Perception: The Lens to identity

Introduction

 Over the course of a three week period, I along with a Chinese student named Gloria were tasked with exploring two films native to our culture that shared similar themes. During our first conversation,  we decided  to pursue the theme “Coming of Age”, as we both seemed to have a mutual knowledge of films in this genre. I suggested the American film Never Back Down (2008), a film not typically considered a coming of age (imbd lists it as a fighter), yet has certain elements that allow it to be interpreted  as a coming of age film, as will be discussed below. For a Chinese film Gloria suggested I watch 功夫之王 (2008) , titled The Forbidden Kingdom in English. I was somewhat taken aback by Gloria’s recommendation, as I certainly thought of The Forbidden Kingdom as an American film. While boasting famous Chinese actors such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan, the films protagonist was an American youth, and most of the film was in English.  Perplexing as Gloria’s choice was, it provided a golden opportunity explore our what aspects of film determine its national identity in our minds. Thus it is the goal of this blog to both analyze the coming of age theme as well as on a deeper level illumine the factors that cause us to understand film and it’s national identity.

Coming of Age

            The coming of age genre is a timeless genre in American culture, and has a presence in Chinese culture. These films follow youths (most of whom are male) who are generally the target of ridicule by their peers, have troubled pasts, have strained family relations,  and who struggle in their transition into adulthood. What keeps these youths from accelerating their downward spiral into  a social pariah–hood is an activity, mentor, or combination of both that allows them to experience the oft fleeting feeling of success, as well as find emotional healing through fellowship with teammates or teachers. Rarely do these films ever showcase a protagonist who by the movie’s end has not become a more well- rounded, emotionally stable individual. This phenomenon is intrinsic to coming of age films as they are driven by an attitude of perseverance that heralds hard work and an indomitable will as the answer to life’s greatest challenges. While certainly one of the most positive and affirming genres of the film industry, coming of age films are prone to having their protagonist stumble along their path to adulthood, either by betraying a relationship built  during the course of the film or lapsing back into the self-destructive behavior that plagued them during their introduction.  This trough is only allowed to persist for but so long as  their relational anchor lovingly pursues them and encourages them to confront whatever demons plague them. This usually culminates in a climactic encounter with a figure who serves to be a physical manifestation of the protagonist’s fears and blocks. After  the protagonist’s  inevitable victory,  the plot concludes with the protagonist at his highest point (gets the girl, wins the championship, etc.) and leaves the audience hopeful of their future.

The most iconic films of this genre are: The Karate Kid(1984),  The Sandlot(1993), Gridiron Gang(2006), Dead Poet’s Society(1989), and Matilda (1996).

                      

The Forbidden Kingdom/ Never Back Down

The Forbidden Kingdom and Never Back Down handily fulfill the aforementioned tropes of a coming of age film. In Forbidden Kingdom, the male protagonist is the favorite victim of a standard fare neighborhood bully. The protagonist’s lives his life idolizing Chinese martial artists, viewing their films with a vicarious hope that perhaps one day he’ll be able to independently handle confront his problems. The parents are never seen on film, and the father is not mentioned , creating room for a mentor to become a father figure. This is realized through unlikely sequence of event’s that leave the protagonist in China’s ancient past to deliver the Monkey King his magical staff.  Along the way he meets a drunken traveler- played by Jackie Chan- who informs the protagonist of his special place in world, and of the great destiny he as before him.  This is the beginning of the healing of the social pariah-hood for the protagonist.  It affirms that the protagonist can have of sense of self-worth, as well as be  someone special to another human being. This of course serves to foster father-son relationship between the drunken traveler and the protagonist. The traveler begins to teach the protagonist martial arts, thus fulfilling the requirement for activity,  which in turn continues o show the protagonist the value of confidence gains through hard work.

Meet the protagonist of The Forbidden kingdom: lonely, and in need of a father figure

 

Meet Jackie Chan as the drunken traveler: in the business of teaching martial arts, and being a surrogate father

 

This boost in confidence allows the protagonist to reach beyond his social constraints and pursue a goal, which in this case is a female. Along this journey, another traveling companion,  a monk played by Jet Li, t accompanies the party on in its epic quest. Interestingly, this experiments with the father-son dynamic established with Jackie Chan’s character and the protagonist.  However, towards the films end, it is shown that the monk’s ultimate literary goal is to serve as a catalyst to the protagonist and and Jackie Chan’s  relationship.   By the film’s conclusion  the protagonist  has become a fully realized young adult , and defeats his childhood bully in one final confrontation achieving his independence.

Golden Sparrow: Love interest, won over by the weak, socially unskilled protagonist

The tale in Never Back Down is almost the exact same, though with nuanced differences.  In Never Back Down the protagonist is a clearly talented MMA fighter, who has great potential hindered by a strained relationship with his father.  Once gain, this allows for a  mentor,  or father figure to step in and guide his angst-filled protagonist to adulthood.  Once again, there is a rival figure who stands as the culmination of the protagonist’s problems, but as expected his ultimate defeat heralds maturity –the protagonist also gets the girl.  Both these films though set in different cultures, share marked similarities, which once again raises the question of how these films’ national identities are interpreted by audiences.

Protagonist

 

Rival

 

Mentor/Father Figure

 

The Girl

 

Relational Healing

 

Cultural Exchange

            The Forbidden Kingdom is perhaps most accurately described as a Chinese-American film, blending elements of both cultures into one movie and being distributed by both an American and Chinese studio. However, this distinction is not readily apparent tin the minds of audiences, and the factors for confusion are varied from person to person. Thus in order to illumine how we, as filmgoers, interpret film I decided to interview two Chinese citizens who had seen the The Forbidden Kingdom, and asked for how they personally identified the film. The first was a college sophomore, receiving higher education from The College of William and Mary. When asked how he identified The Forbidden Kingdom he immediately stated that the film was purely American. When asked to define what a Chinese movie was in exact terms he stated, “A Chinese movie is shot by Chinese directors, has mostly Chinese actors,  takes place in China, and  reflects  China in a positive light.” This definition while sound, faces some challenges as it appears to be rather inflexible.  The Forbidden Kingdom was directed by Rob Minkoff, an American director, it fulfills every other aspect of this definition.  The question then becomes which factor or combination of factors, determines a film’s national identity. When pressed with these challenges the student adjusted to say that ethno-centricity was perhaps the strongest factor in determining film identity. However, The Forbidden Kingdom is almost reverential in its presentation of China filled with lore, and rich history, as well as a protagonist who adores Chinese culture.  Ultimately the student  decided that The Forbidden Kingdom is rightly named a Chinese- American film. My second interviewee slightly older student (22) also at The College of William and Mary, answered much the same as the first, however his defining factor was perspective. The character to whom the audience is expected to relate is equated with the national identity of the film. Language also played a heavy factor in this interview, given that The Forbidden Kingdom features Cantonese, Mandarin,and English. Ultimately the biggest factor in determining a film’s identity is the individual who views it, however through this cross cultural exchange it is certainly apparent that there in an objectivity to the art of film identity, something I am forever grateful to have learned through this project.