Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them may have visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Forward, Comrades! – an animated short on the downfall of the Soviet Union

Wang Liyin, “Forward, Comrades!” (2013)

This animated Chinese short, made by a student at the Beijing Film Academy, focuses on the twilight days of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a young girl. She lives with her parents in a shabby wooden bungalow and spends her days playing with toy construction bricks and talking to her pets while her schoolteacher mother is at work. The pets are a cat called Comrade Vladimir (as in Vladimir Lenin), a chicken called Comrade Felix (as in Felix Dzerzhinsky) and a duck called Comrade Beriya (as in Lavrenty Beria). The animals aren’t always well behaved: one day Comrade Beriya is naughty and the unnamed girl punishes him for “crimes” against socialism, while giving the instructions for a final knock-out blow against capitalist enemies to Comrade Felix.

One day a Russian-language TV broadcast informs viewers of a coup carried out by reactionary forces against the Soviet Union and from then on, things change dramatically for the girl and her pets. Comrades Vladimir and Felix die, Comrade Beriya is despatched by the girl’s mother to a restaurant, and the toy construction bricks and other belongings of the girl are also sold off. The family moves into an apartment block in a grey city, and the girl is given new American toys – various dolls and Disney character soft toys – to play with. On overhearing her mother discussing fashions and cosmetics with other adults, the child decides to run away back to her old home. At that very moment, there is a nuclear explosion in the sky and the girl is transported back to a world where her pets are very much alive and have formed a tank regiment.

The animation is quite crude and the story is very selective in its history. An entire episode of Soviet history, in which the Soviet Union transforms itself into an industrial power twice over (in the 1930s and then after the Second World War) under Joseph Stalin, followed by a long period of stagnation and corrupt rule under a series of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-allied politicians from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, is skipped over in the cartoon’s portrayal of the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. The girl’s decision to break away from her parents represents China’s decision to strike out on its own socialist path – though in reality, this involved zigzagging through the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and later leader Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of economic flexibility combining elements of capitalism and socialism, to the current situation in which China is now wealthy enough to bring economic development to its more impoverished regions and to Third World countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

There are some interesting ideas about how capitalism can influence people to conform to labels and categories. On the whole though, the film shows a very sketchy and poor understanding of Soviet and Chinese history. It’s mainly of interest to people curious about the current state of Chinese animated film.

The Hole: an ultimately unsatisfying film about isolation, alienation and yearning for connection

Tsai Ming-liang, “The Hole / Dong” (1998)

Its theme of yearning for connection and hope in a dystopian urban environment of the near future, where an extraordinary social crisis has led to extreme government action that isolates and alienates individuals, is rather too obvious so “The Hole” opts for an idiosyncratic presentation combining elements of moody post-apocalyptic science fiction, nostalgic musical fantasy that pays homage to 1950s Hong Kong singer Grace Chang and a minimalist plot relying heavily on the talents of its two main actors Yang Kuei-mei (as the Woman) and Lee Kang-sheng (as the Man) to supply the action, the dancing, the skimpy dialogue, the emotion and the comedy. While the slow plot may disappoint viewers and skirts quite close to boredom, its very minimalism may provoke a lot of discussion as to whether “The Hole” can be regarded as a depressive dystopian picture, a satire on modern society where everyone at once wants to be alone yet secretly yearns for connection or a bizarre musical comedy escapade.

Around the year 2000, Taiwan is hit by a mystery viral plague spread by cockroaches that apparently causes people to behave like cockroaches and eventually drives them insane and kills them. The government evacuates healthy people to quarantine camps but some choose to stay in the city and are corralled into apartment blocks. In one such apartment block live two unnamed people, the Man who occupies one flat and the Woman who lives in the flat below his. Constant pouring rain causes problems in the block: a plumber enters the Man’s flat to find the cause of a leak and digs out a hole in the Man’s living room floor. He leaves the hole there without apparently making a future date to return to fix it. The Woman, trying to cope with water leaking from various points throughout her flat, is unimpressed with the hole appearing in her ceiling. The hole becomes the catalyst for the characters to make contact with each other by assuming various roles: initially it is the avenue by which they become aware of each other, leading to fantasies of connection and possible romance (as demonstrated in the musical numbers); it is also the source of their frustration with each other, as the plumber fails to return to finish his job and the noises that the Man makes upstairs annoy the Woman; the hole becomes the means by which the Man becomes aware of the Woman being potentially infected by the virus; and in its last manifestation it is a beacon of hope and optimism.

The pace is slow with little happening until the last few moments so much viewer attention is directed to the isolating and isolated dank and dark concrete-jungle environment in which the characters live. The Man runs a food store that receives incredibly few customers save for an elderly gent whose favourite brands no longer exist and the Woman spends all her time mopping her floor, ripping wet wallpaper off her walls and eating instant noodles: how totally atomised their lives must be when all they can look forward to each day is emptiness and silence! The cinematography relies on long take after long take that emphasises the characters’ total isolation and alienation. Even the bright and colourful musical numbers, fantasy though they are, with agile male dancers in tuxedoes and a trio of back-up doo-wop girl singers, take place in the apartment block’s elevator, stairways and gangways, and in one flat, as though to suggest that, no matter how dreary people’s lives may be, they can still take refuge in their imaginations and that refuge may be closer to reality than they realise.

While there’s much to commend the film, its central characters remain flat due to the slow and sparse narrative, which permits little character development. The resolution to the characters’ problems seems overburdened with visual allusion (even though viewers can see it coming from a mile away) and ends in a sentimental music number. This is the kind of slightly experimental art film that you see once but no more than that. The film’s examination of the human condition comes across as rather superficial, a bit stereotyped and ultimately unsatisfying. Passively accepting a government restriction that forces the film’s characters to endure isolated lives without meaning or hope of change, renewal or freedom, and to retreat instead into an endlessly repeating fantasy world, seems to be the film’s main message; if rebellion occurs, it is only by accidental chance.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

The World: a slow and meandering narrative reveals a rich world of hope, pain and tragedy behind superficial capitalist glamour

Jia Zhangke, “The World” (2004)

In future years, this film, long and meandering though it is, may well be regarded as an early masterpiece in Jia Zhangke’s corpus of work. Set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a theme park which gives visitors a taste of the world’s most famous monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in miniature without ever having to leave Beijing, the film focuses on the lives of various fictional employees at the Park, most of whom have come from poor rural parts of China or elsewhere, and reveals them to be bleak and alienated, not only from the, uh, world outside the park but from one another as well. Superficially presenting as a snapshot documentary of the employees’ daily lives as they entertain visitors in dance shows or guide them around the park, the film comes to question the impact of capitalist ideology (with its emphasis on consumption of material items and experiences) and what that brings – the increase in wealth that enables people to travel overseas and have new experiences not possible in China, in turn enticing others to dream about travel and escape – and how new global economic, political and technological connections have paradoxically led to disconnection and alienation among young people in contemporary Chinese society.

The film appears to have no plot or at least nothing that resembles a conventional movie plot: it starts off with its heroine Tao (Zhao Tao), a talented dancer, charging through backstage rooms where fellow cast members are getting dressed or undressed or putting on or taking off make-up, and calling loudly for a band-aid. She never gets one and in this scene alone, one senses the film’s themes already falling into place: people apparently communicating over one another’s heads but the message never reaching anyone in particular and failing to be heard, much less responded to and acted upon; a continual search for connection that ends in failure; the frustration and anger that always seem to be simmering below the surface. The film follows Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard at the Park, and their tempestuous relationship. Tao is visited by an ex-boyfriend on his way to Mongolia and Taisheng seems rather jealous; from this moment on, the relationship increasingly frays, particularly after a friend of his asks him to drive a young woman called Qun to Taiyuan so she can deal with a brother with a gambling problem Taisheng becomes infatuated with Qun and after bringing her back to Beijing, starts paying her regular visits even though she tells him she has a husband in Paris and is trying to obtain a visa to visit the spouse.

There are various small sub-plots in the film, the most significant of which involve Tao striking up a friendship with a Russian woman Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) who works at the Park, though neither can speak the other’s language; and Taisheng’s childhood friend nicknamed Little Sister, who comes to Beijing looking for work and who is directed by Taisheng to a construction site. Anna eventually leaves the Park and takes up hostessing (and prostitution) to raise the money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, leaving Tao in tears; and Little Sister dies in a work accident that devastates Taisheng. Not long afterwards, Tao discovers Taisheng’s affair with Qun and she flees the Park to go house-sitting for two fellow employees who have recently married.

Through the various soap-opera dramas, we come to see how trapped Tao and Taisheng are in their low-paid and uninspiring jobs in which pretence is paramount, with no hope of escape to see and experience the places whose monuments are miniaturised into kitsch packages for tourists. The film’s title comes to be seen as ironic: “The World” holds out a promise of endless possibilities and opportunities but the main characters and their fellow travellers find themselves constrained by their work, the expectations put upon them by others, the obligations they carry, their inability or unwillingness to communicate how and what they really feel directly to one another (instead communicating via mobile phones) and ultimately by the passage of time. Hope dies away and there is only the endless repetition of work and fakeness. How Tao and Taisheng deal with the loss of hope and the death of their dreams and their relationship turns out to be shocking if not totally unexpected.

Small animated interludes stress the lack of direct connections characters have with one another and with their physical environment. Travel and the restlessness implied are a constant motif in the film: minor characters are always on their way to another place, another job or another goal while major characters are stuck in ruts partly of their own making. Buildings and other structures where the film plays out always look incomplete or makeshift, or their inner frameworks are on display. We see less of the glitzy Beijing and more of its industrial, polluted environment where people live out their lives either hoping for something better or lacking in hope.

Slow though it is, the pace has a purpose: viewers become fully immersed in the lives of Tao, Taisheng and their friends, colleagues and relatives, and so the pain and sorrows these people experience become all the more raw. The no-plot plot has its purpose as well: it demonstrates how hollow real life has become, even when dedicated to creating and maintaining a simulacrum of an idealised and superficial dream. The meandering narrative unexpectedly and ironically reveals a real and actually rich world behind a fake World.

The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.

 

Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Red Sorghum: a celebration of life, its vitality and rebirth, and of the resilience and courage needed to bring back hope

Zhang Yimou, “Hong gao liang / Red Sorghum” (1987)

“Red Sorghum” marks the debut of Zhang Yimou as an important director in Chinese film and of actor Gong Li who would go on to make several films with Zhang (and become his lover as well). Set in northern China in the late 1930s, just ahead of and during the Japanese invasion of the country, the film has a fairy-tale quality while it also revels in the lusty and earthy Chinese peasant culture. Gong Li plays teenage bride Jiu’er sent by her poor parents to an elderly man suffering from leprosy who owns a winery. The girl is taken in a sedan, carried by several men, to the winery. The men sing bawdy songs to discomfit the girl but as they cross a field of sorghum, the wedding party is accosted by a bandit. One of the men (Jiang Wen) saves Jiu’er from being assaulted by killing the bandit and the wedding party manages to reach the winery with no more trouble. Later when Jiu’er returns to her parents temporarily and then takes leave of them permanently to go back to her husband, her rescuer jumps out of the sorghum field and drags her deep into the forest of sorghum where he apparently rapes her.

Jiu’er’s elderly husband is found dead with no heir so Jiu’er takes ownership of the winery. She inspires the workers to help her build up the winery into a successful enterprise. Jiu’er’s rescuer (he is never named) tries to claim her as his wife but she throws him out of her bedroom and the workers dump him into an empty vat. Later when the workers are celebrating the making of the first batch of sorghum wine since Jiu’er took over the running of the winery, the rescuer tries to spoil the party by urinating into the wine … but his action actually improves the taste of the wine. The improved wine becomes a major factor in the winery’s success over the next nine years.

The Imperial Japanese army invades the area and forces everyone living there to clear and destroy the sorghum fields so a road can be built. After the Japanese torture and kill a former winery worker Luohan (Teng Rujun), Jiu’er encourages her workers to avenge his death. They set up booby traps for the Japanese military convoy but not everything goes according to plan and Jiu’er and a woman servant end up being killed by the Japanese. The traps go off but end up killing nearly everyone and only Jiu’er’s rescuer and their young son survive.

The film is most notable for its cinematography and the lavish use of the colour red to symbolise vitality (whether in the peasants themselves or the hooch they brew), bloodshed and ultimately hope and defiance. The actual story-telling seems fragmented, skips over an entire period in which Jiu’er makes her business prosper, and gives no motivation or reason for Luohan leaving Jiu’er’s employ when he does or why he suddenly turns up near the winery nine years later, only to disappear again until he is caught by the Japanese. The relationship between Jiu’er and her rescuer may not be sufficiently defined enough for Western viewers who have to deduce from the looks she gives the rescuer that she is both attracted to and repelled by him.

Probably the weakest part of the film is at its end when all seems hopeless and lost, and nothing is said, yet we know from the voiceover narration in previous sections of the film that the survivors did carry on. Why at this point in the film does the unseen narrator remain silent? Why does he not take the opportunity to praise and commend Jiu’er for holding together and inspiring a small desert community after her elderly husband’s death?

While the brutal violence may come as a shock to many viewers, the film ultimately is a celebration of life in all its aspects and its rebirth, and of the patience, determination and resilience needed to turn desperation and despair into optimism and hope.

 

US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm: a sketchy report on the insidious effects of US military activity on a South Korean village and farming region

Yoichi Shimatsu, “US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm (Lens.tv Report: THAAD Deployment in South Korea)” (2017)

Structured as a news report rather than as a documentary, this item by investigative reporter (and former Japan Times Weekly editor) Yoichi Shimatsu focuses on the effects of an American missile base deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile defence system on an agricultural region centred around the village of Seongju in southeast South Korea. According to THAAD’s Wikipedia entry, the system is “designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach”. One presumes THAAD has been deployed in South Korea to protect that country from inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from North Korea.

Shimatsu and his cameraman travel to Seongju where he meets protesters who tell him they have been protesting against the missile base since July 2016 when it was established. A local person called Kang (who turns out to be a Buddhist monk) takes Shimatsu’s crew to Bodhidharma mountain, named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, where they survey the missile base and take photographs. Shimatsu identifies a Patriot launch vehicle, part of the Patriot system which targets low-flying intermediate-range missiles that the THAAD system does not target. To Shimatsu, the deployment of the Patriot system at the Seongju missile base suggests that the US intends to use the base as part of an offensive attack against North Korea, and possibly China and Russia, and is not intended solely to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear attack.

Shimatsu and Kang also discuss the strong electricity vibrations being generated in the missile base for the radar unit there and the effect of these vibrations through the mountains on the growth and development of the area’s fruits, vegetables and flowers. Shimatsu later interviews a young university student who tells him that flowers have stopped growing and that produce has dwindled since the missile base was established.

Not much background context is provided in this 12-minute video and viewers need to do their own research on why and how Seongju came to host the missile base – the luxury golf resort at the missile base was the conduit by which the US military obtained access to the real estate at Bodhidharma Mountain and converted it into a military site – under the auspices of former South Korean President Park Geunhye, daughter of the notorious dictator president Park Chunghee (1961 – 1979) who was impeached in early 2017 for corruption linked to her aide Choi Soonsil. There is scanty explanation on how the strong electricity and electromagnetic vibrations from the missile base could be affecting vegetation and people’s health, and if the video had been a bit longer and its budget bigger, an animation or diagram explaining the possible origin of the vibrations and how they are linked to the activities at the base could have been useful.

The most useful aspect of the report is as a wake-up call to communities around the world contemplating hosting military bases for the US, and the consequences these may have for the communities, their economies and their natural environments.

Raise the Red Lantern: criticising the abuse of power by those tasked with upholding tradition

Zhang Yimou, “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991)

This is a beautiful film of minimal, even severe and classic simplicity, that lets the cruelty and jealous passions of a patriarchal system speak for themselves. Songlian (Gong Li), a beautiful and educated teenage girl must drop out of university after her tea merchant father dies and marry a wealthy landowner in northern China as his fourth wife. She goes to live with him and his other wives in his labyrinthine mansion complex. There, she must conform to the various laborious customs and traditions whose original meaning may have long been forgotten. She must contend with servants who may be well-meaning but surly and jealous of her apparent good fortune, in particular the maid Yan’er (Kong Lin) who is assigned to her as her personal maid. She also has to defer to her husband’s first wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), an elderly woman long past child-bearing age; second wife Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), seemingly friendly and obliging; and third wife Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer, who is upset at being usurped by a younger and more attractive bride and who might scheme at getting rid of Songlian. Over time though Songlian discovers who is the real back-stabber among the wives, and what her maid may be up to. Unfortunately Songlian’s isolation from the outside world, her frustration with the fruitlessness of her new life and the restrictions imposed by the family’s traditions and customs, and her attempts to compete with the other wives lead her to make one mistake after another, and the train of devastating events that follow as a result take their toll on her psychologically so that she is left deranged.

The story is straightforward and predictable – once Songlian discovers the House of Death and a pair of women’s slippers inside, we know already it will be used as the site of execution: the question is, who will die? – and might be boring for some viewers. None of the characters is at all attractive – all the wives compete for the master’s attention in often petty and immature ways (quite typical of harems) – and the women who seem most intimidating and threatening to Songlian tragically end up dying as a result of Songlian’s thoughtlessness, scheming and childish behaviour crossed with the dead weight of family tradition. The master himself comes across as ineffectual for the most part and one wonders whether the real rulers of this particular roost are the servants themselves, obedient to the letter of tradition rather than its spirit. No wonder the Chinese government did not like this film when it was first released: instead of the master actively throwing his weight around, the servants (analogous to government bureaucrats) apply custom (the law) in a way that is robotic and insensitive to the context it is being used in.

The film gains its power by obeying the classic “show, don’t tell” method of revealing its plot, and through it criticising the abuse of power. Much colourful symbolism is used, often achieving comic effects but also becoming repetitive and deadening. The constant raising and lowering of lanterns become cliched and that in itself reveals how custom and tradition in themselves can have deleterious effects on people’s lives. Through characters like Yan’er and Meishan, the film comments on how dreams of a better life or a former life express how women cope with an oppressive social system through escapism and, through those characters’ experiences, how such hope can be turned on them and ultimately kill them.

The architecture of the mansion and the music of the period in which the film is set (early 1920s) are significant characters in their own right: the mansion turns out to be a prison and the music reveals the yearnings and hidden passions of women wanting a better life than what they are forced to have. It seem ironic that the one woman who is finally set free through her own pride from the patriarchy portrayed in “Raise the Red Lantern” is a poor illiterate woman and not a wealthy educated one.