Recall, if you can, a strange, interstitial sequence in Michael Mann’s digital Miami Vice (2006) feature: following the path of communication in identifying undercover agents, Mann takes his camera to the multi-cultural, hyper-globalized Ciudad del Este to follow the movement of a computer flash drive containing personal information. If you can remember this sequence, seemingly just an excuse to take a camera to Paraguay to capture not just the color and motion of the city (Mann’s impressionism) but also its unique place as a new global hub of people and information, one might be able to picture just a bit of the oddity of Yu Lik-wai’s new movie, Plastic City: a two hour version of that minute long sequence.
By far the most unclassifiable picture to emerge from the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, and no less fascinating for it, Plastic City nominally follows and is about a Chinese father (Anthony Wong) and his adopted Japanese son (Jô Odagiri) as they try and uphold a business of selling fake designerware in a huge city in Brazil. But this is if “follows” and “about” were conventionally executed by Yu—who has made two movies previously and is best known as Jia Zhangke’s cinematographer—and his fellow screenwriters, Fendou Liu and Fernando Bonassi. But Plastic City is as far from conventional in execution as is completely generic in its nominal attributes of rival gangster-like businesses, men brooding over ethics, family lineage, and retaliation, a strip club with a hooker going straight and a madame/singer dating the boss, jail time and government threats, corrupt politicians and new forms of business and gang warfare. If this sounds normal rest assured the movie is not.
The production bares all the hallmarks of modern international art-cinema/genre-cinema cross over: multinational cast speaking several languages (Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese, to start), foreign location, and a cross-cultural, exotic romantic melodrama crossed with gangster brooding, mystique, and bloodshed. The pitch is something like Happy Together (with a bit of Fallen Angels) meets Jia Zhangke, or something. What’s not to appeal to every cinemagoer on earth? Plastic City as an object perhaps best represents what it may (or may not) be driving at somewhere in its thematically and narratively incomprehensible content: digital cinema enabling a tremendous feat of cultures crossing, aiming as much at the “real” (the fantastic shooting on location) as for the “fake,” that fake both of the title and of the men’s business: inauthentic digital images, CGI, language dubbing, implausible characters in implausible situations.
But, to bring us back to the 2006 iteration of Miami Vice, the method is in the mess. Plastic City dives so deep into the cultural, image-based hodge-podge of globalization it cannot possibly remain at a distance, and immediately becomes part and parcel of the very location, the very process it may (or may not) be trying to capture.
Still, Miami Vice was very apparently driving at something, even if that ambition of complete sincerity floundered. Yu Lik-wai's video has no central driving force; it is impossible to tell just what exactly these characters, these situations, this story of commerce and dirty dealings are focused on, hold dear, are "the point." Yet, the video is hard to tear ones eyes and ears off of, as it is gorgeous, each location painstakingly scouted, lit, and embellished. In fact, it seems like the whole production crew, from composer to art director to cinematographer to location scout knew exactly what they were doing, where given plenty of prep, but Yu and his screenwriters decided to make it up as they went along. The problem may be that Yu comes from the Chinese 6-th generation, and the Jia Zhangke side to boot, which means Plastic City is too meticulously formal to take advantage of the sloppy energy an on-the-fly exotic production could generate.
Eventually, by the final twenty minutes, when coherence is mostly thrown out the window, the video achieves a beguiling level of digital surrealness, where incongruous images of the city and the jungle, Japanese gangsters and indigenous medicine men, blood drizzling along a vine, and digital montages of blurry insanity finally stop needing so much to make sense and instead start to just flow with the video’s repressed vitality and inspiration. It is the closest Plastic City actually gets to the successes of Miami Vice, of the uneasy freedom of both digital production and a globalized world letting conventional barriers of storytelling drop in favor of speed, looseness, improvisation. It is where a movie that is ambitious on a level of production stretches most fully, as it does sporadically throughout, to grasp for an ambition on the level of artistry.