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By Rodney Clapp
Hollywood Looks East
There is justice in the criticism that movies generally treat Christianity with scorn, when they aren't simply ignoring its very existence. Only rarely are earnest Christians portrayed sympathetically. Most often they are buffoonish foils or, as in the recent and despicable Just Cause, dangerous freaks on the sideshow of life's carnival. But as I realized while watching John Boorman's latest work, Beyond Rangoon, Western filmmakers do often engage Eastern religions with a mixture of curiosity and respect.
While we may rightly hope for more sympathetic depictions of Christian faith, I don't think Christians need point East and complain, grade-school style, "You take their religion seriously, but not ours." In the autobiographical "Now and Then," Frederick Buechner recalls his days of teaching religion at Exeter boarding school. He found Buddhism a valuable subject to study alongside Christianity because "it was both so like it in some ways and so different in others that to study the two side by side was, both in comparison and by contrast, to discover something new about each." His students (like many filmmakers?) found Christian ideas "stale and obvious" through overexposure. To juxtapose those ideas with exotic names and unfamiliar images was to have Christianity come alive again. Likewise, Christians--and Jews, who share the same roots and, to a degree, the same frame of reference--might enjoy films about Buddhists (and other Easterners) as opportunities to cast their faith in a new and sometimes revealing light.
Boorman's Rangoon is the latest such promising film. I want to enlist with it an earlier piece with similar themes, the 1991 Australian movie Turtle Beach (released to video as Killing Beach).
Both stories are set in conditions of oppression. Beyond Rangoon unfolds in Burma in the late 1980s, when a military dictatorship violently stifles an emerging democratic movement. Turtle Beach concerns the plight of Vietnamese boat people fleeing to Malaysia in the late ...