Thursday, September 23, 2010

Not just a movie


The mikveh's still water-filled underground immersion pool
stands as testimony to the Medieval existence of Jews in Speyer
-- and as a memorial to what once was but has been lost

Earlier this evening, I watched The Legend of The Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Directed by Andrew Lau and starring -- and, not incidentally, action directed by -- Donnie Yen, it imagines that Chen Zhen, the fictitious disciple of real life Chinese martial arts sifu Hua Yuanjia, did not die in a hail in Japanese bullets as depicted in Fist of Fury (which starred Bruce Lee as Chen Zhen) or opt for a non-racist path like in Fist of Legend (which had Jet Li portraying the Chinese hero).

Instead, the hero -- essayed by a Donnie Yen clearly trying to channel Bruce Lee (to the point that he also dons a Kato-style costume at certain points in the film as well as utters animal-like screams associated with the late martial arts superstar and choreographs certain scenes to make the viewer recall those in Fist of Fury) -- in this 2010 Hong Kong-Mainland China collaboration lives on to do such as go to France and Belgium to take part in the First World War (something that some 140,000 Chinese men really did do) and then return to China (in particular, Shanghai) to oppose Japanese forces willing to do whatever it takes to take over China.

As I remarked to a friend shortly after exiting from the screening, the film is really embarrassingly juvenile. Beyond that (and this is why I feel compelled to write this entry that is not at all like the usual, more positive thought-filled ones that I try to offer up on this blog): even while at times I found myself entertained by it in a stupid superhero movie kind of way, at other points in the movie, I just couldn't get past being really shocked and downright appalled at how so very racist it is -- with tirades against foreigners (i.e., non-Chinese in China) in general that literally ends, in one instance, with a "fuck you" utterance, but, most overwhelmingly, in its portrayal of the Japanese as just plain evil murderers, torturers and rapists.

So much so that, so very ironically, when Chen Zhen proclaimed several times in the movie that "The Chinese are not the sick men of Asia", my reaction was that if this work is to be taken at all seriously, actually, the Chinese are sick -- mentally and psychologically, even if not physically. For only sick people would feel such a strong need to continue to assert one's health (and, by extension, cultural dominance and moral high ground) at a time when their country is clearly perceived by most of the world to be on the economic and general global ascendancy.

And lest there be any doubt: for the record, I am not Japanese. But this veritable contemporary anti-Japanese strain in popular nationalist Chinese cinema really is getting very hard to swallow and digest. So much so that -- and no, I really cannot accept the "it's just a movie" line of thinking and consequently think it's not an over-reaction to feel this way -- I felt moved to recall and share the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller's First They Came below:-

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialist
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

(And should anyone wonder about the 4.5 rating I gave to The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen in the Most recently viewed movies section of this blog, it's because, like I said, it entertained as a movie but I cannot rate it high(er) due to its (makers') racism and my consequently feeling bad -- guilty even -- for having even enjoyed any part of this film that actually was technically well-made and has its share of the sort of professionally-choreographed, enacted and shot fight scenes that usually would get my adrenaline pumping in a good way.)

12 comments:

ewaffle said...

I really cannot accept the "it's just a movie" line of thinking

BRAVA!

Since movies are a product that needs a mass audience they can be an indicator of cultural/social prejudices and fears in the society that produces them. I mean the tropes and images of movies generally, not any one in particular but it sounds like "Legend of the Fist" is a strong (I didn't want to write "good") as any.

It might be the case that movies in the PRC reproduce the inclinations of the ruling elite more directly than in other countries--or at least what the rulers would like the masses to think--but I think it is true in any society.

This is a very powerful post especially due to the images that are seemingly unconnected to the discussion of "Legend of the Fist". The juxtaposition, once one understands it, is jarring and extraordinarily well done.

The only quibble I have--it is more of a question, actually--is that since Japan, while a convenient target, isn't and wouldn't be an easily abused victim. Is it possible that the anti-Japanese sentiment is a proxy for other, less "acceptable" racisms against ethnic/religious/national people in China?

Glenn, kenixfan said...

Great post! Thank you!

I think you know how some of us in America felt after walking out of Rambo in 1985 -- my friend dragged me into it -- as stuff like Ip Man 2 is as clumsy in its pro-China stuff as that Stallone flick was pro-America.

Additionally, how did Detective Dee manage to score even lower? So D.D. didn't even entertain on a stupid level?

duriandave said...

Honestly, I always expect some level of anti-Japanese sentiment in any Chinese movie set during that period, so it's hard for me to judge from your description how offended I would be. I think that you might be more sensitive, being closer to such events like the recent march in Hong Kong against the disastrous Philippines hostage rescue (which struck me as a little nationalistic, and not in a good way) and the cancellation of Japan pop group SMAP's Shanghai concert for fear of disruptive protests relating to the recent diplomatic row between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

If anything, your post reminds me how exceptional are films like Fist of Legend and City of Life and Death (which acknowledged the horror of the Nanjing Massacre yet presented it as an act that potentially could be committed by any group of men engaged in war, regardless of their race or nationality).

BTW, thanks for the link about the Chinese laborers of WWI. That was something I knew nothing about. I would much rather see a movie about them than Chinese Superman Donnie Yen.

Finally, like Glenn, I'm a little disconcerted to see you rate Detective Dee lower than Legend of The Fist. Should I put my expectations in reverse?

YTSL said...

Hi ewaffle --

Thanks for your general appreciation and interesting comments.

"The only quibble I have--it is more of a question, actually--is that since Japan, while a convenient target, isn't and wouldn't be an easily abused victim. Is it possible that the anti-Japanese sentiment is a proxy for other, less "acceptable" racisms against ethnic/religious/national people in China?"

I think I see where you're getting at but I think that when the Chinese target the Japanese, it's precisely that. In East Asia, it seems like China and Japan are the two big powers -- and have been at loggerheads for centuries (even while also experiencing periods where one has accepted the cultural and other influences of the other -- e.g., think of Buddhism's transmission to Japan via China).

Hi Glenn --

Still more re "The Legend of the Fist": I think one more reason why it was so disturbing is because it technically is a pretty proficient film and harder to laugh off.

Re "Detective Dee": Alas, it wasn't as well made -- and, in fact, I found myself laughing at/during parts of it that I'm sure Tsui Hark and co meant viewers to take seriously. Put another way: it was laughable -- and at other times frustrating and disappointing -- rather than entertaining. :(

Hi duriandave --

"I think that you might be more sensitive, being closer to such events like the recent march in Hong Kong against the disastrous Philippines hostage rescue (which struck me as a little nationalistic, and not in a good way) and the cancellation of Japan pop group SMAP's Shanghai concert for fear of disruptive protests relating to the recent diplomatic row between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands."

Before anything, I don't consider the Hong Kong reaction to the Philippine hostage rescue as racist or nationalist. Rather, I think it's a measure of how Hong Kongers just tend to be so trusting of police efficiency and have high expectations for overall public safety.

In a recent SCMP editorial, it was mentioned that Hong Kongers just cannot expect much of the rest of the world to be as safe as Hong Kong. And I know it's funny when you think of all the crime one sees in movies but the truth of the matter is that Hong Kong really is crime-free compared to much of the rest of the world.

At the same time, I take your point about my sensitivities possibly being raised in view of the recent/ongoing row over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

"BTW, thanks for the link about the Chinese laborers of WWI. That was something I knew nothing about. I would much rather see a movie about them than Chinese Superman Donnie Yen."

Definitely am in agreement with you regarding that.

And yes: definitely lower your expectations for "Detective Dee". For me, it's particularly upsetting to see it now since, in recent weeks, I've had the treats of re-viewing "Shanghai Blues" and "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain" on the Hong Kong Film Archive's big screen.

duriandave said...

YTSL, since I wasn't at the march, my judgment was obviously not a fair one. I must admit that my impression was based mostly on a fear of Hongkongers' (understandable) anger being directed against the Filipinas who live and work there. As an outsider, I always feel a little uneasy when I witness the situation of Filipino/Indonesian domestics. I know it's not inherently exploitative, it's just... awkward.

But after what you said, I can appreciate the march as a demand for justice -- not just on behalf of Hongkongers but also on behalf of the people of the Philippines, who undoubtedly are also victims of its corrupt police culture and unsafe society.

Regarding Detective Dee, in light of the other fairly positive reviews I've read, I'm going to cling to the notion that perhaps you judged it too harshly by comparing it with Tsui Hark's unsurpassable early classics. ;)

YTSL said...

Hi again duriandave --

Re the whole "domestics" situation: Agree that it's awkward -- and also think it speaks of a country's problems that so many of its people think working as a domestic abroad is preferable to staying at home.

At the same time, it never ceases to amaze me to see the care that many of the Filipina/Indonesian/Thai, etc. domestics give to the members of the family they work. The number of times one sees old Hong Kongers being helped about by a domestic helper as they make their way around Hong Kong or children being looked after. And then there's the sheer joy that they take in and on their days off from work... truly, I often look and think that in those ways, they serve as an example for many of us all.

On a less happy note: Keep your expectations low re "Detective Dee" please! ;S

ewaffle said...

A couple of quick notes:

Remittances from Philippine citizens working abroad was equivalent to over 10% of the Philippines' domestic output.

Hospitals in major cities in the United States couldn't function without Filipino nurses. They have been an essential part of the health care system here for decades--and are a big part of the remittance economy.

duriandave said...

-- YTSL, I've also been touched when seeing a domestic helper taking grandma to dim sum or the kid to school. And the Sunday gatherings still amaze me.

OK, consider me duly warned about Detective Dee. But I'm still looking forward to it, talking deer notwithstanding. After all, Green Snake is one of my favorite films in spite of the silly snake FX.

-- Ed, you are totally right. And let me just add that folks in US might find themselves a little hungry without the Latino immigrants who grow and cook so much of our food.

YTSL said...

Hi again ewaffle --

Didn't realize there were so many Filipina nurses in the US. In one way, I'm glad -- because I had previously heard of people with nursing and other degrees being domestics in Hong Kong. Maybe these days more trained Filipina nurses actually can put their nursing training to good use.

Hi once more duriandave --

When I saw the deer, I immediately thought of "Green Snake". The problem with "Detective Dee"'s deer is that it is first viewed very early in the movie... and the movie was made 17 years after "Green Snake". You'd think Tsui Hark would have learnt his lesson. (And yes, the CGI in "Detective Dee" is awful. :S)

ewaffle said...

When I saw the deer, I immediately thought of "Green Snake".

That should lower expectations of "Detective Dee" properly. Whoever likes goofy sexiness or sexy goofiness thinks highly of "Green Snake"--and can recall its very unspecial special effects.

s h a w said...

Yvonne, I share the same "uneasyness" after watching Yip Man 1 & 2. Are HK movie makers cashing in Chinese Mainlanders' nationalism? That is my guess.

YTSL said...

Hi Shaw --

I know Grady Hendrix had your reaction to "Ip Man 1". I think, for me, all that fighting too against some other Chinese along with the Japanese helped balance things out somewhat there for me...

But in answer to your question: yes, I think it's certain Hong Kong movie makers' lazy way of cashing in/appealing to Chinese Mainlanders. And no, I don't think it coincidental that my three favorite Hong Kong movies of 2010 (i.e., "Stool Pigeon", "Le Comedie Humaine" and "Gallants") thus far seem much more "Hong Kong"-oriented.