issue 226 - December 1991
of the year
directed by Zhang Yimou
One of the great injustices of the year in film was the fact that Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou was denied the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Xavier Koller's more topical but rather manipulative Journey of Hope took the laurels with its protest at the plight of Turkish refugees running foul of Swiss immigration laws. Koller's film never really took flight away from the territory of news. Ju Dou, on the other hand, was far more powerfully cinematic, and the fact that it was disowned by its country of origin, China, made its failure to win all the more disappointing.
Ju Dou is set in a small Chinese rural town in the 1920s, where a tyrannical old man runs a dyeing plant, working his compliant young nephew to the bone. The young man timidly falls for his uncle's new bride Ju Dou who, like her predecessors, is treated mercilessly by the old reprobate. As the two young people befriend each other, illicit romance and revenge cannot be far off. For Western audiences, the familiarity of the theme - which could have been taken directly from a Zola novel - merely adds piquancy to a tragedy that takes its remorseless logic from the stern social laws of Chinese tradition.
The story's peculiar power derives from the visual charge given to it by Zhang, who previously directed Red Sorghum. The conflict between the young lovers and their tormentors takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the plant, whose long unfurling rolls of tissue and stridently coloured dye pools combine to intense emotional and symbolic effect. Cruel as it is, Ju Dou is a very beautiful film and, with the finely tuned performances of Gong Li and Li Wei as the doomed couple, sometimes a very erotic one.
That eroticism was certainly one of the factors that upset the Chinese authorities. China's Minister of Film and Television declared that only films which implemented the Party line could be considered for export. The film was banned in China on the grounds of its sexual content - the Minister complained 'There are too many bandits, prostitutes, eunuchs and spies on the Chinese screen'.
But commentators speculated that the film also incurred disapproval because it could be read as an allegory of contemporary China, with a younger generation held under the thumb of a conservative patriarchy. It has remained unseen in its home-country, despite a petition to the Chinese Government by US film-makers, including Woody Allen and Oliver Stone. Zhang, however, has since completed a new film with Hong Kong backing - Raise the Red Lantern, to be released in the New Year. Meanwhile Ju Dou can still be seen on the repertory circuit and is not to be missed.
An image just to celebrate South, a trail-blazing UK Channel Four series which has showcased short films by directors from developing countries. Animation, music, video and fiction as well as documentaries both light and heavy - TV has never given a better sense of the richness and diversity of Southern culture. Look out for it on SBS in Australia next year.
of the year
Top Guns & Toxic Whales
by Gwyn Prins and Robbie Stamp
'The book of the TV film or series' is not usually the most promising of forms. Top Guns & Toxic Whales is an excellent exception. Its genesis lies in the last of a prize-winning trilogy of documentaries on key environmental questions by Lawrence Moore; its forerunners being Can Polar Bears Tread Water (on global warming) and When the Bough Breaks (on the plight of children worldwide).
The book is lavishly but intelligently illustrated, with explanatory charts and extra-planetary photography alongside the full-colour setpiece shots. Given its origins in a visual form, this is possibly the easy part. But Gwyn Prins' writing, too, lives up to the promise of the snappy title, consistently entertaining even when dealing with tricky intellectual territory.
At the start, for example, you are planted in the cockpit of an F-14A Tomcat fighter and then whisked behind a pram in the middle of a polluted industrial city. The fighter is built to register oncoming threats by use of the most sophisticated technology humans have come up with. It is the ultimate expression of a whole world view based on national security which suddenly finds itself in the last decade of the century without foundation. The key enemies are now not those that the Top Gun fighter is built to register but those that the pram would signal if it were equipped with similar high technology: the environmental threats to planetary and personal security.
The idea of green wars' - battles over shrinking natural resources like water - seems to be taking hold as we refocus our worries while the Cold War recedes into history. That aside, the core material of the book is not new. We are steered through Limits to Growth and the Brundtland Commission, World Military and Social Expenditures and an enhanced United Nations, a round that will be familiar to Greens and peace campaigners alike. But there have been few more able or interesting guides offering this particular package tour to our own salvation.
of the year
by World Saxophone Quartet and African Drums
The tradition of jazz paying homage to its African origins is as old as jazz itself. But at a time when awareness of world musics is more widespread than ever in the West - when half-baked ideas of 'Africanism' are bandied about with impunity - there's an even more pressing need to re-examine jazz's relation to its roots.
Metamorphosis may not in itself be a new departure but it's an exceptionally powerful reaffirmation of jazz improvization's debt to African rhythm. US horn heavyweights Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett have teamed up with three African drummers - Chief Bey, Mar Gueye and Mor Thiam (who shares some of the composing credits). The undiluted reediness of sax quartets often makes for an arid, over-orderly sound, but the drums and occasional bass here provide a firm bedrock for both the unison chording and the bravura salvoes of blowing.
The arrangements work best when drums and sax are at odds with each other, when the percussion is more than just backing - notably on Murray's lugubriously elegant Ballad for the Black Man. African themes colour the melody too in Lake's occasional flute, and in Black's title track, which takes a cue from South African kwela. As an enjoyable mixture of free-form blowing and melodic invention, this muscular, accessible set takes some beating.
The impact of certain historical events makes it possible to read books in ways that could not have been previously imagined. When I re-encountered Karel Capek's science-fiction classic War with the Newts towards the end of the Gulf War, what I had originally viewed as an amusing fantasy was transformed by the distressingly belligerent world climate into a profound and biting satire on global capitalism and the politics which sustain it. Although published (in Czech) in 1936, the novel, both in form and content, would strike any reader as notably contemporary. I certainly closed it with a better understanding of the issues behind the Gulf Conflict than all of the journalism I was watching and reading at the time provided.
Jan Van Toch, a merchant sea captain, is pearl hunting in an Indian Ocean archipelago. He discovers a group of oversize amphibian salamanders, which are not only trusting but also exceedingly compliant and, furthermore, seem to have some kind of rudimentary speech. Oysters are a delicacy for the water lizards but they have difficulty opening the shells with their thumbless paws. So they bring them ashore to Van Toch, who opens the shells for them, removes any pearls inside, and hands the remainder over for the newts to eat.
This simple and mutually advantageous social compact has little chance of survival in a world where the profit motive is the major drive. Van Toch, realizing that he has blundered upon the most efficient pearl production system imaginable, trains the newts to work for him and then sells them into slavery to a multinational corporation. From this moment the newts become cogs in the wheels of global economic exchange except that, unlike human workers, they are accorded no legal or civil rights whatever. Their reproduction and settlement is determined solely by their capitalist owners and their intelligence is exploited to extend the variety of tasks they are made to perform in the furtherance of corporate avarice.
The humour of the novel emerges from the readjustments human society has to make when this major new labour force is introduced. One of the problems, for instance, is that the newts evolve at an alarming rate when placed in new environments. They thus learn human speech and acquire literacy very rapidly. This occasions debate as to whether their approximation to human form and culture should allow them to be acknowledged as members of religious communities of their own choosing. The nature and extent of newt education becomes a burning issue in the legislative assemblies of most nations.
The newts produce such a surplus of material goods that the markets become super-saturated, the capitalist world order is threatened and human trade unionists begin to wage campaigns to have their manufacturing activities strictly limited. Eventually uncheckable, salamander procreation booms and newt leaders emerge, making demands on behalf of a seabome population which is far in excess of that which inhabits the land. Territorial conferences are held, terms are dictated to the newts which they find unsatisfactory and ultimately, armed with sophisticated weapons of human design but their own making, the newts begin to bombard the land masses with the intention of enlarging their own habitat. The novel closes with a united humanity trying desperately to get the newts to fight among themselves so that its own extermination might be avoided.
This political fable could be applied to many features of recent world history, from environmental disaster to the nuclear arms race. In its concern with the fortunes of one entire population exploited and oppressed by another, however, it is more clearly a parable addressing the Jewish Holocaust being relentlessly pursued in neighbouring Germany at the time Capek was writing.
But imperialism, broadly, is the main target of War with the Newts. Van Toch, after all, is working in the colonial Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Discovering a source of great wealth, he instigates a process whereby the indigenous population (of newts) is marshalled and corralled into forms of living and working which will allow their colonial dominators to reap the maximum benefit. When the newts become conscious of their own oppression and begin to redress the balance, they are accused of being 'terrorists' and the League of Nations unites against them.
It is not difficult to see the parallel with Arab history in this century. To ensure the free flow of oil, Western states established post-colonial dominions by drawing lines in the sand and provided their approved Arab leaders with the arms and expertize to suppress any local unrest. When this so-called 'order' showed signs of cracking up under the strain of the regional tensions the West had imposed upon it, the United Nations was the rallying forum and the West acted quickly and savagely to put down the challenge to its authority. It is still doing so.
Now a book which helps us to see recent Jewish and Arab experience as essentially the same kinds of historical processes, and simultaneously manages to be the reverse of depressing, just has to be worth reading, don't you think?
War with the Newts by Karol Capek (1936, published in English now by Unwin).
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