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 1970s. Both stories feature female Anglo protagonists thrust into crises in lands and among people they barely understand, but come to appreciate. Rangoon's Laura (Patricia Arquette) is a medical doctor on a getaway tour of the Far East, stranded in Burma due to passport problems. Beach's Judith (Greta Sacchi) is an Australian journalist on assignment in Malaysia, drawn by a new friendship into more passionate involvement with the boat people. And both heroines, cast into the middle of political crises of extreme cruelty and desperation, must struggle with personal crises as well. Laura is touring the East to forget and heal from the horror of finding her husband and son murdered by a house burglar. Judith, divorced, faces a battle with her ex over custody of their children.
A comment from Turtle Beach may most immediately suggest the resonance of these films for Jews and Christians willing to look East. Malaysia hardly has the resources to deal with thousands of Vietnamese refugees, and so the boat people languish in stinking island camps. Many, when first arriving at Malaysia's Turtle Beach, are beaten and hacked to death by the villagers, who feel threatened by the flood of immigrants. An Australian diplomat remarks that the boat people are the "Jews of Asia."
This invites a question: Just how Jewish are the boat people? They are certainly suffering and oppressed, but how does the way these (mostly Buddhist) boat people suffer and bear their oppression compare to the way Jews have suffered and borne theirs?
The question of the suffering Buddhist is raised directly in Beyond Rangoon. Laura tours the Burmese countryside with her guide, a former Buddhist monk. One evening she confesses to him the awful personal tragedy she has come East to forget. Then she allows that, until the murders, she thought she lived with a "right" to happiness. Her guide responds that the (Buddhist) Burmese expect suffering, not happiness. When happiness comes, it is to be enjoyed as a gift, but with awareness that it will soon certainly pass.
I suspect this Buddhist estimation of happiness as a transient gift is closer to the attitudes of traditional Judaism and Christianity than is Laura's presumption of the right to happiness. But her guide is not unaware of difficult ironies inherent in Buddhist detachment. At another time he suggests that his people, resigned to suffering, may too easily accept the cruelties of autocratic rule.
I take him to refer to the nature of Buddhist hope. The ultimate Buddhist hope is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth and enter into the ineffable bliss of Nirvana. The Jewish (and, following it, the Christian) hope is different. It is a hope for a new heaven and earth. Consequently, Jews (and Christians, when they are truest to their own heritage) are never very tolerant of injustice. They not only follow Moses out from under Pharaoh's mean hand, but take several cartfuls of Egyptian treasure with them. Their prophets do not counsel detachment, but call for lamentation and remembrance that Israel's God will someday vindicate Israel against its enemies. As N. T. Wright has memorably argued, Jewish monotheism is a fighting creed.
Yet it will not do to leap to the conclusion that Buddhists have no "native" resources to resist injustice. After all, one of the most compelling figures in Beyond Rangoon is the leader of the democratic movement (and 1991 Nobel laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi. In a scene based on an actual incident, she leads peaceable marchers through the streets of Rangoon. Suddenly they are faced by dozens of soldiers, with rifles aimed and cocked. Suu Kyi stops the marchers and, armed only with a quivering smile, steps into the rifles. The soldiers, literally disarmed by her uncanny serenity, drop their guns and let the marchers pass. Apparently Suu Kyi's Buddhist spirituality gives her courage to accept that she has nothing to lose but her life. And so, to borrow the title of her book, it grants her a politically potent "Freedom from Fear."
This may lead us affluent Western Christians to some salutary self-examination. How much injustice, how much neglect, how much dilution of our faith do we permit in order to hang on to so much more than our lives? To what degree are we so inured to the comforts of modernity that we fail to imagine a world secure and peaceable not just for ourselves, but for all (or at least more and more of) earth's people?
Turtle Beach can sharpen these questions with its consideration of the theme of sacrifice. The friend who draws our Australian journalist more intimately into the plight of the boat people is herself a former boat person. She is Minou (played in a mixed key of bravery and vulnerability by the beautiful Joan Chen). Minou, formerly forced into prostitution, has been discovered and married by the Australian ambassador, Lord Hobday. This gives her status to head up an international refugee relief committee. But, as Judith learns, Minou's passion for the boat people is not fueled only by national kinship. Minou has three children who did not escape Vietnam with her; she wants desperately to get them out safely.
The greatest danger her children face, if they make Malaysia, are the machete-bearing hordes likely to meet them at the beach. Only once has Minou seen the villagers drop their weapons: when a boat sank offshore and 200 Vietnamese drowned, the Hindu Malaysians saw this as sacrifice enough and let the survivors be. Minou takes this to heart. Later, while at her Buddhist prayer, she is struck by a vision, a possible way of getting her children ashore safely.
Obtaining information through the black market, Minou learns when her children have embarked from Vietnam. Since she cannot swim, she has before enlisted Judith to help starving and emaciated boat people out of the surf. She does so again. And her boat--her children's boat--comes in. But while it is still a few hundred yards from shore, the armed villagers appear. Judith looks on in confusion as Minou rows a raft out to the boat, greets her children, then rows away from the boat. She stands in the raft, secures the villagers' attention, then throws herself into the ocean. Seeing that she does not surface again, that she has deliberately chosen death, the villagers put down their weapons and cease their clamoring.
Judith, who has rescued Minou's children, is horrified and outraged. A Malaysian friend, on the scene with her, lashes back, "You Westerners know nothing about sacrifice. … It's a very noble act." As if to confirm the Malaysian's suspicions, at a subsequent press conference an Australian journalist characterizes Minou's "noble act" as "suicide."
At last summer's Christian Booksellers Association convention, one booth, vending athletic wear, featured a larger-than-life-size sculpture of Jesus doing pushups with the cross resting on his shoulders. In light of such travesties, movies like Beyond Rangoon and Turtle Beach ask some probing theological questions. Do modern Westerners understand sacrifice? Can Westerners understand sacrifice?
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review