Saturday, August 11, 2007

ANCIENT CHINESE STORIES COME TO WEST

Many years ago I had a Blackfeet student who wrote stories vividly depicting a certain pattern: there is a victim, usually an innocent child; there is a gamine woman who is sexy and feisty; there is a powerful oppressing tyrant who is approved or at least not restrained by ordinary society; and there is a superhero, often unsuspected in his usual identity. Much of the story is about rescuing the child and woman through a violent, carefully detailed one-on-one fight. Beowolf, right? There is no innocent child or woman in Beowolf, is there?

My last Netflix movies were Chinese: “Farewell My Concubine” and “The Emperor and the Assassin.” Both are based on reality, the first being entwined with an opera and addressing a love triangle among Li Gong (whose very acting identity has melded with the innocent but feisty beautiful woman), Ying Zheng (who plays powerful men sometimes a little slow on the uptake and always protective) and Leslie Cheung (who plays a beguiling castrati bonded with the Ying Zheng character when they were children and the “stronger” boy protected him.

The Emperor and the Assassin” is about the historical emperor who was buried with the famous legions of lifesized terra cotta soldiers. He is regarded with mixed feelings because he became fixated on unifying China (this is at about the time of Christ) but went at it with horrifying violence. This time Li Gong is his childhood friend and Ying Zheng is a professional assassin, who has given up violence because of the death of an utterly innocent blind girl. There is a complex plot in which the bad become good and the good become bad -- bad is defined by the killing of children.

So my hypothesis is that this pattern is in fact Asian and came to us in part through Kurosawa and others like him. “The Seven Samurai,” is about fifty years old now and easily translated to Westerns, which brought in the Native American prairie "clearances" of "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee." It’s also mixed into Vietnam stories, which probably kicked the intensity quite a bit higher, pulling in drugs. My former student had internalized it from “The Crow.” In this form the Crow was both a comic book and a movie that pulls in rock ‘n roll, urban decay, and apocalypse, but mostly revenge. Later this student assaulted someone mortally, resulting in prison. He asked me to send him “Heavy Metal,” the graphic magazine, and -- since nothing goes through my hands without me reading it -- I read it and saw that it was this same pattern: innocents unjustly killed, a seemingly all-powerful tyrant, a feisty and beautiful girl, and a “samurai” who could take on evil. All this is extremely popular among some minories and underdogs.

In the Chinese movies, the pattern is much “cleaner” or at least clearer, especially since it is acted out in a near-opera fashion against two haunting backgrounds: the broad grasslands of inland China/Mongolia which are much like eastern Montana, and the labyrinthine and stagelike walled buildings with their long hallways and huge courtyards with proscenium palace entrances. (An echo of Greek religious drama.) The kimonos and armor are fabulous, giving it all an Arthurian splendor. It is just foreign enough to surprise a modern American spectator who is not used to it. But I kept flashing on Blackfeet. Nothing specific but definitely the mind-set.

I’m not sure this pattern is a “healthy” one in a democracy where the “hero” really ought better to be a collaborating citizenry who come to consciousness and simply vote out the tyrants as soon as they are perceived, whether they are bribed congressmen or scheming judges. Or tribal councilmen. Part of the appeal of these movies -- both the Asian versions and the kung fu or Western versions -- is that we are getting pretty fed-up with the constant effort to straighten out such pervasive corruption as has been revealed lately. How much disillusion can people take before they send for the samurai? But how realistic is it to expect a big powerful man to come rescue everyone?

One of the weak spots is assuming that all children are simply little innocent puppies who only need to be rescued from danger. Rousseauian as it may be, distorted and exaggerated, this conviction leads to overindulgent parenting, the creating of pet-children instead of competent people, and a disregard for the uniqueness of every child. They become Disneyfied, big-eyed and without an ability to self-determine. For powerful people, the temptation to juvenalize their employees, their families, their voters, is hard to resist. Throw them some Wal-Mart toys and they’ll be appeased.

The beautiful but feisty young woman is an interesting figure. She often becomes the conscience of the story, as in the Chinese tale of the young woman who seeks justice. (I can’t remember the name of it and when I looked at imdb.com, all the titles were in Chinese which completely disables me!) Her husband is unjustly kicked in the progeny generator, which makes his wife highly indignant so she mounts an attack on the Chinese layers of government in spite of every discouragement. Maybe she stands for the preservation of the future or maybe simply for reform, but she will not tolerate inertia, status quo, or actual wickedness. In this movie there is no hero -- just her.

The idea of the superhero is not new to our culture. It is the danger to the children (the future) that seems to distinguish this pattern. I have a hunch that the child, aside from being a plot device, is internal to the superhero and old offenses from the days when the child was small and defenseless lead to the sometimes unchecked craving for power, including power to destroy. (Few seem to crave the power to pass sensible laws.) This makes the beautiful feisty young woman (as much a young mother as sex object) necessary for the tale to be palatable.

Some people really hate this kind of analysis. What the kids around here say in response is “you just killed it!” Looking at the clockwork destroys the magic of time, they think. They believe that magically romantic stories are blasted by logic or by science or even by craftsmanship. But I don’t feel that way. Show me an artist who just spills out metaphor and emotion from his or her own gut, day after day, which is something we came to value in the Sixties and Seventies music world, and I’ll show you someone on the way to emptiness and despair. A lot of these movies include suicide. Flesh without bones cannot stand. But it important to carefully articulate those bones. Stories are not without real life consequences.

3 comments:

prairie mary said...

It belatedly occurs to me that the two Chinese movies I just watched are firmly anchored in history -- indeed, much of the power of "Farewell My Concubine" is seeing the evolution of the characters as they go through recent history. But the more recent films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" are rather ahistorical, rather related to place. And it seems to me that many Westerns are the same way -- a function of place and the illusion that in that place the 19th century goes on forever.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Yo, Mary. I think all art teaches us how to live.

prairie mary said...

AGREED!

Prairie Mary