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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 8:22pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 1:29am

Soft power doesn't Die Hard, it fades

I watched A Good Day to Die Hard yesterday and mourned my youth. Could it really have been 25 years since I first watched the cocky, foul-mouthed detective played by Bruce Willis squaring off with a bunch of immaculately attired German male models-cum-terrorists led by the brilliant, literature-quoting Alan Rickman?

I can't remember how many times I've seen the first Die Hard. Likewise the first Rocky movie, the first Rambo, First Blood, also the first Alien, with a statuesque, younger Sigourney Weaver in her underwear. She more recently played a self-caricature in the comedy Paul, about a foul-mouthed alien.

These franchises inevitably went downhill - perhaps not as steeply as Rocky, but still a disappointment. (OK, Aliens, the second in the series, was the exception). Perhaps this is a stand-in metaphor for America's power and promise, always delivered first with an impressive bang, until reality sinks in. First-time readers of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence felt that bang too, until they learned more about the reality of empire.

The first films in these franchises got under your skin as they captured the zeitgeist. The late 1980s was a time of junk bonds, hostile takeovers, poison pills, Japan as No 1 economic rival, Wall Street greed and American paranoia. Sound familiar?

Die Hard cleverly turned those words and phrases into a script. The German terrorists did a literal hostile takeover of a Japanese corporation, which bought an iconic American building as its US headquarters and renamed it after itself. All was done with precision, except for the unexpected "poison pill" that was John McClane, played by Willis. Oh, and the Germans turned out to be robbers after the company's corporate bond certificates, presumably not junk as they were Japanese.

If the Pentagon is America's point of the sword, then Hollywood is its soft power base. Much has been made of soft power, even by China, which is trying to emulate US soft power.

But those franchises prove otherwise: Soft power is overrated. Sure, they made money, but they also invited ridicule.

The ultimate irony is that Hollywood's action movies are pirated favourites of young fighters from Hamas and Hezbollah.


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Hong Kong is not known as a place with hard power – it needs not to be since either the Brits once or now the Chinese central government would provide. There is solid soft power though. It is not the usual kind that associates with bookish culture. Not even with a movie industry that once was. Hong Kong has been very up with money culture that dominates in people’s conscious mind. It is not anything about hard currency. It is about creating wealth from land and property for the government and people alike. It is a very local property soft power culture. By selling land, government gets its revenue to run the city and pay itself handsomely. By putting up buildings, developers earn enough to diversify into conglomerates that allow them to earn even more. By buying flats, able citizens bet on them as their safety nest for their future retirement. All in all a solid soft culture that even exported to mainland China. It has had a formidable success in China. At least for now the central government is calling a stop to any expansion of such soft power that has made housing unaffordable – inevitably be as power begets more power and money too. Hong Kong property owners for majority of them are just wage earners who must remain most sensitive about property value. It influences what they think about anything else in Hong Kong especially of the government and its policies. Their future retirement bet is at risk if they don’t.
To me Hollywood is just entertainment, no more no less. I enjoyed those action movies you talked about when I was in my prime.
Having been educated in America, I appreciate their one liners in talk shows and movies. Here is what I recall (inaccurately) from Die Hard II:
The woman told McClane not to use the emergency phone. MacClane: "No f***ing s***! I can't use this phone to order a pizza?"
Hans and his gang were about to take off. Hans: "Do you think you can win against me, Cowboy?" McClane: "Yippee-kai-yee, motherf*****!", as he tossed the lighter into the gasoline.
I don't think you are old enough to know this Frankie Lane song in my childhood.
Anyway, Hollywood movies can't seem to live up to these immortals: Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal, Akira Kurasawa's Seven Samurai, Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso and Eric Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. I saw the superb restoration of Lean's masterpiece some weeks ago on HDTV.
Instead of trendy soft power, how about another discussion of gems of human civilization?
At the end of Die Hard II, I stayed in the theater until the end of the rolling credits. Perhaps you don't remember. I wanted to catch the last bar of Sibelius' Finlandia, one of my favorite tone poems. That is of course another masterpiece.
The soft power from Hollywood hasn’t faded as claimed or not claimed. It is nevertheless so vividly resurrected by your My Take today after some 25 years or less. Thanks for a much less expansive ticket for the Die Hard. Again what seems to be fading of America’s revolution ideals may too an illusion. US will not abandon its soft power anytime soon after just 300 years. Let’s see if Obama can deliver to US and the rest of the world from his State of the Union speech. Soft power everywhere actually has for most thousands of year’s shelf life -- it is culture for the individual group and nation. Look at China, still live and breadth Confucius. China even wants to share it with the rest of the world by exporting it.


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