The death of the story
Thoughts on Hollywood and my recent forays into Eastern cinema
Roland Barthes famously called for the death of the author in literary criticism, but recently I’ve been wondering if stories are dying instead in the West. No, they’re not altogether defunct, but many stories seem to be increasingly depthless and stale. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks this. James Harris at Stiff Upper Quip hypothesises that part of the problem is that we are too self-conscious about politics, and about making sure that we say the right thing:
It’s as if a kind of exaggerated self-consciousness about the act of writing is an attempt to insulate it from literature’s somewhat marginal status in the culture as a whole.
That marginal status manifests not just in preciousness about process but also a fear of addressing contentious subjects. A lot of contemporary fiction chafes from addressing politics. By that I don’t mean writers don’t take political stances; they do, but of a certain type of general identity politics and often with an element of ‘paying the piper’; what we see now is a writing world which is not political but politicized.
Clearly there are higher and lower status opinions for writers to hold on race, sexuality and gender, but these are wielded for writers’ personal advancement; they are sectorial politics, in the same way as a farmer knows the prices of biofuels. They have very little to do with any actual grounding and mooring in political theory. If such an author doing a promotional were asked to speak and conceive of things politically beyond those stances, rather than just hitting the approved rote phrases, they would flounder.
Sadly, I think there is truth to this. These days, it seems that the story itself is often regarded as subsidiary to whether it represents marginalised voices. As I’ve said previously, I could wield various minority statuses to be more readily published, but—for better or worse—I don’t. I am happy for other people to write about their minority statuses or experiences, but I don’t want to write on those topics, or to be pigeonholed as a “disabled woman writer” or something similar.
The problem seems to be particularly acute with Hollywood movies. My favourite genres are fantasy and science fiction, but I haven’t watched a movie at the cinema since 2017,1 and I hadn’t watched a television series since 2020.2 I have no interest in superhero movies, endless sub-par remakes of old movies, or eternal prequels and sequels, which seems to be all that Hollywood can produce.
However, when I had COVID a fortnight ago, I had to find a way of resting and stopping myself from responding to work crises. I wasn’t up to reading, and I was suffering from temporary severe tinnitus and loss of hearing (I’ve recovered now). As a result,suggested that I watch some subtitled dramas of the wǔxiá (武俠) genre (Chinese fantasy stories with a martial arts focus). I was more than happy to accept this suggestion. I’ve always loved Asian martial arts and fantasy shows; I blame a childhood watching Jackie Chan and Monkey Magic.
In the story, there are three realms (Shuiyuntian, Cangyan Sea, and Yunmeng Lake). Immortals live in Shuiyuntian and Cangyan Sea, and mortals live in Yunmeng Lake. Shuiyuntian and Cangyan Sea have been at war for thousands of years. Shuiyuntian is generally heavenly in tenor (clouds, water, people striding around wearing white robes and gold crowns) and Cangyan Sea is generally hellish in tenor (fire, ash, people striding around wearing black robes and spiky black crowns).
The ruler of Cangyan Sea, the tyrannical and arrogant Dongfang Qingcang, previously threatened to take over the three realms after mastering hellfire. He was on the verge succeeding in his invasion when the then-God of War of Shuiyuntian, Lady Chidi, sacrificed herself to prevent him from doing so. He was imprisoned by Shuiyuntian in a seemingly impregnable prison, and everyone in Shuiyuntian was told he was dead and defeated. Meanwhile, with Dongfang Qingcang gone, Shuiyuntian invaded and took over chunks of Cangyan Sea, and the rest of Cangyan Sea descended into constant civil war.
The show begins with a fairy of Shuiyuntian, Orchid, who is seeking to better herself and rise up higher in the ranks of heavenly immortals.4 Unfortunately, she is weak in power, and her master (the Arbiter of Shuiyuntian) has gone missing. Meanwhile Dongfang Qingcang, although still unconscious, is straining against the spells which hold him in prison, and the immortals decide to seal him in more securely. In order to save one of the immortals, the replacement God of War, Changheng, Orchid joins the effort. While the seal is re-established, she falls into the prison.
Of course, this has disastrous consequences. Orchid wakes Dongfang Qingcang, and he immediately resolves to break out of prison, and resume his mission to conquer Shuiyuntian and kill all its inhabitants. He decides to start by killing Orchid, but discovers that she has accidentally cursed him: any physical harm which happens to her also happens to him, and he feels what she feels. He is annoyed, as the leaders of Cangyan Sea went to a good deal of trouble to erase every vestige of human emotion in him, something he has come to embrace. He leaves Orchid, with an intention to resume the war and unite his people, but he finds that he can’t ignore her as readily as he thought.
I’m not giving away anything more than what’s in the first two episodes, or on Wikipedia, but I really enjoyed this show.
First, it is subtle in its exploration of good and evil.
I feel that Western drama and literature has increasingly come to portray the bad guys as bad simply because, well, they’re bad, don’t you know? They oppress people or ruin the environment for the sheer fun of it, because they’re greedy, or because they’re psychopaths. There’s no real reason why they’re evil (eg, Voldemort in the Harry Potter series), or there’s a flimsy pretext (eg, Anakin Skywalker’s descent into Darth Vader).
I wonder if we have come to fear—particularly after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust—that if we seek to explore and explain why otherwise normal people do bad things, we excuse them. Explanation and excuse are different things. Bad actions can be explicable, and yet ultimately not in the least excusable.
In ‘Love Between Fairy and Devil’, by contrast, there are reasons why characters do bad things. Very importantly, most characters think the reasons for which they are acting are good, or at the least, worth it for the good outcome they will attain, even if they recognise that some of the things they are doing to achieve the desired outcome are evil. Most of them don’t go around cackling and saying, “Haha, let’s oppress people and do evil things for fun.” They do bad things because they are loyal to their master or their realm, or out of duty to family members, or because they are trying to help or avenge someone they love.
There is also an awareness of the conflicted loyalties which can arise in authoritarian regimes and societies: several characters are concerned about whether they will be thought to be a ‘traitor’ and denounced by their own side, and others show a disturbing willingness to throw people on their own side to the wolves, or to have them tortured, when it comes to it. The rulers are sometimes capricious, and willing to execute people for petty insults, or for political expediency, as well as for more understandable reasons.
There’s a sense that, particularly in Shuiyuntan, the penalties for wrongdoing depend very much on the will and mood of Lord Yunzhong, the current ruler. Ironically, although Cangyan Sea seems in some ways much harsher—Dongfang Qingcang has a reputation for summarily executing those who annoy him—it appears to have a more structured legal system in practice. When a high-ranking person of Cangyan Sea is condemned for treason, he asks Dongfang Qingcang why he explained the charges. The reply is simply, “Of course I am obliged to explain what the charges are, and why I am imprisoning you and considering executing you.” One is left to wonder if this would happen in Shuiyuntian, where the jails contain not only numerous people from Cangyan Sea, but also plenty of “sinful immortals” (people of Shuiyuntian who have offended Yunzhong).
Secondly, it was a skilfully-written emotional roller-coaster ride. It takes artistry to balance all these elements. There were some moments when I laughed until I cried, and in the next moment, I was horrified, or weeping with sadness.
Thirdly, the show is beautiful—costuming, scenery, and props—and unashamed about drawing upon Asian cultural heritage and tropes from Asian literature. The acting and music is also great. Of course, there’s reincarnations and body swaps, as required by the genre, and it’s all fabulously done. Apart from the two main characters, Shangque (Dongfang Qingcang’s lieutenant) is a particular highlight: his expressions are fabulous as he realises that his commander is behaving increasingly unusually, for a variety of complicated reasons.
Fourthly, the characters grow during the show. No one is a ‘Mary Sue’ who’s perfect at everything with no effort (yes, Rey from ‘The Force Awakens’, I’m looking at you). They start out with very evident flaws, and have to work hard to make themselves better (or fail in the attempt). The scene portraying Dongfang Qingcang’s redemptive confrontation with his late father is so well-written, well-acted and well-directed. It’s very moving. The lessons the characters learn are very painful, and sometimes fatal. Not everyone ends up happy or with the partner they wanted, either.
It struck me, after finishing my binge, that this story couldn’t be made in Hollywood, or at least, not in that form. There are so many reasons why, but let me just pick a few.
Orchid starts out as a weak woman who, at first, relies on various men to save her from peril. If the story was remade by Hollywood, this just wouldn’t do: she couldn’t be allowed to be girlish, weak, or foolish, nor could she be rescued by men. (Never mind that for me, one of the most dramatic scenes is the one where she is rescued from torture). She’d have to be like Galadriel from ‘Rings of Power’, or Admiral Holdo from ‘The Last Jedi’: magically stronger and more militarily strategic than any of the men. No penchant for making sweet cakes in the shape of flowers for her! Girls aren’t allowed to be girls in any way; they must at all times be both stronger and better than men.5
Despite her physical and magical weakness, and her girlishness, Orchid is ultimately one of the strongest characters. She’s certainly the only one who could be described as both strong and good, on any side.6 This goodness in part stems from her naïveté and tendency to assume the best of people. This has significant downsides: she’s tricked, used, and cheated at different points by various characters. On the other hand, she is the only character to consistently speak truth to power. People who do that are rare, and, as her tale shows, the consequences of doing so can be extremely dangerous.
The Milgram experiment illustrates that when it comes to the crunch, when faced with an official command to turn up an electric shock to a level which kills or maims the person they are questioning, most people comply. How would I react? I genuinely don’t know. And I don’t think any of us can know until we are put to the test.
The West is currently driven by a notion that we must all be the person who speaks out. The point is that most of us would not be that person. This reminded me of a post by Ian Leslie, in which he discusses the explicit desire of barrister Jolyon Maugham KC to be like Martin Luther King. Leslie goes on to say:
…Many middle-class people in Western societies carry a covert longing to have our moral mettle tested in the crucible of history. I’ve sometimes felt that urge myself. We want to know how we’d have behaved in societies where overt displays of racism were the norm, and laws explicitly discriminated against people on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality. Would we have meekly accepted such wrongs and even endorsed them, like many or most of our historical peers? Surely not. We’d have stood up and fought for justice, wouldn’t we? We’d have been heroes.
These days, so many people in the West consciously set out to be ‘on the right side of history’. Activism is regarded as a per se good. However, in its extreme form, I fear activism of any political stripe is breaking our society apart, rather than uniting it.
Ironically, the character who best fits the definition of an activist is Dongfang Qingcang, at first the villain of the show. He is consumed by his desire to throw off the oppression of Shuiyuntian, and there’s simply not much else driving him (for reasons that later become evident). In the pursuit of his revenge on Shuiyuntian, Dongfang Qingcang is cruel to himself, his family, his people, and to others. He shows absolutely no hesitation in deciding to kill Orchid when she falls into his prison; she’s from Shuiyuntian, and therefore the enemy. She must die. But in a poetic moment, he discovers that if she dies, he will die with her.
Conversely Orchid is good, but she is very much not someone who sets out to do good. Indeed, in some ways, the story is a cautionary tale about letting the desire to right wrongs consume one. If the story had been told by Hollywood, it is likely that this, again, simply would not do. Dongfang Qingcang would have to be an unalloyed hero, fighting for justice for his people, because he is the rebel leader of an oppressed minority. Indeed, his victimhood at the hands of Shuiyuntian would be hammered over our heads so much that we’d want to shout, “We get the picture.” And there wouldn’t be a lingering sense that he was as much a victim of his own people’s choices as of Shuiyuntian’s actions, or any hint that he was the author of his imprisonment through his arrogance.
It seems that we have increasing difficulty acknowledging in Western popular culture (or at least, in Hollywood films) that, sometimes, bad actions can be perpetrated by those who strongly think they are doing good, and by those who are victims. Nor do we seem to acknowledge that the means can corrupt the ends, even when the ends we seek are good and entirely understandable. This mindset seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States. Conversely, I suspect that people in the East understand these things very well. Indeed, around 2010, Chinese people came up with a derogatory term for activist left-wingers from the US who came to China and expressed a naive admiration for communism: báizuǒ (白左) (the characters stand for “white” and “left”).
Among other things, China suffered mass starvation after the Chinese Communist Party instituted the disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ (estimated to have led to the biggest or second biggest famine in human history) and then the breakdown of civil society with the subsequent ‘Cultural Revolution’. Chinese people are therefore aware that terrible wrongs can be perpetrated by those believe very strongly they are doing the right thing, and by people who purport to either be oppressed, or acting on behalf of oppressed people.
Dongfang Qingcang correctly points out to Orchid that the society of Shuiyuntian is hypocritical and oppressive. But as Orchid notes later, she still doesn’t want it razed to the ground, and certainly not in her name.
I suspect that if this show was remade by a Hollywood filmmaker, there would be a risk that the majority of the inhabitants of Shuiyuntian would not be portrayed as likeable, conflicted, or understandable. They would wish to crush the life blood out of Cangyan Sea for no reason other than unfair prejudice towards the Other. No one would act out of loyalty, duty, or friendship, or for reasons they thought were good. No one from either side would be able come to any understanding of the other’s position, either, because it is not possible to understand oppressors as anything but evil, and the oppressed as anything but good.
When did most storytelling in Hollywood come to lack nuance in this way? Most of us are capable of doing bad things, meanwhile justifying it to ourselves all the while as righteous behaviour. Most people are neither wholly marginalised heroes nor evil oppressors, but occupy a position in between. Moreover, heroic people arise not because they want to do good—they’re generally not paragons who set out to be righteous—instead, they find themselves compelled by circumstances to speak. Generally, they pay a terrible price for doing so: ostracism, torture, imprisonment, or death.
I don’t know how to change the way in which Hollywood tells stories. I don’t think I can, except by ignoring a lot of what it produces these days.
However, if you’re looking for respite from cartoonish stories lacking nuance, it’s striking that you can find it in a television series from the People’s Republic of China, a nation which has been under the control of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party since 1949.
Perhaps, however, when you look at the history of that country, it is understandable. The statement of the directors that they intended the message of the show to be one of “love and peace” therefore has added poignancy.
What Katy Did is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
‘The Last Jedi’. I recognise that ‘Dune’ has been released, and I’ve heard good things about it, but I’ll wait until it’s completed, I think.
‘The Good Place’ and “Good Omens’, both of which I enjoyed. You may note that I have certain preoccupations about nuanced views of good and evil.
I had some familiarity with xianxia as another friend likes to read machine-translated versions of these stories, and shares the best (or worst) translations thereof. Hello Spirit Animal!
After I binge watched the whole thing, I have since persuaded my husband to begin watching this series. “What kind of immortal beings have to sit exams?” said he, with disbelief. “Chinese ones,” said I, grinning. “Cultivate your talent, work hard, and advance up the ranks via exams!”
I’m a tomboy—despite my physical infirmities, I have shieldmaiden-ish tendencies—ask anyone who saw me chase the robber through the law school!—and even for me, this gets tiresome. Galadriel in ‘Rings of Power’ was one of the most annoying female characters I have ever seen. I don’t think she was intended to be unpleasant, but she came across as such. I gave up part way through episode 1, but Child No. 2 said that it just got worse and worse (he persisted to episode 5 before giving up).
Changheng is good but weak: as Dongfang Qingcang says, “the best of a bad bunch.” Danyin is probably the most principled of the Shuiyuntan inhabitants.