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A New China in 'House of Cards'

[ 2014-03-14 16:52] 来源:中国日报网     字号 [] [] []  
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When the history of America’s onscreen visions of China is written, from Charlie Chan to “House of Cards,” it may be that a turning point came with a film that had almost nothing to do with China at all. Instead, it was one about the Middle East.

Representations of China began to appear on the American movie screen in the nineteen-twenties. Back then, the country was generally cast in the role of a beguiling, reflective, and fundamentally dangerous counterpart. In “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933), a warlord on the make casually orders the execution of his captives, then justifies it to his comely American guest as a more humane solution than letting them die of starvation in prison. Consistent with the clichés of the day, the general had a lascivious streak—he foists “sing-song” girls on an American missionary—but he remains a man of depths; he sweetly recites love poems and waxes philosophical to the heroine.

To a viewer with no knowledge of China, the country, which was then in a state of upheaval, seemed intrinsically menacing. “No attempt was made to understand why the wars occurred, nor the role of imperialism in precipitating the crisis, which led to the downfall of the Manchu dynasty and the ensuing anarchy,” Richard Oehling, who writes on film and history, observed in an essay. Worse, he noticed, many of the films on the subject “suggest or imply an alien civilization.”

After a brief interlude around the Second World War, when the role of villain was assigned to Japanese characters, the American renderings of Asia drifted back to China, without much sophistication acquired along the way. There was “The Manchurian Candidate” (brainwashers); Wo Fat, of “Hawaii Five-O” (general turned super-criminal); and Julius No, in James Bond’s “Dr. No” (the “unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl” who eventually meets his end when he is buried under a giant pile of guano). Rarely were the actors any more genuinely Chinese than the characters. Charlie Chan was played by Warner Oland, a Swede. Wo Fat was portrayed by Khigh Dhiegh, who was a mix of American, Egyptian, and Sudanese.

A decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, as China’s economy thrust the country into the role of an emerging superpower, the narrative took a new turn. Instead of being depicted as mysterious or thuggish, the Chinese characters in “Syriana” (2005), the Middle East thriller directed by Stephen Gaghan, were framed as formidable, sophisticated opponents. A Chinese delegation seeking natural-gas drilling rights from an Arab prince arrives speaking fluent Arabic, in contrast to Matt Damon’s American energy analyst, who knows only a few pleasantries. As a plot element, it was brief and secondary, but it was unprecedented, as far as I could tell, and it gave way to a new generation of onscreen Chinese villains: in “Batman: The Dark Knight” and the latest Bond, “Skyfall,” in which our hero battles the usual onslaught against spectacular futuristic backdrops in Shanghai and Macau.

With the Netflix series “House of Cards” (adapted from the British television show of the same name), the onscreen China has taken another turn. I watched the first season with trepidation: at the time, I was living in Beijing and preparing to move to Washington, D.C. (Are congressmen really lurking in parking garages waiting to snuff each other out?) It’s more relaxing, a year later, to watch Frank Underwood as one of his neighbors. (Members of Congress, it turns out, don’t lurk in parking garages. They Uber.)

When the “House of Cards” plot turns to China, the themes are contemporary and plausible: cyber espionage, rare earths, territorial disputes, and a cunning, meditative, libertine plutocrat who plays on his connections at the highest ranks in Beijing. By the low standards of cinematic history, the depiction of China rings true enough—the show is a hit, with subtitles, in China—and it does a fine job of capturing a moment in time when it can be difficult to know if a man like the character Xander Feng, the emissary from Beijing, speaks for the leaders whom he purports to represent. Retiring the image of a monolithic Chinese government is one of the show’s innovations.

But, now that we’ve mastered the latest incarnation of the Chinese onscreen villain, maybe the time has come for popular American productions to explore other elements of the modern-day Chinese story: the dramas of aspiration and social mobility; the struggles around identity and patriotism and who speaks for the country; the fights over education, the environment, and employment.

If those plotlines sound familiar to Americans, they should; never have the engines of middle-class drama in China and America had so much in common. For the moment, though, it’s refreshing to watch a production in which it is the Americans, not the Chinese, who are expected to be beguiling, reflective—and fundamentally dangerous.


从陈查理(Charlie Chan,美国作家厄尔·德尔·比格斯笔下的华人探长)到《纸牌屋》,在美国屏幕上中国形象的历史上,可能称作是转折点的是一部几乎与中国无关的电影。相反,它是一部关于中东的电影。


对于不了解中国的观众来说,当时正处在动荡状态中的这个国家似乎本质上很险恶。“没有人试图去理解为什么会发生战争,也没有提及导致危机的帝国主义角色,而这场危机最终导致了满清王朝的覆灭和随之而来的无政府状态。”写电影和历史评论的理查德·厄尔林(Richard Oehling)在一篇文章中写道。他还注意到,更糟的是,很多关于这一主题的电影“显示或暗示一种异域文明。”

在第二次世界大战中反派角色被分配给日本这样一个短暂的插曲之后,美国对亚洲的描绘未经多少变化就又回到中国。比如说《满洲候选人》(The Manchurian Candidate)中的洗脑者,《天堂执法者》(Hawaii Five-O)中的吴法(超级罪犯)和詹姆斯·邦德的《诺博士》(Dr. No,“一个德国传教士和一个中国女孩遗弃的孩子”最终被埋葬在一个巨大的鸟粪堆而结束其一生的故事)中的朱利叶斯。这些演员中却很少有完全符合角色的中国人。陈查理的扮演者是华纳·欧兰德(Warner Oland),一个瑞典人。刻画了吴法角色的则是Khigh Dhiegh,一个美国、埃及和苏丹的混血儿。

冷战结束十五年后,随着中国经济的增长推动该国成为一个新兴超级大国的角色,叙述模式发生了一个新的转折。中国不再被描绘成神秘的或嗜杀成性的,由斯蒂芬·加汉(Stephen Gaghan)导演的中东惊悚片《辛瑞那》(Syriana,2005年)的中国形象是被构建成强大的、老谋深算的对手。向阿拉伯王子寻求天然气钻探权的中国代表团到达时讲着一口流利的阿拉伯语,而相比之下,马特·达蒙的美国能源分析师只会用阿拉伯语寒暄几句。作为剧情的元素,这个细节是短暂而次要的,但却是前所未有的。据我所知,旧形象让位给新一代的荧幕中国恶棍:在《蝙蝠侠:黑暗骑士》(Batman: The Dark Knight)和最新的邦德电影《007:大破天幕杀机》(Skyfall)中,美国英雄依然对战来自敌人的猛攻,但却是在上海和澳门的壮观的未来主义背景之中。


当《纸牌屋》的情节转向中国时,主题是当代的且可信的:网络间谍,稀土,领土争端,以及一个狡猾的、沉思的、放荡的富豪,后者依靠他在北京高层中的关系网络发挥作用。按照电影史上的低标准来说,对中国的描绘足够真实——这部美剧(带字幕)在中国走红了——而且它捕捉到了精彩的瞬间,即可能很难知道一个像角色冯赞德(Xander Feng)这样的男人,一名来自北京的使者,是否为其所声称代表的领导辩护。放弃完全统一的中国政府形象是该剧的创新之一。












(译者 Vymou 编辑 Julie)