Gatsby of the Three Kingdoms

“When I was living in the country, they told me that Cao Cao 曹操 was building a pavilion on the River Zhang; it was to be named the Bronze Bird Tower. It is an exceedingly handsome building, and he has sought throughout all the world for the most beautiful women to live in it. For Cao Cao really is a sensualist.
“Now there are two very famous beauties in Wu, born of the Qiao family. So beautiful are they that birds alight and fishes drown, the moon hides her face and the flowers blush for shame at sight of them. Cao Cao has declared with an oath that he only wants two things in this world: the imperial throne in peace and the sight of those two women on the Bronze Bird Terraces. Given these two, he would go down to his grave without regret. This expedition of his, his huge army that threatens this country, has for its real aim these two women.
— Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义 Chapter 44, Brewitt-Taylor trans.

Baz Luhrmann is great at the upswing. He’s great at movement and at sounds, and so his new Great Gatsby has great parties. Magnificent parties, indeed, as it should be; great tumbling exuberances and small illicit wildnesses pushed into rooms that don’t quite fit them.

He’s great at the busyness and spectacle, as we have come to expect, mixing recent pop songs with jazz standards and going from music video jump cuts to overhead Busby Berkeley crane shots. Him and his team, including, for instance, costume designer Catherine Martin, writer Craig Pearce, and art director Michael Turner, are very good at that now: it’s less a trick than a trademark. But he’s good at the gaps too, moments of quiet and disconnection near the crowd, like Nick Carroway peering back at himself from the street in a literary metaphor turned into a moment of surreal visual literalness.

Luhrmann’s even good at the hangovers. This film lacks not so much on the downswing but on the slow downfall, the slide into ruin. This wasn’t the case in Romeo+Juliet, which has a more even pace of car crashes and sex and suicide and Leonardo DiCaprio through to the end, and was first a play, not a novel. Framing devices slow things down, they intermediate, they pad, and here we have at least two: a writer talking to a doctor about a poseur.

The screenplay doesn’t quite trust the words in the last third, and Luhrmann reaches for visuals, even pushing letters all over the screen at one point, as if Nick Carroway were losing a melancholy game of Scrabble. It’s a fine cast of actors, and they do fine, though the last act leans hard on the jock vacuity of the Tom Buckman character, and I’m not sure that Joel Edgerton quite lands it. Isla Fisher’s performance as Myrtle reprises her party girl role from Wedding Crashers, and other places. (Wedding Crashers itself is structurally a Gatsby story, with Owen Wilson faking privelege to chase romance shielded by wealth, while Vince Vaughn plays wingman.)

Gatsby is an American classic with tropes that are really universal to civilisation. It’s young hicks on the make and old money, aristocracy replenishing itself with energetic new blood. They are usually male stories, more’s the pity, but they’re good ones: Gatsby and Obama, Cicero and Cao Cao. Some have history on the inside and fiction on the outside, and some vice versa, but they are stories all. (First you get the manners. Then you get the tower. Then you get the woman.) There’s a rush in seeing a brilliant young player dominate an old game. It seems supernatural: 说曹操,曹操到 … the Chinese saying isn’t “speak of the devil”, its “speak of Cao Cao”, like Gatsby, “nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil”, and yet it also feels true.

I have developed an affection for adaptations that cheerily exploit the strengths of their new media, and cop the weaknesses on the chin. On this criteria, the lovingly crafted 8-bit Great Gatsby Game is a truer adaptation than the pretty and somnambulant 1974 film. This echoes Dave Thier’s reaction. I used to think we’d know computer games could be art when we managed a game that felt like The Double Life of Veronique, the opaque and masterly Kieslowski film. There’s a moment in Arkham Asylum, half way through, where after hours of being Batman, you are brought back through the same long corridor, this time as the Joker. It’s a moment of poetic disorientation like Veronique, but one that can only happen in a game, in that particular balance of protagonist control and setting intransigence.

Cao Cao pointed his finger first at his guest and then at himself, saying, “The only heroes in the world are you and I.”

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