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Cinematic identity: Examining the intersection of Christianity and culture in Asia through film

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Cinematic Identity: Examining the Intersection of Christianity and Culture in East and South East Asia Through Film

Aaron BOHN (BOHN) is a professor of Film and Media Communications at Northern Virginia Community College in Washington D.C., and an adjunct professor at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, USA. Outside of the classroom, Prof. Bohn freelances as an independent film writer and director for such projects as the television original Nazareth (2017) and the student Emmy-nominated short film Hangman (2015).

BOHN integrates faith and culture in East and Southeast Asia from an artist’s point of view, examining internationally-recognized Chinese films and inspecting how they intersect both values and beliefs. By specifically focusing on this regions’ films as the most prevalent and revealing media of today, his analysis illuminates the established attitudes of contemporary Asian culture toward religion while also suggesting how to utilize films in order to launch a conversational platform about the Christian faith in both academia and everyday life.

BOHN believes that the film industry has proved its dominance as our world’s ruling visual medium through ticket sales. While international box office receipts prove that global cultures value cinematic storytelling, the interpretation of the themes behind each film demonstrates the centrally-held beliefs shared by the viewing public. His analysis is a three-step progression. First, it will uncover the history behind the prevalent Chinese media culture. Second, it will offer an interpretation for how the present culture has integrated past social influences into modern films. Finally, it will suggest potential opportunities to intertwine Christian conversations within the popular cinematic culture.

In essence, religion informs a society’s cultural values and worldviews. Since Chinese films have been identified as examples for study, its history and religions will be the focus of discussion. Looking into the history of China’s religious landscape, three religions (Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism) has dominated the country’s cultural values. From its inception, the Chinese film industry centered itself in its religiously-based culture in order to demonstrate their national heritage and present identity to their own citizens as well as the entire world at large.

With the rise of the Communist party in 1949, China declared itself an atheist country. Despite Mao’s brutal ideological crackdown, religions found new life in the wake of his death in 1976. Regardless of the government’s assault on religion expression, the regime was unable to fully eradicate the fundamental connection between culture and faith. The revitalization of religions reawakened their influence over popular worldviews. Since the 1980s, Chinese movies have much color context of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, popular religion, Christianity, and even evidence of a Maoist cult…by various film directors. However, even though Christianity has accrued a large number of followers, the acceptance and practice of Christianity in China lags far behind other religions that are more historically intertwined with the region’s culture. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism still dominate the cultural landscape. With that in mind, it is vitally important to identify the films that are financially succeeding within China and closely examine what kinds of cultural messages they are delivering to the viewing public.

What is in the film culture then? The most prevalent themes found in Chinese cinema is wuxia pian (“film of martial chivalry”). The film maker subtly exhibits to the audience an assortment of cultural and spiritual ideologies associated with Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. BOHN illustrated this with the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. By the end of its box office run, the film had racked up almost fifty major international awards and hauled in nearly $200 million (USD) in net profit for the studio. Despite its financial success, the film’s lasting cultural impact resides in its religiously-based themes and subsequent worldviews, which were expressed in the film story and the many characters in it.  In a matter of two hours, Director Ang Lee subtly reveals a variety of worldviews associated with China’s three most popular religions.

In sharp contrast to Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, examples of explicitly Christian themes and characters in movies are far fewer in number. Back to 1942 (2012), The Flowers of War (2011), and If You Are the One (2008)” are some examples. Despite the positives associated with these cinematic depictions, there are two major problems with these portrayals. First, they are almost always intertwined with Western thought. Second, Christian roles are largely negative in nature or associated with comic relief. However, the Chinese film industry offers an incredibly limited range of evangelical portrayals. BOHN pointed out that instead of waiting for Chinese film directors to update their depictions or manufacturing an entirely separate Christian-specific genre, Christians should engage the culture where it is. By participating in discussions that center on the similarities between faiths in film, Christians can refocus their mission for cultural engagement through the lens of any popular movie. 

Even though global faiths originated in various parts of the world, there are a number of outstanding similarities that bind them all together. As BOHN quoted from Fielding (2008): Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and even Confucianism see self-sacrifice, love, mercy, humility, honesty, benevolence, generosity, and the cultivation of morality, which includes not stealing or killing, as virtues… Because certain ideas seem to transcend culture. (p. 385) From filtering spiritual conversations through films that exhibit these shared beliefs, Christians can actually use the culture to influence it. 

BOHN concluded that it is a Christian’s responsibility to first school oneself on the culture itself. The ability to influence society must be earned through media education and appreciation.


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