Saturday, June 16, 2007

Does Life Imitiate Zhang Yimou Movies, or Does Zhang Yimou Just Make Sh*t Up?

Under the streetlamp, a man crouches on the ground. “Needles and thread”, he calls. The snow muffles the transmission of his words, and the night covers him. No one comes.

A woman in labor helplessly bleeds to a slow death. The instruments clatter to the floor as the young nurse panics, and the doctor, still in shackles, goes into convulsions after being fed buns and water after days without food.

A pregnant woman again asks a man, again, for an apology. The man, from within his yard, throws money at her instead. It falls to the ground, flips thinly in the air, scatters. The woman does not pick it up.

A child’s face. Wide-eyed, pencil in hand. Earnest and dirty in black and white.

These are the images of China that I can still remember I had before coming here. Going through them mentally now, as I write, they are just as powerful as they were eight, ten years ago.

I started watching Chinese movies at around age 17. I had taken a beginner’s Japanese course in tenth grade, and my interest in Chinese cinema drew from my interest in anime. After exhausting all of the anime on the video store “Asian” shelf, Zhang Yimou movies followed naturally. I was a fan of neither Shirokawa nor Bruce Lee.

For anyone who has seen Chinese movies like “To Live”, “Red Sorghum”, “Qiu Ju” or “In the Heat of the Sun”, the imagery is unforgettable. The plots are unadorned, characters often give to silence, and the shots are long, all which allow time for the images to sink deep in one’s mind. I must have watched “To Live” five times. I cried each time, several times throughout the movie. I wondered, why are Asian movies so sad? Years later, an Asian-American friend finally enlightened me: “It’s because Asians think sadness is beautiful.

After exhausting that video store collection, I thought little of China until college, and even then, it was more of an afterthought, a Plan B. I was intent on a degree in Japanese, or International Relations. Freshman year I took a course way out of my league called “Political Economics of Southeast Asia”, a graduate-level seminar. The professor pitied me, and rather than write a paper on the topic at hand, had me write a book review of Kristof and Wu Dunn’s China Wakes.

It was thus vicariously through that (now) New York Times Op Ed journalist and his wife that I witnessed T****n, danced with corrupt politicians, and sans entry permit took a train through the impoverished countryside. It was also the photo pages of China Wakes that featured that now-famous schoolchild, her big black eyes representing the millions of other Chinese schoolchildren and their big black eyes and their collective dream to end the depravity through education.

As it turned out, neither Japanese nor International Relations were my forte, so I made the bold decision to screw it all and start again from zero with Chinese, promising myself that a year of intensive study abroad would get me across the threshold of acquiring proficiency in somethingforgodsakes. I indeed must have crossed some threshold, because after all these years in China behind me, I still don’t want to go back.

P.S. Learnings since my first impressions? 1) Just like America is not like Hollywood, China is not like Zhang Yimou’s countryside. For emphasis, Chinese people hate Zhang Yimou (even though they make sure that each of his new films beats the previous in box office earnings). 2) Journalists are contortion artists that are always able to kaleidoscope significant yet neutral information to fit western audiences’ preconceptions of The Other as democratizing/not democratizing/threatening/stark and pitiful/changing for the better/enigmatic. Mr. French and colleagues, don’t disappoint us.

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