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Chinese Film and Folklore Mythology

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    Chinese Film and Folklore Mythology: Understanding what is Chinese about John Woo and Ang Lee

    John Woo’s films, predominantly of an action and adventure genre, incorporate aspects of Chinese mythology in the characterizations of goodness and evil (Hanke, 35). Woo’s American films (Face/Off, Broken Arrow) exemplify the most obvious attributes of Woo’s style, with excessive gunplay, slow motion, and unbelievable action sequences. Within these aspects of violence, however, is a choreography that reflects a basic morality tale about power, personal transcendence, and a romantic hero’s struggle to overcome a moral crisis (Hanke, 36). It is here, in the fantasy morality play that particular Chinese influence that can be traced to the American-made films of both Woo and Ang Lee.

    Ang Lee is a Taiwanese-American filmmaker whose American, or English-based films refer more to family relationships, and include “Sense And Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” and “Ride With The Devil.” For Lee, the mythology of Chinese fictions also involve fantasy storytelling that are at the same time morality tales about power, about personal transcendence, and romance.

    The differences are in the genre of their films, where Lee leans more towards romantic interpretations, and Woo establishes new interpretations of action and violence that, in their excess, bring the audience into a different relationship with the core concepts of power, personal transcendence, and romance. In this paper, Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” and John Woo’s “Face/Off” are compared and contrasted for their representations of a basic theme that draws from Chinese folklore and mythology.

    Face/Off and the Violence of Transcendence

    Face/Off (1997) was an introduction to director John Woo's choreography and “pyrotechnics of violent action,” (Williams, 72). For all its discomfiting violence, the film presents a more complicated case of interpreting screen violence and understanding its social and crosscultural implications and meanings than the usual Hollywood fare.

    In this film, Woo carries on with concerns registered in his Hong Kong films, “…the vicissitudes and instability of the masculine subject,” (Williams, 73) in order to bring to Hollywood action film a new kind of male protagonist, one that combines physical violence and emotional intensity.

    Hanke notes how Woo succeeds in transforming the mythological concept of personal transformation into an American ideal about masculinism, thus inventing a cultural hybrid within the traditional genre of action films.

    Woo… picks up on recent Hollywood films which feature male protagonists who are both violent and sensitive, who perform their own contradictions, and who struggle with themselves as much as with evil. This generic transformation is not merely a matter of changing images of the male action hero, as Woo's hybrid aesthetic combines a spectacular style of violent masculinity with the cultural form of melodrama. (Hanke, 43)

    In understanding the role of violence in film, critic Barry Grant has written that "[b]ecause violence is no longer a privileged moment within the narrative, it is no longer redemptive or cathartic" (Grant, 71). In other words, the uses of violence in film have changed from being a particular narrative episode in itself, towards being an aspect of narrative expression. For Grant, the problem with violent films now is that these films depict violent action that it is neither "heroic nor moral, because nothing is especially meaningful, nothing more real or important than anything else" (Grant, 70).

    The contemporary action movie's inconsequential violence and signification of death without pain demonstrates the "logical end of human relations under capitalism." (Grant, 72). Capitalism, as a individualistic and ruthless expression of American identity, helps to substantiate the ways that violence are integrated into American films without criticizing violence it-itself. Instead, violence is diffused into a legitimate expression of the narrative, and not a “privileged” moment in the narrative.

    Within the contemporary genre of action movies, the films of John Woo would certainly lend themselves to such analyses. One need not conduct a content analysis to recognize that Woo's action movies display a firepower and body count that exceeds the most violent Hollywood action films. His films also seem to be structured around set pieces where an arcing and often graceful choreography of gun violence and explosive pyrotechnics seem to be privileged over plot, narrative, or character. These critical positions against violence, however, ignore important cultural aspects of Woo's filmmaking practice. First of all, while working within the realm of popular film, he has been credited with contributing to the "heroic bloodshed" sub-genre of Hong Kong action film (Logan, 1995).

    In American films, what has remained of Woo's style is his choreography of the gun fights, novel action stunts, the injection of the action hero with Chinese knightly values, and the portrayal of his adversaries as completely corrupted by capitalist values. In “Face/Off,” the villain is characterized by his opulence and greed, and the hero, Archer, remains committed to crime fighting without any interest in the material gains that might accompany his success. He is noble, virtuous, self-sacrificing, and perhaps most significant the Chinese myth, he is subjected to a personal transformation through an increasingly violent encounter with the contradictions of his own identity.

    This is achieved physically, through the literal surgery that transforms his appearance, however Archer is also subjected to an identity crisis that forces him to confront his own internal contradictions. Archer and Troy come to reflect each other’s most evil and most heroic possibilities. While there is no alliance or intimacy between Archer and Troy, what they have in common, furthermore, is their social role as fathers. So while Archer's son has been killed, we also learn that Troy has a son whose identity has been kept a secret from him. There are two pivotal moments in the film when their subjective position as fathers is emphasized. First, when Troy (as Archer) visits Archer's son grave, he feels both his own culpability and Eve's grief. Second, when Archer (as Troy) meets Troy's son Adam is filled with both sadness and joy. After this introspective moment, the ensuing shoot-out, which juxtaposes an extraordinary ballistic ballet with shots of the “innocent” Adam (while "Somewhere over the Rainbow" is heard on the soundtrack) Archer (as Troy) exemplifies the heroic effort to protect Adam as if he were his own son. Look for more essays at

    The bullet wound that Archer receives at the beginning of the film (when Troy kills Archer’s son) is retained as a scar that aches, as a reminder of his lost son. Both his wound, and the narrative is closed when Archer chooses to have the scar removed, when the Archer family adopts Adam. In this sense, the violence of the film is implied as an aspect of the narrative that is not gratuitous, but symbolically significant.

    The “face-off” is repeated between the two male leads, and the scene with the “shoot-out” in the church not only invokes the "eternal battle between good and evil" in religious terms, but emphasizes the shifting alliances between women and men, as fathers and husbands, wives and mothers (Hanke, 45)

    In Woo’s films, it can be argued that it is only via their actions (which is chiefly violence) that we can truly define the morality and identity of a character. Therefore if it is violence that defines who is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ then couldn’t there also be violence which is coded as ‘good’ and that which is coded as ‘bad’?

    It seems Woo deliberately codes spontaneous violence as being ‘good’ and associates it with ‘good’ characters. For example, the opening of “Face/Off” has Castor Troy preparing to kill Sean Archer, as he rides on a merry-go-round with his son. Castor lies in the bushes with his gun, and calmly sips from a drink. He then takes aim and shoots. Sean and his son fall to the ground. While the fall is in slow motion, there seems nothing particularly graceful about it.

    The Pace of Romance in “Sense and Sensibility”

    As indicated earlier in this paper, Ang Lee also portrays interpretations of the mythology of Chinese fictions through imaginative fantasy storytelling, incorporating morality tales about power, about personal transcendence, and romance. In Lee’s films, family relationships form the core of his interest, in contrast to Woo’s interest in the masculine hero and transformations.

    But like Woo, Lee relies on choreography and pacing in his films that interact as narrative dimensions, not as what “move” the story, but as a theme upon which the story is understood. It is this pacing of imagery and dialogues that distinguish Lee’s approach, and these, in turn, do reflect parallels in the ideal of a morality play.

    "Sense and Sensibility" is an adaptation of the 1811 Jane Austen novel about a small matriarchy in 19th-century England. "Sense and Sensibility" is itself a morality play that takes its time unfolding, where "Life" has been carefully conveyed in ways that emerge in surprisingly relevant ways. This quality of the film is specifically due to its pacing, what Baltake (1995) notices when he writes, “The film is alive — vibrant — not lacquered the way most stately dramas of its type are. Yet, there is something admirably measured about it. “

    Lee’s measured portrait of English life in 19th century differs from the traditional “Merchant-Ivory” production of middle class England. The blending of themes is subtle, such that social satire and emotional content are not distinguished but knitted within a broad moral theme of personal transcendence, power, and romance that are focused within Elinor’s character, but also represented in other characters as well. We are thus asked to focus on the character of Elinor, but are also privileged to witness how these themes emerge in other settings around and within her family. Lee himself is quoted as saying,

    I was amazed at the width and depth here [in Sense and Sensibility]. It was exactly what I was trying to do – social satire combined with emotional drama. It has humor without bitterness and warmth without sappiness. There's that edge I like in my films. And it's about a family emerging from a feudal society into the modern world." The cultural aspect, the repression and social structure struck home… Late 18th-century England is like Chinese society. It shocked them, how familiar I am with this feeling, this world. It's akin to the way I was brought up. (In Ramsey, 1995)

    Thus, the rhythm of the film is owed to Lee’s direction and sympathies with the themes, Nevertheless, is it Chinese?

    Compared to John Woo’s passions for acrobatics of a physical environment that interacts with a spiritual one, Lee produces emotional theatre that appeals to traditional romance, and while Lee’s Chinese films have succeeded in portraying such evocative themes (“The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink/Man Woman,”) the American films such as “Sense and Sensibility” provide discrete and subtle approaches that are perhaps not so specifically Chinese as they particular to Lee himself.

    In considering the contexts of a narrative, “narrative space” is terms of a dialogue that takes place within a film. The narrative represents a subject position, and space is an embodiment of the inherent contradictions of subjectivity, a “dis-unifying force of movement in film.” (Hsing, 112). What fascinates an audience in a film is the constant mobility of actions in the frame, of the frame itself, and of the passage from one frame to the next, and the mobility of desire.

    The appeal of film as a narrative form is based on attracting and holding the spectator's gaze against the instability of this constant movement. This is the sort of characteristic that drives a film by John Woo; however, it is so subtle in the films of Lee that a pleasure in the aesthetic often eclipses the deeper theme of contradiction and transcendence.

    Indeed, as Hsing points out, uses of a visual field in film engage uses of space for narrating by "negating space for place, that is, by continually constructing a stable point of orientation in relation to a constantly shifting frame.” (113).

    The process of identification in the traditional Western film is sustained through a process where the activity of watching a film (spectatorship) and desire of looking are knitted into a singular space of the film. This is achieved through “perspectival centers, consistent framings, and rules for linking images in continuity,” Hsing, 113).

    These are Hollywood's formal devices for assuring continuity, and are designed to build a clear, stable, and unified vision against the erosions of this constantly moving space.

    From this perspective, Lee’s English films are textured to appeal to the traditional Western ideal of film, and the contrary drives of Chinese morality is measured into an aesthetic experience that soothes, but does no attempt to disrupt the experience. Here, again, it is possible to understand how Woo achieves inter-cultural hybrids with his action film, without producing a specifically Chinese or American film. The uniqueness of Woo’s own choreography is in its disruptive appearance. Lee engages similar themes of Chinese mythology as Woo, but chooses to weave a tighter thematic narrative so that the emotions are as measured as the frames, and the pacing.

    This is not to say that violence is explicitly more appealing, but that Woo’s use of action provides a different context for interpreting relations of action and narrative. Lee’s approach invites an understanding of pacing and narrative, space and narrative, but it is blended so seamlessly that Lee’s films “look” American, and so generate associations of American pleasure in the cinema.


    Tan (1997) questions the dominant role of spectatorship in evaluating the place of Chinese film in America, since American audiences are organized by a desire to “see” particular filmic experiences. The Chinese film experience belongs to a different cultural experience and history, and so what is desirable to a Chinese audience is not necessarily appealing for Americans.

    In considering, for example, the cult appeal of Bruce Lee martial arts films, Tan notes that the apparent violence of Bruce Lee appealed to a genre of action films that are distinct from the martial arts genre of Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong cultures. Nevertheless, Bruce Lee’s films were co-opted by American audiences for a visceral thrill and not for the spiritual and physical symbiotics that are culturally available to Chinese audiences (47).

    By the same token, in order to receive the kind of funding that American films enjoy, compromises are essential for any kind of material success. Since filmmakers so desire a wider audience, it is a compromise that is balanced against the possibility of distributing the film to more people. Because Woo’s action and adventure films do appeal to the American visceral seduction for violence, the aspects of Chinese influences are almost inconsequential to the American audience. Lee, on the other hand, appeals to American sentimentality in ways that adapt to traditional Western romance. Commercial success invariably dictates a film’s cultural appeal by American standards of pleasure (Logan 1995). Chinese films are invariably competing with that standard.

    The emergent Chinese-American film genre is perhaps more evident in Woo’s films if only for the originality of movement and symbolism in the films. Lee does not precisely challenge American film towards a Chinese-American interpretation, even as there are subtle references towards Chinese culture within his films. Lee is perhaps so subtle that the effect is not cultural so much as financial.

    In the end, it is invariably commercialism that identifies a successful genre, whether it is across-cultural interpretation or an innovative renovation of a traditional genre.

    Works Cited

    • Ramsey, Nancy, “Pure Ang Lee,” (Hudson Valley, February 1996) (May 8, 2001)
    • Baltake, J., “Sense and Sensibility' shines on every level,” Originally published Dec. 13, 1995 (May 8, 2001)
    • Grant, Barry. "Once More with Feeling: The Disaffection of Contemporary Youth." Pictures of a Generation on Hold. Murray Pomerance and John Sakeris (Eds.) (Toronto: Media Studies Working Group, 1996.)
    • Hsing, Chin. Asian America through the Lens: History, Representations, and Identity. (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998.)
    • Hanke, R., “John Woo’s Cinema of Hyperkinetic Violence and Face-Off,” Film Criticism, 24(1), 39-59, Fall, 1999.
    • Logan, Bey. Hong Kong Action Cinema. (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1995.)
    • Tan, Patrick. "East/West Politics." CineAction 42 (February, 1997): 47-49.
    • Williams, Tony. "Space, Place and Spectacle: The Crisis Cinema of John Woo." Cinema Journal 36, (2) (Winter, 1997), 67-84.

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