KarmaMole The View From Here..

Moral Structure In Film: A Brief Comparative Look


Movies move by character choices and by events – necessarily, both of these movements allow us to see into the moral framework of the protagonists. If they make a choice, we understand a part of their moral structure, and when they react to an event, we also witness decisions guided by their moral structures. Through various choices and actions – we, as viewers, layer together an understanding of the character’s moral structure. What he values above all, what costs he considers acceptable, which unwritten morals he is willing to sacrifice and which he (or she, relax) would simply never allow to be lost. This data forms a moral substructure that we integrate both consciously and unconsciously (if that word even means anything – I am tempted to have replaced it with ‘symbolically,’ but that’s another story for another day) as we watch a movie.

How much attention is paid to this perceived structure seems to vary a great deal – and to a large degree, there do seem to be general cultural trends.

“You’re just a thug that can bend bullets.”

Wanted, 2008.

In Hollywood movies, to go for the most obvious form – most movies have plots during which the character makes key choices at certain points in the movie that make one or two definitive statements about the character’s moral structure – otherwise, most scenes seem to place weight on either the characters’ attitude or plot exposition. The character makes an important choice (sometimes just one), and it’s almost always towards the end of the movie, and the whole movie is usually a character arc – in which the character has been reborn into who he could have been – by being thrust into an unusual situation – and this rebirth is what allows him to make the ‘moral’ choice. Although this creates a homogeneity of audience reaction (i.e., who wouldn’t be happy when the hero ‘decides’ to go after the bad guys?) – it is also the lowest common denominator, and it is an overcrowded field.

This is not to deride some of the best of Hollywood – I just came back from a viewing of Wanted, and it’s a pretty kick-ass movie. I went in expecting audacity and sheer ball-busting action sequences and Angelina shooting guns (always a welcome bonus) – and I had a pretty good time.

However, it is, admittedly, purely formulaic.

Because the moral choices (in terms of WHAT to do) are obvious – the character does not require moral CLARITY – he requires the strength and courage to do what it is CLEAR he must.

The challenge is HOW, not WHAT.

Nameless: Great calligraphy.
Broken Sword: Great swordsmanship.
Nameless: You didn’t see my swordsmanship.
Broken Sword: Without it, I couldn’t have written this calligraphy.

Hero, 2002

I will now generalize madly – for the sake of argument – and discuss Zhang Yimou’s Hero – as though it were a prototypical example. I understand that it is anything but ‘typical’ in terms of production quality, but the basic moral structure is represented in other Chinese movies.

The characters actually do NOT go through a ‘character arc’ – it’s not a form where the lame caterpillar emerges as a butterfly – there’s none of that whatsoever. There is a character (who as a character – is consistent – the movie is NOT about a rebirth of the character), and the character is acting in pursuit of his moral structure. In fact, almost all of the character’s actions have a moral basis to them, and there isn’t a single instance that is about attitude. The whole structure is much more subdued yet ridiculously clear.

Simple examples and there are numerous:

Sky confronts some government officials who are trying to arrest him. He disarms them all without hurting a single one. All this time, his spear is sheathed. It is only afterward, when Nameless has shown himself to be a dangerous/worthy/serious foe that Sky finally unsheathes his spear. None of this is commented on. There are no clever one-liners. The action is present but not vocally explicit.

In another scene, Nameless fights with Broken Sword – in honor of Flying Snow – who is in a shrine. It is not clear whether this was a real fight or a mental one. That isn’t even the point. They fight in her honor. During the fight, a drop of water splashes onto Flying Snow’s body. Her lover, Broken Sword sees this. We have seen him looking as the drop flew away – and he turns and rushes to her side. Slowly standing next to her, dropping his sword, wiping the droplet off her cheeks. Nameless, who had been attacking, now understands why Broken Sword has abandoned the fight and seeing this – he stops himself before his sword strikes Broken Sword, stumbling roughly in the process. He gets up and walks away, leaving Broken Sword with his fallen love. As he does so, Broken Sword’s attention is distracted by the sound of Nameless sheathing his sword. He looks and sees Nameless walking away, his back turned. Broken Sword makes a motion of respect with his hands (one that Nameless cannot even be expected to witness).

In another scene, the last I’ll mention because I am particularly enamored of – when the Zhao school is attacked, there is a great focus on the Zhao teacher, who is aghast at his students leaving their posts during the attack, he leads by example and walks back in to continue his life’s work as the arrows fly around him. He is unflinching. No big show of this is made, again, no clever one-liners, no quip on his side, yet his purpose is as clear as (his purpose IS) his action. An example I consider much more subtle and indicative is that during the attack, when Flying Snow and Nameless both go on the roof to thwart the attack – and – they both (and the director makes sure we see both instances with quick shots) – CLOSE the doors behind them with a couple of motions each as they plunge headfirst into a million arrows coming their way. They jump outside, turn, shut the doors behind them, and continue to fight. The character’s every action underlies his priorities. They are protecting the school.

The pattern is clear. The characters’ emotions are told through their choice of actions, and not by their exposition of it explicitly – this is also why there is no notion of ‘attitude’ – there is instead a notion of character and duty. It is the character’s duty to perform according to his moral structure, and so – to the best of his abilities, he does.

There is not a single ‘bad guy’ in the movie, and yet – despite a million movies that would claim the contrary – the movie is fascinating to watch, and our emotions are deeply invested in these characters and in seeing them follow their paths. The depth of feeling comes from the fact that their character paths have an inevitability about them – they cross, they will conflict – they will conflict even though they may like, respect, love – each other. In this understanding, they will not, despite anything, behave dishonorably. The character may understand something, may gain information that realigns his actions, but it is not that the character himself has changed in any way.

Because the moral structure is so interwoven, the whole performance is more subtle. The characters don’t need to tell you how they feel because you can tell by their every action exactly how they feel. The actors’ performances are deliciously understated, and the only character in the movie who emotes readily and obviously is the clearly young Moon.

These are points to consider and issues that seem to operate somewhat randomly in Egyptian cinema – I have seen movies where the ‘decision’ moment of the character was almost obscured by the direction – so that in effect, we see movies where the characters ‘ride’ the plot from beginning to end, and their moments of choice are not portrayed as such. We do not see their eyes, and maybe, their actions constitute a ‘plan’ and not a decision.

To draw a grotesquely general image –

It is as though American movies are shallow and fast, Chinese movies are slow and deep, and Egyptian movies, all too often – both shallow and slow. The worst, effectively – of both worlds.

I know there are exceptions, but until they are no longer considered exceptions, this view seems telling.

About the author


KarmaMole is a nickname for Omar Kamel. He is a writer, musician, photographer, director, and producer. He makes things out of words and sounds and images. He spent three years of his life in a futile fight for a better future in Tahrir Square and has more opinions than any mortal man should be allowed. Some of them are on this blog.

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