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Ang Lee the Chameleon Director and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk of the day on Chinese social media. The cutting-edge yet criticized blockbuster is the latest addition to the Chinese director’s filmography of wildly different movies.

Manya Koetse

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Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk of the day on Chinese social media. The cutting-edge yet criticized blockbuster is the latest addition to the Chinese director’s filmography of wildly different movies. But diverse as they are, Ang Lee’s films have typical characteristics in common. In that regards Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a quintessentially ‘Ang Lee-an’ movie.

The latest movie by renowned Chinese director Ang Lee (李安), that premiered at the New York Film Festival on Friday, became the number one trending topic on Sina Weibo on Sunday, October 16.

With over 73 million topic views, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (#比利林恩的中场战事#) became Weibo’s talk of the day.

Ang Lee’s latest film is an adaptation of the novel by Ben Fountain that is also titled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012). One of the reasons the movie is such a hot topic is its use of novelty techniques, with a special use of 3D and an increased frame rate of 120 frames per second shot with 4K HD cameras that makes the picture look extremely real. Its official release will follow on November 11.

billy

The story revolves around Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a 19-year-old American soldier who is glamorously honored in the USA after returning home from Iraq. While Billy is struggling with his experiences in the war overseas, he also needs to deal with the surreal “Victory Tour” he is receiving in his home country and tries to reconnect with his family.

Although international media have criticized the movie for its “hyper-real” effect due to its incredibly high frame rate, many Weibo users cannot wait to see it – especially because they have high expectations of Chinese “master” director Ang Lee.

Ang Lee is known for internationally acclaimed movies such as The Life of Pi (2012), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Sense and Sensibility (1995), or The Wedding Banquet (喜宴, 1993).

“Ang Lee is a chameleon filmmaker whose signature seems almost invisible in his multicolored work.”

What is notable about Ang Lee’s films is how they seem to be so wildly different. From smoking cowboys in the American mountains to pale ladies in 19th century England, Ang Lee is a chameleon filmmaker whose signature seems almost invisible in his multicolored work.

sensebrokeback

Ang Lee’s work as a director is characterized by his multifariousness, as Lee experiments with diverse and often controversial themes and techniques.

Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954. He graduated from the national film academy in 1975 and continued his studies in Illinois and later New York. Since his first movie in 1992 (Pushing Hands 推手), Lee has consistently collaborated with American screenwriters, actors, and production companies.

anglee

Although Ang’s first films involved China-related storylines, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility was Ang’s first film that had nothing to do with China. His major international breakthrough came with the award-winning Brokeback Mountain, that especially caused commotion due to its portrayal of gay love.

It might seem as if Ang’s movies are so varied that they have nothing in common at all. But besides the fact that many of these works include experimental features in terms of narrative or technique, there are also some overarching themes or characteristics in Lee’s work.

“Lee’s ability to be such a huge cross-cultural influence is unique.”

Born and raised in Taiwan, Ang Lee grew up with Chinese cinema. When he later lived and studied in America, he became familiar with a different cinema tradition.

The influence of both Chinese and American cinema, but also Ang’s personal experience of living in a new culture as an immigrant, are visible in his work.

Especially in Ang’s earlier films, the filmmaker worked with both Chinese and American actors and focused on the themes of culture clash and immigration.

But on a deeper level, Ang’s films are also characterized by their transnationality. By being a true ‘multicultural’ director, Ang cannot be marked as being either a typical ‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ film director. Instead, he is more culture-neutral and seems to leave any judgment over the films’ narratives to the audience.

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi once said about Lee:

“Lee’s ability to be such a huge cross-cultural influence is, I think, unique. His Taiwanese upbringing, which kept him deeply rooted in the Chinese way of being and living, combined with his well-informed understanding of Western movies and filmmaking techniques have allowed him to speak to those two worlds in a way no other director has.”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also deals with the clash between the situation in Iraq and modern American society. Billy Lynn is faced with the glitter and glamor of his heroic American “victory tour” that poses a stark contrast to his experiences in the battle of Iraq war. “It is sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life,” protagonist Billy says at one point.

“Great romance needs great obstacles and textures.”

Another important recurring characteristic of Ang’s films is its representation of complexity within family relations. In Ang’s movies, family is more than a blood relation; it is a social network with certain inescapable codes and rules. The main characters often struggle to adapt to them and have troubles finding their own way in the sometimes smothering family webs.

Although it might not be at the heart of the story, the connection between Billy and his family, namely his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), plays an important role in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

A third typical Ang Lee film feature is the impossible love affair. In an interview with Garth Franklin, Ang Lee once told:

“I think great romance needs great obstacles and textures. Romance and love are abstract ideas, an illusion. How do you make that? I think, most of the time, obstacles help build the romance. It helps to envision and make it feel real to you.”

“I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal.”

A final but significant feature in Ang Lee’s films is the repression of emotions. Ang Lee explains:

“I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal. You’re seeking to be honest with your free will, less conflict. I think that’s an important subject with me. That’s who I am, how I was brought up.”

Repression of emotions is prevalent in all of Ang’s films, but probably most visible in Brokeback Mountain since the acknowledgment of their homosexual feelings is such a taboo for the two main characters.

Although Ang Lee has been called a ‘director of gay cinema’ before, the issue of sexuality is not as important as the theme of repression that often comes with it.

Together with the obstacle-filled love affair (the cheerleader who wants a mystical war hero), the aspect of repressed emotions is clear in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, as it is the story of a “hero who doesn’t want to be a hero”, because everyone wants something from him and he does not know how to deal with it (Collider 2016).

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has not been receiving rave reviews directly after his first screening. Most critics agree that there seems to have been more attention to technical features of the film than its narrative depth and that it does not do the film much good.

real

Nevertheless, Ang Lee has pleaded viewers to “please give this a chance”, and to “have an open mind.” Ang Lee is not afraid to be a pioneer of new cinema techniques, even if he is criticized for it – in that regards, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is very much an Ang Lee film.

On Weibo, many netizens are excited about the much-anticipated movie. “I am already preparing to go and see Ang Lee’s next work,” one netizen writes. “I am a die-hard fan of Ang Lee, and I expect this film to be a great work again,” another Weibo user says.

Ang’s films are about cultural contrasts, love with obstacles, individuals that struggle with the codes of family culture, and especially people repressing their emotions – all transnational themes that also play a role in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In this way, his latest work, as innovating and controversial as it may be, is once again a typical ‘Ang Lee-an’ work of art.

– By Manya Koetse
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To read recent reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, go, for example, to The Guardian or US Magazine.

Sources (other sources linked to within text)
* “Ang Lee: Asian audiences more accepting of gay subject.” China Daily 21 jan 2006. 12 juni 2007. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/200601/21/content_514390.htm>
* Franklin, Garth. “ Interview: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain.” Dark Horizons. 7 dec. 2005. 12 jun. 2007. http://www.darkhorizons.com/news05/brokeback2.php
* Martin, Fran. “The China Simulcrum: Genre, Feminism, and Pan-Chinese Cultural Politics in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, in: Chris Berry en Feii Lu (eds), Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2005: 149-159+163-164+188-190
* Zhang, Ziyi. “Ang Lee”, Time. 30 apr. 2006. 12 jun. 2007.
<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1187225,00.html>

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Society

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

Manya Koetse

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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