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When Traditions Meets Globalisation

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Results and Interpretation

Different Generations, Different Cultural Identities

Father-Knows-Best trilogy explores the topic of cultural identity, using the English language as ‘a tool for both communication and miscommunication’ (Dilley, 2014: 51). It shows Ang Lee’s interest in family changes, reconstruction and disintegration. The meaning of establishing a family is to find the cultural positioning in the fast-developing multicultural society, and the standpoint in the collisions between tradition and modernity. On the surface, the trilogy portrays the everyday family lives in detail. However, through these details, it represents the different family values between Chinese and Western culture. It represents the shocks and contradictions that traditional Chinese family and moral value face in the multicultural environment, as well as analyses the process of confrontation, conflict and blending between Chinese and Western cultures, traditional and modern cultures. Cultural heterogenisation and homogenisation is a main focus of the trilogy: how to deal with heterogeneous culture in a Chinese family? In Ang Lee’s film text, although modern consciousness and Western culture have shaken the authority of the traditional order of the Chinese family, we can usually see the reconstructions of the family structure. A new modern family is established, as a result of the cultural integration.

It focuses on the relationships between different generations, the traditional Chinese parents and their modern offspring, by showing their mental, cultural and lifestyle difference. Fathers (Sihung Lung) are the most crucial characters in the Father-Knows-Best trilogy. The image of father is not only a representative of a family member, but also a cultural semiotic which is embedded with deep cultural meanings, symbolising the strong paternal power in traditional Chinese culture. It expresses Ang Lee’s deep thinking about the concept of paternalism in the modern society through the contradictions of Chinese and Western culture and generation gaps. This power is represented through the whole trilogy. From Ang Lee’s perspective, father is the semiotic of Chinese traditional culture, especially the feudal society (Lee, 2013:156). In addition, the young generations are also embedded with cultural meanings. Living in the globalised world and influenced by the Western culture, they are fond of the Western life concept which advocates freedom (Li, 2004: 24).

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Therefore, the relationship between the two generations is not only a relationship between different family members, but also between two different kinds of culture and ideologies. Under the influence of distinct cultural backgrounds and life experience, the two generations formed different value systems, producing various frictions. In this trilogy, the contrasts between Western and Chinese culture can be reflected through the contrasts between different generations.

The following part is going to analyse these cultural representations through seven scenes from Father-Knows-Best trilogy.

Pushing Hands (1991): Contradictions and Compromises

‘Pushing Hands’: A Tai-chi Concept, A Semiotic

The tai-chi concept ‘pushing hands’ is one of the most important semiotics in the film. It is described as ‘a rhythmical, non-competitive exercise between two people, keeping constant contact with the partner’ (Marchett, 2000:291). The more technical description of this tai-chi ‘manoeuvre’ is ‘the exercise teaches a student to be submissive (invest in loss)’ (Dilley, 2014:57). To ‘invest in loss’ means ‘to lose balance in order to acquire it’ (2014:57), being prepared to yield in order to win.

The ‘pushing hands’ is not only a representativeness of Chinese traditional culture, but also a metaphor which indicates the subtle relationship between Chinese and globalisation process, since the exercise of ‘pushing hands’ is a process of constant confrontations and compromises. Chinese traditional culture and globalisation are like the two opponents of ‘pushing hands’ exercise. In the end, both sides can acquire balance.

Pushing Hands is a sensitive portrait of a traditional Chinese father faced with dramatic changes in a rapidly developing, globalised, English-speaking world which he is not familiar with, showing his alienation and loneliness. The father, Master Chu, was a professor teaching tai-chi in Taiwan, which is a kind of Chinese Kungfu as well as a representative of traditional Chinese culture, and now he moves to Manhattan to live together with his American-Chinese son, Alex, and American daughter-in-law, Martha. However, he encounters with serious difficulties in getting along with the younger generation, especially his daughter-in-law, because of the diversity in cultural identities. And also, it is difficult for him to integrate into American society.

Scene 1: Lifestyles of Chinese Father and American Daughter-in-law (00:01:45-00:06:35)

From the denotative level, there is no dialogue in the first approximately fifteen minutes of the film, only leaving visual actions and representations to reflect the difference between the traditional Chinese father and his American daughter-in-law. With the close-up shots of hands, the audience can see Master Chu performing tai-chi in a room full of Chinese paintings and calligraphies, peacefully and soothingly, while in the room next to his, Martha is writing her new novel on computer anxiously in a mixed and disorderly environment. When the shot focuses on Mr. Chu, the background music is a smooth traditional Chinese song, while it stops when focusing on Martha, only leaving the sound of keystrokes. From the computer screen, the audience can make out the words such as ‘children’ and ‘homestead’, indicating that the novel is an American pioneer narrative (Dilley, 2014:56).

Ang Lee uses 68 shots in this scene, most of which are depth field lenses. In most situations, he puts the two characters in one depth field lens, with the foreground focusing on Mr. Chu’s performance while the background focusing on Martha. Although they are in the same house, they are like living in two different worlds. No matter how short the distance is, they cannot have any intersections. This scene uses a connotative way to show the cultural difference and contradictions.

From the connotative level, the contradictions between Mr. Chu and Martha are products of globalisation process. The immigrant identity of the son is a reflection of population mobility of globalisation. Gillespie (1995:6) holds the viewpoint that being an important concept between the local and global, ‘diaspora’ challenges the way we think about nation-states and their homogeneity. The contrasts between objects, such as the newly sprouted computer and the traditional Chinese painting, create a sense of contradiction between the two characters. And the characters’ actions, writing pioneer novel and performing tai-chi, reflect their different lifestyles as well as the contrasts between modern American culture and traditional Chinese culture. In this scene, the two characters are isolated. Even they are in the same space sometime, the contrasts formed through depth scheduling and the symmetric compositions (the two characters on the left and right of the scene respectively) create a sense of isolation, reflecting their alienation.

The communication process of Mr. Chu and Martha is a process of confrontations, resistance, concession and acceptance. In the scene mentioned above, Martha is disturbed by Mr. Chu’s movements while thinking about her novel. However, instead of expressing her discontentment, she chooses to go out to find peace, showing her concession.

The Tai-chi Ideology: Forbearance

In the end, the father moves away from the son’s apartment, and both generations acquire peace through mutual understandings. The father’s decision shows

Instead of telling us what the father will do in the future, the film proposes an open ending, arousing the audience to think about how Mr. Chu integrates into the American society and how Chinese traditional ideology conform to modernity and the globalisation process.

On the one hand, like Jiao proposes, Pushing Hand’s main purpose is not to express the nostalgia and homesickness of Chinese immigrants, but to depict the traditional Chinese culture which is gradually fading away. The traditional ideologies and close interpersonal relationships are the quintessence of Chinese culture. However, they are paving the way for modern culture and lifestyle in the contemporary society (2002: 69). On the other hand, the Chinese father and American daughter-in-law’s mutual understanding shows the cultural integration.

The Wedding Banquet: The Double Other: Crossing Boundaries of Race and Gender

A Precedent of Asian Homosexual Representation

The second film of this trilogy, The Wedding Banquet represents the contradictions between Chinese traditional ideology and homosexual orientation. It reflects the impacts that traditional family value faces in the multicultural environment. In addition, it focuses on the analysis of the process of conflicting to mutual integrating between Chinese and Western cultures, as well as the tradition and modernity.

The protagonist is Gao Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), a Chinese-American young man in his thirties with a successful career. As a gay, he lives happily with his American boyfriend, Simon in New York. However, his Taiwan parents always push him to get married to carry on the family line. Under too much pressure from his family, Wai-Tung decides to hold a sham marriage with Wei-Wei (May Chin), a girl from mainland China eager to get a “green card”.

In the past, immigrant and LGBTQ characters often existed as the ‘other’ (Chow, 1991: 46). From Mountz’s (2009:20) viewpoint, ‘othering’ is a process through which an individual or a group is considered as the margins, thus being placed outside the norm. Levina (1987: 5) proposes that people regard ‘the other’ as resembling themselves while also exterior to themselves. Being a homosexual Chinese-American, Wai-Tung is an ‘other’ both in gender and race. However, he is not depicted as an ‘other’ struggling to win recognition like many characters in other LGBT films. Conversely, he is a successful entrepreneur, and the film concentrates on his own life and relations with family instead of the society, representing his struggles and compromises between his traditional Chinese parents’ expectation and his own homosexual identity. David Eng points out that cultural and legal discourses on ‘deviant’ sexuality not only affect the Asian-Americans who have already identified their queer identities, but also ‘affect and encompass’ a much larger Asian-American group, regardless of their sexual identities (cited by Feng, 2002:5).

Before it, there were few films having Asian homosexual main characters (Li, 2007:35) Therefore, Wai-Tung in The Wedding Banquet is a precedent of the representation of gender and race in popular cinemas. Being considered as a representative of coloured gay men in the modern world, Wai-Tung caused a storm worldwide (2007:35). According to Variety, The Wedding Banquet was one of 1993’s most commercially successful films (Klady, 1994:200). In addition, it was rewarded numerous international awards, including the Golden Bear in Berlin (Douban), becoming a breakout film for the western public (Dilley,2015:61). It won 120 million NTD (New Taiwan Dollar) in Taiwan and 32 million dollars of box office worldwide, while its cost was only 0.75 million dollars, making it the most profitable film in 1993 (Chiao, 2014:132). The worldwide success and high comments of it reflects that Wai-Tung’s identity as ‘the double other’ was accepted by the Western at that time. Besides, the depiction of family relations and value can also arouse sympathy of the western audience. Kauffmann (1993:25) proposes that The Wedding Banquet won the Golden Bear award because of its combination of cultural diversity and social liberalism.

Through blurring the lines between the margins and the mainstreams, the minorities and majorities, as well as the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, The Wedding Banquet offers a new definition of what it means to be Chinese-American in the US (Ledru, 96). In addition, through the contradictions and mutual understandings between the two generations, the film also expresses Lee’s thinking about how traditional Chinese culture contrasts and integrates into globalisation process. He points that Chinese people has been confused about their cultural identities for a long time (Lee,2013:115). He always notices the problems about inheritance, not only the inheritance of culture, but also includes lifestyles and morality. Facing the dramatically developing globalised world, the traditional Chinese culture has already changed its past meaning (ibid).

cene 2: ‘Degaying’ Process (00:22:50-00:23:30)

In this scene, Wai-Tung, Simon and Wei-Wei are rearranging Wai-Tung and Simon’s apartment into a typical Chinese house before Wai-Tung’s parents move in. Portraits of the gay couple are replaced by photos of Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei. And a photo of shirtless Wai-Tung is changed into a picture of him in a military costume, showing his masculinity. The modern action art posters and magazines are replaced by Chinese calligraphies. The rhythm of the scene is quick, forming comedy effects as well as showing how nervous the three main characters are.

The pictures of the gay couple, such as Wai-Tung flanked by drag queens, give a brief glimpse of the queer subculture. From Dariotis and Fung’s perspectives, Simon’s domesticity reinscribes the notion that homosexuality is a particularly ‘Western construct’ (1997:206). However, calligraphies indicate Wai-Tung’s Chinese cultural roots. Photographs, posters and calligraphies are used as semiotics here, representing Wai-Tung’s gay and immigrant identities respectively. Wai-Tung’s homosexual identity becomes the subordinate of his parents’ desire for filiation. Roan refers to this scene as ‘degaying’ (1994:9) process. She points out that this process not only involves removal of photographs and posters, but more importantly their replacement of Mr. Gao’s traditional Chinese calligraphies (1994:9). She proposes that this ‘degaying’ process is also a ‘simultaneous ethnicisation’ (1994:9).

This scene reflects the contradictions of identity construction in the context of transnationalism, ‘which greatly impacts the meaning of Chineseness’ (Ledru, 2013:105). The global generation still have to negotiate and compromise with the elder generation’s ideology and the traditional ethnic heritage, although some of them live overseas.


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