Feeling moved: racial embodiment, emotion, and Asian American spectatorship

by Jeanette Roan

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.[1] [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.[2] 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.[3]

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.’”[4]

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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.”[12]

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.[13] 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.”[14]

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.”[15]

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.”[16]

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.”[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.” [20] 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.[21] 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.”[22]  

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.”[24]

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.[25] 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.[26] 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.”[27]