DC Comics Martial Arts Movies

‘Birds of Prey’ is An Asian American Aesthetic Superhero Movie I’ve Always Wanted

Holy batshit, batpeople, Birds Of Prey is powerful. It is an action-comedy escapade about a squad of DC Comics’ most beloved women characters, including Harley Quinn, Huntress, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, and Cassandra Cain. The film also does a thing which may befittingly fly under the radar: it displays a distinctly Asian American artistic aesthetic in the context of a modern superhero movie. I’ll belabor the question of “WTF is an Asian American artistic aesthetic?” only upon request, because it is so arguable and amorphous and also other a-words, I would never get to blabbing about the movie. To paraphrase the dude in Gladiator, “anything more than a whisper and it would vanish.” To brutally essentialize it, some artworks are more Asian American** than they are Asian or American, although they still may be both, and neither. I’ll attempt to argue for why Birds Of Prey is exactly this.

SPOILERS follow for BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN). Director: Cathy Yan / Screenwriter: Christina Hodson / Director of Photography: Matthew Libatique.

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The Martial Arts Movie Stuff: In cinematography there’s a thing called a “cowboy shot.” It’s a frame in which the actor’s body is seen from head to about mid-thigh-level, so named because it’s just wide enough to see a gun holster at a cowboy’s hip, while medium-close enough to see the head and torso details. You’ll see it often in, say, a Jackie Chan film, because it’s a great frame for capturing hand-to-hand combat, and is relatively underused in the Marvel/DC films, which too often construct fight scenes with quick cuts and wide shots (to show off the whole giant robot, big Thanos/Juggernaut, etc). Black Canary’s alley brawl makes liberal use of the cowboy-level shot, exaggerating the angular body lines which make drawn superheroes seem superhuman, close enough to appreciate both striker and struck, far enough to see her excellent pants. The Asian American fight choreography team (industry veterans Jon Valera and Jonathan “Jo Jo” Eusebio) invoke classic Hong Kong cinema tropes for the raining-in-jail fight, Harley’s baseball bat-rampage, the drunken boxing scene. Extra points for the use of trampolines in the final funhouse fight, which suggest Cirque du Soleil while slyly subverting the male-gazey “jumping on trampolines” subgenre which is, um, a thing I’m guiltily aware of. ALSO: Cathy Yan confirmed the roller-skater-chasing-car quote from Jackie Chan’s super-stuntwork in 1983’s Winners & Sinners.”

Eggs, Easter And Otherwise: Harley Quinn spends much screentime lusting after an egg sandwich. The closeups on the egg sandwich’s prepping and grilling may be as sensuous as the rice-omelette-making scene from Tampopo. Asian Americans (like everyone) love food, define ourselves through food, talk about other foods while we’re eating food. The use of breakfast sandwich as polestar, coupled with the plot-essential burrito denouement, enable the lovely connection Harley makes with the snarky Asian American kid, her new friend. ALSO: Black Mask’s fancy egg cup mirrors Harley’s egg obsessiveness, because what better foodstuff to symbolically fetishize in the big birds movie?

The Real Chinese Restaurant: Speaking of food, Harley lives above a low-key Chinese restaurant run by an older Chinese guy named Doc. It is so preciously real, that corner spot with the questionable Mongolian Beef and the wall menu with pictures. Doc, as perfectly played by Dana Lee, calls Harley “Lotus Flower,” cleverly inverting a creepy WMAF trope in a way that is still creepy but kinda illuminating! ALSO: Huntress’s Mandarin reminds me of my own awful Mandarin. Often in movies and TV, there’s a cognitive glitch when a non-Asian character speaks flawful Chinese to demonstrate that they are conversant in Chinese (hi, Kingpin in Daredevil S1) but here we quickly cut to the flashback where it’s clear that Huntress also just speaks English awkwardly. English is, after all, a commonality linking Asian Americans across Asian-originated differences, as is the misperception of our ability to speak English. Huntress not quite being able to say her chosen name (I swear the hard interrupt in her self-intro is intentional towards a pun on the Mandarin hen, for “very” or “hate”) echoes with a very recognizable Asian American experience.

The Language(s): Speaking of speaking English, Christina Hodson wrote beauty into this movie. So many subtle phrasings revealing an ear for birdy wordplay and a love for the music in the English language. “How do you spell ‘mercenary?'” “Loans, liquidity, laundering.” “You drink, right, kid?” “Run, piggy, run.” The result is LOL-er than Wonder Woman, reminiscent of the snappiest patter in Jessica Jones. ALSO: I loved Harley’s lampshading the question of how BOP does or doesn’t fit in DC’s muddled movie-verse with her rapid-fire plot summary of Suicide Squad and her own origin, as if to say, the whole of DC continuity is exactly as coherent as someone’s ranting monologue in a supermarket.

The Batgirl: Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain, sometimes known informally as the Asian Batgirl. In the film, she isn’t especially Batgirlish in the costumed vigilante sense, and that’ll understandably disappoint many fans. In the comics, Cass goes on to take the codename Orphan, which is more descriptive of the archetype she plays in BOP (if a little on the nose as per superhero origin stories). The synergy of the film works better with non-kickass-Cass: if everyone’s a superb street fighter, no one needs to watch anyone’s six. This version of Cassandra emphasizes the maligned-Outsider stance that most Batpeople share, minus the martial aspect. ALSO: The fact that Birds Of Prey is a pointedly multi-racial, women-centered film hatched by a largely Asian American creative team is an event that’s going to happen sometimes in the ideal case of the American experiment.

The Gangster Genre Glorification: BOP is R-rated, partly I’d guess for fun phrases like “slimy jizz-nose” and appropriately for 2-3 scenes of brutal gangster violence. And of course a viewer’s processing of film violence is highly subjective, but to my eye, there’s a familiar John Woo-ishness to these bloodshedding scenes. They’re not too-real gruesome, but rather exquisitely exaggerated in the vein of A Better Tomorrow‘s hyperdestructive heightened reality. I didn’t spot any flocks of white doves, but that is probably a sign of tasteful restraint (see “Eggs” above). At the risk of overreaching on the Hong Kong Cinema references, there are also evocations of The Heroic Trio (1993) and that Jet Li movie where he played a Kato-esque superdude named, ahem, Black Mask (1996). ALSO: How Caped Crusader is this Shanghai-skyline shot from Yan’s 2018 feature Dead Pigs?

The Yin and the Yang: Linked duality, the balance of the Force, the Middle Path, whatever you like to call it, the paradox of the two things that are really one thing: a concept as universal as it is distinctly attached to the Asian American experience, I’d contend. Often, the aesthetic challenge in pop artwork is playing in the area between stereotypes and archetypes, using illusions to approach truth. Birds Of Prey creates cascading moments with this sort of beautiful dissonance, juxtaposing right-on with soooo wrong, at once liberating and dangerous. The psychiatrist who’s crazy. The Marilyn Monroe battle/dance. A kid in a cage in a jail in the rain. Harley’s beanbag shotgun. The practical hairband in the chaotic melee with goons. ALSO: As far as you accept the premise of Yin Yang as an artistic device/flavor, it’s an open-sourced Asian American Aesthetic, much in the way that Star Wars is a mashup of Asian and American elements.

And isn’t it a little ironic — like, only 2,000 spoons when all you need is a knife-level ironic — that Birds Of Prey has the best sense of humor among all films invoking the Joker? Subjective, to be sure. Towards the end, Harley dips into therapist-speak to remind us (the viewers of many Batman movies) and her new team of vigilantes and crossbow killers: “Y’know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for.” I was dying at that one, but maybe I’m just a terrible person.

** Illustrative, maybe, of how knotted this is: this listicle is from a strongly Chinese-American perspective, but in this case it would be more wrong to say “Chinese-American” than “Asian American,” so while the hyper-accurate wording might be Asian American With An East Asian Bias, going with “Asian American” as an umbrella term that is both reductive and descriptive. As all words are.

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