Sunday, June 17, 2007

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and Shower (movie reviews)

In the last few months, I’ve been surprised and pleased to come across two Chinese movies about male relationships that actually didn’t involve martial arts. In fact, if you substituted white females for the Asian males characters in both Zhang Yang’s Shower (1999) and Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), you would swear that you were watching something with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Actually, it was Wayne Wang who directed those two in Anywhere But Here. It was also Ang Lee who made the first mostly male chick flick, Brokeback Mountain. Boy, stereotypes can be a little misleading :}.

Both Shower and Thousands of Miles explore the relationship of sons estranged from their fathers. Shower is set in a suburban section of Beijing. Most of Thousands of Miles is set in Yunnan province, a remote southwestern part of China that some say served as the inspiration for Lost Horizon. In American culture, the image of Asian males often gets stuck between being too stoic and not sufficiently masculine. The interesting thing about both of these movies is that both directors manage to look at male sensitivity without turning any of their characters into Alan Alda. Takakura Ken (Black Rain, Mr. Baseball), the long time Japanese action star who plays the tacitrun Japanese father in Thousands of Miles has frequently been compared to John Wayne. Zhu Xu (King of Masks) , the elderly bath house owner of Shower, is a bit more talkative, but still largely communicates his love through gesture rather than words. In both cases, the two directors Zhang present the case for a different kind of Asian manliness too often unseen in western depictions of Asian male characters.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles makes its point by going cross-cultural. In this case though, the cross-cultural element isn’t about a clash between the west and some East Asian culture, Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) who by now is well-established as one of the world’s great directors takes a contemplative look at fatherhood that borders on the sentimental. For instance, Riding Alone, is perhaps the only prison movie I’ve ever seen where warden and prisoners alike are shown to be honorable, respectful, and quite likeable. Ken plays a Japanese fisherman who learns that his estranged son is dying. The son refuses to see him in the hospital. With the help of his daughter in law, Ken decides to communicate with his Chinese mask opera loving son through a grand gesture.

Once in China, Ken’s character finds himself unable to speak directly with most of the natives and is forced to speak more openly and more directly from his heart when he does get the chance to communicate. After several complications prevent him from carrying out the gesture easily, Ken finds his own mission tied to a Chinese father separated from his son. In between, Zhang slips in an almost glossily sweet portrait of the Yunnan countryside and its people (most of the actors in the movie are first timers). This includes a great shot of an endlessly winding road up a mountainside that serves as a metaphor for the emotional journey and a great iconic shot of a village banquet in which the tables span the entire length of an ancient village.

A number of critics picked on Zhang for making too soft-edged a movie. The climactic scenes include a little boy hugging the main character and a recreation room filled with convicts crying at a slideshow of the same little boy. While I was bothered some by the use of Ken’s narration to hammer home any emotional points the viewer might have missed, I would argue that Zhang purposely went right to and even over the edge of sentimental to make his artistic point. He seeks to honor Asian culture for making a priority of the family, especially the bond between fathers and sons. This was especially interesting for me because I’m in the midst of reading Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, which was the absolute modern low point of the relationship between China and Japan. At the same time, he uses the movie to remind viewers that there are multiple emotional traditions for Asian men. For instance,the sensibility of the New Age was created by Asian men and “speaking to and from the heart” has very deep roots in Asian culture.

One of Zhang’s techniques is genuinely striking. While Ken moves across the still unmodernized Yunnan countryside, he is supported by a plethora of hyper-modern communication devices. At one point, he goes to the top of a roof in Stone Village to converse with his translator so he can understand a decision made by the village elders. Throughout the movie, most of the news comes from thousands of miles away by cell phone, videotape, digital camera. In one scene, Ken and the little boy try to get rescued by alternately using the flash from a digital camera and an old fisherman’s whistle. Of course, the central act of the movie is Ken’s videotaping of the centuries old Mask Opera, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

Some twenty years ago when Asian-female authors came into vogue in American culture, Ishmael Reed, the iconoclastic Berkeley-based African-American author, and Frank Chin the pioneering Chinese-American playwright and personality both complained that there seemed to be an American fascination with bashing Asian males. Some insisted that Chin’s criticisms in particular were fueled by jealousy of Amy Tan’s enormous commercial success. Still, much of the Asian women writer’s phenomenon did seem to focus a lot on foot-binding, daughter drowning, and other now abhorrent Asian customs. I do not deny that there are any number of frightening aspects about the treatment of women in Asian culture, but almost all cultures present a far richer mixture than that. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is perhaps the most eloquent answer I can think of to the demonization of Asian men as both emotionally closed and somehow not being tough enough.

Shower is a much more claustrophobic movie than Riding Alone. Almost all of the action takes place inside a soon to be obsolete neighborhood bath house. The owner and father, Zhu Xu, has maintained the place as a combination spa, community center, and counseling office in the face of the newer, faster-paced, relentlessly money-driven Globalized China. Pu Cun Xin plays the older son, Da Ming, who has left behind the bath house to make his fortune in the entrepreneurial cauldron of South China. In order to make that break, Da Ming has left behind and kept secret from his wife the fact that he has an adult developmentally-delayed brother Er Ming, Jiang Wu, who has stayed with their father. While it’s similar outwardly to the American movies Barber Shop and Beauty Parlor, Shower pushes a bit deeper at what is about to be lost.

In particular, the sweetness of the relationship between the father and Er Ming is rendered especially well. Er Ming is never made to be wiser or more articulate than would be realistic (something of a nasty custom in American disability movies) yet maintains a realistic dignity and likeability. There are also no big talking scenes that bring Da Ming to reconsider the place of what he has left behind in his life in the south. There is also, unlike American movies, no miracle rescue. Beijing is shown to be headed in the direction it’s headed in regardless (the virtues of showers vs. bath as metaphor is one of the little jokes within the movie). There is a beautiful image near the end of the movie where a minor street hustler character who spends the entire movie trying to make it in the new entrepreneurial China finally pays off his debt to the Bath House owner by fixing the neon sign above the establishment.

What can I say? The two best chick flicks I’ve seen in the last year didn’t have Shirley Mclaine in them (though she probably was an Asian man in some former life) and even had very few female characters and no climactic scene where all the characters emote at one another. Both were by and about Asian men. It’s nice to know that Asian men can be in movies without being Yakuza, martial artists, clients of Geishas, Shaolin Ninjas, or suicidal. Maybe some day soon, American movies will get a clue that Asian men and their traditions have things to teach the west as well.



At 6/19/2007 04:49:00 PM, Blogger None said...

Thanks for the tips on these movies. Now they just have to be at the local video store. China is producing higher quality art these days. Or at least, with the greater openness, more willing to show it off.

At 6/19/2007 04:58:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Our local video store went under, though they eventually re-opened. Anyway, we went over to Netflix in the interim and while it has its plusses and minuses, one of the big advantages of Netflix is they have a huge selection of foreign movies.
One problem in the stores is that when old disks or tapes get damaged or lost, they don't replace the more obscure movies. I'm pretty sure Riding Alone will be findable. Shower may not be so easy.

At 6/19/2007 07:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you wrote about these because I got to learn glimpses of a wider view from your description.

At 6/20/2007 08:10:00 AM, Blogger None said...

We've gone back and forth on what to do about Netflix. And, if the guy working the register at the movie store didnt crack us up, I'm sure we would be receiving movies in the mail by now. I do salivate over the size of the Netflix movie collection...

Have you ever been to the University Theater in Palo Alto? They always have some old school festival going on.

At 6/20/2007 09:15:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks, but I thought you already had multiple sets of eyes?

It's very similar to Amazon. There are certain things about it that are great, but I also liked knowing the clerks at the video store.

There was a time in my life when I used to go to both the University and Varsity theaters in Palo Alto, but it was so long ago that the only restaurant open on University Av. there after 9:00 pm was Round Table Pizza.

I still remember seeing a movie about Edward Munch there which consisted of two hours and twelve minutes of one guy coughing while they kept panning on photos of the Scream....

At 6/23/2007 07:05:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Glad to have some new movies to search and devour Chancelucky. The video store situation near me is dire though and it might take some doing. We have a similar service to Netflix so maybe I should have a look at that too. You're welcome for my fascinating comment. Nice reviews by the way.

At 6/23/2007 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

good to see you back here. You know it's weird you ran a post on your magic thumb tricks and I did one on opposable thumbs on nearly the same day.

Anyway, hope you find the movies and let me know what you think if you happen to see them.

At 6/28/2007 05:54:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I'm still hunting around for them. What's up with all the thumbs I wonder?

At 6/28/2007 09:03:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

bettrer thumbs than middle fingers I guess.


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