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.
邦教授相信: 電影事業的票房收益可以證明它在世界視覺媒體的領導地位。 國際票房的紀錄可以證明國際的文化是如何珍惜該套電影所講述的故事是有一定的價值的，亦證明公眾也是認同了該部電影主題所要表達的核心信念。 邦教授的分析程序是有三個步驟的。第一，揭示現時流行中國媒體文化的背後歷史。第二，解釋現時流行文化如何結合了傳統文化與現代的電影文化。第三，它亦提供了一個讓流行電影文化與基督教信仰對話的機會。
1949年新中國成立後，中國政府宣稱自己是一個信奉無神論的政府，推崇馬克思的教導，認為宗教是人民的鴉片。 儘管中國政府對宗教進行了多方面的攻擊，信仰和文化的基本連結卻是國家無法徹底根除的，而近年的宗教復甦亦對普及世界觀帶來一定的影響。自從1980年以來，中國電影導演在電影製作裏含蘊著不同的宗教色彩: 包括儒家思想、道教、佛教、民間宗教、基督教、甚至怪異的宗教如毛澤東崇拜等。雖然基督教在中國也有一定的追隨者，但在電影中被接受和實踐的程度遠不及其他有歷史的民間宗教。儒家思想、道教和佛教仍然是文化山脈的主流。近距離檢視這些經濟成功的中國電影，就知道它們向廣大觀眾傳遞的是什麼樣的文化信息。
雖然不同的宗教信仰是源自世界各地，但它們仍然是具有一些明顯的共同點的。正如邦教授引述學者費丁的看法，說：佛教、基督教、伊斯蘭教、猶太教、印度教、甚至儒家思想， 都認為自我犧牲、關愛、憐憫、謙卑、誠實、慷慨、道德的培養，包括不偷盜和不殺生等，是標榜著人類的美善的品質… 這些意念也可以有一些提昇文化的功能。 基督徒亦可以透過電影，展示這些共同的信念，進而帶動當地社會文化的創新。 邦教授總結說：一個基督徒的責任首先是要認識自己的文化，進而透過媒體教育和電影欣賞去累積對社會文化產生影響的能力。