Friday, March 08, 2002
Notre Dame Welcomes the Queen of Cool
For most of us who are not part of the Notre Dame community the school looms large chiefly because of its adherence to faith and football. The school is sainted with good press as well, drunken tail-gaters notwithstanding. I realize that the current controversy over the closing of Juniper Road is a bump in their positive press clippings file, but I hope we can all work together on this all-important issue. All this said, I ventured onto the campus last week delighted beyond belief at what was taking place inside its ivory towers. The school was holding a conference entitled “International Conference on Globalization and Media in Asia: Hollywood, Asian Media and the Global Market.” Whew...that’s a mouthful. Now I can understand why that may sound like the dullest thing going, but it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because the conference was really all about the worldwide phenomenon of martial art films. If that wasn’t good enough, the organizers brought in the reigning queen of cool--Michelle Yeoh, the star of lots of great kung fu films and most recently of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame.
As much as I enjoyed these proceedings, it was the single strangest academic conference I have ever attended. While the speakers were all-too academic, the audience sure wasn’t. There were few of those classic old farty professors who fall asleep in the back of the room only to awaken and ask some bizarre question. No, this conference had serious buzz to it. And this was because students made up the bulk of the audience and they were, of course, super eager to see and listen to Ms. Yeoh talk about her life. They loved it when they were shown film clips from her various films in which she kicks and karate chops her way to stardom. The icing on the cake was when Michelle showed a preview of her upcoming film. It was as if we had been anointed with an earthly prize. So there we were one cold afternoon, ostensibly listening to the economics and problems of globalization, and everyone was having a blast.
Academics being academics, they couldn’t help themselves here. There were serious papers on the rise of Asian cinema and its relationship to the process of globalization. And yes, they insisted on using such choice words as “alterity” and making pitches within their talks for the students to take their classes in order to further explore points only alluded to in their papers. And yes, there was even one blowhard academic who got all huffy when a student deigned to ask a question to Ms. Yeoh without taking off his baseball cap. Ah the youth of today, what has happened to them? But every time a yawn might have been pursing on the lips of an audience member, there was Michelle to liven things up.
The first thing she said to one group was that she had never been to an academic conference before and so she was a bit out of her element. Fighting pure evil in The Heroic Trio or a band of bandits in Wing Chun is one thing, but sitting next to specialists on Chinese culture was a scarier proposition. She made the analogy to the first time she jumped from a moving truck....there’s only one way to get the experience, so here goes. However, basking in the glow of student flashbulbs, Ms. Yeoh seemed anything but fazed, handling with grace the questions about whether the popularization of martial arts films would end in commodifying and diminishing Asian culture. She even handled with gentle aplomb the student questioner who stood up and asked her for a date, and generally managed to steer the audience’s attention to the one key ingredient of action films too easily overlooked by critics: the complex choreography of the action scenes. The key here, she said, is that a successful film needs to bring together the adventurous use of martial art techniques that are endlessly recreated yet new, ones that must be carefully designed to wreak havoc with the set, and must have a payoff of a thousand body blows landing with that satisfying thwop, thwop, thwop.
Best of all, when another old fart asked her that since she wasn’t getting any younger would she consider roles that weren’t in the action genre, she threatened to throw her Snapple bottle at him and give him a taste of her “poetry in motion.” Who could ask for more?