The last two chapters of Part I approach colonial modernity in relation to Western film production. They challenge “the binary model of colonial oppression versus nationalist resistance” [4] [open endnotes in new window] by paying attention to the negotiations and discordant voices that emerged with the reception of colonial cinema. Following Miriam Hansen’s “vernacular modernism” approach to the study of modernity that focuses on its cultural and affective dimensions, Yiman Wang examines colonial cinema of the first three decades of the 20th century, centering around the discourses surrounding the ruHua or Chinese derogatory films. Wang dissects the different reactions that this body of films prompted, particularly among two groups of Chinese: overseas Chinese living in the United States and mainland Chinese. Entwined with tracing these reactions, the chapter delves into the nascent Chinese film industry that grew in this period. This study allows Wang to trace the multiple affective responses to Western cinema—both as made by overseas spectators and by the growing Chinese industry. An additional consideration is that the Chinese industry was not always in the hands of ethnic Chinese filmmakers and companies, especially in its beginnings.

In her chapter “World Export: Melodramas of Colonial Conquest,” Jane M. Gaines offers an impressive exercise of theoretical inquiry into the use of terms such as “vernacular modernism” or “modernism,” “classical Hollywood narratives of continuity editing,” and “melodrama.” Gaines posits that it is melodrama, with its attunement to the social reality, that allows us to theorize the confluences between West and East. Her detailed attention to narrative conflicts in the early film, The Red Lantern (Albert Capellani, 1919), combined with her attention to the film’s reception and circulation and musical accompaniment demonstrates the complexities of what she calls “the melodramas of colonial conquest.” By identifying this genre and its thematic, she avoids the binaries typically associated with the body of “China humiliating films” built on Western colonizing views of the East and Easterner’s rejection of those.

Contrary to what is commonly accepted and was popularized by Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment [5], it might be more accurate to affirm that instead of the classical Hollywood narratives of continuity editing, the melodramas of race and nation in the style of The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) facilitated the global dominance of Hollywood. Gaines demonstrates the inadequacy of using terms such as “classical” or “modernist” to describe the cinema that was exported from the West to the East or how it was received. Both of these terms contradict the effect that the colonial cinema of the early 20th century produced: the former term because “classic” is inherently opposed to the newness that these colonial narratives promised. And “modernist” is a term that, according to Fredric Jameson, [6] was only defined after World War II, a posteriori. Furthermore, “modernist” is opposed to the continuity effect and affective identification—characteristics that are essential for understanding the cinema that represents colonial cinema of the beginning of the 20th century.

Gaines moves beyond the general assumptions about the effects of cultural imperialism of the West over the East by theorizing the export of U.S. cinema to conquer East Asian (and global) audiences at the onset of World War I. She posits a “colonial conquest genre” since, for her, there are more films that fit into this genre than what is commonly understood. Furthermore, the specific circulation of The Red Lantern allows Gaines to examine the tensions between West and East while considering the communities caught in between, such as the Chinese nationals living in the United States at the time of the film’s release. In fact, the film was never exported to the place which it attempted to portray because of the strong reaction that it prompted from this diasporic community. Much as The Birth of a Nation stimulated film production to counteract its racist portrayal of African Americans, The Red Lantern prompted the development of a Chinese national film industry to correct falsehoods about the Chinese and the Eurasians. I found particularly useful the comparison of The Red Lantern with The Birth of a Nation as a way of shedding light on a complex intercultural confluence at play between West and East that challenges simple dynamics of acceptance and rejection.

Part II: Divided mise-en-scène:
colonial cinema and cold war afterimages

As mentioned, the continuation of the cultural dynamics of coloniality in the post-war Cold War era is one of the most original contributions of this collective volume. Two chapters serve this original and useful purpose, continued in part III—Zhang Zhen’s comparison of the Taiwanese Tarzan with the Hollywood Tarzan in “Tarzan/Taishan and Other Orphans: Taiwan’s Melodrama of Decolonization,” and Thomas Barker’s and Nikki J. Y. Lee’s study of a Korean filmmaker in “What Is an Auteur? Hŏ Yŏng/Hinatsu Eitarō/Huyung between (Post)colonial Indonesia, Japan, and Korea.” The Korean film director Hŏ Yŏng started his career during the time when Korea was a Japanese colony authoring one of the most successful Japanese propaganda films. He ended it filming Indonesian pro-independence and anti-colonial films. Both chapters successfully reinforce the book’s general aim of challenging the strict binaries that abound in postcolonial film histories of East Asian cinemas with paired concepts such as rebel/collaborator.

Zhang Zhen follows Gaines’ theoretical application of the melodrama genre to colonial cinema in the context of West-East relations, but her argument centers on Taiwanese language cinema (Taiyupian) of the 1960s. Zhang traces an allegory, “orphan of Asia,” representing Taiwan’s distortions under coloniality. The allegory comes from a famous novel by Wu Zhuoliu and much later is found in the film Tarzan and Treasure (Lian Che-fu, 1965). As Zhang tells us, the orphan trope echoes with Sinophone audiences beyond Taiwan, evoking “innocence wronged, state violence, and abandonment by the nation that one belongs to” (129). The pathos felt becomes particularly complex in the case of Taiwan, given its geopolitical location and history entangled with mainland China, Japan and different nations from the West.

If Zhang’s analysis of the evolution of the orphan theme in Taiyupian sheds light on the politics of mass culture under the Cold War, her attention to film circulation complements her analysis. While the popularity of Taiyupian in the film markets of South East Asia have challenged Hollywood’s global hegemony in the region, the Taishan films also have disseminated Orientalizing ideologies inherent in the original Western characterization of Tarzan in a way that is detrimental to indigenous Taiwanese and South East Asian audiences.

Also in this section, Thomas Barker and Nikki J. Y. Lee present one of the book’s most illustrative cases of the blurring of boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized. Hŏ Yŏng was a Korean filmmaker trained in Japan who collaborated as a culture man (bunkajin) for the Japanese Empire and filmed the Japanese propaganda film You and I in 1941. He went to film in Indonesia during the Japanese invasion of this country but remained there after World War 2. In his later years in that country, he shot Indonesian-independentist films during the Cold War. Director Hŏ Yŏng’s adoption of Japanese and Indonesian pseudonyms at different moments of his life suggest that he had to perform different identities to fit into the colonial and cold war societies where he lived and developed his filmmaking. Both his identity and his art were shaped by colonization. Usually film histories written in postcolonial contexts privilege narratives glorifying resistance against colonialism; they neglect filmmakers like Hŏ Yŏng. In fact, his life demonstrates that filmmakers and ordinary individuals have long survived by employing more complex strategies beyond the binary of capitulation/resistance to respond to violent historical processes.
Part III: Millennial hauntings:
rising global Asian cinemas

The third part of the book traces coloniality’s persistence in today’s globalized and neocolonial cultures; colonialism’s effects are still present in contemporary cultural production and circulation. The first of the three chapters in this section does so by linking today’s discourses on cultural hybridity with colonial subjectivities. The case study used for this demonstration centers around the wartime propaganda animation film, Momotarō: Divine Warriors of the Sea (1945) and Imamura Tahei’s film theory from the same time. The second delves into the potential of experimental cinema for a “decolonial figuration of history” (187), taking the film Balangiga: Howling Wilderness by punk Filipino filmmaker Khavn as an example. Lastly, the book concludes with a chapter on the memories of the colonial past in 21st century productions, including as examples the 2016 Korean film The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook) and other similar feature films.  

The survival of coloniality (distinguished from colonialism) in cinema well past the actual existence of the colonies and empires is the central argument of Takushi Odagiri’s essay, “Cinema’s Coloniality.” He argues that colonial subjectivities are expressed through human-animal distinctions. He finds this in a Japanese wartime animation Momotarō by director Seo Mitsuyō and asserts that that trope persists in today’s cinematic celebration of hybridity. Takushi Odagiri traces how the film’s anthropomorphic centrism hides the colonial gaze over the colonized nonhuman, and he then shows how this unconscious colonial subjectivity persists in 21st century thinking and cultural production. Odagiri brings together Bertolt Brecht and the Japanese film critic Imamura Tahei to examine the mechanisms through which such subjectivities underlying a seeming neutral hybridity can be unveiled and contested.

José Capino complements these chapters on South Korean and Japanese cinemas with an essay on the cinema of the Philippines, “A Hallucinatory History of the Philippine-American War: Khavn’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness.” Capino closely examines the experimental work by the Filipino filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz Balalinga: Howling Wilderness (2017). Based on the atrocities committed in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), dialectical images in Khavn’s Balalinga counteract U.S. colonial education and Cold War propaganda. In particular, Capino connects the colonial past with the neocolonial present, arguing that avant-garde films like Khavn’s engender a “dialectical recognizability of the past-in-the-present and the present-in-the-past"[7], an idea famously theorized by Walter Benjamin [8]. Such interventions into film form are important because the kind of historical consciousness that this experimental film raises, Capino convincingly argues, extends beyond the Philippines.

This book’s varied but cohesive collection concludes with “Millennial Vengeance: Park Chan-wook’s Agassi (The Handmaiden) and the Return of Postcolonial Japonisme,” on a successful South-Korean film that has been distributed globally by streaming services and is part of a new wave of transnational Asian cinemas. Set in colonial Korea under Japanese occupation, the film that author Nayoung Aimee Kwon focuses on, The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016), goes against mainstream, nationalistic, curated representations of the colonial past and is not alone in doing so.

Unlike in previous representations of the colonial past delineated with clear distinctions between colonized and colonizer, in this film the colonized Korean and colonizing Japanese characters and their mores intermingle fluidly, and such a co-mingling occurs other similar postmillennial productions. Kwon analyzes, on a formal level, the steps taken to reach this breaching of clear boundaries between colonizer/colonized. She goes not only into diverse areas of filmmaking such as character depictions and dubbing, but also traces the circulation of Japan’s cultural imports in South Korea during the Cold War.


I appreciate the relational approach to understanding colonial cinema and coloniality at large present in this edited volume. It is in line with Chen Kuan-Hsing’s “Asia as Method” influential methodology that invites decolonization efforts in the fields of culture, knowledge production, and the psyche from both the colonized and the colonizer, to achieve reconciliation. Likewise, it favors historically grounded analyses over general abstract theorizations [9].  Theorizing in this way contributes to decolonizing my own field of studies. It brings to light important theoretical film developments in Asia that are not as well-known as Western theoretical developments. It reframes the study of colonial cinema by finding connections between cinemas—between Western and Asian cinemas and inter-Asian cinemas. And it uses a more porous approach than can be expected from relying on established dichotomies.  This book’s invitation to revisit Asian archives could bring enormous benefits for the understanding of colonial cinemas and coloniality at large. This collection’s theoretical advancement not only expands the understanding of the periods and films studied in it, but is applicable to the study of other colonial and neocolonial periods.