Rethinking Cinemas of Asia: Preliminary Thoughts
Feature by: Rolando Tolentino
[Author note: This essay was presented for Nick Deocampo’s Seminar on the Origins of Cinema in Asia held in Manila, Philippines this past July, including the latter section, originally presented in a conference in South Korea. Deocampo asked me to present a short paper to introduce a panel in July 2005, incorporating issues of - hold your breath - colonialism, nationalism, transnationalism and globalism in the analysis of Asian cinemas. What is presented here are preliminary thoughts on the matter, including the section from a paper on the Hollywoodization of Asian cinema which I feel is also relevant.]
Let me make some broad strokes for the understanding of the cinemas of the Asian region. But like any broad strokes, this outline may not altogether cover all the surface and depth of the cinemas of the region. This is just by way of introducing some issues of the cinemas of the region.
First is the object of study. This can be categorized into three items-- one, the film text (what is the narrative of the film and how is it allegorical of certain national or transnational concerns, how is the apparatus of film mobilized for ideological purposes, how are the elements codified to present parallel hegemonic structures); two, the context of film (what is the production, distribution and reception modes that deliver the filmic experience; the political economy of filmmaking-- who owns the forces of production and distribution; how is film marketed-- the use of fan magazines, for example; the vertical integration of film with the other media and businesses, or in the case of the privileged elite structure of Philippine society, for example, how the Lopez’s ownership of one of the major film studios becomes integrated with its other media business of magazine publishing, recording, television, cable, star development and even foundation, as well as its ownership of the water, electric, telephone, and highway companies; how is film viewed and received, including genre fads, such as Asian horror movies at the moment, and why; where and how is film viewed, from art deco movie houses to the mall cinemaplex, and the flow of goods and desire in this cinemaplex, or through the circulation of pirated VCDs and DVDs-- in Manila, the historical stereotyping of Moros to piracy; what are the other random use of movie theaters in particular societies-- showing of the state’s nation-building thrusts and national anthem in local theaters, gay cruising and heterosexual space of sexuality, and sex crimes; how has film viewing been transformed from elite to mass culture, how has it become a national pastime); and three, the intertexts of film experience (traditional arts that guided the socialization of early film, postmodern aesthetics of architecture and MTV and its adaptation in film, the history of capitalism, including the shift to empire-building of the United States at the moment of film’s early development, and the global dominance of Hollywood films in the WTO-GATT era and the United States’ standing as the single global superpower in the post-9/11 and post-1997 global economic crisis eras; and how can film be read as subjectivity of the social, the materialization of cultural politics, how is social desire-- utopia or ego-ideal--being visualized and mobilized for particular histories of national culture).
Second issue is the experience of modernity. Film, at the onset, has been the metaphor for the modern in terms of technology transfer, Fordist production, and cosmopolitan viewing. What then happens in film’s rise in Asia is not just its indigenization via is political, cultural and economic adaptation in various nation-states. Modernity, especially in most of Asia, is an experience of simultaneity: of elite wealth and massive poverty, of dictatorships and massive poverty, of neoliberalism and even more massive poverty. Yet in terms of the circulation of desire, what is laid into the forefront is the experience of pleasure-- how consumption becomes the mode of experiencing notions of the real-- and therefore, what is negated in the filmic experience-- or the experience in modernity and surreal Third World variant of postmodernity--is the experience of pain and pleasure: the hyperreal poverty, social injustice, and corruption. What I am thinking of, for example, is how the box-office draw of Batman Begins, shown in more than half of the movie houses in the country, in late June/early July of this year—at a time of massive national anxiety over the President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s major lapse in judgment, display of corruption and elite politics--was used as a screen to filter the fear of the middle-class over their own inadequacy to fully grapple with truth, cause for being and social transformation. How do artifacts of popular culture become the filter to screen the anxiety of the people and the nation itself? Film, after all, is a belated artifact in the sense that if it attempts to deal with historical events, it will have to be at a time and place where the event has already lapsed. As such, anxieties over present events get circulated-- displaced and projected-- unto various films, including Hollywood films, Asian horror movies, and low-budget digital films. The experience of film, like the experience of modernity and postmodernity, is an experience in subject formation or how we (the audience/citizens) are constructed as subject of they (the producers, directors, scriptwriters, script doctors, etc./state). The subject of the film experience is always simultaneously in dialog with and critical to the officially constructed national identity. What film experience has done is to emplace the subject in a bind, more often than not, to accept and savor that which is presented to the mass audience, and to negotiate the mass product from the wellspring of each of the audience or the individual’s psyche. "I" watch films to watch a prefabricated narrative getting commodified is the "I", in similar dream work, that watches his/her story unfold unto the silver screen.
The third issue is coloniality, postcoloniality or neocoloniality. If desire in film is that mode of interpellation of the individual as a recognition or misrecognition of his/her emplacement into the state’s schema of things, then the development of the state in its various phases of evolution-- precolonial, colonial, postcolonial/neocolonial-- signifies the grid in which the cultural imaginary is made possible. Cinema becomes both a symptom and receptacle of the state’s transformation into what it is at the present. War seems to be embedded in the various phases of development of film and the more recent state. In the Philippine case, it was the American films about the insurgency and surveillance of city and orientalist imaginaries that marked one of its major national origin. The four surviving extants of pre-war films narrativize filial love and purity of being at a time when U.S. colonialism was already emplaced, when a Commonwealth was the colonial machine that transforms the experience of Filipinos under the benevolent assimilation-variant of U.S. colonialism. The Japanese occupation would produce numerous newsreels and three propaganda films, invoking the primacy of alliance and allegiance to Japanese rule of the Asian region. The post-war period also produced anti-communist newsreels in the Cold War era at the time of the rise and ebb of the Hukbalahap or communist movement. This period also experienced the various consolidation and breakout of the studio system, the more shifting prominence of actors in politics, and even the use of film in official nation-building of the Marcoses. War or its various impetus in the state is echoed, more or less, in film, providing the libidinal drive in film production and reception. The anxiety over war is maintained through the anxiety over wealth-- both the excessive ownership and lack of it.
What can be traced from the maintenance of colonial and postcolonial wars is the parallel development of capitalism in the various nations of the region. Films can trace this rise. Since its introduction to the West via the Venice Film Festival’s acclaim for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in 1951, Asian cinema has continued to flourish in its various rhizome-like sites. The "first golden age" of Philippine cinema in the 1950s and the Japanese new wave in the 1960s would transform into the new Philippine cinema beginning in 1975, and later, becoming the new Hong Kong cinema in the early 1980s, new Taiwanese cinema in the late 1980s, new Korean cinema in the late 1990s, and the most recent neo-cinema, the new Thai cinema of the 2000s. What is interesting, at the onset, is the parallel historical development of western capitalism in Asia—the rebuilding of Japan by the U.S. after World War II, the privileging of the Philippines as America’s strongest Asian ally at the height of the Cold War period, the interest in Hong Kong and Taiwan as the latest financial hubs of western capital prior to the flourishing of its cinema in the 1980s, and in the aftermath of the most recent global crisis in 1997, the rebuilding of Thailand and South Korea by the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The rise and ebb of various Asian cinema seem to be an artifact of the development of western capitalism in the post-World War II era.
During the first fifty years of cinema, Hollywood effectively eliminated the competition for a variety of filmic styles and narrative claims to emerge as the dominant mode of filmmaking. German expressionism, French impressionism, Italian neorealism, Soviet socialist realism and others were displaced or absorbed by the classical Hollywood narrative cinema. What then emerged as the dominant mode of narrativization and filmic style was the three-act structure of seamless storytelling of Hollywood that emphasized the tragic or comic hero.
Although only a small percentage of the world’s feature films is produced by Hollywood, it has cornered 75 percent of theatrical motion picture revenues . Stanley Rosen writes, "Hollywood’s proportion of the world market is double what it was in 1990, while the European film industry is one-ninth of the size it was in 1945" . This expansion is impressive as Hollywood earned only about 30 percent of its profit overseas from the 1950s to the 1970s, with the 1980s showing that some 50 percent of revenue was generated abroad, and will continue to rise as some 80 percent is expected to come overseas in the next twenty years . The global outsourcing of Hollywood revenues comes at a time when overseas expansion becomes imminent to further development-- in 1998, domestic box-office at $6.877 billion had a slight lead over foreign box-office at $6.821 billion . Estimated earnings of Hollywood export revenues were $11 billion in 1999 and $14 billion in 2004. 
Thus, despite newer cinemas producing noteworthy bodies of film, these have yet to break off from Hollywood’s domination. Hollywood narrative becomes the metalangue to articulate experience, both of the present simultaneous time and the national. Such framing of Hollywood becomes the screen to experience the intertwining of real and imaginary nation. In other words, Hollywood mediates the national experience. Hollywood is the normativizing agent of various national cinemas’ experientiation of themselves. Desire is produced only within the Hollywood language and machine. The reproduction of Hollywood’s global desire involves its localization in various national cinemas.