‘Eternals’ Director Chloe Zhao Explains the Eastern Philosophy Behind Her Marvel Movie
Art and Experience:
Chinese viewers may not get a chance to catch the Chloe Zhao-helmed Marvel movie “Eternals” in theaters due to China’s thorny relationship with the director, but the film’s meshing of Eastern and Western ideas has nonetheless appealed to some Chinese viewers.
Many reviewers on the Douban social media platform who have seen the film — presumably through illicit means — have commented on how excited they are to identify with what they feel are Chinese elements buried within the typical Marvel superhero showmanship. One wrote: “Chloe Zhao really is a Chinese person in her bones — at the end, she even pays tribute to the Five-Fingered Mountain and Ne Zha!” referring to a well-known place and character from Chinese mythology.
The “Nomadland” director tells Variety that she sought to include elements of Eastern philosophy in “Eternals,” honing in on Taoist principles such as the “virtue of inaction,” of acting in harmony with nature, and of finding a balance between yin and yang.
“In our society, in the stories we tell about ourselves, we often emphasize and celebrate masculine strength — the strength of constant action, of winning, of innovating and expending. In ‘Eternals,’ we wanted to explore the feminine strength in all of us — the strength that comes from vulnerability, love, forgiveness and ‘actionless action,’” said Zhao.
“All the characters in ‘Eternals’ are trying to find the harmony between the masculine and the feminine sides of them, the ‘yin’ and the ‘yang,’ and only when they find the balance do they become whole,” she explained.
The director referenced, for instance, how at the film’s climax, Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) were, despite their opposing ideologies, able to “choose not to act and to embrace vulnerability and love.”
“To be able to have these moments in a superhero film was deeply meaningful to me,” said Zhao.
When developing the story, Zhao wanted to challenge ideas about absolute good and evil by adding more nuance to the relationship between the Eternals and the Deviants, the latter of which she envisioned as a sort of ecological allegory representing the Apex predators exterminated by humans over the centuries so that humanity could flourish.
“Unlike the classic Western representations of demons, the demons in Eastern religions are often powerful ancient spirits of nature. Instead of exterminating them, we should acknowledge and appease them,” explained Zhao. “There is no such thing as absolute evil. Only energies that have to be redirected with understanding and compassion.”
While Chinese viewers have gone so far as to read the film as a modern take on the 16th century classic text “Journey to the West,” comparing the Eternals to the epic’s main character Sun Wukong, the iconic immortal monkey king tasked with protecting a monk on his pilgrimage, any perceived parallels weren’t active choices, explains Zhao.
“‘Journey to the West’ was a big part of my childhood and Sun Wukong is one of my favorite literary characters of all time, but they were not direct influences for me for ‘Eternals,’” Zhao explains. She admitted, however, that perhaps “some ideas seeped in subconsciously.”
Disney revealed last week that “Eternals” will debut on streaming platform Disney Plus on Jan. 12. The movie opened in the U.S. on Nov. 5, collecting $71 million in its opening weekend. It has so far grossed $395 million worldwide.