Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Search Of: Asian Films

In my usual Values Analysis course (core curriculum ethics course), I have students watch two films — one after reading Confucius, and one after reading Mill/Bentham. Students are expected to write a paper that answers a question about the film using the material just studied. So, for instance, we watch Groundhog Day and students are expected to use the Analects to answer the question: Is Phil a junzi at the end of the film? Similarly, students are expected to use consequentialism and answer the question “is (Ramon’s plea for) euthanasia acceptable?” after watching Mar Adentro (an excellent foreign film, by the way). In the fall, I’ll be teaching Asian Ethics, a course meant to fulfill the core requirement of Values Analysis but from an Asian perspective. So I need some Asian films!

As I develop this course, I’m trying to “mirror” the structure of my Values course as much as possible. I’d like to use two films as well (good breaks in a course that tends to be very difficult for non-philosophy students), but I don’t want to use Western films in a course meant to represent the Asian (cultural and ethical) perspective. So I’d really like to find two Asian films to use that fulfills the same function as the two mentioned above. Since the course attempts to present an Asian “representative” for virtue ethics, consequentialism and duty-based ethics, what I need are two Asian films around which a question can be asked that could be answered by two of those three traditions.

Does anyone out there know of any good ones? Basically, any film that deals in a central way with a central component or question that would seem appropriately addressed by any of the three ethical traditions will do. There are no restrictions on the type of film — comedy, drama, science fiction, it doesn’t matter. As long as they can be used for this purpose, and are actually decent films to watch (my students tend to be real critics).

Thanks in advance to anyone who has some suggestions.

By the way, I’m getting old — the post title refers to an old TV series with Leonard Nimoy that I loved as a little kid, and I’ll bet no one knows it but me.


  1. i don't really know if you can use this movies, the first is "in the realm of senses" (dir. Nagisa Oshima), maybe as a counterexample of the junzi, the character: Kichizo Ishida and the principle of pleasure.
    The second one is "happy together" (dir. Wong Kar-wai), and a analysis of the relation between the two men. I recommend this films, but the two of them have strong sexual content (i don't know if this word is right), I hope that this would help.

  2. I also use film in my courses, and I teach a course on faith, film, and philosophy. I've found it helpful to consult books and articles on film by philosophers, or by non-philosophers on philosophical topics. I've co-edited a book, Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen (2007). That might be a source for you. But there are others, and your question has inspired me to post a fuller answer to this kind of question at my blog: douggeivett.com

    I hope to hear what you plan for your fall ethics course.

    Good luck with it!


  3. Akira Kurowsawa's films may come in handy: Rashomon is all about the nature of memory and perspective. You could also do "Ran" which is his take on "King Lear" but may have insight on the Confucian attitudes towards the family.

    Strangely, you may also get mileage out of the Japanese anime film, "Princess Mononoke" (directed by Hayao Miyazaki) which has a lot to say about the relationship between humanity and nature. It's approach is distinctively non-Western.

    P.S. yes, I've heard of "In Search Of..." Remember the episode on the search for bigfoot?

  4. The Once Upon a Time in China series is pretty good for getting the idea of wu-wei and the general notion of the sage particularly in the Daoist tradition across.

  5. Thanks so much for all the suggestions here. I have a lot of films to watch!

    Anonymous: I _do_ remember "in search of bigfoot" (and others)! I remember feeling as if real mystical secret knowledge was given to me when I watched that show. It was as if no one knew it was on, and it had "slipped" by the government censors. Of course, a real sense of authority was also bestowed by the fact that Spock narrated it.


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