Food for Cinema Thought: The Classroom Experience

Last week my film class, whose course title is “National Cinema” but looks specifically at Asian cinema, watched the Kar Wai Wong (or Wong Kar Wai) film 2046. For the record, I had already seen Chungking Express, which I love, and In the Mood for Love, which I found disappointing. Anyway, 2046 was the first film my class watched featuring an actual sex scene, not an out-of-focus or cut-short moment as in Sonatine, Red Sorghum and Ju Dou. But is there a reason why watching sex scenes has to be awkward when you’re with classmates? Or was I just perceiving a reaction that wasn’t really the case?

Here’s the thing. When I think about some of the films I saw in theaters last fall and winter – including Restless, 50/50, Chinatown, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Ides of March, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Dangerous Method and Return – none of those films’ sex-related scenes were an issue because the audience never made a big deal about the content. In each case the audience was really very well-behaved.

In class, however, I could feel the air in the room change once the characters in 2046 played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Ziyi Zhang began having sex. The girl sitting next to me shifted in her seat, seemingly uncomfortable with watching such an intimate scene amongst other students. I don’t see what the problem was, though. I would be much more concerned with a film displaying extreme violence.

Two days later, which was last Wednesday, my professor showed clips from other Wong films. One of the chosen clips was from Fallen Angels, a scene in which Michelle Reis masturbates while listening to the Laurie Anderson song “Speak My Language.” Afterward, my professor turned the lights on, looked at us and said, “I don’t see what the big deal is, guys.” He’s right. I could tell how uneasy my class was with watching such a personal act – the sense of voyeurism was off the charts – but would seeing copious amounts of realistic bloodletting be better? (For that reason, I still have not seen Drive, which most people in my class have seen. I hate to admit it but I’m just plain scared of seeing the movie.) Sexuality is an expected and normal part of human life, so why is it taboo when violence is not? I admit that I’ve seen enough episodes of the three “Law & Order” shows to last a lifetime, but I don’t glorify the violent aspect. I watch for the acting and the writing, not some thrill from seeing victims and corpses.

The most recent film my class watched was Millennium Mambo. After 2046, which not only broke the ice but smashed it to pieces, Mambo‘s brief sex scene was nothing at all.

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