By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Harley Quinn (née Harleen Quinzel) and the Joker (aka “puddin’”) have broken up. Now, she is on her own without the Joker to protect her against the wrath of everyone she ever wronged. She is, apparently, not liked. In “Birds of Prey” (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), we have a sequel of sorts to Suicide Squad. As the movie starts, Quinn is gorging on spray cheese and tears, and we wonder, will Harley Quinn get her act together? Will she recover from the heartache of breakup and form yet another new identity? Not a psychologist. Not someone (in)famous’s paramour. Just her badass self.
I had no idea what to expect from this film. It seemed it was a “girl power” movie—Harley Quinn and her pals kick butt kind of thing—but I wasn’t sure. I can attest that there were many more males in the theater than females on the day that I attended. I have no idea what that means, but I’m willing to bet they did not get out of the movie what I got out of it.
Director Cathy Yan, the first Asian woman to direct a DC film or a film about any American superhero, has successfully captured that distinctive dark comic feel that we’ve all come to associate with the world of Batman. In press materials released by the studio, Yan does claim a fondness for that world.
“Growing up, I loved Gotham,” she said. And Yan enjoyed the script written by Christina Hodson, especially the personalities of the female stars.
“They are these badass fighters, plus Harley is over the top, drops F-bombs, and makes terrible decisions. Her imperfections make her both relatable and also just really fun…”
Hodson, who is part Taiwanese, told MTV in a recent interview, “We wanted it to feel organic and not like a girl power movie. It doesn’t need to be a feminist movie because we’re all women writing and making this movie. It’s just naturally there. It’s a movie that I hope men and women will love.”
I don’t know, but I feel a little betrayed by that. You have this great chance and you instantly downplay it? The movie is fun, yes. The movie can appeal to men and women, to anyone that loves the DC universe. I suspect the filmmakers did not want to alienate male viewers, but maybe give men more credit. Plenty of men like strong women. It’s true the “girl power” aspect is not obvious. Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, is often quite delicate.
And, if your impression from the previews is that these girls act united, you are misled (as was I). They hardly know each other and no one likes Quinn. The crux that brings them together is a diamond, I mean, a girl. Nah, really a diamond. But it happens that the diamond was stolen by the young Cain, who swallowed it. Now, everyone is out to get it, and several lives are on the line, including Quinn’s, as one of the people who wants to kill her, just generally, is one of the most powerful men in the city—Roman Sionis, the Black Mask.
Ella Jay Basco, in her film debut as Cain, enjoyed working together with Robbie and in that sense, this is a girl power film.
“Margot was like a big sister to me, we had the best time with each other,” Basco has said in interviews released to the press. “She taught me so much about working with people on- and off-camera. It was amazing.”
Basco, who is of Korean and Filipino descent, does a fantastic job of playing a street-wise kid that still has a heavy dose of childish innocence. She thinks fast, but she’s not beyond crying and is still looking for someone to rely on. This achievement can be said of nearly all of the main characters in the film. They are well-rounded. Yan, who was born in China, and who crashed the movie scene at Sundance in 2018, has done a superb job of giving us multidimensional men and women squeezed into a fast-paced, glitter-filled (sometimes literally) romp, full of Route 66 grunge and glam and pulsating music.
I enjoyed the pace and Quinn’s quirky personality, though I was shocked, a bit, that the heroine is “an asshole.”
Instinctively offended that she is seen by others as “crazy” and “a bitch”—and yes, she takes on this persona herself, while still giving everyone she meets a psychological diagnosis. I watch as Dinah Lance, or the Black Canary, sings “This is a man’s world,” and Renee Montoya’s policewoman has credit for her achievements taken from her by her male colleagues. They are all “fenced in.” Caged. Like the canary in the cage that suddenly seems ubiquitous as the film roller coasters towards its climax at a fun park (where else?).
They are birds. Then it hits me. When Sionis’ right hand man, Zsasz, kneels next to a tranquilized Harley Quinn and purrs, “Are you a good girl now?”—This is a girl power film. The girls don’t know they are in it. Many people don’t know they are watching it. Those who put the film together don’t seem to want to admit they prioritized women’s rights. Women’s rights to be themselves, to fight and fight back. No matter what its own creators say, I don’t accept that this is just a “girl gang” movie. When our “band of heroines” does come together, and takes the fight to the throngs of men (and it is all men) led by Sionus, every punch and kick seems to be revenge against every man that ever put them in a cage, told them how to act or how to look, controlled them, hurt them, or convinced them they couldn’t stand on their own. Right before the big battle, our pseudo-psychologist Quinn tells the Huntress that “vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for,” and I agree, but dang, it sure feels good, for a little while, to be a bird of prey.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.