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Chinese history lessons in the movie theater, good and bad

The long march of time


Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays the adult Temudgin in Mongol. - PHOTO BY IGOR VERESHAGINT/ PICTUREHOUSE
  • Photo by Igor Vereshagint/ Picturehouse
  • Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays the adult Temudgin in Mongol.

History, they say, is written by the winners. That's a lie, of course: Everybody knows movie screenwriters write history.

A culture that increasingly has little memory of itself becomes ever more dependant on the movies to keep ancient history alive. Movie bastardizations of history aren't new, of course. Way back in 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation offered an early version of the movie-historical template: a gentle, noble society under siege from barbaric oppressors; a daring revolt by a small but brave, stout-hearted group of men; the final stirring victory and restoration of order. Movie-historians have recycled the formula ever since, and it matters not a whit whether the movie is invented history—Star Wars—or purported actual history—the Ku Klux Klan and the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

But is it such a bad thing for movies to distort history? After all, if it weren't for Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers, an entire generation of kids wouldn't know about the clash of the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae 2,500 years ago, a battle that—who knew?—employed action as realistic as a video game.

The scholars will continue to search for facts, but as the rest of the world enters its post-literate phase, perhaps it will again rely on storytelling and legend—cooked up by screenwriters who work on their decks overlooking the Pacific Ocean, brought into being by actors performing against blue screens and delivered to our living rooms via Netflix and iTunes—to keep the heroic deeds of our ancestors alive.

This Friday, two different movies open that concern themselves with very different periods of Asian history. The better by far is Mongol, Sergei Bodrov's account of the early life of a 12th-century Mongolian nomadic tribesman named Temudgin who would later become forever known as Genghis Khan. Judging from this film and from a cursory Internet excursion, historians seem to know startling amount about Genghis Khan, the man who united the Mongol tribes and conquered land from the Pacific Rim to modern-day Iraq, Iran, India, Afghanistan, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, and who remains one of a handful of successful megalomaniacs in world history.

The first of a planned trilogy, Mongol begins the story when young Temudgin, age 9, selects his future bride, named Börte, from a neighboring clan and subsequently witnesses the death by poisoning of his father, a local leader. The Mongolian steppes are a brutal place, the film convincingly assures us, and without the protection of his father, Temudgin and his mother are abandoned by their clan. The ensuing film is Temudgin's perilous journey to adulthood and his efforts to avenge himself and, above all, recover his bride.

Despite some unfortunate CGI indulgences, Bodrov and his production team thankfully avoid the recent trend in ancient-history films to exaggerate the physical features of the combatants, making them look like 21st-century video game characters. Instead, the costumes and environmental conditions seem only lightly idealized. The film is quite ravishing to look at: It was made on location in Mongolia, and Bodrov and his camera crew never make the mistake of depicting that high, harsh country as a lost Eden.

What's more questionable is the film's desire to refashion one of the world's great conquerors as a reluctant warrior and thwarted lover. Perhaps properly, we regard bellicose leaders with suspicion, and no doubt the filmmakers wanted to avoid showing the warlike, acquisitive side of Genghis Khan that might make him resemble Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush. Still, the film portrays Temudgin as taciturn, resolute and never cruel. His motivation throughout this first installment—which only takes us to about his 30th year—is to be reunited with his wife from whom he is often separated, thanks to the nasty politics of 12th-century Mongolia. In the old days—in legends and sagas—our forefathers were made of stern stuff, with great passions and a great capacity for violence and cruelty. Today, we want the heroes of yore to resemble the people we think we are: sensitive, gentle, moved to violence only reluctantly and only with the greatest provocation.

Although there seems to be a reasonable degree of historical fidelity to Bodrov's venture, there is at least one key event in Temudgin's adolescence that he couldn't bring himself to include: As a teenager, the future conqueror murdered one of his brothers in a quarrel over food. Not nice, and not fit for the movie.

Mongol opens Friday in select theaters.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Chow Yun-Fat in The Children of Huang Shi - PHOTO BY ZHU JIALEI/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Zhu Jialei/ Sony Pictures Classics
  • Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Chow Yun-Fat in The Children of Huang Shi

The lamentable The Children of Huang Shi, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, depicts a more recent epoch of Chinese history, the period of Japan's criminally brutal occupation of the country in the 1930s, including the orgy of atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking. The opening credits set the context, assuring us that we're about to see a true story of one George Hogg, a freelance English journalist who was one of the few outsiders to witness the violence.

Graham Greene might be to blame for persistence of the notion that the problems of dark-skinned people are really the white man's burden (Rudyard Kipling's coinage). Once again, in this film the crimes of the last century make a pretty backdrop for today's movie stars. Accordingly, this particular example of man's inhumanity to man merely becomes window dressing for two attractive white actors and two-thirds of the lead trio from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, never a very warm or appealing actor, is the do-gooder-in-chief, a globe-trotting English pacifist and aspiring adventurer who hustles his way from the safety of Shanghai to the bloody crucible of Nanking and quickly finds himself trapped. Saved from death by another movie star, Chow Yun-Fat (playing a West Point-trained Communist guerrilla), Hogg involuntarily takes refuge at a remote orphanage, under the orders of an attractive blond actress (the Australian Radha Mitchell, with a variable American accent) who works as a battlefield nurse and harbors a deadly secret. Meanwhile, the orphanage receives assistance courtesy of a beautiful, world-weary black marketeer (Michelle Yeoh).

Initially furious at being exiled from the battlefront, Hogg—slowly, predictably, accompanied by great swells of music—learns to care for the boys, protect them from great danger and, in the process, discovers his own humanity. Reminiscent of nothing except the movies, this film even reeks of imperial racism: Chow's fierce Communist obliterates the wan, sniveling Rhys Meyers in all departments of masculinity, and, theoretically, the two are rivals for the attentions of Mitchell. But there's nary a kiss between Chow and the blond nurse, which represents an all-too-1930s fear of the mingling of the races—on the part of the 21st-century filmmakers.

The Children of Huang Shi opens Friday in select theaters.

For a more serious excursion into Chinese history, check your video store or Netflix for Lou Ye's rapturous Summer Palace, which recently ran for one week in Chapel Hill. The historical event in question is the 1989 suppression of student activists at Tiananmen Square, but this episode isn't an occasion for movie heroism. Instead, in the fashion of a voluptuous, Bertolucci-style 1960s art film, the story follows a handful of students as they are scattered to the winds after 1989. It's not perfect: The central female character is a solipsistic little pill—albeit a sexy one—and we want to know more about the other characters. But Summer Palace enthralls nonetheless, and its original music, by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian, is the most intoxicating movie score in recent memory.

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