Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Society Through The Movies

Movies are often said to mirror the society which produce them. The following is not a comprehensive study but some musings on the topic.

Japanese and Korean films
Apart from the romantic comedies, the last decade of Japanese and Korean popular cinema has been quite reflective of national psyche. That may seem strange considering the popularity of Japanese horror films such as Dark Water or The Ring series.Yet , doesn't the assault of the individual by unknown, unexplained forces beyond human control reflect the siege mentality of the nation?! The focus on children in these films may also reflect the disturbing trend of violence inflicted against children and inflicted by children and young adults.

More apparently political, some Korean movies voice the people's deep fears. For instance, a movie about the DMZ shows how fragile friendships between Korean soldiers of both sides turn into a disastrous crossfire incident because of hardliners and basic distrust. A poignant exploration of the conflict amongst what is essentially a common people because of politics and the fear that misunderstanding and "heat of the moment" decisions may just lead to a trigger-happy attitude that destroys the soldiers of both sides. It is perhaps a movie for the political leaders who decide the fate of millions who live on either side of the division, particularly in current times.

Another film that was particularly interesting is a "fantasy-history" movie starring 2 popular actors from Japan and Korea respectively as officers of law in a Korea which has become a state/province of Japan after WWII and the discovery by the Korean operative that this was the result of a conspiracy to alter history via a time-travel device. Central to this plot is the conflict of interest between the 2 friends ; one determined to restore history and free his nation and the other duty bound to protect the altered version of history. To say that this movie reflects the suspicion and the uneasy relations between the 2 countries is to state the obvious. However, the film is an ironic reflection of the issue of revisionist history; just as the Korean characters are shown to be robbed of national identity and history, so are the Koreans robbed of their dignity and history when faced with Japanese revisionists.

American films
There are too many themes obviously due to the sheer volume of popular cinema but 3 topics may be isolated and discussed. Citizen Kane is often said to be the greatest movie made. Variously said to be a portrayal of a tyrannical media baron and an allegory for political systems other than democratic, the film may also be seen as a kind of allegory for modern USA. A kind of cinematic version of "My Way" if you will since the USA seems to conduct business strictly on its own terms; disturbingly similar to the way the protagonist insisted that there was no other terms than his own terms.

A stranger rides into town, shakes up the establishment , dishes out some sense of justice and rides off into the sunset, the basic storyline of many westerns yet funnily enough rather familiar to observers of American "diplomacy" of recent decades. Forget the go it alone theme, it's the sense that everyone else is too "chicken" or too dumb to know better or to stand up for what's just that justifies the hero (substitute "USA" and you get the political equivalent) riding into action and that's supposed to make the hero, well, a hero. Unfortunately the ride off into the sunset has sometimes been superseded by that image of a helicopter flying off into the sun, a symbol of the USA's disastrous intervention in Vietnam and its ignominious retreat. That has reminded the USA that riding off into the sunset isn't all just about glory but also the potential end of glory. Will the modern John Wayne be singing " Don't let the sun go down on the USA" remains a question but definitely a tough thought for the tough guy to ruminate

Considering the relative short attention span of modern man, the fascination with a particular theme or series of movies over almost 30 years is fascinating itself and this alone should justify the fame of Star Wars . But what does the Star Wars series say about the USA? Forget the obvious (the star wars project) and look at the Dark Side. In a sense, the USA has been defining the Dark Side for ages. In the Cold War era, it was easy : Communism. The typical stereotype of drab, stonyfaced communist officials and impenetrable cunning leaders made for good counterparts for the empire's faceless soldiers and Darth Vader. With glasnost and the end of the Iron Curtain, the single huge enemy was replaced by a host of "smaller" enemies in the form of despotic regimes across Latin America, Africa and Asia. In the '90s, the Middle East dominated the limelight and inevitably with 9/11, the Dark Side became terrorism particularly defined as Middle Eastern inspired and sponsored terrorism. Arguably political leaders spouted rhetoric that sounded like soundbites from the movie series like "axis of evil" and the infighting of political factions and the UN reflected the turmoil of the federation. The final 2 prequels of the series , however, remind audiences of certain facts that the Americans have ignored for years; the crucial plot twist of Star Wars mythology that the hero Luke Skywalker is the son of the menacing villain Darth Vader, that the line between good and evil is that which seperates the 2 sides of a coin . The final episode will illustrate amongst other storylines the seduction of Anakin by the dark side which will seem like a fulfilment of Yoda's misgivings. Yet, the council's suspicion of Anakin's potential power is what hinders his progress and may be seen as a huge factor in his "conversion" to the Dark Side. That suspicion could very well force a potential friend to become an enemy should be a lesson for American politicians who tend to suspect every rival of being a potential Vader.

More interesting may be the fact that George Lucas chose to film prequels instead of sequels for the series. Though this is has explained by the man himself, one might speculate that part of the reason might be the director being mindful of the principles of myth creation. The secret recipe for a happy myth is to leave it at the "happily-ever-after" stage because what follows is only potential disillusionment - let's just say no one wants to know if Prince Charming has a foot fetish (Cinderella) or if he has a fascination for women who aren't all quite there (Snow White). What ending could be better than the defeat of evil (episode 6 Return of the Jedi), to continue the story would be to invite the mundane - what new enemy is there to find? That's the ironic reality of world peace! Besides, when the anti-establishment becomes the establishment, matters could become ugly as politicians of opposition parties who become the elected party usually discover

Indian films
Bollywood has been the subject of many jokes over the years for its brand of sentimental, exaggerated musical-drama particularly its "translations" of various popular Hollywood films. As corny as some of the translations are, though some aspects are lost in translation but the adaptation of certain storylines to an Indian social setting means that a lost era of Hollywood romance is ironically preserved. For instance, though "An Affair To Remember" becomes "Mann " (not too sure about the title), it is beautifully translated to a movie about old fashioned romance and soul. With the increasing focus on modern aspects of human relationships, it is hard to imagine Hollywood producing a family drama and romance like Baghban especially the aspect of letter writing. Not conceivable in the West - not when the modern equivalent of Abelard and Heloise is probably 2 professors emailing or having an online romance.

No one beats Bollywood when it comes to heroism - no hero ever dies unless it's for a really really really good cause- superheroism wins the day. Remember Luc Besson's The Professional/Leon? Not only is there a "translation" of that film but also a over the top funny twist to that ending; see ShahRukh Khan's stunt in "Main Hoon Na" where he pulls the ring off the grenade on the terrorist and manages to jump off the roof of the exploding building to the waiting helicopter . Perhaps, the marvel of Indian cinema is not its provision of a form of escape from the harsh realities of life but its message, via these heroes, that to survive is to be a hero - especially when set against the backdrop of Indian politics and social problems.

Though this short jaunt may provide little information regarding these societies but just as films capture little snippets of life, hopefully some useful insight has been granted?! The End at least till the sequel.