This is a companion essay, if you will, to the essay entitled “Cowboys and Samurai”, which, fittingly, included the subtitle “My Introduction to Foreign Films”.
Introduction of Yimou Zhang and the Anthropological Virtues of Foreign Films
Though my review of Battleship Potemkin was our first real foray into foreign films on this website, I think it is most fair to say that my recent series on the Japanese samurai genre was the first really significant section of the blog dedicated to non-English language cinema. So, now seems as good a time as any to help my readers see exactly why they should take the time to add foreign films into their viewing repertoire. As if the incredible art and entertainment weren’t enough (think of the beautiful photography of Rashomon and the stunning battle sequence of Seven Samurai, or of the vistas and architecture of the Samurai Trilogy and the haunting sword fights of Harakiri), I think there are even more reasons why foreign films have a lot to offer the competent film connoisseur. Hearing these reasons will further help the casual movie-goer become a competent one; and, as that is exactly the purpose of this blog, it bears within reason that I should take a little bit of time to lay out the further benefits of watching foreign movies.
In order to do this, we’re going to discuss one—that’s right, just one—director. This is called a case study. The director in question is a man by the name of Yimou Zhang. He is certainly a good candidate: he is one of the greatest directors of all time, and easily the best to ever come out of China. I have also selected him as the director upon whom we will base this essay because I think you’ve had enough of movies made before 1980. I’ve never reviewed a film that was made during my generation (my indulgent breakdown of the Marvel Cinematic Universe excluded); I hope, therefore, that the more modern photography as well as the more recognizable titles will help dampen the intimidating effect that yet another section on non-English language films might have on my readers. Of all the non-English language directors in contemporary cinema, China’s Zhang is probably the most well-known in contemporary circles. Taiwan’s Ang Lee and the Mexican Big 3 (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro) are probably the only other ones that I can think of at this moment who share Zhang’s international fame. With such films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Flowers of War, and The Road Home, Yimou Zhang has brought us historical dramas, martial arts films, and romances with superb quality and international acclaim for about thirty years now, and he continued last year with the release of his romantic war drama, Coming Home—a movie that will be released in American theaters this September.
Zhang’s influence has been great on world cinema. This is partly because he has introduced us to two of the finest and most beautiful film actresses on the planet, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. It is also because he has demonstrated (as I alluded in the previous paragraph) a superb ability to jump genres, giving us martial art epics with actors like the legendary Jet Li while also providing short, intimate love stories like the one we see in The Road Home. One of my personal favorites, The Story of Qiu Ju, is actually a very fine comedy; like most all great directors, Zhang is one who understands the universal language of comedy and its role in even the most serious of films.
But, perhaps the greatest influence Zhang has had on world cinema is that he has come to show all of us that even the most alien of cultures can be one with which we may connect and love. The difference between the Chinese and Americans is so vast that we have colloquially differentiated them over the years by referring to strains of thought, art and politics as either “Western” or “Eastern”; as if by the very virtue of geography, these two cultures become completely separate species. The way that these two groups view the world is, at the deepest level of human thought, different. It is not a mere matter of opposing views, it is a matter of opposing vision. Values are different on every level, and these are made manifest from the smallest elements of society, like home decor, to the grandest and largest monoliths of a culture’s history. A difference of approach to problem solving between two people is not merely the result of their respective personalities. It is the result of thousands of years worth of choices.
These choices and their relation to nature, spirituality, and politics come to determine a culture’s cosmology, or, world-view. They see the world in a way unique to their culture, as determined by generations’ influence. To be able to create a work of art that can bridge these vast cosmological gaps requires great vision and heart. And, ultimately, it requires a profound understanding of what makes us human.
This is the root of anthropology, a dying form of study. One of my degrees is in anthropology. If it is was my only degree, I’d be in trouble. But, I am eternally grateful that I was able to have this fantastic contributory study to my other pursuits, because it has opened my eyes to how humans think. Anthropology is the study of what makes humans human. Humans are strangely diverse creatures. Where all lions eat alike, not all humans eat the same way. Where all beavers make lodges and dams, or all groundhogs live in tunnels, not all humans live in the same types of buildings or shelters. Humans are not like other animals. We do not follow a strict animalistic instinct that leads us all to the same ultimate fate and lifestyle. Both the European explorers and the natives of the American continent were human. Yet, they were so strikingly different in their methods of eating, building, and living that they viewed each other as different species. How did they become so strikingly different? How did they get on these opposite trajectories? Anthropologists study the differences to get at the similarities. In the end, anthropology is about putting aside the cosmologies to get at the root needs of humanity. It is in the pursuit of these needs that we are all the same.
I believe that film, like all art, is a fantastic way to come to understand the differences between cultures. By so doing, you come to understand their similarities. It’s not through ignoring the differences as much as it is by seeing the differences at approaches towards the same ultimate goal. Think about the complete and total difference of approach you had between, say, Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, or Chuck Daly’s Pistons and Pat Riley’s Lakers. Completely different mentalities, styles, and pace. You don’t come to find the similarities between these two teams or fighters by ignoring the different mentalities, styles, and pace. You come to see find the similarities between them by recognizing their common goals, their common needs and how their differences are united by these goals and needs. They both wanted to win. Their cosmologies in relation to victory may have differed. But, their “needs” were the same. Sure, film shows us the behaviors. But, it also shows us the needs.
There are many reasons to watch foreign films. But this understanding of the anthropological virtue of good foreign cinema is a very significant one, and this is what I want to dwell on for this small section of my blog.
Let the Case Study Begin: Chinese Application of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic
So, let’s now take a moment to consider our case study. Let’s get into our analysis of the anthropological insights we can glean from the works of the great Yimou Zhang.
First off, Zhang is from China. As I’ve already established, China is far and away one of the most unique cultures in the world, particularly from the perspective of an American. When one takes the approach of a cultural observer or historian, one can take a lifetime to examine the details, systems, and histories that have coalesced and circumscribed into the great Chinese Republic of today, a nation, which, only a year and a half ago, became the third nation in history to land on the moon. It houses the second-largest economy in the world and owns a substantial portion of the debt which the largest economy in the world (the United States of America) holds. It has the largest population and one of the largest standing armies on earth. It produces most of the Western world’s marketable products. And all this is only a recent development.
The nation of China has existed as an empire, a scattering of tribes, a republic, a despotism, and a victimized, invaded nation. Throughout more than four thousand years of history and cultural development, China has obviously gone through countless changes, but what is most impressive is its uniformity and lack of change over those few thousand years. This phenomenon of cultural stagnation (and I don’t use that word pejoratively by any means) is most explained through an appeal to anthropology. As I said earlier, the anthropologist is able to understand 1) the unique features that distinguish cultures as well as 2) the continuities that exist between cultures, because they study individual cultures as respective microcosms within a greater human whole that is defined by certain human phenomena. These phenomena make us distinctly human, not just in the perspective of others and the logic of science, but also in our own quest to understand our own personhood.
What is so interesting about China is how completely different it is from the West, and yet, how incredibly similar both entities are when examined under an anthropological lens. These differences are extreme, and the similarities surprisingly… unsurprising. Some of these differences include the primitive architecture: their ball-and-joint-type approach to fusing lumber was quite different from the peg and ridge approach used in the primitive west. The facial and ethnic genetic features of the two peoples are very distinct. The language is also a significant difference. Whereas practically every Western language derives from the same root language (Indo-European), the Eastern cultures—China being the most significant one—have absolutely no common-ground in terms of linguistic genealogy. The worldview of the Chinese is also quite foreign to Westerners, whose approaches to ritual and myth are largely based on concepts of religion, while theirs is of a more magic nature: they still adhere to concepts of qi and are greatly influenced by the principles of shamanism. However, we see their similarities when in comes to how both parties use the laws of sympathetic magic in understanding their own cosmology.
What is “sympathetic magic”, you ask? Well, it is one of the most significant of all anthropological philosophies, even though it has become less of a hot-button point over the last couple scholarly generations. It is a socio-psychological concept based on negative/positive and forward/reverse causation through what have come to be recognized as the “magical” laws of similarity and contagion.
In essence, these laws of sympathetic magic state that objects carry with them a non-physical “essence” which holds a certain uplifting or aversive effect on the person to whom the object is in close proximity. These essences are passed from object to person by two means. The first of these means is that of similarity: the object is similar to the source of the essence, or is similar to some other object which carries with it a given inherent essence, or the object is—itself—associated with negative causation by the virtue of its own substance (exuviae, for example, like fecal or urinary matter, mucus, saliva, sweat, sexual ejaculate, and blood, all carry averse properties).
Or, these essences are passed from object to person by means of contagion: the essence of a person is passed, by means of an object, to another person. Hence, gift giving is a magical principle: the object given as a gift is “infected”, as it were, by the contagion of goodwill from the giver (or the source) of the gift. As the definition of contagion is something contagious, it is then self-explanatory that the goodwill is “caught”, again, as it were, by the receiver of the gift. This particular form of contagious magic is categorized as “positive forward causation.” Take this in stark contrast to the negative causation that is implied in someone in Himba society sending a cursed object to an enemy. Another, more famous example of negative causation through contagion is that of a sweater. The gift of a sweater from a loved one can be greatly appreciated, because that gift carries with it the goodwill of its giver. But, upon learning that the sweater was owned previously by, say, Adolph Hitler, the goodwill goes away. It is now poisoned by the essence of its previous owner.
These laws aren’t real, biological, or physical laws of nature along the lines of gravity or time. But, they are still scientific in that they deal with the obscure science of personhood. In reality, just because a food looks like bodily fluids, or just because a sweater used to be owned by Hitler doesn’t mean that it actually carries the essence of bodily fluids or Adolph Hitler. But, somehow, it does.
This idea of gift-giving has a very important, even paramount, role in Chinese culture. This gift-giving is called guanxi, and is focused on establishing a social dynamic between participating parties. Perhaps the best source for studying this interesting form of gift-giving is Andrew B. Kipnis’ book Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village.
The best example of sympathetic magic in the works of Yimou Zhang comes from his sweet love story, The Road Home. In this movie, a young girl from a small village falls in love with a teacher, who has expatriated from the big city to start a new school in the village. The fantastic photography of their first exchange aside, where we are shown the majesty of love-at-first-sight in ways we rarely have been shown before, perhaps the most telling elements of this girl’s undying love for the young teacher is shown through objects. Objects in a frame have always been important for visual framing, and Zhang always takes delicate time in his mise-en-scène to show the most mundane of objects with dexterity. This is because he recognizes the reality of sympathetic magic, particularly in Chinese culture. I will discuss this more in the forthcoming review of The Road Home, but it suffices to say that rarely has a dirt road, a bowl of dumplings, and a hair pin meant so much to a love story.
I am also reminded of a powerful scene in another of his masterpieces, To Live. This was the first movie to really put Zhang on the map when it came to global cinema. I will write a review of To Live as well later on, but I think now is a good time to address one particular scene. After the passing of their son in a child labor factory, a man and a woman with their daughter bury their son on a gorgeous hillside. Again, we are given a beautifully photographed scene that, like those love-at-first-sight scenes in The Road Home, are superb examples of a master-director’s ability to film faces and landscapes. But, what sets Zhang apart as a great director is his additional focus on objects, objects that have been graced with the essence of their owners through sympathetic magic. This additional focus certainly takes time, but that is time worth spending.
The mother sets down a charred lunchbox full of dumplings at the graveside. This was the meal that she sent her son away with the day of the accident. It was the lunch he would have had, had the accident not occurred. In this lunchbox is far more than just dumplings. In it resides the essence of her lost son. In it resides the essence of the deadly factory that took his life. In it resides that fleeting and never-permanent moment we call the present…something that we always take for granted. Alongside that charred lunchbox she sets down another container. This one isn’t damaged. It is full of fresh dumplings that she had made that morning. In it is whatever essence of herself she could manage to fit, so she could lay a little bit of herself down on that bed beside him.
The Importance of Social Heirarchy, Face, and the Role-Relationship Dynamic
For the Chinese, social dynamics such as the ones created by guanxi are incredibly important. Even within the family unit, which in Western (particularly American) culture is defined by impartiality and cooperation, there are rigid concepts of stratification, diversification, and even inequality. The story of Songlian told in Yimou Zhang’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern (which, in my opinion, is the greatest of all Chinese films) illustrates this concept within the context of a Chinese harem and the sister-wives that reside there. This form of sorority falls under a polygamous pattern known as “sororal polygyny.” The definition of sororal polygyny is that a man takes multiple wives which live together in a sister-like relationship. This is significant when one takes into account the other delineating factor in Chinese familial structures: gender. Where birth order had many stratifying characteristics, the gender of the child (or, in this case, sister-wife) is two-tiered, for obvious reasons.
In China, marriage is incredibly significant to the woman because it involves a complete shift in family dynamic. In China, family is a big deal, because it contributes to “Status.” Status is born of the Chinese social ladder. The Chinese culturally are always putting others into a social niche, which is born of their role associations. While working with each other, they try to establish this status. Several social factors go into determining the status: wealth and occupation, education, gender, generation, and family. It is this latter facet that is so effecting of women passing through the transformative, “disruptive” (to coin an anthropology term) ceremony of marriage. This is because their family literally changes after getting married, they are adopted into the new family and are removed of any familial obligations to their birth family. Chinese society, as was demonstrated in the film, makes a big deal about birth order and niche within the family. And when a woman is taken into husband’s family, she is adopted into the niche that comes with it. The marriage ceremony is based in the Laws of Amity, which govern familial and extra-familial relations and binds the people into a societal link. These are perpetuated by the celebration and feasting which brings about unity and solidarity. This is not unlike Christian culture, where worshippers partake of the sacrament with a fictive kinship: brothers and sisters feast together remembering the sacrifice of their Father and His Son. In Raise the Red Lantern, this sororal polygyny is not much more than a fictive kinship based on the familial structures that have come to, and still continue to, dominate Chinese kinship and family.
For the Chinese, family is very stratified and very delineated. The structure that dominates the Chinese household involves birth order, an aspect of great importance for a Chinese person. In Raise the Red Lantern, birth order is substituted for connubial order, but the principle remains. The Chinese give titles to their children based on birth order, such as first sister, second sister, first brother, second brother, and so forth. This was demonstrated in Raise the Red Lantern, as the other three wives—or, rather, the wife and the other two concubines—referred to Songlian as “Fourth Sister.”
This is all significant because it demonstrates the importance of the “role-relationship” paradigm, one of the most important concepts in anthropology. The essence of this paradigm is that for every role one plays in society, that role must exist in a relationship. The purpose and type of relationship, therefore, comes to inform the behavior that one has within the confines of that role. It is simple to see in practice. For example, in my home, I play two major roles: husband and father. Two years ago, however, I did not play the role of father, because I had no progeny wherewith I could associate. I was just a husband. Now that my two children have been born, however, I have become a father, as well. This shows that the associated counter-role must be present in order for a given person to have a certain role: there is always, in essence, a partner. For every parent there must be offspring. For every teacher there must be a student. For every employee there must be an employer. For every worker there must be some sort of consumer. In all things human, roles exist as a compound in one.
These roles are mercurial and variant. When at once I am playing toys with my son, it would be inappropriate to ask him his plans for dinner tomorrow or to ask him to drive his sister to the doctor, as I would ask my wife. Then again, when I am on a date with my wife, it would be inappropriate for me to burp her after her meals and help her put on her seatbelt. My roles in my family change, again, as I move on to my parent’s family. In that group, I am both son and brother. While subservience is an aspect of son-hood, it would have been quite strange for me to obey all the imperatives given me by younger brothers and sisters. As for my relationship with my parents as their child, it would, still, to this day, be inappropriate for me to treat my father as I would my son and tell him in some sort of baby-talk how cool he is that he just did a somersault.
This concept is of incredible importance because it explains the whole gist of human behavior universally. Everyone’s behavior is dictated by the relationship to which they are currently subject. In China, these relationships are abundant and carry with them a social dogma even more stringent than the ones in the United States. This is obvious when one considers the aforementioned point that positions in Chinese families are not only designated in categories of father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, and wife. They are designated in categories of father, mother, first-son, second-son, first-daughter, second-daughter, first-brother, second-brother, first-sister, second-sister, husband, wife and so forth. This creates a delicate network of social interaction that is only magnified when one considers the complexities of guanxi and the concepts of “social face.”
For the Chinese, the unwritten behavior codes are just as stringent as the roles which define them. For the Chinese, failure to live up to these codes and violation of the social norms lead to a difficult-to-repair loss of “social face.” Social face is a sociological concept that idiomatically refers to the dignity or prestige of a given person. It is, by its nature, dependent on the perspective of others. In the oeuvre of Yimou Zhang, the concept of face is addressed thoroughly, particularly in the context of several films. There is the Emperor’s desire to save face before his people in Hero. There is the quest of Qiu Ju to reclaim her family’s lost face after her husband is publicly humiliated in The Story of Qiu Ju. There is the family’s sad reconciliation with lost face after both husband and wife violate the norms of society in To Live. What defines Chinese concepts of face is the role wherein one operates. While, for the most part, there is only one way to lose face (and this is by violating the behavior codes inherent in a given role—for example, a father choosing not to go to work), there are two ways in which one can gain it back. They are called mainxi and lian. One of these is to live up to the moral codes with fidelity and diligence. The other is to go above and beyond the confines of a given role’s behavior codes and succeed in said task.
The best example of trying to use lian to recover face is in The Story of Qiu Ju. Like I said earlier, this is one of my very favorite Zhang films because it, perhaps more than any other Zhang film, is very funny. Furthermore, it might be the most documentary-like, in that it provides us with long segments of mundane life in Chinese communities, from the smallest villages to the biggest cities. After Qiu Ju is forced to witness her family’s lost face when her husband is kicked in the groin—requiring medical help—in a scuffle, she exceeds the unwritten limits of her familial and social role in an attempt to go above and beyond her duties to save her family’s diginity. We watch as she starts her appeal to the local leaders in her small, rural village, and she moves her way up the appeals process, one level at a time, until she can accomplish her goal. While this story shows her striving for lian to recover lost face, it also shows the social ladder that is so rigidly enforced in Chinese culture.
One of the ways in which one can gain good face is through guanxi, the gift-giving practices in which the law of contagion delicately operates in China. Through guanxi, a complex and dreadfully-important network of relationships are built which are rooted in concepts of reciprocity. For many social roles (particularly those outside of the kinship bonds), relationships are maintained by reciprocity. This is the same in America, too. If I buy a friend lunch, they pay for the movie. Earlier in this section, I wrote of familial ties in China, saying that the many roles therein create “a delicate network of social interaction”. This network dictates almost all behaviors both inside and outside the family, and it is based on each person’s respective role towards any given other in the network, guanxi, and the social ladder.
The Rite of Passage
Ultimately, the rite of passage is nothing more than the process one must undergo to not only move up the social ladder, but also to change their role in the role-relationship network. In non-scholarly circles, the rite of passage is probably the most recognized and understood anthropological principle. The rite of passage is normally a two-step process. First, there is the liminal stage, which is, at its basest form, the training stage. In this stage, the individual becomes versed in the precepts, rules, duties, and prestige of the role which they are trying to adopt. Second, there is the disruptive ceremony. I mentioned this briefly in my elaboration on marriage in the context of Raise the Red Lantern. The disruptive ceremony is often an unpleasant or difficult ritual that is designed as something of a test. So, first you have the lesson. Then, you have the test. Rite of passage.
Marriage is one of several life experiences that significantly alter the current course of a given life, whoever’s life it is. These incidences are called “disruptive,” because they disrupt one’s predictable future as based on current life situations. They “shake things up,” as it were. In Chinese marriage culture, this disruptive ceremony is particularly important.
One such example in the oeuvre of Yimou Zhang is in his movie entitled Red Sorghum, wherein he shows a particularly poignant use of imagery in the Chinese marriage culture that symbolizes this “disruption”. In this movie, Zhang’s most popular actress, Gong Li, plays a young girl whose arranged marriage to a wealthy and faraway landowner is about to take place. The scene in question involves her journey to the new man in a sedan chair, carried by a wedding party and accompanied by a band. This walk through the mountains in the sedan chair is marked by the noise and shaking that the party and band provide, with the intent to make the ride as uncomfortable as possible. They yell, sing, dance and play, all the while, she is shaken up and down, side to side. She begins to cry at realizing the reality and gravity of the situation.
What makes marriage so “shaking” and “disturbing” is that it introduces a brand new role into the life of the one being married: the role of spouse. When one wants to change—or in this case, is required to change—their role in society, they must go through this rite of passage. This is why such rites of passage are often called a “transformation ceremony,” and this period of separation from society must be marked with some sort of liminal stage, in this case, it was a symbolic representation of the “shaking up” of marriage. Her realizations come to her; she understands.
In the end, with all the rites of passage and social ladders, all the roles and relationships and essences and magic, the ultimate goal of a community is the feelings that are associated with commensality. The dictionary definition of commensality is the “practice of eating together.” That practice is at the heart of culture, and Yimou Zhang, in his films, shows it brilliantly. When humans can eat together, and eat well, then life is good. When we refuse to eat together, or we don’t eat well, something is wrong.
In To Live, a significant part of the story occurs around a public mess hall. One of the most popular scenes in the movie occurs at this mess hall. These mess halls were designed to feed everyone as much food as they could possibly eat, and to make sure that they ate together. This was an elemental part of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward.”
Mao had begun a massive scale assault on the traditional culture of China in an attempt to start an all-new Chinese society. Mao was, in all respect, a master ethnographer and anthropologist, and he demonstrated this in his meticulous ability to manipulate the Chinese populace. Mao recognized that commensality was an important part of Chinese culture, a culture that could reasonably be defined as a “food culture” (aren’t all societies fairly defined as “food cultures?). In an attempt to remove China from the atmosphere of private homes and family that was the traditional culture, Mao instituted a wide-spread movement to destroy the family kitchen and, instead, create a community kitchen. By so doing, Mao would unify people in a new social order. This “coercive commensality”, though a negative example, demonstrates the profound power that food gives in shaping society.
What I think is even more important than the symbol of food and commensality is the actual feeling that you get when commensality exists in a community. I think this is why one of my anthropology professors preferred to define commensality not as the “practice” of eating together, but rather as the “feeling” you get when you eat together. It is that feeling of unity, family, and community that is at the heart of what makes us human. Do you think that all the other animals find that same joy and satisfaction with sharing a meal as we do? If anthropology is the study of what makes humans human, then surely commensality is one of those most basic elements.
In the end, the Chinese just want to eat together and eat well. This also goes for Americans. It goes for the Russians, it goes for the Swedes, it goes for the Japanese, it goes for anyone. This is, perhaps, the best way to understand foreign films. When you watch foreign films from the likes of Yimou Zhang, or Andrei Tarkovsky, or Ingmar Bergman, or Yasujirô Ozu, you will see people behaving differently then they would behave in an American film. The directors will take different approaches to prove their points or explain their worldviews. They will have different feels, different plots, and they will focus on different elements. They may even seem weird. But, it’s not about the behavior. It’s about the desire to eat together and eat well. It’s about the power of sympathetic magic and the essence of objects. (I suppose that’s why symbols are such potent elements of international thought and communication). It’s about death transcendence and spirituality. It’s about family. It’s about roles and relationships. It’s about humanity.
I am a true student of cinema; and the point of this blog is to help casual movie-goers learn how to become active and competent film-connoisseurs by pointing them towards such concepts as formative and realist tendencies, montage theory and its limitations, auteurism, theories of comedic rhythm, and film history, among many others. What I haven’t attempted to do yet, is address the anthropological benefit that a study of movies can offer such a film viewer.
Particularly in the Yimou Zhang films, many of which are absolutely superb, one can be exposed to both the culture of China and to the anthropological phenomena which inform that culture. There are many ways other than those I have already described by which this can be shown: in The Story of Qiu Ju, the viewers are exposed to more of contemporary Chinese life than they are in any other film outside of documentaries; in The Road Home, Chinese understandings of guanxi and the laws of contagion as they associate to love and happiness are intimately and sweetly put forth; in Red Sorghum, the concepts of disruptive ceremonies and rites of passage are dealt with; and in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles—a film which I have not discussed yet—we are shown the principles of catharsis and closure in the disruptive ceremony of death and death transcendence.
I believe that you can learn a lot about other cultures through watching their films. In turn, I think that learning about their cultures makes their films even better. This is because you come to connect with the images on the screen, and you come to understand the cosmology of the movie’s creator. Remember my whole theory behind samurai films? I believe that they, like the American Western, are representative of the foundational myth of their culture. Because they are so much like the Western, we, as Americans, can connect with them. Connection is the most important element of any cinema, foreign or domestic. I hope that this singular case study can help as an example of our ability to connect to things that can be, at times, so intimidatingly foreign.
We connect with Songlian in Raise the Red Lantern even though we’ve never lived in a connubial, polygamous brothel. We understand the social disgrace that Fugui undergoes in To Live and how hard he must work to bring his family out of trial, heartache, and the poor graces of a strict and prudent society. We are attracted to the sweet love story of Zhau Di and Luo Changyu in The Road Home, and we, too, want Luo to pick her bowl of dumplings while the village people are building the new schoolhouse. We can see that even though we are incredibly different, understanding and empathy can be reached through simple thought and study, and a concerted attempt to find common ground. This is why film is so great. It connects us.