In these topsy-turvy times, it's oddly appropriate for a film like Slumdog Millionaire to storm its way nearly unobstructed to a Best Picture Oscar. One could argue that its massive success -- and subsequent backlash in certain media quarters -- represents the pinnacle of globalization -- or its nadir.
So why all the hullabaloo? Maybe it's because we, despite a newly-elected Black president, and the perceived exorcising of a thousand white-is-right demons, still lie in fear of the unknown. Or maybe it's because, in some ways, cultural biases are a final tipping point -- the essential tragic flaw that helps us decipher the indecipherable. Without them, we would be forever doomed to a lifetime of White noise and inconvenient untruths told by the Many.
In China, where the most powerful untruths are both inconvenient and nails-on-a-chalkboard shrill, it's doubly important to show -- not tell -- it like it is. Thank heavens, then, for the Chinese films of one Ang Lee.
Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) took a more fluid, melting-pot approach to the well-worn Chinese tradition of the martial arts epic -- less nationalist militancy, more new-age-isms and ephemeral, off-the-cuff action sequences. Unsurprisingly, that made it an instant phenomenon Stateside, where ravenous martial arts fanboys and arthouse mavens alike gobbled up its chewy Disney-meets-Taoism center.
Mainland Chinese audiences, on the other hand, reacted like they were at the butt of some sick cosmic joke. How else to explain the sheer implausibility and inauthenticity crammed into every frame? Where Americans saw Eastern élan, the Chinese saw fortune-cookie-cutter mumbo-jumbo dressed up in crummy Mandarin Chinese accents. More alarmingly, they detected a whiff of some outdated understanding of Chineseness, a kind of magical realism that seemed to implicitly endorse the diaspora by welcoming notions of -- gasp -- individual will. Here, the hidden dragon in the room was Ang Lee himself -- a Taiwanese outsider who dared to deconstruct and decentralize the great China myth that there is only One China.
Lee's follow-up caused an even greater uproar. Based upon a short story by renowned Shanghainese writer Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution (2007) seemed an ideal opportunity for Lee to extend an olive branch to mainland Chinese audiences who felt that his newfound status as Chinese iconoclast was served on a silver platter. So Lee made two films: one a fiercely patriotic, sweeping love epic that captured the upheaval and identity politics of old Shanghai, the other an achingly poignant, deeply ambivalent maelstrom of the warped nationalism and sexual despondency gripping 20th century China.
Okay, so only one movie actually exists, but try telling that to the Chinese censors. The 13 minutes of fervent, shock-and-awe sex that holds the key to understanding the film was left on the cutting room floor -- at least, in mainland Chinese cineplexes. The full, uncensored version could be seen in Hong Kong theaters, and not long after, a friendly neighborhood DVD retailer near you (read: street carts jam-packed with pirated DVDs). Chinese audiences flocked to see the movie in waves -- cut or uncut, it became Lee's most successful theatrical release in China to date.
The rest of the world, however, could barely suppress yawns. Though Lust, Caution took home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, most of the critics who had previously worshipped at the altar of Crouching Tiger, called it just shy of a shamockery from the most high-profiled Chinese auteur. "Too much caution, not enough lust" was a familiar critique, and many griped that outside of the bedroom, the film's leads displayed none of the emotional and thematic dexterity needed to, ahem, satiate audiences.
If there is any global truth to be gleaned from this wide chasm of responses, it's that cultural bias seldom tilts in a linear fashion. Ang Lee's background -- he spent his formative years in Taiwan before fine-tuning his filmmaking sense and sensibility at New York University's film school -- certainly accounts for the range in perspectives. But even his staunchest supporters and harshest critics encounter great difficulty when trying to peg him -- is he a nationalist, a globalist, or simply, an opportunist?
In actuality, who he is matters far less than what he has accomplished. In my mind, that makes him somewhat of a cultural expressionist: someone who can take an entity as voluminous and paradoxical as China, and parse through it using the futility of emotion to unpack cultural and ideological meaning. Gritted teeth; wordless glances; the silent shudder of lips, flesh, and soul -- it's all Lee's way of showing us that making love, not war has its share of cultural hang-ups too.
Slumdog might be a shining example of how to package a transglobal blockbuster. But its fatal flaw is that it often treats globalization, the lingua franca of today's world, as unassailable gospel. Sometimes we don't like to have our cultural biases spelled out for us in bright, neon letters. Sometimes, the best form of expression is to say nothing at all.
Like most things in China, Chi's blog is currently under construction (but coming soon!). In the meantime, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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