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Chinese Movies for Religious Eyes


It dawned on me recently that no one has commented on a recent phenomenon: famous Chinese movie directors injecting Christian and related religious elements into contemporary Chinese movies.

Notable films in this regard include Back to 1942 (2012), , The Flowers of War (2011), and If You Are the One (2008), . The Christian elements in the broadest and most general sense of the term here refer specifically to the presence and activities of European and American Christians in Asia. These elements are deeply embedded in some movies, whether or not they are necessary to the development of the movies' storylines.

Back to 1942 (1942) is the most recent movie with such elements. 1942 depicts the tragic loss of all but one member of a wealthy farming family who escapes from genuinely starving bandits who raided his home village. The story is set against the background of a province-wide famine in and around 1942 that took three million lives in central China.

It is noteworthy that in the movie, the fate of the suffering crowd is intermittently commented on by an indigenous Chinese Catholic priest who explains his understanding of the doctrines of Christianity to the crowd who perceive it as foreign, "Western" and mostly irrelevant. This presentation is in juxtaposition to the counsel given to Theodore H. White (played by Adrien Brody), an American journalist working in China, by an American Catholic priest based on his (foreign, Christian) understanding of secular Chinese wisdom and the Chinese way of life.

In The Flowers of War (Flowers) John Miller (played by Christian Bale), is a mortician posing as a priest in clerical robes to protect war victims in the capital city Nanjing. It is dramatic how a drunken American drifter manages to assist refugees hiding in a church in China to survive Japanese military brutality in 1937. Among the refugees were dozens of young women, some were prostitutes dressed in colorful, silk Qipao dress, others were convent students dressed in long, blue skirts. Taking advantage of his status as a Westerner, Miller, who assumed the robes of a dead priest, helped protect the semi-confused refugees for a critical length of time.

If You Are the One chronicles the journey of an aimless Chinese man who returned from America dating a Chinese stewardess. The man's long, detailed confession (at minute 95) to an American Catholic priest in Japan is an abrupt and suddenly-injected religious element. The priest's nonsensical reply was written as if it were part of a bad comic book, that is, the trivial-minded confessor has amassed too much sin, the priest's chapel is too inconsequential to handle such a momentous confession, and he should go to another venue better suited to deal with his weighty confession.

There seem to be a few possible reasons for injecting Christian elements into these movies: (1) catering to Western religious preferences to gain international notice, (2) changing or liberating the Chinese mind, or (3) creating potential for greater compensation and profit from Chinese audiences.

1. Catering to Western religious preferences to gain international notice?

Winning an Oscar or Oscar nomination means winning the US DVD audience and worldwide notice. But for Mainland Chinese directors, winning an Oscar is more about prestige and professional fulfillment than monetary gain. No Mainland Chinese director, no matter how rich or successful in China, has ever won the honor.

The most important directors actively producing movies during the last five years are all China-trained middle-aged men who have spent their entire careers inside China. Like many Chinese, they are fascinated with, or even overwhelmed by, the explosive and miraculously enduring iconic representations of western culture and thought. In order to gain favor, it is only natural to include one of the most symbolic expressions of that culture: its perceived Christian religion. However, the directors might not be aware of nor appreciate the recent post-Christian trend in Hollywood or at least the diversity of religious expressions, the postmodern pursuits, or the emphasis on multi-ethnic balance. They would be surprised to know how far the US entertainment industry has gone New Age and post-Christian. If injecting Christian elements is indeed an effort by Chinese directors to cater to Western interests especially to the judges of the Academy Awards it is misdirected.

2. Liberating the Chinese mind?

One could easily feel the breath of fresh air that resulted from injecting Non-Taoist, non-Buddhist, non-Confucian elements into Chinese movies when Flowers and 1942 were shown in China's movie theaters. Buddhist elements are more obvious in Chinese movies because the other big two, namely Taoism and Confucianism, have been integrated into Chinese thinking throughout history. Even during China's recent history, they dictated the everyday lives of the Chinese. However, Chinese audiences are so used to seeing Buddhism depicted in the movies that they have become mostly indifferent to it and see it only as background for the storyline. One rare exception was the famous 1980s movie Shaolin Temple where Buddhism takes the center stage.

Islam and Christianity are the only non-indigenous, major religions that have attracted little attention of Chinese movie makers. There is only one notable movie that put Christianity in the literal center stage of the storyline since China entered the socialist era in 1949: the 1998 movie Home in My Heart, ( ), a tragic but triumphant story of mostly young, intelligent nuns in a Catholic convent in 1945's Southwest China trying to survive the gruesome cruelty of Japanese troops and their rescue by a dispatch of Chinese troops. As the movie was shown publicly in thousands of the nation's cinemas, it's considered a groundbreaking event in both China's movie industry, as well as in China's entertainment industry as a whole. It was the first time Christians and elements of Christianity openly enjoyed the unrestrained warmth of the public spotlight.

Prior to this groundbreaking event, the last time Christianity was exposed to the spotlight in the entertainment arena was 41 years ago in the 1959 cartoon movie The Fisher Child . The Fisher Child is about a fictional Portuguese Catholic priest's encounter with a sea fairy in the form of a miniature Chinese fisher boy. The story was set in a South China fishing village. The priest's apparent lust for money led to his demise after the swindled Chinese fishermen and parishioners magically accomplished their revenge thanks to the power of the fisher boy.

The Fisher Child was easily identified as extreme exaggeration and distortion of facts for political reasons specifically pertinent to the 1950-60s, when the last foreign missionaries and priests were expelled from China. To be fair (if fairness can be seen as a universal human virtue in an unpressured situation like we enjoy here discussing Chinese movies irrespective of race, gender or creed) to expose someone's greed, such as the foreigner's greed (another universally present aspect of human nature) then one does not need to use a priest as an example. The movie injects the priest mainly to brainwash the youth of the 1960s and eliminate the very last drop of influence flowing from foreign "imperialists" and their agents of religion, only to result in staining the minds of young people with a bloody, new dose of hatred.

Home in My Heart is in sharp contrast to The Fisher Boy. This time Catholics are presented in a positive way; they are brave, sensitive, and full of compassion for their fellow human beings. It is as if the 1998 movie crew had received an internal memo to clean up the negative impression of Christianity. In that sense, the 1998 movie was an attempt to change the Chinese mind that was presumably fixated on this issue. There is evidence that the co-producer of the movie, a Hong Kong company, was under Catholic influence.

Although 1942 and Flowers granted Christianity reasonably positive treatments, they can hardly be said to have tried to change the Chinese mind. Their stories did not develop on religious lines, nor were tied on religious knots. The efforts behind these movies to make religious statements were sporadic and pale drastically in comparison with Home in My Heart's non-stop, open attempt to directly promote Christianity. And yet even that movie can only be said to have attempted to emancipate Chinese thinking but never reached the height of actually changing the Chinese mind. In its opening remarks, it is implied that Home in My Heart was made mainly in memory of the brave lives of the soldiers (and of course, the convent sisters) and in praise of their selfless sacrifice (and of course, the religious martyrdom of the sisters) and we can safely assume the film's sponsors would be glad if it did just that.

3. Creating potential for greater compensation and profit from Chinese audiences?

For the novel-based fictional stories in the movies Flowers and 1942 to develop, no Christian elements are required. The priest in 1942 could have been a village wise man, or an educated philosopher, or a Confucian scholar all of whom are found everywhere in north central China. The cathedral in Flowers could have been an orphanage or charity run by foreigners (Americans or other Westerners), a foreign-run school, or any club whose members are foreigners. The role of the "priest" in Flowers could have been played by any non-Christian person with sympathy for human suffering as long as the person had a Westerner's look to take advantage of the non-aggression understanding between Japanese and Western powers in China.

The key lies in the inclusion of Christian elements. Today hundreds of thousands of Chinese young couples hold their wedding ceremonies in Christian church buildings regardless of their faith, and receive blessings and admonitions quoted directly from the Bible by pastors and priests. Youth in China today are enamored with including Christian elements in their lives, partly because they deem these ideas as fresh and new. Movie makers apparently know that. Specifically, it is highly likely that the producers of 1942 and Flowers understood that they need to cater to the taste of today's youth in order to make a handsome profit, as youth constitute the majority of movie-goers in China.

But is the idea really new? As an Asian-originated "Westerner's religion", Christianity is still a relatively new idea in the midst of the extremely powerful and loud traditional Chinese culture. Although some scholars have found harmony between Old Testament religious beliefs and practices and the rituals prevailing in China before and during the Zhou Dynasty and have insisted that Christianity was never a new idea and that the thoughts and practices since the Chunqiu period and after could never genuinely represent the authentic tradition of the Chinese as a people, for most it is still considered a new idea.

To counter the tide of new ideas, China's propaganda machine has more than once issued guidelines to be circulated among journalists and entertainers that dissuade them from including religious content in movies and other popular media.

Despite the restraints of guidelines, with the lightning fast spawning and acceptance of new ideas (and repackaged old ideas, who cares? let's forget the debates) in the age of the internet, movies with Christian elements (and other religious elements and ideas perceived as fresh) are becoming monthly (if not weekly or daily) staples in the spiritual diet of youth, and those under the influence of the youth, in China, with free and easy downloads. Therefore, even if it is a new idea, does it really make big money?

The conclusion: Injecting Christian elements in these recent Chinese movies was not a good way to draw Hollywood's attention; it was good for making profits, but with limited potential and the future for profit is not golden.

If this is so, will Christian directors produce a major Chinese movie as genuine as Ben Hur or Quo Vadis, for the purpose of changing the minds of non-Christians or at least to encourage those who are already Christians. No Chinese movie has done that.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The Arxist

The Arxist is a Chinese lawyer in Beijing and Xiamen, China. He can be reached at Arxist@163.com. View Full Bio