Author Archives: Michelle Li

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.

A Still-Relevant Take on Politics

Lincoln is the first film that I can say I saw before taking this class. I saw it in the State Theatre for my freshman year Rhetoric and Civic Life course, in which my professor emphasized the line about the compass not warning you of swamps, etc. I thought it was a poignant line that was very relevant in our age of extreme political partisanship. Now, a few years later, I still feel that it is relevant, especially with the presidential election coming up later this year.

Though there is a lot of interesting stuff happening in the (modern) Republican party, I’m going to focus on the Democrats since that’s what was mentioned during our class last Wednesday. I should preface this by saying that I haven’t been following the election very closely, and I am in favor of Bernie at the moment. We mentioned in class that Lincoln is the pragmatist, more comparable to Hillary. In that case, Bernie would be the idealist, like Stevens. The latter comparison is a fair one, I think. Bernie has lots of great ideas, but they can sound too good to be true. It would definitely be difficult to implement something like free college in the next four years, that’s for sure. However, I think comparing Spielberg’s Lincoln to Hillary is a bit more complicated. In the film, Lincoln believes in very lofty goals, but he is willing to compromise on the means to make the ends a reality. To outsiders, it may look like he doesn’t really believe in the equality of the races. Perhaps similarly, the current criticism that Hillary faces is that she doesn’t share some of the Democrats’ lofty goals and is now simply backtracking to win the primary. For instance, as far as I know Hillary has changed her opinion on such issues as LGBT marriage, the Keystone Pipeline, etc. Was she just compromising when she talked about those issues before? Did she really have a change of heart? Or, the worst option, is she just trying to win votes? It’s hard to say.

I would argue that, unfortunately, we can’t really know Hillary’s ideals without knowing her more personally. Perhaps if I read her book and paid more attention to the election, I’d feel differently but right now I just have mixed feelings. I can’t vote in the primaries anyway, so maybe my opinion isn’t as important, but I hope everyone who can will be voting in this coming election and gives some thought to this question of politicians’ true intentions.

Fight Club and Three

There were a lot of interesting things going on in Fight Club, but my favorite aspect was definitely the twist that Tyler and the narrator were the same person. I’ll admit I didn’t see it coming, though in hindsight there were a lot of clues (having the same suitcase, the fact that Marla seemed very offended when the narrator asked her why she was there, etc.) It reminded me very strongly of a book I read called Three by Ted Dekker. I’ll attempt to describe the book from memory, so the details may be way off, but basically the main character has three personalities (hence the title). One is his regular self, one is his female childhood friend-turned-love-interest named Sam, and one is a crazy guy who blows stuff up and kills people. Sounds famliar already, right? Obviously we don’t know that they are the same until near the end of the novel, for maximum dramatic effect. In this novel, the main character’s trauma stems from his parents, particularly his mother who neglected him and I think had some hoarder issues. Like in Fight Club, the “evil” persona mutilates his own body in some way. For Tyler, this meant dumping acid on his hand. For the protagonist in Three, this meant putting ice cubes in his eyeballs. When I read this book years ago I thought it was incredibly original, but now I’m skeptical that the book just ripped off Fight Club.

There is one noticeable difference though, and that is the love interest. The protagonist of Three dreamt up Sam as his childhood friend, which shows that his mental illness started at an early age. In fact, Sam is the first of his three personalities to realize that they are all the same person and coaxes his “true” personality to the realization. We discussed the possibility that Marla is another of Fight Club’s narrator’s personalities. I actually did consider this, in part because of Three and also because Marla seemed too eccentric and appeared so suddenly in the narrator’s life. This would definitely be an interesting possibility, though I don’t know what that would do to the message of the movie. In any case, I guess that my point is that if you liked Fight Club you will enjoy Three as well. I already spoiled the whole thing, but it’s still a thrilling read and you can look for the clues that they are the same person throughout the book.

The Reality of the West

I would not call myself a big fan of Westerns, but there is a certain air to them that I find very interesting. Westerns force us to think about certain aspects of “Americanism” as no other genre can. The idealism of expansion and rugged individualism making it out in the wilderness seems quite romantic, but it also conflicts with the ugly realities of the unjust treatment of non-white people, rampant alcoholism, violence, prostitution, and so on. I really liked that Unforgiven addressed some of these issues and put a more realistic spin on the Western.

The effect of violence on those that commit it is probably the most thoroughly explored issue in the film. I found William Munny to be a very interesting character because he is clearly scarred by his violent past and tries to move past it. Similarly, Ned is so troubled by the thought of violence that he can’t bring himself to shoot Davy Boy and the Schofield Kid is so traumatized by his first killing that he swears off of it forever. This makes all of these men much more relatable and realistic than a classic Western hero who shows up, says some dramatic lines, shoots some people, and then rides into the sunset.

But it’s not just the men who are more nuanced; I also appreciated the portrayal of the female characters in the film. The prostitutes were not depicted as simple whores or eye candy; they took care of each other, they stood up for themselves, and they clearly had minds of their own. On the other hand, they were also not perfect women who just fell on hard times; their obsession with revenge starts a vicious cycle that hurts many people who didn’t deserve it. In this way they are, like the men, depicted in a more nuanced way that breaks down their archetypal characters.

Finally, the last group I want to talk about is non-white people. The film didn’t address racial issues too explicitly, but I felt there were still some aspects worth mentioning. As far as non-white characters go, there is Ned and there is his wife Sally. Ned isn’t faced with any explicit racism that I can remember, but I definitey got some vibes from the Schofield Kid’s first interaction with him. And of course, the scene where Ned is whipped by Little Bill was very reminiscent of slavery and highlighted the power inbalance between the two. Ned’s wife Sally doesn’t get as much screentime and the movie doesn’t really address Native American issues that came about as a result of Western expansion. Similar to this is the case of the Chinese. Several characters say that English Bob is known for shooting Chinamen and I think I saw one Asian guy in the background somewhere, but mostly there isn’t much representation for us in this film. It’s a shame because many Chinese people came to the US and ended up being treated horribly while working in the mines and on the railroads (so much for “Gold Mountain”). I know that the film wasn’t really trying to make a big statement on race inequality, but since it was taking a more realistic look at the Western I think it was an opportunity missed to not expand on this more.

A Differing Perspective on Technology

One thing all of my friends know about me is that I am a huge Disney fan. Being Asian American I was especially drawn to Big Hero 6, so before the movie came out I tried to find out everything I could about the film’s creation. One thing that stood out to me was that the directors felt that, in the West, there is a general fear of technology and apprehension about what it might lead to. This contrasts very much with Japan, where technology is generally seen as good and helpful. This was one consideration the creators had when they were designing Baymax, who followed the Japanese model by being a healthcare provider and generally adorable robot (mostly).

I bring this up because 2001 really cemented this idea. HAL seems sentimental at times, but he murders several helpless people to protect himself. In other popular films like I, Robot; The Matrix and Terminator, robots or technology in general are also shown in a negative light. And yet in Japan (if you watch anime at all), robots like Astroboy and the mechas in Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion and similar shows are generally seen as heroic, helpful, and able to work together with humans.

What does this different in culture mean? I don’t know enough about the history to guess at why it may exist, but there are certainly effects of it we can see today. There is the (perhaps stereotypical) idea of Japan as being a technological leader in the world, and this may in fact stem from their positive association with technology (or robophilia, as my Japanese 121 professor would’ve called it). But the US is also a technological powerhouse and American people seem to be warming up more and more to the idea of robots and technological assistants (as suggested by applications like Siri and Cortana, newer films like Wall-E and Her, and robots increasingly appearing in warehouses and hospitals). It seems like the US’s perspective is shifting to be more like Japan’s, and we are entering a new era when technology will make more and more rapid advancements. I for one am pretty optimistic about what it might bring.

Romantic Comedy?

We talked a lot last week about the role of women in Hitchcock’s films and so on, but in our discussion of “The Graduate” we didn’t touch on the topic nearly as much. In fact, I think the relationship between Ben and Elaine is very interesting. It was mentioned in class that “The Graduate” is a romantic comedy; I won’t argue with the comedy part, but I can’t say I found anything about this film romantic. After all, what really happens in their relationship? First Ben takes Elaine to a strip club, making her visibly upset, and then he reveals that he had been having sex with her mother. Then he stalks her all the way to her school and continues to stalk her even after she leaves school. You could say that he is doing the right thing because she says she loves him in her letter, but all I kept thinking was why. Why would Elaine like Ben at all if that was the impression she got of him?

At first I thought this was a classic case of the beautiful, smart girl inexplicably falling in love with the sad, broody male protagonist. They even made Elaine’s fiance an obvious asshole to make Ben seem like a better alternative (he’s really not). And yet, the more I thought about it the more I realized that Elaine does have something to gain from Ben. That is, rebellion. The two do have a conversation after leaving the strip club after all, and they seem to have similar thoughts about their futures (though again, I don’t think having a chat over some French fries exactly balances out the fact that he had sex with her mother). Both of them want to get out from underneath their parents’ thumbs, and hooking up is one way of doing that. It’s notable to me that Elaine only starts calling back to Ben when she looks at her parents’ and fiance’s angry reactions. She goes with him to piss off her family, and maybe she doesn’t even like him so much as she likes the idea of him. And maybe Ben’s feelings for Elaine are the same.

This idea coupled with the film’s final scene paint a pretty bleak picture for the end of the movie. But frankly, I prefer this interpretation to the idea that Elaine and Ben genuinely love each other. Their relationship is way too rushed and full of too many complications that can’t be realistically looked past. And frankly, Ben is a creep.

Mystery vs. Suspense

I don’t consider myself a film expert by any means, so Hitchcock’s explanation of what separates the mystery and suspense genres was a bit perplexing to me. The example he gave was of the woman who “died” and came back into the man’s life, making him fall in love with her again. Hitchcock argues that a mystery would leave the audience wondering whether she was the same woman–that is, it would withhold that information from us. In contrast, a suspense film would tell us that she is the same woman, thus building dramatic irony and heightening our expectations for when the hero eventually finds out the truth.

This all makes sense, but by that logic wouldn’t “Rear Window” be a mystery? After all, we are not told outright that Thorwald is a murderer. We get the same clues that Jeff gets and are even privy to a couple of shots that Jeff cannot see, but none of these confirm anything. Up until the very end, we are left wondering just like in a mystery. By contrast, something like Sherlock Holmes would typically be considered a mystery. But in modern adaptations (we’ll take BBC’s “Sherlock” for example), we see Sherlock alive after he has jumped off of a building, while Dr. Watson mourns for him. In this way, the story builds suspense for when John finally finds out Sherlock has lived. Of course, Sherlock’s fall isn’t one of his cases in the show, and there is plenty of mystery involved with those. Which brings me to my next point.

Obviously a film or TV series doesn’t have to be strictly one genre or another. There’s plenty of mystery in suspense films and plenty of suspense in mysteries, but what I am wondering is if these genres must necessarily go together. They seem so similar that the line between them gets blurred to me, and I find it hard to imagine one without the other. After all, even if we don’t know who the criminal is, isn’t there some suspense when they finally pull off the mask? Even if we know the truth about a situation, isn’t there some mystery as to what the motives are and how everything will play out?

Fun and Games

Before getting into this post, I’d like to say that I enjoyed The Philadelphia Story and found the characters very charming and three dimensional. They were all flawed but learned to overcome those flaws, and their relationships with one another seemed real. But if we are considering that one of the messages of the film is that there is a natural hierarchy led by “exceptional individuals” and that it’s not all fun and games being rich, then I have to say that the movie fell short of its mark for me.

Consider Tracy’s family. The film certainly does a good job of breaking down the idea of the vapid aristocracy–the scene where Dinah and Tracy act like stereotypical snobs to mess with Mike and Liz was pretty funny. But just because they don’t actually spout French and walk around with their arms floating in front of them doesn’t make them naturally better than others. Tracy’s father had an affair and blamed his daughter for it; he may have some positive qualities but this is kind of a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned. Tracy proves her intelligence to Mike by reading his book, but of course she has some taste in books; she could get a better education because she was born rich. Without getting too political, of course I know there’s a lot of hard work involved with accumulating wealth, but there’s also a great deal of luck (especially in old money families). With that in mind, is there anything naturally better about Tracy and her family that makes them exceptional enough to be upper class? Or is their exceptionality a result of their wealth?

Another thing I was rather unimpressed with was the problems faced by the characters. One of Tracy’s dilemmas is that three handsome guys are in love with her. What a tragedy. A little more seriously, she also has to deal with lack of privacy and her own inability to deal with “human frailty,” as Dex said. But especially after watching films like The Grapes of Wrath, this sort of thing seems very trivial. I understand that rom coms aren’t really supposed to be about serious issues. People like to see stories about wealthy people because it’s an escape from regular life and it often involves more drama, more attractive people, more luxurious places, basically something to aspire to. In the end, I liked The Philadelphia Story for its humor and characters, but it didn’t leave a great impact.

Poverty in the Media

In class on Wednesday, Professor Jordan challenged us to think of any popular, contemporary TV show or movie that showed poor people as the protagonists. My first thought was Slumdog Millionaire but I realized that the protagonist does become a millionaire, so does that really count? I didn’t think so. In fact, no one could really think of anything, and that took me by surprise. I have always had the idea that Americans love rooting for the underdog and that a show about people who are down on their luck financially should be able to get an audience. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t exactly true. Even shows which are about lower income people like Two Broke Girls feature characters who are well-off enough to have jobs and a home, at least. A similar example (in which I am a little more invested as an American born Chinese) is Fresh off the Boat, which shows a family trying to get their restaurant off the ground. The family often talks about money being a problem, but they have a nice house in the suburbs, cars, access to schools, etc. In both these shows, the situation is certainly nothing comparable to The Grapes of Wrath.

So what does this mean? Slumdog Millionaire, Two Broke Girls, Fresh off the Boat, they all have that underdog-cheering aspect I was thinking of, but they end up being generally comical and happy and we get the feeling that the protagonists will be triumphant in the end. There’s nothing sad or uncertain or downright depressing like in The Grapes of Wrath. I suppose we as people like to see someone work hard and struggle, but in the end it should pay off. Otherwise what’s the point?

Obviously this view can be very problematic for people who actually suffer from poverty, since no one likes to notice that they exist (myself included). It reminds me of the novel The Jungle, which I read a few years ago. Most people know it for revealing the disgusting conditions in the meatpacking industry but in fact, only a very small portion of the book is devoted to that. Most of it is devoted to describing the miserable life of an immigrant family who I dare say have an even more depressing story than that of the Joads. On this topic, the author said “I Aimed For The Public’s Heart, And. . .hit It In The Stomach.” It’s funny how that happens.

A Timeless Classic

When we watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on Monday, I was frankly prepared to be bored. I generally consider films from the 80s to be too old to bother with, never mind a film from 1939. But on Monday, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was. Many of the film’s funny moments still got a laugh, such as when the coin landed on its side or Jeff kept dropping his hat. I was also charmed by Jeff’s relationship with Saunders, since she was the skilled and knowledgeable one of the pair and stayed that way throughout the film. Oftentimes the female love interest will start out being much better than her male partner, but over the course of the film he will somehow surpass or at least equal her skills and become the most important figure in whatever struggle there is (see Antman and The Lego Movie). While Jeff does become the focal point of the conflict here, he is still looking to Saunders for cues throughout the whole filibuster. It is his sincerity and spirit which make him strong, and it foils nicely with Saunders’ strategic mind. But in the end, it was the message that really made this film enjoyable. As we know, the American people’s satisfaction with the government is at an all time low, and seeing a film about a hopeful politician trying to make a difference is very heartwarming. And I am a little embarrassed to admit that I did shed a tear or two at the end.

With all this in mind, I recalled from the lecture that this movie got some heat from all sides when it first debuted. I did some digging to see what sort of reception this film got and found that, after the movie’s debut, the Senate majority leader said it “makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks” and the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain worried that the film would damage America’s reputation in Europe. The Boy Scouts themselves wanted no part in the movie, thus leading to the fictional Boy Rangers. This all sounds bad but there’s something to be said about the fact that we are still talking about it in a film class today and that the film enjoys a very high rating on RottenTomatoes, if that means anything, One thing’s for sure, this movie has definitely affected my perspective on what “old” movies can be.