2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
Feeling moved: racial embodiment, emotion, and Asian American spectatorship
Introduction: Bruce Lee vs. Mr. Yunioshi
A scene from the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (Rob Cohen, 1993) begins with an establishing shot of a brightly illuminated theater marquee advertising a comedy film festival. We soon see Bruce Lee (Jason Scott Lee) and Linda Emery (Lauren Holly) sitting side by side in a crowded theater as we hear Emery exclaim, “I love this movie so much!” A few moments later, the screen of the theater shows Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney) from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) abruptly awakened by the sound of a buzzer. [open endnotes in new window] He sits up and immediately hits his head on a low-hanging paper lantern. The audience reacts with uproarious laughter. As Yunioshi drowsily stumbles through his apartment towards the door, colliding with various objects, the audience responds with hilarity at his every utterance of pain and outrage. Emery laughs as well, and then turns to see Lee’s reaction. He is clearly not amused. From a close-up of his face, we sense a mix of frustration and anger.
The next shot sequence in Dragon cuts from a low-angle image of Yunioshi peering down over the stairwell, sputtering with indignation, to a close-up of Lee’s face in the audience. The contrast between Lee and the infamous yellowface caricature could not be any clearer. But what Dragon so intriguingly stages in this scene is not just the obvious distinction between the caricature and the future icon but also the displeasure elicited by the cinematic stereotype on the face of a man who would become known for shattering those very stereotypes.
The set of Lee’s jaw in his unsmiling face, the uncomfortable shifting in his seat, and the subtle stiffening of his spine demonstrate the film’s failure to move him in a pleasurable manner. Indeed, his tensed immobility, as compared to the rhythmic contractions of laughter in the audience members around him, suggests a distinctly negative physical and emotional response to the film. As Meaghan Morris writes,
“So clear is the scene’s affirmation of the diverse collective nature of film experience that it could be said to deconstruct the very idea of ‘the spectator’ (that wishful critical projection) and its attendant generalizing rhetoric about ‘what really moves us.’”
Different spectators apparently see and feel films differently. The reasons for and mechanisms of such divergent experiences of the same film are not, however, so obvious.
The impetus for my article came from a simple question based on my own film viewing: Why did I, a U.S.-born Chinese American woman with family roots in Taiwan, enjoy watching the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002) so much more than the Martin Scorsese-directed remake The Departed (2006)? Both films are well made and suspenseful, with compelling performances by established stars acting out very similar narratives. There are clearly many reasons a viewer might prefer one film over another. But what might explain why, despite my reliance on the English-language subtitles, and the many moments in Infernal Affairs that were somewhat opaque to me, I felt more “comfortable” in the ostensibly foreign milieu of the Hong Kong film than in the more familiar space, at least in terms of language and general cultural and cinematic conventions, of The Departed? How might I account for my responses to these two films, and what might this suggest about racial embodiment and cinematic spectatorship?
Although I do not propose that my own personal experiences of these two films are necessarily representative of the responses of any larger group of spectators, I do believe that they can serve as a provocation for the investigation that follows. Vivian Sobchack notes the usefulness of autobiographical or anecdotal experiences as a point of departure for analysis, insisting that they are not opposed to rigor and objectivity, but rather, that they offer
“the phenomenological—and embodied—premises for a more processual, expansive, and resonant materialist logic through which we, as subjects, can understand (and perhaps guide) what passes as our objective historical and cultural existence.”
Every spectator comes to a film in a particular body marked by history, culture, and politics, and with a horizon of experiences in and knowledge of the world. Surely the particularities of one’s body, experiences, and knowledge shape one’s viewing of a film. But how? My account of my experiences of viewing Infernal Affairs and The Departed are intended as an opening into an analysis of racial embodiment, emotion, and cinematic spectatorship.
There is now a significant body of scholarship that critically examines the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in U.S. cinema. In contrast to these important works, which primarily take the cinematic text as their object of interrogation, in this article I wish to shift the emphasis to the experience of the spectator. Theories and histories of spectators and spectatorship have been a longstanding part of film studies. Little of this scholarship explicitly considers the experiences of Asian Americans. While Asian Americans share certain experiences with other racial minorities in the United States, such as their under- and mis-representation in mainstream media, there are also particular facets of Asian American life that are distinct and worthy of consideration. I acknowledge the diversity of Asian American communities in the U.S., which include not only individuals from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, but also differences in class, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, generation, and immigration status. Nevertheless, I continue to use “Asian American spectator” as if it were a singular entity in order to highlight the shared racialization of Asian Americans in the U.S. context.
Furthermore, established studies of spectatorship, which frequently make use of psychoanalytic theories, do not typically foreground emotional responses to film. Today, affect and emotion are increasingly seen as critical to not only cinematic spectatorship but also to many facets of everyday life. The significance of affect theory in recent humanities scholarship, especially literary theory, signals recognition of the importance of taking such issues into account in responses to texts.
My interest in understanding the emotional experience of cinematic spectatorship, and in particular the difference that embodied racial difference makes in this experience, has led me to phenomenology, or the philosophical study of experience, and cognitive film theory. Cognitive film theory is characterized by a focus upon the relation between film and spectator, and attention to the responses elicited by cinema. However, as many scholars have noted, it is not a single, unified theory of film but rather an approach to the study of film that draws upon many diverse disciplines, from philosophy to psychology to neuroscience. For example, Noël Carroll’s well-known The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart uses analytic philosophy to examine the emotional effects of horror films, whereas Greg M. Smith relies on cognitive psychology in his book on emotion-elicitation in film, Film Structure and the Emotion System.
Carroll and David Bordwell, in the introduction to their polemical anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, write, “In turning from psychoanalytic doctrines, several of our authors move toward cognitive explanations of film reception.” They go on to describe cognitivism as a “stance”:
“A cognitivist analysis or explanation seeks to understand human thought, emotion, and action by appeal to processes of mental representation, naturalistic processes, and (some sense of) rational agency. But in the process of studying these matters, rather sharp differences emerge.”
Like some of these authors, I have found psychoanalytic theory unable to answer the questions I wish to pose in this article, whereas a combination of phenomenology and cognitive film theory seems to offer a more productive way to approach the issues of emotion and racially embodied spectatorship that concern me here.
I begin with a brief overview of the philosophical study of racial embodiment and the relevance of this work for understanding film spectatorship. The main body of the article compares scenes from the film Infernal Affairs with their equivalents in the English-language, U.S.-based remake The Departed. I have chosen to focus upon these two films not only because they were the films that first raised the questions of this article for me, as a spectator and a scholar, but also because the comparison makes evident the potential pitfalls of U.S. films and the possible pleasures of Hong Kong action films for Asian American spectators.
I follow my analysis of these two feature-length fictional narrative films with a consideration of some of the work of experimental videomaker Valerie Soe, in particular her 1997 video Beyond Asiaphilia. Through the lens of Beyond Asiaphilia, which considers the pleasures of Hong Kong action films for Asian American spectators, I will suggest that an Asian American spectator watching Infernal Affairs may feel a kind of relaxation and joyful mobility in seeing similarly embodied subjects move through the world, despite the potential “foreignness” of many elements of the film. This feeling of being moved is in stark contrast to the tensed wariness that accompanies The Departed, in which, like many U.S. films, racial difference matters in a much more significant manner, and racist rhetoric may appear at any moment.
Seeing, knowing, and racial embodiment
How does it feel to move through the world in a “raced” body? The answer surely depends upon the time, place, and body at issue, but there is no question that such embodiment matters. Several philosophers have written about the experience of racial identity. Linda Martín Alcoff, for example, has insisted upon the ways in which race and gender shape our sense of the world:
“Racial and gendered identities are socially produced, and yet they are fundamental to our selves as knowing, feeling, and acting subjects. Raced and gendered identities operate as epistemological perspectives or horizons from which certain aspects or layers of reality are made visible.”
Thus, according to Alcoff, there is something specific in seeing and knowing as a raced and gendered subject. Emily S. Lee adds that the visibility of race shapes how others respond to a racially embodied subject, which in turn affects the raced subject’s self-identity:
“Externally because of the visibility of the different features of one’s body, others gauge the appropriate responses to one’s embodiment—formatively constructing the experiences one encounters. Internally, an accumulation of such experiences and events builds into a personal history to develop one’s sense of self.”
Philosopher George Yancy argues,
“The fact of the matter is that from the perspective of an oppressed and marginalized social position, Blacks do in fact possess a level of heightened sensitivity to recognizable and repeated occurrences that might very well slip beneath the radar of others who do not have such a place and history in a white dominant and hegemonic society.”
Yancy makes his point specifically in relation to African Americans, but his statement can be seen as a more particular instance of what both Alcoff and Lee suggest, that embodied racial identity affects both how one is seen and how one sees. However, this type of response is very much grounded in social context rather than existing as some essential feature of racial embodiment. As Yancy adds,
“It is important to note that Black communities’ perceptions are not in principle inaccessible to those not from them. In short, we can communicate the shared experiences, conceptual frameworks, and background assumptions to others if they are open to instruction and willing to take the time to listen.”
In applying these insights to the scene from Dragon referenced in the opening of the article, we might understand Lee’s and Emery’s differing initial responses to Breakfast at Tiffany’s as an effect of their differing racial embodiments; Lee saw and felt, in a way that Emery did not at first, the racism of the Asian caricature. The scene ends with Emery turning to Lee and suggesting, “Let’s get out of here.” Morris aptly sums up the interaction as promoting “the utopian potential of cinematic negotiation; reconciliation and deeper mutual understanding follow from going to the movies with Bruce Lee.” She points out that a response such as Lee’s might be met with rejection or dissent rather than understanding, yet the scene remains a significant representation of the operation of difference in the experience of watching a film. While Emery’s seemingly instantaneous recognition and understanding of Lee’s rejection of the film may indeed be utopian, such a response is an example, albeit a fictional one, of how such perceptions can be communicated and shared.
In some ways, the works of the philosophers cited above merely confirm what many film scholars have already noted: spectators come to the viewing of a film with specific identities, experiences, and knowledge. But how do these particulars shape the experience of viewing a film? I turn to cognitive film theory to address this question. Cognitive film theory has not typically been associated with this type of investigation, and has in fact been criticized, by Robert Stam, for example, for its “stance of objective, apolitical neutrality” which misses “a sense of social and ideological contradiction.”  However, there are cognitive film theorists whose work allows for the consideration of spectator difference even if they themselves do not take up the issue.
Per Persson intends his analysis of what he calls “(semi)universal dispositions” and their effects upon “shared understanding of certain layers of cinematic meaning” to stand in contrast to what he sees as the prioritization in cinema studies of differences of gender, ethnicity, and class. However, his definition of “disposition” as that which creates “a framework within which the spectator can make sense of cues from the text” is not unlike Alcoff’s “epistemological perspectives or horizons.” Although Persson does not explicitly address racial identity as a factor in one’s disposition, he does allow that,
“Sharing dispositions means constructing similar meanings of a film; different dispositions lead to different understandings of the same film.”
This is a statement with which Alcoff as well as Yancy might very well agree.
Carl Plantinga, whose work I rely upon in the following section, begins his book-length study of emotion in cinema by setting his work apart from “academic film studies” which “has been focused almost entirely on ideological studies of film.” He argues that this work “devalues the experience of movie viewing (as important only in relation to class, gender, race, etc.) and fails to see the centrality of emotion in the ideological work of movies.” However, Plantinga concludes the book by acknowledging,
“The effects of various extra-filmic factors, such as gender, ethnicity, race, class, age, and religious affiliation on the spectator’s affective response is an important area of further study.”
Cognitive film theory therefore can allow for spectator difference, even if scholars in the field rarely consider them, while remaining uniquely suited to examining emotional responses to films. In what follows below I offer a preliminary exploration of the utility of cognitive film theory, specifically Plantinga’s theory of how mainstream narrative films elicit affect as elaborated in his book Moving Viewers, for understanding racially embodied cinematic spectatorship.
Feeling stereotypes: Infernal Affairs and The Departed
Infernal Affairs, the first of a trilogy of films, follows the parallel and eventually intersecting careers of an undercover policeman masquerading as a criminal, and a criminal mole who rises within the ranks of the Hong Kong police. The film stars the famous Hong Kong actors Tony Chiu Wai Leung and Andy Lau. The Departed features Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as the two lead characters with Jack Nicholson in the role of the criminal kingpin. It maintains the basic narrative of the original and restages several of its key scenes, while incorporating some elements from the other two films of the trilogy and relocating the story from Hong Kong to Boston. The Departed also garnered Martin Scorsese his long awaited Academy Award for Best Director.
As crime dramas made in classical Hollywood style, both Infernal Affairs and The Departed keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Suspense is therefore the predominant “global emotion” of the two films, described by Plantinga as “emotions of extended duration,” with certain scenes generating heightened “local emotions” of excitement, suspense, surprise, and shock. The unrestricted narration of both films gives spectators mostly omniscient perspectives, moving seamlessly between the operations of the police and those of the criminals. The character of the undercover policeman, played by Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, generates the bulk of the sympathetic emotion in the films, that is,
“emotions [that] arise from the spectator’s assessment of a narrative situation primarily in relation to a character’s concerns, goals, and well-being.”
There are of course many differences between the Hong Kong film and its U.S. remake, but broader issues of cross-cultural adaptation and transnational circulation are beyond the scope of this essay. Neither is it my intent to offer a close reading of either Infernal Affairs or The Departed. Instead, as highlighted earlier, my focus in this essay is upon the spectator’s experience of these films. Thus, I wish to consider two scenes in particular in The Departed that diverge from their corresponding scenes in Infernal Affairs in ways that an Asian American spectator might find significant.
Ed S. Tan, drawing upon the work of psychologist Nico Frijda, writes that
“emotion regulates the interaction between the individual and the environment in that it is directed toward the realization of what is of importance to the individual, that is, his or her concerns.”
More succinctly, Plantinga defines emotions as “concern-based construals.” He outlines seven different categories of emotions that come into play during the viewing of a film, distinguished mostly by their duration (global vs. local) and their objects (narrative content, characters, spectator responses, film as a constructed artifact).
My argument is that in these two scenes from The Departed, Asian American spectators, due to their unique epistemological perspective, in Alcoff’s terms, or even just heightened sensitivity as Yancy puts it, might experience a different set of “concern-based construals” than other spectators. Surely not all Asian American spectators will take note of the exact same elements of the scenes. My focus here is race but a spectator’s disposition consists of much more than his or her racial identity. At the same time, Asian Americans may be more likely than other spectators to find certain elements of the film significant.
In the first scene, the police are presented with an opportunity to apprehend the head of the criminal gang in the process of illegal dealings. In Infernal Affairs, this involves Thai drug traffickers who arrive at a nondescript apartment building to sell cocaine to gang boss Sam (Eric Tsang) as the police monitor their activities from a building across the street. Although the Thai men dress and look different from the Chinese with whom they do business, their relationship appears to be a friendly one, with the men greeting each other warmly and joking about the weather. The suspense of the scene comes from the moves and countermoves executed by the police and the criminal gang in their mutual attempts to outplay the other side, with spectators deriving considerable satisfaction from seeing the undercover policeman’s clever use of Morse code as a means of communication.
In The Departed, the scene in question alternates between a warehouse, where the gang boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) has arranged to meet Chinese buyers for his stolen microprocessors, and an off-site surveillance center, where the police are monitoring the deal. There is a much more adversarial relationship between the business partners than in Infernal Affairs, and although the opening of the scene in The Departed pits the police against the criminals, much of the suspense of the scene derives from the confrontation between Costello’s gang and the Chinese in the warehouse.
The Chinese buyers initially appear as silent, shadowy, sinister figures stationed throughout the warehouse, lit and filmed in a manner that depicts them as threatening and capable of great violence. As Costello and his gang arrive on the scene, a bilingual Asian American man who acts as a translator informs Costello that at least two of the Chinese are carrying machine guns. The leader of the Chinese then inexplicably begins yelling in Cantonese and gesticulating forcefully. His words are not translated in their entirety either within the film or through subtitles. Costello responds by critiquing the behavior of the Chinese in terms of how things are done “in this country,” beginning with the fact that automatic weapons “don’t add inches to your dick.”
The camera is placed in between the two sides with alternating medium close-ups of Costello and the unnamed Chinese boss, situating the spectator as a neutral third-party observer, witness to the escalating tension of the encounter. Costello’s tirade continues as he goes from calling the buyers “Chinamen,” to “Bruce Lee and the karate kids,” to “Chinks.” It then climaxes as he demands payment for the goods by launching one final insult at the Chinese: “No tickee, no laundry,” a derogatory reference to nineteenth-century Chinese laundrymen. The police, meanwhile, have been rendered nearly irrelevant, relegated to the role of uninformed bystanders due to their hasty and ineffective surveillance set-up in the warehouse.
The narrative purpose of this sequence for both films is to place the criminals in direct confrontation with the police, and thus challenge the two main characters to do their jobs without giving away their true identities. While both films accomplish this goal, for Asian American spectators, The Departed includes an added point of significance that has to do with their possible association with the objects of Costello’s derision. The Chinese buyers are merely the other party in the criminal transaction and thus arguably not intended to elicit much emotion at all from spectators, though Costello’s behavior towards them may bring forth feelings of disapproval, surprise, or shock; it is not often these days in U.S. popular culture that one hears such overt expressions of anti-Asian racism, and the reference to Chinese laundrymen is surprisingly anachronistic.
Yet those spectators who may have been subject to epithets such as “Chinamen,” “karate kid,” or “Chink” at some point in their lives, or who have an awareness of their vulnerability to such incidents, may feel the force of Costello’s insults differently from other spectators. Although a spectator’s particular Asian ethnicity might affect her sense of such epithets, as the ones in the film primarily reference Chinese people, Asians in the United States have frequently been lumped into one group in that “Chink” or “Jap” or “gook” as much as “Oriental” have all been aimed indiscriminately at anyone with an Asian face. For Asian American spectators, a recognition of their shared racial embodiment with the characters on the screen has the potential to elicit emotions that have to do with Asian American spectators’ place, along with the Chinese buyers, within the racial hierarchy of the United States.
Plantinga asks the question, “To what extent does spectator allegiance vary with spectator difference”? By “allegiance,” he means Murray Smith’s theorization of the term. According to Smith, allegiance is one of three levels of a spectator’s engagement with a film’s characters, situated between recognition and alignment. Allegiance “pertains to the moral and ideological evaluation of characters by the spectator” on the basis of which “spectators construct moral structures, in which characters are organized and ranked in a system of preference.” Plantinga’s version of the concept includes the possibility that spectators might feel an allegiance to characters for reasons that have little to do with morality, for example on the basis of a shared racial or ethnic identity, or a preference for the underdog or a familiar star.
In regards to The Departed, do Asian American spectators grant allegiance to the Chinese because of their shared racial identity? I think not, as the Chinese buyers are such minor characters, with so little screen time and without names or (translated) dialogue, that it is difficult to imagine that they would generate allegiances of any kind. Furthermore, the Chinese give little indication of comprehending the import of Costello’s words, whether due to lack of proficiency in the English language or lack of cultural familiarity with his references, so the feelings of the spectators are neither for nor with the Chinese buyers, who appear relatively unaffected by the encounter. The emotions that I am suggesting might arise from this scene are therefore not those of racially-based alignment or allegiance between Asian American spectators and the Chinese buyers. If only racially embodied spectatorship were so simple! I suggest, instead, that Asian American spectators are not engaging with these characters solely as characters within the film, but rather in relation to what their representation within the scene signifies within a culture of racial inequality.
In an essay about Asian American identity, anti-Asian stigmatization, and self-evaluative emotions, philosopher David Haekwon Kim proposes that anti-Asian stigmatization creates a social situation within which Asian Americans potentially experience “shameability” and “self-contemnability,” terms he defines as “a distinctive vulnerability to being shamed or undergoing self-contempt.” He identifies the most important forms of anti-Asian stigma as, “1) the aesthetic devaluation of Asian faces and bodies, 2) the derogation of alleged Asian personality traits, especially in terms of passivity, non-individuality, and social ineptness, and 3) the derogation of alleged Asian foreignness, alienness, or being a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat).” Kim is careful to clarify that his argument is not that all Asian Americans suffer from racial shame or self-contempt, but rather that anti-Asian racism is a feature of the public order that has emotional effects upon Asian Americans.
Suppose that Asian Americans are indeed more vulnerable to being shamed or undergoing self-contempt as a result of anti-Asian stigmatization. If Costello’s attitude towards the Chinese buyers reiterates the existing racial hierarchy in the United States, then Asian American spectators may respond to the scene with feelings of shame and self-contempt. Plantinga argues that films rarely elicit a sense of collective guilt or shame because viewers do not feel responsible for the actions of fictional characters, and indeed Asian American spectators are not likely to feel responsible for the Chinese buyers’ behavior. However, the scene reaffirms that Asians can be seen and treated as a despised racial minority in the United States, and Asian American spectators in particular are especially aware that this treatment is not limited to the fictional world of the film.
As Kim suggests, shame
“might be a result of coming into a world in which one is in some sense a failed or diminished subject well before arriving in it, precisely like the situation faced by the racially stigmatized. When this is the case, the lowered view of the self is not the result of considerations of flawed agency but of flawed being.”
Such self-evaluative emotions of shame and self-contempt require an internalization of anti-Asian stigmatization. For those spectators who explicitly challenge anti-Asian stigmatization, the emotions elicited by the scene may be turned outwards, towards the characters or situation in the film, or even toward the filmmakers. Costello, for example, may be viewed with even more intense antipathetic emotion, with hatred instead of mere disapproval for example, as his words rebound upon the spectator’s own sense of self. Asian Americans who are firmly invested in their American identities may feel contempt towards the Chinese buyers, for confirming “alleged Asian foreignness” and for actually being FOBs. (This response would have the paradoxical effect of affirming Costello’s perspective.) Asian Americans who identify more strongly with an ethnic rather than a racial identity might take note of the representation yet consider it relevant only to Chinese Americans.
Whatever emotions any given individual Asian American spectator experiences in response to this scene, Asian American spectators as a group find themselves implicated in the onscreen interaction in ways that other spectators are not. Each of the responses outlined above moves beyond the world of the film. These are not “direct emotions,” which have to do with the spectator’s engagement with the unfolding narrative, nor just “sympathetic or antipathetic emotions,” related to the spectator’s feelings about the characters within the film, but rather what Plantinga calls “meta-emotions” and “artifact emotions.”
“Meta-emotions” are emotions whose object is the spectator’s own responses or those of other spectators, while “artifact emotions” derive from some response to the film as a constructed artifact. The example Plantinga gives of a meta-emotion is crying at a sentimental scene, and then feeling embarrassed about having cried. In this scene from The Departed, Asian American spectators might initially respond with emotions elicited by the recognition of their own vulnerability to racist sentiments. Having one’s racial identity highlighted in this manner may be described as akin to being frozen in place with a spotlight shining upon one’s dark hair, slanted eyes, and yellow skin. The feelings such attention elicits can range from embarrassment to indignation to alarm. Such emotions, which derive from a larger cultural context of anti-Asian stigma, then lead to further felt consequences, from meta-emotions of anger, frustration, or resignation to shame or self-contempt.
Examples of artifact emotion, according to Plantinga, include “exhilaration at a particularly brilliant camera movement, disdain for a hackneyed screenplay, anger at the seeming contempt the filmmakers have for the audience, or admiration for the excellence of a film.” For those spectators who have knowledge of the frequent representation of Asian characters in U.S. films as targets of condescension and loathing, The Departed’s representation of the Chinese buyers may elicit the artifact emotions of anger, frustration, indignation, disappointment, or resignation. Narratively speaking, there is little rationale for the racial or national identity of the buyers in this scene; not much in the story would have changed if the buyers were French or Russian, for example. Perhaps Scorsese intended the Chinese gangsters as an intertextual reference to the world of Hong Kong action films, but in the context of an U.S. setting and within the history of Hollywood cinema, the intertextual frame equally recalls the depiction of Asians as stereotypical stock characters, such as gangsters.
Aside from the scene in the warehouse, there is one other scene in The Departed that explicitly triggers the recognition of how the filmmakers have deliberately chosen to use “Asian” as a signifier within the film. This second scene takes place at a movie theater, as the undercover policeman trails the criminal mole and nearly identifies him but for an inopportune cell phone ring. This is an intensely suspenseful scene in both films, with camerawork that repeats a pattern of following one man and then the other, and then including both men in the same frame in order to show how little distance separates the two. The scene in Infernal Affairs takes place at a generic theater showing what Gina Marchetti speculates is a film from the People’s Republic of China set in Mongolia or Tibet. This setting allows the spectator to focus upon the action in Infernal Affairs, namely the excitement of the pursuit and the suspense of whether or not the undercover police agent will finally discover the identity of the criminal mole.
The Departed locates this scene in a porn theater in Chinatown and includes a more extended chase sequence in the neighboring environs. For many spectators familiar with U.S. popular culture, the mise-en-scène of the chase quite likely brings memories, whether conscious or unconscious, of scenes from other films and television shows set in the mysterious alleyways of “Chinatown,” that well-worn Hollywood set featuring some combination of opium dens, gambling, sex, and murder. The steam rising from the street vents, the barbecued ducks hanging in the shop windows, the exotic neon hieroglyphics casting their garish light upon the rain-slicked sidewalks… It all seems so familiar.
Spectators acquainted with these signifiers may feel a sense of heightened mystery and danger based upon repeated exposure to similar settings and their associations with specific narrative scenarios. Such repetition, whose effects once again can be conscious or unconscious, might compound the excitement of the scene. But spectators who are more sensitive to the explicit use of such racialized tropes may feel critical of the filmmaker’s decision to rely upon such stereotypical representations of “Chinatown” as a space of violence. This type of awareness of the film as a constructed text leads once again to artifact emotions, feelings that in this case derive from a critical consciousness of the clichéd choice of Chinatown as a setting for the scene, without any apparent narrative rationale.
My focus upon two scenes from a two-and-a-half-hour film may seem rather narrow, but these scenes are emblematic of the way that Asians have been represented in U.S. cinema for over a century. Over and over again, in U.S. films that are often not even “about” Asians or Asian Americans, spectators are confronted with similar types of images. There are certainly many moments in Infernal Affairs when the viewing pleasure of an Asian American spectator may be challenged: the labor of reading subtitles, the unusually heightened melodrama of the relationship between the undercover cop and his superior officer, the remarkably chaste interactions between the undercover cop and the psychologist he is assigned to see. Yet given the homogenous racial makeup of the film’s actors, racial difference does not register as a factor, and American-style racism is nowhere to be seen.
This is not to say that national, cultural, or other differences between the characters are insignificant. For spectators who are more knowledgeable about Hong Kong and its history and culture, or simply more familiar with Hong Kong cinema, some of the details that Marchetti discusses in her in-depth study of the Infernal Affairs trilogy may be very significant. The history of the song in the stereo shop scene, the tensions between the PRC and Hong Kong as expressed through characters and background events, the influence of the triads, or the role of Thailand in the regional drug trade may be quite meaningful for some spectators. But many Americans, including Asian Americans, will not be familiar enough with the cultural context or the cinematic tradition to understand such distinctions.
In a film set in the United States, it is much more difficult to depict a world where Asian embodiment, or any other form of racial difference, is not meaningful. The fact that the characters in The Departed express strong attitudes towards race, class, gender, and sexual identities is a strength of the film in many ways, part of a richly textured portrayal of white working class Bostonians. Yet the way in which the film orients itself around certain kinds of bodies and not others also makes itself felt by the spectator. In an analysis of the phenomenology of whiteness, Sara Ahmed writes,
“whiteness may function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon by the shape of such bodies.”
Despite the fact that the world of a film is an imaginary or virtual one, in that it is a flickering image of light and shadow on a screen rather than the fully three-dimensional arena, this diegetic space is still shaped by the bodies within it.
In the all-Asian milieu of Infernal Affairs, Asian embodiment is the norm and racial difference is not at issue. Asian American spectators are free to be fully immersed in the suspense of the film, in its dramatic action sequences and its shocking denouement. In The Departed, where race is marked as a site of contestation, Asian embodiment and the Chinatown setting are depicted as foreign and distant, subject to or spaces of violence and abuse. While the experience of seeing a film like The Departed may be quite familiar to Asian American spectators, it is hardly surprising that something like Infernal Affairs may be far more pleasurable.
Beyond Asiaphilia: Hong Kong cinema and
Asian American spectators
My analysis thus far has concentrated on the experience of Asian American spectators watching The Departed. As I hope I have demonstrated, Asian American spectators may respond negatively to instances of racialized representation in the film that accord with existing discourses of anti-Asian stigmatization. In contrast, films like Infernal Affairs could allow Asian American spectators the comfort of moving in a space shaped by bodies like their own. I now turn to a more detailed consideration of the potential pleasures of Hong Kong action cinema for Asian American spectators through the viewfinder of Valerie Soe’s experimental video Beyond Asiaphilia (1997).
Given the historical, political, economic, and cultural complexities of the history of Asians in the U.S., the idea that Asian cinema can provide a more pleasurable viewing experience for Asian American spectators than Hollywood films is hardly a simple issue. This could be seen as ceding Hollywood and its significant economic and cultural influence to the forces of white hegemony. Furthermore, it risks fraying the distinction between “Asian” and “Asian American” that many have sought to maintain, for good reason.
As Dorinne Kondo has written,
“I am deeply invested in keeping separate “Asian” and “Asian American,” for the confusion of these terms has produced some of the most egregious incidents of racism in this country’s history, events that touch the lives of all Asian Americans. But precisely because there is an elision of Asian with Asian American, About Face [Kondo’s book about performing race in fashion and theater] centers around the ways hegemonic representations, mostly of Asia, reverberate in Asian American lives. The Orientalisms deployed at one site produce effects in others.”
Although Kondo does not specifically mention films in this citation, popular cinematic representations of Asia and Asians undoubtedly “reverberate in Asian American lives.”
Several of Valerie Soe’s videos address the representation of Asians in U.S. popular culture. In the first half of New Year (1987), Soe uses hand-drawn illustrations, voice-over narration, text, and photographs to convey the experience of moving to a mostly white suburb and being tasked with explaining her family’s Lunar New Year celebrations to her elementary school classmates. The second half of the video collects images of Asians in U.S. popular visual culture, organized by stereotype, that her neighbors and classmates might have been familiar with at the time. Soe would once again utilize this aesthetic strategy of recontextualizing and politicizing popular culture, which she traces to the Situationist International’s concept of detournement, in Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re)Educational Videotape (1992). In an essay about the political and artistic motivations behind her work Soe writes,
“By starting with images and methods from mainstream artistic sources and turning them around, detournement alters and revises the meaning and intent of even the most disposable popular culture.”
Picturing Oriental Girls, which interrogates the representation of Asian women, edits together clips from some two dozen popular media texts, primarily feature-length films though also including television shows and one music video, in order to highlight certain recurring tropes. The video begins with the representation of Asian women as creative muses; there are a surprising number of films with scenes of white male characters painting and/or writing upon the bodies of Asian women. There are also representations of Asian women acting aggressively and being punished with startlingly brutal violence, the “dragon lady” stereotype, and of course a selection of clips showing the hypersexualized exotic and erotic Asian woman. These excerpts, which make their point through the sheer force of repetition, are frequently overlaid with choice quotations from two mail order bride catalogs and a 1990 British GQ article proclaiming “Oriental Girls: The Ultimate Accessory.” Although the entire video is only ten and a half minutes long, the accumulation of similar images and text clearly demonstrates the pervasiveness of these stereotypes.
Mixed Blood (1992), about interracial relationships, is composed of interviews with Asian Americans and mixed race couples speaking about the complex realities of interracial desire and intercultural engagement. The video contrasts their words with clips from Hollywood films such as Sayonara (Joshua Logan, 1957), which romanticizes the pairing of white men and Asian women, and The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959), which was remarkable for portraying James Shigeta as the romantic lead, in love with a white American woman.
Soe’s critique of representations of Asians in popular U.S. media was thus well established by the time she made Beyond Asiaphilia, which, like many of her earlier works, references numerous films. This time, however, the purpose of these cinematic quotations is quite different. Beyond Asiaphilia has two distinct, though related, threads. The first considers Soe’s love for Hong Kong action films in the context of her autobiography and romantic history. Second, interwoven with Soe’s biographical and cinematic reminiscences, a number of Asian American men are interviewed about their interest in Hong Kong action cinema. The films Soe cites in the video are therefore a source of appreciation and affection, not the subjects of criticism and anger. Although Beyond Asiaphilia is an experimental video rather than an ethnographic study, it nevertheless offers an intriguing glimpse of how a handful of actual Asian American spectators derive pleasure from Hong Kong action films.
The “Asiaphilia” in the title of Soe’s video has had largely negative connotations. Darrell Y. Hamamoto defines Asiaphilia as:
“The fetishization of all things Asian in popular culture—owing in part to the rise of Hong Kong cinema, with its commanding, action-oriented personalities; the ubiquity of female Asian American television-news anchors and fashion models in the U.S. media; Asian food faddism among many urban professionals; and the acceptance by young people of such imports as anime (Japanese animation).”
In contrast to more overtly racist attitudes and practices, Asiaphilia might seem relatively harmless, perhaps even a positive sign of increasing cultural openness. Yet, Hamamoto argues,
“Asiaphilia is a deceptively benign ideological construct that naturalizes and justifies the systematic appropriation of cultural property and expressive forms created by Yellow people.”
But what if the “appropriators” are themselves of Asian ethnic heritage?
Beyond Asiaphilia begins with a television screen showing a scene from an action film featuring a handsome Asian male lead. A woman confesses in voice-over: “After seven years with my Caucasian partner I’ve fallen in love with a Chinese man.” She lists the Chinese man’s numerous good qualities—tall, suave, and honorable, among others—before identifying him as Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun-fat. We soon learn that the voice at the outset belongs to the maker of the video, and that the “love affair” is not exactly with another man, but rather with a cinematic genre: Hong Kong action films. From this intriguing beginning, with its suggestion of an interracial love triangle, the video goes on to address issues of race, gender, sexuality, and cinema through a combination of autobiography, interviews, and a generous assortment of film clips.
Shortly after the opening sequence, an off-screen interviewer (Patrick Macias) asks Soe, who appears onscreen, why she likes Hong Kong movies. She begins by highlighting their dramatic cinematic language before describing the men who star in them:
“They’re just so incredibly charismatic, they know how to carry themselves on the screen, they’re really physical, they move well, they model it, they have good haircuts, they wear their clothes well, everything that these guys in American movies are not.”
Much of this commentary is presented in voiceover as scenes from several Hong Kong films play, lending visual support to her words.
Although her response might initially seem to emphasize the superficial appearance of the stars, it touches upon much more than the simple pleasures of seeing good-looking men with flattering haircuts and nice clothing. There is also the quality of on-screen charisma, which suggests the ability to effectively inhabit and move through the space of the screen. She concludes her remarks by describing these men as the very opposite of the Asian men in U.S. movies. The difference is not simply between stereotypical and non-stereotypical onscreen characters, nor is her response only a desire for more “positive” representations.
What might be described as the contrast between the physical presence that Soe appreciates in Hong Kong action film stars such as Chow Yun-fat and Jet Li, and the lack of such embodiment in most of the Asian male characters in U.S. films, is also present in Soe’s recollections of her experience growing up in a mostly white suburb of San Francisco. Following reminiscences of her childhood sprinkled with what appear to be images from home movies, Soe notes that she knew very few Asian American men other than her brothers and cousins until she met the “FOB guys” that her sister dated while in high school. She describes them as “visually striking,” in Angels Flight pants, shirts with long bell sleeves, and feathered hair, chain-smoking and “completely comfortable with themselves.”
The segment concludes with speculation about what was different about these young men:
“part of it was that they were from Hong Kong, and they grew up in a majority culture and, you know, they liked themselves. I think that was really different from what the other Asian guys that I knew felt.”
This comparison echoes Soe’s earlier contrast between Hong Kong action film stars and Asian men in American movies. The recollection ends on this observation, leaving the viewer to ponder the differences between growing up in Hong Kong as a member of the majority versus in the United States as a member of the minority. How might this distinction be reflected in the sense of self of a person, not to mention in the cinematic productions of each place?
For Soe, the onscreen physical presence of Hong Kong action film stars has the effect of turning these men into objects of desire. For the male interviewees of Beyond Asiaphilia, their feeling in watching Hong Kong action cinema is rather one of identification, and an affirming effect upon their own sense of self. In a series of short interview excerpts, young Asian American men share what they enjoy about Hong Kong films. The men are framed mostly in medium close-up or close-up shots, superimposed against clips of Hong Kong action films, or against backgrounds with objects (e.g. posters) related to Hong Kong cinema. They all express some degree of disappointment with the representation of Asians in Hollywood, whether in terms of simple lack or in the quality of the characterizations. The pleasures of Hong Kong action films for them include seeing Asians in leading roles and seeing Asians winning fights.
The significance of these films in their lives is evident in the expressions on their faces and the tone of their voices as they speak. For some of the interviewees, their rejection of Hollywood and embrace of Hong Kong is intensely personal. One interviewee tells a story of being approached by a woman after a screening of a Bruce Lee film and being told, “Oh, I just love you guys!” and marveling at how Lee made Asian men appealing. Another young Asian American man says about Bruce Lee:
“I like talking about him because he’s such, um, a sexy character, you know. The way in which he sort of sheds his shirt every chance he gets, the way he flexes his muscles. So I like that aspect of him. He sort of goes against the stereotype of the nerdy, asexual Asian guy.”
For these men, the images on the screen have a direct effect upon the way in which they see themselves and are seen by others.
Beyond Asiaphilia directly addresses “Asiaphilia” near its conclusion. A stack of English-language periodicals featuring Asian film stars on their covers, including Giant Robot, A., and Time Out: New York, suggests the popularity of Asian cinema in the U.S. The off-screen questioner says to Soe, “Tell me about Asiaphilia.” She describes someone with Asiaphilia as a person who is “inordinately obsessed with Asian culture.” A male interviewee follows up by adding that someone with Asiaphilia probably isn’t Asian, while a third respondent recalls a non-Asian woman he knew who was “into Asian guys so much that she wanted to have a kid who was half-Asian.” Soe then details the specifics of her own engagement with Hong Kong action films, including shopping for films at Canto-pop record stores, watching Chinese movies on satellite television even though they lacked subtitles, and going to the Great Star Theater (a San Francisco Chinatown theater). She concludes by saying,
“It’s become kind of this weird obsession. Is it even logistically possible that I am this Asiaphiliac now, and I’m an Asian person?”
The video does not answer this question.
Soe and the Asian American men interviewed in her video were hardly alone in their appreciation of Chow Yun-fat and other Hong Kong film stars. Beyond Asiaphilia was produced during the explosion of interest in Hong Kong action cinema in the U.S. in the 1990s. David Desser has argued for the recognition of a “new cinephilia” beginning in the late 1980s and centered on Hong Kong action films, writing,
“The cult popularity of John Woo, in particular, but Hong Kong action cinema in general (the films of Tsui Hark, the star personae of Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, even Jackie Chan in this period) is, I argue, the driving force of the new cinephilia.”
He later describes the subject of this new lover of cinema as “a type of white, adolescent male subject in Euro-America who soon found himself identifying with non-white and (outside of John Woo’s cinema) female characters,” that is, an “Asianized” Euro-American subject.
Desser is primarily interested in analyzing the technological conditions of this new cinephilia, which was made possible by the availability of films in VHS, VCD, and affordable DVD formats, and the existence of a wide range of Internet discussion forums and online modes of cinematic circulation and consumption. These conditions allowed Soe and the interviewees of Beyond Asiaphilia to see Hong Kong films, yet they are not, obviously, the white adolescent male subjects that Desser describes. Hamamoto would probably see this Euro-American love of Hong Kong action films as a clear example of the Asiaphilia he so strongly critiques, and these fans seem to fit the general understanding of Asiaphilia expressed in Soe’s video as well. Are Asian American fans of Hong Kong action films any different?
Hong Kong action films and their stars present an idealized vision of Asians in action, of bodies that move through spectacular scenes of gunfights and martial arts choreography. David Bordwell has written of Hong Kong films,
“Cinema is particularly good at arousing emotions kinesthetically, through action and music… When this quality is captured in vigorous, strictly patterned movement, in nicely judged framings and crackling cutting, with overwhelming music and sound effects, you can feel yourself tensing and twitching to the rhythms of the fight.”
Aaron Anderson’s analyses of filmed martial arts combat through kinesthetics and dance theory offer another perspective upon the ability of certain Hong Kong films to physically and mentally engage viewers.
These scholars and others persuasively describe and analyze the unique ability of Hong Kong action films to involve the viewer, and in each instance, these films represent something that Asian American spectators hardly ever see or feel in U.S. cinema: the desirable Asian body effectively moving through the diegetic world. Unlike the repetitive and yet never changing stereotype analyzed by Homi Bhabha, these are characters in motion in the world of the film. Desser’s white, male, adolescent “new cinephiles” have the opportunity to see bodies like their own in action on screens everywhere and every day. While any viewer can appreciate the artistry of a Hong Kong action film, such films do not have the same intellectual or emotional significance for all viewers. Regardless of whether the Euro-American fans are seen as appropriating Hong Kong cinema or merely enjoying its achievements, such films cannot have the same significance for them as for Asian American fans.
In the context of Soe’s earlier videos, Beyond Asiaphilia suggests that Hong Kong action films can be seen as an alternative for Asian American spectators to mainstream U.S. media. At one point in the video, a young Asian American man says as much: “For a while it was sort of like oh, there’s no Asians in Hollywood, but now it doesn’t matter because you can just watch Hong Kong movies.” Indeed, why bother with Hollywood when you have Hong Kong (or Japan or Korea or India)? The “beyond” of the video’s title signals an engagement with Asian culture that is not merely superficial fetishization but rather… Well, what exactly? If Asiaphilia is an inordinate love of all things Asian, often attributed to non-Asians and characterized as an unseemly racial fetishization, what does it mean to move “beyond”?
The fact that Soe’s ongoing blog, beyondasiaphilia, an award-winning “repository for [Soe’s] thoughts on Asian/American arts, culture, and other related topics,” is titled after her 1997 video testifies to the continuing significance of Asian popular cinema in Soe’s life. Nearly two decades later, through her blog, Soe offers reports from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, thoughtful reviews of many of the Asian films that play in the Bay Area, and other posts about Asian/American cultural production. Although Hong Kong cinema is no longer the cultural force that it was in the 1980s and 1990s, there is arguably more Asian popular culture, including cinema, available in the U.S. than ever before. Watching Asian films will not solve the challenges of racial embodiment in the U.S. for Asian American subjects. However, a better understanding of the pleasures that films like Infernal Affairs can offer to Asian American spectators is a useful point of departure for further research into how racial embodiment shapes the filmgoing experience, and how films might come to provide immersive, engaging, and moving experiences for all spectators.
1. According to Gordon H. Chang, Mr. Yunioshi is a caricature of the Japanese American painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Gordon H. Chang, “Emerging from the Shadows: The Visual Arts and Asian American History,” in Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, ed. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 10.
2. For a history of yellowface performances, see Karla Rae Fuller, Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performances in American Film (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2010). The recent BuzzFeed Video “East Asians Watched Yellowface and It Will Make You Cringe” shows the continuing relevance of the issue. Chris Lam and Candace Lowry, “East Asians Watched Yellowface and It Will Make You Cringe,” Buzzfeed, July 30, 2015,
https://www.buzzfeed.com/chrislam/east-asians-react-to-yellowface?utm_term=.qddKPb6oa#.xewZKAJL4, accessed August 4, 2015.
3. For critical assessments of Bruce Lee’s legacy, see Sylvia Chong, The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011) and Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).
4. Meaghan Morris, “Learning from Bruce Lee: Pedagogy and Political Correctness in Martial Arts Cinema,” in Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, ed. Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo (New York: Routledge, 2001), 180-181.
5. Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 6.
6. For a brief but comprehensive overview of the history and current state of Asian American film and media studies, see Kent A. Ono, “’Lines of Flight’: Reterritorializing Asian American Film and Media Studies,” American Quarterly 64.4 (December 2012): 885-897. For an introduction to Asian Americans and the media, see Kent A. Ono and Vincent Pham, Asian Americans and the Media (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009).
7. In this article, I follow Carl Plantinga’s using the term “spectator” not in its narrow sense within screen theory but rather as interchangeable with “viewer” and “audience” to refer to actual people or hypothetical roles or positions depending on the context. Carl Plantinga, Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009), 17.
8. Notable exceptions include: Peter X. Feng, “Recuperating Suzie Wong: A Fan’s Nancy Kwan-dary,” in Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, ed. Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 40-56; Eve Oishi, “Visual Perversions: Race, Sex, and Cinematic Pleasure,” Signs 31.3 (Spring 2006): 641-674; and Hye Seung Chung, Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
9. In the U.S., since the late 1960s, the term “Asian American” has been used to refer to a wide range of ethnic groups of Asian ancestry by both the U.S. government and U.S. society at large, as well as by people of Asian ancestry wishing to mobilize as a group. “Pan-Asian American ethnicity,” according to Yen Le Espiritu, “is the development of bridging organizations and solidarities among several ethnic and immigrant groups of Asian ancestry.” At the same time, “Although subject to the same general prejudice and similar discriminatory laws, Asians in the United States have rarely conceived of themselves as a single people, and many still do not.” Espiritu’s important book traces the history of the construction of “Asian American” as well as the tensions surrounding such a mobilization in terms of the distribution of power and resources. Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 14. See also Lisa Lowe’s “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences” for an influential account of the multiple ways in which Asian Americans differ from each other. Lowe, Chapter 3 of Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 60-83.
10. As Lisa Cartwright has written, “Feeling is a suspect area of research for media and film scholars, who, since the time of Brechtian distantiation and Althusserian apparatus theory, have worked to institute models that allow us to resist the seductive pull of the medium as it moves us to feel for the other.” Although her emphasis is on feeling for the other, while mine in this article is upon feeling as the other, the scholarly suspicion of feeling moved remains the same. Lisa Cartwright, Moral Spectatorship: Technologies of Voice and Affect in Postwar Representations of the Child (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 4. See Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship, for a thorough overview of theories of cinematic spectatorship. The Audience Studies Reader gives a useful sampling of audience studies approaches. Jackie Stacey’s book Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1994) productively combines psychoanalysis with ethnography.
11. Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990); Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
12. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, “Introduction” to Bordwell and Carroll, eds. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), xvi.
13. In addition to the works cited in the following paragraphs, see Charles Johnson, “A Phenomenology of the Black Body,” in The Male Body: Features, Destinies, Exposures, ed. Laurence Goldstein (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 121-136 and the work of the contributors to Emily S. Lee, ed., Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014). I thank Scott Richmond for sharing the latter reference with me.
14. Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 126.
15. Lee, introduction to Living Alterities, 7.
16. George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 7.
17. Ibid., 9
18. As Meaghan Morris notes though, Lee’s response depends upon a generalized “Asian” identity that not all spectators find convincing. In Australia, she writes, some viewers “express incredulity that the real Bruce Lee would ever have ‘seen himself’ in a Japanese stereotype at all.” In a U.S. context however, given the history and development of “Asian American” as a pan-ethnic term, Lee’s response is not so surprising. Morris, “Learning from Bruce Lee,” 182. See also Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
19. Morris, “Learning from Bruce Lee,” 182.
20. Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 240, 242.
21. Per Persson, Understanding Cinema: A Psychological Theory of Moving Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 17.
22. Ibid., 35.
23. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 4-5.
24. Ibid., 223.
25. Although Infernal Affairs (2002) was the first film to be released, in terms of the chronology of the overall narrative the events of the film take place between Infernal Affairs II (2003) and Infernal Affairs III (2003). Gina Marchetti offers plot summaries of all three films in Appendix 1 in Marchetti, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs—The Trilogy (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), 169-176.
26. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 68.
27. Ibid., 72.
28. See Nicholas Holm, “Ex(or)cising the Spirit of Japan: Ringu, The Ring, and the Persistence of Japan,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 39:4 (2011): 183-192 for a comparison between a Japanese horror film and its U.S. remake. The edited anthology Hong Kong Connections offers a useful series of essays about the global circulation of Hong Kong action cinema since the 1960s: Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li and Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, ed., Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005 and Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005). Other books that address the global circulation of Hong Kong action cinema include: Kenneth Chan, Remade in Hollywood: The Global Chinese Presence in Transnational Cinemas (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Tan See-Kam, Peter X. Feng, and Gina Marchetti, ed., Chinese Connections: Critical Perspectives on Film, Identity, and Diaspora (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), Philippa Gates and Lisa Funnel, ed., Transnational Asian Identities in Pan-Pacific Cinemas: The Reel Asian Exchange (New York: Routledge, 2012), and Sabrina Qiong Yu, Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
29. Readers interested in a deeper analysis of Infernal Affairs than offered here may turn to Gina Marchetti’s 2007 book-length study of the entire trilogy, Alan Lau and Andrew Mak’s Infernal Affairs-The Trilogy.
30. Ed S. Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine, trans. Barbara Fasting (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996), 44.
31. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 54, 68-69.
32. In Infernal Affairs II we learn the backstory to Sam’s relationship with his Thai colleagues.
33. In an unfortunate example of this tendency to conflate different Asian nations and cultures, an announcer at the 2007 Academy Awards described The Departed as based on a Japanese film. Critic Richard Schickel also apparently referred to The Departed as based on Japanese films in his book Conversations with Scorsese (New York: Knopf, 2011). See Philip, “Yup, Japan and Hong Kong are Apparently the Same to One of America’s Most Respected Film Critics,” You Offend Me You Offend My Family, June 3, 2011, https://www.yomyomf.com/yup-japan-and-hong-kong-are-apparently-the-same-to-one-of-america’s-most-respected-film-critics/, accessed July 18, 2016.
34. Although I do not explore the issue here, this recognition obviously depends upon the ability of the spectator to have a racialized sense of self, and to be able to recognize a similarly racialized embodiment in the characters on the screen.
35. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 109.
36. Murray Smith, “Altered States: Character and Emotional Response in the Cinema,” Cinema Journal 33.4 (Summer 1994), 39-41. Emphasis in the original.
37. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 108.
38. David Haekwon Kim, “Shame and Self-Revision in Asian American Assimilation,” in Emily S. Lee, ed., Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014), 119-120.
39. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 162.
40. Kim, “Shame and Self-Revision,” 116.
41. Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 72.
42. Ibid., 69, 73.
43. Ibid., 74.
44. Marchetti, Alan Lau and Andrew Mak’s Infernal Affairs-The Trilogy, 25.
45. For more on Orientalism and mise-en-scène, see Homay King, Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
46. Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8.2 (2007), 158.
47. Dorinne Kondo, “(Un)Disciplined Subjects: (De)Colonizing the Academy?” in Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa, eds. Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 32. Such distinctions are increasingly complicated today, given not only transnational movements of Asians around the globe but also the trend toward transnational perspectives in Asian American Studies as a discipline.
48. Valerie Soe, “Fighting Fire with Fire: Detournement, Activism, and Video Art” in Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, ed. Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 177-178.
49. See Chapter 7, “Tragic and Transcendent Love” in Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 125-157 for an analysis of Sayonara and The Crimson Kimono.
50. Darrell Y. Hamamoto, “Introduction: On Asian American Film and Criticism,” in Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, ed. Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 11, 12.
51. “FOB” or “fresh off the boat” is a term used to refer to recent immigrants to the United States, typically with negative connotations. See David Henry Hwang’s play FOB for a dramatization of the kinds of tensions that arise between recent immigrants and the more established sons and daughters of immigrants. David Henry Hwang, FOB and Other Plays (New York: New American Library, 1990).
52. David Desser, “Hong Kong Film and the New Cinephilia” in Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema, ed. Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li and Stephen Chan Ching-kiu (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005 and Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), 210.
53. Ibid., 212-213.
54. David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 8.
55. Since Anderson’s focus is on martial arts films—in these articles he writes in particular about Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Steven Seagal—his analysis would not apply to a film like Infernal Affairs or to those directed by John Woo that feature gunplay rather than martial arts. Aaron Anderson, “Kinesthesia in Martial Arts Films: Action in Motion,” Jump Cut 42 (December 1998): 1-11, 83 and Aaron Anderson, “Violent Dances in Martial Arts Films, Jump Cut 44 (Fall 2001), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc44.2001/aarona/aaron1.html.
56. Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 66-84.
57. Valerie Soe, “The Skinny on beyondasiaphilia,” beyondasiaphilia, beyondasiaphilia.com/about/, accessed on March 5, 2014.