…by Danny Fisher
A version of this piece originally appeared on my blog.
As a cinephile, I was interested to see Empire Magazine’s recently published list of the “100 Greatest Movie Characters.”
For the most part, I found the list pretty ridiculous. With less than ten woman characters (who include Jessica Rabbit, Princess Leia and the Wicked Witch of the West), little evidence of an awareness of films made outside the Western world or before 1975, and an extremely dubious #1 pick, it’s clearly a list designed for fanboys.
That said, the list got me thinking. Specifically, it got me thinking about Buddhist movie characters (not a big surprise, for those of you who know me). At first, I thought it might be novel to compile a list of the best movie characters who identify as Buddhist—not the Buddhish ones, like The Matrix’s Neo or Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors, but the ones who actually wear the mantle of the three jewels. As I thought about Buddhist movie characters, though, it occurred to me that most of them are…terrible. Either they’re “bad Buddhists” or Hollywood’s idea of “Buddhism” is confused at best…or both!
So, I present you with my list of the “Top 10 Worst Buddhist Movie Characters”—some Buddhists in name only, some erroneous representations of Buddhism, some all of the above.
10. Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) in Batman Begins (2005)
Maybe this one shouldn’t count. Late in Christopher Nolan’s breathtaking precursor to The Dark Knight, long after the character has exited, it’s explained that ninja master and quasi-Buddhist figure Ra’s al Ghul is actually a contrived decoy—“cheap parlor tricks” to conceal the true villain. So his confusing juxtaposition of accents, Southeast and Central Asian Buddhist art, saffron robes, Zen master beard, and mala beads is kind of forgivable after all. He’s supposed to be odd, mysterious, and incredibly distracting.
9. The General (Tzi Ma) in The Ladykillers (2004)
Maybe this one shouldn’t count either, since the Coen Brothers are clearly having fun here. When a group of thieves are confronted with the problem of what to do about a little old lady (Irma P. Hall) who may report their criminal activities, Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks) asks the General, “You are a Buddhist. Perhaps there is some ‘middle way’ to solve this problem?” The otherwise silent General thinks for a moment, and responds: “Must float like leaf on river of life…and kill old lady.”
8. Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra) in “The Sopranos” (from 2001-2004)
OK, OK. This one’s from TV. But “The Sopranos” is more cinematic than most films, so my conscience is clean. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with the depictions of Buddhism on the show per se, but wretched and tragic mistress Gloria, a practicing Buddhist, is pretty bad as an ambassador for the religion. (Although, that’s kind of the point.)
7. Lt. Jack Cole (Steven Seagal) in The Glimmer Man (1996)
Tibetologist John Powers sums this one up perfectly in his essay “The Free Tibet Movement” for Christopher Queen’s Engaged Buddhism in the West:
Steven Seagal’s own] Buddhist spirituality is on display in his movie The Glimmer Man, in which he wears Tibetan prayer beads around his neck and speaks of cultivating inner peace. In the following scene, however, someone insults his sissy beads and he kicks him through a glass door, indicating that he may still need to put in more quality time on the meditation cushion (pg. 236).
6. Tulku (Brady Tsurutani) in The Shadow (1994)
Here’s where things start getting especially awful. What to say about a character who’s got a phurba that’s sentient and behaves like a loyal hound? Rumor has it that Sam Raimi, the kitsch-loving auteur behind The Evil Dead and Spider-Man, is at work on a remake. Is there any hope for a thoughtful, post-modern take on The Shadow? We’ll see!
5. The Monk With No Name (Chow Yun-Fat) in Bulletproof Monk (2003)
I’m still trying to determine what’s Buddhist at all about this Tibetan monk’s teachings. Here’s just one grimace-worthy sampling:
4. To Len (James Shigeta) in Lost Horizon (1973)
Burt Bacharach and Buddhism. Together at last, huh? I’m singling out this character from the infamous musical adaptation of James Hilton’s novel about “Shangri-La” simply because he’s the one singing this song…
3. Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis) in The Golden Child (1985)
I’m just picking one of the main characters in this case because, really, this whole movie’s a disaster in terms of its presentation of Tibetan Buddhism. Take a look at this scene, in which Buddhist ritual implements are used in nonsensical ways…
2. Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995)
The beginning of this sequel finds its protagonist holed up in what’s supposed to be a Himalayan monastery. But once they start talking about “medals of accomplishment” (that look like Egyptian ankhs) and whatnot, it becomes pretty clear that there’s zero effort here to represent anything authentic of the Buddhist tradition.
1. Older Arnie Shankman (John C. Reilly) in Anger Management (2003)
This is the worst of the twofers. Reilly’s Buddhist monk character is not only short-tempered and cruel—a “bad Buddhist”—but also a fairly offensive caricature of a Buddhist. I’m all for irreverence, but it should come out of some real understanding of what it is that is being lampooned. There’s none of that here. In the eyes of the filmmakers, the Buddha, for example, is a “600-pound God.” Ugh.