Different strokes for different folks

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2012-12-16 10:29:08

The more times I see the movie, the more questions I have. Personally, what has mesmerized me most is Lee's attitude toward Buddhism as embodied in the movie. This is the religion not among those the protagonist basked himself in, yet it is hinted repeatedly. Another question I have: How many treatments did Lee consider before settling on the plain look-at-the-camera narration for the crucial second story? It is so simple, yet so effective.

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During one screening, I took time to observe the ridiculous-to-serious-to-shocked response on the faces of many audience members. For those who did not read the book, the revelation would elicit a full spectrum of emotions.

It is quite natural that American filmgoers, including critics, failed to see through the thick coating of culture-specific nuances in Lust, Caution, a quintessential Chinese story for which overtones and undertones are the norm.

It is also to be expected that Chinese audiences are not familiar with the social background of The Ice Storm. But Life of Pi is very international, with an Indian story, a Canadian writer and now an ethnic Chinese director, and ultimately, an American production.

The biggest irony that befell Ang Lee is the cross-cultural pollination of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The martial arts epic was greeted with hurrahs in the Western world, but in its home country, where Lee intended as the ideal audience, it was at first brushed off as straying too far from the traditional kung fu genre.

Both word of mouth and box-office returns were lukewarm at best. Only when outside accolades forced Chinese critics to take a second look did we realize it was Lee's departure from conventions and his infusion of subtlety that made it into a masterpiece.

Evaluation of cultural products works in mysterious ways. Sometimes you need to be immersed in a culture to appreciate its beauty, but other times, a healthy distance would give you a better perspective. When you are too close to a piece of work, you may be blinded by the glare of one aspect and be oblivious to other strengths of the work.

Different strokes for different folks
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For example, a movie with social criticism tends to get high scores because it is relevant and it has a hard time dragging through the censorship grind. But looked back a generation from now, that advantage could fade away as the social situation will have changed. Yet, works on basic human aspirations and emotions may survive. That is why, in Chinese literature, Shen Congwen fares much better than Ba Jin as time goes along.

Another reason we dare not defend or uphold our aesthetic standard is a severe lack of cultural confidence, which results from a lack of critical voices that can be heard on the international stage. We keep telling the world Dream of the Red Mansion is the greatest Chinese novel, but we are unable to show the world where its greatness lies.

Culture thrives on differences. There is a learning curve to understand them. Our job is to make the process enjoyable.

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