Religion and Spirituality Through Film: A Cross-Cultural Dialogue

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Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 9.38.20 AMI live halfway around the world from Chen Jie (Lavender) and Chu Mengmeng (Vanessa). We are different in so many ways: we come from vastly different cultures, eat different foods, come from differnt family backgrounds, and even have different values. However, as we spoke over Skype, I realized just how similar we really are. We all love movies, love our families, study hard, stress about exams, and dream about our futures. While I was at first a bit apprehensive about striving to learn about someone solely through the use of a faulty internet chat service, my time with Lavender and Vanessa, no matter how difficult it was to work around a time difference and spotty internet service, was greatly rewarding. We set out to analyze two films, but instead came to analyze our cultures and ourselves.

Our journey of discovery began with a simple introduction. I logged onto Skype at the time agreed upon and watched as two girls popped up on the screen, one sweet and quiet, one bold and confident, both bringing their unique thoughts and experiences to the table.

 

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Lavender chose her English name because she loves the flower Lavender, and the name was so fitting. She was beautiful and sweet, just like her name, and had a contemplative and kind nature that completely transformed our experience. While she did not talk much, her comments were meaningful and insightful; she was not one to waste words. Lavender is a sophomore studying in Beijing. While she is an English major, she is also studying French, which amazed me because with all the time I have to devote to studying Chinese (which I major in), I can’t imagine trying to learn another language at the same time. Like me, Lavender loves volunteering and is a tour guide in SoongChingling and a volunteer teacher at a primary school. Unlike me, she hates exercising, and especially running. Though exited, Lavender told me that she was nervous throughout our conversations. She shouldn’t have been, because she taught me so much through her insights and kind spirit.

  Vanessa, on the other hand, was bold, honest, and persistent. She is a sophomore at Beijing Normal University, where she is an English major. From the get-go, she told me about all the time she spent studying in school and all that she was trying to accomplish. We were able to commiserate about our large amounts of homework and upcoming exams. She had just finished with an all-important standardized English examination minutes before one of our conversations and as I had just taken the standardized HSK Chinese exam, I felt her pain. Just as I had with Lavender, I told Vanessa about some of the history about the College of William and Mary, as she was very interested in learning more about American history.

When I asked them about their experiences with American film, I was surprised to hear that they had seen many of the films that i had seen, such as The Hunger Games. As they listed off all of the American films that they had seen, I couldn’t help but to feel inadequate with my knowledge of the Chinese cinema. They had expected me to know of as many Chinese films as they did, and when I told them that I had only seen a few modern Chinese films (still more than most people I know) they were surprised. We discussed what a shame it is that our countries’ cultural film exchange does not go both ways, as we felt that China also has as much to teach America as America has to teach China. I was also surprised to hear how much of their opinion of America was based off of American television shows, such as Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives, that seem ridiculous to me. Though entertaining, these shows are nothing like the everyday life of the average American. The characters in both shows have extremely glamorous and exciting lifestyles, but their way of life is often filled with deception, selfishness, and a lack of respect for the family. I love watching these shows, but now have a new take on them as I am realizing that as these shows are sent abroad, they do not portray America in the positive light that I would like it to be seen.

 

Choosing Films to Explore

 

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Children celebrate spring by playing among graves

 

While the fact that Vanessa was on vacation for a Chinese Festival made it difficult for us to connect, it was this very festival that set our cross-cultural film exchange into motion. Vanessa told me about Qingming, a holiday that she was celebrating in early April, where people in China went home to honor the dead and celebrate the coming of Spring. While this is a time when people visit the gravesites of their ancestors and honor those they have lost, it is also a time to celebrate the new life that comes with spring. It is a time when people fly kites, light firecrackers, and start courting. I was amazed at this festival’s symbolic similarity to Easter. I explained to Lavender and Vanessa about how Easter is also a complex holiday where we both mourn the death of Christ and celebrate his resurrection and the joy and renewal of Spring. It seems that all over the world, people are eager to celebrate and reconcile conflicting concepts and emotions. More information about the Qingming Festival.

These conversations on holidays and their religious or spiritual meanings naturally lead us to crave more conversations on these topics. Therefore, we decided to choose films that had some sort of religious or spiritual significance that would cause us to ponder our own spirituality in a cross-cultural context. We  ultimately decided to watch Life of Pi, as our American film, and 宝莲灯, or The Lotus Lantern as our Chinese film.

 

Life of Pi

 

Directed in 2012 by Ang Lee, Life of Pi tells the story of a young boy, Piscene Patel, and his journey to find God as he grows to adulthood, experiencing fantastical adventures that point him to a higher power. While Piscene is raised a Hindu, he is eventually introduced to Christianity and Islam. Rather than choosing one of these religions, he practices all three, finding truth and fulfillment in each as he “just wants to love God.” While his mother is deeply spiritual and wants this for her son, Piscene’s father continually tries to break him of this desire, encouraging him to instead rely on rationality.

Piscene’s first major religious experience takes place while he is still a child, living at home in India where his family owns a zoo. One day, the zoo acquires a new animal, a tiger named Richard Parker. From the look in Richard Parker’s eyes, Piscene recognizes humanity within him and tries to feed him and grow closer to this tiger. When his father discovers him, he is extremely angry and punishes Piscene by forcing him to watch as Richard Parker brutally kills and eats a baby goat. This is the first instance in which Pi questions the goodness and humanity of all living things, as the tiger showed such violence toward such an innocent creature.

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Richard Parker emerges from his cage, ready to kill and eat the goat

Later in his life, Pi and his family decide to move and they set out on a ship with all of their zoo animals. However, along the way there is a terrible storm and the boat sinks, along with Pi’s family and most of the zoo animals. Left alone, Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a zebra and an orangutang. Part of the way through his journey, to Pi’s horror, a hyena attacks and kills both the zebra and the orangutang. Just as Pi fears being attacked and killed by the hyena, Richard Parker emerges from the bottom of the boat and kills the hyena. As horrified and disgusted by Richard Parker as he is, Pi continues to keep him alive by feeding him fish and providing him with water. When Pi’s rations run low, he himself is forced to break with vegetarianism and eat fish, putting him on equal ground with the tiger. Once, when the tiger falls into the water, Pi wants to let him drown, but instead saves him as he sees a spark of humanity in his eyes.

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Pi and Richard Parker stranded on a lifeboat

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The above clip is a monologue where Pi really realizes how much Richard Parker, even though he considers him to be evil, has helped him to survive. He realizes that he himself is not so different from Richard Parker. They share both good and evil qualities.

After visiting a fantastical island which, though beautiful, kills every living thing by night that it keeps alive by day, Pi and Richard Parker find land. At this, Richard Parker abandons Pi in the woods, even after all that they had been through. When asked by reporters what happened, Pi tells the truth, but is not believed, so he makes up a story, replacing all of the animals with humans. This story, while false, is published in the papers. When Pi tells a boy his story, he asks which is better and the boy replies that the one with the Tiger is the better story. Pi then replies, “Thank you. And so it is with God.” This last scene in the movie was especially meaningful to my partners and me, as we realized the proclivity that we all have to deny the spiritual because it is unknown, and instead settle for a less-meaningful and less-fulfilling rationalization of the divine.

宝莲灯 The Lotus Lantern

The Lotus Lantern, an animated film directed by Chang Guanxi in 1999, uses a light and friendly medium to tell an ancient story of Chinese mythology. According to Lavender and Vanessa, this film was immensely popular when it came out and was one of their favorites. I told them that I am not used to watching animated movies anymore, as in America, animated movies are often made for children, rather than for adults. Vanessa explained to me that this movie’s popularity is much like the popularity of Shrek in the United States, and that though this movie was popular among children as well, it had some universal themes that transcended age and background.

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Above is a clip of the beginning of The Red Lantern. I would encourage you to watch the first five or ten minutes of the film, as this was where my appreciation for the film as an animated work really developed. As soon as I heard the captivating music and watched as the sheer scarf fluttered across the screen, I was at once convinced that animation actually is an appropriate medium through which to capture love and beauty.

Analyzing an animated movie was, in fact, a very new and exciting experience as, before watching Akira in class (which, honestly I found to be more violent and gruesome than beautiful), I had never taken animation seriously, and had solely seen it as a medium for entertainment. Through this experience, I learned that a heightened reality (which, in my opinion, is what animation creates) can often be even more real, and even more truthful, than reality itself.

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Chenxiang holding the lotus lantern with his mother, Shan Mei

The Lotus Lantern begins with a boy named Chenxiang who is half-god, half-mortal, as his father, Yang Jian, was a mortal and his mother, Shan Mei, was a goddess. Chenxiang was born in secret, as his mother was in hiding from her brother Erlang Shen. Erlang Shen was extremely angry at Shan Mei, as her marriage to a mortal had been forbidden, and he kills Yang Jian. He then tries to kidnap Chenxiang after his birth, but Chenxiang survives along with Shan Mei’s magical Lotus Lantern, which protects against evil.

However, Chenxiang is still captured by Erlang Shen and is forced to live in the mountains in Erlang Shen’s palace, where he grows up without any knowledge of his parents, his father’s mortality, or his past, even as Shan Mei is imprisoned beneath the mountain. My project partners and I noted that this element of the film is very similar to Life of Pi, in that in both, the main characters are robbed of their parents, and in this way, their heritage. They are then forced to set out on their own, discovering themselves and choosing to define their own identities. Chenxiang does just this when he escapes from Erlang Shen, taking with him his mother’s lotus lantern, a symbol of his former life, just as Pi’s tiger, Richard Parker, is a symbol of all that he lost.

An older, more mature Chenxiang

An older, more mature Chenxiang

Just as Pi encounters many obstacles and goes on many adventures in his quest for meaning and self-discovery, Chenxiang sets out to discover his true identity, as he falls in love, signaling his maturity (Pi also falls in love briefly along his quest) and eventually succeeds in winning his mother’s freedom, all the while finding harmony between his mortal self and his immortal self. Just as Pi discovers God and is not afraid to define his own spiritual beliefs, finding spiritual peace and being able to reconcile duality of the goodness of God and man with the wickedness of man and the world, Chenxiang is able to be at peace with both the imperfect, as well as the perfect, parts of himself.

 

 A Dialogue on Spirituality

 

Through our analysis of these films, Lavender, Vanessa, and I saw the spiritual journeys that these two protagonists had taken and began to discuss our own spiritual backgrounds and journeys.

On a day when Lavender was unable to meet with us, I had one particularly meaningful conversation with Vanessa about religion and spirituality. I told Vanessa about my spiritual background and about how my father was a Baptist pastor. Growing up as a pastor’s daughter greatly affected my life as it made me more aware of a greater power and helped me to develop faith and a personal relationship with God. Many of my friends are more interested in the pitfalls of being a pastor’s daughter (as am I at times) when I talk with them, asking questions about what it was like to be expected to go to church and being expected to do the right thing (at which I often failed), so I was surprised when Vanessa told me that she thought I was lucky and that she envied my spiritual background.

Vanessa explained to me that ever since the founding of the PRC, there has been little religion in China. She told me that some do practice Confucian and Daoist rituals but that these are more cultural traditions, rather than beliefs. Vanessa told me that she felt that spirituality was something that she found to be lacking in her own life and that she was currently exploring Buddhism. When I asked her why she was so interested in Buddhism, she responded with the following: “I think people can get mental power from their religion. About Buddhism, I think Buddha is very tolerant towards people and he teaches people to be thankful to what they have already got.” We both agreed that religion gives people a reason to live and a greater power to serve. Rather than causing divisions between people and cultures, religion can be a way to foster love and tolerance, as well as a platform on which to find common ground.

Through this experience, not only have I learned more about another culture, but I have also gained a greater appreciation for who I am and where I come from. I have seen firsthand that film is not only a medium for entertainment, but a catalyst for cross-cultural discussion and exploration. It is incredible that while working on this project, Lavender, Vanessa, and I have discovered something through these films that no one else has. While some may have gotten entertainment from these films or even learned more about themselves and their own spirituality as we did, their experiences will never be exactly as ours have been. Though we may have seen the same images flickering across the screen and heard the same words and insights repeated by the same characters, Vanessa, Lavender, and I were in no way watching the same films.

Attached is a contribution from Lavender, beautifully explaining the difference between Eastern and Western religion. Lavender’s Contribution