Death, Immortality, and Cross-Cultural Exchange: Death is the Road to Awe

Convo 1

Ren Hao and Yin Lin

When starting this project, I was hesitant.  I am not a naturally outgoing person and was worried about making contact with my students.  When I sat down for my first conversation, I was initially very nervous.  The students, however, put me at ease and, despite the occasional awkwardness and technology problems, I enjoyed talking to them.

The movies that we settled on were The Fountain and The Myth (神话).  Upon initially investigating the two films, I was surprised at how easily my partners were able to match the plot of The Fountain with the plot of a Chinese film.  At first glance, the two films should be similar, almost eerily so once one allows for different cultural histories.  The Fountain presents three different story-timelines set over the course of a millennium.  In each iteration of the story, the main male lead, Tomás, Tommy, or Tom respectively, is attempting to save the woman he loves, Queen Isabella of Spain, Izzi, or the apparition of Izzi kept alive in the “Tree of Life”.  There are several different interpretation of the story, though the one that speaks the loudest to me personally is that the past is the story Izzi is writing in the present and the future is the subconscious life of Izzi.  In comparison, The Myth also contains multiple storylines, one being the story of a General Meng Yi who is to take the Korean Princess Ok-soo back to the Qin Emperor.  On the way, the Princess’ previously betrothed attempts to intercept her convoy and take her back to Korea.  General Meng Yi, stops this and personally escorts her to the Emperor, only to fall in love with her along the way.  In the second story, present day archeologist Jack teams up with his scientist friend William, who enlists his help to retrieve an anti-gravity meteorite, which leads to the discovery of the Qin Emperor’s tomb.

Fear of Death

OK-soo’s Denial of Meng Yi’s Death

Both stories contain theme of a sort of awed fear of death, though in The Myth, this fear is linked to a desire to become immortal.  This is evidenced through the desire of Professor Koo to obtain the immortality pill.  His drive to live forever leads, ironically to his eventual downfall.  Another character who deals with the fear of death is Ok-soo.  She depends so heavily on General Meng Yi that, even when there is substantial evidence to the contrary, he is still alive and will return to her.  In this way, General Meng Yi becomes immortal through the memories of an immortal being.  Ok-soo fear of the General’s death, as she loves him and in some ways needs him, grants him a perhaps longer lasting immortality.


Buddha Pose

The fear of death is also present in The Fountain, however the link to immortality is either weaker or non-existent.  Tommy constant fear of losing Izzi to cancer drives him to find a cure.  However, the more time he spends in the lab, the less time he spends with her, a concept that symbolically comes out in the loss of his ring in the lab.  Ultimately, while Tommy is resisting Izzi’s death, Izzi is actively working to accept her condition.  When she eventually dies, she passes on that understand to Tommy by asking him to finish the book she has been writing.  The movie ends with the future Tom reaching a dying star with the “Tree of Life” and being reborn in the stars death.  Right before the star explodes, Tom sit like a Buddha, a symbol of enlightenment and, in this case, his acceptance of the awe death.

In our conversation, raising the fear of death and concept of immortality topics lead to a conversation about Daoism.  From what I garnered from the conversation, the free flowing concepts of life and death in The Fountain reflect the free-flowing concept of qi; nothing is destroyed, just turned into a different form. Another idea that was briefly approached was the impression that death is just another kind of life, has some value, and is beautiful in its own way.  These thoughts are certainly echoed in the visual beauty of The Fountain, its treatment of loss, and its eventual rise of understanding.

Snake Charmer

Snake Charmer

This raises the question, however, as to what an Eastern philosophy was doing in an American movie.  These anomalies were not present only in The Fountain, but also in The Myth.  In The Myth, at one point Jack is pursued for having in his possession a sword which William had just stolen from the Qin Emperor tomb, he falls into the river and floats to India.  When he awakes in India, he sees beautiful Indian girls dancing in a temple.  The images however, display Orientalism in my own judgment.  While this one scene is not evidence enough for this, another scene in the market place feature Jack charming a snake and an Indian dance which one could only describe as idealized and foreign.

As much as our own culture influenced our reading of the movies in question, for example, I saw the struggling with death in The Fountain to be a personal story about coming to terms with one’s death while my partners saw references to Daoism, I believe the movies themselves presented evidence of cross-cultural exchange.  The presence of an Eastern philosophy in a Western film and Orientalism present in an Eastern film speaks to the changes in and reflects on culture through film.  As film is a global culture, and as the world’s countries are becoming more globalised, the transmission of ideas happens through film, as we see Hollywood effecting filmmaking in East Asian countries and Plots being taken from Eastern films to create Western ones, is enable by film trade.  Further, once these connections are made, film reflects this globalization process in the cross-cultural pollination of ideas, leading to hybrid storylines like The Fountain and The Myth.

Yin Lin

      The Fountain and The Myth have some similarities in themes, because they both tell something about immortality-the philosophy of life and death, and they also present deep love between human. But here I want to tell something about The Fountain.



In the film The Fountain, the director presented three similar scenes of the past, present, and future where protagonists all had been confused with life and death at first, but understood real meaning of immortality in the end. The film is deep and thought provoking. It made the audience think of what life really is. When someone’s life comes to an end, he may still be “alive” in other forms of existence. Like the scene in which protagonist was a Spanish General, the protagonist turned in to ever-green grass in the end and achieved immortality. He became part of nature and overlooked the beautiful scenery beside him over centuries. The film shows the audience a completely new way of thinking of our existence-no matter whether we are alive or dead. We should hold a positive and open mind towards it. Death, which is usually considered sorrowful and inevitable, could actually be a start of new life-although it could be in a totally different form.

About cross-cultural exchange

      As far as I am concerned, the cross-cultural exchange provides me a great chance to get more closed to a culture different from my own. Instead of learning something from text books or the Internet, we watch films in two countries and talked about similarities and themes, which is more vivid and impressive, and we learn more about cultural psychology and different ways of thinking rather than stable pictures on the book.

Both films present some ideas of immortality, so in the process, we talked about different religions and philosophy ideas between two countries, which is very interesting. I got a deeper understanding of some philosophy ideas I knew before (like Christianity and Daoism) and developed some new ideas through discussions with my partners. The film as well as the discussion is thought-provoking. And I enjoyed the process a lot.

I think cross-cultural exchange gives students from different cultures to communicate. It provides an access to get deeper into different thoughts, ideas, ways of living and thinking. And it is interesting to find out some similarities hidden in those obvious differences!

Also, cross-cultural exchange somewhat offers a chance to improve language skills because we have to use the language we learn to express our ideas.

                                                                                                       A short and imperfect review on The Fountain and The Myth
                                                                                                                                                      Ren Hao
      I watched The Myth several years ago, and found it quite interesting. The story combines the past and the present. And it has the theme of love and the theme of human’s desire to obtain immortality. This is similar to the theme of The Fountain. So I recommended it to Aleeya.
      Conquistador death sceneI have never heard of The Fountain before Aleeya recommended it to me. While I was watching the film, I was absorbed in the plot and wanted to know what happened in the end. What impressed me most is the director’s imagination. He combined three different worlds in the movie. The first world is set in 500 years ago, in which a Spanish general was determined to obtain immortality by finding the tree of life. The second world is set in a modern American city, in which a man struggled desperately to save his dying wife. The third world is set in an imaginary place, where a bold man tries to save a dying tree by reaching a remote and mysterious star. Actually, only the second world is the real world, the other two are from the book which the man’s wife wrote. The director combined the Christian legend, eastern and western philosophies, historical stories, modern life, and his original imagination together, making the film quite difficult to understand. The man’s wife did not fear death. But the man was afraid to lose her, and was persistent in finding a cure to her cancer. But he finally understood her and her philosophy. And he wrote the end of the story for her. At the end of the movie, the Spanish warrior finally reached the eternal tree. He thought he could obtain eternal life by drinking the liquid from the tree. And after he had drunk it, grass and flowers grew rapidly from his body. Eventually, his body became the rich soil for the grass and flowers. At first, I was scared by this terrifying scene. But later I thought that in a way, the man achieved immortality by turning into grass. Although his individual life, or mind, was destroyed, his own life became merged with the original and eternal life of the nature. His life came from the nature, and in the end, it went back to the nature. In this way, his own life never ends.
      I have learnt that the time gap between Beijing and Virginia is 13 hours. While Beijing is in Friday, Virginia is in Thursday. I have learnt about the film. Also, I have learnt how to use Skype.