I want you to go on the interwebs and look up “dogs playing poker.” Done? Good. In my opinion, no image this side of either the various Trucking For Jesus or Elvis Presley on velvet paintings have so encapsulated the lowbrow aesthetic in such a swift shorthand. According to Wikipedia, the dog paintings were commissioned in 1903 by the Brown & Bigelow publishing company in order to sell cigars (most likely to minors, but still…). Painted by C.M. Coolidge, there were sixteen paintings in the series, but only nine had the canines playing cards. Some of the other activities included dancing (which is actually sort of creepy when you see it), smoking and drinking, or working on the “family” car.
For such a bizarre image, the appeal is both baffling and ridiculously simple. As Homer Simpson once said, “They’re dogs! And they’re playing poker!” I think that’s the trick of it. We know there’s absolutely nothing natural about these actions, yet we cannot help but be charmed by it. Is it the laconic looks the dogs give each other, trying to remain impassive? Is it that one of the dogs is usually cheating under the table? Is it that everything else in the paintings is entirely normal, so when these odd elements are added, the incongruity attracts us, like a perfectly-placed mole (sorry, beauty mark) on a woman’s cheek? Most likely, it’s all of these things and more, like the disparate ingredients that make a great casserole. The amalgam shouldn’t work, but damn it all if it doesn’t. And that’s what David Chung and Tsui Hark’s I Love Maria (aka Roboforce aka Tit Gaap Mou Dik Maa Lei Aa) is like.
The Hero Gang is terrorizing the city (Hong Kong, I assume) with their giant robot, Pioneer 1. Cub reporter TQ Zhuang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is hot on the story, but he is put off and utterly disregarded by not only the police but also his boss at The City Times. Meanwhile, Saviour (Ben Lam), leader of the Hero Gang, has decided to create another robot fashioned in the image of girlfriend (or possibly sister, the subtitles are confusing on this matter) and second-in-command, Maria (Sally Yeh). Needless to say, Maria is not thrilled, but what can you do? Police scientist Curly (John Sham) is being used and abused by his higher-ups and makes the mistake of befriending former gangster and current souse, Whisky (Tsui Hark). But when the gang gets wind that one of theirs (never mind that he is no longer a gang member) is friendly with a cop, they don’t take very kindly to it, and insanity ensues.
There’s simply no way to talk about this movie without referring at some point to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, so let’s dispense with this here and now. The Maria-Robot in that film drove people to heights of lust and violence and caused all manner of chaos. She enflamed the emotions and passions of men through her programmed (but never robotic) dancing and the outward appearance (and visibility in terms of amount) of her feminine flesh. Pioneer 2 (the Maria-Robot of this film) is never anything other than a robot. There is no subterfuge whatsoever as to what she is or what she does. And like her human counterpart, Pioneer 2 kicks ten kinds of ass. It’s this idea of anthropomorphized sexualized technology that the film sets its story on. Whisky has deep feelings for Maria, so of course, he wants to be near the next best thing. Curly doesn’t know Maria, but he loves the robot. However, this sexuality is never explicit. There is never any nudity or sexual activity of any kind, but the implication is present. While it would never work cinematically for either man to consummate their love for Maria with the automaton itself, since Pioneer 2 is not anthropomorphized enough in its behavior for us to accept such an act (unless maybe this were a Category III film), the robot does provide the linkage for the brotherly love that develops between Curly and Whisky.
Curly programs Pioneer 2 to only respond to the passphrase, “I love Curly,” thus ensuring that the tech-minded nebbish will have love for him expressed if not necessarily felt (at least at first). Also of note, the robot causes convulsive shocks (read: orgasms) which course through one, the other, or both male characters at various points. But this is only when the men are in physical contact with Pioneer 2 and each other simultaneously. It is as if the sexual congress simulated by these shocks brings out the bisexual nature of Curly and Whisky in the only way acceptable to both men (i.e. through a woman). This odd quasi-sexual breakthrough strengthens the nucleus of the men’s connection with each other as well as Pioneer 2’s connection to both of them.
Our two main characters are complementary to each other. They are, in effect, one gestalt character. In most outward respects, they are opposites. One works within the law, one without. One is a drunk, the other is sober. One is a tough guy, the other is a wimp. One is brains, the other is brawn. But Curly and Whisky have just enough in common to find orbit around one another. Apart from each other, they are incomplete and ineffectual. Neither is taken seriously by those who have power over them. Both are capable at their jobs but are never given the opportunity to shine. Nonetheless, together (through the facilitation of the robot) the two form a more complete personality. They become a yin and yang to each other. And this is mirrored in the character of Pioneer 2.
Where Curly and Whisky need each other to be whole, Pioneer 2 is both in one. Like Robocop or Johnny Five or David or Pinocchio, Pioneer 2 is the synthesis between heart and hand. She only knows what she is programmed for, but it is her experiences among humans (and importantly, “good” humans) which forms the core upon which her artificial intelligence (i.e. emotion) develops. Naturally, this is displayed at a decisive moment when she makes a conscious decision towards action with regards to the humans in her “life.” These themes and concepts in I Love Maria are not especially new or revelatory, but they are carried off with such energy and style that the film becomes a unique and enjoyable experience.
MVT: It must be mentioned that the effects work and the action in the film are extraordinarily well-shot and edited, especially those that have to do with the Pioneer 1 robot. Its actions are clear, easy to follow, and totally understandable in intent. For a film that probably didn’t have half the budget of Robocop’s catering, this one certainly has a lot more of what people would like to see (read: ED-209 scenes), and somewhat more kinetically than the Verhoeven picture (though that in no way reflects on the greatness of the American film).
Make Or Break: The Make is the first scene involving Pioneer 1 robbing a bank. It proves that the film can pull off big special effects convincingly, introduces the viewer to the film’s light yet serious tone, and satisfies completely as an action scene. And that’s before our lead characters are even introduced.
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