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Posted by Terry Fisher on March 06, 1998 at 16:19:40:

In Reply to: Discussion: Implications of the Opium War: Art/Filmmaking posted by webmaster on March 02, 1998 at 03:05:27:

I found the film fascinating but puzzling. One of
the things I found destabilizing was the absence
-- at least as seen through my Western eyes -- of
a stable moral point of view. To be sure, as one
speaker in the post-film discussion last night
noted -- the British were (almost) uniformly
villainous -- although the conduct of the opium
merchant's daughter was perhaps an exception.
The perspectival instability related, rather, to
the depiction of the Chinese leaders. The first
commissioner (the names, I'm afraid, slip my mind)
was sometimes depicted as wise, courageous, and
fueled by commendable moral indignation. At other
times he came across as rigid, intemperate,
capricious (e.g., in his treatment of subordinates),
and na´ve (e.g., in failing to predict the
British response to the destruction of the opium).
His replacement was sometimes depicted as
sensibly conciliatory, a mature pacifist in a
world dominated by pugnacious hawks. At other
times, he seemed narrow-minded, careerist, and
equally na´ve. The emperor, meanwhile,
sometimes seemed benignly regal, wisely
mediating among his contending advisors,
and sometimes seemed fickle, cruel, and
out of touch with the condition of his nation
or the state of the world.

One might respond: the three leaders were
complex human beings, and the film was sensitive
to their complexity (or chose to depict them as
complex even if they were not in "fact"). But
my sense was not that the characters were
interestingly complex, but instead that the
filmmaker couldn't make up his mind concerning
what to think of them -- or, more charitably,
set out to disrupt viewers' expectations.

Is my reaction idiosyncratic?

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