Sunday, December 8, 2013

On the Sanitizing of Nelson Mandela for American Media and Political Consumption

In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been an extensive (and not particularly surprising) attempt by American media outlets and the American political class to sanitize and defang the late ANC leader.  As a public service—as we here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus value education—here are a few popular misconceptions about Mandela, cleared up for your edification.
First, there is the myth that Mandela came from humble beginnings.  Although it is true that he was born in rural, white-ruled South Africa, which I suppose is its own form of humble, he is in fact descended from King Ngubengcuka of the Thembu nation of Xhosa-speakers.  This makes him royalty.  There is nothing particularly humble about that.

After he got his law degree, Mandela became active in the African National Congress (ANC), the largest of the anti-Apartheid political parties in South Africa, which was allied with the South African Communist Party of Joe Slovo, which was the only significant majority-white South African party to support the ANC’s militancy.  Because the ANC was a militant organization.  Perhaps the greatest misconception about Mandela is that he was a Gandhian.  He was nothing of the sort.  He famously said that non-violence is a tactic, not a principle.  And when the ANC’s non-violence got them nowhere in the fifties, they turned to armed insurrection in the sixties, and Mandela briefly became the head of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and led a guerilla campaign against the government.  He wasn’t a particularly good guerilla commander, and was shortly thereafter arrested and commenced upon his twenty-seven years in prison.

In the late eighties, with the South African economy crippled by foreign sanctions, Mandela began negotiations with the white minority government to end Apartheid, dealing first with the hard-line Afrikaner nationalist P. W. Botha and then with the more congenial F W de Klerk.  It has been said in the American media that the end of Apartheid was peaceful, but it came amidst considerable violence between the ANC and their fellow black Africans in the Bantustans.  These were the ghetto-statelets invented by the Apartheid regime so that they could claim they were granting black people self determination.  The reality of the Bantustans was that they were puppet states, but their leaders liked the idea of having their own states and fought viciously against reintegration into South Africa in the early ‘90’s.  It should also be noted that the end of Apartheid came after the bloody war in Angola, where South African troops were soundly defeated by the communist forces of the MPLA and their Cuban allies.  When Mandela was released from prison, the first foreign leader he met with was Fidel Castro, whose friendship he would never forget.  He was also close with Muammar Gaddafi, who had supported the ANC when the U.S. and British governments were still calling it a terrorist organization (and Mandela would not, in fact, be removed from U.S. terror watch-lists until 2008).

Now, Mandela is often praised in the U.S. for seeking reconciliation with the Afrikaner establishment rather than reprisal, but what did this reconciliation consist of?  Mandela essentially said to the Afrikaners, “If you give up your political power, we’ll allow you to preserve your economic power.” I’ve always thought that the end of Apartheid was something of an economic boon for Afrikaners, as it brought an end to the sanctions regime and brought to power a regime that was willing to let white South Africans retain their grip on the economy.  Now, in Mandela’s defense, his conciliatory attitude towards the white establishment prevented a mass exodus of white people from the country (although South Africa did lose about a sixth of its white population) and they probably would have taken with them their wealth and their technical and administrative know-how, which would have crashed the South African economy (as we have seen in similar flights of white people from neighboring countries like Angola and Zimbabwe).  Furthermore, there was the very real possibility of civil war in the early ‘90’s, and Mandela deserves praise for averting it.  But he likely gave up too much, as the economic inequalities of the Apartheid era largely remain to this day, where nearly eighty percent of the land in South Africa is white-owned.

I don’t say any of this to diminish Mandela’s legacy.  I think it’s quite possible that he was the last person of our time whose global moral stature rivaled that of Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi.  But knowing and stating the truth about Mandela isn’t the same as denigrating him.  People of all political backgrounds are going to try to exploit Mandela’s memory in the coming days (hell, Ted Cruz has found something nice to say about Mandela, even though American conservatives hated him in the ‘80’s) and it’s important that we establish what the facts are before the American myth-and-mystification machine goes to work on him.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chantal Akerman and the Rejection of Identity Politics

This will necessarily be a fairly short post, as most of my information is coming from a highly reputable source a few stray lines on Wikipedia.  You see, I recently watched Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an uber-realistic depiction of a few days in the life of a Belgian housewife (it features a potato-peeling scene, the high drama of which would not be matched until the potato content in Bela Tarr’s and Agnes Hranitsky’s The Turin Horse (2011)). 
Now, it’s not hard to make the argument that Jeanne Dielman is a feminist film, or rather: a film with a feminist message.  It’s depiction of the quiet desolation in Dielman’s life is unambiguous and heartbreaking.  But I’ve always been skeptical about the political labels that get attached to art.  Can a work of art be black? Or feminist? Or gay? Alberto Manguel raised this last question in the introduction to his anthology of gay short stories, Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest.  In order for a story to be gay, he asked, does it have to have a gay writer, gay subject matter, or both? If it’s a story by a straight writer about a gay subject, is that a gay story? Or vise-versa? And what is “gay subject matter?” There is a similarly vexed question in the title of Eavan Boland’s recent essay collection, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.  And what is the difference between being a “woman poet” and just being a poet? We wouldn’t speak of a “man poet” (except maybe Robert Bly, but I don’t want to speak of him period).  And by describing a poet of the female sex as a “woman poet,” do we not ghettoize her and reduce the appreciation of her work? Do we not trivialize her artistic accomplishment with these labels, which seem to suggest that the artists in question are not pure artists but must be seen in a political light?  Does not Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o diminish his own work by insisting upon its African character? Can’t it just be art, as in the case of, say, Vladimir Nabokov or Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?

Chantal Akerman has evidently been troubled by these same questions (or so Wikipedia teasingly suggests).  In the article on Jeanne Dielman, it states that “Akerman was reluctant to be seen as a feminist filmmaker, stating that ‘I don’t think women’s cinema exists.’” And that’s certainly not to say that women don’t make films.  But it says that these films are not fundamentally distinct from the films made by men, and that we would be wrong to ghettoize them.  Akerman has expressed similar concerns about the reception of her 1974 film Je tu il elle, whose female protagonist engages in an extended sex scene with another woman, which led some to label the film as an example of “queer cinema.” Well, Akerman is having none of that.  Take it away, Wikipedia: “According to the book Images in the Dark by Raymond Murray, Akerman refused to have her work ghettoized and denied the New York Gay Film Festival the right to screen Je tu il elle. ‘I will never permit a film of mine to be shown in a gay film festival.’” Now, unfortunately, the Wiki doesn’t elaborate anymore on this subject, but Akerman’s stance on the issue is quite clear: she clearly wishes to be an artist, first and foremost, and not a woman artist or a gay artist. 

I wonder how she would respond to the way Wikipedia has labeled her, as the categories in which her article appears include: “Belgian women film directors,” “LGBT directors,” “LGBT Jews,” “Women artists,” “Belgian Jews,” and “LGBT people from Belgium.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Radiophobia; or, Is There a Geiger Counter App?: Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope

Radiophobia—according to Wikipedia, which has never steered us wrong—is the fear of ionizing radiation, of the sort that was released during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, or in the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb test which irradiated the Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu Maru, or of the sort released by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As we have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Japan has almost certainly suffered from more catastrophic nuclear shit than any other country (with the possible exception of, say, the Marshall Islands, which is such a small country that maybe they suffered proportionately more as a result of U.S. nuclear tests; but, you know, it’s not a competition).  As I write this post, radiation continues to seep into the ground beneath Fukushima Daiichi and from there into the Pacific Ocean.  Fukushima also hosts hundreds of containers of radioactive water (which, after being pumped through the reactors to cool their nuclear fuel rods, the Tokyo Electric Power Company apparently has nowhere else to store it but on-site) which another catastrophic earthquake/tsunami could release into the atmosphere.

It is not surprising if all of this has certain segments of the Japanese population feeling radiophobic, and this is the subject of Sion Sono’s 2012 film The Land of Hope.  Sono is something of an enfant terrible—his previous works include mindfucks like Suicide Club and Cold Fish, not to mention the four-hour up-skirt photography epic, Love Exposure.  In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent meltdowns at Fukushima, Sono took the script he had just finished working on and rewrote it to take the recent disasters into account; the result was Himizu (2011), which has not been made available yet in the U.S. (alas) and the merits of which I cannot speak to.  He followed it up with The Land of Hope, which recently became available on Hulu courtesy of the people at Asian Crush.

In The Land of Hope, a second earthquake/tsunami/meltdown has struck a nuclear plant in the town of Nagashima (Wikipedia says there’s a Nagashima in Kyushu, but it doesn’t mention a nuclear plant; let’s assume Sono’s Nagashima is fictitious).  The film mainly follows the impact of the disaster on a multigenerational Nagashima farming family (it also intermittently follows the fortunes of another family, their neighbors, but they frequently drop out of the film for long stretches and their inclusion feels like more of an afterthought).  There is the paterfamilias, Yasuhiko Ono; his wife Chieko, who appears to have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia that causes her to experience memory impairment and a disconnect from reality; the son, Yoichi; and Yoichi’s wife, Izumi.  The nearby nuclear plant begins to melt down, the authorities set up an exclusion zone (much as they did at Fukushima) which comes right up to the Ono’s property.  Now, if you’re on the very edge of a twenty-kilometer exclusion zone, you’re probably not much safer on one side than you would be on the other, and Yasuhiko instructs his son and daughter-in-law to flee.  He and his wife are too old and too stubborn to be moved.  So Izumi and Yoichi relocate to a new town that’s theoretically a safe distance away from Nagashima (and Fukushima) and there Izumi finds herself pregnant.  And she becomes consumed with radiophobia.  She stocks up on the surgical masks so popular amongst the Japanese, then rapidly escalates to a full-scale hazmat suit, which she wears whenever she ventures forth from the apartment which she’s sealed shut with plastic wrap and tape.

In a previous post in which I touched upon the situation at Fukushima, I mentioned the famous T. S. Eliot line, “I can show you fear in a handful of dust,” and pointed out how the dust is now radioactive.  What Sono seeks to explore in his movie is how one goes on living when the air itself is poisoned with fear (and cesium).  And he does so with a compassion and restraint that his previous films had led me to believe he didn’t have in him.  Movies like Strange Circus or Cold Fish are in gloriously poor taste.  A subject like the recent disasters in Japan would seem to call for tact and delicacy, and Sono delivers.  In his treatment of the old couple left behind near the exclusion zone, he raises similar issues to those broached in Michael Haneke’s Amour (also 2012, which got all the international awards) without the Austrian miserablist’s unrelenting pessimism.  And in depicting Izumi’s radiophobia, he demonstrates the workings of a very modern type of fear and the age-old methods with which to confront it.  Finally, there is a journalistic quality to The Land of Hope—it is very “zeitgeisty”—and, as Fukushima continues to ooze radiation into the sea, Sono’s film should be required viewing for those seeking to understand what this disaster means for Japan and the world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Darkness Visible; or, What’s the Deal With Japanese Ghosts?

Upon finally getting around to watching Takashi Shimizu’s seminal Ju-On, I find myself thinking about master horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s assertion that “Japanese ghosts don’t really do anything.” I’m sure we all have a good idea of what a typical Japanese ghost looks like, but just as refresher: the Japanese ghost is a woman, pale as death (which makes sense, because she’s dead), with long black hair (which makes sense, because she’s Japanese), dressed all in white.  Her eyes are creepy as fuck and there’s a good chance she can contort her body at weird angles (the constant breaking and re-breaking of the neck is a frequent feature of Japanese ghosts; they can also spider-walk like Linda Blair in The Exorcist).  And of course this basic ghost mytheme isn’t just limited to Japan: it has found its way into the horror cinemas of Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and, in the form of shitty remakes of horror movies from these Asian countries, the United States.

Now, Kurosawa isn’t exactly correct when he says that Japanese ghosts don’t do anything.  They can definitely kill you.  But the mechanism by which they kill is usually left ambiguous.  The Japanese ghost will creepily approach its victim, the victim will scream, and then we cut to the next scene, with the police investigating the mysterious death of the victim, whose face is frozen into a rictus of terror.  So it seems likely that the Japanese ghost kills by literally scaring its victims to death; it doesn’t need to physically attack the victim, because the implications of its very existence are enough to kill a person (or drive them mad, I should add; they don’t always die; sometimes they just go insane).

The best, most effective horror works by implication. H. P. Lovecraft knew this, as did the other practitioners of the so-called “weird story.” In many of these stories, the hero doesn’t have direct contact with the supernatural (ghosts or demons don’t leap out of the woodwork and tear them apart), but the characters find incontrovertible evidence that these monsters exist.  And this evidence defies the laws of nature; its very existence is obscene and an abomination against reality (in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, he explains quite astutely that the “weird” story only became possible once science had progressed to the point that universal laws of physics had been established; reality can only be obscenely violated once it’s been established).  As for what is being implied, besides the existence of various monsters and nightmares, I think it is best summed up in this analysis of the work of British fantasy/horror/”weird” writer William Hope Hodgson, which I found on Wikipedia, and which is so well-written that I’m assuming it was plagiarized from another source: “Hodgson achieves a deep power of expression, which focuses on a sense not only of terror but of the ubiquity of potential terror, of the thinness of the invisible boundary between the world of normality and an underlying, unaccountable reality for which humans are not suited.”

Humans are a profoundly vulnerable species.  Not only do we have weak, soft bodies (without claws, or horns, or venom) but we have the capacity to think, and with the capacity to think comes the capacity for madness and horror.  There is a thin, transparent membrane of logic and scientific reason stretched tightly over the amorphous, monstrous body of magical thinking with which primitive man first encountered the world.  This is where vengeful, super-powerful ghosts come into the picture; because, from a logical perspective, we know that the dead victim of an injustice is just that: dead; and he or she can no longer harm us.  But the magical thinking that animated the human genius for most of our history tells us that the blood of criminality is rank, and that it rises up to heaven and calls out for vengeance.  And so history becomes the proverbial nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus was trying to awaken.  Every horror, ever violation of the codes of morality can come back to destroy us.  To paraphrase William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past; it is a pissed off Japanese albino from hell, with blood dripping from her eyes, come back to kill you in your bathtub.”

And so this is why Japanese ghosts don’t need to do anything.  They take that which has been effaced by time and criminal deception, and they bring it back into the light of day.  To steal a line from William Styron (who isn’t read anymore), who in turn stole it from John Milton: the Japanese ghost exists to render “darkness visible.” The ghost’s very presence constitutes an action, as it sets into motion the wheels of history and morality (albeit a brutal morality predicated on vengeance and terror).  The ghost is the conscience of the human race, gone mad and out for blood.  This ectoplasmic conscience holds up an appropriate mirror to the potential for psychotic violence and terror which exists in all of us.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I am Sick of these Motherfucking Burmese in my Motherfucking Ayutthaya: The Burmese Menace in Thai Nationalist Historical Epics

Burma today is one of the most tragically underdeveloped countries in the world.  Upon independence from Britain in 1948, Burma was mineral-rich and would seem to have had a comparatively promising future.  But the country almost immediately fell apart, with communists seeking to overthrow the nationalist government of U Nu and disaffected ethnic minorities in the East staging uprisings that rage to this day (the Burmese civil war is the world’s longest running conflict).  In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup and ruled the country as a psychotic dictator until 1988 (among the signs of his insanity, a numerological fixation on the number nine, which led to the introduction of Burmese money in unites of 90 nyat (nine being an auspicious number)). 

In 1988, independence leader Aung San’s daughter, the much revered Aung Sang Suu Kyi, returned to the country from exile in Britain to lead its burgeoning democracy movement.  Her party won elections in 1988, but the military decided (a) not to recognize them and (b) that Ne Win was too fucking crazy and was an impediment to the maintenance of military rule.  And so the army overthrew Ne Win and slaughtered thousands of democracy activists.  The new regime called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC, which has to be the worst acronym this side of the Filipino MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front)).  The SLORC renamed the country Myanmar, renamed the capital Yangon, and then moved the capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to a previously unknown village name of Naypyidaw, and continued to prosecute brutal wars of repression against the various ethnic minorities: the Shan, the Wa, the Karen, the Kachin, etc (emphasis on the etc.). 

In recent years, Burma has undergone an apparent transition to a more democratic form of government.  Power has been transferred to a civilian government (composed largely of former military officers who resigned from the army for the sole purpose of claiming to be civilians), Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and her party has entered parliament, and the government has now established cease-fires with most of the ethnic rebels (except the Kachin, whom the military continues to persecute in a war that gets very little international attention).  But the country’s still an underdeveloped mess and its future is uncertain.  In recent months, the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority has faced pogroms from Buddhist mobs; Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to defend the Rohingya, an act of moral cowardice which has pissed off pretty much everyone.

I say all this as a preface to this post’s cinematic observation, which is that the Burmese menace that haunts so many Thai historical films becomes grotesquely ironic when you compare modern-day Burma and Thailand.  Thailand is a bastion of regional stability and economic power when compared to its impoverished, war-ravaged neighbors (specifically, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia).  In fact, one of the leading causes of instability in the post-WWII era in Thailand has been the near constant activity of Burmese ethnic rebels along the Thai-Burmese border.  Over the years, the Thai government has demonstrated varying degrees of tolerance for the different groups (much as they had a deeply inconsistent policy with the Khmer Rouge, who were dangerous and downright psychotic, but who provided a buffer between Thailand and the armed forces of Vietnam).

But if Burma is an irritant in modern-day Thailand, it’s hardly an existential threat (the existential threat to Thailand comes from its turbulent and often bloody party politics).  It is hard to imagine that there was once a time when mighty Burmese armies rampaged through Thailand, waging destructive campaigns that eventually annihilated the great Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767.  The conflicts between Burma and Ayutthaya (often with special attention paid to its heroic founder-king Naresuan) provide the subjects for such nationalist cinematic epics as Naresuan (the first three parts of which run to about eight and a half hours), The Legend of Suriyothai (three hours), the blood bath Bang Rajan, and Napporn Watin’s Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya, an awful movie (which I watched this evening) about the nonetheless fascinating subject of Japanese adventurers in Thailand, circa-1610. In all of these movies, the Burmese are the most evil bastards to ever walk the earth (and the Thais are peaceful and virtuous, and their kings are virtually gods incarnate (may they be ever venerated!).  These representations of Burmese people and the xenophobia they give rise to are so over the top that D. W. Griffith himself would have looked at them and said, “Whoa, dudes, tone it down a little.”

Now, if you want to see a Thai movie with good, humane portrayals of Burmese people, I strongly recommend Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2001 film Blissfully Yours, which depicts the gentle (and gently surreal) romance between a Thai woman and an undocumented Burmese immigrant, all done up in Apichatpong’s beautiful, sui generis style.  It will certainly prove a welcome relief if you’ve watched too many Ayyuthaya chauvinist propaganda films.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fun with Japanese Anarchists of the Taisho Period: The Great Kanto Earthquake, the Assassination of Noe Ito and Osugi Sakae, Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre, and an Anecdote from the Life of Akira Kurosawa

Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, we speak about the Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Japan on September 1, 1923 with somewhat surprising frequency.  But it’s important, damn it.  The cities of Tokyo and Yokohama were virtually destroyed, and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the Taisho Period (comparable in many respects to the artistic ferment to be found in Weimar Germany) gave way to the militarism of the early Showa Period.  In previous posts, I have commented on the wide-spread lynching of ethnic Koreans in the wake of the Kanto Earthquake; the Koreans were suspected of looting and of poisoning well water.  They most certainly did not do the first thing and not only did they not poison any well water, but seriously, why would anyone think they had a reason to do that? But I suppose that if you’re a racist and you’re about to lynch people, then you’re probably impervious to reason.

Another shocking incident that took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1923 earthquake was the assassination of prominent anarchists (and lovers! more on that later) Noe Ito and Osugi Sakae, along with Ito’s six-year-old nephew.  They were kidnapped by military policeman Masahiko Amakasu, who had his soldiers beat them to death and dump their bodies in a well.  Now, why did Amakasu kill them?  Probably for the same reason that the US government killed Sacco and Vanzetti; anarchists are a cartoonishly scary bunch (at least if you believe the hype and the depictions in media like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent) and Amakasu feared that the scary anarchists would take advantage of the earthquake to sow the seeds of chaos (which, given the fact that Tokyo had just been destroyed, seems like kind of a moot point, but again, we’re not dealing with reason here).  I have no idea how he justified killing the child.  He would go on to be the director of the Manchukuo Film Association, which made pro-Japanese propaganda films, and he committed suicide when the Soviets invaded Manchuria at the end of WWII.

The assassinations of Ito and Sakae are depicted in Yoshishige Yoshida’s epic 1969 film, Eros Plus Massacre (Japanese movies have the best titles).  The film alternates between scenes from Ito’s and Sakae’s turbulent relationship (and their relationship with Sakae’s first wife and one of his mistresses) and a weird, distinctly “sixties-ish” romance between two vaguely militant students who are researching Ito and Sakae in the Japan of 1969.  We know these students are “rebels” because everything they do is punctuated by the sinister jazz music of the “Japanese crazy young people movies” of the past decade, as well as a new musical element, acid rock guitar (the score was done by Toshi Ichiyanagi, who I’m sure is very talented in his own right but who is most famous for being Yoko Ono’s first husband).  The relationship between the sixties lovers and the anarchists is distinctly Brechtian (or perhaps just at second-hand, and so we should say that it’s very Godardian), with the sixties couple always showing up to distance us from the anarchists.  The story of Ito and Sakae isn’t necessarily accurate; it just exists in whatever manner the students chose to tell it.

Now, before I conclude this piece, I want to share one more anecdote relating to the earthquake.  This is a famous story from the childhood of Akira Kurosawa, so maybe you’ve heard it before, but if not, then it’s worth hearing (and if you have, it can’t hurt to hear it again).  The story goes like this: following the earthquake, young Akira and his older brother are wandering the devastated streets of Tokyo.  They see all sorts of horror, including numerous corpses.  And these aren’t corpses in the funeral home setting, mind you, but people who have died horrible deaths, crushed, burned, or asphyxiated by smoke.  And Akira wants to look away from the horror, but his brother tells him (paraphrasing here): “No, you have to look, Akira.  If you look these things square in the face, they can’t hurt you.  It’s only what you refuse to see that can hurt you.” Now, whether that was some sage advice that the older Kurosawa was imparting, or whether it was a really unnecessary trauma to inflict on a small child, I’ll leave you to judge (well, actually, I’ll judge it too; I certainly wouldn’t make a small child do that—although come to think of it, Kurosawa would have been about 13 at the time of the earthquake, so he’s hardly that small, but still, he’s child enough—but it’s good story.  Maybe it’s the sort of thing that makes an instructive anecdote but which one wouldn’t want to act out in real life).
This story is recounted in Kurosawa’s memoir, Something of an Autobiography.  If you want to watch Eros Plus Massacre, I think there are a few copies available on Amazon.  Mine was an all-regions DVD with a Portuguese title menu, but the English subtitles were superb.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lu Chuan’s The Missing Gun and the General Absence of Guns in the Hands of Private Citizens in China

Way back in August, I wrote a piece called “In Japan, it’s Evidently Easier to Build a Gun from Scratch Thank it is to Buy One.” I wrote this in response to several high-profile shooting incidents that took place over the summer (the movie theater shooting in Colorado, the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, and an incident in New York in which the police shot like ten people while trying to take down one gun-toting lunatic).  All this crazy American shootery had called to mind Shinya Tsukamoto’s film Bullet Ballet, about a mentally unhinged young man’s efforts to get his hands on a gun.  I stated at the time that this movie could never be remade in the US, because what takes half the film to accomplish in the Japanese context (which is to say, the acquisition of a gun) would take maybe five minutes of screen time in an American movie.  The guy would go into a gun store and come back five days later and walk out with his gun (or he’d get hold of it immediately if he bought it at a gun show or through a private sale).

Well, following the Newtown Massacre, America’s gun nuttery has been back in the news lately (and I’m sure it will slip out of the news again sooner or later, and the government will accomplish precisely nothing in relation to gun control).  What didn’t get as much attention as the Newtown massacre was an incident that took place in China on the same day.  In the village of Chenpeng, a lunatic came into the local kindergarten armed with a knife and began stabbing students willy-nilly.  He stabbed a total of twenty-four of them, which is appalling, but not a single one of them died, in contrast to the Newtown massacre, in which twenty children were killed.  The difference in the death toll can be attributed to the fact that it’s far harder to kill people with a knife than it is with a semi-automatic rifle.  Now, had the Chenpeng lunatic had a gun, who knows what kind of damage he could have inflicted.  But he didn’t, thank Christ, because China doesn’t hold private gun ownership to be a right that trumps every other right, including the right to go to a school or a movie theater without having to worry about getting blown away by a nut-job (I am well aware that these incidents are relatively rare in the US, but they’re even rarer in China, or Japan, so clearly the situation can be improved).

Now, I’m somewhat reluctant to hold up the Chinese legal system as an exemplar of anything (one may recall Ségolène Royale’s praise of the efficiency of their judiciary during the French presidential elections of 2007; pretty much everybody agreed that that was a catastrophically stupid thing for her to have said).  But it’s not just China that puts serious impediments in the way of private gun ownership; freer countries with a tradition of the rule of law—Japan and the United Kingdom come to mind as prominent examples—have similar prohibitions (I don’t know if they still do this, but your average British cop on the beat generally didn’t carry a gun).

Oh right, this is supposed to be a movie blog.  Well, I just saw Lu Chuan’s first film, 2002’s The Missing Gun, which stars Jiang Wen (the director of Devils on the Doorstep and the recent—and seriously overrated, to my mind—Let the Bullets Fly) as a small-town cop who loses his gun following a drunken wedding reception.  Now, there are several distinctly un-American things that happen as a result of this.  First off, there’s a huge to-do within the police force, to think that a private citizen has hold of a gun.  Think of what they could do with it!  In a small town in the US, every other person is probably packing heat, but Jiang’s missing gun introduces an unknown element into the town.  And then, when somebody finally gets shot with it, we know immediately that it’s Jiang’s gun, because where else could it come from? Nobody else has a gun.

A few parallels to other films should be noted.  First, Jiang’s character stumbles upon a fake gun while arresting a thief, which seems to do nothing but discharge soot when fired.  This is reminiscent of the gun that Shinya Tsukamoto’s character builds for himself in Bullet Ballet, and which ends up packing less punch than a pellet gun.  Both the Chinese thief and Tsukamoto’s character only find out that their guns are defective after trying to fire them in real-life situations.  It should also be noted that the premise of The Missing Gun is pretty much the same as that of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film, Stray Dog, in which a policeman played by Toshiro Mifune has his gun stolen and embarks on a desperate bid to get it back.  Here we have a similar situation where people get shot with his gun, and apparently there are so few guns in circulation that it’s not too far-fetched to assume right off the bat that Mifune’s gun is the gun in question.  Stray Dog is arguably Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, and where it pummels the viewer with straight-up noir tragedy, Lu’s film approaches matters from a more darkly comedic angle (although things are still deadly serious, and he strikes balance of comedy and tragedy that’s similar to that achieved in Jiang Wen’s dark WWII “comedy,” the aforementioned Devils on the Doorstep).

Well anyway, thank God our second amendment rights haven’t been abridged yet.  We don’t languish under the yoke of a gun-prohibiting tyranny like they do in communist China.  Or South Korea.  Or the United Kingdom.  Or Japan.