly mountains — yet the poorly computer-generated background makes the whole scene loo like an old video game. Within minutes we realize why it’s so fantastical: Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) wakes up in his Boston bedroom surrounded by a million posters of old-school kung-fu films. The bad CGI was his vision of kung-fu splendor. Jason then begins his day by visiting an old man who owns a pawnshop in Chinatown, from which he rents all his martial arts DVDs.
Jason, like all underdogs, starts off as a weakling: He’s bullied by a gang pulled straight from West Side Story. When the gang involves him in a burglary of the pawnshop, he tries to defend the old man with a mythical golden staff he finds in the store. Suddenly, he’s plunged into the Forbidden Kingdom, a vision of China dating back to the pre-Manchu dynasties. There he must undergo vigorous kung-fu training to save himself and his new found friends; he transforms from a skinny white kid from Boston into a skinny white martial arts master.
So begins the chimera-like nature of the rest of the film: The Forbidden Kingdom is the mutant combination of two very different cultures. Elements of the film have an Asian veneer, but, under the surface, they are fundamentally American. Jason, the protagonist, speaks English (obvious, since he’s from Boston); but, in a bizarre twist, all his friends and foes do too. Bad guys revel in American slang (“take that, bitch!” says the evil witch) and other characters converse in accented English, even though they would obviously be more comfortable speaking Cantonese.
The cast seems to be irreverently cut-and-pasted as well. Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), for example, is a drunken kung-fu master who becomes Jason’s tutor, wears an ill-fitting Rasta dreadlock wig and makes phallic jokes. His relationship with Jason is thoroughly un-Chinese: They are physically compassionate (hugging!) and willing to lay their lives on for one another within days of meeting — an intrinsically American drama. Together, these two explore a strange vision of ancient China. They fight their way through bamboo forests, vast deserts, and the drinking grounds of the Eight Immortals, an ancient restaurant where they fight à la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. These visions of the Chinese landscape are one of Forbidden Kingdom’s few saving graces. Peter Pau (who interestingly also worked on Crouching Tiger), serves as the director of photography, and his cinematography captures moments of indescribable beauty, far beyond what the film achieves in any other aspect of its production.
Jason’s preliminary dream is a metaphor for the entire film: The Forbidden Kingdom is strangely unconvincing, mainly because it’s the fantasy world of those individuals who were raised on kung-fu classics but were never interested in learning what ancient China might actually have looked or felt like. The sets look like a Disney film’s vision of China, costumes are picked from myriad dynasties and its characters are more like caricatures. The Forbidden Kingdom reads almost like a joke (“A kung-fu master, a monk, an Asian girl and a white guy walk into a palace …”). It’s a movie that isn’t certain of its audience: It doesn’t feel like a legitimate martial arts film, and at times seems like irreverent pastiche. Neither is it successful as a rags-to-riches, Cinderella film: The bells and whistles filmmakers use to set the movie in an ancient era leave characters less than developed and the plot line heavy-handed. Those who would truly enjoy Forbidden Kingdom are those like Jason — cinema junkies who want to see kung-fu movies without the cultural heart.