Star Wars: The Last Jedi – the Chinese themes in the eighth instalment of the franchise
As cinema-goers in China prepare for the opening of the latest episode in the space opera, we take a look at the Chinese ideas and philosophy that have inspired the new film
The Star Wars universe may be based in a galaxy far, far away, but the space opera’s influences are closer to home. The series has long drawn inspiration from fairy tales, Arthurian legend and Japanese culture. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is being released in China on Friday, observant film-goers may discern the Chinese themes woven into the heart of the story.
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Despite taking some of their inspiration from Chinese lore and philosophy, the Star Wars films have so far not garnered the same success in China as in the West. With the importance of the Chinese box office growing, filmmakers will no doubt be hoping The Last Jedi can turn this around. As the eighth instalment hits screens in China, we’ve taken a look at how Chinese themes have inspired the film.
Warning: major spoilers ahead!
Yin and yang
The Chinese idea of yin and yang has been central to the franchise. It’s a well-known concept in Taoism. The idea is that two seemingly opposing elements may need each other to exist in harmony. In this latest film we see Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) personify this as they battle with themselves and each other to find ultimate balance and power.
Rey, a scavenger from planet Jakku, who has only just discovered her sensitivity to the Force, sides with the light side, while Kylo, who is the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, is a servant of the dark side. Both suffer as they are drawn to the opposing side, and as a result, to each other. This follows the yin and yang theory that balance can be achieved with two opposing but complementary sides.
In The Last Jedi, we watch as the pair enter a volatile dance of self-discovery. In many ways the film can be seen as an angsty coming-of-age drama as the two find themselves, with a few light sabres and the Force thrown in.
A major character confirms that their strength is equal and strongest when they are together. “Darkness rises and light to meet it. I warned my apprentice that as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise,” Supreme Leader Snoke says.
Red thread of fate
Since Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the previous film in the franchise, fans have had a sense that Kylo and Rey’s destinies were intertwined. They weren’t wrong. The Last Jedi has further fuelled the idea that the pair may end up together. We see the start of a deep yet unresolved romantic connection (look out for that sneaky thigh grab during the fight sequence in Snoke’s throne room).
Many fans believe the pair are bound by the red thread of fate, an idea originating in Chinese folklore. The ancient story says an invisible string ties two soul mates together in an unbreakable bond. The connection may stretch or tangle as the lovers face seemingly insurmountable challenges, but the ties will never be broken.
The film’s director, Rian Johnson, has been teasing fans with that theory since 2016, tweeting a photo of red string. The building chemistry seen in The last Jedi does point towards the possibility of a future partnership, but does this mean Rey and Kylo will end up together?
At first glance, you may think Canto Bight, a city with a massive casino that characters Fin and Rose visit, is Star Wars’ answer to Las Vegas. But this town may have more similarities to Macau, a former Portuguese colony that is now part of China. In fact, Macau’s gambling revenue dwarfs that of Vegas.
There’s no denying it, Chinese people love to gamble, and Macau, on the southern China coastline, is where anybody with money goes. Like Macau, Canto Bight is a glamorous casino city, a playground for the rich, and as we see in the film, a place for those wanting to flaunt it.
Like many cities built around gambling, Canto Bight and Macau have their dark underbellies. Along with lavish casinos, they both have a controversial racetrack.
As Fin and Rose search for the Master Codebreaker, we are introduced to a majestic breed of racing creatures known as fathiers, that are exploited and abused to fill the gambling needs of the city’s rich punters.
There’s nothing like a good lightsabre battle to get the heart pumping, and The Last Jedi certainly delivers. Since Star Wars first hit the big screen in the 1970s, fans have been enthralled by the famed lightsabre fights inspired by martial arts.
Light-sabre battles in the original trilogy borrowed techniques from fencing and the Japanese martial art of kendo. That’s no surprise, with director George Lucas drawing inspiration for the first film from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure The Hidden Fortress, especially its samurai-sword-fighting scenes.
However, over the years, the films’ battle sequences have evolved and come to resemble combat in the Chinese martial art of wushu. In 1999’s The Phantom Menace, there was a pivotal fight between Jedi masters and the fearsome Darth Maul. The actor, Ray Park, who portrayed the dark warrior was a wushu champion.
Fast forward to 2018 and we see the actors in The Last Jedi have been trained in the wushu-like combat that inspired the choreography of the lightsabre fight scenes.
China-born former wushu champion Liang Yang was brought on board the The Last Jedi to train the cast in long and short weapon skills. As a result, the audience are treated to some satisfying battle sequences, from Rey showing her prowess with the light sabre as she and Kylo go back-to-back to face off against Snoke’s Praetorian Guards, to John Boyega’s Finn as he duels with the towering Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma.
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Christie described the training the cast underwent as, “the hardest physical thing I have done yet”. Even some of the new weapons wielded by the red-armoured Praetorian Guards looks like futuristic guandao, a type of Chinese pole knife.
What does this mean for China?
These themes have been baked into the plot and do not appear to have been included to pander to the increasingly important Chinese market. Will Chinese audiences feel a connection with these ideas, thus boosting its box office takings?
Presale ticket numbers are growing. How it performs in China will help determine if this film has a moderately successful run or becomes one for the record books. Worldwide, the film has already made more than US$1 billion at the box office in the three weeks since its initial release.
For most films that would be a huge figure, but in the Star Wars universe some would say that’s a little disappointing. Now all the film’s makers can do is wait to see if the Chinese audience is ready to be transported to a galaxy far, far away.