Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The thing that most people overlook about the two Star Wars trilogies is that they are, at their core, the story of fathers and sons, and although we once thought of these stories as being concerned solely with the evolution of Luke Skywalker, we can now see that that isn't the case at all -- these movies are about Darth Vader, about a gifted young boy who ended up choosing the wrong path in life, only to be later redeemed by his son.

Nobody really likes these new movies, the third of which, Revenge of the Sith, will premiere this May, but I do; they convincingly portray the disintegration of a democracy into a dictatorship in a way that young people can understand and, given that they take place before the films we knew and loved as kids, they also have the added advantage of establishing all kinds of neat little foreshadowings, twists, and thematic layers that give new meaning to what we've seen before. They are able to, in essence, 'mirror' what happens in the second trilogy, creating a wonderful cyclical effect.

Basically, Anakin 'Darth Vader' Skywalker's story parallels his son's own odyssey through life -- a gifted, respected Jedi Warrior who is trying to do the right thing. Only Vader, obviously makes the wrong choice; Luke, faced with similar temptations, does the right thing. Simple. Powerful.

It's a very interesting, bold message, I think. Lucas is saying: Here's a guy who did everything wrong, but his son, faced with similar choices, not only does the right thing, but in the process redeems his dad, too (as Vader, at the end of Return of the Jedi, once again becomes a 'good guy').

You can argue all you want about the aesthetic choices of this new trilogy -- its excitement factor, it's 'coolness' -- that's your call. But I don't think you can deny that Lucas has deepened his maturity and focus; he's talking about interesting ideas that aren't really talked about much in contemporary pop culture, the most subtle of which is: how do we enter into the world that our parents made, and then somehow avoid making the same mistakes they did?

Take Cambodia. The Cambodian university students I taught were, in general, the children of the elite, which, in this country, means that their parents were government workers. Big shots. Not all of the students were rich kids; quite a few had scholarships, and there were many who somehow managed to scrape the tuition money together by hook or by crook. Still, a great majority of university students in Phnom Penh have parents in one Ministry or another, which means, bottom line, that those parents are on the take. Greasing the palms. Passing the buck, literally and figuratively.

Sad, but true. The weird thing is, in a country like Cambodia, where corruption is the norm, can it even be called corruption anymore? You do what you have to do to get ahead, build alliances, forge relationships. If that's what it takes to grease the wheel and climb the ladder, well, then that's what it takes. You call it corruption; they call it survival.

Problem is, where do all of these university graduates go? They are well-connected, most of these kids; if they want, I'm sure they can get somewhat of an 'in' into the system. And yet it is that very system that I fear, this system that will turn these naive, good-natured (albeit a little bit lazy) students into monetary, bureaucratic survivalists. If there was a Survivor: Cambodia, it would have to consist of a bunch of big-bellied bureaucrats scheming to see who gets to pay off which higher-up first.

But then, once these freshly-minted graduates are allowed into the dance, into the game, what next? How does the process being? How do you get the money, and how does the money exchange hands? Who gets what?

Because the Khmer Rouge killed all of the intellectuals and educated people twenty-five years ago, the people running Cambodia now are not the brightest bulbs in the socket. That may sound harsh, but it's true; Cambodia's educational system wasn't exactly stellar thirty years ago anyways, and the people running the show are woefully uneducated. And here you have their (relatively) better educated children, young and eager and wanting to become a part of the legitimate international community, but unsure of how to go about it.

Will they just inherit their parents' corrupt ways? Is there any other way, besides corruption, to move the country forward, given that those in power sure as hell won't relinquish power? Will the children of Cambodia become their own, authentically Asian version of Luke Skywalker, avoiding temptation by doing the good and noble act, thereby redeeming their great country and their parents in the process? Or is the country doomed to be Darth Vader all over again?

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