Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 14, 2013


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment of the films based on Joanne Collins’s young adult novels. Although I found it entertaining, I did not like it as much as the first film in the series. (You can read my review of that movie here. I will discuss the reasons for this below.

Catching Fire picks up where the previous film left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returns to her home district after the game. She and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to go on a victory tour of the various districts. She meets with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who warns her that she had better do as she is told, or there will be dire consequences. During the tour, it becomes clear to Katniss that she has become a symbol of resistance to the people. This is clear to the government as well. Snow’s henchman, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devises a scheme to solve this problem. They will make Katniss fight another Hunger Game, in which she will be made to kill people who have helped her. The aim is to disillusion people who see her as a heroine.

This is where I start to have a problem with this movie. When Katniss arrives at the Hunger Game, the government immediately tries to kill her, sending poisonous fog and giant babbon-like creatures at her, before she has a chance to kill anyone. It seems to me that the makers of this film were more concerned about having a lot of action than they were about maintaining narrative logic. Which is a problem with a lot of Hollywood movies.

The posters for this film feature the line: “Remember who the enemy is.” The line in the movie is actually “Remember who the real enemy is.” It occurs twice: Haymish (Woody Harrelson) says it to Katniss just before the Hunger Game, and a character whom Katniss mistakenly believes has betrayed her says it just before the film’s climactic scene. The word “real” is the most important word in the sentence. The Hunger Games create false enemies, when the real enemy is the government. The Hunger Games is a metaphor for how our society creates false enemies to distract us from our real enemy. This is why the story has had such a strong resonance with many people.

Inside China Today

October 1, 2012

My old friend, David “Earl” Waterman recently visited China, and he produced this insightful and revealing video.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal has died. I enjoyed reading his essays in the New York Review of Books, but I was never keen on his novels. (Although I did enjoy Julian.) Vidal’s acerbic criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and of this country’s plutocracy earned him an enthusiastic following among the left. However, Doug Henwood, who is generally an admirer of Vidal’s, reminds us that he had a “creepy nativist streak”. He recalls hearing Vidal express sympathy for the racist Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn. In the 1980’s, Vidal published an article titled The Empire Lovers Strike Back, in which he wrote:

    My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race with many well-deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.

The kindest thing one can say about this is that it shows that Vidal was completely ignorant about Asia. Vidal surely must have been aware of the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric that was common in the early twentieth century. And bear in mind that he was making this argument in a country with a history of discrimination against Asians, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In the same article, Vidal says that Norman Podhoretz is not an “assimilated American”. This comment provoked accusations of anti-Semitism. Vidal once said of Hilton Kramer that his name “sounds like a hotel in Tel-Aviv”.

Also problematic for the left are the disturbing implications of Vidal’s ham-fisted writings on population control. He once said:

    If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war then by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving… it may already be too late to save this ark of fools.

Vidal would perhaps have been pleased to know that the birth-rate in Japan has been falling.

Despite all his faults, I am saddened by Vidal’s passing. He was a public intellectual, a type of person that is becoming increasingly rare in the United States. Unfortunately, the media often saw him as a figure of entertainment rather than enlightenment. They could never get enough of his silly fight with Norman Mailer or his tiresome feud with Truman Capote. It seems the media must trivialize everything, including writers.

A City of Sadness

May 8, 2012

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, released in 1989, was the first Taiwanese film to deal with the “White Terror” that Chiang-kai-shek’s Kuomintang imposed upon Taiwan. In that sense, it is a politically courageous work, but it also happens to be beautifully made and moving to watch.

This film has a large cast of characters, but it mainly revolves around three brothers: Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen), Wen-leung (Jack Kao), and Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who live in a port city in northeastern Taiwan. In the film’s opening scene, we hear the radio broadcast of Hirohito announcing Japan’s surrender, ending World War II, while a woman is giving birth. The symbolism of this is obvious: Taiwan, which has long been under Japanese occupation, is being reborn. Hope, however, soon turns to bitterness. The allies, without consulting the Taiwanese, turn the island over to China, which was then under the control of Chiang, who placed the country under the rule of his general, Chen Yi. The latter begins dismissing Taiwanese from government positions and replacing them with mainland Chinese. This, combined with rampant corruption, causes resentment from the people that ultimately explodes into violence.

During the Japanese occupation, the brothers’ father resorted to criminal activity to support his family. After the war, Wen-heung tries to run a legal business. Wen-leung, however, becomes involved with smugglers from Shanghai. Wen-ching, who is deaf, works as a photographer. Although the brothers are non-political, they are eventually drawn into – and ultimately destroyed by – the political convulsions wracking their country. (Trotsky: “One cannot live without politics any more than one can live without air.”)

A City of Sadness has a non-linear narrative that can be hard to follow sometimes. Nevertheless, if you stay with it, this film is deeply rewarding to watch.

Nixon in China

March 18, 2012

The Eugene Opera Company recently staged a production of John Adams’s Nixon in China. It was daring for a small company with limited resources to stage a work like this. It was nevertheless a handsome production with good performances. I must say, though, that the opera itself is a curious and unsatisfying piece. As the title indicates, it is about Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. It is an opera about politics that largely avoids the topic of politics. In an interesting moment in the first act, for example, Mao tells Nixon that he prefers right-wingers to “doctrinaire Marxists”. One would like to hear him explain why he feels this way, but instead he quickly moves on to another, less interesting topic. (I can’t remember what it was.) To be fair, opera is not the most ideal medium for discussing complex political ideas. But in that case, why make an opera about Nixon’s trip to China? Peter Sellars, who originally conceived the idea for this work, said that he was interested in this event because it was both “a ridiculously cynical election ploy … and a historical breakthrough”. Nixon’s “breakthrough”, by the way, actually consisted of the fact that he simply ended the US’s irrational policy of not recognizing the Chinese government. In any event, the opera never really explores this seeming contradiction. Indeed, it’s not clear what this work is trying to say.

An interesting question is how did Mao and Chou rationalize meeting with a man who waged a savage war against a Communist country? And how did a rabid anti-Communist like Nixon bring himself to get all chummy with Chou-en-lai? Clearly there were geopolitical motives here, but the opera doesn’t even address these issues. Instead we get Nixon reminiscing about his days in the army during World War II (who cares?), and Mao and Chiang Ch’ing talking about how happy they were in the days before the revolution (again, who cares?). Adams and the librettist, Alice Goodman, have said that they wanted to make these people seem human. Yet what is important about these people is not that they were human, but that they made decisions that had dire consequences for other people.

The opera’s portrayal of the Nixons is not really believable. Pat Nixon, for example, is portrayed as fun-loving and free-spirited. That’s not the impression I got of Pat Nixon. I don’t see how a fun-loving free spirit could have remained married to such a relentlessly grim person as Richard Nixon. The latter comes across as amiable but a bit dumb. This certainly doesn’t fit with what we know about Nixon.

The best part of the opera is the ballet scene in the second act, if only because something interesting is actually happening on-stage. Aside from that, it is only because of Adams’s music that this opera keeps our attention. The term “minimalist” is often applied to Adams, but that term is misleading. One of the striking things about his music is his varied and imaginative use of tone color. He subtly uses different instruments to indicate the changing moods of the characters. It’s too bad that there isn’t a more compelling story to go along with this.

The East Is Red

November 15, 2010

There’s a scene in the film, Mao’s Last Dancer, in which a group of children sing The East Is Red in a schoolhouse. The lyrics to the song struck me as so incredibly fatuous, that for a moment I felt as though I were watching some anti-communist propaganda film paid for with CIA money. I found it hard to believe that those could really be the lyrics, so I looked it up on the Internet.

The East Is Red was the unofficial national anthem of China during the Cultural Revolution. I’m told that it was played over PA systems in the morning and at dusk. These are the lyrics:

The east is red, the sun is rising.
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.
He works for the people’s welfare.
Hurrah, He is the people’s great savior!
(Repeat last two lines)
Chairman Mao loves the people.
He is our guide
To build a new China.
Hurrah, he leads us forward!
(Repeat last two lines)
The Communist Party is like the sun.
Wherever it shines, it is bright.
Wherever there is a Communist Party,
Hurrah, there the people are liberated!
(Repeat last two lines)

Can you imagine having to listen to this every morning? This is one of the reasons that I’ve never been an admirer of Mao, and I’ve always been wary of people who admire him. The Chinese Revolution was a progressive event, in that it was a massive defeat for Western imperialism and it destroyed feudal relations in the Chinese countryside, but beyond that there’s not much that can really be said for it. Mao’s dictatorship mainly served to carry out the primitive accumulation that has made China’s transition to capitalism possible in recent years.

I had some experiences with Maoists when I lived in Los Angeles. There was a group called the Maoist International Movement (MIM). I never actually met anyone who was in this group, but I would find copies of their newspaper, MIM Notes, lying around at Los Angeles City College. I don’t remember much about it, except that it had an editorial policy of always spelling “America” as “ameriKKKa”. And I bet they thought they were really clever for doing that.

I knew some people who were in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). They seemed nice, but a bit nutty. They had a bookstore in the downtown area. I went in there once. There was a picture of Stalin on the wall. They had copies of the writings of Marx and Lenin. They also had Selected Writings of Enver Hoxha. (I bet that was a big seller.) The RCP would form front groups, usually “coalitions” centered around local issues, such as police brutality. These would attract anarchists who prided themselves on never working with “Leninists”. Eventually they would realize that the RCP was calling the shots in these groups, and they would get mad and leave. This fits in with a pattern I’ve seen over the years. When one group with a particular agenda attempts to control everything in a coalition, it usually drives other people away.

Mao’s Last Dancer

November 8, 2010

Mao’s Last Dancer, a film by the Australian director, Bruce Beresford, tells the story of the Chinese dancer, Li Cunxin. It is based on his autobiography. As a child, Li is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. Later, as a young adult, he goes to the United States as an exchange student. There he falls in love with an American dancer. When it comes time for him to return to China, he marries her. When he goes to the Chinese consulate to report the marriage, he is detained. An international incident ensues, in which the U.S. government negotiates for Li’s release. The consulate finally allows him to go, but they tell him that he can never return to China, and he can never speak to his family again. His marriage eventually falls apart, but all ends happily when he is reunited with his family.

Mao’s Last Dancer is not a bad film, but I didn’t find it emotionally engaging. I suppose this is because it predictably follows the pattern of so many biopics that I’ve seen: the hero encounters adversity and manages to overcome it. The most interesting parts are the ballet scenes. (Chi Cao, who plays Li as an adult, is a superb dancer.) The film touches upon the destructive effect the Cultural Revolution had on the arts in China (one of Li’s teachers is accused of being a “counter-revolutionary”). Overall, it is implicitly critical of Maoism, although it was apparently made with the cooperation of the Chinese government.

Consider this a lukewarm recommendation.