Friday, July 21, 2006

"The Incredibles": one dissenting voice

My English circle, which meets every other Friday, had the chance to watch the rest of "The Incredibles" this afternoon. The discussion centered on issues of heroism and specialness, but we also had the chance to talk about topics like goal-setting, nature versus nurture, and our own dreams and passions. Fairly standard conversational topics, in all.

One of my students, somewhat gloomy in nature and a bit reminiscent of the sulky teenaged character Violet, voiced some dissent about "The Incredibles," a movie I thought everyone loved. Her first critique was that the movie was very American in tone-- an accusation I can't really deny. But my student's beef wasn't so much with the tone as with the final death at the end, when Syndrome gets sucked into his own jet engine, thanks in part to his cape.

"Why did he have to die?" my student asked. I explained that the guy had already killed dozens of superheroes, so in dramatic terms, his death seemed appropriate. "Do you think you should kill someone who kills people?" she responded. I raised my eyebrows magisterially. "Anyway," she continued, "I didn't think the bad guy had to die, especially not in a movie for kids."

It may be something of a gross generalization to say this, but East Asian folks tend to view human situations as either inherently complex or inherently ambivalent. I'm not saying that this viewpoint is false: too often I've heard-- not just from Asians, but also from other Westerners-- that the American point of view is far too simplistic, that we Yanks tend to prefer our analyses in black and white. This isn't totally false, either: the constant search for clarity is indeed a major cultural undercurrent in America (check out some of the articles in this Google search).

However, in the case of Syndrome, I felt his death was quite justified. Not only did he slaughter dozens of superheroes, but he also threatened children and willingly jeopardized the lives of thousands of city dwellers, solely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. In the logic of action films (and "The Incredibles" qualifies as one of the best action films of its year), the bad guy usually gets it in the end. Syndrome's demise struck me as poetic justice.

Koreans can be surprisingly forgiving of people who make huge mistakes. Witness the case of Dr. Hwang Woo Seok and his amen choir: a group of the faithful who think the good doctor can do no wrong, and who believe he deserves a second chance. Also, my own experience in hundreds of conversation classes tells me that Korean students are often more willing to forgive deep transgressions than Americans are, partly because the view of personal responsibility is somewhat different here. Korean action films will often portray a situation wherein the hero is forced to kill, but is consumed with regret in so doing (the movie "Shiri" is a classic example of this, as the hero is forced to kill the woman he loves-- symbolically killing part of himself in the process).

An interesting discussion of this issue can be found in Dr. Richard Nisbett's book, The Geography of Thought. (An article on the book can be found here.) One of Nisbett's major contentions is that East Asian thinking-- compared to Western thinking-- displays greater "field dependence," i.e., the tendency not to separate foreground objects neatly from the background. To the East Asian mind, connection, relation, and process are more important than discrete objects. This orientation has a direct impact on how an East Asian perceives human situations.

In the case of "The Incredibles," my student viewed Syndrome in terms of his traumatic childhood rejection by Mr. Incredible, who was his hero. Syndrome's badness was therefore put in perspective. While my student might agree that Syndrome is a bad guy, his troubled background mitigates the impact of his sins. An American looking at the same situation would be less likely to view Syndrome that way, preferring instead to operate according to a clear rule such as: "Threaten my kids, and I don't care if you're Jesus Christ Himself-- your ass is grass."

It was interesting to hear my student's objection. I don't agree with it, primarily because a voice in my head is whispering, "It's only a moooooovie!" At the same time, I did ask my circle to take some of the movie's themes seriously, and that's precisely what my student was doing. To that extent, she made me stop and think a bit. And that's one of the reasons I find this circle so worthwhile.


No comments: