Finding Cross-Cultural Understanding in Tragic Love Stories

Film and new media can serve as a tool for cross-cultural understanding. The inherent visual experience of film allows viewers to “see” another culture in action. The storytelling aspect of film shows the viewer the values of the culture, the cultural norms and behaviors, and how people deal with conflict in that culture. Discussing films can be a jumping-off point for further discussion about culture, a story used to talk about cultural issues.

My partner and I chose two films, ‘Titanic’ (1997) and ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ (2010), which shared similar plot threads: in both films, a young girl falls in love against the wishes of her parents and the man she falls in love with dies tragically in her arms. We discussed the similarities and differences in the two films and used those points to guide our cross-cultural discussion.

'Titanic', which takes place in 1912, takes on themes ranging from class stratification to technology.

‘Titanic’, which takes place in 1912, takes on themes ranging from class stratification to technology.

Both films take place in the past, using a historical period of conflict as a microcosm in which to focus a story within. ‘Titanic’ takes place during post-Industrial Revolution in America, and ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ takes place during the Cultural Revolution in China. My partner and I discussed historical-based films within Chinese and American cinema. One of our observations was that historical period films are still popular in China, especially those that portray the Warring States period and the Republic Period from 1912-1949. On the other hand, American cinema does not seem to focus on any particular historical period, though a case could be made for films that depict World War II or the recent glut of pseudo-ancient Greek period films. This led us to a discussion about the way history is taught in America versus China. American history as it is taught in schools, tends to “begin” with the ancient Greeks and Romans and follows the rise of Western civilization with very little mention of concurrent civilizations in Asia or Africa or South America. Chinese history in schools “begins” with Asian civilization and tends to focus on the events most relevant to Asian history.

Another similarity that the films share is the theme of a young couple whose love is thwarted by societal expectations and a traditional mindset held by the female protagonist’s parents. Rose (Titanic) is expected to marry well to save her family’s financial situation.  Jing Qui (Hawthorn) cannot marry because she needs to study and work to become her family’s main source of income. My partner and I both observed that both female protagonists were very young, their characters around 16-17 years old in the film, whereas the male protagonists were visibly older. We speculated that his precocious age may have served to present the theme of children’s relationship with their parents. The parents in both films are strictly traditional and try to impede the romances. This led my partner and I to discuss the way that parents seek to create better lives for their children by trying to make better decisions for them. Our discussion yielded interesting results as we found that we both were on the path to follow in our parents’ footsteps. Catherine, whose parents are English teachers, is studying to become an English teacher, and I am studying to become an accountant, being the daughter of an accountant. As a Chinese-American, perhaps I had a unique take on this subject because of my ethnic background. I had always assumed that it was my parents’ “Chinese-ness” which led them to dictate a career path for me that I was not terribly interested in. But my conversation with Catherine led me to discover that this was not necessarily a distinctive characteristic of Chinese parents, as her parents have in fact encouraged her to seek out a career that suits her interests. This led me to reconsider the things which I had previously believed to be Chinese or American about myself, and led me to consider my perspective within American society.

Love scene from 'Titanic.'

Love scene from ‘Titanic.’ Both films feature a love scene which serves as a turning point for the plot.

Love scene from ‘Hawthorn.’ Though the scene is mostly chaste and takes place “under the covers” and fully-clothed, an argument could be made that the scene is just as explicit as the scene from ‘Titanic.’

 

We also discussed the love scene that takes place in both movies. Titanic’s love scene between Rose and Jack is explicit and depicts the characters engaged in sexual intercourse. Hawthorn’s love scene between Jing Qiu and Sun Jianxin is also explicit, but in a different way: we see each grope in intimate detail, but there are only two gropes and the extent of their physical relationship is lying on a bed together with all of their clothes on. Jing Qui and Sun Jianxin do not consummate their love, not even through a kiss. My partner and I discussed romantic relationships in China and America, and our observations were that this divergence was representative of both cultures. Romantic relationships are taken very seriously in China and parents generally do not approve of dating during high school. Because of this, Chinese teenagers will often date “in secret” and have clandestine meetings in public places. One of the things that she asked me about American culture was whether Americans had quite a lot of formal parties in college and high school. I indicated that while there were such parties, it was not as prevalent as the degree shown in TV shows and movies. This led to a discussion of where females and males interact and where they meet. Catherine shared with me her unique situation of a large gender disparity at her school, where female students outnumber male students 7 to 3, which is something I would never have guessed. My expectation was skewed by the prevailing American debate on China’s One Child Policy, and the result of that policy creating a gender imbalance towards males rather than females. In fact, when I last visited China, I visited an engineering and science school in Sichuan, where the males outnumbered females by something like 8 to 2, an observation which bolstered my belief about the gender imbalance.

Our discussions led us to a huge variety of topics that included travel, comedy and horror films, roommates, and TV shows we like to watch. One example of an insight I found interesting was on the topic of television shows. Catherine described some of the TV shows popular in China, which are generally dramas about young people struggling to live their dreams, find love, and live in the big city. But when I described my favorite TV shows, I found that I predominately watched shows that are very far removed from real life: shows like The Walking Dead, Fringe, The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, Vikings, Supernatural, Dexter. Catherine observed that there weren’t many shows like that in China and it made me consider the tendency of Chinese television to depict real life versus the American tendency to escape real life through fantastical situations.

It was genuinely interesting to interact on this level with someone, discussing each other’s cultures from literally two sides of the world. I mentioned before my strange revelation during this experience as a Chinese-American who has visited China several times and actively immerses in Chinese films and music, to still be discovering new things about a culture I thought I knew.

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