A welcome contribution to decolonizing film fheory
Reviewed 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.
Introduction 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”  [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.  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 . 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.
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”  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 , 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,  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 Kvan 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", an idea famously theorized by Walter Benjamin . 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 . 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.
 Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Takushi Odagiri, and Moonim Baek, eds. Theorizing Colonial Cinema: Reframing Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Film in Asia, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2022, 14. [return to text]
 Stoler, Anna Laura. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016; Grieverson, Lee, and Colin MacCabe. Empire and Film. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011a, and Film and the End of Empire. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011b.
 Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media,London: Routledge, 1994.
 Theorizing Colonial Cinema,117.
 Kristin Thompson, Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market, London: BFI, 1985.
 Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, London: Verso, 2002, 165, 169.
 Theorizing Colonial Cinema,251.
 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History.” In Selected Writings: 1938—1940. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Others, 4:389—400. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003.
 Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.