Film

Robot Stories (2003)

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

Greg Pak's debut feature film examines the connections between humans and machines in an age of burgeoning technology.


Robot Stories

Director: Greg Pak
Cast: Tamlyn Tomita, Sab Shimono, Wai Ching Ho, Greg Pak
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Pak Film
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-02-13 (Limited release)

Greg Pak's debut feature film, Robot Stories, examines the connections between humans and machines in an age of burgeoning technology. In this, the film treads familiar ground, covered recently by A.I., tracking the tragedy of a very smart robot treated as an expendable "pet" by its human masters. Like Spielberg's almost great film, Pak's suggests that, while our understanding of technology may be evolving, our connections to each other remain tentative at best.

Pak's film (divided into four sections) is, like A.I., less interested in science fiction than metaphor, suggesting that human interactions with robots reflect the ways that humans interact with each other. All the segments focus on outsiders, whether they are women not quite ready for motherhood ("My Robot Baby"); sculptors who want to die rather than have their brains scanned into a computer, like others in this invented future (the dreary, pretentious "Clay"); androids at work and falling in love ("Machine Love"); or geeky, misunderstood young men ("The Robot Fixer").

Easily the most convincing, subtle, and well-made section, "The Robot Fixer" follows Bernice's (Wai Ching Ho) efforts to bring her son, Wilson (Louis Ozawa Changchien), out of a coma by obsessively repairing his collection of Microbot toy robots. At the same time, her relationship with her daughter, Grace (Cindy Cheung), is strengthened through their mutual distress. They deal with one another gently, revealing generational differences as they struggle toward reconciliation. Grace sees little rationality in her mother's decision to repair Wilson's toys, but accompanies her in her quest, going to garage sales and toy stores in an attempt to help her mother repair herself. The relationships -- between mother and son, and mother and daughter -- mirror each other, as parent and child roles overlap and alter one another.

While other segments in the film verge on melodrama, "The Robot Fixer"'s fundamental metaphor -- by fixing inanimate objects, one can fix what is wrong in life -- forms a solid structure, thanks in large part to strong performances by Ching Ho and Cheung. Bernice considers her son an "other," until she realizes their commonalities, a revelation inspired when Grace reveals that the two are "the same." In the end, she discovers that what seems so foreign in him is really an inkling of herself. That's when she can finally let him go, not as an alien being, but as a familiar extension of herself. When, riding in Grace's car, Bernice takes a remaining robot toy from her purse and swoops it through the air, she signals her acceptance of her dual role as caretaker and one in need of need care.

The contrast between the alien and the known is overt in "Machine Love." Employed at a computer-programming firm, an android named Archie (Pak) is labeled "freaky" and "creepy" by his cruel officemates. Eventually he notices a female android (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) across the street in a similar office building. Their meeting leads to a predictable resolution: two outsiders find each other and live happily ever after. Still, one brief shot of the female android provokes more thought than any other scene in the segment. While Archie is watching his love across the way, she is fondled by male officemates and looks out the window, trying to ignore what's happening. It's a chilling moment, evoking both slavery and commodified sexuality; it seems a warning, as we advance further into cloning and robotics, that we are also opening doors to abuses of those deemed "less than human."

Unfortunately, complicated insight is rare in Robot Stories, which more often proposes simpler "truths." By the end of "Machine Love," the two androids make love and are afforded "some privacy" by their suddenly sympathetic human colleagues. Also reductive, "My Robot Baby" concerns what seems a primal relationship, between Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita) and her rather terrifying mechanical child. When she attacks the child, the film seems about to consider of the horrors of motherhood. But then Marcia is off the hook, when an adoption agency representative tells her, "Every child sometimes looks like a monster." The broad allusion here is too pat and wraps up difficulties too quickly.

Robot Stories falls short, in the end, not because of a lack of talent. Indeed, it heralds Greg Pak as a promising director with an excellent eye for composition and capacity for encouraging excellent performances from his actors. "Everything is changing... except the human heart," reads the movie's tagline, and therein lies the problem. In an age of humanoid technology, everything is indeed changing, including the ways we love. But Robot Stories is more concerned with soliciting conventional emotional reactions than thought. Insisting on the machine's potential -- even its desire -- for emotion, the film doesn't consider the calculating nature of humans. Robot Stories is really only about people, and rather one-dimensional people at that.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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