JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The two Kill Bill films are Quentin Tarantino's homage to the samurai films he grew up watching.

In Kill Bill vol. 1, Uma Thurman is a trained assassin, who was betrayed by her boss. She is now out for full revenge — clad in a Bruce Lee tracksuit.

The Bride (Uma Thurman) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), fight to the death at the end of a tour de force martial arts battle in Kill Bill vol 1.

The character who began as a video game adventurer, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001, 2003 sequel) was a box office success. The films and the character mark a new acceptance of women as action heroes in the U.S. However, her look as well as her action must be assimilable, hence the short-shorts and thigh-strap gun holster.

Also based on a comic book character, Elektra did not succeed at the box office.

Star of television's Alias (2001-present), Jennifer Garner carried her intertextual action star discourse into the film, Elektra (2005). Although, her get-ups in the television series are costumes, in film form, there is little irony involved.

 

 

Oriental(ist) gazing?

Race, gender, national — and transnational – cinema, converge in the era of global capitalism. "Chinese cinema" is “tripolar”: Mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Moreover, Chinese national cinema has become a transnational cinema. As Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu points out, such transnational films are targeted primarily to non-mainland audiences and to international film festivals, and they are distributed outside of China. Filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige seem to have had to made stylistic and thematic choices (compromises, arguably) to cater to the tastes of international audiences for commercial success. Lu writes:

"The greatest irony of contemporary Chinese cinema seems to be that some films achieve a transnational status precisely because they are seen as possessing an authentically 'national,' 'Chinese,' 'Oriental' flavor by Western audiences. In the meantime, the domestic Chinese audience dismisses the same films as 'misrepresentations' and 'mystifications' of China" (Lu, 1997).[15]

At the same time, as Chris Berry describes China, in the midst of a developing market economy the country is experiencing a “postcolonial reaction formation.” That is, on one hand China demands international attention; on the other, it then often dismisses those (novels, films, etc.) which are received well in the west as not “real” Chinese.[16] Response in China to the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, might exemplify such "reaction formation."

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most successful foreign film in the U.S. history, earning “blockbuster” status by breaking the $100 million mark just before the Academy Award ceremony; however, the film has had low box office success in China. Though having a strong showing in some Asian countries like Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, the film’s performance in Hong Kong (where it made about $2 million) and especially in mainland China has been disappointing. Some sources (including the filmmakers/ producers) believe the low film attendance in China is because of VCD piracy and the government’s three-month hold-up during the vital first three summer months of the film’s release.[17] Others argue that Chinese audiences were simply unaccustomed to Lee’s stylistic approach to wuxia pian, which followed in the King Hu tradition because they were not able to see the work of King Hu in the 1960s and 70s.[18]

In invoking the romantic tradition in martial arts literature, Lee brings about an “uneasy” marriage, believes Stephen Teo: “The notion of a romantic martial arts picture, for better or worse, results in a conflict of styles” (Teo, S., 2000). Furthermore, he argues that Lee “has not grasped the quality of heroism and fully integrated it with his romantic premise.” By this, Teo means that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does not successfully offer a true wuxia hero in Li Mu Bai who, though he dies tragically, does not do so in a last heroic act; as for Jen, she is neither a typical villain, nor a hero, neither Dao nor Mo (good and evil). But, Teo holds the essence of heroism to a strict standard, the late King Hu. And rather than seeing Lee as pushing or innovating the genre, he instead acknowledges a tribute (“that is at times actually quite moving”) but one that lacks substance.

Like Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee might partially be criticized by (mainland) Chinese as being “inauthentic” and as offering up eye candy for the Orientalist gaze through his use of wuxia pian. Lu argues:

"While I partially agree with these assessments, it is important that film critics be more aware of the dynamics of a new global film culture that unfolds around the world. Under the conditions of global capitalism, Zhang has been able to pursue and sustain a critical project that has become impossible in his home country. Transnational capital is therefore at once a constrictive and liberating force for Chinese cinema" (Lu, 1997).

By this, Lu means that Zhang Yimou’s films cater to an Orientalist gaze while also offering different stories, heroes, histories, visions; and therefore they can be potentially oppositional too. That is, Hollywood for so long has imagined and concocted its own "China" and "Orient" that when films from Asia (re)present themselves, and are now gaining wide attention, it is a significant change. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has certainly garnered much attention.

Similar to a criticism raised against Lee, Lu argues that Zhang’s films are not made for a Chinese self-reflexive gaze, but for Western spectatorship:

“In the same process, the position of Chinese viewers is decentered, and the field of vision of the West takes the central seat.” (Lu, 1997).

Arguably, an exclusively Chinese audience has been decentered in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well. Furthermore, these kinds of films have a value and aesthetic appeal determined by judges of the west:

“Now, in a remarkable reversal of fortune, it is the West that points out what is outstanding and characteristically Chinese in artworks from China” (Lu, 1997).

But does appealing to western tastes equal reinforcing “static images and worn stereotypes of Orientalism rather than deconstruct[ing] them”?

Moreover, the directors were conscious in their choice to feature female protagonists.[19] Perhaps by featuring women as representative of Chinese culture in these cross-cultural efforts, the exchange could happen more easily. While male stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Jet Li are widely popular, it could be the women heroes who can close the gap between East and West in introducing the genre to new viewers beyond the young, mostly white males who make up the fan subculture. In this way, martial arts function as a kind of “cultural nationalism.”

Conclusion

Is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a “triumph of Chinese cosmopolitanism” or a “debasement to the traditional martial arts genre”? (Teo, L., 2001, p. 1). Ang Lee and his colleagues, in particular, James Schamus, were highly conscious of their cross-cultural project. Their goal for the screenplay wasn’t simple:

“to create a quintessentially Chinese story that could still speak to audiences worldwide, just as Hollywood makes quintessentially U.S. films that do so. We did not want to mimic Hollywood’s formulas, but we did want to emulate the generous embrace Hollywood gives its worldwide audience” (Schamus, 2000, p. 25).

Based on the fourth novel in a series by Wang Du Lu, scenes were written in English by Schamus, revised in Chinese by Hui Ling-Wang and Kuo Jung Tsai, translated back into English, and then back into Mandarin, and then English-subtitled. Lee stated that it became their mission to break through the subtitles barrier, and hopefully get out of the art-house ghetto (Kirkland, 2000, p. S14). Lee has said that he grew up with subtitles, and so “it is only fair” to do the same to U.S. audiences, his wish ultimately being that of cultural exchange. The major talk about the film – besides the fight scenes – was the potential for a cultural crossover – to break into multiplexes. From the beginning, the filmmakers were aware of making a transnational cultural product through featuring women warriors.

Lee explains why he features female protagonists/women warriors:

"The recent shift towards beauty of the human form over brawn has opened up a new, formerly off-limits opportunity for women in film. While females … may not be super strong, have naturally large biceps or even look all that convincing carrying a big steel gun in their pants, they generally look more graceful in motion than a man – and in wire stunts … I don’t want to sound rude, but I thought [Gladiator] was a third-rate action movie, as far as the fight sequences were concerned … It was a joke. A big man with a big sword and big muscles. All this uggh-uggh. There was no style to it at all. That’s why I let the women do most of the fighting in my movie because they are about 100 times better at fighting than a man. They are graceful. When they move, they move in a completely different way. They are very fluid, where men are more solid and bulky. I wanted my film to be magical and incredibly beautiful – that’s why the majority of all the fights are between the female characters" (Monk, 2000, p. B9).

Featuring women as representative of Chinese culture in this cross-cultural effort might have been what made this exchange happen (more easily). Spectacular women warriors attract viewer attention. Here this provides the opportunity to proffer not simply an exotic image to be consumed, but a complex and new self-representation of Asian identity.

Hong Kong cinema (“a cinema without a nation” and “a transnational cinema” as Fu and Desser describe it, p. 5) has always been an export industry. It could not have sustained itself by playing to the population of Hong Kong alone; therefore, it has a history of aiming for a wider audience. Furthermore, analogous to the attempt to appeal to a pan-Asian audience, the Hong Kong film industry has reflected the chameleon-like identity – some would say confused and ambivalent – of Hong Kong. Hong Kong can be understood as caught between nationalism and postcolonialism, situated tenuously batween China and Britain, as well as Taiwan. Moreover, it is also situated both geographically and historically in the middle of a global shift of economic and cultural power. The media industries of Asia represent (literally) such a shift. Globalization specifically refers to formally “Third World” countries, like Asian countries, now becoming world players through (media) technologies. This also results in the emergence of what Aihwa Ong calls the “modern, Pan-Asian subject” (Ong, 1999, p. 167) who is a figure that wields power and attention. The woman warrior is becoming such a global, transnational subject (rather than an Oriental object).

Hong Kong film fans (in Hong Kong) have been reserved in their evaluation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:

“Weaned on gun battles and hyperkinetic action of Jackie Chan, people did not have the patience for Mr. Lee’s moody, contemplative look at the trials of heroic warriors in legendary China” (Landler, 2001, p. 2).

“For Hong Kong Chinese there’s simply not enough action,” says Maria Wong, a film executive in Hong Kong.

“I grew up with this type of film. You can see them everyday on TV. It’s nothing new, even the female angle. But Crouching Tiger is so slow, it’s a bit like listening to grandma telling stories” (Ross, 2001, p. 65).

Stronger criticism has also been voiced:

“That movie is so ridiculous! Of course the Americans love it. They don’t know any better.”

“An Asian audience would immediately laugh because the flying is so ludicrous! … Even in Wuxia movies, there is a willing suspension of disbelief … But Lee makes their flying so fantastic – their leap is too effortless, they are in the air for way too long – that Asian audiences or audiences familiar with the genre are forced to respond to this” (Tan, 2001, p. 2F).

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s article continues:

“Of course international audiences will wax lyrical about how weightlessness is magical, but audiences aware of the genre can respond in two ways: he’s out only to fool the silly Americans or he’s reinventing the genre” (Tan, 2001, p. 2F).

Why is it so unlikely – or undesirable – that it is the later? The article concludes a little more kindly:

"Crouching Tiger indeed is different from most of the Wuxia films we grew up watching – not just in the fight scenes, but also in its grandiose narrative approach and wonderfully shot scenes that are mesmerizing and unforgettable cinematic gems. Since Asian food, customs, books, film and actors appear to be dominating the front lines of pop culture, what better time for Lee to play up the Far Eastern mystique in a movie to market to the world?" (Tan, 2001, p. 2F).

Robert Marquand writes:

“Kung fu reached such levels of enthusiasm in the West that some Chinese now scoff at what they see as naïve U.S. infatuation with it. And some critics accuse Ang Lee of “orientalizing” his film. That is, choosing images of the East that play to over-romanticized images that Americans supposedly want to see” (Marquand, 2001).

At the same time, he proposes the following:

“If you work in an industry where everyone is going to judge you on your foreigness anyway, you might as well make it work to your advantage, and Lee has toyed with the mythology of the oriental savant ever since a foreign-language Oscar nomination for his second film, The Wedding Banquet (1993), pushed into the international limelight.”

If anything, Ang Lee is a diasporic filmmaker: he is Chinese, Taiwanese, Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian-American – all at once, and some more than others depending on the context and depending on who is categorizing him. All of his films are cross-cultural, bringing together family members and lovers across gender, generation, class, and national lines. Transnationality implies a flexible, diasporic citizenship. And diasporic identity is neither singular nor simple.

I agree with the idea (and the hope) that the new condition of transnational film culture “opens up prospects of critical intervention that were not available before” (Lu, 1997). I especially value Lu’s powerful, closing thought:

“Yet, given the shrinking domestic film market, the system of film censorship, and the changes in China’s film industry [which Hong Kong has now been absorbed into, post-1997], what is termed “orientalism,” or the exit to the global cultural market, is also a strategy of survival and renewal for Chinese filmmakers” (Lu, 1997).

The market has opened wider, the “global village” is an inclusive place/space. Simply put, more people are seeing films from, by, and about China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Asian female action heroes are somehow extra-heroic because as women and as Asians they inevitably represent triumph over the status quo. Through the mechanisms of heroism, realism, and allegory available in the action genre, Asian women are offered to a wide-ranging, international audience as heroes – not just as delicate lotus blossoms, though they are that at times too.

Whether non-Asian audience can only or mostly see images of Asian culture and people through an Orientalist lens remains an open question. Nevertheless, there has been a significant cultural and industrial shift from the creation of the Oriental figure from the point of view of non-Asians (i.e., of whites), to forms of self-representation. It is a shift from America’s importing of “Oriental goods” from Asia, to Asia’s exporting of its own cultural product to the U.S. In his article on “the Asian Alternative” in film, Dave Kehr asks a challenging question about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: “Does the West love this movie because it is so profoundly Asian, or because it is not?” (Kehr, 2001, p. 1) The question that I would like to conclude with is: Can a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or filmmakers in Asia who have been accused of “self-Orientalizing,” appropriate Orientalism for their own use?

Coda

Two recent emergences can be added to the conclusion about a paradigm shift and the notion of self-Orientalizing. The first is the rise of a body of U.S. films featuring female action stars: especially Kill Bill (2003, 2004) in which Quentin Tarantino unequivocably pays homage to Hong Kong action and Japanese samurai films, and Lara Croft (2003), Elektra (2005), and the recent Aeon Flux (2005) in which Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, and Charlize Theron are thoroughly physically impressive. (Theron apparently performs her own stunts, as Michelle Yeoh became known for two decades ago.) Chuck Kleinhans thinks we are experiencing a paradigm shift for women in action; I might add that this has been inspired by Asian female action heroes.

Second, in consideration of the fact that the intertextual star personas of Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, and Gong Li have been gathered together for the holiday release, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), I have to contain any optimism. I will reserve judgment of this film that capitalizes on a slew of Asian stars who have made it in the U.S. market (including Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai) until I see it. However, I am not so convinced that “self-Orientalism” as a strategy for (re)presenting Asian protagonists is possible when a non-Asian director in a purely Hollywood production context takes the reins. The forward trajectory of stars like Ziyi Zhang, who brought her self-reflexive high-kicking charm to a U.S.-style film like Rush Hour 2 (2001), has turned backward in Memoirs towards costume drama of the highest Orientalist order. Is this how westerners prefer to see Asian stars?

(Continued: Notes)


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