V tells me that he has asked me to go watch the Transformers 4 movie three times before and I refused. I have a slightly different version of events – admittedly, I was never super keen on watching the films, but when the second one came out, I agreed, only we couldn’t get tickets. Anyway, V got fourth time lucky, because this time when he suggested it I agreed right away.
Not that I was super enthused by the idea of watching it, but I was in an amicable mood and not averse to sitting silently in a darkened room even if it meant paying to zone out. Also, I had heard good things about the movie so there was a small chance I’d actually like it.
And guess what, I did. Mainly, I was captivated by the transforming part, which I thought was super cool. I could watch those cars morph into robots and back again ad inifinitum I think.
Of course, the sexism got to me. This film scrapes through the Bechdel test because at one point two women talk to each other about something other than a man. Although they literally exchange one line: “Is that a bomb in the back?” “There’s a bomb in the back.” I don’t know if this counts actually. The two women were very peripheral characters, who it must be noted were rather strangely (for this plotline) both being courted by the same man, essentially their boss. These two woman, plus one mouthy real estate broker, plus Tessa were the only four women in the film who say anything. The only one who has a proper role is Tessa.
Ah Tessa. Would it be possible to have a more sexist female protagonist? The purpose of her seems to be that she’s a hot teenager (though she could pass as older) and that she can be a damsel in distress who the males in the film, her father, her boyfriend, and the autobots can save. In any crisis, she screams “Help me!”. Also her lipstick is always super fresh and bubblegum pink, but then so is her boyfriends. Only twice does she take action – one to pull the stick shift while her boyfriend is driving (“pull the stick” he orders in a way that is a sexual innuendo that her father reacts to) and then to run around weaving a rope that will bring a Decepticon down.
Even V could tell that this was excessive, but to annoy me he said this was the favourite part of the film. He thought the Tess character served no purpose and that they could have had a female transformer. Later, he asked me why I cared so much about this, and I said, I don’t have the luxury of not caring, these things affect my life. If people don’t care, it’s because we’ve been programmed to see this as normal, to not see the under- and misrepresentation of women in films as abhorrent and a perpetuator of the patriarchal status quo. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Nevertheless, for lack of choice, we women have learnt to watch and enjoy films while bracketing out this offensive aspects. In the same way, that coloured people have to bracket out the lack or crappy portrayal of coloured people in mainstream films. But sometimes it gets too much. Or sometimes there’s nothing else.
Fantasy and superhero films make their appearance during times when reality is so troubling that it can most easily be approached through metaphor. Unlike the superhero films of the past, which were about us (literally the US) versus them, the current crop of fantasy films takes place on a more wider stage with the US government implicated in the corruption.
The last section of this film is set in Hong Kong and it’s always thrilling watch your hometown on screen. In this case, a major portion of the action is filmed in Quarry Bay exactly where we used to live three years ago, you can literally see our old apartment in the background and at one point the transformers step on the building where we owned our first apartment. The major part of that sequence is shot in these old-style decrepit Hong Kong building, where I used to get my hair cut and V used to go for a massage. Clearly that’s a slightly shady area as during filming some triad members threatened the director, causing quite furore about the rise of triad activities in Hong Kong. But when we lived there we never really thought of it as being shady, though obviously it was a more lower-income dwelling.
There were parts of Hong Kong that were unrecognisable because they were clearly shot in a set, and why they couldn’t have made those parts look more authentic is a mystery though I guess only Hongkongers would cringe at those. Another thing that Hongkongers would cringe at is the Chinese government coming to the rescue. It was all the more ironic watching that segment at the exact time when hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers were out in the streets marching for democracy and registering their protest against the Chinese government’s recent white paper that seeks to put Hong Kong in its place (under China’s thumb).The bit that got the most laughs from the Hong Kong audience was when the gang with the ‘seed’ was stuck behind some Chinese grannies who shuffled along oblivious as ever to the commotion behind them. Haven’t we all been there? The most tragic moment in the film for a Hongkonger would be the door-close button on the lift not working because we are obsessed with jabbing at button as soon as we get into the lift even if we don’t have anything with us that might save humanity as a whole.
Apart from the sexism, the other thing that irked me was the machismo that was attributed even to the good bots. Like with Optimus subdued that dinosaur thingie. Couldn’t that have been made more consensual? Also, the need of human beings to make every other species human-like is also silly. Can we not imagine anything that is not a mirror of ourselves?
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film and now want to watch the others. I repeat, in case it’s not sufficiently clear, which it often isn’t – I liked the film.