Thursday, October 24, 2013

Buddha Bless America (Wu, 1996): Film Review

Buddha Bless America 太平天國 (1996), directed by Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, represents the disruptions and complexities of a postcolonialism as well as any film I am aware of.

The film is set in Taiwan during the Cold War during the 1960s, and it focuses on a local community of residents who are relocated to a small elementary school while the United States and Nationalist armies jointly conduct military exercises on the community's farmland.

The story traces the impact of this event on the lives of a middle-aged man named Lin who initially supports the intervention, but over time becomes disillusioned while retaining a positive overall image of the U.S. At the same time, his son is removed from his regular school routine and hangs out with his friends day and night -- they watch the U.S. military exercises and observe the behavior of men at a brothel built specifically for the foreign troops; meanwhile, his grandmother strives to maintain her family's dignity while her fading memory leads her to blur the lines between concurrent events and events that occurred previously during Japanese colonization.

In a memorable scene she stands her ground and uses a wooden broom to prevent U.S. tanks from ruining her farm property.

The way the film presents a type of psychological colonization on the local populace is effectively conveyed throughout the film by the stylistic use of music and the passage of time -- in another powerful scene, slow-motion is used to portray a grandmother and then a boy walk in front of the camera while a light bulb sways in the foreground and men fight in the background -- leaving a lasting impression.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cape No. 7 (Wei Te-Sheng, 2008) & Orphan of Asia

Cape No. 7 海角七號  (Wei Te-Sheng, 2008), one of the highest grossing films of all-time in Taiwan, contains a narrative thread which has remained prevalent with me, namely the film's representation of nostalgia for Japanese occupation -- and more specifically, the film's representation of a romantic relationship between a couple from both Taiwan and Japan that was cut short due to the socio-political situation in the region in 1945 (trailer below).

The film's nostalgia has been written about in both film reviews and academic essays (see "Memories of the future: Remaking Taiwanese-ness in Cape No. 7" by Chialan Sharon Wang). And it remains the case that those scenes continue to evoke further inquiry.

This is certainly the case for me after again reading and teaching Wu Zhuoliu's 吳濁流 1946 novel Orphan of Asia 亞細亞的孤兒 (Leo Ching's great review of the text here -- and I'd say that the English translation by Ioannis Mentzas reads wonderfully) in a postcolonial literature course.

It's quite astounding how placing these two texts side by side can lead to new ideas and access points into discussions of memory, colonialism, and nationalism. For example -- evoking comparisons with Cape No. 7 -- the protagonist of the novel, Hu Taiming, who is from Taiwan, finds himself during Japanese occupation very much enraptured by a Japanese schoolteacher named Hisako, yet their relationship never comes to fruition because as Hisako states, "you and I are different" (50).

Furthermore, toward the end of Wu's novel, we witness a state during the turmoil of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a populace under increased Japanization, and an economy strained to the point that malnourishment is prevalent. In such an environment, Hu Taiming finds himself depressed, anxious, paranoid, and both psychologically and physically ill. Within a comparative analysis, one notices that the moment in which Hu Taiming might be most grateful for the departure of the Japanese is the moment in which, in Cape No. 7, the departure of the Japanese is arguably conveyed with a sense of sorrow and loss.

Most importantly, any comparison between the texts becomes exceedingly complex -- after all, Hu Taiming in the novel forges a solid friendship with a Japanese colleague named Sato, and is sad to see his friend return to Japan -- so one returns to the historical-material context depicted, the time periods in which the two texts were produced, their linguistic characteristics, the nature of both individual and collective memory, and the formal qualities inherent to both literature and film -- and all of this seems necessary to re-ground oneself in order to initiate a new comparative question that again leads to an almost infinite set of variables worth consideration.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

An Open Letter to Hayao Miyazaki

9 October 2013

Dear Hayao Miyazaki,

I have been wanting to write this to you for some time because your films have been influential in my life, just as they have been for my friends and family.

Specifically, I want thank you for Princess Mononoke -- your movie is what made me want to go to graduate school to study film. Previous to watching it, I was quite burned out with university work and I could not see myself returning to the classroom even though I loved studying literature as an undergraduate.

But it was the way that Princess Mononoke captivated, its purity of characterization, its strong female protagonists, its beauty, and most importantly its ambiguity that fascinated me unlike any animation I had seen before -- and even while watching it I knew that I wanted to go back to school so that I could study and write about it.

Ironically, I ended up writing about Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) instead of Princess Mononoke for my MA degree, and even since then I have yet to write an article about your film which means so much to me. But I have had a chance to teach Princess Mononoke in one of my World Cinema classes -- of course my students loved it.

And at home, I am happy to say, my children are growing up primarily watching your films instead of Disney films (I know Disney distributes your films here in the U.S., but it's not the same thing).

Thank you.

Best Regards,
James Wicks