Comparing familial relationships and character development in Chinese and American films

For our final project blog post Christine and I will be focusing on a couple of the most interesting points which came out of our conversations, namely a discussion of the differences in familial relationships and character development as portrayed in Chinese and American films and how they relate to differences in the two cultures. We both felt that we not only focused a great deal on these particular themes but also that our discussion of the culture differences was enhanced a great deal by using film as a medium.

About Us:

Conversation 1 photoChristine (Wendi Cui)

  • 2nd year student
  • Majoring in English literature
    • She picked it by chance had originally intended to study biology/geography
    • Because of entrance exam system, which limits the number of people allowed to study in each discipline, she ended up studying English
  • Some recent films she’s watched
    • Les Miserables
    • Seeking Mr Right
  • Some notable films from her childhood
    • Lion King
    • Mulan
    • The Monkey King – cartoon series, adaptation of Journey to the West

291633_10150820430535072_713720071_20970249_87837221_oMatt Snyder

  • Senior
  • Biology Major and East Asian Studies Minor
  • Some recent films I’ve watched:
    • part of Dragon (2011)
    • Moonrise Kingdom
    • Snowman’s Land
    • Robot and Frank
    • Win Win
    • Still Life
  • Some notable films from my childhood
    • The Big Green
    • Mulan (and all the other Disney movies)


How did we choose our movies?

We both mentioned that we enjoy films that focus on family development and interactions between family members. She noted that she enjoyed Brokeback Mountain, particularly the focus on the “forbidden love” aspect of the film. That got us talking about Ang Lee, and she mentioned that “Eat Drink Man Woman” was one of her favorite films by him. I hadn’t seen it and she highly recommended it. After she described a little of the plot to me, I mentioned that I had recently seen “Robot and Frank”, which also deals with family issues as well as focuses on the challenges associated with maintaining a family of aging parents and adult children, and we decided that the two films had enough in common to make for a good discussion.

The Films:


“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)

Directed by: Ang Lee

The story of an aging retired chef and his 3 adult daughters, with an emphasis on their individual romantic lives and their sometimes troubled relationships with the rest of their family and friends. The film also focuses on the changing relationships that come with maturing children as well as the inevitable conflict between modernity and traditional culture.






“Robot and Frank” (2012)

Directed by:  Jake Schreier

Set in the near future, the story focuses on an aging jewel thief who adult children buy him a caretaker robot to look after him. Frank soon becomes friends with the robot and begins to plan one last score. The story also looks at Frank’s sometimes tenuous relationship with  his adult children and his greater dissatisfaction with a world that quickly becoming unrecognizable through modernization.



Christine and I spent a significant amount of time discussing and comparing a scenes in “Robot and Frank” and I think we both learned a great deal about how cultural differences between Chinese and American culture could potentially impact the audience’s reaction. In the scene we discussed, Frank uses his son as a distraction, allowing him and the robot to escape from the police surrounding his house. My impression of the scene was that it was intended to be comedic relief and reinforce that Frank was still as clever and mentally capable as he had been earlier. Christine however had a much more negative impression of the scene, and in fact it caused her to doubt Frank’s relationship with his son, as she saw Frank’s willingness to lie to him as a sign that their relationship was not important. I thought that this observation was especially interesting as I had really not even noted that Frank had lied to his son. In comparing our impressions of the scene, we discussed how an American audience might respond differently to the scene depending on the consequences of Frank’s actions. For instance, if his son had gone to jail rather than had nothing happen to him (as in the film), an American audience would probably respond much more negatively. Clearly the American reaction would be much more focused on the consequences of Frank’s actions rather than the reasons or background for his actions. It was interesting to contract this with Christine’s reaction to the scene and how that was reflective of Chinese culture as a whole. According to her, a Chinese audience would focus more on the action of lying to one’s family and see it as a negative action regardless of the consequences. According to her, Chinese culture views actions like dishonesty as more or less negative depending on who the action is directed at. Lying to a member of one’s family is seen as much more negative than lying to a stranger, regardless of the consequences.

Robot and Frank clip

We also compared the overall focus of the two movies and found some further differences, mainly in the way that they chose to develop the characters. In “Robot and Frank”, Frank and the robot were very clearly the focus of the film, and they have the most developed backstories and the most screen-time devoted to interactions between them. Frank’s relationship with his family and his issues with them are explored with the focus being on him, and his criminal history and past relationships are gradually brought to light as well over the course of the film. In comparison, the other characters who made up Frank’s family received much less time on screen and their interactions with each other and Frank and the robot were minimal and not very well explored or developed. While the viewer is introduced to his wife, son, and daughter, their backgrounds are only superficially described and there are barely any scenes that focus on their point of view or situations that only affect them. It was interesting to take this set of characters and then compare them characters to those in “Eat Drink Man Woman”. In “Eat Drink Man Woman”, the family is composed of 3 daughters (Jia-Jen, Jia-Nien, and Ja-Ning) and their older father (Old Chu), and can be expanded to include a number of close family friends. Almost all of these characters get an equal amount of time on-screen, and perhaps more importantly almost all have scenes which focus on their personal perspective and situations that only affect them.

edmw 1edmw 2

While Frank’s wife and children are not nearly as developed as the characters who make up the family in “Eat Drink Man Woman”, Frank and the robot are actually more developed.  Christine felt that she had seen a similar trend in many of the Chinese and American films she had watched, as the Chinese films tended to develop all characters to a similar degree, with an emphasis on the relationships between them, while American films tend to focus on one or two characters and their relationships while spending much less time on the other, supporting roles. In addition, American films tend to emphasize individuality and explore the main character much more deeply than Chinese films. Whether this is a quality that can truly applied to the majority of American and Chinese cinema I’m not sure, but it’s definitely given me something else to look for in films that I watch in the future.