Fantasy Films in Hollywood and China
Today, defamiliarization is widely used in literature and cinematography, especially in fantasy films, all over the world. It helps to reveal the hidden messages and meaning behind the background story. The Chinese film Hero (2002) by Zhang Yimou and the Hollywood movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) by Victor Fleming also apply the concept of defamiliarization to comment on the contemporary society and politics. Even though the movies emerged with the time interval of nearly 60 years, they demonstrated numerous common features in terms of genre, plot, main characters, and the manner of presentation of information. In these conditions, the analysis and comparison of the themes of the films Hero and The Wizard of Oz as well as the utilization of the notion of defamiliarization in them become especially interesting and meaningful. The evaluation and contrast of the films from so culturally, socially, economically, and politically different countries can provide the thought-provoking and important conclusions.
In general, there are usually several factors, which determine the fantasy films. First, there is iconography the concepts of magic, general sense of the past, a variety of non-human characters, and development of the world without technologies. The second factor is impossibility; the fantasy films do not follow all the laws of logics. The themes are the third important component, and the most popular of them are morality, hope, childhood, power, and the symbolic value of a journey. Finally, defamiliarization is an essential factor as well; the imagined past is used for discussing the modern problems of the people.
The film Hero is definitely a fantasy movie since it has all of the above-mentioned characteristics. In terms of iconography, it presents a set of fictional characters and provides the viewers with the general sense of the past. Concerning the impossibility component, the film uses magic to demonstrate the skills of the protagonists. In addition, the themes of Hero correspond with the fantasy ones. For example, the film owns moral message connected with the confrontation between the good and the evil and happy ending, which the King and the whole country face. There is also the journey component the main character experiences a symbolic journey of understanding of his own role in the country and the place of the King in it. The concept of power is also available here: the King and the protagonists of the story were losing and gaining power many times during the film. Finally, Hero allows the viewers to see the real world from the new perspective and change their minds about the Chinese society. The audience travels to the past in order to comment on the present.
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The film The Wizard of Oz is also a proper example of fantasy cinema. Concerning iconography, it includes magic and the wide variety of non-human characters. Regarding impossibility, the film does not rely on realism or logic. On the contrary, it focuses on magic, which is a core unifying element of the film that creates the sense of mystery and wonder. At the same time, there are few common fantasy movie themes in the film. The first of them is morality the confrontation between the good and the evil forces. The second theme is hope that leads to the happy ending. Childhood is another theme of The Wizard of Oz: the main character is a young girl. The themes of power some characters of the story are gaining or losing power and the symbolic value of a journey – both literal and symbolic one are also present in the film. Finally, The Wizard of Oz allows looking on the real world differently and rethinking the concept of society people live in. Fantasy in general and The Wizard of Oz in particular help to rediscover the wonders and joy of the surrounding world through the complicated processof defamiliarization.
The films Hero and The Wizard of Oz have many common characteristics. Both of them are classical fantasy films. Hero presents original fantasy interpretation of the story of King of Qins assassination by Jing Ke, and The Wizard of Oz tells the magical story about the traveling of Dorothy Gale to the Land of Oz. The analyzed films have all the necessary characteristics of the genre including themes, utilization of magic, happy ending, and role of hope, power, and journey among others. In addition, in both movies, the use of the concept of defamiliarization helped to make ordinary world, people, and events extraordinary ones. Thus, the viewer is encouraged and motivated to see common things in the new light and from the unexpected perspective in numerous ways (Etherington-Wright & Doughty 57). The application of defamiliarization in both of the above-mentioned films gets further discussion below.
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Generally, the film The Wizard of Oz is one of the classical examples of defamiliarization use. According to Ebiri (2013), the movie actually represents the political issues of 1800 in the United States of America. Each character presented in the film had certain symbolic meaning while all characters together demonstrated the general situation in the country. According to this theory, the protagonist of the story Dorothy represents American people and values. The director shows her as a determined, resourceful, and loyal person. However, some academics claim that Dorothy is the representation of Theodore Roosevelt. Toto (the dog) is a friend and companion of Dorothy and can be seen as a symbol of average American. Tornado may be a symbol of the political upheaval in the country since at that time, the farmers greatly suffered from federal deflation and requested the government to fix the ratio of silver and gold to the dollar. In other words, the farmers searched for the support from the state; however, the latter did not react appropriately. The Lollipop Guild is supposed to show the presence of the child labor in the country. Silver Slippers may represent the monetary political issues of that time, which concerned fixing dollar to gold or silver. Oz, which is a standard abbreviation of ounce, also relates to the important financial and political debate described above. One can consider Yellow Brick Gold a symbol of the gold standard; the latter leads to power. Tin Woodman represents dehumanized industrial workers. When numerous businesses started to close due to the economic crisis, after losing their jobs, the workers of the different factories felt just like Tin Woodman did: immobile, rusted, and helpless . Finally, the flying monkeys clearly demonstrated the Native Americans. In the film, Dorothy and her friends discovered that in the past, monkeys were free creatures who happily lived in the forest, ate nuts and fruits, and did whatever they wanted to without the need to call somebody the master. However, unfortunately, later, Oz appeared from the clouds to rule over the land (Fleming, 1939). It is obvious that this story directly correlates with Native Americans one. They had to suffer from the arrival of new Americans and subsequent establishment of their rule. Thus, all the examples presented above can be united into one picture the political and economic situation in the United States and serve as defamiliarization case. In these conditions, it is possible to state that the Land of Oz symbolizes the United States.
The film Hero also actively applies the concept of defamiliarization to distort the history of China and present the messages and conclusions that are politically correct. Many foreigners do not notice it due to the lack of knowledge of the Chinese history. However, the majority of the native citizens of the country definitely understand it. One can clearly see this fact through noticing different reactions to the film in foreign and national audience. Zhang made the protagonist a political character who is supposed to show that the government is good regardless of all the horrible actions it takes. He justifies violent governmental actions and initiatives by achieving the greater public good. At end of the movie, Nameless gives up at the last second and refuses to kill vigilant emperor. He sacrifices own life to support this idea. At the same time, the following words of emperor about his importance to the life of humanity correlate with nowadays country management: If you kill me now, all the remnants of those warlords will come back again to fight each other. Who will suffer the most then? The multitude of people. So you see, I killed to stop killing. I burned to bring order. I conquered to unify the country (Zhang, 2002). From these words, the viewers may understand that even those who kill many people can be the greatest pacifists, and those who conquer foreign lands do it for the future unity, peace in a country, and the so-called higher interests. Finally, one can reveal the key message of the movie: a country may achieve prosperity only through the full submission to the rulers (Lee, 2007). However, Zhang refers not only to the present but also to the past. Through Hero, he wanted to show that one of the bloodiest Chinese emperors was also the biggest hero of the country. The interview with one of the film actors Tony Leung supports this idea; he stated the following: I agree with the message of peace and human kindness in the film. For example, during the June 4 incident, I didnt join in any demonstrations, because what the Chinese government did was right to maintain stability, which was good for everybody (Kahn, 2003). However, later, the actor apologized for his comments because the human rights activists sharply criticized him for those words. In these conditions, certain filmmakers even condemned the given historical drama for its fascist tendencies and ideology complicity especially in terms of reunification of the country.
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The defamiliarization in the film Hero is reached through the constant juxtaposition of the moral-cultural search for transcendence and higher meaning and the bureaucratic-political rationality (Hom & Ping, 2005). Thus, the main challenge of the film is not the conflict of these elements but their coexistence that constantly forces the protagonists to make important decisions. In addition, technically, the director achieves defamiliarization through showing the wish of a human to bring justice and peace and the philosophical understanding of the emptiness and senselessness of the own actions. At the end of the film, the viewer may see the shot of the Great Wall of China. It actually means that Zhang openly compared the King with the historical figure Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese leader who managed to unify the nation and become its first emperor. In fact, it can be regarded as the humanization of the violent monarch and his dictatorial regime. Zhang decided to present it in order to please the highest authorities of China. Thus, one must not wonder why some scholars state the following: What Zhang Yimou presents to us is the imaginations of a new world that transcends the particular context of China (Zhu, 2013). In addition, the analysis of the film may demonstrate that Chinese authorities connected Nameless with Taiwan. Thus, the film can be regarded as the advice to Taiwan to refuse from its independence and follow the example of Nameless in the name of unity and higher interests. Other theories claim that Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Jet Li represent Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet. According to this point of view, Nameless is a symbol of Hong Kong. In other words, the story presented in Hero is the reflection of the Chinese authorities view of country relations with subordinate states: none can ruin unbreakable and close bonds between them. At the same time, many critics believe that the Communist Party of China funds the films like Hero in order to make the image of the county authorities perfect and shift the attention from the corruption problem to the fanatic nationalism. All these examples clearly demonstrate that the concept of defamiliarization was utilized in the movie.
Taking into account the fact that all the films produced in China face censorship and must get the approval of the special commission, one can claim that it would be impossible to create and show a film that would demonstrate the government in unfavorable light or go against the party line (Rawnsley, 2011). When analyzing Chinese cinematography in general and the film Hero in particular, it is important to remember that on practice, only those films that get the consent of the government receive financial support and the possibility of demonstration in cinemas all across the country. In China, these films usually have political, cultural or educational direction. Due to it, they get the right to distribution in the country. In these conditions, it is not surprising that nationalism becomes a usual theme in fantasy, blockbusters, and other mainstream films in China. The nationalistic movies of this country are aimed at spreading the civilized thought, improving social integration, and demonstrating the interpretation of the historical events that the state proposes. Even though individualism exists in the Chinese movies, its main goal is to serve the collective unified needs. Thus, one may see that the cinematography in general is a primary vehicle of political expression while the film Hero in particular is the proper representation of the controlled and nationalistic Chinese cinema (Fung & Chan, 2010). On the contrary, Hollywood almost does not promote such type of films for the national and global audience. The United States of America, similarly to other Western states, has liberal approach to moviemaking and does not consider it dangerous. Consequently, it almost does not use censorship.
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To conclude, it is important to state that due to comparing and contrasting similar films from different systems Hollywood and China one can notice more details of their content and meaning as compared to analyzing the films from only one system. The films Hero and The Wizard of Oz demonstrate numerous common and distinct features. For example, concerning the unifying features, it is important to mention that both of the movies utilize the notion of defamiliarization to reveal the hidden messages and meaning behind the background story and comment on the contemporary society and politics. Regarding the distinct features, one should state that Hero is an example of nationalistic and state-approved cinematography while The Wizard of Oz represents independent and liberal cinema that the state does not control. In general, the films give the viewers the possibility to see and analyze the present and future basing on the fictional past, learn on the mistakes of others, and apply the successful principles in their own lives.