Trying to enunciate something of a summary nature about "Asian film" is akin to finding some collective point to make about snowflakes. Snowflakes are wet, cold and fragile and otherwise entirely individual. "Asian film" has Asian characters and settings and are otherwise as various as the people who live in that part of the world. The motion picture industry in India is the world's most prolific, but much of its product is said to be formulaic in the tradition of American television programming; few Indian films ever get even limited release in the United States. Japanese film arises from the masterful legacy of Akira Kurosawa, but he remained without rival through his long career, and no countryman has threatened to take his place since his death in 1998. Moreover, we should remember that Kurosawa's reverential treatment in the West was not matched in his own nation where his adaptations of Shakespeare and transformations of Hollywood Westerns were regarded with suspicion by many critics. The communist nations of China and Vietnam, wise to film's power to affect and motivate, and more concerned with politics than art, tightly control their cinematic artists, the scissors-wielding hand of the censor always hovered over the script, a literalists's set of blinkers perpetually poised for the lens. In sum, I shy from generalization about a cinema I have barely sampled emerging from cultures whose histories I know too poorly. What I can do, however, is provide commentary on three recent Asian films fairly widely available at America's video rental stores. I don't pretend that they are in any way representative of their nation or region of origin. I do maintain, however, that they are worth seeing.
Wriggling off the Hook
Shoehl Imamura's The Eel, winner of 1997's Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, begins with images of schools of Japanese eels wiggling in the sea while a voiceover informs us that these creatures swim thousands of miles from the muddy lagoons of Nippon to spawning grounds near the equator. The females go first, and later the males follow to fertilize the eggs. When the eggs hatch, the adults escort their young back to Japan, many, inevitably, dying along the way. This stubborn arduous pull of family is the central metaphor in The Eel, a picture which is quirky and sometimes narratively murky, but ultimately winning and admirable.
Based on Akira Yoshimura's novel Sparkles in the Darkness, The Eel is the story of Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho), a "salary man," a mid-level corporate executive identified by Sloan Wilson in the America of the 1950s as "the man in the gray flannel suit." Takuro has begun receiving anonymous letters about his wife's infidelity. Pretending to go off on a fishing trip, Yamashita sneaks back home to catch his wife in flagrant sexual congress with her lover, and in a rage he stabs her to death. Eight years later he emerges from prison a chastened and emotionally clotted man. Under the mentorship of a Buddhist priest (Fujio Tsuneta), Yamashita opens a barber shop on the waterfront in a small coastal village. He strives for a quiet life and keeps to himself, communicating only with a pet eel. Then on a stroll one day, he finds a young woman, Keiko Hattori (Misa Shimizu), who appears to have attempted suicide. Yamashita saves her, and thereafter, she takes employment as his assistant, dramatically and quickly increasing business at his shop because of her effervescent personality.
Eventually, love blooms as we know it must. The script isn't too steady on why, however. We can see why Yamashita might be attracted to the beautiful and vivacious Keiko, but we don't see her attraction to him. He shows all the warmth of his pet and the entire emotional range of a statue. Elsewhere, the picture seems to practice quirkiness as if it were a virtue in its own right. Keiko's mother is a drunk who flounces about in flamboyant dance as she imagines herself the lead in Carmen. The barber shop is peopled by a small cadre of flakes, a man who likes to philosophize about eels, a hot-rodder with a snazzy red sports car, and a UFO nut who thinks he can elicit a landing of extraterrestrials using Yamashita's barber pole as a beacon. Each of these characters possesses a certain charm, but with the slight exception of the eel philosopher, none has anything to do with the story of Yamashita and Keiko. The twin developments that produce the picture's climax also prove problematical. Both the story of Keiko's extracting a $300,000 investment from her former lover's company and the appearance of a former prison inmate to blackmail Yamashita are integrated into the story far too late.
Still, this movie is one whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We come to like these characters despite the clumsy way the narrative brings them together. The script offers smart reflections on such issues as jealousy, self-control, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. And that slippery eel metaphor finally comes together with the dazzling freshness of fish breaking water into the bright light of a sunny morning. In sum, this picture doesn't so much work as does it endure with the messy urgency of thriving life.
A Sacrifice of Youth
Joan Chen, born Chong Chen in Shanghai in 1961 and educated at the Shanghai Film Academy, won China's best actress award for her performance in Xiaohua Zhao's The Little Flower in 1980 and came to international attention as the doomed empress in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor in 1987. She became a U.S. citizen in the late 1980s and went on to star as Josie Packard in David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks. Her debut film as a writer/director is the story of a teenaged girl, far from home and on her own in the world, who turns in desperation to a life of prostitution. Sounds like a contemporary tale about the wrecked life of an American youth whom fate has turned to flotsam and tossed ashore on the mean streets of New York or Los Angeles. But Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl is not remotely an American story. It's an account of a different system's and a different culture's appalling indifference to the well-being of its young.
Historians will no doubt conclude that Mao Zedong launched China's infamous Cultural Revolution in 1967 to reassert the iron grip of his own authority. The official purpose, of course, was to "retrain" the masses in the ways of the Communist ideals. One pillar of this almost catastrophic policy, which lasted until Mao's death in 1976, was the Educated Youth Program through which Mao and his ideologues concocted a scheme to "educate" the nation's urban youth about the struggles of rural life and thereby eliminate the economic disparities between citizens in the cities and those still on the land. To that end, eight million teenagers were taken from their families and sent "down to the countryside" to live and work among the peasants. Or that was the announced plan, anyway. In fact, many were transported to remote areas where they were herded into camps and forced to labor in either isolated factories or on huge industrialized farms. Not surprisingly, revolts within the camps and runaways were common. But lack of discharge papers plagued the lives of those who fled, and brutal hardships tormented those who stayed. Staggering numbers of these youngsters were never reunited with their families. Chen's film is the harrowing story of one of Mao's victims.
Based on Yan Geling's novella Tian Yu, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl is the story of Wen Xiu (Lu Lu), the daughter of a garment worker's family in the bustling Chinese city of Cheng-du. Exquisitely beautiful, Wen Xiu, nicknamed Xiu Xiu by her peers, is the beloved oldest child of a close-knit, caring family. It is widely known that connections with officials in the vast Communist apparatus can acquire exemptions from assignment to the Educated Youth Program. But Xiu Xiu's father is a simple laborer without any influence in his nation's ruling party. As a result, along with her best friend Chen Li (Qiao Qian), Xiu Xiu is bused to a remote barracks on the western Chinese steppes. Chen Li runs away within months, but fearful of lifelong complications over discharge papers, Xiu Xiu labors without complaint (but with increasing homesickness) for her assigned year. Rather than being sent home at the end of her assignment, however, Xiu Xiu is "rewarded" by being sent to learn how to herd horses in what surely must be among the country's most isolated regions. There Xiu Xiu must share a tattered army tent with a Tibetan horseman named Lao Jin (Lop-sang). This second assignment is supposed to last only an additional six months. But when the half-year has come and gone, the entire Educated Youth Program bureaucracy seems to have forgotten about her.
Xiu Xiu is anything but conventionally entertaining. It's an important and deeply memorable film, however, despite its heartbreaking tale of casual brutality. It contains majestic passages of painterly beauty as director Chen and cinematographer Lu Yue capture the vast rolling emptiness of the Chinese grasslands, the grand sweep of a meandering river, the silverspecked inkiness of the night sky and ominous shadows of gathering thunderheads. In addition, the film delivers countless windows into Chinese society. We gather that the Wen family is "middle-class" in the Chinese context of the early 1970s. Yet the father makes the family's clothes from scraps he brings home from work, laboring over an ancient manual sewing machine powered by a foot treadle. The Wens have no bathroom in their apartment. They wash by squatting in a galvanized tub in the living room, rinse by pouring over their scrubbed bodies water warmed in a kettle on the stove. But the meager accommodations are luxurious in contrast to what Xiu Xiu finds in the country. Her mother knows this from the outset, trades sugar ration coupons to equip her daughter with toilet paper, and frets Xiu Xiu won't be able to find the feminine hygiene products she will need.
The narrative and character development in the picture are artfully rendered. Lao Jin isn't at all the man we think he's going to be. And if we might complain that he ultimately seems a little too good to be true, this picture needs somebody to represent the possibilities of human virtue. Xiu Xiu is a tragic victim, but she isn't depicted as a saint. She's flighty and a trace superior, not at all above crowing about the delights of her roots in the city in situations where greater sensitivity would cause her to remain silent. Moreover, her first steps onto the slippery slope that leads to her utter debasement are largely taken at her own initiative, a somewhat vain and immature girl's failure to detect the devil's glint in a handsome man's eye. It isn't long, though, before we understand the overwhelming extent to which Xiu Xiu's degradation is a product of her desperation. And the villain is not really that first man, a fast-talking peddler, or any of the subsequent men solely as individuals, for they are all the product of an indecent system that values orthodoxy to an idea far more than the human lives that are supposed to conduct themselves in concert with that idea. As do many films made by Third World filmmakers, this one too demands that whatever our problems and however ashamed we should be for not solving them, Americans should first of all count our boundless blessings.
The best and most poetic of the three films under discussion here is Tony Bui's Three Seasons. Bui was born in Vietnam but came to American as an infant, grew up in the Silicon Valley and subsequently completed a film degree at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Three Seasons so accurately captured life in contemporary Vietnam, however, that Bui's film was that country's nominee for the 2000 Best Foreign Language Oscar.
It was Archibald MacLeish who first said "A poem should not mean/ But be." MacLeish's point was that the beauty of a poem (and I think we can extrapolate that to include art works in general) cannot be reduced to narrow summaries of content and theme. I never resist MacLeish's wisdom on this matter, but I am routinely impatient with fiction writers and film-makers whose narratives are diffuse and whose thematic intentions are vague. Thus, I realize I am going somewhat against my own instincts in finding such richness in Three Seasons. I don't pretend to know entirely what the picture "means." It contains passages that have not yet yielded to my understanding. Still, I am utterly confident in declaring it beautiful.
Set in the Saigon of the late 1990s, Three Seasons interweaves four stories. A young peasant woman, Kien An (Ngoc Hiep), is hired to pick and sell white lotuses for a mysteriously unseen master, Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong), a poet who has retired into seclusion. Eventually we learn that Dao is horribly disfigured with leprosy which has completely destroyed his fingers. By reading his work, Kien An discovers the beauty of Dao's soul which stands in such contrast to the horror of his disease. Elsewhere in the city, Hai (Don Duong), a hard-working bicycle rickshaw driver falls for Lan (Zoe Bui), a beautiful young prostitute who plies her trade in the city's finest hotels. Lan responds immediately to Hai's humble infatuation, but for a long time she doesn't think of him as a viable romantic partner. In hopes of raising the $50 he would need to spend a night with her, Hai enters a cyclo race offering a cash prize to the winner. Meanwhile, "Woody" (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a young boy of seven or eight, sells watches, gum and cigarette lighters from a valise he has strapped open and hung around his neck to turn himself into a walking display case. When he loses the satchel and searches desperately for it through the neonlit streets, we realize the fragility of his grip on existence. Crossing the action of these other stories is that of James Hager (Harvey Keitel), an American who served a tour of duty in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Hager is back searching for the now grown daughter he left behind when his unit was shipped home.
Three Seasons illustrates the astonishing contrasts found side by side throughout the Third World. Vietnam won the war, but Western culture is winning the peace. Skyscrapers poke toward the clouds and gleam with glass and marble while not far away people work the rice paddies in a manner little different from their ancestors a thousand years in the past. Downtown, rich businessmen from Japan, Hong Kong, Europe and the United States stride the streets in tailored suits and check the times of their appointments on their gleaming Rolex watches. In their wake, children huddle in doorways, and cyclo drivers sleep in their passenger carriages for want of financial resources to lease an apartment. Poverty abides, but the old safety net of family is decaying like rotted fabric. Kien An finds her market for fresh cut lotuses eroded by plastic facsimiles imported from abroad. Like American children, "Woody" loves to watch television cartoons, but he has to sneak into an up-scale electronics store to do it. There is no TV at home, and anyway, his father—or perhaps it is his Fagan-esque caretaker— has banished him for losing his case of wares.
Some of what happens here eludes us. "Woody" ends up back stage at a movie theater and accidentally falls through the screen, ripping it down the middle. We don't know how he got there or why, and we certainly don't understand why the audience reacts with raucous laughter instead of howls of outrage. Near the end, when Hai and Lan's relationship has progressed in a way neither one would have predicted, he scrapes her naked back with a spoon, marking it, presumably with bruises, in the branching shape of a tree. We presume this a purification ritual of some kind, but the film would benefit had Bui revealed its religious or cultural origins.
Such scenes don't frustrate us, however, in the way comparable sequences might in another film. For the rules of this one seem different. Bui is communicating with us in a different way. At many points his work seems more that of a painter than a feature filmmaker. Dotted with a navy of female workers sitting as if on the water itself in small flat boats, their heads a mushroom series of bobbing yellow cones, Bui's shots of Dao's lotus pond are more alluring than Monet's famed water lilies. The ochre lanterns which wink through the mist from the eaves of Dao's house will recall night seascapes by J.M.W Turner. And the slightly out of focus image of red blossoms, falling like God's blessing on Hal and Lan as they stroll through a park, makes us think of Renoir.
These instances of narrative elusiveness and painterly photography don't mean, however, that Three Seasons is missing emotional impact or theme. We are moved by the characters' kindness, by Kien An's offer to become the poet's fingers so that he might write once again, by two desperate children sharing their food rather than fighting over it, by the selfless and forgiving nature of Hai's love and by the penitent nature of Lan's surrender to it. Moreover, whatever we may fail to understand about this picture, we are sure of the lesson that emerges from James Hager's story. We think at first that Kien An must be the lost daughter he is seeking. Later we think that his daughter must be Lan. Ultimately we grasp that in figurative terms, they are both his daughters. All the young women of Vietnam, all the young children trying to make the transition from the traditional world to the modern, all of them belong to the American James Hager. All of them belong to us.