Director: Bettina Wilhelm
Screenplay: Bettina Wilhelm
Starring: Jonathan Pryce (voiceover), Bettina Wilhelm
Producer: Rudolf Santschi, Bettina Wilhelm
Running Time: 87 min
BBFC Certificate: E
Richard Wilhelm was a German sinologist, theologian and missionary who gained great respect and acknowledgement in the early part of the 20th Century through his translations of Chinese philosophy. He was one of the first people to truly bring the essence of Eastern thinking to the Western world in a time when most Europeans and Americans viewed the Chinese as mere labourers that should be forced into Christianity to become ‘civilised’. This was originally Wilhelm’s role when he went over to the country as a missionary, but when he lived amongst the Chinese and observed their ways of life, he realised they shared a spirituality and philosophy that he believed, by the end of his life, was more preferable to the Western way of thinking and living.
Wisdom of Changes – Richard Wilhelm and the I Ching (a.k.a. Wandlungen – Richard Wilhelm und das I Gling) is a documentary that was clearly a labour of love. Writer/director/producer Bettina Wilhelm is the granddaughter of Richard Wilhelm and in this film she travels to China and the towns and cities her grandfather worked in to witness for herself what he saw in the country and its people whilst discovering more about his life and work. As the title suggests, she looks largely into Wilhelm’s most famous work, his translation of the I Ching (a.k.a. The Book of Changes). This is thought to be one of the oldest of the classic Chinese texts and describes an ancient divination system which can be used to gain insight into questions and situations we might face in life. It has since gone on to inspire various works of philosophy, art and music, helped largely by Wilhelm introducing it to other cultures outside of China.
This nicely shot, beautifully scored and thankfully ‘un-flashy’ documentary covers a lot of bases. Looking at Wilhelm’s life, the wisdom of the I Ching and the tumultuous history of China at the time, it can be a little overwhelming at times. I must admit I struggled to grasp all of the concepts of the I Ching and keep track of what was going on in the chronologically told story from time to time. I got the feeling it’s the sort of film that benefits from more knowledge of Chinese history and philosophy, two fields in which I’m not all that clued up on. However, what the film did manage to do was make me want to find out more about the film’s content. Although some aspects went over my head, I never wanted to stop watching and I was straight online looking up the I Ching once the film had ended. This is the sign of an effective documentary I guess, more than actually giving you all of the facts you need. You’re hardly going to fit all of what Wilhelm discovered over 11 years into 87 minutes.
The visual aspects of the film didn’t help my focus on what was being discussed though. It is beautifully shot at times, but due to the fact that much of the content was philosophical in nature or concerned moments in history that may not have been well documented, there are a lot of segments that aren’t clearly visually represented and you have to rely on the voiceovers and interviews. What we usually see during these ‘visually difficult’ chapters are cutaways of modern Chinese life, which occasionally work in a symbolic fashion, but often feel like filler and sometimes drew my attention away from what was being said. I guess I’m just a visual learner and prefer that method of presenting information, but I realise Bettina didn’t always have much of a choice.
So it’s not a totally gratifying watch that will instantly enlighten you to Chinese philosophy and I couldn’t always keep on top of where we were in the dense history of China during Wilhelm’s own life. However, if you have patience, find Eastern culture fascinating as I do or if you have a reasonable prior knowledge of the area and period, you will find much to enjoy and appreciate here.
Wisdom of Changes – Richard Wilhelm and the I Ching is available to buy now on DVD in Europe and the UK. To buy it at Amazon.co.uk, use this link.