Cross Cultural Understanding, More Than Just Film

Welcome to a lesson about the adventure and newfound cultural understandings two students had as they explored themes presented through film from their respective homelands; China and America. Their conversations included many films and topics but centered on the 2001 Hollywood film, Behind Enemy Lines, and the 2007 Chinese film, Assembly or Ji Jie Hao. Information about the co-authors, Zhang Shihui and Clayton Kenerson, is available at the bottom of the page.

In their initial conversation, they began discussing war films, not because of any particular interest in war but because of the universality of the topic. They inadvertently prejudged what the other’s film would be like having both seen a small sampling of the other culture’s filmic depiction of war: they were both surprised! Additionally, several subtleties in each film did not become apparent to the foreign viewer until after hours of discussion. They came to several mutually developed conclusions that came about from a foreigner’s new perspective and the native viewer’s pre-established understanding. The conclusions can be expressed through a comparing and contrasting of the two films at hand.

In comparing the films, it is clear they indeed have many similar themes, albeit different means of expression. Both war films are action packed and gory, but the most striking similarity is their shared message about honor and duty, most importantly to one’s core group of fellow servicemen. A corollary to this theme is survivor’s guilt. Both films feature survivor’s guilt and honor as more powerful motivators than obedience to the set military chain of command.

 Behind Enemy Lines Trailer:

YouTube Preview Image

            In Behind Enemy Lines, Lt. Burnett and his friend and pilot, Stackhouse, are performing a routine reconnaissance flight for NATO during the Bosnian War when Burnett leads the pair to a suspicious site off-course. They are shot down in Serbian territory because they have just come across mass graves of Muslims, the targets of an apparent Serb-led genocide. After ejecting, the injured Stackhouse is captured and executed by Serbs while Burnett is attempting to contact their commander. Stackhouse insists that he was flying solo but Burnett reveals his own location through his guttural reaction to Stackhouse’s execution, seen from afar. The rest of the film is Burnett’s suspenseful evasion of the Serbian man-hunt and his will to risk his own life to retrieve the photographic evidence that remains in the plane wreckage of the genocide.

Burnett is fighting to bring meaning and honor to Stackhouse’s death. Their plane was only shot down because Burnett convinced Stackhouse to go off-course, so Burnett must feel extremely guilty about the death of his friend and compatriot. Burnett determinately says to a guerrilla fighter he befriends, “they killed my pilot because we took pictures of the graves, and I know where they are and I’m going to get them,” explicitly drawing the connection between Stackhouse’s death and his obligation to not let Stackhouse die in vain.

Assembly Trailer:

YouTube Preview Image

            Assembly also focuses on one man’s fight to reveal the truth and bring honor to fallen brethren. Captain Gu Zidi’s survivor’s guilt is perhaps even stronger than Burnett’s because he is the lone survivor of the remaining forty-seven men in his company that crucially stymied the rapid approach of KMT soldiers during the Chinese civil war. More importantly, because of the nature of the company’s sacrifice (no spoiler), Gu Zidi as the sole witness struggles his whole life to prove that the men actually died for the Communist Party. The men are considered Missing in Action and they and their families are not granted the posthumous recognition that is deserved.

In watching these two films together, Clayton and Shihui came across a cross-cultural theme regarding the need to bring honor and purpose to the senseless and savage violence of war. Furthermore, they analyzed the films’ “heroes.” The first question Shihui posed by was whether Burnett was a hero. Clayton argues that Burnett is a hero in a semi-non-traditional form. Burnett is not a world-class serviceman, but when he gets himself into a daunting situation he repeatedly perseveres to bring purpose to his pilot’s death and justice to the perpetrators of the genocide, without much regard for his own life. Clayton posed the same question of Shihui regarding Gu Zidi. They agree Gu Zidi is a hero because he makes the unpopular decision to not retreat when all the other companies have done so against orders. He is fully intends to sacrifice his life for the welfare of the retreating comrades, his survival is by pure luck after sustaining a debilitating injury. Furthermore, Gu Zidi is humble, returning to the People’s Liberation Army as a basic foot soldier, having lost his identity in the major battle. The former Captain works his way through the ranks during the Korean War in order to bring legitimacy to his story of his men’s sacrifice for which no one can vouch.

Zhang Shihui contrasts the films below in her native language in order to accurately define the key points of difference in the films:




《集结号》中,这些差异相当之明显。《集结号》是部让人感到沉重的电影。这种沉重不是来源于战争有多么的残酷,而是一种个体的无奈、无力与在这种状况下的抗争。因为要保护大部队撤离,九连没有等到约定好的集结号。全连官兵除了连长谷子地以外都牺牲了,却因为没有被找到尸体而被认定为失踪,这是与《深入敌后》非常不同之处,一个故事源于打破规则,一个则是由于恪守规则。影片有一幕让人过眼难忘,谷子地站立在一排排地墓碑前,墓碑上却没有名字。他长叹一声,说:“都是爹娘的孩子,怎么死后就没了名字呢?”这是一种深深的无力感。没有名字,该去向谁说?恐怕谁也给不了答案。然而,谷子地却不放弃,仍执着地为兄弟证名。在这途中有很多中国式的讽刺,譬如只是为利益的煤矿和繁复的体制程序。最后,谷子地完成了这件事,却耗尽了他几乎一生的光阴。谷子地是典型的中国式英雄,他们是隐忍的,是深沉的,是有原则的,是会为了大我而牺牲小我的,但同时耶 是悲哀的.


As Shihui and Clayton learned through this exercise, experiencing another’s culture through film can be as divisive as it is enlightening. Discussing films with natives of the other culture is extremely beneficial to this approach of cross-cultural understanding. Films depicting the foreign, even if made by that country and for that country, are often distorted by the preconceptions of the viewer who does not understand the culture at hand. We tend to interpret filmic depictions based on what we expect to see, and most films are sufficiently convoluted in nature that a foreigner can make a wide range of interpretations that are not correct. For instance, Clayton has studied Chinese culture and in so doing, has watched several Chinese propagandist films such as 1961, revolution-themed, Red Detachment of Women. In his original interpretation of Assembly, he saw Gu Zidi’s character as a focus on the collective, rather than the individual, because he toils his whole life trying to bring honor to the Company. While this is true, the film is actually a major step in the direction of individualism because it does focus on Gu Zidi’s sole efforts so much. Instead of depicting Gu Zidi as sacrificed and forgotten, the film glorifies him, making him a true Chinese hero. (Incidentally, the film is based on a true story).

Modern war films are not nearly as commonly broadcast on Chinese TV as older films. Older films are focused on promoting the collective, the Communist party, and the nation, rather critiquing these things. Some Chinese who have commented on the matter say that they only watch movies online because most of the movies they are interested in are banned or censored such as Lust, Caution and Devils on the Doorstep. Even partial censorship can dramatically affect the themes and power of films because the censored scenes are often the most important or most explicit. Shihui watches TV often with her family in order to spend time with them, not to enjoy the programming. In a country on fire with change, technology is enabling youth to entertain themselves as they wish and cross-cultural exchange will continue to develop.

— Published April, 2013 —

Zhang Shihui is a 21-year-old English Language and Literature student at Beijing Normal University originally from Hebei Province. She excels in all subjects and has taken a newfound interest in film after studying film at the suggestion of her friends. Clayton Kenerson is a 21-year-old Chinese Language and Literature and Finance student at The College of William and Mary in Virginia originally from Norfolk, Virginia. A more detailed bio of Clayton can be found by clicking the author’s username at the top of this post.