Monday, August 15, 2011

Ju Dou: The Boundaries of Relevance

“Hear the bell, ding dong.

Here we are at Village wang.

So many dogs, here they come.

They attack us but we can’t run.

We can’t run so we go home.

Play the horn just for fun.”

Ju Dou, the lead of a tragedy set in the 1920’s in rural China, is bought as a wife by the owner of a cloth-dyeing mill, Yang Jinshan. Desperate for an heir, Jinshan cruelly lords over Ju Dou and his nephew Tianqing until the two eventually share an affair in each others’ suffering. Ju Dou bears a child whom everyone believes to be Jinshan’s. Crippled from the waist down after the boy’s birth, Jinshan is forced to move around using a barrel. This vulnerability allows the two to continue with their risky romance as the animosity among this household’s members become more and more palpable, even after Jinshan’s death, and ultimately are consumed in flames.

The children’s song above, though, might as well sum up the 1990 film Ju Dou instead. The casualness of such a morbid message is akin to how the movie was handled with its almost indifferent, detached approach to the unfortunate fates that befell its characters. Jinshan’s abuse of Ju Dou, for example, was shown more through the sounds of her cries and harsh dialogue, with lines like, “When I buy an animal, I treat it as I wish. And you’re no better than an animal,” than through scenes depicting direct violence and torture. The lack of such scenes did not hinder its audiences to feel any less disgust for Jinshan or any less pity for Ju Dou. Even the supposed climax of the film where Tianqing finally gave in to his sexual frustrations and made love to his aunt was understated and straight to the point. The only exception to the film’s modest slant is the extreme lengths of cloth that accompanied almost every scene with its vivid colors and hues, narrating the story found between the lines of whatever it was that was taking place. Vibrant deep red for lust and passion or blood and death. Bright yellow for moments of realization and stark insight. Soothing blue for those of stillness and compromise.

The most prominent theme that echoes in Ju Dou is oppression, on different fronts, found in all of its characters. Yang Tianqing, a casualty of tradition, is depicted as passive, fearful and overall without a backbone. Unable to go against his cruel, sadistic uncle because it is not his place to do so, neither could he give in to Ju Dou and her pleas of escape or to Jinshan’s murder because even if it made more sense to just kill the guy, Tianqing had the final say over a mere woman after all, and what he wanted was the comfort of compromise. He’d rather endure the gnawing guilt rather than to break away from the chains of custom.

More than just the favorite antagonist, Yang Jinshan is also a victim himself. Obscure as it is, given the Chinese landscape of the patriarchal institution, it isn’t impossible to imagine Jinshan pushed to manic cruelty in his despairing for an heir to carry on the Yang family name. The importance of continuing and maintaining the pure name of the Yang family was shown repeatedly throughout. Gossip is highly feared for dread of disgrace. Even in front of the altar of his ancestors, he denounces the disgrace of Ju Dou and Tianqing’s coupling. Seen in contrast, Jinshan’s raises his head amongst his elders during Tianbai’s third birthday as proudly and as smugly as he could, being able to uphold the family honor—the highest honor.

Tianbai’s character remained mute almost during the whole film yet spoke volumes with this silence. He may have supposedly inherited his real father’s docile, submissive nature, but growing up in the environment of such a repressive Chinese society, he condemned his “brother Tianqing” for his relationship with his mother, wanting to first uphold the family honor before anything else, ready to chase, and possibly murder, anybody who spreads bad gossip about his widowed mother. The devilish looks that he perpetually gives Tianqing and Ju Dou could mean so much more than hate. The troubled expressions Tianbai wears could be a consequence of the frustrated negotiation he’s had to make in the tight spot he’s found himself in—subjugated within the conflict of loving the members of his family and caring for the family name.

The tolerated abuse and oppression of women in this patriarchal society, as embodied in Ju Dou, opens up an aspect of human society that isn’t exclusive to the Chinese. Which begs the question how much should something cultural be tolerated?

Ju Dou has given audiences a peek into this world that is foreign even to its Asian neighbors. Though understandably much more controversial during its release, in the 2000’s, such themes are not as groundbreaking anymore. The interdependence formed between the local with the global in the past decade has created a world where the local is pressed to align to the majority, or is unable to meet “international standards” unless they follow the rules of the global arena.

Set in the 1920’s, the film, as director Zhang Yimou believes, is still relevant in the Chinese context today. The same questions are elicited from Ju Dou’s melodramatic scenes, and though viewers are not “broadened” the same way now from when it was seen back then, it is brought to light that the approach to issues, such as human rights, are not effective in attaining its goals. How can a local film like this truly influence the world? The local-global relationship (usually seen as making global references affecting local action) has been so one-sided that its almost oppressive tendency has been thought to be but a consequence of this borderless world. But whoever said it had to be that way? Those who may disagree have resigned to trying to conform with great difficulty to such international standards due to cultural differences, or have shut away such foreign influences completely—questioning the very purpose of such a globalized world.

They attack us but we can’t run. We can’t run so we go home.”


- Ginelle Petterson

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Girl In The Cafe: The Context Of Protest

“I want to be a member of that great generation that for the fist time had it in its power to wipe out poverty and did so.”

Surely, The Girl in the Cafe has echoed film writer Richard Curtis’ campaign. That which he is and always will be a prominent supporter of: “Make Poverty History”. The film written by Curtis, who has several romantic comedies under his belt, is a breath of fresh air. Unlike his previous films, such as Notting Hill and Love, Actually, this film has a more serious tone to it and is explicitly didactic. Didactic in the sense that it intends to teach and make the viewers more aware of global events tackled during the 2005 G-8 conference. The global event in question is the state of Africa. From the statistics in the movie alone, one can come up with inferences about the poor condition of the country. France created the Group of Eight, formerly known as G-6, for the six major economies in the world. In the annual summit meeting, the countries involved (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Russia) discuss global issues and suggest solutions and proposals for the next year.

The plot revolves around Lawrence (Bill Nighy), a British civil servant in the financial division who works for the Chancellor of Exchequer. He meets Gina (Kelly Macdonald), a mysterious young woman in a café. After a series of awkward dates, he impulsively invites her to join him for the conference in Reykjavík, Iceland where the two pursue their tentative romance in various restaurants and hotel rooms. That being said, the film is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation in terms of the setting and arguably, the plot.

Gina is presented to the audience as someone who knows nothing about the conference and the issues tackled therein. This is evident in one of their dates when she asks Lawrence about the conference and adds that the only thing she knows about Iceland is that Björk originates from there. In the conference, the British government is pushing for more debt, aid and trade despite the opposition of the Americans. Lawrence’s area of expertise deals with the alleviation of poverty in Africa and he explains that a cow is more subsidized than the children in Africa. This obviously hits home as Gina embarks on a series of confrontational events with powerful people to help lessen, if not totally eradicate, the casual holocaust of death that is extreme poverty in Africa.

John Locke believes that in the objective world, knowledge rests on experience. This experience involves the interaction of objects in the real world as well as acts of the mind. In the latter part of the movie, conclusions about her staunch support of the movement are drawn based on the reason she went to prison: she hurt a man who hurt a child. It doesn’t matter whose child because she would’ve done the same thing otherwise. Is it possible that Gina reacts so strongly to the movement because she has experienced it? I believe Gina’s character was just as developed as Lawrence’s character was, albeit in a different manner. It is through her actions that Gina is revealed to the audience. Gina’s internal efficacy is stronger than her external efficacy because she believes that she can influence leaders and institutions to make some gradual changes. “The fact that the world's top decision-makers are, almost universally, protected from the problems they gather to solve is of course one of the great ironies of history.” (Stevens, 2005) Gina was obviously viewing things from the other side of the coin, or the tough side of the line if you will. Her entire approach was from the grass-roots level, speaking on behalf of the thirty thousand children, mothers and other people in need of immediate attention.

“The film is a political allegory about an everyman who tries to do good in high politics. In this case the everyman is a young woman who, through a set of coincidences, speaks up at the highest circles of international power.” (Tannenbaum, 2005) Gina is a person before she is a woman and for her to represent everyman eliminates the argument of prejudice against and the stereotyping of women. For Gina to be kicked out of the social gathering of heads after her remarks on the work, or the lack thereof, the prime minister has put into realizing the Millennium Development Goals means that she has broken protocol. In voicing out her sentiments, she is speaking not just for herself but also for Lawrence and the other people who have no voice or say on the matter. Yes, Gina speaks the truth. But the manner by which she delivers the truth is rather questionable. This begs the question of why? What is protocol? Is there a proper way of acting in public? Where do you draw the line between what is socially acceptable and unacceptable? The Oxford Dictionary defines protocol as “the accepted or established code of procedure or behavior in any group, organization, or situation. ” According to Hobbes, the community must obey the Leviathan if they want order. Who is the Leviathan? A Leviathan is a metaphor for the law-making body that everyone fears. Fear is a driving force that holds civil society together. It is a fact that we have been trained to act an indubitable way in public. When one breaks the rules, certain measures must be taken to preserve order. This preconceived notion of punishment has been etched in our minds so we function a certain way around other people. It is fear that grounds people. As I see it, there is nothing wrong with this system. I believe that manner must be given importance and steps must be followed to maintain order.

The film is overflowing with contrasts. For one, their age has been nothing but an indicator of the gap between the two. It is through Gina, however, that Lawrence realizes he has not achieved any of his youthful goals because he isn’t as young as he used to be to be able do those things. This manner of thinking, however, is changed in the latter part of the movie. Another contrast is in the way the lead actors react to certain events. Gina makes heartfelt speeches and in the process, puts other people to shame. Shame because they knew something was wrong and did not attempt do anything about it or shame because they were indifferent. Lawrence, on the other hand, uses logical arguments characterized by clear and sound reasoning to express and negotiate his statements. It is in this discrepancy that the two find something in common. Unlike Lawrence, Gina has an air of mystery that surrounds her and only partially disappears as the movie progresses. It is, unfortunately, during the end when some light is shed regarding Gina’s fight against poverty.

One unbelievable thing about the film is the setting of the G-8 summit. The 2005 conference was actually held in Gleneagles, Scotland. The host country was the United Kingdom under the presidency of Tony Blair. Scotland is an equally beautiful country although Hollywood must have thought it appropriate and more scenic to film in Iceland. Another flaw in this film is its oversimplification of politics. In my opinion, Gina’s act of confronting the chancellor and several other powerful officials is implausible but not completely impossible. In what can only be concluded toward the end of the film as the realization of the Millennium Development Goals by the other leaders aside from the British government, it is safe to say that Lawrence and Gina’s external efficacy has risen quite significantly.

For Kelly Macdonald to elicit varying heightened reactions from the audience is enough proof of how good an actress she really is. It was as if she wasn’t acting at all as she naturally and effectively conveyed her points and messages with such intensity both in the reel and real world. Bill Nighy was also successfully convincing as an awkward but reasonable bureaucrat. Moving on to the technical aspect of the film, Director David Yates, who is, undoubtedly, most famous for directing four out of the eight movies in THE Harry Potter franchise has done an excellent job to say the least. The music used, Damien Rice’s Cold Water and Starálfur by Icelandic band Sigur Ros, was very fitting as it contributed to the audial intensity of the film.

Although The Girl in the Cafe was never released in theaters due to speculations of lack of funds for advertisement and marketing, the film turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful nevertheless.

What makes the film so resonant is its ability to influence and transform thinking through drama. The issues highlighted in the movie, even if it was filmed years ago to coincide with the 2005 summit, are as salient as they are today. Yes. It is possible to see the film as influential aside from entertaining. In one way or the other, the film has spoken to the hearts and minds of a myriad of people to do what they can regardless of their position or social class. All in all, The Girl in the Café has broken several stereotypes to prove and reinforce the belief that in this battle, we are, indeed, not alone.

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that great generation.”

-Nelson Mandela, 2005


Stevens, Dana. (2005, June 24). You look so cute when you stamp out world poverty. Retrieved from

Tannenbaum, A. (2005, September 14). Richard Curtis' the girl in the cafe. Retrieved from

- Margaret Iris Gallardo