Speaking in riddles with Gandalf and Zhuge Liang

By Liu Jun ( China Daily ) Updated: 2008-07-09 10:53:28

John Woo's forthcoming Red Cliff - an historical epic based on events in 3rd-century China - may seem worlds away, literally, from the terrain of another epic blockbuster film series, The Lord of the Rings.

The latter, of course, features elves, hobbits, dwarves, orcs and other imaginary creatures. The fantasy trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson and launched in 2001, drew upon a series of imaginative novels by Oxford academic and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet I found a number of surprising similarities between my favorite Western classic and Red Cliff, which re-envisions a series of famous battles immediately prior to founding of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

One shared viewpoint is the celebration of valor on the battlefield. Before the invention of gunpowder enabled army officers to simply blow away enemy forces, those warriors who excelled in physical strength were the ones most likely to survive, and thus to be remembered.

Another way to compare the films is to examine similar characters.

One such set is Gimli, the feisty dwarf, and Zhang Fei, a companion of Liu Bei, the founder of the Kingdom of Shu. Zhang, who has been described as a "black iron pagoda," was outspoken and pronounced judgments hastily. Yet in the end, both are redeemed. Gimli proves himself to be a fierce and worthy warrior on the battlefield. Meanwhile Zhang is best remembered for his momentous shout - which caused the river to stand still, and frightened away an army of millions.

Legolas, the fair-haired elf who excels with bow and arrow, can be compared in appearance and fighting skills with Lu Bu, said to be the most handsome general of his time.

Lu swooned with passion and couldn't detect the machinations of his apparent "friends". His arrogance ultimately was his undoing. Few mourned his tragic death, although it was he who killed Dong Zhuo - a powerful minister who controlled the emperor. Legolas, however, consistently proves his virtue.

It might sound strange to many, but I also find similarities between Gandalf, the wizard who advises the hobbits on their quest, and Zhuge Liang, the strategist aiding Liu Bei. The two wise men often spoke in riddles, and spent much of their time speculating on their enemies' moves.

Although the historical Zhuge was barely 30 when Liu Bei persuaded him to leave his comfortable hermit life, the scholar was instrumental in the founding of the Kingdom of Shu. Popular adaptations of the Three Kingdoms stories, on both the big screen and the folk opera stage, have typically portrayed Zhuge as a sage middle-aged man. But John Woo broke from this mold by selecting pop idol Takeshi Kaneshiro to play the part. This choice was both surprising and rewarding.

It's almost impossible to compare the women in the two stories. In feudal China, women were assigned extremely low status, seen only as men's possessions. In contrast, strong women do play pivotal roles in the Middle Earth, including the brave Arwen and queen Galadriel.

Taking such comparisons too seriously could be misleading. But it's also fun - as layers of cultural contexts unfold. One will be amazed at both the differences and similarities.

(China Daily 07/09/2008 page20)

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