“More beautiful than a hot dog and a beer at Wrigley Field on opening day.”
-Hank Marlow, Kong: Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island (2017), one of the latest installments in Warner Bros.’ attempt at yet another cinematic universe, appears to be another popcorn-romp through the mysterious (and aptly-shaped) land where evolution took a turn for the grandiose. However, as the self-appointed foreign correspondent in Vietnam for Tuscan Shed Media, I find there’s more at stake in this film than its half-baked Vietnam War metaphors would suggest. It makes me question whether the filmmakers and actors involved used their star-power responsibly. And in my humble opinion, the responsibility of powerful people advocating tourism in countries like Vietnam should include a sensitivity about the cultures and locales their privileged positions allow them to experience.
As a decidedly privileged traveler myself, my first journey into the heart of Cat Ba and Halong Bay (where the most spectacular shots of the movie took place) felt like I was motorbiking directly into the mouth of a primordial beast. The dizzying limestone spires yawned above me, and as my trusty Honda Win bravely took the switchback turns through the valleys, the chaos of Hanoi’s streets faded into awed silence, broken only by my horribly loud exhaust pipe. Although these locations are well-traveled and protected heritage sites, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a brave explorer, a stranger in a strange land that was slowly swallowing me whole.
Perhaps this is what Kong Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had in mind when he decided to film in Vietnam as opposed to one of the more popular filming locations in Thailand. Vogt-Roberts, in an interview with Viet Vision Travel, said he hoped that filming a large portion of the film in Vietnam would encourage tourism to a country still harshly represented in Western media: “It’s such a beautiful part of the world. I find that people on that side of the world have that general graciousness that we lack here (in the US). And so I sincerely believe that our film will have a positive impact on tourism, filming, and a general understanding of how stunning and beautiful the country is.”
Had I not already settled in Hanoi, Vogt-Roberts' words might have tempted me to make the overseas journey to the Quang Ninh province (where Halong Bay is located). I would have certainly pursued that beauty and grace Western media tends to use only as a backdrop for the brutality and injustice of war. Admittedly, I was drawn to Vietnam through my Kurtzian obsession with two such films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). I was (and still am) endlessly curious about the Vietnam War, but once I began to work closely with my Vietnamese colleagues, I guiltily admitted to myself that I was curious for the wrong reasons. Vietnam’s history and development is far more complex than what is conveyed in the Western post-war films that led me there, vital artifacts of social criticism though they remain. I simply saw a raw and unbridled country ripe for exploration, and that is now precisely what I fear when I consider how others view and interpret those films. Vietnam fights different battles now. It took me far too long to begin to understand those battles, and my place as a foreigner in this country.
Kong could have delivered a more complex picture of unfamiliar cultures and their own concerns, were the film not bogged down by ham-fisted attempts to once again portray the futility of war. Nowhere is this more glibly exemplified than in an exchange between the stranded WWII veteran Marlow (“Hey, what happened with the war? Did we win?”) and Conrad (“Which one?”). Indeed the wartime “metaphor,” (in my book, a team of active duty soldiers taking on an unknown and powerful force, in the jungle, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, barely makes the cut as a metaphor), falls completely flat and, considering the horrific toll the war took on all countries involved, is paramount to outright disrespect; or, as Collider’s Matt Goldberg put it, “The cinematic equivalent of doing skateboard tricks on the Vietnam memorial.” If Vogt-Roberts truly wanted to discover something, he should have delved deeper into his ultimately meaningless allusions to Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella famous for deconstructing colonial ideology. The references to the text's author Joseph Conrad and to its protagonist Charles Marlow are so wasted here as to exemplify the very travesty Conrad meant to decry, the “great lost opportunity to depict dialogue” between cultures, to paraphrase the Botswanan scholar Peter Mwikisa. Kong’s feeble attempt to unite the soldiers and the natives against the sinister forces of nature (the Skullcrawlers) is yet another lost opportunity.
John C. Riley’s character, Marlow, is particularly problematic. He seems to walk as tall as the god-like Kong among Skull Island’s native inhabitants, and, mostly because of Riley's star-power, overshadows a potentially fascinating story about cultural integration. While Marlow seems to have a mutually respectful relationship with the Iwi tribe, (exemplified by his ability to communicate in a rudimentary way with them), the fact remains that the white Westerner seems to hold a position of privilege in an intensely communal society. Marlow ultimately comes across as the stereotypical “white colonial settler” whose flippant rundown of the Iwi tribe’s history trivializes and undermines any potential intercultural discourse. Marlow’s adoption of his Japanese comrade’s sword and terribly stereotypical ideology also comes across as crass cultural appropriation. Perhaps Eric Eisenberg’s suggestion for a spinoff film featuring the relationship that developed between Marlow and Gunpei Ikari (played by singer/song-writer Takamasa Ishihara AKA Miyavi) would reveal a more complex and respectful relationship between Marlow and both the Japanese soldier as well as the Iwi tribe. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. With such tone-deaf depictions in mind, Kong's relationship to all its historical baggage is perhaps best summed up by Preston Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson’s) description of the beast himself, “We are dealing with a monster from a bygone era.” The film ultimately falls to the insulting, overused, and stale dynamic between “natives” and “colonists;” certainly a ‘monster’ from a bygone era.
Much as with the tempest that kept Skull Island hidden from the prying eyes of Western civilization, there is a silver lining to this stormy cloud of shortcomings. Less than graceful attempts to revive classic films may be propagating in Hollywood at an alarming rate to generate revenue, but if there is any sincerity in Vogt-Roberts’ reverence or Brie Larson’s effusive praise of Vietnam, I can doubtlessly confirm their enthusiasm. However, if you will excuse the Spiderman reference, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Testimonials from A-list celebrities of the untouched splendor and unspoiled beauty of a shooting location can certainly help boost tourism and even draw attention to critical issues facing such locales. But, as I learned the hard way, appreciation of Vietnam’s natural and cultural riches must transcend the fantasy of cinema and acknowledge the country's modern realities: pollution due to rapid development, social inequality, and the environmental concerns that come with increased tourism. Endorsements such as these must include considerations like sustainable tourism and a respect for local culture, which, in my opinion, work hand-in-hand, but are far from simple to grasp and take part in.
Overall, the film is no masterpiece; thinly veiled references to Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now (and to a certain extent, Kong: Skull Island itself) is based, along with a very cut-and-dry hero-villain standoff between Preston Packard and Kong leave the viewer with some entertaining action sequences and anticipation for the coming standoff between Godzilla and Kong. However, there is more at stake here than box-office earnings; if we are to accept the invitations of the director and cast, we should explore Vietnam with respect. We may not need to elude towering monsters waiting for us in the beautiful waters of Halong Bay, but we should avoid the perils of damagingly persistent colonial narratives and the privileged lens of fictional indulgence that can blind us from making true discoveries. We can still marvel, but we must also learn, most of all, from the people we meet on our journeys.