Mention Japanese film and responses will likely range from the 1950s Golden Age to today’s panoply of genre movies. The variance has less to do with conflicts between artistry and populism—even Kurosawa famously trafficked in samurai—than with context and perspective. International acclaim, whether past or present, offers only a limited vista on a country’s internal cinematic life; to make full sense of Japan’s giant dinosaurs, yakuza gangsters and animated princesses, you need someone well-placed on the ground. Someone like Mark Schilling.
The world is perhaps changing when translations from Chinese feature as the first volume in a series of just about anything. Two Lines Press, an independent publisher based in San Francisco, has recently launched the Calico Series of translated literature. “Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of the present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world.” That We May Live is the first in the series and features seven stories in translation from authors in Hong Kong and China.
Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 short story “The Man Who Would Be King” (well-known thanks to the Sean Connery film by the same name) is about two English ex-army ruffians who want to become kings; they do indeed come to rule a kingdom in Afghanistan. Eventually, the two die when their “subjects” turn against them. Rishi Dastidar uses this colonizer’s desire and ambition to be king as material for his Saffron Jack. The resulting long poem is the story of a British citizen who is told he does not belong in Great Britain, and decides to have a nation of his own to rule over.
In Jia Zhangke’s 2018 movie “Ash is Purest White”, the protagonist, Qiao, gets off a Yangtze river ferry near the Three Gorges Dam. She knows nobody in this new city and has no money. Desperate, the ruse she employs is to walk into a restaurant, call a rich looking young man out of a private dining room and tell him he has got her younger sister pregnant. She demands money as compensation. The trick works, the scared man hands over a bunch of red hundred RMB notes. Qiao, a gangster’s girlfriend fresh from jail, has skills that Matthew Evans, the antihero of Tom Carter’s “An American Bum in China”, couldn’t dream off. Evans, like Qiao, finds himself broke and alone in China. Unlike Qiao, he is not a character in a movie where wild schemes succeed.
Among all European countries, Russia’s relations with China are unique in that the two countries—empires for most of their relevant histories—shared a border. Trade between the two was, on the whole, carried out by caravan rather than ship; there were border garrisons a stone’s throw from each other. People and information transited the border along with goods.
When Sophie Cairns’s parents announced they were leaving Hong Kong, where she was born and raised, she vowed to return. A teenager, biracial and fluent in Cantonese, she never felt like she belonged in the UK, and longed for the Hong Kong of her childhood.
A lucrative international black market exists for nearly every plant and animal imaginable. Donkeys are stolen and slaughtered in Africa for the gelatin found in their hides, which is sought after in China. Otters are captured in Indonesia and Thailand and trafficked to Japan to supply the latest pet craze. Succulent plants are stolen from protected areas in South Africa, the American West, and Peru to be smuggled to collectors around the world. Even insects are the occasional victims of massive heists.