I am going to the PRC in a little less than a month, and as I scramble to acquire enough Mandarin phrases to amuse my hosts, I thought I would take a look at some recent tv and cinema coming out of China.
I have watched the following:
Empresses in the Palace — historical drama about concubines in the Forbidden City of the 18th Century.
Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon — a medieval fantasy featuring a Sherlock Holmes type detective and his friend, a doctor!
Caught in the Web — A young corporate secretary is rude to an elderly man on a bus, gets videorecorded and her videoed behavior goes viral.
Before this, I watched To Live, which I had forgotten that I had seen when it first came out. About half way through the movie I thought “Is this the one about the Cultural Revolution?” And it was.
Empresses in the Palace was a big hit in China and Japan and is beautiful to look at but felt a bit pot-boilerish. Characters seemed to change overnight, love affairs exploded, and tempers flew suddenly and for no reasons. I was confused by this, so I looked up the show on the internet only to discover that the 76 episode drama had been cut down to 6 episodes! Well, no wonder things didn’t exactly make sense. And this also explained the theme songs being mysteriously in English. If you can put up with these oddities, there is some very fun, over the top acting, and some lovely scenery. There are also interesting political moments, when one concubine comments in a Luce Irigaray sort of way about how hard it is for the “goods to get together.” It’s also clearly not really fun being emperor, according to this show. Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t. It certainly was not fun to be one of these women, but then if you’ve seen Raise the Red Lantern, you already know that.
Young Detective Dee is steampunk goes medieval China, with graphics. My favorite part was the actual appearance of the dragon, who is killed, not with a spear or an arrow, but with poisoned fish. “Hurl the tainted fish!” people say over and over again. This amused me. There is also some fun with drinking bull’s urine.
The most thought-provoking of these offerings for me was Caught In the Web, which pictures contemporary urban China and shows us what the 1% look like and live like. Oddly, the Taiwanese actor who plays Detective Dee shows up in this film too! The first half of the film examines the clash between traditional and modern lifestyles and value systems. The last half hour or so is not so rewarding, but overall the film gave me a feeling for some of the contradictions of the PRC. We see a society that mirrors ours in disturbing and interesting ways: enormous wealth, sick people who can’t pay their bills, young people struggling to make ends meet in a tiny rental apartment, and fierce competition in corporate and media domains.
More on what it’s like to try to learn Mandarin in another post….