Friday, December 29, 2006

Fury and Fearless

I watched "Jet Li's Fearless" yesterday. I think it's only right to include the complete title, if only to firmly put Jet Li's stamp on this product, which, incidentally, came packaged with trailers for Balls of Fury and Hot Fuzz. I - strangely - cannot wait for the second.

But the fury in the title of this post is at the blatant pinko Commie propoganda on display in the movie. And this has been happening in popular Chinese movies for the past few years. Recall "Hero," which was a paean to the glory that is the state and its eternal wisdom. And this from a director that should know better.

What I really mean is that I hate the Chinese (government). So many potentially good movies, corrupted into the service of their propoganda.

Take two scenes from Fearless. First, the one where Jet Li really screwed up planting rice, and Yueci (a.k.a. Blind Girl with Weird Cowlick) helps him to replant them in straight rows. She says something like, "Rice can't be placed too close together. They're like people, which is why we need to respect others." Second, the inane tea thing between Jet Li and the Japanese guy, where Li refuses to judge the quality of tea, saying that as long as tea is tea, he'll drink (accept) it.

First, anyone who can't distinguish good tea from bad tea is missing out on a lot. Similarly with wine or (so I'm told) coffee. It's like saying McDonald's is the same as an Angus steak. It's just a god-awful lack of taste (and, I would argue, intelligence). As an English friend of mine said, "Why have cotton when you can have silk?"

Second, this whole message is very much in line with the CCP's political perspective. Don't judge us, and we won't judge you. Don't talk about our human rights, stay out of our "internal affairs," don't mind our oppression of our own people, the abyssmal labor conditions. And don't mind the fact that Chinese companies regularly "export" these practices to other countries (e.g. Zambia), or that the lack of internal democratic procedure makes all your neighbors wonder whether your external policies will be fueled by a similar lack of restraint and appreciation for democratic values. And of course, don't mind the fact that we've signed the international conventions on human rights, but interpret them in such a way so as to have no impact or meaning.

All this because you shouldn't judge the quality of tea.

I would argue something quite different, and let it be a lesson to anyone who thinks China is less threatening than the U.S. (I'm looking at you, Europe). Some things you justifiably cannot judge, because there are no meaningful criteria - whether objective or subjectively agreed upon. The "power" of a certain type of martial art, for example. But human rights, how governments treat their own people - those are issues which you can take a meaningful stand on.

Judge, and be judged, and that should extend for all countries in all the relevant behaviors. None of this respect for respect's sake. There has to be a value in the practice being respected, not a cover abhorrent practices. Man, I hope we start seeing less of these wusha films, or at least that people start thinking about the messages and ridicule them.


Jonny America said...

It is understandable that people are practically invited to seek out political subtext in every piece of contemporary Chinese expression, but I definitely think that close readings of popular cinema and entertainment trends in China can be taken too far. Certainly Hero, as you mentioned, was political. It was an okay film all-in-all, but infinitely disappointing as Zhang Yimou’s official sell-out film. Luckily there are more nuanced and politically murky Chinese films, like Emperor and the Assassin, that take a more critical eye to the question and legitimacy of unchecked government power.

I think you reach a little too far with your criticism of Fearless. I am pretty sensitive to propaganda in Chinese film, but I did not see anything in Fearless other than signs that Jet Lee is mellowing with age. Keep in mind that Jet Lee is now no longer a Chinese citizen. A Hollywood dupe for almost a decade and already several years an American citizen, Jet Lee has greatly toned down the jingoistic anti-foreigner feel of his movies. I was shocked to see several of Huo Yuanjia’s western opponents in Fearless lose to him gracefully, and even the Japanese character is afforded his own sense of respect and honor. Keep in mind that these more complicated open-minded representations of foreigners in Chinese film are quite rare. Shortly before the film’s Chinese release, the Chinese government lent their support for anti-Japanese riots along the Chinese east coast, and I am sure they would have warmly welcomed an evil Japanese antagonist. Certainly, even today the PRC prefers the “traditional” representation of Japanese people in Chinese cinema—i.e. as demonic murderers and rapists. The story is nothing of the us-versus-them nationalist struggle that Chinese people are familiar with and more a story of personal growth—quite a shift from Jet’s Once Upon a Time in China years.

The “don't judge us, and we won't judge you” line that you attribute to the Chinese government is actually much more appropriate coming from Jet Lee himself. It shows his growth as a new citizen of the global community, and I think comes off more as a kind of schlocky personal philosophy than as a didactic lesson for the audience. The government’s “don't judge us, and we won't judge you” philosophy is also almost strictly used in foreign press, and is rarely preached in local media. The Chinese government loves to reserve their right to judge others, and I’m sure that they wouldn’t go out of their way to try to instill too much open-mindedness in the Chinese audience.

Jet Lee is legally not part of the People’s Republic any more, and I think that the messages in the film are part of his attempt to come to terms with his larger identity.

hcduvall said...

I've spoken to you about this before, and I'm retyping, since I lost the previous comment, and that does wonders to my brevity.

Fearless is pretty indictative of Jet Li's generation of wuxia stories, all very racial pride oriented, usually with outside (non-Chinese) corruption and keepy-downy themes. So sure, certainly propagandistic, and with Huo Yuanjia as the main character, inescapably so. But it's a chauvanism that's allied to Chinese culture in general as a big and nebulous thing, as opposed to any outright state gov't endorsement.

Whether or not the Chinese people need any ego-boosting aside (I rather think not), I wouldn't ascribe so much political thematic weight to it. If it had been intended...well it's not a subtle filmmaking culture. While it has problematic component, probably, they're humanistic ones, which is pretty consistent with Jet's movies. Part of why I like him, actually--his fan-appeasing, ambitionless persona is pretty guileless.

He remade Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury prior to the whole global citizen thing as Fist of Legend, which had two sympathetic Japanese men (one a traditional martial artist, the other a modern diplomat) and even a Japanese girlfriend (whom he abandons to buttress the developing country, but there you are)...a big departure from the original or even Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China series. The main philosophical point he wants to make is arguably "pure martial arts", including foreign practioners, is a form of personal development and maturity.

It certainly isn't a criticism of the current regime, and I'd never expect one from Jet Li, but it's pretty far from a ringing endorsement.

Well that wasn't actually short at all. I might make a contrarian defense of Zhang Yimou, by the by, via Hero no less.

Jonny America said...

Yeah, I got carried away and took that evolution thing too far. I remember the sympathetic Japanese figures in Fist of Legend who long predate Jet Lee's Hollywood years. Even Once Upon a Time in China had those missionaries. So there is quite a bit of give in even Jet's earlier works. Nevertheless, I still think that Jet Lee has mellowed quite a bit with age. The ethnic nationalism that comes across powerfully in a lot of his movies is pretty tame in Fearless, and considering the period of history that the the movie covers, I think the foreigners get off a lot easier than they would have in the 90's.

But yeag, Jet Lee is no government patsy. I think that most of the philosophies that come across in the movie are personal in nature, not a part of a greater propoganda push. The idea of ethnic nationalism, which also appeals to Hong Kongers, Malaysians, Taiwanese etc..., can not be mistaken for any kind of state patriotism.

Chengora said...

Oh ho, the miracle of the deleted scene. The DVD version actually has an interesting scene where Jet Li has to save the boy that first leads him out to the rice fields. It's a bit of tribe versus tribe, and Jet ends up fighting Thai kickboxers. Also interesting is that he withholds the last killing blow (the one that killed Master Chin) at that point rather than against the Japanese dude.

Now the ethnic nationalism thing is really interesting, in part because I don't think it applies in Taiwan (which has a really confused sense of its ethnic identity) or as much in Malaysia, where you've got tons of political tension between different ethnicities, mostly as a result of discriminatory policies.

I think, for me, the shift in message from Jet Li's (anyone else have problems just calling him by only the first or last name?) older films to this one is what is problematic. I don't know how officially sanctioned or not is the message of the film, but what you both see as mellowing, I see as a lateral shift, from one (more vociferous) POV to one that is softer, but no less insidious or strident in some ways. And what most interested me was the "gradation" of the foreigners. Clearly Western foreigners generally lost control and cool (i.e. French spearman, Japanese minister), unless saved by the Chinese Huo. So, ethnically nationalist, but with an almost messianic aspect to it. I'm not saying the CCP took a firm hand in this, but the message is surprisingly close to something they would support. Which, I suppose, isn't too surprising.

Jonny America said...

But I think ethnic nationalism does appeal to some specific, perhaps even significant, segments of Taiwan's population and groups of Chinese Malaysians. I'm certainly no expert on this, but don't you think that the racist policies of the Malaysian government toward their ethinic Chinese population actually encourages the Chinese-Malaysians to look outside Malaysia for some sense of ethnic or national pride?

I'm afraid I'm going to have to bow out of the discussion on narrative trends in Jet Li films as I'm clearly not as informed as either of you are--easily illustrated by my persistent misspelling of Jet Li's name.

HoBs said...

Just wanted to comment that it also soundslike it is hard to separate out communist propaganda with traditional confuscian values. The two examples, that people need to be ordered and that people should accept things as they are, have been the backbone of Chinese civilization for two thousand years. So not sure if there's anything new there.

hcduvall said...

I think that's actually why the review itself was a bit harsh--basically that I think the movie displays ethnic pride but not national (in the formal, state sense) that Chengora's reading has it. The historical film genre (and specifically of this film) is rife with material of this nature...and the style of Chinese storytelling in general as far as I know it plays with sort of material often--not subtly. Seriously, if they wanted to be pro-communist, we'd all be able to tell.

A note, they cut the Thai scene in question. I'm not one to include that in assessment of the film (though I don't know if thats the non-asian market cut, as opposed to a genuine deleted scene).

Chengora said...

Well, certainly ethnic nationalism does appeal on some level to some Taiwanese. But, far more important is the political, versus ethnic, culture that people on Taiwan have. The Taiwanese view of colonialism, for example, is quite different from the majority of Chinese, and that's borne out by their view of the Japanese. Which is why I think the particular form of ethnic nationalism in the movie is particularly Chinese. Malaysian Chinese...certainly the rules and restrictions increase the sense of alienation and political displacement there. But polling conducted over there is pretty revealing, in that ethnic pride is increasingly "fused" with a greater sense of tolerance and diversity.

And to a certain extent, it's incredibly difficult to separate out Chinese culture and ethnicity from Chinese politics. Hobs mentions Confucianism, which of course is incredibly holistic in its approach to society. But, the central message of the movie is not Confucian, I would say, but Buddhist, if anything. Really, though, it's CCP. Confucianism never really says that you should respect other cultures or accept things as they are. Hence the overriding consideration with face, "li", and "proper" ways of doing things, which in its best form, is a mild form of intolerance.

But anyway, I don't really think this is a Buddhist track either because of the ethnic nationalism. Now, I'll certainly accept that the ethnic stridency is muted here. But what is striking about this movie is not how it plays with the theme, but it both jettisons traditional "Han-centric" views while still maintaining a Chinese messianic perspective. And that is CCP, whether consciously (unlikely) or simply under their approval. After all, they approve all the movies there. Did you hear that they cut off "The Da Vinci Code" after it started playing?