Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together suggests the visual deferral and textual prevention of 1997.
Happy Together evokes Hong Kong’s exilic existence while facing the threat of an uncertain national future.
Wayne Wang's Chinese Box reveals the colonialist nostalgia that disregards Hong Kong’s cultural and political reality.
Kundun uses the ethnographic filmmaking only to foster a simplistic criticism of Chinese oppression of Tibet that perpetuates the familiar victim versus oppressor narrative.
The complexity of intertextuality, exploitation, and cannibalism deployed by Tarantino in the Kill Bill films can easily fit into the discourse of postmodern pastiche. Such postmodern discourse does not necessarily question or undermine the Caucasian Bride character performed by Uma Thurman.
Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon interrogates the traditional Chinese cultural and patriarchal hegemony as well as the Orientalist discourse.
The global popularity of the Chinese wuxia films shows the thirst for ethnic differences.
Jet Li in Romeo Must Die: The interracial pairing in this film serves to contain the racial strife and ghettoized crime within the multicultural spectacle.
Shanghai Noon: Instead of “mimicry as failure,” Jackie Chan’s comical superspy/ cowboy/kung-fu hero images playfully displace dominant and idealized notions of masculinity in both Hollywood and Chinese contexts.
Instead of deploying “transnational China” as an ideological framework to contest China-centrism, Kenneth Chan’s Remade in Hollywood exposes the politics that accompany Hollywood-centrism in the global film market. He shows how many Hollywood-produced or distributed films made by Chinese or Chinese American film artists are limited by the racial and cultural biases long-evident in Hollywood film history. According to Chan, many of these filmmakers and artists have to compromise with Orientalist stereotypes, racialization, and “Hollywood-ized Chineseness” in their films. In this book, he also discusses how China is represented in Hollywood films, and he examines how the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the PRC became an important filmic representation as it coincided with the influx of Hong Kong based film artists, such as John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, among others into Hollywood.
Chan’s book consists of seven chapters and a coda. The first chapter lays out a number of framing questions. Chan questions whether the current Asian presence reinforces Orientalist imagery and racist depictions of Chinese as used within “the yellow peril” narrative in classical Hollywood. Chan suggests that the contemporary Chinese-Hollywood phenomenon reveals “an uneven cultural, financial, and political power dynamics in these cinematic contact zones” (11). He further indicates that how the Hollywood produced or distributed films made by these directors and film artists of the Chinese descent are limited by a Hollywood-centrism paradigm in the international film industry.
Chapter two offers film examples that deal with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty, including Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box and Evans Chan’s The Map of Sex and Love. The 1997 handover provoked specific issues of cultural and diasporic identity, and politics in these films. From another perspective, chapter three discusses films such as Red Corner, Kundun, and Seven Years in Tibet, especially in terms of the films’ historical shortcomings and how they framed human rights and lack of democracy in China through a Hollywood imagination about China’s Otherness.
Chapter four assesses how the Chinese wuxia (swordplay) film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon represents the significant moment of the wuxia genre’s arrival in Hollywood. The film interrogates traditional cultural and patriarchal hegemony in China while it is still entwined with “self-Orientalizing” and self-exoticism discourse (80). Chan also discusses the thirst for ethnic differences that is represented by Chinese wuxia cinema, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Chapter five considers Hollywood films such as Lethal Weapon 4, The Corruptor, Rush Hour, Rush Hour II and Romeo Must Die, and the ways these films circulate the cinematic representations of Chinese in terms of illegality and criminality, a trope of villainy associated with U.S. national, ideological, racial, and Orientalist discourses.
Chapter six details Hollywood’s fetishism of Chineseness, particularly through its appropriation of action cinema. The author assets that Jackie Chan’s success in Hollywood shows an intercultural tactics of “mimicry as failure,” about which I will explain more later. In contrast, he interrogates how a postmodern aesthetics of intercultural hybridization in the Kill Bill films creates complex tensions between “cinematic pleasure and its complicit relation to various modes of exploitation in a capitalist film economy,” especially as Quentin Tarantino pulls various elements from Asian cinemas out of their original context (130, 150).
Chapter seven is about spiritualism. It analyzes how Bulletproof Monk, Double Vision, The Myth, and The Promise represent Otherness by using themes of Chinese religious beliefs and superstitions. The author argues that “Chinese supernaturalism” continues the East-West divide, as it reifies racial stereotypes and cultural assumptions around issues such as ethnic assimilation in the United States. The book concludes with a brief coda by reinstating its thesis about how mainstream consumers continue to consume “Hollywood-ized Chineseness” as Hollywood perpetuates its Orientalist and stereotypical assumptions for consumption.
Interventions and discontents
Both Chinese Connections and Remade in Hollywood deal with the transnational sphere of film circulation and consumption. Rejecting the parochial view of cultural identity, Gina Marchetti et al.’s edited volume Chinese Connections explores “larger” China beyond the so-called “three Chinas:” Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong (2). This book also brings together the connections between both Chinese and non-Chinese language cinemas, and its authors use methodologies from Chinese studies, Asian American studies, diasporic and global studies. Thus, Marchetti et al. use the term “transnational China” to indicate a separation from yet connection to China (2). Terms such as “cultural China” or “transnational China” demonstrate as a commonplace the structures of contemporary geopolitics and global economics of production, consumption and cultural exchange.
The term “transnational China” shows how this phenomenon is global in scope, while also analyzing transnational cultural production with particular reference to the domain of the Chinese diaspora. It retains a perspective of cultural Chineseness that challenges the forces of China-centrism yet at the same time collapses nuances of emerging dissident socio-cultural discourses with the “borderless” paradigm of transnationalism. For instance, Melissa J. Brown’s book Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities explores how the category of Chineseness cannot fully describe the Taiwanese experience.
Overall, using “transnational” China as the overarching framework, Chinese Connections touches on many key questions of Chinese culture, nation, and geopolitics. Its structure also contests China-centrism, although China certainly remains a major point of reference within the analytical framework of “transnational China,’ culturally, geopolitically and economically. Yet, no nation or geopolitical entity including China can claim to be the “center” within this intellectually challenging endeavor. Thus, these transnational Chinese connections demonstrated in the volume edited by Marchetti et al. become its critical methodology and intellectual intervention.
Chinese Connections concludes with Evans Chan’s essay, which indicates there is a new global driving force, a new logic defined by China’s globalist perspective, compared to a more widely considered, Hollywood-oriented narrative of globalization. In this vein, Hollywood-centrism is the focal point of critique in Remade in Hollywood. In Remade in Hollywood, the author discusses how the film artists deal with issues of Orientalist stereotypes, diasporic identity, gender politics, racialization, and global market forces in their works. Kenneth Chan examines how an ethnic Otherness such as Chineseness is circulated in the global film market in a way that suits Hollywood’s ideological and cultural constructions, based on a long history of screen representations of Chinese. The major issue that needs examination here is not merely Hollywood’s racism but how understanding this as a transnational cultural phenomenon reveals a global framework that is also Hollywood’s.
Both Chinese Connections and Remade in Hollywood point out important issues regarding the kinds of analytical frameworks we may use in analyzing global mediated culture. In Chinese Connections, Peter X Feng argues how “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” in the age of transnational capitalism has problematized W.E.B. Du Bois’ earlier notion of “double consciousness” in regards to race. Now postmodern subjects can easily pass from one ethnic consciousness to another, so this kind of flexibility in identity dilutes a political intonation (16). On the other hand, Gina Marchetti evokes the same “two-ness” in Du Bois’ argument to discuss the kind of political awareness that a “colored” subject embodies as the subject reflects on how “the white world views him” (98). Marchetti engages with Trinh T. Minh-ha’s concept that “within every third world there is a first word and vice versa” (105). Undeniably, in a postmodern and global world, double consciousness is no longer the only, or even main perspective held by a colonial or ethnic subject. However, the political edge of a colonial subject who has endured the history of colonialism, politics of socio-political displacement, and state of oppression, cannot be discarded. The flow of transnational capital may be borderless, but as it has restructured local and global boundaries, subjects, and ideas, it has also restructured but perpetuated inequalities.
Similarly, Remade in Hollywood also brings up a point about the fine line between postcolonial and postmodern models when analyzing film texts (146). For instance, the author discusses how Jackie Chan’s intertextual hybridization of U.S. film icons like John Wayne and James Bond as examples of “mimicry as failure,” a concept based on the work of postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha (130, 133). In comparison, in the Kill Bill films, by parodying or mimicking Asian film genres, such postmodern aesthetics reveal the “playfulness of camp” and “sadomasochistic pleasure of cinematic gaze” that still do not necessarily question or undermine the subject integrity of the Caucasian Bride character played by Uma Thurman (145, 149). In particular, the author notes that Jackie Chan’s comic intercultural mimicry of Western action heroes such as John Wayne reflects “racial castration” as Chan is “pitched against the racial impossibility of measuring up to the mythic standards of a John Wayne” (141).
While this argument has explanatory power within the U.S. nationalist and cultural framework, the issue at stake is how to examine this transnational “Asian invasion” of the U.S. multiplexes within and beyond Hollywood’s cultural and racial discourses. On that note, the author of Remade in Hollywood indicates that Jackie Chan reinforces his star image’s “universal cosmopolitan appeal” (133) and what David Bordwell calls “calculated cosmopolitanism” (132) in the way that Chan playfully mimics Western white heroes. But such mimicry turns out to be failure as he is “almost the same but not white” (134). In this case, there is nothing automatically political about cosmopolitanism; one may cross national boundaries or live in a multicultural metropolis such as Hong Kong or Los Angeles without being politicized about it.
However, Jackie Chan’s transnational repertory moves beyond multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism to explore a cosmopolitical identity that emerges from geopolitical knowledge and experience. Indeed, there is a difference between cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitical. Chan’s cosmopolitics, as I have argued in another context, emerges from the experience of multiple displacements in consciousness that occur in the process of acquiring the tactical knowledge needed to operate from a number of geopolitical locations and multiple subject positions. [open endnotes in new window] His integration of Asian and Hollywood cinematic knowledge reveals him to identify with and represent himself as a political minority as he works across hegemonic power structures that pervade the histories of the Chinese diaspora, colonialism, postcolonialism, Orientalism, and globalization. Chan’s screen persona is constructed in relation to the conventions of his parody of idealized Chinese martial masculinity as well as white masculinity. His comical superspy/cowboy/kung-fu hero images playfully displace dominant and idealized notions of masculinity in both Hollywood and Chinese contexts. The key is to explore the emergence of new ways of thinking about identity and geographic boundary critically.
The interactions between Hollywood and its Chinese counterparts (or East and West) challenge the operations of specific perspectives offered by capitalist regimes of production that are rooted in stable national identities. These two scholarly volumes open up the different possibilities of understanding, answering and writing about the array of transnational sites surrounding cinema and its multiple connections. Marchetti et al. have suggested that the “contradictions surrounding the label of ‘Chinese cinema’ call for a truly dialectical film criticism” (5). By problematizing the paradigms of area studies that are, as what Rey Chow has indicated as, an “offshoot of the U.S. cold war political strategy that found its anchorage in higher education,” we would need to consider critically how to handle the diverse experiences that are articulated in our studies (17). By reimagining a geopolitical field that contests essentialized notions of China- or Hollywood-centrism, we could also remind ourselves that thinking, writing and teaching film and cultural criticism demands a dialectically critical approach, one that unveils what has been concealed and failed to be articulated in the East/West dichotomy.