The Machiavellians: Four Films From The Perspective Of National Narratives

I recently read The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by John Burnham, one of two books Michael Malice recommends (along with The Righteous Mind) for understanding the current political situation and it had the side-effect of crystallizing for me what it is that I like about Korean movies. I caught the Korean disaster movie Emergency Declaration and followed it up with Hansan: Dragon Rising, and both of them underscored a central point raised in The New Machiavellians. I then caught two Western movies: A Love Song and Medieval, which tended to reinforce what I was thinking. So let’s dive in!

The New Machiavellians

As I understand it, Machiavelli’s premise is that all countries are (by necessity) ruled by a small group (maybe even just one) person, and this person or group stays in power by virtue of a myth. Once pointed out, this seems obvious—and I think it’s fair conclusion that Machiavelli was reviled primarily for giving the game away. The myth, ultimately, bears no connection with actual governance as the oligarchs involved are primarily motivated by maintaining their own power.

I often say, on coming out of a Korean movie, that it made be proud to be a Korean. Although the sentiment is tongue-in-cheek, it references a very real experience: In just a handful of films—actually within the first few films I saw—the myth was a clear expression of a national identity that, while it showed flaws and humility, did not contain self-abnegation—even in cases where it arguably should have, from a strictly historical standpoint.

Hansan: Dragon Rising

That’s turtle power!

This story of Admiral Yi, the 16th century naval officer who scored devastating wins against the Japanese with both tactics and technology—super-cool “turtle ships” that spook the Japanese enough that they name them bokaissen, after sea monsters. Struggling with a bureaucracy/royal court that has no shortage of cowards, narcissists and traitors, Yi boldly takes the correct action to defeat the real enemy (always and forever the Japanese).

The theme of “man with integrity does the right thing for Korea in the face of corrupt, cowardly bureaucrats and hostile foreigners” sums up a great many Korean movies, both historical and contemporary. Critical to this theme is that the Korean people themselves deserve competent leaders who do not oppress them overmuch and who recognize that their job is to serve the public, not exploit it. (In the Machiavellian sense, this myth has nothing to do with what actually happens, but we’ll come back to that at the end.)

This is the #2 highest grossing Korean movie this year. A similar American movie might be The Patriot (2000)—and that was more successful overseas than in the U.S.

Emergency Declaration

Cooties: The Movie

The next movie on my double-feature was actually a fairly old-school disaster movie: Emergency Declaration. A maniacal terrorist infects a plane with a deadly disease, creating multiple crises as the issue becomes where should they land? Should they land at all? The classic formula of having many people from many different walks of life (though all Korean, of course) gives you the melodrama of social clashes in parallel with the desperate race on the ground to solve the problem.

One of the heroes of the drama is the Minister of Transportation, a no-nonsense woman who shakes down the evil PharmCo (and its white American CEO, heh) for information and accountability. The responsive, intelligent bureaucrat is far more common in Korean films than in American films. The Korean myth still includes the possibility of functional government, with a strong hint of foreign influence being behind corruption. The shocking thing about this movie is that the terrorist is Korean—I would’ve bet $50 that he would be all or part Japanese.

Ultimately, when the dust settles on the various dramas, we’re left with a message that Koreans are fundamentally decent people, and while they can be selfish and short-sighted, when push comes to shove, they’ll do the right thing and even sacrifice themselves without complaint to save their friends, family and countrymen.

Critics are very lukewarm at best toward this movie for some reason. I found it incredibly effective even as I marveled at how manipulative it was. Although critics compare it to The Host, to me it felt right at the tone of, say, The Poseidon Adventure, though with stock characters that aren’t quite so melodramatic as the doubtful priest, the cop married to the hooker with a heart of gold, etc.

The American equivalent? Independence Day would be my closest analogue. (Earth is invaded, sure, but it’s America that saves the day.)

A Love Song

Desert bloom

Just by virtue of having three weeks between these blog posts (at Ace of Spades HQ), I had time to stumble across A Love Song. This is a low-key slice-of-life story starring Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water, Winter’s Bone) as a widow who meets up with childhood near-boyfriend Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans, Mystery Men) on a campground out in the Utah desert.

The most pro-American movies I’ve seen in the past 20 years were the German film Schultze Gets The Blues (2003) and the New Zealand film World’s Fastest Indian (2005). This is the first American film I can think of in that time period which captures some of the feel of those pro-America movies as the hopeful widow meets an assortment of characters that represent and reflect American decency. (It has what yaboi Zack might call a “statistically improbable black lesbian couple” who work fine as a characters in an individual movie, but in 2022 feel more to me like genocide on the down-low.)

It’s probably not fair to compare a low-key indie that maxed out around 100 theaters and made a quarter-of-a-million dollars to Korean big-budget summer flicks, but then again, how many American big-budget flicks can we compare for our purposes? (We’ll talk about the box-office elephant in the room at the bottom.)


Grunge metal

Medieval seemed to pop up from nowhere, and actually maxed out around 1,000 theaters, with a million BO in America and a million BO foreign. I had not heard of it but The Boy and I ventured out to see it before it vanished as mysteriously as it came. It has Ben Foster as the Czech hero Jan Žižka (zhizhka)—which should actually be the title of the movie—and Michael Caine as a (fictional, I believe) go-between trying to stabilize the teetering Holy Roman Empire by getting King Wenceslas IV to Rome to be blessed by the preferred Pope.

For giggles, I checked Medieval on RT and it had a score of 37/72. The Boy and I side with the audience here: It’s got problems, and director/judo champ Petr Jákl is definitely more comfortable with action scenes than drama, but it also fits beautifully into the discussion of the Western myth. Because while the Koreans are constantly reinforcing their myths, with so many Joeson-based films they have to compete with each other on terms of action, romance, adventure as well as historicity, this is the only 2022 candidate for promoting the myths of Western civilization that I can find and it’s an also-ran about the last time things really went to hell (the 14th century).

This is a pretty light year for Koreans, actually, in terms of serious historical drama but even so, two of their big popcorn movies (The Pirates, as well as Alienoid, which I plan to catch this week) have a big heaping helping of identity myths.  Medieval, alas, is no 300, either in terms of its action or myth-building.

Oh, No, You Read The Content

The box-office elephant alluded to earlier is, of course, Top Gun: Maverick. From the perspective of the American myth, it’s actually not very powerful. The original Top Gun spurred enlistment in the Navy and I’m fairly confident the sequel did not. It’s almost atavistic in its vision of a competent military—although, come to think of it, the military isn’t that competent in the movie, is it? But it has this little spark in it. Here’s a movie about America and Americans and we don’t suck and we’re not rotten to the core—and Americans showed up in droves, as did people worldwide in countries where it was allowed to be shown.

It’s the runaway #1 film in America—and also France, the U.K., Sweden, Italy and so on. (It’s #2 in Korea behind The Roundup—but ahead of Hasan.)

They used to say the only color Hollywood cared about was green—it was all about the money. That was never true, but never more obviously so than in the wake of Passion of the Christ, which should have resulted in a bunch of serious Biblical epics by true believers (or Jewish immigrants, like in the Golden Age of Hollywood). No matter how starved people are for the American myth, I don’t believe we’ll see much from Top Gun: Maverick. They’ll put it all on Cruise, or the lockdowns or anything else.

The #155 movie at the box office in 2022 USA is Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America: I can 100% guarantee we’ll see more like that. Another Top Gun—or even Top Gun-style blockbuster? I’d bet against it (barring a huge shakeup).

The hard question, though, is…is that a good thing or a bad thing? Quite apart from doomed Hollywood, does it at this point make sense to shore up the American myth? The opening of New Machiavellians is the 1932 Democrat party platform, where they swear to rein in expansive government and to balance the budget. In the sense of doing anything to shore up the complete nonsense of politicians whose entire ethos is “what do I have to say to get you to do what I want?” I can think of little more evil.

But in at least one sense, the myth has value: As a group, we are not our government or our “elite”, and when I think of those most pro-American movies (Schultze and Indian), what stands out is how Americans are portrayed as decent, generous, kind to strangers—probably not for nothing they don’t spend a lot of time in the cities, now that I think about it—which is an aspect of the American myth which is true, irrespective of the “intellectual” narrative.

And it makes for much better moviegoing: I would rather see a movie about good people, even if they’re not in my “tribe”. Hence, Korean movies it is.

My Donkey, My Lover and I

My long-running gag whenever reviewing a French film is to wait until the movie strikes its inevitably libertine sexual plot-point and say, “I know, right? French!” Foreign movie distribution is a funny thing, and we seem to get movies from particular countries in streaks, so it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a French movie (that wasn’t part of a revival), and My Donkey, My Lover and I throws a curveball in my well-worn saw.

French films are almost redeemed by French women.

Our protagonist is Antoinette, a young—wait, we’ll get back to her age—sexy school teacher carrying on a torrid affair with one of her students’ parents. In fact, when we meet her, she’s changing (in her classroom, after instructing her students not to peek) into a sexy dress so she can lead them in a song which is just wholly inappropriate for the 2nd graders (approximately) that they are. But which goes over really well with the crowd of parents because, y’know, France.

Her illicit plans are shattered, though, when she discovers that the wife of her lover Vladimir has scheduled a journey across the Cevannes—the same journey made by Robert Louis Stevenson as a young man in an attempt to cure him of his disapproved-of attachment to an older woman. Antoinette settles on a mad plan: She’ll also take this journey and “coincidentally” run into Vladimir and his family.

Now, this is already French up to the gills right? Except there’s a slight air of disapproval about the whole thing. Wait, that may be too strong: There’s a less than hearty endorsement of this affair, as opposed to the usual “sophisticated” view of the French. Maybe it’s just the recklessness of the act that could cause a family breakup? But I’m reading too much into it.

“I’m chasing my married lover and his family through the mountains” is apparently a good opener.

The point of the story is how Antoinette learns to re-view her life through her relationship with a donkey. I liked this because it’s sort of gently mocking. I felt like writer/director Caroline Vignal was sort of taunting the viewer a bit: “I dare you to take this donkey as an allegory,” she’s saying. “Because it is! Except when it’s just a donkey.” Ultimately, this works as a story of a how a rather self-absorbed woman learns to get just a bit outside herself by being forced to deal with an animal that demands her attention in the here-and-now.

This works in a large part because Lauré Calamy (as Antoinette) is very appealing, without being lionized. You can see how she ended up where she was. You can get caught up in her passion without exactly admiring it. You can laugh at and with her as she deals with the donkey. And mostly with. She seems so genuine and harmless that when she goes up against The Wife—who is perfectly within her rights and defending her family—you feel sympathetic for her ever getting entangled (even though it was very much on her). The husband ultimately comes off as a jerk, which is fair.

Our heroine with the family she’s planning on wrecking.

Now, the funny thing is Calamy is beautiful in a girl next door way (if France is next door). She’d never make it in Hollywood because she has greater than 5% body fat (which I sometimes suspect is at the root of why European actresses look better longer without drastic work being done). And, doing the math, she was 44 when she filmed this in 2019! Yet her character’s practically an ingenue. The wife of her paramour is about six months older, on the other hand, and looks much older than 44. The actor playing her husband is actually 34…I don’t know what’s going on here!

Probably they just got people who fit the idea of what they wanted to portray and hired appropriate actors without stressing about calendars. The Europeans are like that. And it all works. Olivia Cote as Eléonore is likable—but don’t mess with her. Benjamin Lavernhe de la Comédie Française—which is how he’s billed, so I guess he was on loan—is very charming but also kind of a shallow jerk.

The Guardian reviews this as “Eat, Bray, Love”, which I am FAR too sophisticated to not think of and then steal.

And our Antoinette? Well, she’s also pretty shallow, but likably so.

With all these vaguely moral undertones it wasn’t until the third act—when we discover that sex with the wrong person is remedied by sex with the right person that I felt like I could really trot out the old I know, right? French! saw.

I feel like it’s basically a shallow movie overall, and it gets by on charm, but then again, so what? That’s not such a bad thing.