I saw Dragon (Wu Xia) (2011) recently, a Hong Kong film starring Donnie Yen (familiar to even non HK film buffs as the star of the Ip Man saga) and Tang Wei (famous for Ang Lee's Lust Caution). It's an affecting film that I won't spoil for you . . . and I suggest that you do NOT go on Wikipedia and accidentally find out the American film it was inspired by. Just watch it on its own terms.
Some questions posed by Dragon (Wu Xia):
*Can you ever escape your past? (And should you?)
*Can you really suppress your emotions? (Should you?)
*Can you really change your family or your nature?
[And a head's up for anyone allergic to such things: on the occasion of a major life event, I am musing more on on personal content here than usual. Also, some very mild spoilers.]
I have a much stronger familial history with East Asia than I do the South. Including, but not limited to: 9 years spent in martial arts training (a complex mixture of Wing Chun, Judo, standard performance karate, etc.), 10 years spent learning pockets of Asian medicine at school/work, growing up surrounded by folks in the TCM field, and the complicated suturing of my Midwestern Irish-English clan to a first-generation American South Korean clan.
The common denominator among all those factors was my father and his oldest brother, who between them began to weave Asia into my meat & potato family's life two decades before I came along. . . and continued to do so long after. I grew up with a group of adopted Korean aunties, who spoke a spectrum of good to incomprehensible English . . . and Christmas often smelled like strange noodles and Kimchee as much as it did popovers and stuffing. One aunt, the traditional Christmas host, filled her home with exquisite Korean and Chinese furniture, hilly watercolor panoramas with Mandarin calligraphy, decorative swords, scandalous half-nude paintings, her daughters' dance trophies, and her son's Professional Karate Studio competition medals. It was not a home you would expect a conservative Christian family to trek to every year for Senor Jesus' birthday. But we did.
The most recent culmination of all that Asia-weaving was the spur-of-the moment trip my father, brother, my uncle, and my Korean aunt (his wife) took to China and South Korea last year. It was strange timing. I was just starting to fall for India then . . . caught up in the heady early days of Bollywood discovery. Thus, on the 15 hour flight to Beijing, I watched Ek Tha Tiger . . . while my brother indulged in some Hong Kong fedora flick next to me. One guess as to who was embracing the moment, and who was wrapped up in another place and time? In way of defending my mindset, I was very excited to see a bit of China . . . but I was also starting to realize that my stronger interest in things Indian was going to shift my life and career focus drastically.
On one level, that Asia trip turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Difficult relationships were smoothed over temporarily, and shared interests brought a lot of communal joy (all very appropriate, given general Asian values). If I had the opportunity to travel in China again . . . even for a few months . . . I would go in a heartbeat. Even though it doesn't fit in with "The Plan." Because it is so very close to "The Plan" that could have been in an alternate timeline. That timeline would have had to include early language study, the guidance of a mentor able to exert a local-ism stronger than my stubbornly non-committal globalism, and non-judgmental support from various family members. [Actually, probably half the people I know would have benefited from that prescription! And probably fewer of us would be stuck in careers we actively dislike.] Long story short, my past ties to that cultural world gave me a few side hobbies and still enrich my life. But the larger "What If" of it all has sailed.
On that note, I also just finished No One Killed Jessica (2011). There's a point in the film where Vidya Balan's character appears to give up. She's sunk prime years of her young life into getting justice in a kangaroo court, rather than in grieving and moving on. (Whether the latter will ever be possible for someone in her situation is a whole 'nother question.) Then, just when she and her family stop fighting, a brash journalist (Rani Mukherjee) steps into to the shoes of justice-seeker. . .only to be dismayed at the family's apathy when the tide finally turns in their favor. Vidya's character especially, as the murdered-girl's sister, doesn't want to get back on the insaaf train. She is done. Just done. But the shrewd and utilitarian reporter can't have that. Instead of honoring the family's wishes, she storms into their home and gives tired baby sister a long guilt trip. Which baby sister eventually succumbs to, aided by tortured memories of her sister once sticking up for her. Because, wouldn't you?
It's unclear whether Vidya's character is broken or just tired. But she herself admits that she has no life outside of the court saga.
However, Dragon (Wu Xia) leaves one with the sense that no matter what has happened in Donnie Yen's character's shady past, it does not completely break his spirit. It does not change his fundamental good nature. His upbringing and violent experiences do not take away his ability to live a full life and engage in relationships. Of course, this required cutting ties with his family and past . . . and some loose "ties" may still need to be cut. In contrast, the police inspector (Takeshi Kaneshiro), following the trail of that past, has gone out of his way to suppress his own natural compassionate instincts . . . all because they once betrayed him. But he experiences nothing but anxiety in this altered state, always on the fence between sociopathic pursuit of justice and the moral gray area of human feeling.
Depression, self-suppression, cutting ties. All fairly textbook reactions to difficult past circumstances. [The reporter's way does not count, because it was (A) not her fight, and (B) not her trauma.]
There IS a personal context for the present navel-gazing. At the end of last week I moved to a new home from a long-time residence . . . a place that was connected to a lot of difficult memories. Like the main characters of both of the films above, much of my twenties (or youth or what have you) were swallowed up in other people's court battles/family feuds and the struggle to protect my family from it all. Everyone has their own shit to deal with, of course, and many far worse shit than mine. But since this move is a clearly marked END to the tunnel I've been in for a very long time, I think it's worth taking a moment to reflect. Because pretty soon, I'll be too far ahead to remember what it was like behind me.
I guess that if there's anything to be learned from comparing the messy psyches on display in Dragon and NOKJ, it's that when ties are cut or a tunnel is exited. . . a person doesn't need to lose or destroy himself in the process. Ok, Ok. Maybe we have to lose a little of ourselves. But only to make room for something better to take its place.