Knives Chau vs. Bad Character development

By Arturo R. García

For the record, I found Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World to be more enjoyable than its’ box-office performance would indicate. It’s basically a next-gen John Hughes story, complete with relatively decent, if oblivious, suburbanite kids (aside from our “hero,” of course, but we’ll get to him in a little while).

The film’s biggest problem might have been Universal’s decision to push it onto the multiplex circuit despite expecting it to flop.* Which makes the decision by writer/director Edgar Wright (Wright shares writing credits with Michael Bacall) to adapt five of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six Pilgrim stories into one film even more disappointing. As a result, a year’s worth of story beats fly by way too fast (admittedly, in very shiny fashion) and characters suffer for it. Particularly the film’s collection of Asian-Canadian characters.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The most prominent POC in Scott Pilgrim is Knives Chau, his 17-year-old “fake high-school girlfriend.” Though Knives (Ellen Wong) adores Scott (Michael Cera), he clearly views her as a diversion from dealing with both the fallout from his past relationship with Envy Adams (Brie Larson) and life in general. Scott isn’t shown as a predator – about the most contact we see them engaging in during their faux-relationship is Knives’ “attack hug” – but his friends rightly call him out for being a cad, especially after he falls for and goes out with the idealized Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) before ending his relationship with Knives. This is part of the story’s central theme: that Scott needs to take responsibility for his actions and stop being such an ass.

In some ways, Knives’ storyarc in the film mirrors the one in the books: she freaks out once she discovers Scott’s feelings toward Ramona, lamenting that he only likes her “because she’s old,” and imitating Ramona’s hairdo and dye job. She also puts the moves on a friend of his in order to make him jealous. That anger also manifests itself physically, as Knives and Ramona briefly engage in one of the film’s multiple Street Fighter-style fight scenes.

But in the comics, Knives also takes on Scott in battle (Wright is very specific about the fact that Scott, as a “good guy,” won’t fight women; the villains, of course, have little trouble doing so, literally or morally**). And she gets to mature with something closer to agency, as she realizes Scott wasn’t a good boyfriend and eventually reconciles with him, but also leaves to attend university and build her own life. In the film, she backs Scott up in his final battle with Ramona’s “Big Ex,” Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) – so well that both this viewer and Ramona thought they “made a great team.” In fact, the film’s original ending had Scott & Knives reconciling, but in the finished product, she plays to trope and urges him to start anew with Ramona.

That said, other characters fare a lot worse: Tamara Chen (Chantelle Chung), Knives’ best friend, is on-screen for maybe a minute, tops; the first of Ramona’s League of Evil Exes, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha)*** gets turned into a Bollywood joke during his fight sequence; Trisha Ha (Abigail Chu), though it’s funny at first to watch her glower at Scott’s band, seems to suffer from Quiet Asian Syndrome; and the Katayanagi Twins (Shora and Keita Saito) go from being tech-savvy villains in the comic (they lure Scott into battle by kidnapping yet another ex of his) to their own QAS Daft Punk pastiche, complete with (ugh) dragons shooting out of their turntables.

Fortunately, Wong manages to make the most out of this version of Knives, as she remains sympathetic while emerging as a credible ass-kicker (she’s well-versed in taekwondo and stunt fighting). And despite the shoddy treatment of the characters detailed here, there’s bits of authentic comedy sandwiched between the bells and whistles and old-school gamer call-backs****. So I can’t help but feel a little disappointed over this turn of events. On the bright side, as About.com’s Deb Aoki pointed out on Twitter, all of the original comics are on Amazon’s Top 20 best-seller list, and Wong’s showing will, hopefully, propel her toward bigger and better roles. And, hey, if John Cho can play Sulu, maybe she can play Nico Minoru. Just saying.

* Assuming it could even come close to its’ 0pening-weekend total of $10.5 million at indie/”art-house” cinemas, Scott Pilgrim could have been mentioned alongside Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as an “underground hit,” drastically reframing the context of its’ performance. In fact, as Cinematical notes, Pilgrim still did better in its’ opening weekend than both of Edgar Wright’s more-ballyhooed works, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

** All of the women in Scott’s life get a better shake in the books; this has helped fuel a debate over whether the film is misogynistic, and/or “Twilight for boys.”

*** Speaking of the anti-Pilgrim fan sentiment, it’s funny that, though both the fans and characters are derided as “hipsters,” only Matthew can accurately be described as one, as he defends his wardrobe choices by saying, “Pirates are in this year.” The “demon hipster girls” he conjures up play closer to Goth, but that’s a whole other story.

**** Chris Evans stole the film for me as Lucas Lee, a one-man Expendables parody. Even his fake movie posters were on point.