Self-Creation: The Way Film Both Creates and Informs Our Own Cultural Identity

Film is often considered merely as a form of  popular entertainment. People can watch films to indulge in a form of escapism, where their own problems are forgotten for a two hour period to engage in the stories and tribulations of fictional characters. What is not often considered is film’s power as an expression of culture; film can be a powerful medium through which a culture can be transmitted to another individual in a distilled, singular form. While watching a “foreign film”, it is much easier to see a film as a form of cultural expression, as the culture presented is often new and unfamiliar to the viewer. But what about films from one’s own culture? Is there a sense in which films inform and create an understanding about our own cultural identities?

For this project, I was paired up with two English majors from Beijing Normal University. In our initial conversation via Skype, we discussed the kinds of films that we enjoyed watching.  Zeng Yuanyuan, or Anna as she is known in English, prefers Japanese Anime films while Zhang Lin, or Rachel, prefers romantic comedies and family films. During the course of our discussion on different films, one issue kept coming up: which Chinese films did they think appealed more to a western, orientalist view of China versus those films which met their self-conceptions of a modern China. From here, it was apparent that there is a divergence between how an “outsider” views one’s culture and how the individuals themselves view their own culture. We then decided on two film’s we felt were representative of our respective national identities: American Beauty and The Piano in a Factory. We watched these two films and discussed how they both conformed to and defied our preconceptions about each other’s cultures. We also found another interesting dimension in these films: in a way, the films actively create and inform our own self-conceptions of nationhood and identity.

American Beauty:

Synopsis: American Beauty is a 1999 American film directed by Sam Mendez. The story centers around Lester Burnham(Kevin Spacey), a middle aged man going through a midlife crisis. Lester has grown cynical and is convinced that he has no reason to go on. Lester’s relationship with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is not a warm one; while on the surface Carolyn strives to present the image that she’s in full control of her life, inside she feels empty and desperate. Their teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is constantly depressed, lacking in self-esteem, and convinced that she’s unattractive. Her problems aren’t helped by her best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), an aspiring model who is quite beautiful and believes that that alone makes her a worthwhile person. Jane isn’t the only one who has noticed that Angela is attractive: Lester has fallen into uncontrollable lust for her, and she becomes part of his drastic plan to change his body and change his life.1

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I initially chose this film for its depiction of the apathetic consumerism and obsession with outward beauty that pervade American culture. Part of this film’s popular appeal lies in its satirical representation of suburban America’s work and family life, where relationships seem increasingly disingenuous and hollow. In a way, this film is an expression of many Americans’ anxiety about modern life. There is a sense of loss that persists throughout the film: Lester has lost his masculinity and his role as father in his family; Carolyn has become increasingly more obsessed with her status in her job and her vision of domestic beauty, but her inability to attain such lofty aspirations causes her to feel emotionally empty and unfulfilled. This film seems be pondering exactly what has been lost in the American way of life that has led to such widespread cynicism and unhappiness.

YouTube Preview ImageLester Burnham introduces us to his suburban lifestyle

Anna also saw the film as making a pessimistic statement about American culture, particularly with regards to American family life. She writes:

“After watching the movie American Beauty, I have thought about many things. But the most important theme in this movie is about family. I think every family is same as another. There always are some problems. Most of the time, parents just are so busy with their work lives that they ignore their children. But what made me feel very sorry is that all the family members just complain to each other, they didn’t even try to communicate with each other. I don’t know why they don’t understand each other. I really want to know if Jenny ever loved her father, and why she wanted her father to die. Everyone has his/her own dreams, but most of us just lose sight of it when we grow old. Life is difficult for everyone, and although we may feel that we have lost something, we have no other choice but to keep living and cannot get those things back. What is really important is getting along well with the people that you love.”

With its biting satire and dark humor, American Beauty offers an incisive portrayal of the modern American life. Despite its dark undertones, the film does offer a hint of redemption and renewal

My other partner, Rachel, saw the film in a more positive light. While this film certainly did depict the modern American lifestyle as tranquilized and sedated, she pointed out that the film also focuses on redemption and willingness to change. Perhaps more so than other cultures, Americans value the ideas of self-improvement and advancement.  As a more individualistic society, we place a lot of emphasis on the idea that one can improve their body and lifestyle as long as the individual really wants to change. This idea of self-improvement and revitalization is embodied by the character Lester Burnham. After smoking a joint with his neighbor’s son, Lester feels the urge to turn around his life and get back to how he used to feel as a young man. In a sort of wish-fulfilling sequence of events, Lester quits his job, begins working out, and attempts to seduce his daughter’s beautiful friend, Angela.

This idea that self-improvement and reinvention is a particularly American ideal had never struck me until Rachel mentioned it. However, as a culture, we do applaud individual success and place a special emphasis on the idea that anyone can “make it” in America. One can see it in the way that we celebrate and reward movie stars, sports stars, and CEO’s. In the American collective conscience, the United States, perhaps more so than any other nation, does offer individuals the unique opportunity to reinvent and improve themselves. This idea is constantly expressed and invoked in cultural artifacts such as advertising, literature, television and film. These cultural artifacts actively shape the way Americans see themselves, and help integrate this idea of self-improvement into the American national identity and consciousness.

The Piano In a Factory:

Synopsis: The Piano in a Factory is a 2010 Chinese film directed by Zhang Meng. Chen Guilin (Wang Qian-yuan) is a man who loves music, and he plays accordion in a semi-pro band in his spare time. But Chen can’t support himself on what he makes as a musician, and his job in a steel mill isn’t about to make him rich. Chen is deeply devoted to his young daughter Xiao Yuan (Liu Xing-yu), who he’s been raising with the only occasional help of his girlfriend Shu Xian (Qin Hai-lu) since Chen’s wife Xiao Ju (Jang Shin-yeong) has abandoned the family. Xiao Yuan has shown a remarkable talent as a pianist, and wants a piano of her own so she can practice at home. Chen would love to give her one, but he can’t find a piano that he can afford. Matters become more difficult when Xiao Ju returns home to announce she wants a formal divorce, as well as custody of their daughter. Chen doesn’t want to give up his daughter, and Xiao Yuan announces she’ll stay with whichever parent can get her the piano she wants. Xiao Ju’s new beau is considerably wealthier than Chen, so he has to get his girl a piano soon if he wants her to stay; when buying or borrowing and instrument proves impossible, Chen takes an even bolder step — he’ll learn how to build a piano himself.2

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After initially viewing this film, I found it to contain a mixture of elements that I have come to associate with Chinese film in general. The film follows Chen Guilin, a poor laid off factory worker who wishes to build his daughter a piano in order to keep custody of her. With limited funds, he asks his friends to help him build a steel piano. As Rachel informed me later, the film takes place in the early 90’s after the Chinese economic reform. During this time, many factories and industries were shut down due to the contracting out or privatization of many state owned enterprises. This led many people to become cynical and the idea of caring community began to dissipate. Despite this cynicism and the fact that so many people in the community are in dire straits, Chen Guilin friends still come together to support him in his endeavor to keep his daughter. As in many Chinese films, there is a great emphasis placed on family, particularly with regards to building the daughter a piano and caring for the elderly parents in the community.  In addition, there is an emphasis on the community coming together to accomplish a goal. This is very much in keeping with a communist ideology, as the proletariat is depicted as uniting to accomplish its goal despite the social and economic problems they face.

I found Rachel’s response to the film similar to my own. She writes:

“The film reflects very well how the life is like in the industrial cities in Northeastern China. The close relationship between people and their optimistic attitude in tough situations are what the film impresses me most. They are also two distinct characters of Chinese people, especially those living in that age.

On one hand, although they are facing financial difficulty in their personal lives, they are still willing to help immediately and do whatever they can when their friends are in trouble. Even if they are not family, they treat each other like a family.

On the other hand, the film also features many humorous and funny anecdotes, which from my point of view reflect their positive mental attitude. Many Chinese believe that as long as we are alive and willing to try, we can always find a way to go through, however hard the environment is.”

YouTube Preview ImageThe finished piano

For the most part, my partners and I were in agreement about the ways in which The Piano in a Factory conforms to our individual notions of Chinese culture. While the importance of duty to family and community  is constantly stressed in Chinese culture, there were elements in the movie that were not in keeping with our expectations. For example, while duty to family was constantly emphasized, the father’s and daughter’s relationship was not depicted as particularly tender or loving. The father does sacrifice a great amount for his daughter, but the film chooses to focus on the frustration and hardship he goes through without explicitly showing the rewarding bond of love the two share. Another way in which this film depiction of Chinese culture defied our expectations was in its incorporation of many western elements. The film’s soundtrack mostly consists of European and western music. In addition, The cinematography and camera style also seemed to be inspired by American Independent films. By including western elements in the film, the director challenges and undermines what it means for a film to be “Chinese”. By playing with cultural norms and expectations, film can actively help form and redefine a cultural identity. Thus film, while a product of culture, is a medium through which cultural identity is constantly challenged and redefined. This can then reshape the way we view our own culture and its relationship to other global identities.

Humor: The Bridge Between Cultures

YouTube Preview Image The song Chen Guilin's band plays is too sad for a funeral

YouTube Preview ImageLester quits his job

While the films American Beauty and The Piano in a Factory differ in many respects, both works utilize a dark sense of humor that offsets the dramatic unfolding of the plot. An individual’s sense of humor in many ways depends on the culture that he or she was raised in. For instance, some jokes will make sense to a person only in if that individual knows the cultural, historical, and political context of the joke being told. That being said, I was surprised how the satirical humor of these two films translated very well between cultures. My partners found American Beauty particularly funny, and we were all surprised by the dark humor in The Piano in a Factory as we expected it be more of a serious drama. This kind of satirical humor seems to be relatively universal; societies and individuals will always have shortcomings, and it is an important practice to point out these shortcomings and critique them. I found discussing the funny moments in these two films to be the most rewarding part of my cross-cultural experience. With new media such as Skype, three people from opposite ends of the globe were able to casually to discuss film for more than three hours at no expense. In addition, the use of film for this project allowed for the transmission of culture across time and distance at very little cost to all involved. Even though I did not grow up with a Chinese background, I was able to laugh and share in the concerns that many Chinese people feel today. This aspect of humor, though in many ways untranslatable, allowed me to relate to my partners in a way I otherwise would not have been able to; by laughing and mocking the ills of our respective society’s and cultures, we arrived at a middle ground where a real appreciation and understanding of the cultural “other”could take place.