What I’ve tried to do here in considering three different films is present a starting point for a better analysis of disgust across cultures. I’ve argued that because of anti-abortion organizing and political controversy in the U.S., the possible range of what can be shown in depictions of abortion is very narrow. Thus, one of the very few depictions of abortion procedure, If These Walls Could Talk: 1952, can only show a “tragic” outcome to abortion procedure and not use a fetus image at all.[open endnotes in new window] In contrast, the Hong Kong youth-themed film, Spacked Out, uses remarkably graphic details in showing the procedure and the result (highlighted by surreal style). The film’s attitude to the procedure is casual, frank, and without regret. The comparison reveals a different social and political groundwork in the two cultures of origin which in turn informs the creative product and respective audience understanding.
To return to my original starting point, Dumplings. My analysis of that film clearly spells out the serious allegory and social critique at the heart of Fruit Chan’s film. But I understand that someone could still object to the film’s visual depiction of making dumplings from fetuses and the process of abortion. Everyone has to draw the line somewhere to be human. At the same time, the film does rise above its tabloid news origins (as does The Untold Story, I’d say). While he hasn’t discussed it in interviews, the likely source of Fruit Chan’s film was an urban legend from the mid-1990s. An article appeared in the Hong Kong English language tabloid publication Eastern Express, “Aborted Babies Sold as Health Food for $10.” It raised the blood libel charge (that another nation or subculture kidnaps, slaughters, and eats children). In the article, author Bruce Gilley claims hearsay knowledge and “rumours” that in Shenshen China, aborted fetuses were routinely turned into rejuvenation food. Quotes from claimed interviewees (with extremely common names and no further identification) report the abortion leftovers are commonly available. A response article by Poppy Dixon describes how the original fiction was picked up by right wing fundamentalist Christians in the summer of 1995 to denounce U.S. participation in the UN Conference on Women in Beijing. The following year the fringe right and anti-abortion forces amplified the story, and eventually far right members of the U.S. Congress entered remarks about it in the Congressional Record as part of their denunciations of China. Fruit Chan spun this slanderous propaganda story into a specific dramatic fiction which brought out a very different social-political analysis for a very different end.
Turning to murderous violence and cannibalism, The Untold Story presents two different kinds of revulsion. First, the eating of human flesh, which is largely treated as a joke and which results (once discovered) in gastric distress for the cops. Second, the extreme violence of rape and murder by Wong and torture by the police for confession shows that violence itself escalates violence and it is emotionally horrifying and morally repulsive. Explaining the film for a Western readership, Julian Stringer and Tony Williams provide a plausible grounding for justifying the film’s violence by arguing it dramatizes the social-political situation of its intended primary audience: the working class and dispossessed of Hong Kong. This critical context waives concerns about violent depictions.
As a working distinction: cheap exploitation presents something shocking primarily for its shock effect, rather than for a larger narrative or aesthetic purpose. The shock exists primarily for just that moment, for that audience reaction of stomach-turning surprise. This is the sense of gore film or splatter cinema at its most basic, the sort of thing which often brings mention of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s exploitation film, Blood Feast (1963) as the start of a horror film trend.
It is in the same league as Fear Factor’s “yuck”: something presented for a specific and predictable response (for the overwhelming majority of the audience) and no more. Shock for shock’s sake; or in the ironic version, for a laugh. There is no move to a more serious level, such as raising ethical issues, or extending character development for a greater narrative purpose.
Because of this considerable violence or graphic sexuality is often called “gratuitous” or “excessive.” It goes beyond what is strictly needed for plot or character, it is, in short, part of spectacle. But, of course, so are the action film, or most musicals, etc. Because there has been a significant shift in aesthetic analysis of film, particularly popular genre film, by the recent reconsideration of the nature and aesthetics of spectacle, we have to stop and think through the all too easy dismissal of cinematic excess, especially when sex and violence are involved.
To return to my earlier tripartite model. Anyone and everyone will have a response that is partly “universal” that is based in human nature, in the biological evolution of the species. It is physical and embodied: for disgust, it is the aversion reaction. Given certain physical stimuli, humans will gag and reject. But this extends beyond the mechanics of the body to a repulsion that is grounded in a cultural level of being. It is historical, cultural, learned, in short: sociological and ideological. And it is also individual, formed within the idiolect of personal response. At this level, it is visceral and bodily in its expression, but also embodied in one’s emotions and memory, and also informed by one’s moral and ethical framework.
An example. When Wong confesses under medical duress that he disposed of the bodies by making “pork buns” the police gather around him begin to choke and then vomit with the realization that they ate them. Even though the dumpling consumption took place many days earlier, the fact of it having happened brings on a visceral response. Cognition of what happened stimulates a new revulsion expressed with the body and relying on emotional processing within a cultural/ideological framework. The moment is comic, and the audience can laugh because they are not directly implicated in the joke. However the rape/murder and child murders short-circuit any “distancing”—ironic, generic, or aesthetic. Audience response is much closer to our reaction as if the depicted scene were really happening before us.
Of course it is quite possible for someone, some critic, to (mis)read a work that does go beyond mere shock as not doing so, and to dismiss it. Early on some critics viewed David Cronenberg this way: mistakenly, I would argue, and with time the body of his films reveals a seriousness of purpose. Takishi Miike’s Imprint (discussed at length in this issue by William Leung) would be another case. Or, it is possible for critics/fans to argue for the understanding of or value of a specific film in terms that almost no one else can recognize. We have to allow for demented and perverse readings without endorsing them as valid. Clearly this raises an important discussion which I will have to return to later in this essay involving exploitation, the representation of violence, boundaries, and censorship, as well as the nature of entertainment in a market economy.
The rise of a distinct market in the West for “Asian Extreme” horror cinema and the increased circulation and availability of world cinemas dramatizes the nature and problems of cross cultural (mis)understanding and analysis. Developing a richer discussion needs to address new films and new film cycles (as the Jump Cut sections on horror films have begun to do), pay attention to new methods and topics such as considering the senses and emotions in media analysis, work out more precisely the nature of disgust and abjection as concepts and projective audience identifications, delineate the situation of ethics and morality in relation to entertainment and exploitation in a market economy, and understand aesthetics of these controversial dramatic narratives. That agenda will shape the next installment in this essay.