One of the themes I keep returning to in my writings about film and literature is the tension that exists within us between the individual and the collective : On one hand, we all want to be true to ourselves and to express ourselves to the fullest without giving in to external pressures or allowing other people to take advantage of us. On the other, we are also deeply sociable creatures who yearn for human contact and the joys of sharing our successes and failures with friends and loved ones. While these two sets of desires are not mutually exclusive, they can interfere with each other. Resolving this interference pattern is not only central to our day-to-day existences, but also our political system.
Or is it?
It is extremely easy to fall into the pattern of seeing everything as a tension between two diametrically opposed extremes : Good and evil, capitalism and socialism, law and chaos, religion and atheism, nature and nurture, mysticism and rationalism, us and them. However, the simple fact that this kind of pattern can be applied to pretty much anything does not necessarily entail that it is picking up on some profound fact about the world. In fact, I would argue that it is a shallow and empty hermeneutic whose very shallowness explains its seemingly universal application. This kind of shallow analytical framework does pose significant dangers.
Indeed, assuming that our original balancing act is not just an empty truism then how certain are we that it is a universal fact about human life? While the desire to balance the needs of individual expression with those of social integration is one of the most common ways of thinking about life in the West in the 21st Century, it is by no means clear that this motif enjoys the same popularity elsewhere in the world. Do members of isolated Amazonian tribes worry about hypocritically trying to ‘fit in’? In his book Black Mass : Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), John Gray suggests that a tendency to assume that all political cultures are the same as ours is one of the regrettable short-comings of Western liberalism. It is, he argues, the kind of unwarranted assumption about other people that leads to blood-shed as when we encounter people who are not like us, it is all too easy to move from incomprehension to hostility.
Fei Xie’s Black Snow (Ben Ming Nian) is an interesting test case for the applicability of our dichotomy : Made in China in the late 1980s, the film initially presents itself as a rather generic art house film in which an alienated and isolated individual battles to re-engage with a society he long-ago turned his back on. However, Fei Xie’s approach to this challenge reveals a political culture with a very different set of attitudes to ours.