Bill talking to a hermit on the rocks • Courtesy of Woody Creek Pictures

Red Pine 赤松; pinyin: Chì Sōng is the pen name of the Port Townsend author, translator and Sinologist Bill Porter, born in 1943, whose translations focus on Daoist and Buddhist texts, poetry and sutras. He has published youthful travelogues on backpacking the Silk Road and traveling the length of the Yellow River to its Tibetan source.

Dancing with the Dead is feature length 124-minute documentary by filmmakers Ward Serrill and Rocky Friedman. The film is well paced, beautifully shot portrait of a remarkable person who could be a reincarnation of an ancient Chinese recluse in a Western body. The film jumps around in time, utilizing interviews and archival footage. Red Pine’s early life is depicted using drawn animation.

Red Pine’s father was a convicted bank robber and became a millionaire and Democratic Party supporter of JFK. He was a product of the 60s, a college drop out before becoming a student of a Chinese Zen master in NYC’s Chinatown. From a wealthy and privileged background, like the Buddha, he became a renunciant studying meditation in Zen monasteries. Red Pine lived for 22 years in Taiwan and Hong Kong before returning to the U.S. in 1993. He lives with his wife in Port Townsend, Washington.

In the beginning of the film Red Pine chants a classical poem, revealing that reading poems is relatively recent and singing poems was the norm historically. Words come alive when spoken. The film illustrates this point with archival footage of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg reciting “Howl.” The film is broken into interludes by poetic recitations and computer-enhanced classical Sung and Yuan dynasty Chinese paintings of recluses and hermitages in mountain settings. We learn from Red Pine that “Chinese don’t read poems, they sing them.” The word “poetry” is composed of two characters meaning words from the heart.

Red Pine reading on rock • Courtesy of Woody Creek Pictures

While in Beijing researching his book on modern hermits, a prominent official monk tells Red Pine that there are no more hermits in China. He is informed by another monk to look in the Zhongnan mountains which resulted in the book Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. Road to Heaven was translated into Chinese, causing a sensation in Chinese literary circles creating a renewed interest in the ancient eremetic tradition and striking a chord with contemporary readers about getting by with less and living a simple life surviving on moonlight and rain

Red Pine’s new success in his recent work has meant he is off of food stamps and now drinks $15 bottles of wine and $80 bourbon.

In the film, we meet Red Pine in various situations, researching in libraries, eating and drinking whisky with close friends, visiting recluses and temples in deep mountains. When the sun goes down, he puts aside his papers and loves to party.

Dancing with the Dead is a fine portrait of the world famous Sinologist and translator who has consistently bridged the worlds of China’s ancient past with our present.

The film is greatly enhanced with animation by Drew Christie, haunting original songs composed by Spring Cheng and contributions of music by Wu Man. 

“Dancing With The Dead: Red Pine And The Art Of Translation” by Ward Serrill has a special Seattle premiere and one-time screening on Sunday, April 21, 2024 at 2pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian at 805 East Pine on Capitol Hill . The screening is followed by  a Q&A  with the director and Red Pine moderated by Civic Poet of Seattle, Shin Yu Pai. Chinese singer Spring Cheng whose vocals are heard throughout the film will also perform. For details, go to siff.net or call 206-464-5830.
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