Published April 1, 2001
Pavilion of Women is possibly the most perfectly awful movie I have seen this year. It is also a sad indication of the extent to which Hollywood, in seeking to demonstrate liberal good-will towards the People’s Republic of China, will swallow without a murmur propaganda that would be laughed off the stage if it came from any other source. It helps, of course, that deference to the tyrants of Beijing, past and present, is on this occasion complemented by deference to feminist mythology concerning the original sin of “patriarchy.” Because both demonize what they find it convenient to call the “feudal” period of Chinese history—though in fact the film is set in the pre-communist period of the republican era, in the late 1930s—they find it convenient to forget that the communist bureaucracy whose triumph is looked forward to here was then and to a large extent remains today profoundly patriarchal.
The alliance between these two allegedly “revolutionary” forces is further strengthened by the predisposition of the arts in general for the last century or so, and the cinema in particular for the last three decades or so, to smile on any combination of theses, no matter how internally contradictory, which debunk or subvert traditional institutions or mores. This kind of thinking has its origins in the 1960s when, in spite of the historical evidence about actual revolutions, all of which had been led by dedicated, ruthless and ascetic men, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll came to be thought of as revolutionary forces. Few people seriously believe that today, but it suits the book of the entertainment industry to pretend to believe it, since teenagers with money are always happy to be told that indulging their appetites is a noble and idealistic act.
Adapted by Luo Yan and Paul R. Collins from a novel by Pearl S. Buck and directed by. Yim Ho, Pavilion of Women tells the story of Madame Wu (Luo Yan), a winsome Chinese wife in the still-traditionalist China of 1938, who having turned 40 decides to retire from her wifely duties to a loutish husband (Shek Sau) by kindly providing him with a second wife, a simple but not unhandsome peasant girl called Chiuming (Yi Ding). At the same time her eldest son, Fengmo (John Cho) is deemed to be in need of some more education, to which end a tutor is employed in the person of an American missionary-priest, Father André (Willem Dafoe).
Lasik surgery is not required to spot a long a long way off that Chiuming and Fengmo fall for each other while Madame Wu and Father André do likewise. Fortunately for the morals of all four, the Japanese are on their way, and the Second World War intervenes, incidentally providing Fengmo with the opportunity to join the glorious Red Army under Chairman Mao. The happy upshot is that the running dogs of capitalism and the feudal leftovers of early republican China join the prototypes of those male chauvinist pigs so familiar to a later era and the Japanese empire in the dustbin of history. The forces of progressivism thus appear, as they so often do, as the sole representatives of dialectical and ideological correctness.
Those of us who have spent some time picking over the dustbin of history, however, might raise an eyebrow at the spectacle of a Roman Catholic priest of the 1930s solemnly assuring a potential sinner that “Love is never sinful.” Priests, like other men, have always been susceptible to sin, but it is only since Vatican Two (and not often then, I fancy) that you would have been able to find a priest willing to claim that acts which the Church has always and everywhere taught are sinful are not sins at all. These little historical distortions have their uses, however, as they help to create the illusion, so important to the film’s purposes, that the Imperial Japanese army took the field to enforce a stifling and traditionalist morality upon an oppressed people yearning to breathe (and otherwise exercise their bodies) freely and without restraint.
But when schools stop teaching history, or teach only the quasi-Marxist version of history that is today approved for schools, it is hardly surprising that rubbish like Pavilion of Women can be produced in Hollywood. The movies have always tended to mythologize history, but the nationalist mythologies that once found favor there have now given way to something much more sinister and likely to cause endless trouble and grief to future generations of those who will continue, in defiance of the spirit of the age, to think of themselves as patriots.