Wuxia at Boston University - continued
A few blogs back, I wrote about my Boston University Writing Program course, “Paradox of the Hero/Heroine in East Asian Cinema and Fiction.” At that time, the movie list was in the process of being finalized for this Fall, 2011 semester and I wrote that I would reveal it in this blog once the semester was underway. Well we’ve been underway since the first week in September and I’ve had few chances to come up for air! But now I have a moment or two and would enjoy discussing my choices. However, I must first preface any discussion with an explanation of my criteria for choosing these films.
My course is in the Writing Program, thus it is first a writing course. We teach students how to write academic articles. We use an array of primary and secondary sources for them to construct academic essays. These are not opinion pieces, blogs, or movie reviews. In my course, the primary sources are the movies. We treat them as historical artifacts, statements of particular viewpoints, understandings, and interpretations of the heroic fiction tradition in East Asia. Since everything must be limited by the length of one semester, East Asia is represented in the course by Chinese and Japanese cinema; though I hope in the future to expand into Korean cinema. Further, given the time constrictions and the nature of the course – as a writing course – the number of films I can show as primary source materials is also extremely limited. The students are required to write three formal papers. The first paper has one draft and the other two have two drafts each. Thus there is a lot of time spend on writing, as it should be in a writing course. Over the years, I’ve found that seven is the maximum number of films I can fit into that one semester time slot. The greatest difficulty for me is choosing ONLY seven movies that can represent the cinema tradition of the East Asian hero. On the Chinese side, I focus on the indigenous wuxia tradition to furnish the heroes/heroines. And on the Japanese side, the samurai tradition.
The films are not primarily chosen for their cinematic qualities – this is not a film course – or for their spectacular fighting scenes - naturally, if those aspects exist along with my more immediate criteria, all the better. My main selection criterion is simple: the films must represent some aspect of the heroic tradition, as they are being presented as primary source statements of this genre, and it should have some appeal to an audience that might for the first time be seeing this film genre. With all of that in mind, here are my selections for this semester in order of viewing (I juggle the list every semester):
1. Hero/Yingxiong (2002) Zhang Yimou. Not only is Hero a visually gorgeous film, but it is also the director’s attempt to redirect the genre away from its often simple revenge theme toward a higher ideal – nonviolence. This makes it an interesting source in that we must first understand the traditional wuxia genre before we can consider Zhang’s attempt to redefine it. Most students fall in love with both the visuals and the ideals put forth. Further, in the classroom and in their essays, they never cease to debate the heroic characteristics of its various characters.
2. Swordsman/Xiaoaojianghu (1990). I like this film because it deals with a number of wuxia themes: the carefree “Daoist” swordsman, the relationships between male and female, between master and disciple, between the Han Chinese and the Miao minorities, and the nature of friendship among a number of themes. My students, however, tend not to like the movie, complaining that it is hard to follow and thus confusing. This is the second time I’ve tried it and since I’m getting the same thumbs down on it, probably the last time.
3. 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). This choice was the result of a friend’s urging. His point was that the movie does a fine job of showing how a xia (hero) is actually developed. It has proved popular with my students.
4. Zu Warriors/Legend of Zu (2001). This represents the idea of the xia taken to the height of the Chinese fantasy tradition. I was very uneasy about using this as it is really all over the place when it comes to the plot. But it has held up well among my students and has made for some interesting comparisons between mortal and “immortal” heroes in the East Asian tradition.
5. Seven Samurai (1954). For me, this is the top of the East Asian heroic film genre. I can’t say enough about this film. Kurosawa was a genius and the film is a product of that genius. It is also a favorite among my students, many of whom have never seen it before. I consider it one of the greatest expressions of heroism ever filmed!
6. Bride with White Hair (1993). Even though most classes don’t like this movie – all over the place plot-wise and poor film editing – I find it remains the best expression of a type of wuxia heroine that is rarely, if ever, filmed – I call her the Tang dynasty swordswoman as opposed to the Confucian swordswoman, who is the norm for the genre. During the Tang dynasty (specifically the 9th century), there arose a literature that prefigures the wuxia literary tradition. The Tang chuanqi (“tales of wonder”) literature presented fantastic (as in fantasy) swordswomen who could fly, had magical powers, and had no need or dependence on men. Later in this literary tradition, the Confucian swordswoman arose – (think Mulan) and became the norm. She did her heroics and then returned to the proper Confucian mold for a woman – a wife or other form of dependency on or subservience to men. In this movie, however, the “white-haired demoness” needs no man!
7. Princess Mononoke (1997). This film continues our consideration of the female side of this East Asian heroic tradition. The movie is usually a big hit with my students for both its beauty and its complexity of characterization.
In addition to these seven movies, the students also have a number of secondary source readings (316 pages to be exact). Not all of the readings deal with the movies or themes in this genre, as some also deal with writing skills and techniques – remember, this is a writing course! The students are being taught how to weave a secondary-source supported argument/thesis/claim about one or more of the primary sources (the films).
Naturally, I am open to further suggestions on movie titles to include in future editions of the course. But to be considered, the films have to follow the criteria that I laid out above. At this point, I will replace Swordsman and maybe another one, but at the end of the course, we have our “academy awards” celebration where the students (there are fifty-five students divided among three sections) vote on their favorite movies. This voting also figures in my considerations. Look forward to your suggestions.