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The Metaverse Of Y2K


The future is relatable. That would be the conclusion that I would make before I've even completed this self-indulgent retrospective. So you can go back to your No Man’s Sky or your BAYC collection, thanks for reading. But wait a minute, what I want to say is that the near future and the distant future are getting harder and harder to predict. When we’re reaching for comparisons about what the metaverse “looks like” we always reach for those old farts Stephenson and Gibson, or even Ernest bloody Kline to explain our deep desires for how we want the metaverse to be. We talk extensively about films such as The Matrix or anything that's Snow Crash-related in order to describe the vibe. We also indulge in our feelings from Hackers to Ready Player One, it’s all so limiting (unless you are a dude). We have these weird mixed visions, usually of movies, because of the aesthetic, and we put a pin on the map anywhere between Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Spielberg’s Minority Report. There are no wrong answers except for us always coming to the same examples over and over again.


(Image credit: Getty)

The Outliers


The homogeneity of the western hemisphere, the west and post-WW2 attitudes to the future, for me at least, is a bit formulaic. What about the Asia Pacific regions? What did their vision of the future look like, and why didn't they tell us? What do they know about the metaverse, innovation and the future? Turns out, quite a lot. Have you read The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin? Or even Xin Zhongguo weilai ji by Liang Qichao? What about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter or Tetsujin 28-gō? I love me some mecha futurism.

The language of aesthetics in direct comparison to the philosophical drivel of navel-gazing in the west sort of formed a critical mass in the 1990s/2000s. Split Second, The Matrix, and basically any Alex Proyas film of that decade was either a melting pot of dystopia or symbolic of a weird hopefulness that destruction was our ultimate destiny but that it was never going to happen in this lifetime. Yeah, imagine watching 12 Monkeys knowing that there has just been a global pandemic. Try it. It’s terrifying.

When everyone was living the Y2K realness in the west: half-enjoying the MTV zeitgeist whilst also fake-petrified that the world might end, I was in Japan. In the UK, US, and Europe, unless you were a database administrator—because those folks were facing increased overtime and an overwhelming sense of the ultimate anticlimax—you were using the language of the time to convey your fatalistic approach to 2000. You started using words like post-apocalyptic, dystopian, futuristic, virtual, etc; yet in games and entertainment outside of films, you weren’t really seeing anything we could pin our future selves onto. Fred Durst? HA! No chance. The Gilmore Girls? (—ok, we’ll give Dark Angel the benefit of the doubt).

But I was in Asia, where science fiction is either part of the national consciousness (Mecha, Japan) or threaded into bigger narratives (Danmei, China) and sometimes canonised. The Y2K nihilism blew from the west to the east with ease landing with a lasting effect. I wanted to look at two key films from the Asian Pacific region of the Y2K era: The Avenging Fist (Hong Kong, 2001) and Moon Child (Japan, 2003), which I feel typify the feeling of this metaverse currently, or more importantly the postmodern future in direct comparison to say Until the End of the World (US/Europe,1991).



The Future is Miserable and Sad


Moon Child opens in the fictional Mallepa in 2014, a time when Japan suffered a major economic collapse and people were forced to emigrate to mainland China. Bizarrely, and somehow appealing to all the things I like, this is a story told through the eyes of two vampires, the idea of which is the most ridiculous concept of all time (again, this is my jam). How on Earth anybody came up with a film plot that involves gangsters and vampires in post-apocalyptic Japan and China in 2014 is beyond me, but this can only come from the mind of Gackt.

Some people say that Gackt Oshiro is a living god. His entire career has been built around aesthetics from the visual kei of the 90s to huge stage productions that bring together traditional Japanese stylisation like Noh, Bushido, Kei and Shironuri. Hyde, his co-star in Moon Child, is of a similar heritage (L’Arc en Ciel), and those two appear to be part of a handful of talent that breakthrough to the west through our phenomenal appreciation of everything Japanese of the 80, 90s 00s - my fave being Rei Kurosawa.

But look, on the surface this feels like an idol movie. Think Spice Girls: The Movie, Hard Day’s Night, or that weird One Direction movie, and yes, of course you’d be close to that. However, this movie particularly sexualises these two idols and places their sexuality as part of the plot device rather than something we might ship in our collective fangirl/fanboy imaginations. Fandom, I have written about before, makes our synapses respond in more irrational ways, so when I see fanfic about everyone from Harry Potter to Harry Styles, you know that this isn’t new, but somehow Y2K’s approach to especially Gackt and Hyde is a definite move in the direction of what we saw when someone made that Untamed space in The Sims. Where we can create worlds, as fans, we will.

Hyde plays Kei, a young vampire, who travels to Mallepa with Luka, presumably his maker. Luka ends his life early in the movie, leaving Kei alone to look for a new gang of vampires/non-vampires. I’m a vampire aficionado. I've already written 4 books in this genre, but this film has nothing to do with vampires. If anything, Kei spends the entire movie trying to distance himself from his cursed existence, and though we don’t forget it, what we do acknowledge throughout is what a shitty world Shō (Gackt’s character) and Kei live in through the generations. Because Mallepa isn’t aligned with anywhere specific in Asia—it has some bits of Taiwan, China, even Vietnam or Thailand about it—it’s so hard to pinpoint exactly which shitty post-economic collapse we are searching for because it never gets better. Children live in feral cabals and turn to petty crime before, in Shō’s case, stealing, killing, and eventually becoming a crime boss of a gang himself. The buildings are wrecked, derelict or destroyed by poverty, greed and the ravages of time.

Shō spends most of the movie fighting his urge to become a vampire; effectively becoming all-powerful because Kei won’t make him one. Shō becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams, and Kei remains a vampire. Shō’s greed and hunger are in contrast to the meek and humble accidental vampire of Kei’s character. What they’re trying to show us is almost cliche: that hunger for blood or money drives you to do anything to simply get by. We’re getting much closer to a world of economic collapse, so seeing Mallepa as a collection of the world’s biggest trading nations falling to dust (enjoy the colour grade, people), is a truly horrifying prospect in the extreme. But most importantly and more frightening is that the rest of the world is never mentioned. Almost as though it doesn't exist. It is so focused on the dystopia and the post-apocalypse of a collapsed economy, that it fails to identify the reasons why and why should it? It’s left to us to decide.

It’s a good hour too long, and it’s an obvious nod to what we now take for granted in a world of live-action anime, because Moon Child has such an amazing comic-book or manga approach to its core story and the aesthetic around it. I really liked that ability to be able to see the world in that way (and if you like that too, also watch Bunraku). And it is heavily influenced by Alex Proyas or Wim Wenders (even Jim Jarmusch) to lend that European cinema element to it.

The multiculti cast includes Wang Leehom, playing the one-time friend and long-term enemy of Gackt’s character Shō. Wang Leehom is a Hong Kong actor and singer of great repute, making this an almost supergroup of a movie. An Ocean’s Three of the who’s who of idolatry.

Moon Child as a metaverse concept is prophetic enough to earn its place. The influence that this world of poverty, feral packs of children, and crime, etc is something akin to the sleek definitive of Minority Report, where there is a sinister underbelly of desperation between the haves and have-nots.



The Future is Fatalistic


This is also evident in The Avenging Fist (Kuen Sun 拳神), directed by Lau Wei-Keung and Yuen Kwai. This is another idol movie, but with a slight twist, because as a Hong Kong action movie, this one has Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao at the choreography and acting helm as Dark and Thunder respectively. Look, I’ll level with you, this is one of my favourite movies ever made, and it’s terrible.

The blurb seems tempting enough: Future Hong Kong is ruled by the tyrannical Combat 21. Nova (Wang Leehom) sees his aunt murdered and his sister kidnapped by a mysterious man in an iron mask. Nova believes this is due to Combat 21 blackmailing him into giving up his secret martial art technique, The Avenging Fist, taught to him by his father and contained inside something called the Power Glove. It’s basically Tekken but without paying Capcom millions of licensing Yen.

You literally know what you ate getting from a Hong Kong Action Movie, let’s not try and dress this up. In a world where weapons are banned, there must be flying kicks, Jeet Kune-do, Wing Chun, a touch of Jackie Chan (please also watch Hung and Biao in Project A) and a lot of futuristic green-screened backdrops of flying cars and neon.

In a world not too far away from Spielberg/Kubrick’s AI, there is lawlessness, focused on a rooftop fight club where to get the information you need you’ve gotta win, and that’s where the Hwoarang-style Tekken-esque Stephen Fung as Iron Fist joins forces with Nova to find his sister and break Combat 21. Yeah, it’s headstrong and youthful, but it is so goddamn rich in metaverse stuff. From fight training simulators and Halo-inspiring environments with 500m wide screens on the side of megastructures to the glitched rendition of Happy Birthday from 4 or 5 Gigi Leung avatars of what we might now call mixed volumetric capture and delicious on-demand food from a post-Star Trek replicator. E-scooters, fingerprint activation on mobile devices, even ChatGPT, it’s all there.

But this film gets slated regularly. It feels on the outside like the Hong Kong version of Blade Runner, but this film has no depth beyond the aesthetic. It’s trope-filled and that’s ok, this is a Hong Kong action film, it’s allowed to. Please don’t tell me that you have watched Drunken Master and thought to yourself, wow, Jackie Chan is like Bob De Niro: he isn’t. Hong Kong action movies are not there to make you think about, well, anything really, except maybe for fighting. However, this one really did make me think. This film is aimed at people of Wang Leehom, Stephen Fung, and Gigi Leung’s age. When I saw this movie in Tokyo, in 2001, I was 28. It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen, and I had seen Solaris and The Matrix. I couldn’t relate to Silent Running back then, and 2001: A Space Odyssey was something that my dad watched, why would I watch it? Everything that The Avenging Fist gave me is everything I see in the metaverse inclusive of the old codgervision of Stephenson and Gibson. So did Lau Wei-keung and Yuen Kwai make a bad movie? Not really. They made a lasting impression on me, and who knows, maybe even Gackt and Takahisa Zeze just a year or so later.



End of the Road


So why did I fail to make the comparisons to Wenders’ Until the End of the World? Mostly, I think, because Until the End of the World, which came a good decade before The Avenging Fist and Moon Child, you can find your way back to Wim Wenders through these two cyber road movies. Gackt and Hyde travel through time using basic vampirism as the vehicle to shine a light on the economic crisis of their particular age. Whereas The Avenging Fist is focused on the road movie from the perspective of tech. It’s the tech that moves, not the people. Until The End Of The World is obsessed with destroying the planet and everything on it. It’s 1999. That’s a mere 8 years in the future from when the film was made. Moon Child’s obsession is humanity, and it’s set in 2014. The Avenging Fist is obsessed with tech telling the truth about the horror of the world, and sadly for me, only set in the “future”, whatever that means. What all of these have in common is their particular vision, whatever year or “future” it is, is borderless, similar, and familiar. Moscow, Shanghai, and the urban sprawl of Paris are assimilated into the director’s vision of what the future looks like, a little like Speilberg’s approach to AI and Minority Report or the Wachowski sisters’ vision of Chicago (I would even throw Total Recall in for good measure). We don’t look at Mallepa and think wow that’s soooo Taipei or Nagoya, do we? We don’t watch The Avenging Fist and understand that it’s quintessentially Hong Kong. How could we? But there is a true commonality in the aesthetic which carries through all of these films from Sam Farber’s EEG device to Nova’s Power Glove, and let’s not forget that Shō’s secret weapon was definitely Kei.

As someone who has been building and writing in this middle ground between light and shadow, call it the metaverse, or digital worlds or video game environments, I am fascinated by what the future looks like. There’s so much to lean on, but it’s these three movies, awfully received as they were at the time, that feel the most like how I perceive my metaverse experience and existence. If we have anything to thank Y2K for, it’s the challenges and opportunities that four digits gave us and for now at least, will continue to drive and repel us.




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