Merry Xmas and Chinese movies on Gender

Xmas Xmas, day of goofing off and opening presents! We got some Muslims in the house for whom this is their first Xmas celebration so we went all out celebrating it! Of course we also had a Xmas fiend who wanted to get things done traditionally such as -- opening presents on Xmas morning rather than when the clock strikes 12am on Xmas eve night. I couldnt get over that...but I survived.

My favorite gift was a red-colored Voodoo doll which I could stick pins into to relieve stress, and anger, and frustration. A kind and thoughtful gift from a very dear friend who worries about my heart and blood pressure. Other surprises are "Nobody Passes" by Matilda Sycamore Bernstein which is an anthology on queer liberation, the notorious "In Theory" by Aijaz Ahmad which complicates the idea of Orientalism made famous by Edward Said, and then Driven Out by Jean Pfaelzer, a book about anti-Chinese racism in the West Coast. Very good bounty. Will be reporting back about them at some point.

I have been exploring mainland Chinese film over the past two years, mostly related to gender. Most of my experience growing up in Spore and Malaysia have been watching Hong Kong and Taiwanese movies...not so much mainland Chinese. The mainland Chinese movies and directors that make it big all seem to have sold their soul to Hollywood or to big money movie-making. I could complain all day about Chen Kaige's The Promise, or Zhang Yimou's House of Daggers and Hero, or Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet...all of which I think are catered to an American audience that only wants to see long-haired Chinese people flying in the air... I particularly disliked The Banquet cos of the way it presents gender. The movie is about a queen who is very power-hungry and is vicious enough to kill the people around her to gain power. There is of course a side of her that is also very vulnerable and very much in love with the son of her husband, the Emperor. So much so she is willing to sacrifice almost everything for him....but the plot is so horribly tiring and fits the stereotype of the Dragon Lady -- the vicious manipulative woman who is really vulnerable on the inside...its such a fetishized impression of a strong woman,that portrays how love, strength and power have to always be so opposed to one another. It's just cheesy and I think it satisfies more of a male fantasy and curiosity, of how "Women" can actually gain power in a patriarchal male society than it is about the experience of a real, living and breathing woman. What I hate about the film is that it tries to be "feminist" and yet fails so terribly at it and becomes yet another caricature of the male fantasy of strong women.

(above) Zhang Ziyi as Dragon Lady: fierce, sexy, and totally patriarchal
(below) Pan Yi and Shi Tou as lesbian lovers in Bejing: real women with love, sex, and loyalty on their minds

So in contrast, I saw a more real-life story of women last night. It's an independent Chinese film called 《去年夏天》,or in translation, "The Fish and the Elephant." Its a movie set in Beijing around 2000, about a lesbian couple and how they live their everyday lives -- being in the closet, leaving a heterosexual marriage, coming out to parents, and confronting the police. It actually reminds me a lot of the movie, "Saving Face," that is about a comedy about a Chinese American lesbian couple in NYC Chinatown. All in all, the movie wasn't super great -- plot line is OK, the cinematography so-so, the scenes a little random...but then it struck me as a movie about everyday women and how they negotiate their sexuality w the other elements of society. People think its so disastrous to come out of the closet to parents, but then in the movie, its portrayed as difficult but not entirely catastrophic -- people gotta do what they gotta do. The protagonist's mother accepts her daughter's sexuality even though at first its hard for her. She had been relentlessly matchmaking her daughter to random "eligible" bachelors. The gritty and unpolished appearance of the film worked for me in replicating the life of the two characters.

Other movies on my list that I have heard amazing things about:
Butterfly 蝴蝶 and Lust.Caution 色戒 

back to work,


Anonymous said...

Nice on Jomo, very informative. I'm in the dark on a lot of that.

Not to orientalize so to speak, but do you dig the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa? Dude influenced Western films incredibly and he strayed from the long haired Asians flying through the air (although Hero is the shit!! C'mon now!). I'm embarrassed to admit that when I first watched one of his films (Ran I think) I was confused as to why folks weren't kicking each other. My boy Rob had to drop science on me.

Merry Saturnalia and Happy New Year.


jomo said...

Hey K,
Yes, I like Kurosawa, particularly Seven Samurai, which James would actually have SUCH a field day with:) Its about the heroism of everyday people who find themselves in situations where they have to unite, put aside petty differences, and muster up courage to confront evil in the face. Have you heard of the movie Magnificent Seven? Its an adaptation of the Seven Samurai (one of the many good things that come from Asia). Have you heard of Rashomon? Its also a good movie and probably you could argue that it is one of the origins of post-modernism -- there is no truth, everything is a reconstruction, an interpretation. I have seen Ran and also liked it cos the King Lear storyline has a lot to offer..and actually there was a long haired Asian man, just that he was dying instead of flying around and yes, old bearded Japanese sages do die, eventually!
As for Hero..I don't know...it was mad popular in Asia too cos it had some of the most beautiful Asian people and cool cinematography but the message of the movie was kinda not cool and statist -- how the Tony Leung character decides not to kill the emperor. Its just particularly horrible cos the director, Zhang Yimou had been so known for making controversial films that kind of challenge the revisionism of Chinese history that now, for him to make this movie, was kinda disappointing for me.

BTW, I can't wait for the movie, Slingshot Hip hop to be released!