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A Chinese Take On Two Western Films -- About China

A Chinese film critic looks at how his country is portrayed in Mao's Last Dancer, an Australian movie, and Last Train Home, a recent Canadian documentary.

Ruoji Tang

Western filmmakers are increasingly interested in modern China as a subject. I saw two such examples over the weekend: Mao's Last Dancer, an Australian film based on the wildly popular memoirs of ballet dancer Li Cunxin; and The Last Train Home, a documentary by Canadian director Fan Lixin. Together, the films provide contrasting views of China that are worth considering.

Mao's Last Dancer, both in script and artistic direction, is a throwback to the feel-good inspiration films of the 1980s. The film weaves together scenes from Li Cunxin's childhood, his stay in Beijing, and his first year in the United States. Li is chosen from an impoverished village in rural Shandong to study ballet in Beijing. Predictably, he makes up in "heart" and "passion" what he initially lacks in technique. When the director of the Houston Ballet arrives in Beijing for a visit, he spots Li's potential and invites him to America.

Wide-eyed and eager, Li is introduced to discotheques and shopping malls and quickly falls for a rosy-cheeked aspiring dancer named Liz. After landing the role of Don Juan in a company production, he wins the hearts of the Texas public.

If this sounds dull, that's because it is. The actors playing Li and his first wife (Ci Cao and Amanda Schull) have little chemistry together, and limp through a number of awkward scenes propelled forward by a corny, lackluster script. The rest of the cast, irritating Americans who either bully and manipulate Li, or patronize him and treat him like an indulgent child, isn't any better. An hour in, I was sorely regretting the money I'd spent on the DVD.

What is interesting in this otherwise pointless movie is Beresford's failed case for the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and artistic freedom.

Near the beginning of the film, the young Li Cunxin is mesmerized while watching a banned tape of Baryshnikov. Inspired, he sets out, as he put it, "to fly." But the film never lives up to this promise.

Once Li arrives in America, we mostly see him eating in restaurants and dancing in discos. The dance pieces in the film showcases the considerable skills of the performers, but they are more Broadway than ballet.

In Beijing, artistic freedom is non-existent as the dancers perform a ballet dramatizing the struggles of the liberation army for Madame Mao. But, for someone who knows very little about dance, it is hard to see how the Houston Ballet's overdramatized Don Juan is a superior piece.

When Li finally defects, we suspect it's the doe-eyed girl and the muffins and cocktails, not his art, that motivates his decision to sacrifice his family. All this is fine, but infinitely less heroic.

Overall, Beresford's biopic is so sincere in its endorsement of American consumerism that it often feels naive and woefully out of date. More importantly, at a time when artistic expression is still stifled by government repression, a film about a dancer who valued artistic freedom above everything else should have more to say on its importance. But of course, it doesn't.

Migrant plight

The second film, the Last Train Home, (归途列车) a widely acclaimed documentary by Canadian director Fan Lixin traces a migrant couple's journey home for the Spring Festival over three consecutive years. It is hard not to feel sympathy for the harsh life of the workers, but the film is never a simple indictment of China's labor system. Development, it is clear, has brought positive changes to China's population. Zhang Qin shops for clothes on her time off from the factory. A worker says in an interview that he is proud to be making tennis racquets to be shipped overseas. Migrants are offered a small (albeit inadequate) share in the benefits of the international capitalism.

The heart of the film, however, is what goes on outside the work space. The film is less about material conditions of China's factory workers than the impact of rapid modernization on Chinese families. The sacrifices that workers make for their families end up damaging, sometimes beyond repair, the relationships they value the most.

Watching the two films back-to-back, I can't help but reflect upon China's changes in the past two decades. U.S. authorities have long been convinced that political freedom will come naturally with economic prosperity and a rising middle class. Crudely put, the thought is something like: if China embraces capitalism, then it will embrace democracy.

But contemporary Chinese society challenges the very core of this assumption. In Beresford's film, freedom in America is uniformly conveyed through glittering malls, restaurants, and well-tailored suits. But Chinese cities are glittering with shopping centers, five star hotels and restaurants. Nevertheless, the range of acceptable political discourse in China remains woefully limited and government power remains largely unchecked.

There is also a palpable unease surrounding China's new-found wealth and the country's future. Unprecedented growth and wealth have been possible only by stripping natural resources for raw materials and exploiting low-wage labor. The looming labor shortage and rising gas prices are reminders that both will eventually run out. The time for quick turnarounds is over, and stable, long-term investments are not flooding in.

The smug triumph of free-market capitalism presented in Dancer belongs to the past. Rising wages and greater economic freedom are important, but as Fan's documentary shows, they are nowhere near enough.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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