This was my final project for CHI 443, Modern Chinese Culture Through Film. It didn’t turn out nearly as well as I would have hoped, but I think it would be a waste to not share it. Video after the jump.
Reflections/Post Mortem on Beauty and Virtue
Although the name “Beauty and Virtue” comes from Greek philosophy, the film itself draws influence from traditional Chinese values and their interpretation or representation in the films watched in class. Some traditional values represented are the Taoist principle of 自然, the Confucian ideal of 君子 and the “husband to wife” bond of the Five Bonds; and several other traditional Chinese beliefs and values. Films in class which presented these values include Infernal Affairs and Love Is Not Blind, among others.
Both of the moles in Infernal Affairs endure an internal struggle based on the question of loyalty and belonging. Because neither of them can be true to themselves, they come to question who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. In Love Is Not Blind, while Xiaoxian is trying to recover from the emotional turmoil of her breakup, she also has to face the contradicting expectations coming from society, herself, her manager, and so on. A gesture as simple as being given a cello reminds Xiaoxian that it’s important to find a center around which you can find balance in your life. Having cello lessons as a focal point allows her to better focus on her priorities, gives her time to escape reality and enter the world of music instead, and gives her an outlet for her pent-up energy.
In Beauty and Virtue, the protagonist John has no center in his life and doesn’t know how to prioritize the conflicting demands and expectations placed upon him. John is well-intentioned but misguided in his priorities. He works in a financial analysis firm where he hopes to be made partner. John gives this promotion more value than it actually has, and devotes all of his energy toward obtaining it. Before the film takes place, John had already spent several years climbing the corporate ladder, sacrificing his health in order to strive toward obtaining the next raise or the next promotion. Two health issues that the film brings attention to are his loss of hair and chest pains, both a product of stress.
Furthermore, John inadvertently places his marriage at a low priority, causing his wife a great deal of grief. His single-minded distraction with a potential promotion causes him to forget his five-year wedding anniversary. Although never stated in the film, John is also ignoring his wife’s wishes to have a baby, because he feels it would be better to wait until after he is made partner, which would include a substantial raise and which would allow him to better provide for them. Of course, John is hiding behind the promotion as an excuse. The salient point John’s wife makes is that it’s not the money she wants—she just wants to spend time with him.
The stress endured by the confrontation with his wife gives John a slight chest pain, and being told that he did not receive the promotion triggers a heart attack. John is rushed to the hospital. While unconscious, John is brought to a remote location somewhere outside Las Vegas. It is in this place that he meets a being who, by referring to others as “humans,” is implied to be not human himself, but an angel. This other being appears in the form of what John would look like had he taken a different path in life. Sporting a much fuller head of hair from lack of stress, and being adorned by a full beard and casual business-wear—representing a life with less stringent demands—this being shares the simple tenets that can enable John to live a much happier life.
Although initially stubborn, John is persuaded to take the being’s admonition and advice to heart after realizing that he was taking advantage of his wife and could very well lose her. After this meeting, John wakes up and exits the hospital with a new lease on life. His treatment is very simple: he is required only to take heart medication every day for the rest of his life. But much more significantly, he exits the hospital with a much richer appreciation for the beauty of life.
This film presented many, many challenges which unfortunately hindered its quality. Having no crew members (e.g. cameraman, director, cast members, etc.) made some shots impossible to get, so using a green screen was necessary. Unfortunately, the green screen I borrowed from my friend was not tall enough to enable full-body shots. Therefore many scenes had to be stripped-down, especially the scene between the two Johns, where they were both meant to be on screen at once for many of the shots. The cast and sets also had to be scaled down because I was only able to recruit three other persons for bit roles.
The script of the film went through many changes during production and pre-production. Originally a much more Chinese motif was intended, and I considered shooting much of it in Chinatown. I also wished to set some of the film inside the Red Dragon casino, making a commentary about life on the Las Vegas strip. There were even going to be titlecards in Chinese, as well as a quote by Confucius and a soundtrack of guqin music.
After deciding on the story that made it into the final product, I wanted to shoot the scene with the two Johns in a backyard garden belonging to a friend of mine. The garden was meant to symbolize the harmony that can be attained between urban living and appreciation of nature. Unfortunately, the discord between my schedule and my friend’s schedule made shooting there during the day impossible. Thus I went with the top of the hill in my backyard in Goodsprings.
Despite the settings and aesthetics of the film being completely de-Sino-ized, I think that I was able to still keep it relevant to the class thanks to the themes discussed in the film. Ultimately, the flaws of the film can work to its advantage. For example, John never appears on screen with another character, except for one brief shot on the hilltop when he stands face-to-face with his alternate self. This causes the character to present to the audience a paradoxical loneliness. Despite interacting with side-characters and being surrounded by people in the city, John is isolated because of his single-minded focus on himself.
I am not sure how to rate this film. I am, of course, always very critical of my own work, especially when it fails to match the vision in my mind. If considering only the themes, then the film was satisfactory in addressing them, so it was a success.