Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Four Loves"- Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

“Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”

(Note: There are two versions of this anime. One is just called Fullmetal Alchemist. I prefer Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. There is a big difference between the two!)

Western media doesn’t seem to like families very much. 

Let me clarify that.

How often are groups of people who are not related called “family”?

Watch a few movies. Count the times. You will probably spot a pattern fairly quickly.

These days Storge- as represented in the movies- seems to be split into two categories: 

Biological families (who are rarely shown to be “loving” in any way) 


 “We are Family” by Sister Sledge playing in the background as several characters who are completely genetically unrelated dance and hug. 

I admit, sometimes I will refer to unrelated peoples as my “family”. My best friend who I’ve known since I was six, my FroLand Family- a diverse group who I became very close to while working at Disney World, and my Venezuelan Mother- who is a lovely woman whom I admire, respect and even call “Madre” on occasion.

However, deep down I know all of these relationships are Philla.

Storge is reserved for that special group with whom I share a roof, several genetic similarities, and most of my life experiences with. 

Perhaps Hollywood should get some family counseling, because they really seem to have issues with biological families. Overbearing mothers, alcoholic fathers, and those bratty annoying siblings who are never punished for anything run rampant over the silver screen.

I can’t really relate….  yes, those issues exist, and I’m not one of those people who believe in presenting an unrealistic rosy colored view of life. However, we’ve come to the point in film, where family is presented as such a terrible thing, that in my opinion, it has already breached the point of unrealism.

So naturally for my film example of storge, I chose a supernatural thriller anime.

As the name implies, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a story about brothers.

The more I watch this brilliant piece of art, the more I see that Storge is the theme of Fullmetal. The good guys have Storge, the side characters have storge, even the bad guys have Storge!  It begins with family tragedy and ends with family restoration and celebration.

The Godfather, this is not.

In fact, there are so many positive family relationships in this series that I could spend pages and pages gushing over every detail.

But I won’t.

For this review, I will focus on the Storge that impacted me the most. So let’s get back to the brothers of Brotherhood.

Edward and Alphonse (Al for short) are the stars of this series, and right off the bat, it’s slightly unusual to see a pair of siblings take the spotlight. Even more unusual, is the fact they don’t seem to hate each other!

Very often in film, the sibling relationship is reduced to name calling and door slamming.

My sister and I feel a very strong connection to Fullmetal Alchemist, because of the love and friendship that is shown between the two brothers.

I consider my sister to be one of my dearest friends, and it’s nice to see a film series that shares those same values.

But Fullmetal goes even further in exploring the sibling relationship. Edward- the oldest- feels an incredible amount of responsibility for his little brother.

Alphonse in turn, struggles with feeling overshadowed by his talented older sibling.

They work together, laugh together, and fight with each other.

It rings of truth, and sometimes my sister and I will just look at each other while watching and nod. We know this is how we work too.

I can’t elaborate very much on what it’s like to be a younger sibling, but I have nineteen years of experience on being a “big sister”.

That being said, I relate to Edward probably more than I ever have to any fictional character.

He’s arrogant, eccentric, talks way too much, and would do anything to protect his little brother.

There’s a lot of psychological “norms” that come with being born first. One of them is an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Yeah, sometimes it’s extremely annoying having a little kid follow you around like a shadow, but if anyone ever tried to hurt that shadow- look out!

In one episode, Alphonse is trapped- I’ll be vague so as not to give spoilers. Edward finds Al, but he can’t rescue him. Ed has to leave, and the helplessness on his sharply designed animated face rips through my heart. As an impenetrable wall closes between them, Ed finds the strength to hold it back- just enough for him to tell Alphonse “I’m coming back for you”.

This is a rare cinematic gem- probably the highest level of sibling love ever portrayed on film.

Just like philla- sometimes storge is downplayed as somehow a “lesser love”. The difference between our family and our friends is the fact we can’t choose who we’re related to. And let’s face it, sometimes life seems like it would be easier if we had a choice in that area. Friendships come and go, but you can never change your DNA. Sometimes it seems like that’s the only thing you have in common. My sister and I are total opposites, and we can drive each other up the wall- but storge keeps us together. The reward of having such an incredible friend is worth all the the struggle through the rough times.

It’s good for me to have to stretch my emotional muscles, and family does just that. You can choose to spend the rest of your life with someone by marrying them-  or hanging around them incessantly, but you are connected to your family by the simple fact you were born. Those relationships tend to be life-long, and I appreciate that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood took the time to explore and highlight such overlooked and belittled subject matter.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Four Loves"- Faith (or) The Great Doctor

As if the word “love” wasn’t messy enough...  Permit me a word of clarification before I begin my review about Eros love.

C.S. Lewis states: "By eros, I mean of course that state which we call "being in love"; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are "in". "
Our word "erotic" comes from the word eros. Big surprise, right? Those words have a lot of negative connotations associated with them. When I talk about “eros” I do not imply only carnal sexual drive, but that deeper relationship between two people who love each other romantically.

Plato describes eros as "the appreciation of beauty within another person".  I like that. I perceive eros as a combination of many layered attractions. Physical attraction is involved, but so is attraction to personality, and spirit.

Now that we're on the same page with our Greek, I present to you:

“Faith” or “The Great Doctor”

This is probably the first kind of love that comes to mind when I say the word "Love". Eros is romantic love, and it is probably the sort that is glorified the most in our culture today. Despite it being so popular, it took me a very long time to find a good film that highlights it. The ironic thing is that the one I've chosen is not even from Western culture! I would like to recommend a Korean Drama entitled "Faith" or "The Great Doctor". It begins as a time-traveling fantasy story- but the heart is really about two people and their growing love for each other.

Like I said, it's a time-traveling fantasy story. In ancient Korea, a princess is seriously wounded. Her husband entreats Choi-Young- captain of the guard, to travel through a magic portal and look for a legendary "Great Doctor" who is said to live on the other side.

Choi-Young obeys, and finds himself in modern day Korea. He ends up at a medical convention, and ends up kidnaping a plastic surgeon, Eun-Soo. 

I never thought my favorite romantic movie would be about a martial arts guy and a plastic surgeon falling in love...

As odd as the premise seems, it starts unfolding into an extremely engaging story. Because it is Korean, the style is very different. The filmmakers decided that every important event must be recapped in slow motion- which would usually annoy me to death, but in this case I find it rather amusing. Because of this film, I've started to tease my friends who are in relationships with the threat of playing slow pop music every time they hold hands. Apparently slow pop music is very important in Korean love stories...

But underneath all the cheese, I really do adore the characters. There is a sub-romance involving the injured princess and her husband. They were married, not out of love but out of duty, and at first the prince does his best to avoid his wife. He resents her for being from a different country, while she in turn feels abandoned and shunned.

As the series progresses, the royal couple end up falling in love. Which is really interesting to watch. Usually if there isn't any eros in an onscreen marriage, the characters end up looking for it somewhere else. Which only leads to more dysfunction and heartache. 

I'm going to bunny trail for just a moment. As I've studied the four loves, I've discovered that three of them can be twisted by selfishness. This dark-side of love is very often brought up in Eros- even exalted in some of today's media. The idea that love is just a good feeling- can be exclusive, and destructive. It can even drive a wedge between two people in “love”! 

"It's only good as long as it feels good, and by golly I want to feel good!"

And if it doesn’t “feel good” anymore….  The person you thought “loved” you is cold, gone, and looking for that good feeling somewhere else.

This is where "Faith" is exceptional. Our young lovers Eun-Soo and Choi-Young put their relationship on the back-burner time and time again in order to help their friends, and their country. In the touching moments where they show just how much they care for each other, they still remain unselfish. When Eun-Soo finds out that she is dying by poison, she is upset- not for herself, but for Choi-Young. She's not afraid to die, but she doesn't want Choi-Young to have to go through the inevitable pain of living life alone.

Even when she's dying, she isn't thinking of herself. That is one of the most beautiful examples of Eros I've ever seen. It is a very strong emotional connection, and left raw might be only sexual or a shallow conditional friendship. However, tempered with unselfishness it becomes a precious insight. Love stories like this are rare, which is a shame, because our raw sexual media could use a little unselfish tempering.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Four Loves" - The Lord of the Rings

The Theory

In my various film studies, I have created a formula that I like to call: Epic Storytelling and The Four Kinds of Love. Today, I would like to share some examples, but before we get into that, I need to bring in the Greeks.

The Greeks were pretty smart. They used several different words to break up that complex concept that we call "Love". There is only one word for love in the English language, and I think it's a shame, because it's rather overused. We use this poor little piece of vocabulary to express how we feel about the people we hold dearest- but we also throw it around when describing our favorite sandwich or the awesome TV show we saw last night.

I don’t speak Greek, but very often I will refer to the four loves. I find them very useful in describing different relationships, and as most stories revolve around character relationships, I transferred these cool little describers over to my film studies.

After analyzing several different movies, TV shows and series, I've decided the most compelling film works contain elements from each "love". Blend them all together, you just might get an Epic Story. Usually epic stories contain all four, but very often one sort of love is "highlighted" as the center of the story, while the others surround it and balance it out. Here are four works of cinema that I think are prime examples of these loves. I do hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do!

Philla (Brotherly love)
“Lord of the Rings”

Do you know why Philadelphia is called "The city of Brotherly love"? It’s because the name, Philadelphia, comes from the Greek word, Philla- which literally means brotherly love- or friendship love.

Lord of the Rings does a fantastic job of illustrating the power of the often overlooked relationship between buddies.

At the beginning, the fellowship comes together- not because they like each other, but because they have a job to do: destroy the ring. Through that journey, they develop relationships that are extremely strong.

This love builds amazing bridges, between people of different cultures, ages and races.

Think about it, how many stories feature a group of five or more completely different races coming together to defeat evil?

 The friendship between Frodo and Sam is legendary, but actually my favorite philla moments in "Lord of the Rings" come between Legolas and Gimli.

These guys are totally different and at first they have a lot of prejudice towards each other. But by the end of the adventure, they are inseparable and even make plans to continue their friendship by traveling together and sharing more about their respective cultures. 

I totally relate to that. Most of my dearest friends are very different from me in many areas. In fact, I did not like some of those people at all when I first met them. Philla bridges that, and now I treasure those differences.

When I think about the philla relationships in my life, I think of the people I like hanging out with. My buddies. The people who I make effort to see because I feel comfortable in their company- and wonder of wonder, they seem to enjoy mine too!

It might seem like the simplest of the love relationships. But, as with all things, it can grow to great depths.

The Bible says that "He who gives up his life to save his friend, has the greatest love of all". 

That's a high calling!- and one that definitely shows in the friendship between Frodo and Sam. How many friends have such a strong bond that they would sacrifice their lives for the other? It makes me think.. "Am I that sort of friend?"

I’ve started to wonder if I’d be able to ask the people I like “hanging” out with, to go on a dangerous quest with me. Or, on the flip side, If one of my friends asked me to risk my life to help them, would I do it?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Art Ripples

Art Ripples

Art is very important to me. A friend of mine once stated that "Good art should change you". In my opinion, the 2012 movie "Cloud Atlas" is just that kind of art. One of the many themes explored in this film is that of Art, and it's effect on people. It has seven story-lines that span thousands of years, and in each story there is something- a piece of music, a journal, and even a motion picture that cross over into the next plot. A "ripple of Art" if you will. It's a fascinating concept, and one that I've recently discovered might actually be a real phenomenon that affects our world.

During the past year, I decided to take the plunge and create a youtube channel. I don’t feel comfortable having my real name blasted all over the internet, so I created an account under the username “Ganlanshu”(橄榄树)

I chose this name because it is the title of a particular Chinese song. Even though it isn’t even written in my native language, I was very touched the first time I heard it. As I have come to understand the lyrics more and more, this song continues to hold a special place in my heart. It was written by a woman who went under the name "San Mao" (三毛). Recently, I discovered that this is not her real name. 

San Mao was actually a cartoon character created in the late 1930s. It centers around an orphan boy (San Mao- Literally meaning Three Hairs), so named because of the three distinct hairs on his otherwise bald head. San Mao's wandering adventures chronicle the plight of young orphans during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. A unique perspective for such a terrible time. 

Chénmàopíng (陳懋平), a Taiwanese writer in the mid 1970's, felt a great affinity with the traveling orphan and decided to publish her writings under the name "San Mao". Under this pseudonym, Chénmàopíng wrote the song, "Ganlanshu"

Now we have a real life "art" ripple, just like Cloud Atlas. Chénmàopíng was inspired and touched by this series of cartoons about a little lost orphan boy- to the point she would create her own art under his name. You might even say her song "Ganlanshu" might even be a tribute to him, as it talks about wandering far away from home. Years later the ripple continues, because I in turn have been so inspired by "San Mao" that I have taken the name "Ganlanshu" as my pseudonym.

The "art ripples" displayed in Cloud Atlas are  profound. For example, a goofy film in one storyline, becomes the inspiration for a life-changing decision in another.

A cartoon series created in the 40's in China, inspired a girl from Taiwan. She grew up to be a writer who in turn has inspired me- a young American in the 2000's. It's a small art ripple, but the effect has impacted at least one life- mine.

Good art is powerful and remains powerful across time. It can even breach the boundaries of language and culture.

I'm ending my little discussion on "Art Ripples" with a plea to all the artists out there. We do not know how, or even if, our poetry, paintings, writings, or videos will stand the test of time. "San Mao" is old, "Cloud Atlas" is new. Who knows whether they will both last, or if their influence will fade away and be lost in the mass media of tomorrow.

But remember, the art we make today isn't just for ourselves, our friends, or even our culture. It has the potential to reach far into the future, past our lifetimes. It might touch other individuals who don't even exist yet. That is a huge responsibility. So let's be artists who change things for the better. Let's make good art. 

Watch a cartoon of  San Mao:

Listen to the beautiful song, "Ganlanshu" by Chénmàopíng (陳懋平)

Check out my very neglected youtube channel:

"Top 4 Christian Films" -Wrapping it up

Christian Films and me

     After looking over this list, I’m sure you’ve realized that there aren’t actually any “Christian” films there. There aren’t any dramatic conversion scenes (except in Les Miserables), the main story isn’t necessarily about the moment when someone decides to live their life for God, and there aren’t any famous Christian music artists featured in the credits. I find there are far too many movies that center around a conversion scene. Sure, it can be pretty dramatic, but it’s just the beginning. The real drama is in the journey afterwards.

     I’ve been doing this Christian thing for almost twenty years. I was pretty little when I accepted Jesus into my heart- and it wasn’t really that dramatic. Definitely not like the movies.

     There have been some interesting moments though. When God asks me to show kindness to the Marius’ in my life, and the times when my world is torn apart and thrown upside down, for what purpose...I don’t know.

     That’s why most mainstream Christian-targeted films just don’t resonate with me. When the characters cry and sob during the obligatory “Conversion scene” I just remember my six-year old self saying very simple words- and wonder if I did it wrong somehow.
     It irritates me to no end when films present Christianity as a “fix-all your problems” plug. I feel jealous of the characters onscreen, because obviously God- or, the “god” the movie describes- loves them a whole lot more than he loves me. 

     When a movie actually shows God-fearing individuals struggle, as they do in the movies I have mentioned, I respect the filmmakers a whole lot more. “Ahh,” I think “So you’ve had to go through that too.” I relate, I am engrossed by the story, and I come out encouraged and hopeful.

     There is a huge discussion in the Christian filmmaker society about making “Christian” films, and being a Christian who makes films.

     I lean towards the latter. It’s not an easy occupation. I struggle to create good art that also reflects the Truth I believe in.

     However, as I have pointed out, perhaps the beauty is in the difficulty. The higher the goal, the more difficult it is to obtain.

     Whether you share the same faith that I do, or if you just like good movies, I hope you enjoy these well-crafted films.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Top 4 Christian Movies" #1: Les Miserables

#1 Les Miserables

     Right off the bat, I must admit, I am a Les Mis junkie. I was first introduced to the story when my theater group performed it in high school. Since then I have seen more film adaptations, concert and stage performances than I can count. That being said, there is no particular version that I am referencing here. I have my favorite, mainly being the musical- but when I say Les Miserables is the number one Christian film- I mean that in the broader sense, that Les Mis is the number one Christian story. No matter what version you see, the core remains the same.

     With the 2012 musical film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, I think I can safely assume more people have at least heard the name “Les Miserables” than ever before (although we still have a difficult time pronouncing it). 

    Before Anne Hathaway made everyone bawl nonstop through “I Dreamed a Dream”, there were two other powerful “Les Mis” media phenomenons: namely the Broadway Musical and a 1988 film adaptation starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.

     My personal taste leans towards the musical. The 1988 version changes some elements to the story, and while they do not nullify the main theme- in my opinion these cuts dilute the epic and muddy the convictions and goals of the protagonists.

     Have I bored you with all my geeky “Les Mis” facts? The real fact, is that this story is extremely dear to my heart. Why? Because in my opinion, “Les Mis” is one of the greatest love stories ever told.

     Back in high school, while I was just coming into my Les Mis obsession, I was also attempting to learn more about film. The result was that I analyzed every story that took my fancy as I tried to figure out what made it so enthralling. 

     How did this epic historical piece measure up? Well.. it’s a very long story, you might want to take a seat.

     I mentioned this is a love story. You may or may not agree with me, probably based on your definition of love. The English language only has one word to describe a very important concept. We use this word to describe people who are dear to us, but in each situation it might mean something slightly different. The Greeks got around this problem by creating not just one, but four words that all have to do with that thing we call love. My hypothesis is that any great story or film, must contain all four. Les Mis is the perfect example.

    Storge-  Family love

Although there are a lot of broken families in Les Mis, Storge has a strong presence. Fantine loves her daughter- so much in fact that she will sacrifice herself in the hope her child will live a better life. When Fantine entrusts Cosette to Jean Valjean, he develops a storge love for Cosette. We also see a twisted version of this kind of love in the Thernardiers. They are selfish and only care about themselves. At first this brings their daughter- Eponine, good things: toys and dresses that were really meant for Cosette. In the end it destroys the clan. Eponine’s brother is thrown out of the house and Eponine is left to wander the streets by herself.

Philia- Friendship love

    Also called Brotherly love- this is the bond between friends. The students at the ABC cafe are prime examples in Les Mis. They share common interests, ideals, and a brotherly affection for each other. One could argue that this is the weakest of the loves- but even so, many of the revolutionary students end up dying for the ideal they share, and appear to find solace in their friendship even when the future is bleakest.

Eros- Romantic love

     As Americans who are exposed to vast amounts of erotic film TV, and music, this is probably the sort of love we are most familiar with. It’s romantic and passionate. The stuff rom-coms are made of. When I mentioned that Les Mis is a love story- this is probably where your mind went first. Yes, there is romantic love in Les Mis. Cosette and Marius share a passion for each other, and Eponine is hopelessly “in love” with Marius. As it is rather self- explanatory, I won’t waste too much time here. There is a place for romance, and while I don’t want to belittle it, I also dislike our culture’s emphasis that suggests this is the “greatest kind of love”. I reserve that title for...

Agape- Unconditional love

     In my study of the four loves, I discovered that this is the only “pure” love. All the others are conditional on some level, and can be twisted until they are no longer beneficial but destructive to the relationships that define them. Not so with Agape. By its very nature it sets itself apart. It applies to anyone and everyone. Even though the other loves appear in this story-  Agape gives them meaning and power.

     The relationship that first comes to mind is Jean Valjean’s relationship to God. When I speak of Les Mis as a love story- this is what I mean. It’s a love story between a man and his Savior.

     The first Agape moment comes when a Bishop shows kindness to a criminal. The criminal did nothing to deserve this and the Bishop has no incentive- except that God wants his servants to love others.

     Agape changes lives. That criminal in turn takes up the mantle of Agape. It would take too long to detail every example, so I will focus on the ones that impacted me the most. 

     During my first brush with this epic story, I quickly decided two things. One: Jean Valjean was my favorite character, and two: I hated Marius with a vengeance.

     Marius is an aimless, selfish character. His big dilemma comes from his split devotion to his friends at the ABC cafe and his sudden and all consuming love for Cosette. He is annoyingly oblivious to Eponine- who obviously adores him. He is so caught up in his emotions, he is blind to her love, and treats her rather cruelly, although this is unintentional.

     As romance was rather low on my list of favorite things in high school- Marius embodied the stupid lovesick stereotype I despised.

     Then Jean Valjean showed me up and presented Agape to Marius. It’s obvious Jean Valjean disliked Marius as much as I did. He resents Marius for loving Cosette and tries at least once to keep them apart. But when Jean Valjean realized Cosette loves Marius- he puts aside his own selfish Storge and saves Marius’s life.

     Honestly, I’d have been tempted to leave that hormonal mess at the barricade.

     There is a powerful line in the book. After Jean Valjean drags unconscious Marius from the battle, he is described as gently lying him down, attending to his wounds tenderly as he makes plans to bring the boy to safety. Then he steps back and looks at Marius “hating him”.

     This is powerful love. It is not a feeling, or an affection. This is a bizarre conflict between emotion and action. The best sort of stories mirror something bigger and better than themselves.

     That’s when I realized, I am Marius. I am selfish, aimless, and will often mope and moan about my stupid feelings at the expense of greater ambitions. Yet, by that same bizarre contradiction that led Jean Valjean to save Marius, God decided to save me.

 Relating to Marius shames me, convicts me, and gives me tons of hope.

     Jean Valjean was a Marius too. By the end of the story, Jean Valjean is no longer the main character- he has passed the mantle of Agape to Marius. He gives Marius his life, Cosette and new hope. It’s actually the same story starting all over again- only this time the criminal has replaced the Bishop.

     The themes presented in Les Mis are obviously Christian. Which is why I am slightly confused when it is so critically acclaimed by our secular culture. God is not a subtext- the characters talk and sing about Him and to Him all the time!

     I appreciate Les Mis as Christian art for many reasons, but I present it as the number one film in distinct contradiction to two common cliques in “Christian film”. 

     As its name implies, “The Miserables” is full of characters who... are pretty miserable at times. These days I am sad to see attempts from the Christian church to “glamorize” Christianity. Some actually go as far as to market it as some kind of “life improvement” plan. Perhaps this is because our society puts so much effort into advertising. 

     Christianity is not something to be analyzed by the same people who research how to sell you a certain brand of toothpaste. The fact is, it’s not glamourous. It won’t make you rich, beautiful, popular, or even happy! 

     Why am I so touched by a story about miserable people? Why do I feel such affinity with Jean Valjean? Other than Fantine, he’s probably one of the most miserable of the characters. 

     Following God is hard, and just like Jean Valjean, I often find God asking me to do difficult things that stretch me and pull me in directions that are not always pleasant. But following God is a better way to live.

     If Jean Valjean had never changed, he would have stayed a bitter ex-convict for the rest of his life. Because he pledged his life to a higher calling, he found a family in Cosette, an unlikely friendship in another character, who ends up hiding and helping Valjean in his time of need. Valjean’s life made others better.

     I’ve tried to solidify this concept, and it’s a tricky one to pin down. That is why I love art, because it can express things, I can’t.

     All I can do is direct your attention to this fantastic story and point to it saying, “That! See that? That is how I feel! That is how I want to live.”

     And at the end of it all, that is exactly what defines good art. It shows us, and doesn’t tell us.