Hate Chinese epics? My aunt loves 'em

By Patrick Whiteley
2007-02-28 09:26
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The Seinfeld TV series was a huge hit in the 1990s thanks to its cast of self-centered New Yorkers and their funny observations about life. One episode starts with Jerry and George sitting in their favorite diner. George is flicking through the New York Times and spots an article about China.

"Ah Jerry, don't they know that anything about China is a page turner?" He quickly flicks the page and the pre-recorded TV audience laugh fires up. He's saying: OK. It's the world's biggest country but who cares? What the hell has it got to do with me?

That episode was made about 10 years ago, and as we all know The New York Times, and the rest of the world's media, has ignored George's editorial advice. Editors in the West know what their customers want, and all eyes and ears are on China. Even on its historical epic movies, which are the butt of many Chinese jokes.

My Aunty Delie from Indianapolis in the US shocked me recently when she revealed her favorite movie for 2006 was Curse of the Golden Flower.

Delie lives smack-dab in middle America and watched Zhang Yimou's Tang Dynasty epic sipping a diet Coke and munching on popcorn in a mid-western mall. This was not a San Francisco foreign film festival or New York's Greenwich Village this was the US heartland and as mainstream as it gets. What's she doing watching a foreign language film? Doesn't she know that China is a page turner?

"It was sub-titled but I didn't care. I absolutely loved it," my aunty exclaimed. "The costumes were amazing, the colors were powerful, the acting was marvellous, the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) was brilliant and the story was so true."

The story? I told her the narratives of China's big blockbusters, such as the Curse, The Banquet and The Promise, are regarded by many Chinese as their major weakness. Locals feel their big-name directors have lost touch with the mainstream, and focus too much on style, and not enough substance.

However my 55-year-old Australian/American aunty was riveted to the story, and the unique way it was told.

"The emperor's power and greed took away everything he really loved that's so true," she said.

My aunt is going through a nasty court case, involving a former business partner, and Zhang's costume epic weaved its way into her heart. I told her locals didn't think the story was relevant. "But it was relevant to me," Delie said. "Greed will ruin a man. Don't I know it."

I was quick to jump on the I-hate-big-Chinese epic-movies bandwagon and watched the Curse again with new eyes. Aunty Delie was right. Under the overwhelming colors, the sword fights, and dazzling costumes, was a story of substance. The Curse wasn't as cursed as I first thought.

Next year Zhang Yimou will help stage the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and if you want a sneak peak of what it may look like, check out the Curse, it is available on DVD. Even if you think it is cursed, there's a good chance your overseas aunty will like it and might find it a more interesting gift then a pair of chopsticks.

(China Daily 02/28/2007 page20)