We didn’t have much to do in the evenings when we were in China, so we often went to the cinema. These are my comments/thoughts on what I watched.
The first film was Dangerous Liaisons at the Meya Daguangming International Cinema. The tickets were half-price because someone gave us a discount card. I thought it was from the same director who was responsible for Flowers of War last year, but it turns out they’re both directed by completely different people. Anyway, the film is an adaptation of the French book of the same name.
The book acts as a criticism of the corruption and decadence of the French nobility, and the Chinese film takes the same approach towards the bourgeoisie of Shanghai in the 1930s. The message of the film is subtle, in one scene the elite of Shanghai are gathering at a charity event, and while they’re lining up outside they ignore a few hungry children who harass them for food. Inside the meeting hall there is a buffet laden with treats and one of the characters, Du Fenyu, takes a few buns to give to the children. In another example there’s a trip to the opera which is interrupted by student radicals who run into the theatre shouting “give the land back to the peasants”. They hurl pamphlets from the balconies and private boxes before making a hasty escape.
The story also features the recurring trope of the young woman from a wealthy family who falls in love with a young man from a poor family, but their love is hindered by social conventions which dictate that they cannot love beyond their class. Their relationship is also manipulated by other elements, but the central problem is that the young woman from the wealthy family has to remain a virgin so she can marry a rich man.
The second film was the Assassins at the Oscar Youhao cinema. One of the main characters, chancellor Cao Cao is liked because he tried to unite China and, in a world of famine and war, he provides food and stability. I think if you were more critical you could read this as a sideways reference to the values of the party. The film celebrates Cao Cao’s proto-nationalist quest while implicitly referring back to the party as the inheritors of his legacy.
The film revolves around a political struggle between emperor Xian and the chancellor. The chancellor has authority but no power, whereas the emperor has power but no authority. The emperor just wants to stay in office and is motivated only by self-interest, while the chancellor wants to do the best for the people of China. In true confucian form the chancellor remains loyal to the emperor even after the emperor tries publicly, and privately, to have him assassinated. At the same time the film takes some distance and is careful to remind the audience that the chancellor was a warlord and a tyrant. The clash between the two characters exposes on one level the fractious infighting and instability which plagued the Chinese ruling class at the time, and on another level it poses the chancellor - the ‘people’s tyrant’, against the emperor - the ‘feudal tyrant’.
On the last day I watched Tai Chi 0, which is an action kung-fu movie. It’s set in 18th Century China but it’s entirely fictional, only using the historical setting as a backdrop. It’s interested in maintaining any sort of historical continuity, a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean. The East India Company acts as an overall antagonist, while the central villain is a Chinese man who goes to study in Britain and learns all about the industrial revolution. He comes back to his village to convince the villagers to adopt electricity, and lay down a railway line.
The villagers are not impressed, they reject him and he leaves, only to return with a huge steampunk machine threatening to destroy the village and build the railway straight through it. The film has a postmodern style, jumping between film and cartoon, sometimes adopting a first-person perspective, and there are two endings. It ‘ends’ about 10 minutes before the real end, the credits start rolling down, and then they roll back up and the story continues, leading onto the next film. There’s a sequel, which I’d like to see at some point, though I doubt it’ll be available outside of China.
The film bring up the final confrontation between the villagers and the British soldiers as a sort of heroic battle. The peasants, armed with only Kung-Fu and slingshots, defeat a column of British army soldiers equipped with rifles and bayonets. This battle starts with a soldier shooting an unarmed child, which sets off the village into open revolt.
Brennan also went to see an arthouse film called Double Exposure, I didn’t join him, and was put off because the title basically sounded like a dodgy porno film. Maybe something got lost in translation, Brennan seemed to enjoy it though…
Someone asked what the general attitude was towards me from the Chinese, well this film is a good example. The overall narrative is strongly anti-British, and it was definitely uncomfortable to watch a film where British people are the villains. I guess this is what Chinese people must feel like when they come across some of our less tolerant cultural works.
I had a similar feeling when we visited the caves in Turpan. Our guide repeatedly stressed the point that many of the artifacts had been ‘stolen’ by British and German archeologists. You can probably find some of them on display in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. I’m not even remotely responsible for that pillage, yet I found myself pivoting between defending and rejecting my identity in accordance with that heritage of colonial violence. The next time I go to the Ashmolean, I will see the exhibits in a different light.
The staff at the Khorgas border crossing were very excited by my passport, they took selfies with it, and it was very clear that Europeans are rare in north-western China. In Xinjiang I stuck out like a sore thumb, it’s not like Kazakhstan where I can pass as a slavic Russian.
The second question was about the language barrier. Thankfully I was with two chinese-speaking Singaporeans (and one Filipino-Singaporean who speaks only english) so they were able to translate most things. The communist students who showed us around their university spoke good english, although they were relucant to discuss politics with me. I looked for english-language books in the main bookstore and most of the political works were in german, which I can only just read. The price of books was surprising, even the most advanced textbooks were no more than ¥25, or about £2.50. When I asked why the books were so cheap one of the Chinese students just said “books are useful for society, why should they be expensive?”
What a strange philosophy.
I could write more, but I have to eat something and do some reading before going to evening class.