Notes on Criticism – a critique of two recent reviews of “Lion” (@LionMovie #LionMovie)



I have this blind faith in the Power of Words and how it can help to make our world a better place. Hence I am often reluctant to write, unless I write responsibly, ethically and to the best of my knowledge and capability. I also believe in constructive criticism. Hence I write only to help, and would rather remain silent unless I can say something nice and useful.

Yet I sometimes wonder if this is the wrong attitude. Instead of quietly surfing the Internet, perhaps I should be more vocal and provide alternative views to those considered to be mainstream. Perhaps I should be fearless and relentless, bravely challenging academics and industry professionals who are experts in their fields. I once heard, from Chinese author Sheng Keyi in her discussion about writing and censorship, that “a writer’s job is to offend”. Maybe I should voice my thoughts whenever they are rational, without worrying about causing trouble.

No, I do not aspire to be another Milo Yiannopoulos. Nor do I intend to defend Lion (2016), a wonderful Australian film that received six Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards but ultimately won nothing. I understand that movies, like books, invite different intellectual, emotional and psychological responses from different audiences. Rather than denying or disputing two recent reviews of the film (please see here and here), I just want to offer another perspective. (Author’s Note: So she says.)

I am of the view that if a film clearly aims to deliver a message, then we can judge whether or not it has successfully delivered it. More often than not, however, a filmmaker just wants to tell a good story, and it is such endeavour to tell it well that deserves consideration and respect. Take this statement made by a university lecturer in media studies:

Every film doesn’t have to make an explicit political statement, but every film does make a political statement nonetheless, in its presentation of a view of the world – i.e. in its ideology. This film – in its affectation towards seriousness – should be more conscious of what it’s saying about the world, that’s all. And this is a point for criticism – if a great artwork is defined through its integrity of spirit, design and effect, then Lion falls short of this mark. (source)

And this one made by an artist whose scholarly research focuses on Australian cinema, industry analysis and film distribution:

Lion misses the chance to delve into the nuances and complexities of adoption from the developing world, and the resulting complications in character psychology, which are whisked over in favour of a predictable story arc where loose ends are tied, subtext is made explicit in the form of dialogue and happy conclusions are imminent. It’s a film of naive intentions.

While most filmmakers present preposterous plot-lines and make them compelling with masterful storytelling techniques, Lion takes a true story and makes it entirely unbelievable. It reminded me that while “multiculturalism” used to be the buzzword that “diversity” has replaced, both can be shallow concepts that neatly and cosmetically collapse “minorities” into an otherwise unchanged white majority.

This is why Lion is such a great shame… (source)

I find it difficult to argue against these two statements, and there is no need for me to do so. But I do believe these two critics meant well, and they are likely to change their views about Lion if they have read the book from which it was adapted.

Many differences are observed between the book and the film. For example, in his autobiography/memoir A Long Way Home (2013), Saroo Brierley details the family backgrounds of his adopted parents, Sue and John Brierley, which, to a large extent, explained why they decided to adopt two children from India in spite of the fact that they were perfectly capable of having their own kids. In Sue’s case, her past is exactly the kind of “migrant story” demanded by one of the critics mentioned above. However, because these details are not included in the film, we are faced with some very harsh criticism here:

[Lion] ends with captions telling us that “Over 80,000 children go missing in India each year”, before pointing towards the virtues of Western adoption of Indian children. It’s certainly one of the more explicitly Orientalist visions I’ve seen on the big screen this year.

The film approaches consciousness of this in one particularly bizarre scene in which Sue tells adult Saroo about the “vision” she had as a twelve year old girl that made her determined to, one day, “have two brown-skinned boys”. She’s in tears, and Saroo hugs her, with the emotional charge of the scene negating its critical potential. What should appear creepy – a 12-year old girl’s bio-colonial fantasy – is transformed into a tender familial moment.

Of course, a commercial, mainstream film like Lion is hardly going to undermine its own basis by critiquing global capitalism, and, as a romantic melodrama, it is very effective. But as a film about what is a political issue (which its final “message” seems to indicate it thinks it is) it falls hopelessly short.

It is, in fact, rather hypocritical in its depiction of poverty as the result of some kind of amorphous “evil” and not as the necessary product of capitalist development. There is, moreover, something profoundly Dickensian in its explicit celebration of bourgeois sympathy for the poor – and its solution: physical appropriation of the poor by the rich. (source)

And this:

What Lion does is take a culturally rich story and apply the conventions of middlebrow Western, feel-good cinematic storytelling… What did it feel like to move from rowdy Calcutta to dead-quiet Hobart in the 1980s? The film doesn’t tell us, aside from having sparkly-eyed Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) tour Saroo around their house, pointing out the television and other appliances. What did it feel like to return to the country and the life that Saroo almost forgot?…

The sight of Nicole Kidman in tight, teary-eyed close-up, staring into the middle-distance, recounting a childhood dream in which a brown-skinned boy approaches her in a field is not just cringe-worthy and benevolently racist, it is also a romanticised and unquestioning vision of overseas adoption. (source)

Reading these passages, I felt like screaming at these two critics: “Why don’t you read the bloody book! Stop insulting this couple with your self-righteous political ideology!” I also wanted to tell them that in Brierley’s book he clearly identifies himself as a dinki di Aussie, and he never sees any ideological conflict between the so-called “East” and “West” (see my book review here).

All in all, A Long Way Home and Lion have told two versions of a wonderful story about an ordinary man’s journey to discover his true Self, so that he and his two families can make peace with life. Is Brierly trying to make a political statement? I do not think so, and I would advise against any attempt to review a work of art and its multiple facets with the assumption that it is trying to express some sort of ideology. As Jack Crawford says to Clarice Starling in both the book (1988) and film (1991) versions of Silence of the Lambs: “If you assume when I send you on a job, Starling, you can make an ass out of u and me both.”



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. hjo
    Feb 28, 2017 @ 01:09:07

    Thank you! The stories of real people are not always going to fall into a convenient political narrative, and it is offensive when writers like these try to silence others’ real life experiences because they don’t fit into their stereotyped worldview.


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