Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The state and the war hero

Recently I saw two war movies, one from my country of origin and one from my country of residence: Flags of our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s remarkable interrogation of wartime narratives of patriotism; and Assembly, Feng Xiaogang’s sympathetic look at the horrors of China’s civil war. Flags is about that famous photograph that is engraved in the memory of just about every American: a group of soldiers hastily raising the American flag above the battleground of Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s objective is fairly clear. He explores the background of the battle itself, displaying its messiness and showing how a narrative of heroism was built around it. By doing so he undermines the kind of simplistic patriotism that is often constructed during wartime; his movie is starkly different from the films about the “good war” that we are used to, and it is a testament to how far war movies have come in America.

Assembly came out a year later and deals with roughly the same time period. The setting is China in 1948, during the war between the communist party and the nationalist party. In its own way, Assembly is also a testament to how far war films have come in China: the Chinese civil war, when it is dealt with in popular entertainment at all, has in the past depicted the Guomindang as villainous. In Assembly, the Guomindang is hardly dealt with at all. Instead, the film focuses on a captain on the communist side, Gu Zidi, who leads his unit in a desperate struggle against advancing GMD forces. In the ensuing battle everyone is wiped out except him. The second half of the film is set after the war; it is taken up by Gu trying to gain recognition for his unit’s sacrifice and bravery.

It is striking to view Flags alongside Assembly, because the films are starkly different in how they depict the relationship between the state and the war hero. In Flags, the state is an intrusive, disruptive force. The soldiers have their own private experiences that a simple narrative of bravery couldn’t possibly encompass. The government seeks to use their painful experiences for its own ends; the film explores how subjective and messy experiences can be appropriated for the needs of the nation-state.

In Assembly, however, the war hero’s subjectivity is intimately bound to recognition by the state. In the second half of the movie, Gu goes to great lengths to achieve that recognition. Because he is the only survivor of the battle it is difficult to corroborate the story of his unit’s fight. He tries to find evidence of his soldiers’ heroism, including traveling to the battleground, which has since become a coal mine, and digging until he finds the remains of his comrades. Perhaps the film’s most powerful scene is when the state finally gives him the recognition he needs by putting on an official ceremony and pinning a medal on his chest. In Flags such ceremonies are depicted as hollow and meaningless; in Assembly, it is the pinnacle of Gu’s quest, and lets him live out the rest of his life in peace.

It would be possible to argue that this kind of depiction of the state in Assembly comes from the stiff control the communist government has over public discussions of its wars, and that if given absolutely free rein, Feng Xiaogang would have done it differently. This is no doubt true, to an extent. But as several sources have pointed out, including this blog, state-society relations are extremely different in China than they are in Western countries, and these two films’ depictions of the influence of the state reflect their different historical sensibilities. Both films are products of their locales. To put it much too simply, in America state/society relations are often characterized by tension, and in China they are often characterized by linkage.

The different frameworks of state/society relations that these movies depict lie behind the impression many Chinese have these days that Western critics are out to get China. They also lie behind the shock many Westerners feel when they realize that even Chinese who have access to various points of view are stridently nationalistic. I’m not sure how these misunderstandings can be cleared up—often the two sides seem to be talking past each other rather than with each other—but perhaps watching more movies is a good place to start.

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