Friday, 23 February 2007

Hannibal Rising (2007)

"I'll have a Death Wish with my flava beans, thanks!" Hannibal's as hammy as the victims he eats

There's something seriously strange about WW2. According to history books and war movies, the villains are obviously the Nazis and the Japanese occupying army, but according to the arts and popular culture, the real villains and monsters are the survivors of the death camps and paramilitaries. It's a politically incorrect thing to say, but WW2 created monsters out of its survivors and victims - witness how the survivors of Auschwitz torture their children psychologically and drive them to depression in Art Spiegelman's Maus. On a grander scale, WW2 survivors often turn into serial killers and dangerous madmen, the most notorious of whom are Magneto and Hannibal Lector.

I'll forgive you for not realising that the good doctor was twisted by his war experiences as a child into a psychopath, because after all, this movie will tell you everything about young Hannibal - how he got his groove, so as to speak. I'll also forgive you for thinking "why would we be interested in the youth of Hannibal Lector? What good will it do?" After all, Hannibal Lector is the sort of character that springs out of the head of its writer fully grown. That Hannibal is a remorseless cannibal with a heightened sense of black humour and irony, a penchant for preparing dishes from choice cuts of his victims, garnishing these dishes and their corpses to fit the nature of their "offenses" and moral failings, has very little to do with his childhood. "You know the man. You know his methods", proclaims one of the taglines for Hannibal Rising. But the point about Hannibal Lector's the man is his methods. While Magneto's methods and beliefs are inseparable from his experience in Auschwitz, Hannibal's methods and beliefs have been presented as complete in themselves in the entire series so far, and I do remember the good doctor telling agent Clarice Starling in their first meeting in Silence of the Lambs that "nobody made me. I happened." - meaning that no childhood or growing up experience traumatised him into a mass murderer. For Thomas Harris (author of the novels and this screenplay) to revise the canonicity of Hannibal, to create an origin story for a figure that has no origins, is a bold move, and this movie will either succeed or fail, depending on how well Harris convinces us that Hannibal requires an origin story, and whether that origin story fits Hannibal.

So what exactly does Hannibal Rising achieve? Magneto, as I've mentioned, is a great villain born from WW2, and according to this movie, Hannibal gets his kickstart from watching Nazi collaborators murder his family in Lithuana, eat his beloved baby sister Mischa, and butting heads with bullies at the Soviet orphanage. His creative campaign of revenge against his sister's killers in Paris (apparently almost all escaped from the Baltics to Western Europe) is apparently what turns him into The Hannibal Lector we all know and love. And his taste for culture and the good life? It's definitely not the time spent at the Soviet orphanage, but the later-day tutoring in Paris by his uncle's wife, the Lady Murasaki.

It almost works as an origin story, but audiences who aren't hardcore Thomas Harris fans might discover that the movie is plagued by a very weak script. Hannibal fans will be horrified to learn that the novel is lacks the sophistication, planning, and maturity of the other Hannibal books. How could it be that the origin story of the most fascinating fictional serial killer is a mix between a simple and straightforward slasher movie and a simple and straightforward revenge fantasy (a Europeanised Death Wish)? How can it be that one feels Hannibal Rising has more in common with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and other prequels to slasher movies, rather than a true successor to the Hannibal trilogy? What is missing and sorely missed in this script is Hannibal's chilling ability to toy with people while plotting their ruination, an ability that would've made this more than a simple revenge movie.

There is of course the mistaken idea that Hannibal's early past would explain his future self, and the mistake of choosing a mundane past (a simple tale of revenge!), and the failure to even execute it properly - the victims are stock Nazi grunts whom one loves to see killed, and would applaud if they are dispatched by Hannibal. Since we know he'll still be alive at the age of 60, sharing a dinner with Clarice Starling, we know how everything will turn out already. Part of what made the other Hannibal movies and novels work was the fact that there's always a detective who is after a criminal or group of criminals - and that Hannibal would be the twisted Obi-wan figure to this detective. Here, detective Popil (Dominic West) serves no purpose except to deliver the pronouncement that Hannibal is a monster.

There's also the heavy-handed melodrama (child Hannibal screaming to the heavens as he cradles his recently dead mother in the snow), the prevalent purple prose so cliched it's hilarious ("Memory is like a knife", "The boy died the same day as his sister"), and the bad, unsubtle music that telegraphs all the emotions it expects the audience to have, in bold capital letters. For this to happen to a movie whose villain has great taste is puzzling.

Even the great Gong Li fails to lift this movie out of its averageness. As the mentor of the great Hannibal Lector, she is just great for her first 15 minutes of the movie as a female embodiment of the late samurai spirit - equally formidable wielding both sword and brush. But she is Gong Li, and Gong Li seems fated to play strong women who end up confused, weak, shivering and in need of protection. When that transformation occurs (too soon in the movie), it is impossible to think this is the person responsible for the education of Hannibal Lector, imparting key facets of his character like a love for culture, presence of will, good taste, and self-possession, even though this is what the movie is supposed to do. At least Gaspard Ulliel has a ball of a time as Hannibal...

Audiences and readers who preferred the doctor's vague hints of his childhood and times in Hannibal need not worry too much about this movie, even though its clunky story clearly doesn't achieve the poetry or mysterious aura that his "memory castle" phrase in the novel evokes. I look forward to a remake of this film a decade down the road, just like how Manhunter was remade into Red Dragon.

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

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