Through the Looking Glass: Films As a Means to Understand Culture

Introduction:

For my project, I was paired with Cindy Shuang, a sophomore English major at Beijing Normal University. When we first talked, she was very interested in watching films about relationships between older and younger generations, and she recommended the Chinese film We Will Meet in Heaven, a story about a young girl’s relationship with her grandfather during the Cultural Revolution. I recommended a film called In America, which is about an Irish family acclimating to life in America in the early 2000s. However, Cindy had trouble accessing the links I sent to her, exposing me to one of the many quirks about trying to communicate with someone from a different culture in another country halfway around the globe. Eventually, we decided to explore the universal themes of loneliness and alienation, particularly in cities, and settled on the Hong Kong film Chungking Express by Wong Kar-Wai and Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese. However, by the third conversation, we realized that these two films represented something greater, the social atmosphere of the cultures they came from.

 

The Movies: 

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Taxi Driver

1976

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Paul Schrader

Synopsis: Travis Bickle is a Vietnam War veteran who becomes a taxi driver in New York City, taking the nighttime shifts to deal with his insomnia. It becomes clear to us as viewers that Travis is very mentally unstable, and we watch as he directs his anger and frustration towards the prostitutes and pimps of seedy New York neighborhoods. As his mental health slowly but surely deteriorates and his feeling of alienation from the rest of society increases, he attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate. Eventually he takes it upon himself to save a child prostitute, which results in a senseless bloodbath but makes Travis look like a hero to the media. The ending of the film is left ambiguous.

 

Chungking Express

Chungking Express

1994

Director: Wong Kar-wai

Writer: Wong Kar-wai

Synopsis: The film is broken into two stories taking place in Hong Kong that are not interconnected except for a brief moment. In the first story, we follow a Taiwan-born cop named He Qiwu. His girlfriend has just broken up with him, and he decides to wait for a month before deciding their relationship officially over. Meanwhile, an enigmatic woman in a blonde wig is trying to make a drug deal. Eventually these two characters meet at a bar. The blonde woman gets drunk, and He Qiwu takes care of her. The next day, she wakes up and shoots the drug dealer, and he leaves and meets a girl named Faye, who appears in the second story. In the second story arc, an unnamed cop identified as Cop 633 is also going through a break up and meets a girl named Faye who works at his favorite snack bar. Eventually they fall in love and arrange a date, but then Faye abruptly leaves for California, leaving a boarding pass drawn on a napkin behind dated for one year. When she comes back, they reconnect, and he declares that he will go anywhere with her, but their future remain ambiguous.

 

Themes in Taxi Driver and Chungking Express:

For both Cindy and I, we realized that Taxi Driver and Chungking Express had many overarching themes present in both movies that were embodied by the characters’ personalities and their relationships to others. These themes specifically are loneliness, alienation, inability to form relationships, and violence.

In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is a mentally unstable war veteran who feels extreme alienation after returning from the war and finding work as a taxi driver. He frequently expresses his loneliness as he drives the night streets, separate from the outside world by the metal and glass of his taxi. As he cruises through the night, he frequently comments on the “scumminess” of those around him in an act of self-separation, further compounding his lonely situation. He is incapable of forming relationships, botching his meetings with political campaigner Betsy and becoming enemies with her co-worker. As his mental health deteriorates, he becomes more and more engrossed in his own mind and world, symbolized by the frequent use of mirrors, voice-over narration, and conversing with himself. He acts outside the workings of reality, such as hypocritically hating the people he encounters at night while going to seedy porn theaters, and becomes fixated on the idea of saving a child prostitute. The violent climax and ambiguous ending seem to represent the falling apart of Travis’ mind, and raise the question of whether or not his actions were justified for a man so far removed from normal society.

taxidriver-001 talking to meTaxi Driver still

 

In Chungking Express, many of the themes in Taxi Driver are also present, simply in different characters instead of just one. In the first story, cop He Qiwu, much like Travis, shows that he is, in some ways, living outside the realities of his situation due to his hope that in thirty days after buying thirty cans of pineapple, his ex girlfriend will return to him. Furthermore, he is incapable of forming new relationships, specifically with the mysterious blonde woman. Like Travis, his loneliness and alienation is expressed by his talking to himself as he takes care of the unresponsive blonde woman in a hotel room. The mysterious blonde woman, like Travis, also partakes in a bloody, violent outburst, which symbolizes her desperation to escape her situation and the alienation a life of crime has caused her. Like Travis, the character Faye also alienates herself from the rest of society through her eccentric behaviors. A motif that runs through the film symbolizing her alienation from the world around her is her constant playing of the song “California Dreamin’”; sure enough, she does eventually go to and return from California, further alienating herself from her own home.

chungking-express ChungkingExpress relationship

 

Films as a Basis for Cross Cultural Understanding:

It was clear to both me and Cindy that the overlapping themes in both Chungking Express and Taxi Driver were universal, and thus facilitated cultural exchange and understanding. However, when discussing Taxi Driver, Cindy asked me why Travis was so inexplicably deranged. This suddenly caused me to remember an analysis of the movie I read many years ago that explained Taxi Driver’s importance in film history as an expression of the United State’s traumatized and broken psyche in the years after the Vietnam War. After conversing with Cindy, we decided that while universal themes in films, especially those of relationships, promoted cultural exchange, a deeper understanding can occur when the film itself is representational of the country and culture that produced it.

When the writer of Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader, was working on the screenplay, he was, in a large part, inspired by the feeling of the residual national trauma caused by the Vietnam War. When talking to Cindy, I explained to her the terrible scar it left on the American psyche. Being a morally ambiguous war from the start from the American involvement point of view, the Vietnam War created a great confusion among the American people. In addition, the Vietnam War was the first war to be televised – the violence and bloodshed was accessible to all American civilians in the their own homes, with its brutality in full view. Coupled with anti-war protests from all different areas of the United States, the years after the war ended left the general American populace feeling upset and confused. When the soldiers returned home, they weren’t even greeted with a hero’s welcome; instead, many were insulted and ridiculed by their own people for their involvement in the horrible images shown of the war on TV. After explaining this to Cindy, she not only had a better understanding of Taxi Driver, but also a more insightful look into a different society in a country different from hers’. The ideas of loneliness, trauma, alienation, and violence of Travis Bickle suddenly held more meaning to her, largely for their roles as a metaphor for traumatized Vietnam veterans and a disjointed civilian society.

vietnam-war-protest

Vietnam War Protests

Similarly, Chungking Express is a metaphor for the cultural atmosphere at the time it was made. As some may know, Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the First Opium War in China. During the Pacific War, Hong Kong came under the rule of the Japanese, before promptly being regained as a British colony after the end of World War II. However in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was created, which dictated the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, and it was also decided that Hong Kong be considered a “Special Administrative Region” for fifty years after the handover, retaining its laws and autonomy not found in mainland China. As a director emerging from the 80’s wave of filmmakers, Wong Kar-wai was definitely perceptive of the effects of the declaration on the people of his homeland. Hong Kong as a territory had been, and still is, in a state of identity limbo, and the declaration made this crises more severe. For the past two centuries, Hong Kong, has been a Chinese land ruled by the West and influenced by the Japanese. It has been controlled by these impersonal entities for so long, in a sense, the cultural identity of Hong Kong has always been in a state of flux, as it could not fully identity with any government that controlled it. When Chungking Express was released in 1994, it was clear that the alienation, dislocation, and listlessness expressed in the film were the same feelings running through the hearts of Hong Kong citizens.

Sino British

Prime Ministers Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher deciding the fate of Hong Kong.

 

Conclusion:

In the end my partner and I both realized that while the similarities of different films can bring people together, they can also serve to give outsiders an idea of the cultural atmosphere during which the film is created. This is especially present in our two films, which are highly metaphorical for the cultures that created them. While the alienation and instability in Taxi Driver was caused by a traumatic war, the same loneliness and lack of deep relationships in Chungking Express was representative of the social unrest felt by Hong Kong society at the time of conception. While no film can replace full immersion and in depth research for cultural understanding, these films serve as great tools to help people of other countries understand that particular’s society at one point in time.

It was interesting to see how Cindy and I both related to the history behind our respective films. Although neither of us lived or experienced the social upheaval presented in the films, we both felt that we could speak for them to a certain extent. However, as an American citizen living through the American school system, my education has always included learning about the Vietnam War. As a mainland Chinese citizen, though, Cindy was largely unfamiliar with Hong Kong history of the time from the early 80’s to the late 90’s. In the end, we ended up researching the films together, and deciding together the extent to which Chungking Express was a metaphor for its society at the time it was released.

Of course, my conversations with Cindy were not alway so serious and somber. We ended up discussing a lot about our heritage. I am Chinese, but more specifically of Northeastern Chinese descent, as is Cindy. Coincidentally, my mom attended undergrad in Cindy’s home province. It was interesting how Cindy as a Chinese person was able to place my heritage. In America, because of our varied ethnic and racial make-up, we seem to identify people more based on appearance in terms of coloring. However, for Cindy, she was able to immediately place my heritage based on the general patterns of my facial features, such as cheek bones and eye size, and my Northeastern accent when I spoke Chinese. We also talked about our romantic relationships, discussing how we met our boyfriends, our parents’ approval, and the general dating scene in our respective cultures. A lot of the times, it was just like talking to a normal girlfriend.

I am very grateful for this project because it gave me a chance to speak with someone in another country while gaining a greater understanding culturally through the medium I love, film. With the modern technology of Skype, it was so cool to see how in communicating with Cindy, there was an immediacy. It took almost no effort to click on my Skype icon and press the video chat button (though trying to arrange a time to talk with the twelve hour time difference was a little difficult with our busy schedules). Ultimately, I think this project was an invaluable experience; along the way, I learned about another culture and gained a friend.

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Speaking with Cindy