Around the World in 80 Days

(Frank Coraci, USA/Germany/Ireland/UK, 2004)


If there is one thing that really brings out the hives in ultra-sensitive intellectuals these days, it is the spectre of cultural appropriation. When Quentin Tarantino raids the archive of Asian action movies for Kill Bill (2003), he is decried in some quarters as a white, American imperialist colonising and evacuating other people’s traditions for the sake of his own insidious, omnivorous, capitalistic ends.

One of the problems with this holier-than-thou argument is that no tradition is pure to begin with – certainly none of the mix-and-match genres that drive production in a place like Hong Kong. Like crazes in popular music, filmic forms borrow elements from all over. And in the patchwork that results, it is frequently impossible to tell the authentically local touches from the ersatz, borrowed ones. It precisely in the midst of such delightful confusion that popular culture moves forward.

Such thoughts inevitably accompany the viewing of a most surprising and wondrous object, the latest version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Frank Coraci is credited as a director, but the true auteur of this international co-production is Walden Media, a multimedia company "principally engaged in telecommunications and media, natural resources, transportation, real estate, sports and entertainment".

Does that sound ideologically scary? If so, the film itself presents the light-hearted flipside to any paranoid conspiracy theory of world domination. A heady mixture of Disney-style magical adventure, cheeky romance and childlike ‘nonsense comedy’ (a sturdy Hong Kong genre), it is also – as a visiting scholar from a Hong Kong university informed me rhapsodically at the end of the preview screening – a very savvy movie about globalised, transnational entertainment. After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a cameo as Prince Hapi of Turkey.

Arnie’s commendably silly contribution is only the tip of the iceberg. The before-his-time inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) has by his side a righteous thief, Passepartout, played by the nimble, high-spirited Jackie Chan. And, happily, Chan brings in his wake not only his legendary associate, Sammo Hung, but also groups of deadly fighters known as Tigers and Scorpions – the latter led by the extravagantly deadly General Fang (Karen Joy Morris, aka Karen Mok).

The giddy whirl of this movie never stops. The American Wilson brothers, Luke and Owen, pop up as the Wright brothers. Fogg’s other travelling companion, Monique (Cecile de France), introduces jokes about French art history. Since the political opposition to the entire adventure is British in origin, actors including Jim Broadbent and Ewen Bremner provide some rousing music-hall-style histrionics. There are elaborate gags about world monuments from the Great Wall of China to the Tower of London.

The film, with its deliberately artificial, twinkling digital effects, places any suitably receptive viewer into a childlike state of innocent, awestruck bliss. Almost every daring, heroic gesture in the film leads to much burlesque bashing into walls, statues and carts. Insistent jokes about bodily functions manage to pull up just short of total bad taste, and obsessive references to cross-dressing mock the sexual orientations of the main characters.

Ultimately, Around the World in 80 Days evoked for me, in a surreal way, a version of Kill Bill without the gory ultra-violence. Just as Uma Thurman in that film could stride through any airport in the world with her lethal sword entirely visible, here the imperial adventure is achieved in an unfettered (albeit comically bumpy) motion via trains, carriages and a balloon.

Has the geo-political globe been shrunk to fit the tidy clichés of mainstream entertainment? On the contrary, this movie opens up a fantasy that feels as if it could expand forever.

MORE Jackie Chan: Jackie Chan’s First Strike, Rumble in the Bronx, Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights, The Medallion

MORE Coraci: The Wedding Singer

© Adrian Martin August 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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