Friday, July 26, 2013

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom happens to be the first Indiana Jones movie I can recall seeing, having seen it during my early years on cable on HBO. Back in my less discriminating youth, I loved this film. I was sufficiently grossed out by the dinner of disgusting foods, drawn in by the action and appreciated that there was a little Asian boy like me in the film. Not having seen the film since then, but remembering the high degree of "exotic India" show in the film, my adult mind was braced for the onslaught of Orientalism that would show up in the film. What I wasn't ready for was the parade of story logic failures that broke my suspension of disbelief from the start. The film does not hold up to discerning thought. Yet, at the same time, all those scenes that I remembered vividly from my youth are still just as memorable today and prove that Steven Spielberg was a talented magic-maker, even if the storytelling was shaky (and as racist as its inspiration).

Set before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Temple of Doom finds Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) on the run from Chinese gang boss Lao Che (Roy Chiao) after a deal gone awry. Indy and his kid companion, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) escape with Lao Che's nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in tow, but some machinations from Lao Che leave the trio stranded in Northern India. A local village sees them as prophetic saviors and urge them to return to them a sacred stone as well as their missing children, allegedly captured by a reborn Thuggee cult that now resides in Pankot Palace. Indy hesitates until he learns that the stones are the legendary Sivilinga stones that contain diamonds. And then they travel on to Pankot Palace where they will encounter the new face of the Thuggee cult.

There are admittedly two character moments in the film for Indy that keep him from being a one-dimensional rehash of early 1900's serials, but the story mostly feels thrown together, manufacturing flimsy reasons to tie together a number of set pieces. Those set pieces can be quite indelible, like the mine cart chase to water flood or the lifeboat free-fall onto a run down snowy mountains, but the justification for them as well as many moments of the film stand on rather shaky ground. I mean, there's no sense to Indy's insistence on hitting the mine cart switch for a "short cut" against Short Round's advice. Similarly, Lao Che's bringing of an actual antidote to the bargaining table when he was just planning on letting Indy die is incomprehensible as well as the whole plane getaway scenario. None of it makes any sense. Likewise, despite heavy numbers, the Thuggees seem to be happy to give Indy and his partners plenty of time to regroup and free all the children before getting involved only to utterly swarm them later.

And then there's the Orientalism of the film. This one I was prepared for, but I still couldn't get over the film's portrayal of the "exotic East". Shanghai was admittedly not as bad as India, although the yellowface dancers that comprise the Busby Berkeley-style musical number that opens the film is a bit off-putting. But once Indy reaches Pankot Palace, the whole movie becomes a series of ridiculous exaggerations, ones that clearly serve as an homage to the films equally racist-colonialist inspiration in Gunga Din, without any parody or counter-commentary and being homage nor including less stereotypical Asian characters like Short Round doesn't offset the fictional Orientalist presentation of ethnicity and culture in Temple of Doom.

That's not to say that Temple of Doom is unwatchable. In fact, Spielberg's excellence with the set action-adventure set pieces in particular, from the James Bond inspired opening deal-gone-bad-turned-getaway to the mine-cart chase turned into escape the rushing water and even some of the brawling in between are quite engaging and spotting the bromance between Spielberg and co-creator George Lucas through references to Star Wars is fun. At the same time, the film is rather dark and its rather negative view of women, as embodied in the shrill, spoiled city girl of Willie is a rather dark contrast to the more adventurous Marion from Raiders.

The performance by Harrison Ford is as charming as it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark and he does help carry the film, especially combined with some of the iconic hero shots that Spielberg partakes in on Temple of Doom, working well to capture that balance of roguish humor and heroism that he also found for Han Solo in that other franchise and John Williams' score is perhaps the most grandiose and adventurous element of the whole film as I was humming it well after its finish.

Yet all these positives, which make the better parts of the film enjoyable, don't really help keep the film from feeling disjointed. Even though Raiders of the Lost Ark suffered from some silly story logic holes, the adventure and Indy's personal incorporation into it made sense. Temple of Doom almost feels like a filler episode as everything just happens to Indy and company and they are mostly reacting. Even with Ford's star power, Spielberg's imaginative direction and William's rousing score, Temple of Doom's dark, almost nihilistic gloom, complete with heart removal, mind control, and child slavery, sinks the sensation of adventure in the film and the heavily Orientalist viewpoint of the film, replicating the racism of adventure serials of yesteryear, makes the viewing even less appreciable.

I know that Temple of Doom has its defenders and there are certainly moments and elements of the film that I appreciate. I never really had a proper Asian boy hero to look up to in my youth until Jonathan Ke Quan and even if I later found him to be a deliberate ploy to create audience sympathy, I still appreciated that someone that looked like me could at least be the hero's sidekick. But even that isn't able to make Temple of Doom a surprisingly lackluster entry into both Spielberg's and Lucas' filmography, marred by its poorly motivated story and Orientalism. 6/10