Causation, Karma, and Kung Fu: Dragon (2011) | Film Analysis

This is the third and final film analysis paper that I wrote while I went to the Colorado Film School. The first two were The Dark Knight: A Scene Analysis and Of Monsters and Men: Trollhunter (2010) | Film Analysis. I wrote this third paper for my Contemporary Global Cinema class and this class was taught by Andrew Houston at the time. It was originally published on December 7th, 2016 and was one of my last assignments at CFS. Since this is a blog-post and not in the original format, I have made minor revisions to this film analysis to make it up to date with the rest of my blog. With all of that in mind, here is my film analysis:

When considering cinema in general, a quintessential part that is often glossed over is the worldviews that the characters on-screen inhabit. Consider this the subconscious factor in a character’s motivations as they make decisions from both an explicit and implicit sense. In particular, a character’s worldview helps us as the audience understand more fully why a character believes what they believe. Now in the West, the worldviews of a cinematic character are rarely elaborated on, in order to appeal to the broadest audience possible by avoiding points of controversy like religion. So instead, we will look at Eastern cinema for a more fleshed-out look at worldviews in film.

When deciding on which film precisely, I have chosen the Hong Kong movie Wǔ xiá (2011) which is translated into Dragon in English. I chose this film because it portrays a great difference in thinking in our two main characters who make for quite the odd couple. The film is about a burglary that takes place at a general store where Donnie Yen’s character, Liu Jin-Xi, works and the aftermath case is investigated by Detective Xu Baijiu played by Takeshi Kaneshiro. The film opens with the inciting incident of the burglary, but what coincides thereafter is an investigation to sort out the loose ends of a peculiar crime scene.

At first it seems that Liu Jin-Xi has, in an attempt to protect the general store, accidentally killed both burglars in some sort of brawl. With too many loose ends, Detective Xu Baijiu looks further into the crime scene only to find that Liu Jin-Xi is actually a former martial artist named Tang Long. As a former martial artist, Long used to be apart of the “72 Demons” gang led by his own father, The Master, played by Yu Wang who famously portrayed the One-Armed Swordsman in the 1970’s in a series of Chinese films.

Now the main scene that shows this conflict in worldviews between these two characters is right after Detective Baijiu pushes Long off of a bridge to see if his martial artist theory is correct and he truly did intentionally kill the two burglars. Turning the case from a self-defense to a double homicide, but Long simply falls onto a tree before falling into the river below as the theory appears to now hold no water. Once Long is recovered from the river, wet and shaken up, the two have a conversation over a warm campfire as the sun sets behind them. It is here when the themes of karma and materialism clash as the two converse, revealing their innermost beliefs regarding the world they equally share.

Long begins this discourse as he says “If you hadn’t come today, I wouldn’t have fallen. It’s karma.” Detective Baijiu replies sternly with, “It was an accident.” In response, Long says the following monologue that succinctly presents his perspective on human existence:

“No. What I mean to say is: the fabric of existence is composed of a myriad of karmic threads. Nothing exists in and of itself, everything is connected. For example, if I hadn’t come to this village, I wouldn’t have met Ayu. If her husband hadn’t left her, I wouldn’t have married her. If I hadn’t gone to the store, I wouldn’t have seen the criminals, and they wouldn’t have died. Then you wouldn’t have come here… No one truly has free will. When one man sins, we all share his sin. We are all accomplices.”

So with this knowledge in mind, we now know what Long’s viewpoint in life is and even in his current situation of potentially going to prison for murder. There is a lot to unpack here, but first we need to understand Detective Baijiu’s perspective on both the situation at-hand and his perspective of the world as well. Earlier in the film, as he is attempting to solve the case, he is quoted saying the following during a montage of sorts:

“Good or bad, it’s determined by our physiology. The Shanzhong Meridian controls our emotions and gives us empathy. My Shanzhong Meridian is overdeveloped. It makes me too empathetic… my rational self appears separately from me, it tells me human emotions can be altered and controlled by manipulating the Meridian. That’s why I use two needles [for acupuncture therapy]. One is inserted in the Shanzhong, to suppress my empathy, the other in the Tientu to control the poison. You can’t trust humanity. Through science, I’ve discovered only physiology and the law don’t lie.”

When compared side by side the two worldviews bear both commonalities and stark differences. For starters, let’s observe the film from an epistemic perspective and see how their differing worldviews compare to one another. Long grew up in a world outside of modern civilization in rural China.

A common man that was surrounded by the ancient belief in karma that can be found in Buddhism. “Karma is the law of moral causation” and is a foundational doctrine of belief within Buddhism (1). Put succinctly, karma is the idea that whatever wrongs or rights that are made in the past will directly affect the present as one is rebirthed. This causational link of events is very much attached to a linear concept of time and thus is limited by that conceptual idea.

To contrast, Detective Baijiu has grown up in a more civilized part of China where Western thought has made its greatest impact: in the city. This influence is what pressed upon Detective Baijiu to adopt some form of a materialistic worldview. Where only matter is reality and everything can be answered through the power of scientific inquiry.

Although, his faith in science is an idolatrous logical fallacy at best and his version of naturalism is quite common in the West. As a detective, Baijiu also sees the world through a much more pessimistic perspective as most likely in his career, he has only seen the worst in people. It must be hard for him to see saints when his job is to stop sinners. The world he sees is only functional and right when the law is firmly established in society and everything lines up.

Now that our two main characters have been briefly described based off of the story they are apart of, let’s see what makes this clash in worldviews so unique. How they actually believe almost the exact same thing in the long run, but have differing definitions for their stances in life. Between the two ideologies, they share three distinct similarities with each other that are fundamental to both worldviews: that there is no god, that there is no soul, and that we are bound by circumstantial causation. We will reflect on all three before going full circle and seeing why at the beginning of the film, Long and Baijiu are at odds, but by the end are allies fighting for the same goal. First, we will start with their shared belief in no god(s).

Now when the topic of contrasting different religions and belief systems is brought up, the reality of it all is that most of these faiths bear several similarities across the board. Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, John C. Lennox, remarks on this similarity when he says that “in particular, ancient Near Eastern accounts [on the origins of the universe] typically contain theogonies, which describe how the gods are generated from primeval matter. These gods are, therefore, mere deifications of nature and its powers. This means that such ancient worldviews stand much closer to modern materialism than might at first appear (2).” In short, as odd as it may seem, polytheism and atheism are much closer in relation than one would expect and the same can be said of other pairings like Buddhism alongside materialism.

Both Buddhism and materialism share the fundamental commonality that they both hold to the belief in no god(s). For materialism, the existence of a non-material deity and/or force somehow living amidst the material or separate from the material is illogical. This is based on the grounds that only matter and the laws therein that bind matter are all that exists in our universe. The affirmation that neither the spiritual nor the supernatural could possibly co-exist within a universe constructed of only matter. Matter is all that there is and all that there ever could be in our reality, according to materialism.

When it comes to Buddhism and whether or not it is a form of theism is a hot-button topic of debate in religious circles. While there are certain factions of Buddhism like Pure Land Buddhism that some suggest as theistic in nature, the vast majority of scholars and Buddhists affirm that Buddhism is very atheistic on a fundamental level. This is because it is silent on the subject regarding the existence of god(s).

As philosopher Ravi Zacharias would put it, “there is no teaching about god in Buddhism… the goal of the faith is to cease desiring (3).” Hence, Buddhism is rooted in the implicit belief that one can be good enough to get to Nirvana without the assistance or grace of god(s). While modern Buddhism may have theistic themes in certain sects, classical Buddhism is strictly atheistic in its origins and fundamental values.

In regards to the soul, materialism again has the belief that matter is all there is to life in the universe. The soul in its most basic definition is the essence of who we are as individual persons and what makes us human even after our life is over. Materialists, like Baijiu, believe that time itself is the measure that makes our reality real. To say that there is an existence or a life after our own time ends is preposterous to the materialists because everything that is exists solely in the confines of time. We begin. We live. We end. This is an essential truth for the materialist.

For the Buddhist, like Long, the soul is not real and is a fundamental of Buddhism called Anatta meaning “non-self” or “non-soul” that separates Buddhism from the majority of world religions all together. A Buddhist may believe in the ever-present recurrence of the rebirth cycle, but to have an eternal soul is not supported by any Buddhist writings. The soul happens to be an issue that yet again divides Hindus from Buddhists, respectively. On the other hand, it is a second fundamental similarity between both materialists and Buddhists.

At last, we arrive at one more commonality that both Baijiu and Long share and that is this: they both assert strongly the notion of circumstantial causation. A term that I coined to show the parallel between the two and can be taken in the literal sense. In that everything that is caused is the direct result of the circumstances that one may find themselves in the moment or in the long run of their life. For instance, a Japanese woman may find herself in an internment camp in the Midwestern United States due to the previous circumstances of her living on the Pacific side of the U.S. during the duration of World War II. She is simply where she is based off of circumstances that she cannot control because of the ever long list of circumstances that led to this very moment of her imprisonment.

The materialist would respond to a scenario like this and say that this Japanese woman is apart of a less-developed section of the evolutionary tree that is struggling to survive amidst the presence of a stronger branch of human evolution. The Buddhist would reply with the fact that this is happening due to something awful that the Japanese woman did in a previous rebirth and karma is giving her exactly what she deserves. In this same respect, both materialism and Buddhism carry this idea of circumstantial causation into their own belief systems. The materialist has to logically conclude that all humans can do is fit the most basic evolutionary needs with the use of their cognitive faculties guiding them to reproduction and survival of the species. This conclusion follows because naturalism is the underlying force behind materialism in most cases, especially for Baijiu in the film.

Due to the circumstances of previous members of the evolutionary family tree, the modern human has the sole purpose of surviving long enough to reproduce, in order to pass on their genetic makeup onto the more evolved next generation. This cycle of evolution is interestingly similar to the way karmic rebirth plays out in the mind of a Buddhist. We are born due to circumstantial causation and must perform better in this life to guarantee a better life later down the timeline, according to this Eastern philosophy.

An oddity, but nevertheless a similarity between the two differing viewpoints. In other words, natural selection through the process of evolutionary naturalism within a materialistic worldview is identical with Buddhism because karma through the process of rebirth within a Buddhist worldview has the same exact circumstantial causation. Thus, the two belief systems are almost perfectly aligned in this respect.

So how does this culmination of a case in favor of the similarities between materialism and Buddhism connect with the relational dynamic of both Long and Baijiu? Well in the explicit sense, the two are at odds over their differences, yet by the end set their differences aside to fight the ultimate evil: the Master of the 72 Demons. In the implicit sense, could it be a stretch to argue that subconsciously the two figured out their own similarities in their own worldviews throughout the unfolding of the film’s narrative, which led them to fight alongside one another in the end? For Long, a battle for redemption, honor, and family. For Baijiu, a battle for truth, justice, and the survival of the fittest to make way for the next generation.

The two have differing reasons because of differing worldviews during the whole film and yet they work together to stop this evil threat. Why would they do that exactly? The field of sociology might just have the answer. Within sociology, there is common idea that there are more differences between two people within the same sub-culture than there are between two people in different sub-cultures. Therefore, these two different people, Baijiu and Long, being from two different sub-cultures fought against the Master because they were more aligned than they thought at first. The Master, who was from the same sub-culture that Long was apart of, in the end viewed the world drastically different than the way Long views it and hence they differed so much leading to this battle.

To summarize, at first Baijiu and Long appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum of worldviews, that is Buddhism and materialism. As seen previously, the two subconsciously may have recognized some similarities in their thinking (i.e. no god(s), no soul, and circumstantial causation) and this led to their teamwork throughout the final battle in Dragon. Which when the title, Wǔ xiá, is translated into English, it means knight-errant. This word equates to a medieval knight or a warrior searching in the hopes of finding an honorable quest.

So two warriors from two polar opposite worldviews are subconsciously looking for something worth fighting for that is greater than themselves. In this instance, beyond the self, in order to bring about a satisfactory end to their individual quests. Baijiu fights in the hopes of eradicating the outlaw to further the human species and Long fights in the hopes of entering Nirvana by fixing the debts of his past life. Together, by the end of the film, the two are walking on their own quests and both have only a few more steps before reaching the end of their journey. Like an ancient Chinese proverb once said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/karma.htm
  2. Seven Days That Divide The World, P. 94
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5jr00Hyk54
  4. Disclaimer
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