Sometimes in the evening, all by myself except the dogs and cats, doing a little research (not real writing), I’ve found myself checking into Netflix for background entertainment. Not so bad, really…
Except I’ve been watching these really strange, weird, truly localized movies from China and Japan. Period pieces especially, but fantasy ones too. Mojin: The Lost Legend. Journey to the West: The Legend of the Monkey King. Fearless. Seven Samarai.
And I have to tell you, it’s strange fun.
As one might expect, although there are universal themes that run through every movie, every culture has its own take on how to present those themes. Chinese and Japanese cinematography is every bit as amazing and imaginative as its partners in other countries. There may be a bit more martial arts (at least there are in the movies I’ve chosen), and their approach to the walking dead and magic and monsters is unique to their audience. The music might sometimes be off (Jazz in Mojin?), but that might be to contrast modernism with ancient worlds. They do a lot of swearing in these movies, too, but since I don’t understand a word of it, I’m not offended.
There is something wonderfully mysterious about ancient Chinese and Japanese culture. To many who are born and raised in the United States in general and the Midwest in particular, these countries are as far away as the Andromeda Galaxy. The language, the traditions, are so different that you can’t help but be wrapped up in their heady perfume. Even if the genres are fantasy, you can learn a lot about a culture from the way they interact with each other. The things they say. The things they don’t say.
I am finding this true in art, too. I feel like I’ve lived so long with blinders on that I never knew there was art outside of Monet and Renoir. That a painting, a sculpture, a movie, can speak thousands of words about a person’s heritage, beliefs, and history. That the art of the Netherlands is just as mysterious and beautiful as that of Harlem. That there is a place in history for shoguns as well as scullions.
And all the fields of Creativity are speaking to us.
Of course, the main reason I don’t get much writing done is that I have to read the subtitles on the screen. (That’s how I know about the swearing.) And you really have to concentrate, because each movie has different inferences. Like the one I just watched was big into Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The one the other night was big into Buddha. And Fearless was about the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. Important conversations and innuendoes that you would miss if you were merely listening to the movie while, say, doing the dishes.
The Han Dynasty. The 18th Dynasty of Tutankhamun. The Age of the Vikings from 8th century to mid 11th century A.D. The Middle Ages. Genghis Khan, Emperor of the Mongol Empire in 1206. Worlds we can only imagine. Worlds only writers and historians can imagine. I just can’t resist books and documentaries and movies that put only a toe into those oceans of the past. Time travel of the most extraordinary kind.
Maybe that’s why these exotic Chinese movies interest me so much. Even if made in modern times, they reflect ancient traditions. Ancient worlds. Places I will never experience except in my mind.
But Ho! I’ve learned something too — who knew they had the same swear words in Ancient China as they do today?