I was watching the caper movie Let the Bullets Fly and I realized something that I wasn't proud of, I realized that I know jack shit about Chinese history.
I actually had to find out when the movie took place by watching the trailer. I guess it's assumed that if you're watching this film, you're Chinese, so you just know what the deal is. You understand the imagery, you understand the language (and there's a lot of that going on, which makes me feel bad for the Cantonese film student who has to learn about Billy Wilder), and you understand the forward movement of time in terms of China's history. I don't know any of that and it made me feel dumb and confused. I don't like feeling dumb and confused, Chinese film industry!
Really, though, why should they stop to explain their film? As lacking in knowledge as Americans might be of world history and geography you don't have to explain The Godfather or Apocalypse Now to an audience member. They understand the basics of this story and this time period without actually knowing anything about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident or that the mob is a CIA front for the New World Order. None of these movies pause to explain things to the slow foreigner, they just tell a story. Hell, maybe Let the Bullets Fly is payback for decades of westerns.
I can't rationalize my way out of this, though, not even if I tried. I mean, it's 2012, I'm a literate American, I have DSL, and China is a five thousand year old nation with a population of one-billion people and what I know about their history starts with Dynasty Warriors 3 and ends with Rush Hour 2.I also know that there's a rumor that the Chinese drink their own pee because it's good for your skin. I have my doubts about veracity of that rumor. Regardless of whether it's true or not that should not be the first thing to pop to mind when I think "What up with China?"
All knowing about this does is underline my ignorance of that particular chunk of the world. I don't know Sino from Shinola. So, I decided to solve this problem by watching some more movies about China and by the Chinese.
Naturally I started with a movie about the Rape of Nanking.
The Nanking Massacre is something I'm familiar with to some degree. I've watched a documentary or two on the topic and it's popped up in books I've read and classes I've had, so despite how ignorant I have positioned myself as the content of City of Life and Death did not come out of the blue.
It's a weird movie. On the outside it seems to want to be The Battle of Algiers. They're both gritty, they're both political films by their very subject matter, they're both chock full of violence, they both revolve around one particular city during one particular conflict, and they both chose to be filmed in black and white. The most important difference is that The Battle of Algiers is one of the greatest films ever made and City of Life and Death is not.
That seems to be where it ends, though, because despite its outward appearances, City of Life and Death is basically a straight melodrama with all of the devices and blocking of a standard blockbuster (with a few dashes of steady cam here and there). When this movie wants to go big, it goes very big, too big in fact to still have a foot in reality. None of this helps when you add on the fact that one of the best movies of all time shares a similar style and premise (Plus the title recalls Rome, Open City, which can't be doing it any favors either).
Now, again, I'm quite sure the Rape of Nanking was an intense event and I don't mean to denigrate that, it's just that it doesn't not quite translate into a film as well as it could have.In this case heightening the emotions of the film keeps it from being grounded, it makes it the viewer aware that they're watching a movie about Japanese war crimes and not an actual human experience.
I know there's a fine tradition of Chinese neo-realist films, it is just that going from Let the Bullets Fly to this makes this war movie's operatic moments stand out all that much more. Opera is fine and it has its place in film, but in this particular case the melodramatic aspects undermine what I imagine to be a serious and realistic film. Realistic films don't call for stage blocking. A stylistic quirk isn't something you want to be thinking about, especially when it comes to something like international war crimes. It's not something any film should ever want, really.
Then there's the fact that the very idea (or appearance) of sensationalizing rape and mass murder is a risky undertaking. Either it seems redundant to add further horror to something that is inherently horrifying or it seems exploitative about making a commercial product of somebody's suffering. It might not be a fair criticism and it isn't likely the intent of the authors, then again if the film worked better, I wouldn't be bringing it up.
City of Life and Death does have its moments in between its fairly average world building. I would imagine that it is much more emotionally arresting if you're unfamiliar with the Nanking Massacre and even without the cold shock it does stand out as a pretty solid drama. Despite some more questionable CGI, the film's action sequences are pretty well composed. They don't rank up their with the urban battles of Enemy at the Gates or, again, Battle of Algiers, they do seem to get across the very specific kind of terror that fighting in cities creates. Plus, I doubt that they had the resources of either of those films.
The film also doesn't sap the humanity out of the Japanese either, which, upon reading what they did during the war seems like a very reasonable stylistic choice. It gives its Japanese enough space and humanity to keep it from becoming the kind of one-sided, gung-ho history lessons that a lot of war movies decide to become.
Even though the Japanese soldiers seem to fit into very particular archetypes (here's the reluctant soldier, here's the proud and implacable commanding officer, here's the zealot, et al.), at does make the effort to make them human beings before they're war criminals-- no small feat for an army that perpetrated something called the "Rape of Nanking."
It shows them as people who are caught up in a situation they didn't create and what they do with it, regardless of their nationality and the Chinese (and their European defenders) find themselves in the very same situation.It's this parallel that keeps the film whole, even if it isn't particularly compelling. That's not a profound point to make, I know, it is appreciable when you consider the kinds of emotions this story must involve.
Despite how much the oddness of the "comfort women" aspect of the plot makes me want to squirm and tut approvingly there is one particular moment that tells me that a lot more thought was put into the subtext of this film than you would have previously assumed.
The scene in question involves a young woman being raped by a Japanese soldier at what amounts to a militarized brothel. There's a moment where this woman turns to a Japanese man and she gives him this look that very clearly states that she has all of the power in this particular relationship despite every outward indication that she is a victim. It's a complex and small thing to get across in this much larger film, but it stands out as the one memorable moment that isn't entirely based on shock or misery. I don't know that I've ever seen a woman give a look like that in cinema and I'm glad for that.
I know that saying it's one of the most elegant and rape scenes I've ever seen sounds like a glib joke.** I also know that its worth acknowledging that there are many ways that something like sexual assault can be handled in fiction besides, "Oh, isn't this terrible and fucked up?" These terrible things are not there to be exploitative or to victimize people and that actually does create some compelling, if brief, drama.
The next movie on the list that I tried to watch was the The Founding of a Party, which lasted for about twenty minutes before I went cross-eyed.
Remember when I had an editor and a maximum word count? No? Well, I was a mess then, too, but let's not let that bog us down.
Now, while it's embarrassing to be a grown man in 2012 with the internet and everything to know a high school Power Point presentation amount of information about a country with over a billion people, the fact remains: I really do not have the time for this. My dome is already chock full of World War II stuff and I've still got to cram a bunch more Afghanistan stuff in there and there is never going to be a point where I'm satisfied with what I know about those times and places.
The reality is that I'm always learning new things, even about things that I know quite a bit about already. For example, I didn't even know about the rumor that Afghan women, upon capturing enemy soldiers, would rape them and then pee down their throats until they died! I've been reading about Afghanistan for years and that's the first time I ever heard that!
I bet you didn't know that and now we've learned something together!
The closest I get to knowing anything either interesting or substantial about the Celestial empire has come from research I was doing about other countries. It's kind of impossible to dodge the Rape of Nanking and the Second Sino-Japanese War because you can't exactly read up on the Pacific Front of WWII without involving China in some aspect-- most historians consider them to be a big part of that whole affair. So, there's that.
The second era of Chinese history that I'm familiar with is a side-effect of trying to learn about British colonialism during the Victorian era (and there's a lot of it!). Specifically I was trying to learn about the upheavals and uprisings and minor empires of Central Asia during the second half of the 19th century and I ran into the Dungan Revolt.I mean, it's one thing to learn about small wars that nobody else has ever heard of, but it's an entirely different bag of marbles to learn that there's entire peoples that you've never even dreamed of existing. It's exhausting and it's discouraging and usually by the time I find out about this stuff, I say "Fuck it" and read a chapter of this Murakami book.
But my knowledge basically starts and ends with that singular event (and even that I am not too hot on). It's more or less like saying "I'm familiar with early American history because I am familiar with the works of Jeremiah Johnson." That shit won't hold together when you're defending your dissertation.
In my defense there doesn't seem to be any movies about the Dungan Revolt, so at least what I do know I can say I had to find in a book. Or, more likely, a wikipedia page of questionable historicity.
In my further defense, not knowing much about foreign peoples and histories isn't something exclusive to countries full of white people. Take France for example: I keep on finding out new things about there every time I go back into the World War II history hole. Like, do you know how many republics France has had? How many do you people need?
Oh, wait, no I do know one more thing about Chinese history, which is "Free Tibet?" Right? That still seems like the right choice to make, doesn't it?
All of this adds up to more than nothing, right?
Other Chinese films I have watched/tried to watch/got angry while watching-- I'll be brief--
Iron Monkey 2--
Iron Monkey 2 is most confusing because it seems that it could take place anywhere between 1890 and 1945. That doesn't seem to be a stylistic choice, it seems that the movie's budget was "Things that fell off of a moving truck on its way to an antique disposal facility." It's an ugly, confusing mess and I don't think that's due entirely to my pre-establish murky notion of Chinese history.I honestly have serious doubts about whether or not it is actually related to the original Iron Monkey in any way.
Project A 2--
Jackie Chan is always fun and while it has much better choreography and art design I still have to wonder why all of these Chinese men are wearing machine-made t-shirts from the 1980's. That is something I am certain is not an aspect of Chinese history.
The Last Emperor--
This barely counts, but I'm putting it on the list because it is an actual movie that is actually worth a damn.While we could talk about the cinematography or the epic storyline or whatever, this movie stands out in my mind because it includes a scene where it is established that the emperor has two eunuchs whose job description includes: "Smelling the feces of the emperor." There's a reason it won Best Picture. I'm sure there's a lot of people that think it's stylistic and "prestigious" nonsense and hardly deserves to be nominated for such prestigious awards, much less win them, but on the other hand fuck those people.
In my mind, one of the other burdens City of Death has is that it has to compete with Nanking.Not only does it overcome the pretentious premise, but it's one of the most arresting documentaries I've ever seen. It also succeeds as important in the way "important films" fail to do. It isn't about awards, it is about documenting one of the uglier episodes in human history. It also made me have to accept the fact that a Nazi party member could exist as proof of the potential goodness in all human beings.
Alright, that's enough of whatever that was. I'm going to go put this to bed by watching the rest of Big Trouble in Little China.
EDIT: Holy shit there's an arcade shooter called War in Shanghai 1937. Fuck.
*After doing ten seconds of research I discovered that the film was set during a period known as the "Warlord Era," which in terms of the name of an era is far more badass than the Gilded Age or the Belle Epoque. Plus, the Warring Twenties is even a cooler rhyme than its Western brother, the Roaring Twenties. I also like that "cliques" were apparently a major part of Chinese politics throughout the ages. It makes me think that China was ruled by insane high school girls for a number of years.
**Here's an article from Jezebel about how to make a rape joke. It was made in wake of Mr. Tosh's ill-advised response to a heckler and I think its safe to say that this is one of the better reasoned arguments regarding the subject