Friday, September 22, 2006

Unleashed: Jet Li on memory, agency, and aggression

Saw Jet Li’s Unleashed not too long ago, and it was a surprising departure from what I expect of a kung-fu movietruffle. Sure, it had the stylized karate, with lots of jump cuts and acrobatics and people dressed like characters from The Matrix, but those things were just specks of glitter on a much bigger canvas. This might have been Jet Li’s real acting debut, as he portrayed a well-developed character with a convincingly child-like, pathological naivety. So here I am, claiming that there was something insightful in this movie… what was it?

The central theme (as I see it) in Unleashed hinges on Jet Li’s character. He’s a bit bipolar… through the course of the film, we see two different incarnations of “Danny,” one in the care of Bart and one in the care of Sam. There are four primary associations that constitute the gap between violent Danny and non-violent Danny, and I’ve already given one of them away.

1) Violence: With Bart, Danny is raised to be violent. He’s manipulated into being a thug, and when he’s “unleashed,” he acts out an enigmatic rage on his adversaries. This contrasts starkly with reformed Danny, in the care of Sam, whose most important mission is to renounce his violence. Not only does he refuse to exact violence on his new caretakers… when he changes into “reformed Danny,” he refuses to enact violence on ANYONE, including the man who forced him to live by its law.

2) Slavery: With Bart, Danny is a pawn. He’s violent, and he’s used for the purpose of violence… he’s conditioned in a very Pavlovian sense (always with the canine references), and this conditioning is used for the objectives of Bart. With Sam and Victoria, Danny is given the tools and the power to be an active agent, and he’s allowed to make his own choices. There’s an absolutely key scene in this regard: Sam gives Danny the money from his first job, and when Danny asks what to do with it, Sam tells him he can do whatever he wants with it. This discovery seems convincingly shocking to Danny, who is making his transition out of a pathologically submissive role.

3) Culture: With Bart, Danny is a product of contemporary British/American crime culture. The bars where he fights are full of slinky women and people decked out in high fashion, and everybody’s wearing an insane double-breasted leisure suit. Sam reintroduces Danny to classical Western culture, which, it turns out, is part of Danny’s personal history. Piano virtuosity is one of the hallmarks of the classical European tradition, and Danny’s non-violent identity revolves entirely around the piano. In Bart’s dungeon, there’s a ruined piano… a revealing metaphor for the humanity of which Danny has been deprived.

4) Memory: This is probably the most important link in this chain of associations. Bart systematically denies Danny any access to his past, distorting his memories of his mother and lying to him about his upbringing. As I noted above, Danny is boiling with undirected rage, and as long as we don’t know about Danny’s past, we don’t realize that all this violence is probably related to that fundamental event, the murder of his mother… the scene where Danny first appears violent, and that Danny seems to be acting out over and over under Bart’s influence. Only reformed, autonomous, classical, nonviolent Danny can retrieve his history, and he can only fully integrate into society by doing so.

This movie can be read as a defense of 19th century philosophical positions. One of the foremost themes in German idealism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and later social theory is the importance of history, and the construction of an identity through a consciousness of that history. History and memory, duty as the essential moral criterion, and development of rationality and consciousness through cultural progress… in the course of Unleashed, Danny goes through his own renaissance and becomes a true enlightenment European.

So what does this have to do with American foreign policy?

WOAH! Didn’t expect that one, did you? Well, I’ll tell you how I made that jump: I recently read a selection of writing by Edward Said wherein he compared American and French (a.k.a. continental European) coverage of an uprising in the Middle East. He talked about the reductivism of the New York Times, which (according to Said) treated Islamic fundamentalism as though it was an isolated crisis. The Times, and other newspapers like it, refused to acknowledge the political and religious history of Islam, or the history of Middle Eastern interaction with the United States. He compared this with Le Monde, the French newspaper, which ran detailed reporting on Islamic culture, incorporating expertise on the Arabic language and the political history the contributed to the upheaval in Iran.

Said’s point here is that the Times is serving an American agenda of aggression, so it can’t acknowledge the history or bring to bear a complete perspective on Islamic culture. To rephrase: America has to forget the past, deny the roots of its relationships, and fixate on the current “crisis” to maintain its aggression. We’ve come a long way from our rationalist enlightenment roots, where we saw our ideals as a product of our cultural history.

Anyway, I’m kind of digressing. The point is less about the United States and more about the movie. Splitting things into two categories (classical vs. contemporary, violent vs. nonviolent, master vs. slave, memory vs. amnesia) isn’t always a good idea (as per, for instance, Derrida). Even so, there’s something well-constructed and intelligible about the model that Unleashed offers.

And Jet Li kicks Jason Statham’s ass. What more could you want?


sooz said...

hi jesse! always a pleasure to read your stuff. i enjoyed your review and critical analysis of "unleashed" as much as i enjoyed the movie itself.

we recently studied orientalism in my cultural diversity class. in research for one of my assignments, i read an interesting article in "american spectator" in which it was suggested that orientalism was not so much about western attitudes of superiority as it was about the alleged instability of islamic belief and what the author calls a tendency toward cultural suicide. he claims the latter is an attitude that currently manifests itself in the suicide bomber mentality; he feels that islamic culture treats itself with disrespect and thus western culture takes its cue from that display of culturally low self-esteem in its dealings with the middle east. yeah, whatever. *rolls eyes*. sounds suspiciously like the rapist who tries to cop out with the whole "she was asking for it" routine.

anyway. kudos on an apt analogy.


Jesse M said...

Thanks for the feedback, Sooz!

Yeah, sounds like a little bit of projection going on there. I've heard a similar argument recently, but it's sort of an inversion of the one you explained... that the demonization of "Islam" in the West has caused a lot of divisiveness within the Muslim community itself. As American media over-simplifies the nature of Islam, there's an analagous tendency among Islamic leaders to argue about their religion in reductive terms. "True Islam is pacifistic." "No, true Islam is defiant in the face of oppression." Both of these are oversimplifications, and they're being used by Islamic leaders because we in the US are already oversimplifying the religion so much.

Kelly said...

thesis, antithesis, synthesis. :)