Saturday, November 03, 2007

Hong Kong gangsters and doing what's right

What is so attractive about Hong Kong gangster movies? Obviously, the tough guy stuff has its attractions--and the ballet-like battles in John Woo and Johnny To movies are incredible. But what sets these stories apart from action flicks is the acknowledgment of choices.

Having a criminal at the center of a film forces a certain degree of reflection. If he is to seem at all accessible to viewers, he (and the character is almost always a he) has to acknowledge the pain he causes others by his actions. And if we are to go a step further and actually admire him, the criminal must call on a host of rather old values, values familiar to us from fairy tales, old books with brutal, awkward senses of morality, and our own lives--loyalty, family, honor, redemption.

In crime stories generally, but Hong Kong ones in particular, death takes on a gravity that is almost altogether absent from your typical Hollywood blockbuster.

I've sometimes come out of summer shoot-em-ups--even the ironic stuff of Tarantino and Rodriguez--with a nagging sickness in my stomache. I don't mean to seem holier-than-thou, but I've often felt guilty watching "bad guys" shot down by the dozens without a moment to think about the violence that has just occured. Was that evil henchman really evil?

Chow Yun Fat's characters aren't so certain they are right. In fact, they usually know they are wrong and are searching for some decency to pull them out of the rut they're in--a woman to save, an estranged brother who's a cop, a friend trying to go clean, etc. They play songs on the saxaphone for each of their victims ("The Killer") or make paper cranes for the dead ("Hard Boiled"). And they have hang-dog, worn looks on their faces.

Sometimes, I think American politics could do with a touch of the tragic, a touch of Chow Yun Fat.

A history professor when I was an undergraduate mused that Europeans approach rulers with a history of hundreds of years of lousy kings in mind and therefore have less of a need to airbrush history. The same might be said for China.

America's idealism and simple storylines have sometimes been just what the world is craving. But not now. What is needed is an America that can feel the weight of an awful mistake, of the need to atone, that will not just write off every horror as a "learning experience." It needs to see itself more as a sinner trying to make things right.

Such an America wouldn't allow its president to blanket waterboarding with the lie "America doesn't torture." And such an America would understand the world a bit better.


T.A.E. said...

Wait a second! Who said that all these European kings were all so bad. What, are you trying to rewrite history? It is only in the American mind kings and royalty are flawed and. I can think of several kings that actually did some good, some lasting good I hasten to add. Gustav III, for example, invented a furniture style that is very much in vogue right now. And that happened more than 200 years ago. Some of you Americans should scrutinize the way American politics have bred all its own strain of royalty, with ensuing hoarding of riches, abuse of power and disregard for the law. And make a contemporary comparison: American presidents have powers hardly any modern monarch enjoy. Sorry I got off on a tangent. I am sure the Hong Kong movies are good, but that because they are multidimensional and maybe not even a part of an industry. In other words, they may attempt to be works of art, not just a commodity,

Manfred said...

I hope I didn't give the impression that all European kings were bad--or that the U.S. executive doesn't also have its own autocratic tendencies and powerful families.

I mean more that when your (recorded) history is long and you weren't started on a democratic myth (I mean myth in the sense of a "story" not a "lie"), then you don't have the same need for a constant heroic narrative.

200 years of American presidents, all part of one grand tradition (or forced into one tradition), is different from hundreds of years of kings, some good, some bad, that people don't identify with in the same way.

Gustav III may have been good, but if--for the sake of argument--he wasn't, then it wouldn't shake Swedes sense of their own inherent goodness or destiny in the same way that saying that, say, Lincoln or Truman was not just imperfect but outright bad (for the sake of argument, again) would for Americans. I think.