Buck in China: Redefining the American Hero
Kunming, China, it turns out, is mostly cement and just as polluted as other Chinese cities, but it didn’t matter because we were staying in what is left of the original city, facing a large lake full of lotus and water lily that is surrounded by vividly planted flower beds and many flowering trees. It is eternally spring in Kunming because although the city is in southern China close to the Laotian border, it sits on the shoulders of the Tibetan plateau, so the weather is balmy, mild, and vaguely sunny (through the smog) year round. Best of all is an island in the middle of the lake, connected by walkways to the shore, where all the "senior citizens" from the surrounding province spend the day, every day, dancing, playing a wild variety of single-stringed instruments and flutes, and listening to music. This is what you do in China when you retire, apparently, and each ethnic minority sends its best and most polished musicians, singers and dancers to the island every day to represent the local honor.
The first night in Kunming, we screened Buck at a multiplex in an upscale suburban shopping mall anchored by an Adidas store, with an audience made up primarily of families, including a nine-year-old girl who became our biggest fan. It was only the second screening of Buck in China and I was curious to see how this one would go: The first one, for about 250 film students and faculty at the Beijing Film Academy, had been unnervingly quiet. Very few people had laughed at Buck’s jokes, as do most US and English speaking audiences. Yet everyone had stayed for the q&a and the questions were perceptive, ranging from how the editor chose the music to the messages underlying the film. Many people spoke about how deeply they appreciated the themes of respect and understanding, whether for humans or animals. From their questions it was also clear that this generation is struggling to figure out how to tell stories of change and upheaval, while grappling with a cultural and political unwillingness to speak about that which might be perceived as criticism. One questioner in audience in Beijing was surprised, for example, that Buck addresses the issue of child abuse in the U.S., which seems like revealing too intimate a sin.
So at the Kunming screenings I wanted to know how the audience would respond to Buck and to hear what they thought about Buck’s humor. Humor has a hard time crossing cultural boundaries but our smart young translator had thought about how best to talk about Buck’s sense of humor: She told me that what Americans call a "dry" sense of humor, the Chinese call "cold" humor, and it turns out that there is a tradition of a teasing style in both countries as well. So after this second screening, I asked whether anyone in the audience thought Buck was humorous. I got a mixed reaction, ranging from "horse training isn't funny" to yes, Buck is humorous - not funny necessarily, but humorous. The outright jokes in the film translated best but phrases like "well, I’m off to the office" (while mounting a horse); "no, not that left hand, your other left hand" or "practicing my old man walk," which depend a lot on timing and tone of voice, did not travel as well. Nonetheless, the responses from the audience were universally positive and at least as nuanced as we would have heard from a typical Thursday night audience at most suburban multiplexes in the States.
One of the first people to speak, a young woman who made her point in English, was a revelation. She described how when she was younger, the quintessential American hero to her was General George Patton, standing in front of the giant flag in the movie Patton, speaking in strong and forceful language, with complete confidence and with a complete lack of doubt. He was, she said, a conqueror, the very embodiment of an American hero in the world, and she admired him for it. But now that she had seen Buck, it had redefined for her and for the world what it meant to be an American hero. Buck was now her new American hero, who was respectful, compassionate, firm but kind. I was deeply moved by her response and was very grateful to be part of a film that for at least one young Chinese woman created a new definition of American hero.