Friday, November 2, 2007

Talking Pictures

Yesterday I delivered my long-awaited (by me, at any rate) lecture on American movies. Obviously, I was eager to talk about my favorite subject, and I knew that the students would be more interested in it than they had been to hear about American newspapers or global warming.

I started by discussing the various genres that are popular in America (and elsewhere), then listed the most popular movies of last year and the all-time box-office champs. Then I talked about the most popular stars (they knew all the action stars but not the comedians like Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn; as I explained to them, comedy doesn't translate across cultures as readily as car chases and explosions). I then talked just a bit (I restrained myself) about art movies and film festivals (telling them I'd missed my first Chicago Film Festival in over 20 years to come to China and be with them).

Not only were the students attentive, but they were far more engaged than they had been for my previous lectures. When I asked them throughout the talk if they had seen a particular movie or knew about an actor or actress, the responses came without prompting — something unprecedented in my lectures to the normally shy students. And at the end, when I opened the floor to questions, I had trouble keeping up with all the upraised hands.

There was even one guy sitting near the front who was a genuine film buff: He knew nearly every title I'd mentioned, from the latest Hollywood blockbusters (virtually everyone had seen Spider-Man and Transformers) to The Departed (which I'd made a point to mention since it's a remake of the Hong Kong cop movie Infernal Affairs/Wu Jian Dao) and The Sound of Music. He even knew Audrey Hepburn ("Roman Holiday!”he exclaimed), who's big in Japan but not here, apparently. I joked that they didn't need to fly me here from America — he could have given the lecture

I also discussed the handful of Chinese movies that have made it to America. I explained that other than an occasional big-budget anomaly like Crouching Tiger or Hero, most of them are art films that are only seen by an extremely limited audience. They failed to recognize most of the directors I mentioned: Although they knew Zhang Yimou (especially after I said that he worked with Gong Li), they were totally unfamiliar with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wong Kar-Wai, perhaps because they come from Taiwan and Hong Kong (although I made it a point to write down the Mandarin names of the people and films I planned to discuss).

The best-known Chinese director was Ang Lee, whose success in America is a source of great pride; I expressed regret that I'd missed seeing Love, Caution in the States, and a student told me that it had just opened at a theatre in Zhuhai (no subtitles, though, otherwise I'd probably go see it this weekend).

They were more familiar with the actors, from Chow Yun-Fat (Zhou Run-Fa) and Stephen Chow (Chow Sing Chi) to Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung (Leung Chiu Wai). And of course, they were suitably impressed when I told them I'd had my picture taken with Jackie Chan (Cheng Lung); I only wish I'd thought to bring along a copy of the photo.

After every lecture, there are always a few students who stick around to ask questions or just practice their English. This time there was a larger group of stragglers who wanted to chat not only about American movies (I was briefly thrown when one youngster asked me if I liked "horrible movies," until I realized that he meant scary films like Saw and Final Redemption) but also about other aspects of pop culture. They asked me what kind of music I liked, and I responded with the same hoary but accurate bromide that I fell back earlier on when someone had asked me earlier if I liked martial arts movies: I only like one kind of music — good music.

Since the only American singers that the students in my classes had expressed interest in were along the lines of Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and the Backstreet Boys, I was surprised when these kids — who obviously had more on the ball than their peers, because, hey, they sought out my opinions — told me how much they liked "Bruce." Fortunately, they didn't mean Hornsby, so I could impress them by telling them about the several times I'd seen Springsteen back home.

Some of the students who stayed to talk with me were members of the campus English Club, and they invited me to join them for dinner tonight at one of the South Gate restaurants; I accepted, of course, and will no doubt blog this weekend about the experience .


jiejie said...

Hey Gordon,

Both Audrey Hepburn and "Roman Holiday" are very famous in China. I remember when I was a child seeing "flyers", or hand written annoucements sticking to a pole, advertising its showing all the time. Every girl knows about eating gelato on the stairs, I'm not joking!

Also, I'm absolutely sure the students know of Wong Kar-Wai, did you mention "2046"? It's probably the Hong Kong-style romanization that's throwing them off. Everyone saw "Chungking Express" back in my day.

One of my friends went to see "Lust, Caution" in the theaters in Beijing and said that there was nothing shown from the waist down...I'm not trying to advocate sex in movies but the message just won't go across without it in this one and you'd be better off wait till you come back or you perhaps you can try going to Macau to see it, I'm sure the laws are different there.

Gordon in China said...

I figured the students probably knew Wong's movies even if they didn't recognize his name; but I'd neglected to bring along the Mandarin versions of the titles to tell them.

And I'm glad to hear that Audrey Hepburn is indeed popular here; and it's true that many of the girls responded after that film buff guy mentioned "Roman Holiday."

(And thanks, Jie, for sending the URLs of proxies I can use to finally access my blog over here.)

Janet Hong said...

Hey! Well, I'm glad you didn't get inveigled into some opium den during your misadventures in Macau, and had to play poker all night to win your way to freedom. The neon signs throughout the city look so atmospheric though.

I would like to learn more about the history of Macau-- what an interesting stew of cultures and narratives.

Hey: I think batter-covered deep-fried seafood came to Asia through the Portuguese.

Yesterday, Ling and John Brook and I made dinner together. Ling made a SUPERB steamed fish, and sauteed shrimps too. I tried making maki rolls, but it all came to grief. Brown rice just doesn't work for homemade maki.