Film in many ways is a historical and cultural medium through which the representation or interpretation of an issue, idea, or event can be expressed and communicated. With film being a publicly disseminated form of electronic media; it has a wide impact on influencing and displaying a certain representation of historical or social realities. However, there are limitations to film as well since frequently films are created as commodity marketed to a mass audience and driven by salability rather than attempting at providing an adequate, realistic, and objective portrayal of a certain event, idea, or issue. Too frequently does film abandon and stray away from the truth to appeal to mainstream mass audiences instead of address the many “subcultures” and marginalized individuals in an imagined community or society. These neglected and often oppressed individuals are left voiceless and subjected to the cultural hegemony of the overarching society. To an oppressed “subculture” or individual, film in many ways can be polarizing or seem highly biased. Due to the cultural differences and lack of exposure a film’s representations of reality, a film dedicated for a certain audience may seem accurate and adequate for a foreigner. Since they lack the insight an individual exposed to the in group society might have, they will be more unlikely to pick out the bias and misrepresentations in film.
For this project two, I was paired up with a student from Beijing Normal University named Xie Suyang. Xie Suyang is an English major at BNU and is interested in English as well as British literature. Initially, during the first conversations I had with Xie Suyang through QQ I found out that he enjoyed psychological or thought provoking films such as The Triangle. During the series of conversations back and forth about the two movies The Assembly (2007) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), there were two topics that came up such as the cultural limitations of film and the authenticity of film as a cultural representational tool. Thus, we decided upon watching the two war films The Assembly and Saving Private Ryan which were both box office successes in China and the U.S. respectively. These two films were centered on the victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the Kuo Min Tang during the Chinese Civil War and the American soldiers over the Nazi soldiers during WWII. The portrayal of the military engagements through film shows a great window into the perspective of the victors or the dominant audience the film is geared towards. Both films reinforce ideas about nationhood through the use of historical events, language, cultural hegemony, and symbolism. Another parallel is that both films revolve around the leadership of a Captain Gu Zidi or Captain Miller who are constantly tested to see if they had what it takes to complete their mission and carry out their orders. In many ways, the military is subtly critiqued in both films as well as the concept of war. We decided that examining these two popular war films would be a excellent viewpoint to deconstruct the idea of a nation or imagined community and look at the films as mediums of cultural capital.
The Assembly (2007) Synopsis:
The film, The Assembly was centered on the theme of honoring the forgotten soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army who perished during the Chinese Civil War. Death is inevitable in war. The Chinese Civil War killed thousands of soldiers from both the Kuomintang and People’s Liberation Army. The Assembly is a movie about the sacrifices of soldiers and gives meaning to sacrifice through honor. Captain Gu Zidi of the Ninth Company is battle tested and weary of war. Gu Zidi led 47 of his remaining unit to take on and hold the entire Kuomintang Army at the Wen River. The stalemate ended up with all 47 of Captain Gu Zidi’s soldiers perishing in battle with him as the sole survivor. Captain Gu Zidi struggles the rest of his life to try and honor his 47 men and their sacrifice. The 1948 Huaihai Campaign one of the bloodiest battles of the Chinese Civil War is what the film centers on. Amid this campaign in Xuzhou, China Captain Gu Zidi was ordered on a suicide mission; he was to go with his 47 men and hold off the Kuomintang Army until the “assembly” call for retreat was sounded. Despite the resilient fighting of Captain Gu Zidi and his men, they all perished except he and Gu Zidi was faced with the mission of honoring his fallen brothers in arms and their sacrifice.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Synopsis:
The film Saving Private Ryan tells of the popular WWII victory of the Americans during the Normandy landing on Omaha Beach and the objective story about the death of three out of four of the Ryan brothers. The film’s cinematography is visually and audibly stunning with attention grabbing scenes depicting the harsh realities of war. The mise en scene is historically accurate with attention focused on even the minute details of the weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and even environment the film is shot in. The film revolves around the character of Captain Miller who is ordered based on the Sole Survivor Policy to gather up his squad of Army Rangers along with a translator and go search amongst the French countryside on a rescue mission for Pvt. James Francis Ryan; the sole survivor among the four Ryan brothers. Miller’s orders were to find Ryan and send him back home. After Private Ryan repeatedly refused to leave his post, Captain Miller and his men ended up getting reeled into a battle with the invading German forces and many including Captain Miller are wounded or perish during the course of the battle. The film ends with Captain Miller telling Private Ryan to “James…Earn this. Earn it.”
When examining both films there seem to be many similarities as well as differences. In Saving Private Ryan, Xie Suyang thought that the bloodshed, violence, and gore was a little bit “surprising”. During the beginning of the film during the Omaha beach invasion sequence one soldier’s arm fell off due to an explosion; this scene was especially violent according to Xie Suyang. However, Suyang agreed that the violence in both films, Assembly and Saving Private Ryan was acceptable. Suyang noted that each film that has been released on CCTV (China Central Television) has been censored for violence, language, sexuality, etc and that due to censorship the originality and creativity of a film may be limited. When further analyzing the limitations of each film especially as a means of cultural capital, Suyang brought up an important note that in the film Assembly the dialects of all of the soldiers are the same which would be historically inaccurate since soldiers fighting on both fronts came from a variety of places in China with a multitude of distinct dialects. In Saving Private Ryan, I thought that even though there was an incorporation of different accents to suggest a diverse medley of individuals but I thought that the selections of which accents to use displayed only the accents which portrayed and “represented” America according to a culturally hegemonic perspective. In many ways, the specific selection of certain accents to carefully craft Saving Private Ryan is not much different from the Assembly which used a uniform dialect to reinforce the cultural value of language in defining a nation. Suyang felt that the speaking of “standard Chinese” makes movies unrealistic and in many ways creates an hierarchy of dialects which in turn marginalizes those who do not speak in a certain manner. Language in many ways is a key in forming a cultural and national identity and in many ways both Assembly and Saving Private Ryan present a biased and crafted viewpoint on China and America which can be misleading to an individual not versed or experienced with either society and lead to a partisan and limited understanding of a nation or culture through film.
Suyang and I looked at the marginalized groups in each film and how both films could have scenes which critiqued the status quo in place. Suyang and I agreed that in the Assembly the People’s Liberation Army hierarchy and bureaucracy of the PRC government shown in the film were critiqued through the character of Captain Gu Zidi especially in a scene where he got frustrated with the neglect of the government on assisting him in finding his 47 fallen brothers in arms. Assembly brought up the question of the value of an individual’s life since these 47 soldiers were a few among the thousands of unnamed and forgotten soldiers who died on both sides of the conflict. Saving Private Ryan presented an alternative viewpoint where Pvt. James Francis Ryan’s life was worth the lives of almost an entire squad of men along with Captain Miller. Suyang brought up the point that in China that situation would never happen since the due to the collectivist culture in China the value of one lowly soldier’s life would not be worth the sacrifice of others to rescue him even if he was the last surviving son in a family. Saving Private Ryan brings up the marginalized story of a mother’s sacrifice through the conceptual character of Private Ryan. The differences between the two films can be traced to cultural values that are intrinsic in each nation. In a collectivist and highly Confucian value influenced China, the sacrifice of one company of soldiers to enable the main People’s Liberation Army to survive to fight another day can be justified for serving the greater good and a necessary sacrifice for one’s country. In the individualistic culture of the United States, the value of one man can be justified to be worth an squad and its Captain’s life shows the brotherhood that extends beyond bloodlines and kinship. However, the film ends on a note which questions the worth of a man with Captain Miller’s last words telling Pvt. James Francis Ryan to “Earn it”. With the closing of Assembly, Captain Gu Zidi finally after decades of searching was able to find the bodies of his soldiers and honor them with a monument for their services and a final “assembly” call. I felt that with Saving Private Ryan, the film tried to show the humanity of many for one individual in war and Assembly showed the inhumanity of war with the sacrifice of the 47 soldiers who were only finally honored through the humanity of one.
When looking at the realism of the films, we both agreed that both Assembly and Saving Private Ryan were shot with relative historical and military accuracy. The violence, gore, death were all visibly displayed through both films to the point that at times we both felt desensitized to violence due to our high exposure to it through the films. However, both films allows a viewer to sympathize with the soldiers with the characters of Upham and Wang Jincun who were both cowardly characters in the films. Suyang thought that the character of Wang Jincun and Upham symbolized the reality of war in which there are soldiers who are afraid to die and in many ways were victims of their time and situation. I felt that in Saving Private Ryan, the fear of dying was more acceptable because more than one character was portrayed with fear. Even Captain Miller the leader of the squad has a nervous tic where his hand shakes before he goes into battle which shows the humanity of the American soldiers in juxtaposition with the relentless cold manner of the Nazi soldiers. This allowed the audience to sympathize with the American soldiers more and desensitize themselves from the death of the marginalized German soldiers. With the Assembly, the fear of dying was more looked down upon since the teacher Wang Jincun was about to be shot for cowardice since he wet his pants during a battle. This difference between the two films may reflect the cultural values of each nation in forming its identity.
Cross Cultural Exchange through Conversations:
I thought that these conversations between me and my partner Xie Suyang were notable in that they allowed us to communicate indirectly and directly through the medium of film. I thought that the deep analysis of the using film as a cultural medium was fascinating. Through this process both of us have realized the cultural capital of film and how it has such a big impact on the audiences watching them both foreign and domestic in reinforcing or creating a cultural or national identity. Through this process I have become more critical of taking a film at face value and am more prone to look deeper and try to find the bias present in a film and look at it with an oppositional reading. I have realized that despite the huge improvements and resources readily available due to the rise of the internet and social networking sites there can still be limitations to virtual communication as opposed to face to face interaction. Throughout my conversations with Xie Suyang, I have really been exposed to his unique perspective on the world since he grew up in Yunnan Province in Southern China and is now attending Beijing Normal University at the capital of China. Xie Suyang has been a great conversation partner and seems to have a very busy schedule but manages to always manage to squeeze in time for our conversations. Through our conversations, I have been able to get to understand Suyang and his perspective on China. Despite the language and cultural differences between us, we still manage to communicate for the most part. There were several situations when I had to explain a term such as the word “theme” to him so that we could find a two films that were related. I feel that one of the bigger limitations was language since he and I think in different ways due to the language that we speak and sometimes there are words or ideas that are lost in translation. Some things that came up with our conversations were talks about the environment in China especially since Xie Suyang is from Yunnan which is known as one of the most beautiful provinces in China. Suyang said that the environment in China was not so much due to the lack of knowledge in conservation or the lack of initiative in preserving the environment but rather the inefficient bureacracy of the government in place as well as the failure of officials to adhere to their responsibility of following environmental codes. Suyang seemed to be very curious about my life in America as well and always had questions about life at a American college campus. Another funny incident was when we discussed whether we would serve in the military should the occasion arise. Suyang immediately said that he would not serve on the basis that he was too small and then he went on to point out that I seemed big enough to serve in the military. I laughed and said that I probably would not serve just based on personal preference. All in all, it was a very fun and interesting series of conversations and project experience.
Xie Suyang’s Biography:
I’m Chill from China. I’m quiet and reserved most of the time, but can be emotional to my intimate friends. Now I’m an English major student of Beijing Normal University and I like English literature very much. The British writer—-Oscar Wilde is my favorite one. His play The Importance of Being Earnest and novel The Picture of Dorian Gray leaves me a deep impression in that his words are powerful, revealing and sometimes philosophical. Besides, I’m passionate about volleyball and enjoy watching the videos which record the volleyball matches or championships taking place in the 1980s. When I’m free, I listen to Taylor Swift’s songs. She is the most talented and fascinating singer I have ever seen. In addition, I do appreciate this kind of chat, which gives me chance to have a real conversation with a native and broaden my perspectives about American values as well as culture.