Trying to Understand Chinese Culture

I don’t… but I’m trying.

One thing I’ve been doing a lot over the past year is watching Chinese movies available on Netflix.  Since I like legend, myth, epic, and all that, I often go for the flicks that are set a thousand years ago; and, of course, since no film about the past is ever really about the past, I’m fascinated by Kurosawa’s “seven samurai” paradigm which gave our Westerns The Magnificent Seven and has given Chinese producers, apparently, abundant ways to fantasize about a few dedicated souls fighting off armies of bullies.  I mean, if you live under constant censorship and the imminent threat of being “invited for tea” at the police station, you obviously have to address the subject of tyranny with caution.  Staging a clash between Martial-Arts Loner and All the Emperor’s Men is one way to keep your hands clean.

Yet these movies tend to degenerate into special-effects extravaganzas where combatants spring fifty feet into the air while twirling the Sword of Destiny that beats away all of eighty thousand arrows.  Even in the worst Hollywood B-Westerns, the most overloaded six-shooter only carries eleven or twelve shots.

There’s plenty of matter to revisit later in this topic.  The pilot of a TV serial I watched last night is what’s on my mind at the moment.  I discovered belatedly that CSIC is actually produced in Taiwan–which isn’t quite the same thing as mainland China, whatever the PRC insists on the subject.  Immediately of note is how the CSI serials in the US have been ripped off without any pretense of concealment.  (Well, it’s only fair turn-around after the way everyone ripped off Kurosawa: even Fistful of Dollars patently plagiarized Yojimbo).  The techie setting, the mock-digital overlays, the rhythm of the editing… pure rip-off.

The characters, interestingly, are indeed nerdy but rather more “teen” and frivolous than their American counterparts, like a fashion show in a college computer lab.  The only occasions when their winsome flippancy yields to passion involve such social naughtiness as consuming alcohol, especially before driving.  All of the Puritanical fury infused into our nation’s anti-gun crusades seems to be expended (in this episode, at least) upon cases of DWI (“drunk while intoxicated”, as we say down South).  The message is very powerfully projected that cops are your friends if you’re a law-abiding citizen.  They don’t take bribes, they bristle at the hint of bending rules to favor the privileged, they release a slavering rage upon nightclub owners who allow patrons to exit in a pasted condition, and they offer the liberation of a clean conscience to culprits in need of confession.  They’re a cross between Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Father Brown… with a dash of Miley Cyrus.

Maybe Taiwan and the PRC do have something in common, after all.  I’ve noticed this same effort to sanitize “your local policeman” in Jackie Chan’s films for his admiring audience of Communist Party hacks.  State official: selfless, devoted servant of virtue; money-making entrepreneur: unsavory, unprincipled pimp.  All black and white–no gray on either side.

And yet, I hear that want-ads for plum positions in China often stipulate that the applicant must be able to hold his liquor, and that girls post cards on matchmakers’ bulletin boards expressing their desire for a Mercedes and an upscale apartment.  On either side of the Formosa Strait, contemporary life doesn’t really sound like what you see on Netflix.  Seems that the Chinese, even when they try to portray survival on the streets, are still leaping fifty feet in the air and twirling the Sword of Destiny.

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