Facing the Red Dragon: Hollywood’s 1997 Response to the Hong Kong Handover
Facing the Red Dragon: Hollywood’s 1997 Response to the Hong Kong Handover
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines Hollywood's response to the 1997 Hong Kong Handover through films like Red Corner, Kundun, and Seven Years in Tibet. These films address the political implications of the Handover through their portraiture of Chinese ideological and military aggression and its disregard for human rights, a not-too-subtle index of what the West conjures as the terrifying political fate awaiting Hong Kong.
As a complement to my earlier examination of Hong Kong diasporic filmmakers’ deployment of cinematic visuality as a mode of cultural political intervention, this chapter turns its focus onto Hollywood’s response to the Hong Kong handover, by looking particularly at three films released in 1997: Jon Avnet’s Red Corner, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. While these films are clearly part of Hollywood’s continuing fascination with Chinese/Tibetan politics, culture, and spirituality — Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and Little Buddha (1993) come quickly to mind — they also represent a strategically timed reaction to the return of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. Though these films do not directly depict the handover per se, they do address its political implications through their portraiture of Chinese ideological and military aggression and its disregard for human rights, a not-too-subtle index of what the West conjures as the terrifying political fate awaiting Hong Kong.1 In other words, Hollywood’s construction of the filmic imagery and political discourses in these films, to a certain extent, demonizes the People’s Republic of China.
In her significant essay on this matter, “King Kong in Hong Kong: Watching the ‘Handover’ from the U.S.A.,” Rey Chow correctly, though maybe too categorically, characterizes these three films as constituting “a spate of China-bashing films” that “form part of the U.S. media’s concerted effort to attack China in the name of human rights.” These films are American pop culture’s contributions to a mediatized political discourse Chow calls the “King Kong syndrome”:
[B]y posing as defenders of democracy and liberty, the U.S. media portrays Chinese events as crises that require not only vigilance but also intervention. Typically, such portrayals are dramatized — staged in palpably demonizing (p.58) terms so that audiences in the West are obliged to identify with an invisible but adamant moralistic perspective in which the United States is seen as superior. In discussing the U.S. media’s treatment of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, I have compared it with the film King Kong and used the term “King Kong syndrome” to refer to this structure of cross-cultural, cross-racial representation aimed at producing “China” as a spectacular primitive monster whose despotism necessitates the salvation of its people by outsiders. It is important to remember that although many countries lack “democracy” and “liberty,” it is China that, simply because it is not the United States’ ideological ally, regularly bears the brunt of this process of palpable demonization…For many in the United States, China is, first and foremost, that “other country” where violence erupts.2
Chow’s attempt to delineate the impact and limits of this discourse allows her to situate the Hong Kong handover within the context of British colonialism and US imperialism (and their complicity), thus problematizing the conflation of colonialism, capitalism, and Cold War anti-communist rhetoric with democracy and human rights.
While this mode of postcolonial critique is a necessary one and is indeed very useful in enabling my analyses of the three Hollywood films, I am also conscious of how Chow’s complex and necessarily nuanced arguments can be appropriated by and incorporated, frequently in a reductive fashion, into cultural nationalist agendas; while Chow’s cultural self-criticism is selectively ignored. (As I often warn my students in Singapore, it is too easy, all too easy, when discussing issues of colonialism and imperialism, to bash the West or blame former “colonial masters,” so as to produce one-note nationalist critiques of western hypocrisy and disingenuousness that completely ignore, for instance, the complicit roles played by the nationalist and capitalist elite in their perpetuation of the very modes of oppression for which they condemn western imperialism and colonialism in the first place.3) What concerns me here is the way a unidirectional questioning of the films’ “China-bashing” in these appropriated discourses has the potential of reifying an East-versus-West polemic, thus aligning itself with the unreflective and virulent Chinese cultural nationalism one sees being proliferated today.
The past three decades saw the People’s Republic of China undergo a rather successful capitalist makeover since the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping took effect in 1978. While still nominally communist in its ideological positioning, China has now transformed itself into an economic giant, a “red” dragon so to speak (if I could perversely redeploy Chow’s King Kong monster metaphor here) that demands global attention. While in the past, western capitalist nations thought it wiser to acknowledge the PRC’s legitimate (p.59) status in the world community of nations because of its nuclear and military might (as the ousting of Taiwan from the United Nations in 1971 exemplifies), today many see the PRC as a rich and vast capitalist market to tap into. As capital defines international relations, it is becoming harder and harder for one to say no to China,4 particularly in terms of deploying standard modes of geopolitical leverage to move China toward democratic rule and respect for human rights.
This difficulty is further compounded by a parallel rise in Chinese nationalism not only within the mainland but also throughout the diaspora. While I have nothing against nationalism and patriotism, these discourses of nation and culture become highly problematic when deployed in an essentialist fashion to police behavior and speech and to enforce conformity to a dominant political logic. Any criticism of China, Chinese cultural practice, or Chinese politics immediately consigns one to the status of a cultural traitor. This virulent nationalism has the profound danger of eclipsing attention on China’s history of human rights abuses, such as in the cases of Tiananmen and Tibet, thereby drowning out voices of dissent. One saw an instance of this nationalism in the recent global protests against the Olympic torch as it made its way through various countries before arriving in Beijing for the start of the 2008 summer Olympic Games. While it is interesting to reflect on the efficacy of such protests, the emergence of numerous pro-Chinese protestors, and the way certain governments around the world sought to criticize and/or quash pro-Tibet voices,5 I would like instead to focus on a single Chinese student at Duke University in order to illustrate the violently coercive nature of this us-versus-them cultural rhetoric.
Hailing from the city of Qingdao, Miss Grace Wang approached the issue rather differently. She attempted to bring the pro-Tibet and the pro-Chinese groups at Duke University together so that they could talk to each other. Instead, as she tells her story in the Washington Post, “I was caught in the middle and vilified and threatened by the Chinese…The Chinese protesters thought that, being Chinese, I should be on their side.” She soon found her photo posted online with the accusation that she was a “traitor to…[her] country.” Telephone and email threats ensued, with one even warning her that “[i]f you return to China, your dead corpse will be chopped into 10,000 pieces.” Vandals attacked her parents’ home in China with excrement, and even her high school denounced her by having her diploma withdrawn.6 Although I might seem to be positioning Grace Wang as an emotive poster girl for the pro-Tibet cause (while the pro-China camp has theirs in the figure of paraplegic athlete Jin Jing7), I see in Wang more of a reconciliatory figure whose presence resists and disrupts the emotional rhetoric of victimized China against a (p.60) bullying West. In fact, Wang has made known her position against the Tibetan desire for a separate state. But that she was caught in the crossfire while advocating peaceful negotiations between the two camps and was subsequently demonized as a traitor, illustrates precisely the irrational and incendiary nationalist fervor I see rising in a post-9/11 age. It is a feverishly essentialist logic that demands ethnic Chinese to take sides — taking sides as a national, cultural, and/or religious imperative, as also witnessed in George W. Bush’s “you are either with us or against us”8 ; or as in Islamic fundamentalism’s terrifying insistence on waging jihad against the West as a sign of faithful religious practice and devotion to Allah. Grace Wang’s stand in “not taking sides” is becoming a frighteningly minority and marginalized position in a world consumed by xenophobia, chauvinism, and violence.9
My approach to these films, hence, comes in the form of not taking sides, though not in a politically neutral kind of way (which I consider irresponsible), but in a simultaneous critique and affirmation of both positions, a kind of anxious shuttling between extreme poles, so to speak, in order to enact a more complex reading that disturbs the films’ simplistic politics while positing their potential critical efficacy. My central argument in the analyses of these films is to demonstrate how the noble intentions of some in Hollywood, in upholding their ideals of democracy and human rights and championing the political underdog, lead them to employ various filmic strategies that unfortunately rely on Orientalist representations, cultural stereotypes, and monstrous caricatures of the Chinese or China. These representations miss the mark in terms of audience reach, thereby losing their effectiveness in their otherwise well-intended goals of promoting political and social change. The political enthusiasm of those in Hollywood who have a special interest in Chinese politics — one thinks of Richard Gere and Sharon Stone10, for example — produces a certain excess in both public discourse and filmic imagery that ultimately alienates more than it mediates.
Red Corner: Representations of Excess
Jon Avnet’s courtroom thriller Red Corner, starring renowned Tibet supporter Richard Gere, falls into the category of the Hollywood genre where an American tourist/adventurer finds himself in an exotic land, while embarking on a journey that psychologically transforms him, resulting in a deeper sense of self-awareness. More often than not, this transformation leads to a momentary questioning of American beliefs, practices, and institutions, thus displacing the character’s insular naïveté with a newly acquired worldliness. (p.61) But this cultural sensitivity seldom if ever ends in the subversion or critique of fundamental American ideals, values that are instead reaffirmed at the end of the journey as ideologically true and culturally transcendent. Classic and contemporary instances of this genre include Sayonara (1957), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), The Beach (2000), Lost in Translation (2003), The Last Samurai (2003), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
Richard Gere plays the pragmatic Jack Moore, who is sent by an American telecommunications company to negotiate “the first Chinese-American satellite joint venture” with his Chinese counterpart Minister Lin Shou (James Hong) and his western-minded son Lin Dan (Byron Mann). What Moore does not realize is that he has stepped into a trap laid by Lin Dan. After being seduced by Hong Ling (Jessey Meng), the daughter of a high-ranking Chinese general, Moore wakes to find her dead and is thus hauled away by the Chinese police on the charge of murder. With Moore removed from the scene, Lin Dan proceeds to seal a deal with Moore’s German competitor Hoffco Telekom. The odds are now clearly stacked against Moore winning the case, especially with the austere Chinese legal system dead set against him (as an American) and with a court-appointed defense attorney, Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling), who does not believe that he is innocent. But, as one would expect from a Hollywood narrative of American heroism, Moore soon gains the trust of Shen and a friendship, with the usual erotic undercurrent, develops between the two. When an assassination attempt on his life gives him the opportunity to seek asylum and safety within the compounds of the American embassy, Moore selflessly chooses instead to surrender to the Chinese authorities so that Shen will not be persecuted for having staked her reputation to obtain his earlier release from prison. The dramatic final court scene has Moore and Shen joining forces to fight the system. After they expose Lin Dan’s role in the murder of Hong Ling, General Hong shoots his daughter’s killer in the ensuing chaos within the courtroom, hence freeing Moore from the clutches of the politically implicated Chinese judiciary.
What I find most remarkable is the way the film uses three scenes set in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park11 to rhetorically structure and present its political message. The scenes occur in the opening credit sequence, in the crisis or turning point within the middle of the film’s narrative, and in a brief touching moment between Moore and Shen as part of the post-trial denouement. Of course, these scenes of bamboo leaves swaying in the wind surrounding a beautiful lake offer both relief and contrast to the inevitable atmospheric tension produced by the film’s difficult subject matter. But I would also argue that these scenes create an imagistic rhetoric that is unfortunately founded on Orientalist assumptions about Chinese cultural traditions and (p.62) philosophy, though masked as a newfound cultural sensitivity implicit in the logic of US multiculturalism. This rhetorical setup provides the scenic plot points in the film to mark significant shifts in character development and ideological awakening.
Opening the film, as part of the credit sequence, is a scene of childhood remembrance, where Shen Yuelin reminisces about her grandmother and the time they spent in the Purple Bamboo Park: “When I was a child, I would come to this park and play. My grandmother told me why the bamboo is here. She said, ‘It is waiting for the wind to touch it. It is filled with emotions.’” The fact that the film does not provide an immediate context for this opening voiceover (something that the audience will only discover later in the film) adds to the Oriental mystique of its fortune-cookie style philosophy. Even more crucial is that this inscrutable utterance allows the film to construct an atavistic concept of traditional Chinese cultural purity, as located in its semiotic resonance with the bamboo and nature imagery; which provides a sharp contrast to the Chinese modernity that one later sees, where corrupt government apparatchiks entangle themselves in greedy capitalist schemes, and where skimpily dressed Chinese women seductively cavort with white men in clubs to the beat of the Village People’s “YMCA.”
This contrast deepens with the introduction of Jack Moore immediately following the Purple Bamboo Park opening sequence. Moore arrives in Tiananmen Square in a limousine. As the tinted windows roll down, he espies Chinese boys playing soccer, soldiers marching in lock step, and an ominous surveillance camera panning in his direction and focusing directly on him. The shot here is both symptomatic of the panopticism12 that permeates an authoritarian state, and symbolic of the political and legal plight in which Moore will soon find himself embroiled. But clearly Moore’s pragmatist and capitalist bravado do not deter him: he meets with Chinese government officials and convinces them that their “concerns about…[his] programming package” being “pornographic, violent, and superstitious” are misplaced, even citing Mao Zedong’s political adage, “Use the West for Chinese purposes,” to perversely make the following argument: “If our programming teaches your people that America is imperfect, often violent and prurient, wouldn’t that discourage the pursuit of Western values?” The following sequence of “Western decadence” in Chinese urban modernity has Moore visit a dance club, attend a fashion show (which opens with a Chinese operatic display, signaling the “problematic” cultural dilution as the West encroaches on China), and end up in bed with the sexy model Hong Ling whom he meets at the show. The crude morality tale here is all too obvious, as one movie critic from USA Today rather facetiously put it: “Beware of one-nighters with comely (p.63) nightclub performers whose governments are weary of encroaching Western values.”13 One could possibly rewrite this warning to read as “Beware of onenighters with comely nightclub performers whose governments are manipulating Western capitalist modernity and values to reassert their authoritarian power and rule at the expense of personal freedoms and rights.” While it is laudable for the film’s critique to hint at Western capitalism’s complicity in furthering China’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses, it unfortunately relies on an Orientalist and traditionalist notion of pure Chinese culture as the alternative and panacea for these ills, as my readings of the later scenes of Purple Bamboo Park will demonstrate.
But before doing so, I believe it is significant to comment briefly on the depictions of abuse that Jack Moore suffers at the hands of the Chinese authorities, as a kind of cinematic spectacle and excess for the film to make its political point. Moore’s predicament is a result of the political intrigue that Lin Dan’s corruption has created. When he is dragged to prison upon the discovery of Hong Ling’s murder, Moore is stripped naked and hosed down by the prison guards. He is subjected to interrogation techniques that involve physical and psychological torture: he is punched, slapped, and zapped with an electric prod; he is made to view a video of Chinese prisoners being shot and bayoneted to death, in order to impress on him the idea of “Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who resist,” a notion that even an initially skeptical Shen Yuelin believes, a judicial philosophy that is utterly antithetical to America’s belief in innocence until proven guilty. Finally, the scatological horror of a prison guard washing Moore’s dinner plate in the toilet before serving him food marks for me the extremity of the film’s visual caricature of abuse. I am not here suggesting that this form of abuse does not occur in China. Rather, the visual excess in the film I liken to a politician propagandist drumming up of patriotic fervor or a Christian fundamentalist preacher’s hyperbolic invocation of fire and brimstone to terrify his audience into belief. This spectacle of cinematic excess only generates a backlash against the film’s good intentions, particularly in a fictional film coming out of Hollywood and starring an actor whose stand on China and Tibet is well known.
The crisis in Red Corner’s plot development occurs in the calm surroundings of the Purple Bamboo Park. But in order to build up to this narrative crescendo, the film turns its attention to the tense relationship between Jack Moore and Shen Yuelin, its détente, and the eventual development of trust and friendship between the two protagonists. It is useful at this juncture to comment on the gendered structure of this relationship. By making the defense attorney a woman in the figure of the alluring Bai Ling, director Avnet and screenwriter Robert King tap into a robust Hollywood tradition of the white (p.64) hero and his Asian sexual counterpart. In her discussions of the Hong Kong setting in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Gina Marchetti registers the cultural/national implications in the gender dynamics of this relationship:
Hong Kong provides a place where all sorts of social and ideological oppositions can be played out in fiction — East-West, Communist-capitalist, white-nonwhite, rich-poor, colonizer-colonized, European-American, Asian-American, progressive-conservative. Within the context of the Hollywood love story, moreover, all these oppositions can be addressed using the cinematic vocabulary of that fundamental opposition between male and female. By using romance to examine these ideological sore points, Hollywood can make any boundaries between nations and races appear as natural as the differences between men and women. Relationships between nations or races can be seen as the male-female romance writ large, with its patronizing sentimentality and inherent inequality left intact.14
Had the filmmakers made the Shen character a man, the heterosexual erotic connection would not only have been lost, but the Orientalist practice of conceptualizing Asia in a feminized guise would also have been disabled. Gone, hence, will be the “Asian mystique”15 of an exotic, gentle, and traditional China. (It is no coincidence that the role of Chairman Xu, the judge presiding over the trial, is played by the talented Asian American actress Tsai Chin, whose no-nonsense demeanor exudes dragon-lady ferocity, thus reinforcing a stereotype that is also a part of the Asian mystique allure. But her gender also permits the film to suggest her puppet-like position in a politically compromised judiciary where her male political masters are pulling the strings from behind.) While one does find in Shen’s characterization a strong feminist streak, especially in her insinuation to Moore that it “must be extremely difficult, to rely on a stranger, a woman, a foreign woman, in such serious matters” as his defense in this trial, the feminist potential collapses under the weight of the film’s formulation of a good, traditional Chinese culture, as witnessed in Shen’s progressive transformation into the image of a gentle Chinese woman who is eventually in touch with her political/cultural self at the end of the film.
The initial shift in Shen’s attitude towards Moore is when she obtains his temporary daytime release from prison by staking her own reputation, in order that they might be able to work on the case. The action moves into the domestic sphere of Shen’s house where Moore is introduced to a personal space, thus enabling him to reach out to her on a non-professional basis. The cultural divide is breached through the universality of music as Moore’s piano playing (p.65) encourages reciprocity through Shen’s playing of the piba, a Chinese-string instrument. She “softens” in his eyes as Moore notes that she has “beautiful hands,” an erotic point of contact. They exchange marital information: Shen proclaims how she has “not found a man who’s not threatened by a woman’s intelligence,” an idea that Moore finds incredible considering that there are “half a billion men in this country,” drawing assent from Shen. This moment not only evokes the potential of a sexual relationship between them, but is also suggestive of how men from the West are more secure about their masculinity and more politically open-minded in their understanding of feminism to take on strong and intelligent women like Shen.
But Shen does not succumb to his charms so easily, as she puts him in his place in a wonderful scene where Moore becomes flustered over the way public telephone records are deleted by political operatives, a matter that is crucial to his winning the case:
It is not General Hong.
Why not? He’s got influence with the P.S.B., with prisons, with everybody.
He only wants his daughter’s killer punished. General Hong is not corrupt.
He’s old guard. He’s losing control.
You do not understand.
No, you do not understand! This is a satellite communications deal! For better or for worse, the effect of the McAndrews’ deal would have been to open a totally closed system!
Who are you to criticize!
Once opened there’s no going back.
You come from a country where the infant mortality rate is higher than ours…
The reason you know that is we don’t delete the records.
…where people are punished for their color of their skin.
Have you ever been there?
Of course, you find it easy to assume that a Chinese father would kill his daughter to stop your precious business deal!
No, I do not find that easy to assume.
How many people are killed each week in your peaceful country? How many, Mr. Moore?
[humbled] Too many.
The verbal sparring between the characters is less about giving the Chinese a voice (though it is a welcomed byproduct) than to allow the film to articulate (p.66) its position on the manner of American intervention on human rights issues. It is a position in consonant with America’s political left’s argument that the United States needs to address its own human rights record (as in the recent case of the detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, for instance16) so as to deflect criticism of hypocrisy and, hence, to give its global leadership on the issue greater legitimacy. This is an argument that I believe the film is successful in conveying, despite Shen’s and the Chinese’s instrumentality.
The thaw between Moore and Shen is complete when Moore, in realizing that Shen has put her life and career on the line for him, heroically leaves the safety of the American embassy’s compound to surrender himself to his Chinese captors. Though I admire the idealism in the character’s selflessness, one cannot help but wonder if it is only in the fairy-tale world of Hollywood that Moore’s white-savior complex is activated to rescue his Chinese damsel in distress. Shen is so taken by this selfless act that it catalyzes a profound change in her worldview:
Why did you risk your life for me if you didn’t believe me?
I always assumed the worst about you. I have never questioned. I have always accepted things. It is the same as when I was a child.
I was blind. I was mute.
When you were a child…It was during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t it?
What is it?
I went to school until they closed down, and everything went mad. I do not know if you could understand this, Jack Moore.
I…I watched…I watched my father be humiliated, and I said nothing. I watched my father be spat on. I did nothing. I even watched my classmates pour black ink over his head, one after another and after another. What did I do? I hid my head in shame while he was dragged away. I never questioned. I was blind. I’m very sorry that I did not believe your innocence. But now I do. I do.
While Moore’s selflessness marks a change in his attitude towards people around him — he has been running away from facing up to the personal trauma of losing his wife and daughter in an automobile accident — his personal transformation functions as the catalyst for Shen’s personal and political conversion. Shen is made to see that she was once a political child for naively believing all that she is told. It takes an American to bring her into political adulthood, where she develops a deep sense of personal integrity and freedom, (p.67) the belief that her voice is as, if not more, important than the political collective. The Shen-Moore relationship thus turns into a metaphor for the global role that the United States plays in teaching recalcitrant nations to mend their abusive ways. This critical juncture finds Shen alone in the Purple Bamboo Park reflecting and musing over her changed heart, finding the resolve to fight the system in order to save Moore from an almost certain death.
After this second scene involving the Purple Bamboo Park, the narrative propels towards the final court scene where Moore and Shen unite against the corrupt system. The happy ending, where Moore is finally released without charges, is marred by the perpetuation of a political and legal system that covers over its flaws while continuing to subject many to its heavy-handedness: Chairman Xu announces at a press conference that “the Court would particularly like to thank all levels of party and government leadership involved in this case for their diligence and professionalism. The justice accorded will be swift, as it will be fair and impartial.” The film does not let the United States government off either, in its critique of the latter’s complicity in viewing Moore’s case as “a full-scale incident,” a diplomatic fiasco, “an international dick-measuring contest” — the inability to say no to a capital-rich China. Moore puts it best when he tells the US embassy official upon his release to “go to hell.”
The impact of this powerful criticism falters somewhat when the Purple Bamboo Park makes a re-appearance in the third and final scene. This time Shen and Moore meet at the park to reflect on what has happened, but without really talking about it. Clouded in the philosophical mysticism that is Orientalist China, Shen’s words echo those of the opening voiceover: “When I was a child, I would come to this park and play. Do you know why the bamboo is here? It is waiting for the wind to touch it. It is filled with emotions. Listen to the sounds and you can feel them.” Here, in contrast to the power suit she wore when making her first appearance on screen, Shen is now dressed in traditional Chinese clothing that can be worn by both genders (a possible neutering effect that diminishes the erotic charge between her and Moore so as to make parting possible). This concatenation of Chinese cultural traditionalism and personal political integrity and freedom imbues the latter with a veneer of cultural respectability defined here by Orientalist assumptions.
To end my discussion of Red Corner, I would like to foreground what I call the film’s “rhetoric of authenticity” as part of its political argument. The insert to the film’s DVD release takes particular pains to accentuate the realism the filmmakers and actors try to attain. Such realism is crucial for the film to make its political argument against China’s human rights record believable and convincing. Not only have the production team spent a week in Beijing
Slavoj Žižek, in his deliberations on the subject/object dialectic, has observed how our desire to know the Other, or “the secret of the Other,” produces a “reflexivity.” The subject’s “external position vis-à-vis the Other (the fact that he experiences himself as excluded from the secret of the Other) is internal to the Other itself…[T]he very feature which seems to exclude the subject from the Other…is already a ‘reflexive determination’ of the Other; precisely as excluded from the Other, we are already part of its game.”18 This dialectic exposes the contradictory relationship between the Hollywood subject and its Chinese Other, and vice versa. A film like Red Corner projects its “desire” for a Chinese Other that conforms to its notions of China’s disregard of human rights, but in excess. This is less a question of truth than it is the way desire and representation intermingle in filmic and political (p.69) discourses. (Or course, I do not dispute the truth of China’s authoritarianism and its human rights record, which I, in fact, condemn.) In the same way, China played into Hollywood’s “desire,” much to its own political detriment, by confirming the representation of its Otherness when it chose to censure Chinese actress Bai Ling for appearing in the film.19 This reflexive dialectic only compounds the East-versus-West polemic that we now see so evident in the current Chinese nationalism that is reacting to the pro-Tibet protests of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Hollywood for Tibet: Historicity in Contention
My discussion of Red Corner’s rhetoric of authenticity is really a discussion of the urgency of historicity, history as Truth, in the film’s critique of corruption, political intrigue, authoritarian rule, and human rights abuses in China. It is through this idea of historicity that I would like to move on to Hollywood’s 1997 releases that deal with the Tibet question: Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. But instead of offering the usual close analyses of the two filmic texts in the way I have approached Red Corner, I here take a slightly different tack by offering instead reflections on the concerns of historicity as they affect the issue of Tibet and, specifically, Hollywood’s engagement with it.
America’s infatuation with Tibet has very much been filtered through Hollywood and, hence, is often based on celluloid constructions of what is considered the Tibet question. In the course of his research on “the West’s long-standing fascination with Tibet,” Orville Schell, in a literate piece about his visit to the set of the Brad Pitt-vehicle Seven Years in Tibet, observes how he “encountered hardly anyone who didn’t have something to say on the subject. National infatuation had risen to such a level that almost a dozen feature and documentary films were in various stages of production. Everywhere one turned there were strange cultural collisions happening. Stars, producers, agents, and directors were discovering the spiritual message of Lord Buddha.”20 Everyone, from the usual suspects like Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, and Steven Seagal, to Mia Farrow, Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn, Annie Lennox, Harrison Ford, George Clooney, and even will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, has weighed in on the matter,21 as recently as the pro-Tibet protests and boycott of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.22 But why does Tibet garner the kind of political attention that it does? What role has Tibet played, and still plays, in the Hollywood imaginary and in its inevitable influence on political discourses in the United States and in the West?
(p.70) Hollywood’s political fetishism engenders a “virtual Tibet”23 that embodies an Oriental Other that Western democracies can champion against a progressively modernizing and contradictorily capitalist China — a China that will not conform to the ideological ideals of capitalist-democratic conflations in the West. This is a Tibet, remade by Hollywood, to eschew what Schell, in his unwitting channeling of Edward Said, has described as “commonplace and at-hand for something that is outré and remote and thus all the more vulnerable to becoming the receptor site for our own [meaning “American”] yearnings and projections.”24 It remains the “Shangri-La in the Western imagination” as first seen in Frank Capra’s 1937 filmic adaptation of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a Shangri-La that in its prelapsarian state of cultural purity, epitomized by its geographical insularity and in the rarefied air that Tibet breathes as it occupies the tabletop of the world, permits the West to recapture what is lost in “the fallen state of grace of our own neoindustrial world and lives.”25
Out of this Asiatic Eden also emerges a form of Buddhism that is increasingly embraced by some in the West. Disenchanted by Christianity’s failings in its epochal clash of civilizations with Islam, an ideological battle that has enabled an event as apocalyptic as 9/11 to occur on American soil, many in the Hollywood set have embraced Tibetan Buddhism and its conceptions of non-violence as a viable religious and political alternative. This spirituality has become intertwined with Hollywood’s fantastical creations, not only as evident in historically-based films like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, but also in superhero stories such as Bulletproof Monk (2003), which I discuss in the context of a Chinese supernaturalism in Chapter Seven. China’s annexation of Tibet, its suppression of Tibetan resistance, and the gradual sinicization of political Tibet through the Chinese government’s resettlement policies, are now viewed in both religious and political terms, just as the incredibly charismatic Dalai Lama is welcomed as a figure of both religious and political significance. The image of Mao Zedong belittling the Dalai Lama with the former’s communist dictum “Religion is poison,” as powerfully presented in Kundun, is ultimately read as both religious and ideological oppression.
Finally, my brief attempt thus far to ascertain America’s fascination with Tibet must rest on the political ideals of democracy, freedom of speech and the press, the right to self-determination, and the sanctity of human rights; ideals that are quintessentially associated with the United States of America. Tibet, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the minority regions of China such as Xinjiang, for instance, typifies the plight of the (political) underdog that Americans would be inclined to defend. America, as a cultural and ideological (p.71) space, narrates the eventual triumph of the underdog, as Hollywood films about the American dream, particularly the Hollywood sports movie genre, evince. The timing of Hollywood’s theatrical release of Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun appears strategically aimed at the post-1997 handover visit of Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to the United States.26 The Tiananmen massacre, the Hong Kong handover, and the Tibet question together constitute a string of concerns Hollywood activists would raise against China. The issue of Tibetan independence has an unresolved presence that allows these films to become the political conduit through which the question of Hong Kong’s fate under Chinese rule is conveniently channeled in a post-1997 era. In other words, to talk about Tibet is also to talk about the rights of political and cultural minorities in a China that is ideologically and historically hell-bent on achieving glorious reunification.
As in the case of authenticity in Red Corner, the notion of historicity in contention becomes central to the rhetorical thrust of the two Tibet films. Seven Years in Tibet is based on the true-life experiences of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer and his friendship with the current Dalai Lama during the time of Nazi Germany’s World War Two aggression.27 Kundun is a brainchild of screenwriter and Tibet supporter Melissa Mathison, who was then married to another Tibet advocate, Harrison Ford. Martin Scorsese’s directorial presence was fascinatingly low key, in that the film represents a style which one critic describes as “similar to the tradition of narrationless ethnographic filmmaking which includes Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries and, more recently, Ulrike Ottinger’s monumental documentary on Mongolia, Taiga (1993).” The film is also compared to Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (1986), a film to which Scorsese himself has “accorded high praise.”28 The point is that both films take pride in laboring under the notion that the historical depiction of this particular moment of trauma in Tibetan history is, to the best of their knowledge, as accurate as the art of cinematic consumerism permits. But this question of accurate history in filmic representation is not just a textual one. The importance of history here also underscores the importance of historical legitimacy in the arguments marshaled by both Chinese and Tibetan supporters. Pro-independence Tibetans foreground the history of Tibet’s autonomy prior to China’s annexation of the territory. The Chinese government, on the other hand, invokes their version of the historical events to insist on Tibet’s inclusion in China’s geographical and political sovereignty. So complex are the arguments deployed on both sides, that historians of Tibet have made an institution out of the prolific academic analyses produced on the subject, by studying the complexities and complications of the different histories invoked.29 While complex historicity has enabled historians to (p.72) maintain the objectivity to which history as a social science aspires, it also unfortunately permits some to disengage from criticizing the Chinese claim to Tibet by alluding to these historical “complexities.”
My gesture of a challenge is ultimately grounded on the notion that historicity is contentious, as contemporary theories on historical revisionism (both positive and negative), metahistory,30 and minority histories have taught us. For history is never just History with a capital “H.” What I hope to achieve here is to lay out bits of Tibet’s history in order to tease out a specific strand that highlights Tibet’s encounter with Euro-American powers. This strand of history can then serve as the framework with which one could approach the two Tibet films in a way that puts into perspective the multiple complicities on the Tibet question.
To begin to understand the nature of Tibet’s entanglements with Britain and the United States and how these relationships, in part, contributed to the current political deadlock between Tibet and China, one needs to return to the time of the Yuan dynasty when China was under Mongol rule. When the great Kublai Khan brought China under Mongol domination in 1279AD, Tibet entered the circuit of Kublai’s empire; the Tibetan ruler was greatly respected as the khan’s spiritual mentor, developing a “priest-patron” relationship with him. But this entry of Tibet into the Mongolian imperial domain has led “[c]ontemporary Chinese scholars and officials [to] consider this the period when Tibet first became part of China,” while Tibetans argue, “that they, like China, were subjugated by the Mongols and incorporated into a Mongol empire centered in China.”31 Even into the Qing dynasty, China’s Manchu rulers betrayed a lack of interest in Tibet’s place within Chinese rule, apart from using Tibet as a means of leverage against the Mongols. Tibet simply became a “protectorate” of the Qing dynasty.32
China’s disinterest dramatically changed in the nineteenth century when Britain began its imperialist intrusions into Tibetan territory. Through various British missions and later military “diplomacy,” British imperial designs on controlling trade in the area grew. When the thirteenth Dalai Lama refused to entertain British encroachments, the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, sent Indian troops to capture Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in 1904, making them “the first Western troops ever to conquer Tibet.”33 Like in the case of the Opium Wars and the loss of Hong Kong, this British colonial conquest was another sign of European powers carving out spheres of influence at the expense of China, “the sick man of Asia,” thus fueling indignation on the part of the Qing government. This is the seed of Chinese nationalist belief in Tibet’s place in China’s reunification, planted unwittingly by Britain’s imperial greed and meddling. As Melvyn Goldstein observes:
(p.73) The contradiction inherent in Britain’s Tibet strategy was that while Great Britain had to deal directly with the Tibetan government to achieve its ends, it had to deal with China to legitimize them…The resultant 1906 Anglo-Chinese Convention modified the 1904 accord (without the involvement of Tibet’s government), reaffirming China’s legitimate authority over its dependency Tibet. The key articles in the convention said: “The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Government of China also undertakes not to permit any other foreign state to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet.” And “The Concessions which are mentioned [in the 1904 convention] are denied to any state other than China.” Thus, at a time when China was unable to exercise real power in Tibet, Britain unilaterally reaffirmed Tibet’s political subordination to China.34
The unfortunate consequence of British involvement is the Chinese government “beginning a program of closer cultural, economic, and political integration of Tibet with the rest of China,”35 a program that assumed different forms right through the chaotic Nationalist period and into China’s communist era.
April 12, 1912 saw Yuan Shikai proclaim Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Tibet part of the new Republic of China, inaugurating what Goldstein calls the “Tibet Question in its modern incarnation.”36 The rise to power of the Communist Party in China did not temper this sense of sovereignty over Tibet; Mao Zedong sanctioned a military assault on Tibet to force the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s hand. Despite Tibet’s appeals to the United Nations, the international community sat by, with Britain and India arguing that it would be unwise to offend China by considering Tibet a “state.”37 Tibet was forced to sign the Seventeen-Point Agreement in 1951, of which Point 1 states that “The Tibetan people shall unite and drive out imperialist forces from Tibet: the Tibet people shall return to the big family of the Motherland — the People’s Republic of China.”38 Like the British, the United States was guilty of what Goldstein has labeled as the “bad friend syndrome”: “Western powers professing friendship for Tibet but refusing to support it in its fundamental objective of political independence while actually bolstering China’s claim of real ownership.”39 In accordance with its Cold War policy of agitating resistance against communist regimes, America’s support of Tibetan resistance “rang hollow” because the United States was not willing to go the extra mile of supporting Tibet’s claim to independence to the international community, agreeing only to recognize Tibetan autonomy within Chinese governance.40 The historic arrival of President Richard Nixon to China changed little but instead strengthened China’s hand in its claim over Tibet — “beginning in about 1966, the official U.S. position ceased talking about ‘self-determination’ for Tibet, (p.74) or even of Tibet as an autonomous country as it had in [Secretary of State Christian] Herter’s statement in 1960.”41
My extremely brief and reductive survey of British and American involvement in the Tibet-China spat is not to simplistically point an anticolonial finger at Britain and America, by accusing them of sole responsibility and complicity for Tibet’s current predicament. (In fact, China is highly responsible for the way it has ruthlessly crushed Tibet’s pro-independence movement all in the sanctified name of nationalism.42) Rather, my intention is to paint an often-neglected portion of the historical picture so that one can better understand the historical shortcomings of Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet as Western cultural products. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Heinrich Harrer’s story not only sees Tibet from the viewpoint of a Nazi-affiliated Austrian mountain climber but also assumes a detached perspective from the context of Euro-American international politics and the roles that China and Tibet have played, as pawns, in a game of international intrigue. Hence, what one sees in Seven Years in Tibet is a filmic visualization of China’s aggression against a peace-loving Tibetan people, without being privy to the larger historical context defining Chinese motivations against European imperialism. In the same way, Kundun’s ethnographic filmmaking aesthetic fosters a tunnel vision in its political mise-en-scène and its diegetic worldview. The insularity of that world is only ruptured by Chinese military and political incursions, with Westerners hardly making a significant presence on-screen or within the film’s historical purview — Scorsese’s well-intentioned anthropological detachment, therefore, deserves notation as being participatory in this Western “absence.” Because both films seek to critique Chinese oppression of Tibet, they need to eschew the overly simplistic depiction of victim-versus-oppressor and provide, particularly, a more complex representation of Western complicity in this matter. This is the only way that Hollywood can avoid being accused of political hypocrisy and can sustain a clearer appreciation of what it seeks to rectify and undo. Films like Red Corner, Seven Years in Tibet, and Kundun can then hopefully transcend the implication that “commodified experience” is necessarily always negative, as Dominick LaCapra challenges us to rethink in his discussion of cinema’s reconstructions of trauma in history,43 trauma that we have sadly witnessed in Tibet.
(1.) China’s cinematic response can be found in Xie Jin’s The Opium War (1997). The film is “a RMB100 million production that grossed RMB72 million in China and NT$3 million in Taipei…the first PRC feature to premiere…[in Hong Kong] on a split-revenue basis.” Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2004), 286. What this moderate success at the box office indicates is that Chinese nationalism is a strong sentiment when it comes to understanding the place of Hong Kong in the reunification of China. But in a nuanced reading to counteract often naïve and uninformed Western perspectives on the Opium War, Marchetti recommends that Xie Jin’s film “should not be so simply dismissed.” Gina Marchetti, From Tian’anmen to Times Square: Transnational China and the Chinese Diaspora on Global Screens, 1989–1997 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 41.
(p.193) (2.) Rey Chow, “King Kong in Hong Kong: Watching the ‘Handover’ from the U.S.A.,” Social Text 55, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 94
(3.) Of course, it is essential to consider audience needs strategically when engaging these critiques. I find myself encouraging Singaporean students, on one hand, to temper their anti-colonial criticism with a healthy dose of self-reflection, while suggesting to students in my American classroom the need to understand and even adopt postcolonial and anti-Orientalist perspectives, on the other.
(4.) Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West (London: Routledge, 2001)peranakan
(5.) Singapore’s alignment with the Chinese cause, for instance, finds its form in a series of articles and essays in Singapore’s main newspaper The Straits Times: Tom Plate, “When Hollywood Hijacks the Plot,” The Straits Times, 14 April 2008, 20; Hong Xiaoyong, “China Did Well by Tibet,” The Straits Times, 23 April 2008, 20; and Goh Sui Noi, “Slap in the Face for Chinese,” The Straits Times, 24 April 2008, 22. It is of no coincidence that Singapore is not exactly known for its human rights record either, and the fact that it has just won the role of hosting the 2010 Youth Olympics.
(6.) “Chinese Student in US Dubbed ‘Traitor,’ Threatened with Violence,” The Straits Times, 23 April 2008, 8.
(7.) “‘Wheelchair Angel’ Feted for Fending Off Protesters,” The Straits Times, 12 April 2008, 8. The Chinese fencer has been dubbed “angel in a wheelchair.” Jin Jing’s determination to protect the Olympic flame—or as she puts it, “I’d rather die than let go of the torch,” a resolve that she believes “[a]ny Chinese or Olympics-loving torch-bearer would” have (emphasis mine)—has led one online supporter to conceptualize her as a national symbol of China’s victimized status: “Those separatists should feel ashamed. They always talk about human rights, but they attacked a weak and disabled girl.”
(8.) “You Are Either With Us or Against Us,” CNN.com, 6 November 2001, 〈http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/11/06/gen.attack.on.terror/〉, accessed 31 May 2008.
(9.) (p.194) Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 2.
(10.) Sharon Stone’s unfortunate gaffe in talking about China’s earthquake as “karma” for the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibet’s pro-independence movements is not only reprehensible but also irresponsible. Stone subsequently apologized to the Chinese people, only to later modulate that apology into one of support for Tibet. It is this kind of spectacular excess that tars with the same brush the good work of other Hollywood celebrity activists on behalf of the Tibetan people. “Stone Says Quake Was ‘Karma,’” The Straits Times, 27 May 2008, Life section, 14; “Stone Sorry for ‘Karma’ Comment,” The Straits Times, 30 May 2008, Life section, 10; and “Apology: Stone and Dior Differ,” The Straits Times, 2 June 2008, Life section, 12.
(11.) The park is a tourist attraction with a significant history. See 〈http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/beijing/31002.htm〉, accessed 2 June 2008.
(12.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977)
(13.) Mike Clark, “Bai Ling Adds Dimension to ‘Red Corner’ Thrills,” USA Today, 31 October 1997, Life section, 1D.
(14.) Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 110.
(15.) Sheridan Prasso, The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient (New York: Public Affairs, 2005)
(16.) See Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s searing The Road to Guantanamo (2006). A humorous but no less critical take is Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008).
(17.) The insert is part of the US DVD version: Red Corner, dir. Jon Avnet, 122 min., MGM Home Entertainment, 1998, DVD.
(18.) Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 66.
(19.) Yahlin Chang, “Can You Go Home Again?” Newsweek, 10 November 1997, 78. Despite all the threats from the Chinese government, Bai Ling admirably defends her work by arguing that Red Corner “is not an anti-China movie.”
(20.) Orville Schell, “Virtual Tibet,” Harper’s Magazine, April 1998, 39.
(21.) Guy Dinmore, “Hollywood Filmstar Urges Congress to Act Over Tibet,” Financial Times, 14 March 2007, Asia edition, 3; “Celebrities Mark Tibetan Uprising,” BBC News, 10 March 1999, 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/294210.stm〉, accessed 5 June 2008.
(22.) Stars, such as Richard Gere, Mia Farrow, and Steven Spielberg, and world leaders, including Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, supported boycotting the Games to varying degrees. George Clooney and will.i.am believed in moderation and participation as a means of challenging China to change its position on Tibet and Darfur. “Politically Minded Stars Split on Skipping Beijing Olympics,” CNN.com,8 May 2008, 〈http://edition.cnn.com/2008/US/05/07/olympic.boycott/index.html?eref=edition〉, (p.195) accessed 5 June 2008.
(23.) Schell, “Virtual Tibet.”
(26.) Chow, “King Kong in Hong Kong,” 94.
(27.) Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1981
(28.) Marc Abramson, “Mountains, Monks, and Mandalas: Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet,” Cineaste 23, no. 3 (April 1998): 8–12. I am citing from an online version at 〈http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-EPT/abramson.htm〉, accessed 6 June 2008.
(29.) The study of these histories is truly beyond the ken of this book. So, in true dilettantish fashion, I have turned randomly to books whose approaches I found either distinctive or user friendly. For an account that features an interview with the Dalai Lama, see John F. Avedon, In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest (New York: HarperCollins, 1997). For a “balanced” native-informant historical study, see Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). I have relied on and cite exclusively from the following concise historical précis: Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
(30.) Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975)
(31.) Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 4
(42.) The Chinese government has chosen to conceal this ruthlessness from its citizens, even as recently as in the 2008 Tibet protests. Censorship is an old technique of preventing a nation’s young from learning the difficult truths that state authorities are afraid they might stumble upon. This is also a means of sustaining an unquestioning nationalism in a new generation of citizenry. “China Blocks YouTube over Tibet Protests,” MSNBC.Com, 16 March 2008, 〈http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23657906/〉, accessed 7 June 2008.
(43.) Dominick LaCapra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 46