Memory in East Asian Film

If I heard correctly, Sarah Polley mentioned that she was partially inspired by the film Rashomon when she was making her documentary. In fact, Rashomon is one of several movies I had to watch in my comp lit class, for which I am writing a paper on memory in Asian literature. I think the sense of memory that we get from the documentary (that is that it’s not absolute and can change with time and whose perspective we’re getting), is very similar to the idea of memory that’s present in several East Asian films that I’ve seen.

To begin with Rashomon, this is a Japanese black and white film that received impressive international recognition at the time it was released. The basic story is that a man goes under a rashomon gate for shelter from the rain. Under the gate, he sees a bamboo cutter and a monk looking sad. The man asks what’s the matter and they tell him that they have just witnessed a trial which really tested their faith in humanity. Basically what happened is that a bandit named Tajomaru raped the wife of another man (who I think was a samurai). Later the samurai was found dead by the bamboo cutter, who was asked to testify. Tajomaru, the raped widow, and (through the help of a necromancer) the murdered samurai were all asked to give their version of the events. Each person’s version was different, and they were clearly trying to make themselves look in the right. In the end, the bamboo cutter gives his version of the events, which we can assume to be the “true” version.

Another film with a rather similar structure (and a more modern look, if you’re interested in checking these out) is Zhang Yimou’s Hero. This is set in China, when the Qin Emperor wanted to unify the country under one ruler. In the process, he destroyed many rival kingdoms and obviously made many enemies. Three of these enemies team up to try and take the Qin Emperor out. The basic plan was that one of them (who was a known enemy of the emperor) would pretend to be killed by another so the “killer” could get an audience with the emperor as a reward. Then the “killer” (who is also the titular hero) would murder the emperor. The plan works up to the point of getting an audience, but then they start to chat. The emperor asks the hero how he assassinated the enemy of Qin. The hero gives his version of the story, but the emperor sees through it. He gives his own version of what he thinks happened. Then the hero counters with a final version of the story, which we can assume to be the truth. In the process of seeing all these versions of what happened, the audience, the hero, and the emperor all learn more about the involved characters. Motivations change, and the film ends in a rather dramatic and unexpected way.

From both of these narratives, there’s clearly a theme about how absolute truth can be hard to grasp just from the memories of people. After all, everyone has a different perspective of what happened and different motives for remembering things the way they do. I thought it was interesting that, even in such different contexts, this theme from Sarah Polley’s documentary could still apply.

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