Subjective Plot and Cultural Understanding

When one thinks of means of long distance communication one thinks of email, telephones, text messages, Skype, and the increasingly anachronistic hand written letter. Modern means have shortened lines of logistics to the extent that students like myself take it for granted that, as I settle in with a cup of tea against the backdrop of a sunset out my dorm room window, my project partner, Han Dan, is sitting half the world away with the first darts of the Beijing morning sun glinting off her desk. Modern means, while necessary aids for communication, do not themselves convey culture in a way meaningful for cross-cultural exchange with the ultimate intention being understanding.  Only cultural mediums themselves can achieve that goal, as they provide context and visual cues for evocative themes.  Enter film.

movie poster onceEM Movie Poster

     For our project, Han Dan and I selected two blockbuster romance movies from opposite sides of the globe. Technically, they are alike in that they both rely heavily on repetition of musical themes to direct the emotional undercurrent of their respective films.  Cinematographically, they both employ ample use of long zoom shots as well as close tracking shots to alternately portray emotional distance as well as intimacy.  Narratively, they share common themes of romantic realism in the face of untenable love.  While they are not “happy”, per se, both are colored with uplifting story lines of self-sacrifice and devotion in the face of hardship.

On a more personal level, we chose these films because no theme is more instantaneously universalizeable than love.  Han Dan, one already well initiated in the romance movie genre, gently teased me for my lack of familiarity with it, calling me a typical boy who would “rather watch detective or martial arts movie” than something pertaining to emotion.  We ultimately agreed that the genre of romance would provide ample fodder for analysis from both cultures’ perspectives as we would be able to compare and contrast ideas on love along cultural lines and discuss how social cues and courting behavior vary as well.

is a 2006 Irish musical by John Carney that took the world by storm with its charm, emotional honesty, and relatability.  Filmed on a $160,000 budget, Once eschews special effects and high production value in favor of simple shots and emotive music.  It follows a week in the life of an unnamed Irish busker (credited as Guy) who is down on his luck and seeking direction after breaking up with his long term, unfaithful girlfriend.  One day while playing on the street, he is approached by a young Czech flower seller (credited as Girl) who recognizes his talent for song-writing and encourages him to use it to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend.  After initially insulting her by impulsively inviting her home for a romantic liaison, they bond over her virtuosic talentseaside Once as a pianist and their shared love for music.  They decide to make a record together before he leaves for London at the end of the week to try to pursue his ex and musical career. As romantic tension begins to build between them, she reveals that she and her daughter live in poverty, estranged from her husband in her home country.  When asked if she still loves him, she responds in untranslated Czech and turns away.  Upon the completion of the record, he asks her to runaway with him. When she laughingly refuses, he invites her again to come home with him.  Though she accepts his offer, she stands him up and he is forced to catch his flight without saying farewell.  As the film ends, it is revealed that his last act in Ireland was to buy her a piano she had been coveting as a gesture of forgiveness and his continued devotion.

Unlike Once, Eternal Moment (将爱) is a large budget, highly stylized story by Zhang Yibai, based on the extremely popular 1998 high school drama, Cherish Our Love Forever.  The film takes place in three vignettes occurring three different universes that take place 12 years after the two protagonists, Wen Hui and Yang Zhang, graduated high school and ended their high school romance.  Each vignette is interspersed with interviews with young Chinese couples expressing their views on love and marriage.

The first vignette portrays Wen Hui and Yang Zhang engaged in a loveless marriage in which Yang Zhang feels ignored. To attempt to gain her attention, an ailing Yang Zhang checks himself into a hotel and waits for her to call.  He suffers fever dreams and observes her daily routine, eventually realizing that her lack of response is due to the fact that, in his struggle to gain status and position in his work life, he had been emotionally absent in her life for years, and that she no longer cares.  When he confronts her, he finds that she had been secretly taking care of him from a distance while he was away.  Yang Zhang realizes that her expressions of love, while not overt, were present and meaningful.

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In the second vignette, Yang Zhang is in the process of divorcing his wife and Wen Hui is the mother of two.  They meet up in Shanghai at a high school reunion and try to reignite their high school romance.  After a night of failed liaisons and legal misadventures, Yang Zhang and Wen Hui are faced with the reality that it is not each other they are seeking, but rather, and escape from the lives that are not what they want it to be.

Part three opens in medias res with Yang Zhang being woken up by a call from Wen Hui in which a sobbing Wen Hui drunkenly sings happy birthday.  He traces the call to Bordeaux, France. Upon his arrival, he runs into Wen Hui outside the train station. Surprisingly, it is not him she is waiting for but a young woman who is revealed to be her husband’s mistress.  She takes the young woman on tours posing as her husband’s secretary and Yang Zhang’s girlfriend. A rapport begins to build between Yang Zhang and his former girlfriend. When Wen Hui finally reveals herself to the young woman, it is revealed that the woman knew the whole time. She then goes on to reveal that Wen Hui’s husband has lost interest in her.  Later at dinner Wen Hui’s husband reveals to Yang Zhang that he proposed to her by singing the song “Happy Birthday” thus explaining her heartbroken actions over the phone, making Yang realize that, it was the end of her marriage Wen Hui was mourning, rather than pining for him.  He leaves her in the night.  In the morning, an emotionally desolate and utterly alone Wen Hui finds Yang’s forgotten phone on which, once a year, he recorded her sounds of the sea from different beaches around the world (a reference to an old promise to take her to the ocean). Realizing that he never stopped loving him, she follows him to the Atlantic Ocean where Yang Zhang stands in the surf.


on the streetFrance posing

     When Han Dan and I discussed these films we were both readily able to agree on central themes.  We sympathized with the characters predicaments and we discussed our views on love and emotion as compared to the couples portrayed in Eternal Moment’s interludes.  Toward, the end of the conversation, I mentioned that, of the three vignettes, I found the third to be the most emotionally resonate because it showed that two people, though separated by circumstance could still tap into meaningful emotional connection.  When I drew parallels between this and the plot of Once, Han Dan seemed confused by my observations.  I probed her as to why, to which she responded that it was not extenuating circumstance, but rather lack of emotional connection that kept the man and woman in once apart.  She went on to explain that, when she and her friends had watched Once they had concluded that the man’s love was unrequited.  Within their understanding, her lack of decisive vocal or physical response to his overtures proved not reserved longing, but disinterest. I was shocked, as I had never, in my many viewings of Once I had never had that understanding of the film.  We went on to discuss the role that body language and inflection had throughout the film.  I voiced the belief that the composition of the shots that centered on the two of them, the close blocking, and the coy flirting that pervaded the film were evidence enough of attraction, if not love. She expressed the view that such actions can be viewed as showy gestures devoid of true emotional underpinnings.

Over the course of the discussion, it became evident that the larger issue at hand was not a question of the films’ intent; it was how two people from different cultural backgrounds could view the same movies and walk away with polar opposite understandings.  I reflected afterwards that this fundamental disagreement over the plot made one film, in effect, two different films altogether.  It is rooted in this that I believe the true value of cinema lies as a pedagogical tool and as a tool for cross-cultural exchange.  When film is viewed simultaneously through two different lenses of experience, the inevitable differing perspectives forces the viewers to realize that there can be more than one correct viewing of a movie.  Entering into this project, I had expected differences of opinion to be expressed over cultural values of love and romance rather than the expressions of it.  It elucidated for me, that though our conceptions of love were the same and our understandings of the nature of devotion were similar,  we differed on what the most appropriate way to express these feelings was.  It proved to me that plot was not the immutable entity that I had assumed it to be.  The idea of a dichotomy between right and wrong viewings is a two dimensional concept that misses out on the crucial third element; understanding shaped by personal experience.

Film is an ideal means of cultural conveyance.  Expression is everything, and the complexities of behavioral norms and cultural values expressed visually and auditorily in cinema are a two pronged wave of experiential immersion that serves to construct, if only for a few hours, a cultural immersion.  When coupled with dialogue with those of another culture, it can be the catalyst for understanding that can’t be taught or forced.  Films, because of their immersive qualities, can touch a deep place in the human psyche.  Whether it is the wistful look on the unnamed Czech woman’s face as she plays the piano gifted to her by her love, or the look of quiet resignation on Yang Zhang’s as he gives voice to the truth that the time for romance is long gone, all parties felt something even if our understandings of what that something was differed.  When the genesis of the divergence of views can be identified, it can be traced back to the cultural mores that shaped the views. It is only then, that cross-cultural understanding can truly take root.


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