A welcome contribution to decolonizing film theory

review by María Mercedes Vázquez Vázquez

Theorizing Colonial Cinema: Reframing Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Film in Asia. Edited by Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Takushi Odagiri and Moonim Baek.

Theorizing Colonial Cinema (2022) is a timely study of coloniality in film theory and practice. In broad terms, the book responds to the rise of Asia in the global economic arena and aligns with contemporary sensibilities in film studies striving to decolonize both film production and screen studies. Although the book’s subtitle promises to cover production, circulation, and consumption of film in Asia, the actual regional focus is on East Asian cinemas.

The contributors’ diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and regional expertise is appropriate in a publication examining trans-colonial engagements and calling for an ethics of relationality and reciprocity. Despite this diversity, the chapters are cohesively related thanks to their shared decolonizing aim and coherent epistemology. The editors, Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Takushi Odagiri and Moonim Baek effectively tie the chapters together. They achieve an obvious dialogue between chapters, no doubt a positive result of a collective research methodology structured through seminars, conferences, and other means of scholarly communication.

The book breaks with the dyadic rhetoric traditionally used to approach colonized cinemas and colonial subjectivities with terms such as colonizer/colonized and resistance/collaboration. The essays demonstrate that the realities and cultures of colonized territories and peoples are much more entangled and complex than simple oppositions indicate. For instance, take the case of the South Korean filmmaker Hŏ Yŏng whose career illustrates well the inadequacy of these common dichotomies. Throughout his life he used different pseudonyms to hide his Korean origins, and he counts in his oeuvre such ideologically opposed films as Japanese imperial propaganda films alongside Indonesian independentist films.  

This collection aims to distinguish itself from prior scholarly examinations of colonial and imperial cinemas by situating Asian archives at the center of research. Previously,  film scholars studying this region often used data gathered from archives located at the centers of former imperial powers. In contrast, this book brings to light East Asian film theorists, critics, and scholars such as Im Hwa, Lu Xun and Imamura Tahei, and filmmakers like Kvan de la Cruz, who deserve much more international attention than they have enjoyed so far. At the same time, the volume also benefits from film and cultural studies scholarship produced in the Euro-American centers of knowledge by renowned scholars such as Miriam Hansen, Fredric Jameson, Kristin Thompson, Dudley Andrew, and Bertolt Brecht, among others, and in the periphery of Empire such as Frantz Fanon, an important theoretical reference in several chapters. In this way, the writers in this book often make enlightening observations about parallel theoretical developments in Euro-American theory-production centers and East Asian ones.  

All the chapters in the collection offer a rich and rigorous study of their respective subjects and a balanced attention to consumption, production and circulation is well achieved throughout. Some of the distinct areas explored include the following:

In addition to these unique contributions, the anthology’s breadth is comprehensive in terms of time periods and range of representation. East Asian film industries are discussed from early national cinema to contemporary films streamed globally, from East Asian productions released during the Japanese and Western imperial occupations of East Asian territories, to U.S. productions about Asia or distributed in Asia. Comparisons abound between colonial and anti-colonialist approaches to the same historical subject matter. For example a discussion of the Philippine-American war, for instance, is seamlessly combined with Taiwanese figurations of the Tarzan franchise from Hollywood. The comparison brings to light two completely different forms of film production under coloniality. 

I should now like to examine some of the essays in the book in greater detail.

by Nayoung Aimee Kwon and Takushi Odagiri

The introduction explains the rationale for this book: cinema has an intimate relationship with colonialism, which has often been taken for granted or disavowed instead of closely examined. Taking advantage of the opening of colonial archives in the East, the editors propose a “theoretical paradigm shift” [1] [open endnotes in new window] that moves away from monolingual, fixed and privileged sites of research. While this aim is commendable, its full achievement has yet to be accomplished, since still most of the contributors are professionally based at the privileged geopolitical locations where the Anglophone scholarly traditions were generated.  

In terms of predecessors, this collection draws inspiration from Ann Stoler’s Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Time, and Lee Grieveson’s and Colin MacCabe’s Empire and Film and Film at the End of Empire. [2]  Stoler’s method for the examination of colonial histories and archives and her call for methodological renovations to history writing in view of them is closely followed in several chapters of this volume. As for Grieveson’s and MacCabe’s work, this book’s editors partially commit to exploring the research in Asian archives because Grievson and MacCabe exclusively used British ones. However, since the new anthology had this theoretical paradigm shift in mind, I am surprised that they did not discuss the pioneering, multi-situated and multilingual research on colonial and imperial cinemas practiced by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in their widely cited 1994’s monograph Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media [3]. Also, the “vast transnational and multilingual network” participating in Theorizing Colonial Cinema could have benefitted even further from an incorporation of postcolonial research on national cinemas in other colonized areas of the world such as Latin America.

This edited volume challenges epistemologies of empire, as is also happening in other areas of Asian scholarship. However, as often happens, those Eurocentric epistemologies of empire are not always exactly traced. Some of the chapters indeed draw from non-Western theories such as the writings of Frantz Fanon, Trinh T. Minh-ha or Dipesh Chakrabarty, but authors also often cite European or U.S. theorists inspiring decolonial thinking, such as Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. In that light, it would be useful to reflect upon how those who suffered fascist or racial persecution in the West now provide theoretical tools for decolonizing academia.  

The book comprises three parts, chronologically and historically arranged. The first part contains five chapters on cinema produced from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century; the two chapters of the second part explore the connections between the cinema of the era of empires and that of the Cold War; and the last three chapters in the third section analyze the presence of colonial pasts in 20th and 21st century films. I will organize my discussion of specific essays under these three headings.

Part I: Time and racialized other:
colonial modernity and early cinema

As a case study, the book starts with an analysis of a documentary’s alignment with the colonial and imperial project. In “Time, Race, and The Asynchronous in The Colonial Documentaries of Malaya,” Nadine Chan shows how a documentary filmed by the British Strand Film Company (Alexander Shaw’s Five Faces of Malaya) depicts the South East Asian territory of British Malaya to construct a colonial audiovisual narrative akin to colonial historicism. According to the latter, races are associated with temporal epochs and perceived levels of development. The native Malay population in this documentary are shot in a way as to signify underdevelopment or a place “out of history” while other races are represented as propelling Malaya to advance in history and modernity. The white imperial British citizens are, tellingly, hardly visible in the documentary.

As Chan demonstrates, the racial harmony and multicultural tone described in Five Faces of Malaya was out of sync with socio-political movements and communities imagined (in Benedict Anderson’s terms) by the Malayan territories that had been absorbed by the British Empire at the time of the documentary’s release. The harmonious plurinational model represented in the film from the colonial perspective did not coincide with how Malay nationalists, for instance, envisioned connectivity in the Malay race and how they resented immigration and damages to their culture due to new economic developments. Furthermore, Five Faces of Malaya also contains incoherent details about the historical development of certain races, a sign that a clear narrative associating races to certain stages of historical development produced by the imperial power in which the British figured as the administrative minds could not be fully sustained thanks to the documentary genre’s capacity to witness history. This contradiction between the construction of a colonial image of racial harmony and reality is obvious in the depiction of the Malay race, both seen as backward and lazy peasants unable to rule themselves and following medieval customs and modernized tennis players. The different circulation of this documentary in the center of the Empire and Malaya reveals the documentary’s imperial ideology even further. The film was hardly seen in the Malay territory where it was filmed, but successful in the colonial metropolis.

In the second chapter, “Facing Malcontent Colonial Korean Comrades: A Typology of Colonial Cinema in Asia’s Socialist Alliances,” Moonim Baek offers a typology of colonial cinema.  Baek examines how a socialist alliance between the metropolitan Japanese and the colonized Koreans did not erase racial prejudices against the Koreans. Discourses around the figure of the malcontent Korean “pullyŏng sŏnin,” particularly in two poems and two pieces of film criticism, reveal a Japanese colonizing view of the colonized other (the Korean); this occurred among socialist critics but runs against socialism’s presumed international solidarity. This trope can be generalized. The figure of the spontaneous and defiant colonized subject is seemingly heroic. But it also fits a common mechanism for ghettoizing the colonized. Picking that figure out becomes a measurement of control and identification of the rebellious colonized in a region where physical (racial) differences between the colonizer and the colonized are not obvious. In this way, a recurrent figure of a malcontent Korean who will use spontaneous violent action to combat an imperial elite was endorsed by socialist Japanese intellectuals. They viewed Japan as the socialist center of the Japanese Empire, much like Moscow was perceived as the socialist center of Eurasia, and this was their way their way of formulating an image of rebellion and of the (inferior, flawed) rebel.

In contrast, the socialist Korean poet and film critic Im Hwa responded to the usual derogatory typification of Koreans such as the pullyŏng sŏnin in poetry and film by creating poems and producing socialist films that counteracted such colonial imaginaries. He promoted a true socialist alliance between the working classes without ethnic or national hierarchies. Sadly the Korean socialist films that Im Hwa considered true Korean cinema are lost, which reminds me once again of the importance of carrying out archival research on and preserving this early cinema.

Following the first two chapters on the representation of mostly colonial subjects in early colonial cinema, the third chapter opens the discussion of film theory production in the colonies. In “Colonial-Era Film Theory, Spectatorship, and the Problem of Internalization,” Aaron Gerow makes an important point about the relation between film production and film theory.  Although Japan was the main colonial power in East Asia, it occupied a neocolonial position in relation to the centers of film theory in the West. That imbalance then impinged on the media theory produced both in Japan and Korea. Theorizations of colonial spectatorship by Korean subjects now allow us to perceive their relation to the metropole. This essay and the book as a whole establish a very important level of discussion—how to problematize the internalization of the colonial gaze by the colonized at the level of theory. Here Gerow asks whether the Korean theorists simply assumed a layered colonial gaze (Western and Japanese). He suggests a supplement to the traditional study of the gaze, often used to examine colonial psychic internalization, with further reflections on spectatorship in the colonial setting that are still needed. In this case, Gerow traces a significant interest in spectatorship in Japanese film theory (audiences being judged for their lack of modernity by theorists or, on the contrary, deemed to exercise modernity through cinema). In some instances, Japanese theorists orientalized their colonized subjects much as the West had orientalized Japan. In those cases, Japan would be producing the “universal” theory about the gaze whereas the local colonized writers would be writing about particular cases. Here, a comparison between Im Hwa and O Yŏng-jin offers two different approaches by colonized theorists.