Recommendations for Obama: V

We asked China watchers from a variety of backgrounds to answer the question "What should Obama be reading about China?" While we've already run four installments (I, II, III, and IV), new suggestions continue to arrive. For a few of the cinematic variety, read on...

Jan Berris is Vice-President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations and has worked with the committee since 1971.

I suggest that President Obama recover from the lousy week he just had by chilling out in his private movie theater and watching the following movies. None will give him a complete, or even, necessarily, contemporary perspective, but each will give him a piece of the complex, diverse puzzle that is China, and help him understand that there are no easy answers – for the Chinese or for us.

1. Irv Drasnin’s “Misunderstanding China,” a cinematic companion to Harold Isaac’s classic Scratches on Our Minds (which would have been on my list if I were suggesting books instead of films), provides a look at ourselves and how and why we think about China the way we do.

2. Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon’s trilogy of one hour films on Long Bow, which update the village her father, William Hinton, made famous in Fanshen and Shenfan. “A Small Happiness,” focuses on the plight of rural women and has one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen: Richard, the cameraman of the talented husband and wife team, says that it was all he could do to hold on to the camera while a woman described smothering her own child because there was not enough food to feed whole family.

3. “To Live” -- Zhang Yimou’s panoramic portrait of one family’s struggle to make it through four decades (the 40s through the 80s) of roiling turmoil in China. .

4. The wonderfully comic, yet profoundly sad “Shower,” shows the confusion and angst that the passing of an era instills in the inhabitants of Beijing hutongs.

5. “Young and the Restless in China” is the latest of Sue William’s many excellent documentaries on China. This one vividly portrays how nine very different young men and women handle their personal and professional lives in a rapidly changing society.


Anonymous said...

looks like Obama's got a lot to read and watch

Anonymous said...

I'm suprised at the acclaim that the movie "Shower" has got outside China. I can't remember the movie very well now, but I remember when I first watched it when it was first released (that was quite a few years ago), I (and my friends) couldn't believe how "much ado about nothing" the movie was and why Pu Chunxi would want to star in it. The story was so artificial. There are so many better and real stories that are touching and warm than this one. Foreign viewers may like the exoticness of the story; to many Chinese it was just so made-up and unnatural. And because of its artificiality, it's not touching.

The China Beat said...


Feel free to share the names of the movies you feel better reflect China so readers can check those out too.


Anonymous said...

Chinese people have real struggles with life. The struggle of the family in that movie is not that they can't make a living or have other hardships, but that they are obsessed with the shower and bath business (if I remember the movie correctly). How representative is this story in contemporary China? It's a fine movie. It's just its international acclaim (which I've recently noticed) is way higher than its domestic acclaim, as far as I can tell.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous with the Shower obssession: It has also been a while since I saw the film, but what I remember is a film about the emotional and social dislocation caused by the imminent demolition of a long-standing, well-established community. The bathhouse is merely a vehicle for the portrayal of that dislocation, serving as it does as a meeting-point and almost a community centre for the neighbourhood's male population.

I would also recommend "Sunflower" for it's portrayal of the rather fraught relationship between a father and his son. Not because it's in anyway representative of the "typical" Chinese family, but because it spans the period from the Cultural Revolution up to the early 90s. It's quite good at covering certain of the key events and issues of that time frame- the Tangshan quake, death of Mao, downfall of the Gang of Four, and many of the drastic changes brought on by reform and opening up, for example.

Anonymous said...

It's also been a while (actually a long while) since I saw the film, but I didn't see that the shower business represents "the emotional and social dislocation caused by the imminent demolition of a long-standing, well-established community." That's probably what the director wanted to show, but s/he should have chosen something better to represent the theme. Remember Chen Kaige's movie "The Promise" (无极)? We all know how widely the movie was ridiculed in China, partly because the entire story was about a steamed bun. Of course Chen Kaige could say it's not really about a steamed bun, but something way bigger. But because the movie chose something petty/unreal to represent the theme, it became the most ridiculed movie in China in recent times. At least to some people, "The Shower" seems like a smaller scale version of "The Promise".