The Good People of the Three Gorges

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Still Life (2006)–literally: Good People of the Three Gorges in the original Mandarin title–was the first big break for one of China’s most popular directors today, Jia Zhangke. In his IC lecture, Dr. Steve Riep (Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages) explained that film historians use the term “generations” to define periods in Chinese film history. Jia, like the others of the sixth generation, often make underground or independent films and use digital photography and location shooting to facilitate their low budgets. They are also interested in real life subjects as Jia is in both his documentaries and his narrative features. His films are grounded in actual problems faced in the wake of China’s rapid modernization, and his social critiques focus on the alienation and disorientation stemming from environmental, demographic, and social change. 

Still Life is set against the backdrop of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station, on the Yangtze river in Fengjie. The dam was a project first proposed by Sun Yat-sen in 1919, picked up by the nationals, then by the Japanese occupiers, then the Americans supporting the nationalist government, then finally after Mao’s death the project was approved in 1992. Despite this seventy year period of surveying and mathematical projections, the dam’s construction caused about 1.3 million people to be relocated as the reservoir behind the dam filled. Still Life is shot on location in Fengjie as the water level rises. Riep drew attention to how often what is most significant in the frame is happening behind or around the characters rather than with the characters themselves. The rising levels of water and rubble in the film’s backgrounds command our attention and almost treat this destruction as a character in its own right.

“Who might be the ‘good people’ in this movie?” asked Prof. Riep. The film begins by following a man from Jia’s home province Shanxi who comes to Fengjie to find his ex-wife. He gets a job as a part of the city’s demolition working to dismantle the thousands of buildings needed to be raised or moved for the reservoir. Modernizing China, Riep suggested, has led to the tearing down of many old areas to relocate them and usually to replace them with more dense high-rises to accommodate the country’s urbanization. Unlike the sort of creative destruction suggested by Western modernists, these buildings are destroyed not to be replaced with anything other than water.

Riep suggested looking for commonalities among the main characters and how the inter-titles are used. The film has four vignettes with inter-titles: Cigarettes, Tea, Alcohol, and Candy. Some have read these as being poor replacements for food rations, but Riep suggests that it may have something to do with those items’ use in social lubrication in Chinese society.

Bruce Lee’s Ligaments, Life, and Legacy

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“Here are my Jeet Kune Do gloves and my nunchucks.” Dr. Matt Ancell began his lecture on Bruce Lee’s legacy and Enter the Dragon (1973) by pulling out evidence of Lee’s influence on him as a young boy. Ancell gave a brief outline of Lee’s life and works leading up to Enter the Dragon, then offered an explanation as to why this film might be screened at the International Cinema.

Bruce Lee was of European and Chinese descent but was born in America. His family returned to Hong Kong when he was still young, and he worked as a child actor while being raised by his father, a famous Opera singer. He never garnered much attention as a child actor, but nor did he ever lose the desire to make films. Because Lee got into many fights in Hong Kong, his parents eventually moved him back to America to continue his education. Lee stopped working in film for a time as he trained in Wing Chun style martial arts and studied philosophy and drama at the University of Washington.

Lee was found to be training non-Chinese people in Chinese martial arts, an affront to the Chinese community and was challenged to a duel. Because he had only studied the Wing Chun style, a very sedentary, immobile tradition, he was quickly worn out by his opponent’s fleeting movements. This fight was the impetus for Lee’s new philosophically based style: Jeet Kune Do (the way of the intercepting fist). Jeet Kune Do is characterized as a style without a style. Lee described it in an interview as, “Be[ing] formless, like water.” In Jeet Kune Do, one choses to utilize whatever would work best for an actual fight rather than sticking exclusively to one style. You can use the arm movements from Wing Chun or boxing, the leg movements from Judo or Karate, and any brawler techniques (such as when Lee rips off Chuck Norris’s chest hair in The Way of the Dragon [1972]).

Lee eventually began working in Hollywood playing almost exclusively stereotypical and subservient characters, much to his dissatisfaction. After butting heads with a number of studios and having his ideas rejected or stolen, Lee decided to return to Hong Kong, where unbeknownst to him, he was already a huge star. The TV series, The Green Hornet (1966), in which Lee played Kato the martial artist/chauffeur/sidekick, was being shown in Hong Kong under the title The Kato Show.

While Lee had been in America, the types of films made in Hong Kong had radically changed. Due to the increased violence of the 1960s riots, the Hong Kong film industry had become more realistic in its depictions of violence. No longer were the martial artists using such fancy tricks with the camera helping to avoid their failures. These new films that appeared immediately before Lee returned, featured more authentic fights that mirrored the types of violence the protesters faced under the British police force.

Lee was perfectly suited to this type of filmmaking because he truly was a phenomenally powerful martial artist. According to Ancell, Lee was just an okay actor, but he had an “incredible screen presence.” After two back-to-back record-breaking hits with Golden Harvest (a production company), Lee wrote, directed, and starred in The Way of the Dragon. Hollywood then took note of how marketable Lee was and struck a deal for a co-production between Golden Harvest and Warner Bros. for a new film called Enter the Dragon.

Enter the Dragon was originally billed as something of a James Bond film, where the British star, John Saxon, was to lead a team of three and infiltrate the antagonist’s island base. Of course, Hong Kong did not like seeing the British take all the credit, nor did Bruce Lee, so Lee strong-armed the production into letting him direct the opening scenes of the film which set his character as the central protagonist. What the film became is something of a genre-blending picture. Lee introduces elements of the martial arts genre, Saxon the spy genre, and Jim Kelley the blaxploitation genre. We are left with three characters working together but who approach the narrative almost as if they each carry their respective genres with them. Enter the Dragon, then presents viewers with a fascinating example of how international financing, the star system, and film genres all push and pull when making popular movies.

Just one month before the release of Enter the Dragon, Lee died. The film went on to be a huge success world-wide. Because of his unparalleled skill and charisma, Lee’s image continued in the popular imagination. Dozens of imitators immediately sprang up, leading to what have been coined as “Brucesploitation” films. His masculinized and sexualized, Asian, male body also led to a change in desired American, male bodies in film, and he is popularly known as “the grandfather of MMA” for his Jeet Kune Do style.