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a one-sided struggle
east (china) vs. west (hollywood)
by reem al-omari (@Reemawi)
4.30.08
film


Studying journalism in college taught me the sad truth that proximity is what makes a story front-page material... especially in the States.

A volcano eruption could've wiped out an entire island in the Pacific, but if no Americans are affected, it's not front-page news.

Same with Hollywood. If it's not about Americans, or those of a similar western caliber, it won't make it at the box office. And even if it is about a group of non-western people, they will have a wise character who is of the western caliber-- usually American-- who will teach them that their ways are wrong, and the western way is the right way. The movie Stargate is a great example, as it sends that message loud and clear through galaxies, where people appear to be living in a non-western world, although fictitious, but their savior from ruin is still a group of Americans.

Well, proximity doesn't just sell papers, it sells movies too.

I am pretty sure that if Pearl S. Buck were to somehow hear about what's been done to one of her books in movie form, she'd not only toss in her grave, but come back as a ghost to haunt those who marred a tale she expertly sculpted into a piece of art called Pavilion of Women, and turned it into a Hollywoodized, poorly written third rate script.

As with all Pearl S. Buck's books, Pavilion of Women is set in China. Everything about it breathes Chinese ideals and thought. It tells the story of Madame Wu, a woman who has it all, and then some, by 1930's Chinese societal standards. She is a beautiful and charismatic woman who married a man from a wealthy and prominent family. Moreover, Mr. Wu is devoted only to Madame Wu, a rare thing in a society where concubinage runs rampant, especially after a woman has grown too old to bear children.

Madame Wu has a loving and devoted husband, four sons, grandchildren, and wealth in name and money. She is truly the head of the household, and is responsible for all matters concerning the House of Wu, inside and outside its vast walls. Madame Wu's plate is full, and she commands respect from the lowliest servant to Mr. Wu himself for her wisdom and ability to handle all issues with great poise, grace and tradition.

In the tradition of such literature as Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Pearl S. Buck presents us with a woman living a picture perfect life, seemingly without want or need, but with an inner struggle to find herself. The similarity between the aforementioned western literary classics and Buck's work, however, ends at the initial presentation of a woman living society's idea of a perfect life. The reader is soon expertly transformed into a world where family is the heart of life, and selfish actions are rarely, if at all, the key to true happiness. We are transported to the Chinese way of doing things (as well as the eastern way, really).

Buck explores what might happen when a prominent Chinese woman basically decides that happiness is in the eye of the beholder. She's not going against Chinese traditions, or struggling to break the entire Chinese and/or eastern mold, she's just searching for her happiness within the world she is familiar with.

On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu sets out to find herself and, ultimately, happiness within the walls of the ancient House of Wu. Her first step is to bring a concubine into her husband's courts, and retire from her duties as a wife-- despite Mr. Wu's protests. It is with this action that Madame Wu begins the Wu family's transformation from a house run with disordered traditions into a house that better utilizes those same traditions.

The true key to Madame Wu's finding herself, however, is not by her retirement from married life, as she is still responsible for the family affairs inside and outside the house, but by an unexpected friendship with an Italian priest who tutors one of her sons. Brother Andre, with his accepting, calm and pacifist air offers Madame Wu the wisdom necessary to recognize what she and all those around her truly need to be happy-- by encouraging Madame Wu to utilize the traditions and laws of her culture more effectively.

Throughout the book, Brother Andre is not interested in preaching, but in helping those who need help regardless of their beliefs or traditions. He creates no confrontations nor does he boast of how things are done back in his country. In fact, he is not even a regular priest who belongs to a congregation, but is rather a man who found God and devoted his life to Him on his own outside the bounds of a church or congregation.

Buck writes Brother Andre as a saint-like figure with no judging or contempt for any living thing.

Enter Hollywood, and the essence of Buck's work is lost.

Hollywood took Brother Andre and made him into an American priest doctor, who happened to be sent to China to help his church in its mission. We are introduced to Brother Andre as he arrogantly barges into a room full of Chinese women attending to a woman having difficulties in her labor, despite protests from the servants and Madame Wu, who is in the room helping her friend during her difficult birth. Brother Andre succeeds in saving Madame Kang, but his demeanor is entirely different from the Brother Andre one knows from the book, a man who would never barge in and impose himself in such a fashion. From that point forward, Brother Andre's personality is over-powering, and I imagine completely out of character for what Buck intended.

Aside from Brother Andre, there is much in this movie adaptation that robs the story of its true meaning and eastern flavor.

For instance, Mr. Wu, a man dependent on those around him, is faithful to his wife. He has no concubine and has no intention of ever having one. When he is presented with Madame Wu's decision to select a concubine for him, he is against the idea, as he adores Madame Wu and feels satisfied with her. He is not a womanizer and he, above everything, respects her and seems pacified by her charismatic beauty.

Hollywood presents Mr. Wu as a drunk and controlling womanizer who scolds his wife in front of guests and has very little respect for her or her wishes. For some reason, Hollywood also found it necessary to make getting blow jobs Mr. Wu's ultimate goal in life.

This is completely different from the Mr. Wu we are presented with by Buck in the book. In effect, Madame Wu's character is also affected and she is weaker and loses much of her charisma as a result. Not to mention the key events that were twisted and changed to westernize the outcome and story to better fit the western viewer's idea of a happy ending.

The message is loud and clear in this movie that the western way is the only way to happiness and liberation, no matter that the location and culture don't fit the western mold. It is simply what's going to sell tickets at the box office.

There have been many movie adaptations of classic works that though are Hollywoodized and changed from the original work, are still good adaptations that sometimes are even better than the book. The Painted Veil by W. Sommerset Maugham is a good example of such a work, where the movie brought a soft, romantic touch that was completely lacking in the book. But I suspect that this was only achieved because the original story was that of western ideals and lifestyles that Western moviegoers can relate to.

Unfortunately, Pavilion of Women was not so lucky, as its true essence is nothing American or western. Hollywood changed it to suit western mind-sets, and lost the essence of a work in translation.


ABOUT REEM AL-OMARI

Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.

more about reem al-omari

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COMMENTS

russ carr
4.21.08 @ 12:15p

I immediately thought of the execrable "U-571," wherein Hollywood rewrote World War II to have Americans be the ones to capture the first 4-wheel Enigma machine, and break the back of the German codemasters. As a fiction, it might have stood on its own (no comment to the acting and directing) but against the reality of history, it's a pathetic slap in the face to many brave Englishmen, all in the name of American feel-good machismo.

So seeing that Pavilion of Women was butchered comes as no surprise, and it's all the more galling that it comes at the expense of a celebrated author who crafted an intricate world. If there's any light to be found, it's that such a film is probably only attractive to a minimal audience to begin with -- an audience that is probably literate enough to (like you, Reem) see it for what it is and dismiss it as garbage.

jeffrey walker
4.30.08 @ 11:34a

There's a "sifl and olly" bit where the MTV exec is telling the guys that their "test audience" wanted them to be more "edgy", and therefore made them look like Ken dolls (to which the guys respond that "Well, our test audience said that they'd like you better if you were a burning seal", and the exec becomes a burning seal).

I just wanted to drop a Sifl and Olly bit for posterity. But the fact is, Hollywood will change whatever parts of a story they need to try to appeal to their target audience, history and facts be damned. They'll also work in product promos and other merchandising, and add music from hip new groups. Yea Hollywood! Do yourself a favor and watch independent films.

Question: is there a new film version of this coming out, or are you refering to the 2001 release with Willem Dafoe? Because, really, with Willem Dafoe as the lead, how good could it have been anyway? (Sorry, Will).

reem al-omari
4.30.08 @ 12:48p

I am referring to the 2001 version with Willem Dafoe.

I watch a lot of foreign films to remedy my disappointment in filmmaking nowadays. That's actually the majority of what I watch, but I also watch independent American films, though not as much. Hollywood films also make their way into my queue, but I dread having to sit through them, and very rarely am I pleasantly surprised.

[edited]



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