A Festive Exploration of Face Reading, the Five Elements, and Film

Five Elements

By Grace Stojanov, LAc, DiplOM, MSTOM, Master Face Reader

When I was a student of Chinese medicine, the relationships of the Five Elements were shrouded in mystery. Sure, we learned about the Generating/Sheng Cycle flowing in the shape of a circle and the Controlling/Ke Cycle flowing in the shape of a star. We were taught how, amongst myriad other aspects, this flow relates to the seasons, the organs, the emotions. We learned that, in the Generating Cycle, the healthy qi of the kidneys leads to the health of the liver, to the health of the heart, then to the spleen, the lungs, and back to the health of the kidneys again. We learned that healthy restraint through the Controlling Cycle also leads to healthy functioning of the organ systems. And sometimes things flow out of balance, such as in the common example of liver qi becoming excessive in its expression when one is stressed, and rebellion against the control of the lungs manifesting physically as an inclination to shallow breathing (and often an exit/entry block from Lv14 to Lu1). And likewise, when the energy of the lungs is balanced and strong—and the Cycle flows appropriately—deep breathing helps to alleviate stress. Or, when the kidneys are overtaxed from burning the candle at both ends, allowing the heart to burn out of control, manifesting in vivid and exhausting dreams and even anxiety. But once the kidneys are strengthened and water is restored, the heart cools and calms, anxiety is curbed, and sleep is rejuvenating again.

Beyond the seasonal transitions and studying organ diagnostics, these universal relationships were ambiguous and amorphous governing concepts that stretched the very fabric of my metaphysical brain. I knew I was supposed to use these interactions between the Elements to structure my decisions about acupuncture prescriptions, herbal formulations, and treatment plans for my patients, but I felt like I really had only the smallest grasp of how the relationships truly functioned. It wasn’t until I worked my way through Lillian Bridges’ Face Reading in Chinese Medicine (2012) and studied with her in her Master Face Reading Program that I began to put together how the Generating and Controlling Cycles actually flowed through the rest of life. I had to literally see it in person.

Lillian taught that face reading is the psychological branch of Chinese medicine, so it followed well that she examined the human relationships of the Five Elements in detail. The emotional aspect of the Five Elements became much clearer to me by studying her work. In her teachings, she discusses the transformation of the human emotions—those we learn in school to be associated with pathology of the organ systems: Fear, Anger, excessive Excitement, Worry, and Grief—into the transformational emotions that, as I recall, were only just touched upon—Wisdom, Human Kindness, Unconditional Love, Right Instinct, and Gratitude. Seeing how these express through the dynamics of the Five Elements in face reading helped me immensely in understanding human relationships—my own, my family’s and friends’, my patients’. Recognizing how the Elements express through our personalities enabled me to understand why people behave as they do. Recognizing the strength of the Elements on the face enabled me to understand why the imbalances that present in one’s physiology, and subsequent pathologies, occur. From then, I began to see everything through the Five Elements in face reading: myself and my relationships, patients’ conditions, relationships between other people, in politics, and—especially—in the movies. Hollywood has an amazing ability to manifest the Elemental relationships through movie themes quite clearly. They are also spectacular at casting the right faces for the personalities of the characters, according to the face reading lineage that Lillian taught. Did the casting agents study with her, too? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I am going to share with you five of my favorite movies that I feel demonstrate the relationships of the Five Elements quite well. Brilliantly, even the actors chosen are in alignment with each movie’s Elemental theme and strongly show the predominant Elemental traits on their faces. Spoiler alert: I will be discussing some of the details within the movies and how the hero’s journey is completed according to the Elemental cycle—though I won’t give away too much, so they will still be enjoyable for you to watch!

Water Element – Arrival (2016)

This movie is a recent favorite of mine. It slowly percolated into my heart and anchored itself firmly there. It is very expansive and cerebral in its concept and the Water element rules the Sea of Marrow, the brain. An alien species comes to planet Earth to make contact and, in order to communicate, humans need to learn its language. It takes the linguistic and physics expertise of our heroes, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, to master this skill. The movie is slow in pace, and calm. Many scenes are set in a stark alien room with a mysterious technology separating the heroes from the aliens or outside under overcast skies. The aliens’ environment is quite fluid; they move as if they are swimming, shrouded in mist and mystery. The language they are teaching is circular and flowing. As the movie progresses, we realize that time is no longer linear. The threat our heroes face is that the nations of humanity (Earth Element) won’t accept the goodwill gift of the aliens, which can be received only through sharing the information between nations, and the aliens will be rejected violently, inhibiting the human advancement possible with the gift. Danger from the aliens is assumed by the human powers-that-be, though it is the aliens who are threatened because humans fear the unknown. The heroes need to use their new skills to help the people of Earth receive the aliens’ message and feel secure so that the new relationships between nations and extraterrestrials can flourish, and so that humans can see beyond what was to what could be. Humankind, and our heroes, must overcome their fear and the willfulness of their society (the human Water emotions) in order to gain wisdom and allowance of possibility (the transformational Water emotions).

The actors chosen for the heroes’ roles both have prominent foreheads, which is a feature of the Water Element, indicating they think deeply and introvertedly and take time reaching conclusions. They have wide-sweeping, extrapolative hairlines indicating the ability for expansive and creative thought. Their larger than average ears also show their ability to manage fear and the strength of their Water Elements, as does the posterior tilt, again showing non-linear creativity in the thinking process. They both possess strong and stubborn chins which indicated their strength of will through their Water Elements.

Wood Element – Boondock Saints (1999)

This has been a favorite movie of mine for a long time. I really dig this cult classic and perhaps the reason why is reflective of how its nature supports my own Wood Element. This movie is about righteous judgement, retribution, and divine punishment for wrongdoing. It is gritty and passionate, uses strong language and gruff militaristic tactics, depicts all kinds of debauchery, and involves the police and the Italian mafia. The heroes are everyday Irish Catholics, making their living, but there is something special about them. They suffer through a trial of hurt and anger and we witness them being chosen by God to administer His justice. They are now functioning outside the ordered, law-abiding hierarchy of their society. Their vigilantism is in service of protecting those who can’t protect themselves when the law fails. This movie depicts a transition from the human Wood emotions of anger and hatred to the transformational Wood emotions of compassion and human kindness (from a vigilante perspective, that is).

The actors chosen for the heroes’ roles, Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, show flexibility in their Wood Elements rather than rigidly strong Woody natures. This works with the theme of the movie because the heroes needed to be somewhat flexible in their moral characters in order to become the vigilantes they are. They possess healthy eyebrows (instead of very strong eyebrows), showing athleticism and passion, and strong brow bones, which show powerful Woody opinions and thought processes. They are disinclined to listen to authority and have dominant leadership inclinations. They are quite happy to take matters into their own hands and quite physically capable of doing so! Their brow bones also enhance the potential for athletic prowess, in which they engage throughout the film. They have refined jawlines that indicate they are less inclined to force their ideals on others initially but are quite willing to fight back if they are protecting themselves or those whom they deem are their dependents. Hang on, though, have we seen the eyebrows on Billy Connolly, the actor who plays il Duce? Now those, along with his strong jaw and thick beard show an incredibly strong Wood nature and defiance of authority! When you watch the movie and see his relation to the heroes, it all makes sense.

Fire Element – The Fifth Element (1997)

Given the title, how can I not discuss this movie in this article? This boisterous movie just delightedly screams fun–and fun is basically the definition of the Fire Element. It is scattered and lively; there’s lots of colors and movement; the facial expressions are big. The actors portray lots of emotions and dramatics and plenty of excitement, flirtation, romance, and fun sex (off-camera, of course—this is a PG-13 flick!). The sets are accented by many red tones and there is skin showing in the costumes throughout.

Our heroes’ nemesis, Great Evil, is represented as a dark, molten planet that wants to destroy all life (Water, and a reflection of winter’s cold embrace) and its servant, Mr. Zorg (played brilliantly by Gary Oldman). Zorg is quite fond of using betrayal (a human Fire emotion) as a regular tool, or even weapon, in his dealings–and he is eventually betrayed in the end. This high-adrenaline movie burns brightly and depicts quite a lot of excess excitement (another human Fire emotion. At the climax, the heroes finally recognize their love and are then able to use Unconditional Love (a transformational Fire emotion) in the form of divine light to overcome and conquer evil and save humanity. The movie ends with a happy love scene (happiness is their transformed Fire emotion reward).

All the actors chosen looked like they had a marvelous time creating this movie. They are funky, upbeat, and playful. Many of them even look a bit sprightly. The actors who play our heroes are very expressive and animated, and all emotions must pass through Fire to be expressed. Bruce Willis’ face has pink undertones and fabulous joy and sadness lines (crow’s feet) showing that he experiences joy—and the gentle, sad, let-down from joy—frequently, and smiles a lot. These are the main emotional lines associated with the Fire Element. Milla Jovovich’s character even touts fiery hair. She and Bruce Willis have bright eyes and many of their features come to points (their eyes and smiles, especially) indicating the generous touch of Fire throughout their Elemental makeup. Even Gary Oldman has a pointed nose, angled haircut, and pointed soul-patch. The brightness of their gaze, the pointed tips of their facial features, their pink complexions, and their expressive natures are key Fire characteristics, indicating that they possess strength in their Fire Elements.

Earth Element – Mamma Mia! (2008)

There is a long history of love for Earth Element movies in our culture. Turn on the Hallmark channel and that is what you’ll find. Romantic comedies, musicals, stories where everything works out alright and everyone ends up married at the end. The musical Mamma Mia! demonstrates the nature of the Earth Element fabulously. It is a comfortable, happy, make-you-laugh-in-an-easy-way, family friendly kind of movie about people making connections and portrayed in song. The music of ABBA, I feel, also relates to the Earth Element as it was written and performed by two couples who were family to each other for a very long time. Earth loves to keep in contact with its people. This movie takes place in a small community where everybody knows everybody. The heroes’ family is working to fix up their home, which is also a hotel—their guests’ home away from home. They are frequently barefoot, in contact with the earth. The costumes are relaxed and comfortable. Hair is worn down or loosely up and fashionably disheveled. Throughout the movie, the characters are constantly touching each other or sitting together, overlapping one another. The Earth Element loves a “puppy pile”!

The plot involves the bride-to-be trying to find her real father and bring her family together on her wedding day. Earth loves togetherness. The father figure is representative of the Wood Element and these struggles (the heroes’ challenge) correspond to balancing, in a healthy way, the controlling effect of Wood on Earth. In face reading, the relationship with one’s father figure is represented in a minor Liver area along the midline of the face and between the eyebrows anatomically known as the glabella. At the conclusion of the movie, the family succeeds in overcoming worry and confusion (human Earth emotions) and healing the fatherly relationship of the bride-to-be, and his relationship with her mother, through Instinct and Right Action (transformational Earth emotions) to become whole—and then all the heroes end up in relationships!

The faces of our heroines have firm, healthy flesh, and wide mouths with beautiful, full lips. Their bodies are curvaceous and well-fed. The extra padding on their bones gives them a softer appearance, but it is firm and does not hang, showing the strength of their Earth Elements. Because their faces have good bone structure, but the bones are not protruding, it shows their Earth warehouses are full. This implies resilience during difficult or more scarce times because they possess extra Earth resources. Their large and wide mouths show generosity and strength of Earth. Their full lips speak to their delight in the comforts of life: good food and drink, comfortable materials and fabrics, and the desire to live an easy life without too much struggle. This heart-warming movie shows how the Earth Element is all about peaceful, comfortable enjoyment of what is and being with its people.

Metal Element – Passengers (2016)

This movie exudes beauty and elegance in the pristine nature of its theme, set, execution, and actors. It portrays belief that what will be is sure to be better than what is. Its aesthetics are future-oriented as the movie takes place on a spaceship; whites, blacks, and pastels dominate the expensive, top-of-the-line, cruise-ship-styled spaceship. It is decorated in dark woods, lush fabrics, and high contrast glass, acrylic, and metallic.

The major theme of this movie is being alone. The ship is alone in space, years from any other human contact or help. The heroes are alone on the ship—everyone else is asleep for the duration of the journey. The heroes spend a lot of time alone from each other by choice. The awe and excitement at the opening of the film quickly transitions into feelings of panic and loss. Loneliness and sorrow (human Metal emotions) are invoked immediately afterward and then linger. Although they have unlimited creature comfort resources available to them and their physical needs are met, they are emotionally alone. After reaching rock bottom, these emotions are replaced by a sense of hope, with the potential for something better. The heroes experience an extreme sense of lacking (another human Metal emotion) and the anger of Metal through excommunication when confronted with the truth, each standing in their own truths, but when presented with the heroes’ challenge—the nemesis (Fire) is literally a fire—they must come together again to succeed, seeing the truth of what is (tonifying the mother, Earth, to nourish the child, Metal). And succeed they do: the last scene, after witnessing mindful resolutions following the averted disaster (mindfulness is a transformational emotion of Metal), is our heroes coming together in a beautiful crystalline and clear environment with a sweeping expanse of a view; she whispers in his ear, “Hell of a life!”, expressing the full magnitude of gratitude (the primary transformational emotion of Metal) they developed for their very unorthodox yet undeniably remarkable life. We, the viewers, never learn if the heroes have children (the family aspect of the Earth Element), but they do leave behind beauty (Metal) in their works (one’s life’s work is one of the three types of immortality—that is for another lesson!) and they allow the creation of a new colony after the extended hibernation in space (Metal passing through Water and into Wood).

The actors who play our heroes, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, are beautiful people. Their faces are very symmetrical and diamond-shaped (they have broader cheekbones than temples and jaws), which emphasizes their Metallic natures and independence. They are serene. They both have aquiline noses and strong cheekbones, indicating a powerful sense of command. Their pale coloration, light eyes, and light-colored hair all accentuate and reinforce the Metallic theme of this movie and main color of Metal: white. Every minute detail of this movie breathes Metal.

Lillian summarized the personalities of the Five Elements through a fabulous list of adjectives in her text (Five Element Personality Quiz, Table II-2, p. 87). This list, along with her chapters on Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal, provides so much clarity about the nature of the Elements, and made clear how they relate to each other. Her exposition thus disambiguates how the world, including human relationships, flows in its Elemental influences. I find this to be exceptionally useful in clinic as I work with patients to help them understand imbalances within themselves, in their external lives, and in their interpersonal relationships, and how they can attain better balance in life in general. Lillian taught me to see how the Five Elements manifest on our faces and through our personalities. Now, I am seeing the world through full spectrum, Five Element glasses. I invite you to join me in studying her immortal legacy so you may do the same!

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Grace Stojanov

Grace Stojanov has a private practice in San Diego. She specializes in women’s health, herbal medicine, and face reading. She teaches Face Reading at Pacific College of Health and Science.

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