Review: Dancing with the Dead


Red Pine is the nom de plume of Bill Porter who grew up in LA, the son of a wildly disturbed, abusive multimillionaire patron of the Kennedys, who owned at least 52 hotels. Bill was sent to boarding school beginning in the fourth grade, so his parents could have more time to themselves — and perhaps more time for Dad to privately beat up Mom.

My guess is that Bill’s childhood led him on a life quest to find balance and heal himself psychically. His path led him to drop out of school, out of America, and finally out of society altogether.

Despite all of this, “Dancing with the Dead” tells the inspiring story of how Bill ended up one of the 21st century’s most respected and renowned translators of early (circa 9th century) Chinese poetry.

The film takes the viewer through that arc and inspires us to a similar journey. Interspersed in the film, as in his books, are some of his translated poems that transport us into a world of feeling, experience, and essential truth.

    My mind is like the autumn moon
    Clear and bright in a pool of jade
    Nothing can compare
    What more can I say
    – Cold Mountain

Bill has spent time living as a hermit as well as in monasteries and minimalist shelters, subsisting as much as possible without a job. Despite this retreat, he found refuge and interest in learning Chinese and translating early Chinese poetry. In 2018 he was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Bill’s first book to sell well was “Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.” It was translated into Chinese in 2009 and became a best-seller in China. It reveals that the ancient traditions and beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism, despite the Chinese Cultural Revolution that was thought to have wiped out religious practice, are still alive and well.

    On ancient rocks are ancient tracks
    below towering cliffs there’s a learning
    always bright when the moon shines
    no need to ask directions
    – Cold Mountain

Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, reveals that in China Bill “…is a source of endless fascination because here is a Westerner who really gets it, who really understands China. Who clearly loves Chinese culture and has devoted his life to it.”

“Dancing with the Dead” explains what is different about Bill and is interspersed with the poems he has translated. His translations are like a sacred prayer. He tries to get to know the poet as intimately as possible, going to where the poet lived and trying to exist the same way the poet did. His dance with the dead poets is his active interaction with their spirits to bring life to their poems in fitting translations.

This film has motivated me to check out from the library two books authored by Red Pine. They read easily, like a rare, luxurious silk that slips effortlessly through your fingers.

Access to viewing “Dancing with the Dead” will be a one-day event as part of Seattle’s International Film Festival. The showing will be this Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. at the Egyptian Theater.
Rating: 10/10


Director: Ward Serrill
Producer: Rocky Friedman
Writers: Ward Serrill and Michael McMann
Animation: Drew Christie
Music Supervisor: Susan Jacobs
Executive Producers: Cynthia Lovelace Sears
Co-Producer: D.D. Wigley
Release: April 21, 2024
Official Website and How to View:

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