Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review of Koalageddon 2

The past decade has seen a steady stream of environmental issue documentaries, of highly varying quality, doubtlessly leveraging popular interest in climate change and the plunging financial barriers to distributing independent shot-on-digital productions. Nowadays I tend to catch an uneven smattering of these films (grassroot documentaries being the type of thing I feel more obligated than excited to see), but several years ago when the concept was fresher and my motivation higher, I really kept up with them. It was around this time that I remember hearing about Koalageddon, a zero-budget documentary about the threat of deforestation (and formerly hunting) to the survival of Adelaidian koalas in Australia.

I didn’t catch the film when it played at the 2005 Saint Louis International Film Festival (it was the first I attended and I failed to schedule my time well), but I did Netflix it when it became widely available on DVD about a year later. It struck me as honestly pretty mediocre. Clearly a lot of passion had gone into the subject matter, but ultimately it came off as shrill and obsessive, with long unbroken shots of koalas set to narration that was more poetic than informative. A lot of the statistics sounded wrong or irrelevant, like comparing the U.S. expenditure on the Iraq War to the Australian Fund for the Protection of Endangered Species. Sure the latter is a paltry sum by comparison to the American defense budget, but I’m not sure the infographic vaguely equating tanks to koalas made any actual sense.

Worse still, director Liu Xiaojun (who intrudes into his subject matter with Michael Moore-like persistence) and several of his interview subjects are clearly describing pandas on several occasions. Most of the interviews are conducted in Mandarin, which starts feeling suspicious about fifteen minutes in, and though the subtitles are meticulous about displaying “koala” you can clearly hear the director and interviewees saying “xiongmao” (panda). I read later that Xiaojun had wanted to make a documentary about endangered pandas, but was pressured (some say violently) to change his topic by Chinese censors over fears that it would appear critical of their already-beleaguered environmental policies. The result may be one of the first documentaries whose subject is a metaphor for a wholly different subject. While this adds a touch of comedic surrealism to the film, Koalageddon was just too scattershot and unprofessional to make a big impression on me. I sent the DVD back to Netflex and forgot the whole thing. I figured I would never hear of Liu Xiaojun again.

And then the rumors began.

It all started here, in a 2009 article about Liu Xiaojun receiving a $2.25 million Australian Film Society grant to establish a permanent Adelaidian koala shelter and film a documentary on the process. It was to function as a sort sequel in which the ‘Koalageddon’ would be averted and was intended to be broadcast as a three part TV special. But in a massively embarrassing oversight, the last Adelaidian koala had already died in captivity four months earlier leading Xiaojun to call Peter Garrett, the Australian Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts a “murderous hyena” and his grant “like putting a Band-Aid on a rotting corpse.” The rumors continued to heat up after Xiaojun refused to return the money and purportedly swore a blood oath to avenge the koalas during an interview with the Brisbane Daily Post. He promptly dropped off the public radar for more than a year.

If you’re reading this review you already know how the story ends: Xiaojun reemerged in August with “Koalageddon 2: Eucalyptus Now” a controversial action/horror film featuring zombie koalas, copious violence and one of the strangest sex scenes in recent memory. That would be odd enough as it is, but even more surprising is that the film is actually getting really good reviews. I had a chance to see it at this year’s festival and I have to admit Liu Xiaojun has made a masterpiece of sorts, hampered as it is by last-minute subtitling. He is poised to become an international star, but it looks unlikely that he plans to continue as a filmmaker.

Koalageddon 2 opens in a small park in Adelaide. A young girl reads the plaque under a stone monument memorializing the extinct species of local koala. A storm kicks up and the girl runs off to join her mother under an umbrella. The park is left empty as drops begin to fall. In next to no time a lightning bolt strikes the statue, bringing to life five adorable koalas whose eyes flash ominously crimson. The subtitled narration is especially unclear about how this metamorphosis works but it involves “Mother Dirt’s lust for revengement [sic]” and “the Lords of Blood and Milk.”

The koalas, listed as Nergal, Hannibal, Monstro, Ned and Deathweaver in the credits but never named in the course of movie, quickly split up to search for Eucalyptus leaves but become distracted from their mission by various modern conveniences and societal pitfalls. For nearly half the movie, which might be anywhere from a week to several decades within the movie’s universe (Xiaojun plays with chronology in a way that defies clear sequencing and demands multiple viewings), we watch the koalas adapting to contemporary culture. Nergal becomes addicted to comic books, internet porn and dope. Monstro binges on fast food and takes out his frustration at failing to emotionally connect with his middle-class coworkers by moonlighting as a graffiti artist and notorious vandal. Hannibal turns to prostitution, gets talked into a botched back-alley abortion, spins into a manic-depressive cycle fueled by regret and self-loathing and is ultimately drawn into the underground fetish club scene from which he never returns. Ned talks on a cell phone all day (we never find out to whom and it’s implied that there might not be anyone on the other end) while taking endless walks (filmed in staggeringly well-choreographed long takes) through Adelaide’s economically-booming but spiritually-bankrupt suburbs.

Only Deathweaver comes within reach of happiness after being rescued from mobsters by free-wheeling, debonair hobo Maverick ‘Coolpop’ Christman (played by Liu Xiaojun himself). The two promptly fall in love while outwitting various greedy businessmen, hypocritical priests, conservative politicians and even a snotty film critic.

In each of these scenarios the human characters never find the presence of talking koalas strange.

It isn’t until the last half-hour that the movie falls into the usual action and horror movie clichés. The koalas find their appetite for eucalyptus impossible to appease productively (though they hardly seem to try and only intermittent reference is made to a “global leaf shortage”) and begin to sate themselves on human flesh. This is ambiguously tied in with their bodies beginning to rot, presumably because they are zombies of some sort? Or is an allegory for their corrupted purity and innocence? Xiaojun’s screenplay is just trying to tackle too much, and I think he may have written himself into a corner. Still, the ensuing bloodbath is, from a purely aesthetic point of view, a really impressive piece of filmmaking. Several other extinct animals such as the thylacine, desert bandicoot and hopping mouse make cameos as they join in the carnage.

Coolpop Christman delivers several pace-destroying impassioned speeches pleading for both sides to stop fighting, live in harmony and practice a vegan diet. Nobody listens.

Even Deathweaver gradually succumbs to the craving for human meat, but his struggle to resist is especially bittersweet. In the film’s most touching moment, set against a blazing sunset backdrop and an elegiac symphony score, Maverick Christman takes his own life so that his friend and lover may safely feed for another week. The gesture, however, is ultimately useless. Deathweaver must eventually venture out into the streets for sustenance and is gunned down in a slow-motion hail of bullets.

At this point the little girl from the opening scene (the one seen reading the plaque) reappears in the audience of onlookers to deliver the film’s now-iconic final line: “Don’t you see? We are all koalas and oil is our eucalyptus!” While regarded as ham-fisted by some, it has become something of an environmentalist anthem in Asia and Australia and its penetration into the region's popular culture is already to the point where Thai cosmetics giant SenHyg has adopted “Oil is our eucalyptus” as the tagline for their latest eucalyptus oil hand cream.

The ending credits roll over a series of seemingly unrelated images from around Adelaide, absent of any of the characters we’ve been introduced to. It’s a little reminiscent of Antonioni’s ending in Eclipse. However, on closer inspection each frame has a disturbing reminder of the toll consumerism has taken on koalas: the teenage girl singing karaoke sports a jaunty koala-fur hat, the father figure grilling burgers in his backyard is using ground koala meat, the old man teaching chess to his grandson is playing with pieces carved from koala ivory (I suspect this last is Xiaojun’s artistic license and not a literal product). It’s all surprisingly moving.

Though Koalageddon 2: Eucalyptus Now is already establishing itself as a cult film, it’s not surprising that Australia is distancing itself from the work it inadvertently funded and China has banned it outright, not for the violence and nudity, but because of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in which Monstro morphs into a panda, grows 100 feet tall and crushes Zhongnanhai.

I don’t know whether we’ll see more by Xiaojun in the future or if, instead, his name will remain forever tied to these two idiosyncratic films, but I wish we had more like him. His combination of a heartfelt documentary core souped up with stylish genre fixings will likely serve as a formula for many movies to come.

Walrus Rating: 7.5


Simonofthedesert said...

I caught a showing of this in Taiwan a couple of weeks ago... no exaggeration to say that I was absolutely blown away. The effect - the total visual and imaginative overload - can only be compared to watching something like Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain for the first time, but Koalageddon 2 is that rare thing, an entirely original film.

Good to see that it's getting some attention outside of Asian circles - most of the references to it on the web seem to be in Chinese or Thai at the moment.

FilmWalrus said...

I would have loved to see it in Taiwan with an appreciative audience. The reception in the US has been notably cold to say the least. Several people walked out of the Saint Louis screening when I saw it, but to give you some idea of it's regard in East Asia, the Bangkok festival, Taipei and Singapore screenings all received standing ovations. That's despite reports that several audience members started vomiting during the infamous "mass mauling" scene.

Anyway, glad to hear you enjoyed it as well. The Jodorowsky comparison is apt.