INTERPRETING ASIAN CINEMA: CHALLENGES AHEAD
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Ceylon Today Mosaic
The last two or three decades have witnessed a growing interest in Asian cinema. In many western universities the work of distinguished Asian film directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa. Satyait Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Zhang Yimou are taught. It is also heartening to note that the work of such younger directors as Tsai Ming Liang, Apichatpong Weerasethkul, Brilliante Mendoza are given classroom attention.
If this interest in Asian cinema is to be channeled in fruitful ways we should pay attention to the question of teaching Asian films. In this column it is my intention to raise some important challenges to this undertaking. Films can open a wonderful window onto Asian cultures on the move. In fact this has been one of the attractions of studying Asian films from the beginning. This is no doubt laudable; however we need to widen the discursive boundaries of film pedagogy.
What I aim to do in this column is to explore how Asian cinema has been taught and studied in the Western academe, because it has, whether one likes it or not, far reaching implications for the rest of the world. It seems to me that there are three important stages in the growth of teaching Asian cinema in Western academic institutions.
First, Asian films were employed as a way of discussing more broadly contours of Western cultures.
Films by Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa were discussed as a way of gaining entry in to the broader space of Japanese culture.
Similarly, Chinese martial arts films or Indian popular cinema or Japanese Samurai films were examined as a way of entering into the domain of Chinese, Indian or Japanese cultures. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an approach. What it does, however, is to make films illustrations of broader cultural concepts and patterns. The independence, the self-contained nature of cinema as a medium if creative expression where issues of narrative, style, technique, visual registers and so on invite close attention, are minimized
In the second stage films were studies as works of art. Questions of narrative discourse, visual styles, camerawork, editing, lighting etc. began to receive attention. However they were examined in terms of the norms conventions set in motion by Western films, most notably Hollywood films. The language of analysis bore the distinct imprint of Western film analysis. This is indeed understandable. What was more troubling is that Asian films were seen and assessed as pale imitations of Western works. The western works of cinema were held up as the models, the templates that were to be honored by Asian filmmakers. Deviations from them were seen as deficiencies and weaknesses, while the shift to the study of films as media of creative expression was welcomed, the shadow of western normativity hung over Asian films in uncomfortable ways.
In the third stage beginning around the 1980s one began to observe a greater awareness of theory and is implications for the study of cinema. Once gain this impulse to frame cinema in terms of theory was important. Until now theory was taken for granted and never given the kind of attention it richly deserved. When I say that Asian cinema began to be studies in terms of theory what I mean is the application of modern film theory influence by the writings of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Mikhail Bakhtin, Gilles Deluze, Jacques Ranciere, Jan-Luc Nancy etc. to the study of Asian cinema.
While the preoccupation with theory had its advantages, one began to perceive certain drawbacks as well. As the preoccupation with theory began to intensify one began to see theory taking precedence over films which are the real objects of study. Films became ancillary to theory. Critics and theorists began to make films into illustrations of the pet theories on critics. Consequently we began to see how works of cinema from countries like Japan, India, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong etc. were treated as exemplars supporting the trajectories of theory. This, needless to say, was an unfortunate outcome of the extreme preoccupation with theory. More recent commentaries of Asian cinema are guilty of this defect.
It is against this backdrop that we need to chart paths of analysis for Asian cinema. It is very important to bear in mind the act that film is a dominant cultural practice. What this underlines is the need to consider cinema as constituting a complex unity that is culturally grounded. Cinema is at once art, entertainment, economics, technology and ideology and all these aspects are vitally interconnected. And this interconnection takes place within certain cultural discourses. This fact needs to be borne in mind as we probe deeper into Asian cinema as works of art. The outstanding Russian theorist advanced the concept of chronotope. This foregrounds the imbrication of time and space, history and geography, in cultural production. We can press this concept into service very productively
One can fully understand the desire on the part of not only Western scholars of cinema but also Asian scholars to make use of Western theories. As we do that, we need to keep one important fact in mind an important phenomenon, namely, the role of colonialism. The Western theorists are not in a position, experientially speaking, to assess the full weight of colonialism on Asian films. Therefore, it is very important that Asian scholars pay attention to this fact.
Our en-framing of Asian films, situating them in specific discursive spaces boundaries should be guided by the unsettling effects that colonialism had on Asian societies and on filmmaking and film understanding.
Cinema still, by and large, operates within the national space. It is indeed true that the increasing velocity of globalization has had the effect of making serious inroads into the idea of nationhood. However, the nation is still very resilient, and discussions of Asian films have to be anchored to critical examinations of nationhood. The idea of nationhood is evolving, but it will not, according to all available signs, disappear anytime soon. Therefore, our attempts to teach Asian cinema should pay close attention to the inescapable impact of colonialism.
As we ponder various new ways of explaining and teaching Asian cinema, we need to pay attention to the idea of concepts. Western film theory is full of concepts that emerged in Western cultures. Similarly, is it not possible and desirable that we draw on Asian concepts as well? We should do so without falling into the trap of essentialism – that is to say we should not reify these Asian concepts. Instead, we should see them as constantly evolving in history. Let us consider a concept such as 'seishin' which in Japanese signifies will power attached to spirituality. I have deployed this concept in explications Akira Kurusawa's great film Ikiru ( To
Live).Similarly I have pressed into analytical service the Sanskrit concept of 'chamathkara' in commenting on Satyajit Ray's films. I have also made use of the Japanese idea of 'mono no aware' (melancholy) in interpreting the Japanese film A Woman in the Dunes.
When we seek to teach Asian films it is important that we connect our discussions to the public sphere. The public sphere is the space in which free opinion, critical and constructive, is formed in democratic societies. It occupies a space in between the state and the market. Asian films, from the beginning, need to be understood in relation to its connection with the public sphere. In the next few weeks, a new book on Asia cinema titled Early Asian Cinema will be published by Indiana University Press.
The editor of it is the Filipino scholar Nick Deocampo. In it I have a fifty-page essay dealing with the topic early Asian cinema and the public sphere.
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