The blanket terms “Asian cinema” and “East Asian cinema” tend to elide the distinctive ways individual nations, regions, and cities have represented themselves in the face of cultural domination. Jenny Kwok Wah Lau has edited a new collection of writings, Multiple Modernities: Cinemas and Popular Media in Transcultural East Asia, to combat this tendency. The concept of “multiple modernities” refers to the interdisciplinary approach of identifying specific modernities in each locality rather than assuming that Asian or East Asian modernity follows a uniform path in resistance to or in compliance with that of the West. The format of Lau’s book fits this thesis well: separated into 12 chapters, the anthology highlights 12 different pop culture terrains across various geographic categories from nations (South Korea, Taiwan) to cities (Beijing) and places in between (Hong Kong).
Two of the book’s many merits stand out especially prominently. First, it is a useful introduction to various popular media, particularly ones that have not received much scholarly attention in the English language. For example, Jeroen de Kloet’s piece on the cultural and economic trends of mainland Chinese rock music is not only a valuable addition to existing studies by scholars such as Andrew Jones, but is a concise and entertaining history of the ’90s rock movement led by Cui Jian. While his comparisons to Western rock acts like Nirvana and U2 are useful for uninitiated readers, de Kloet grounds his analysis in a specifically Chinese, post-socialist context, describing the shifting social and economic realities while deconstructing the mythology of rock and roll and its effects on mainland Chinese artists and fans. Similarly, while there has been a recent wave of writings on South Korean cinema, Frances Gateward manages to effectively summarise a history of the new wave while posing new questions about it, in this case the movement’s relationship with student movements during the 1980s. Even Han Ju Kwak’s piece on modernisation in 1990s Korean cinema, which distractingly swerves into value judgment and lengthy plot summary, still manages to provide an appropriate overview of recent trends. Kwak tries to include way too many films to be thorough, but what he lacks in analytical rigour he makes up with scope. One of the most exciting introductions to a traditionally ignored popular form is Lin Szu-Ping’s analysis of gender and superstition in the Taiwanese soap opera Shun-Niang: The Woman with Broken Palm Lines. What makes Lin’s study so refreshing is that it’s a rare English-language reception study of Taiwanese media – rare because Western scholars of Taiwanese art and culture have focused almost exclusively on its celebrated new wave cinema, a movement notorious for having essentially no reception in Taiwan itself. In focusing on the reception of the soap opera, Lin explores the connections between popular media, television promotion, and female viewers, whose agency as women is unlocked by the TV program’s dissection of superstition and marriage in Taiwanese culture.
This brings me to the second highlight of Lau’s book. As many of the researchers are engaged in interdisciplinary analyses, the focus is not merely on cinema in itself, but cinema in relationship to other local media, popular or otherwise. Nearly every chapter makes some reference to the inescapable bond between film and other media. Hector Rodriguez’s article on alternative cinemas in Hong Kong effectively places the experimental film and video of May Fung and Evans Chan in the context of a larger avant-garde movement spanning the fiction of Dung Kai-cheung and Eileen Chang and the choreography of the City Contemporary Dance Company. In doing so, Rodriguez is able to acknowledge these media’s cross-fertilisation and shared personnel. Likewise, David Desser’s piece about the reception of Cantonese and Japanese film and TV in America doesn’t stop at the obvious artistic connection between anime and manga, but also identifies the economic and cultural factors that have facilitated the dissemination of anime in the US through media like television, film, and action figures. Dai Jinhua best sums up this approach in his chapter on postmodernity in Beijing by writing, “given the Chinese cultural formation, it is more relevant to discuss the modernity and postmodernity of Chinese society than the postmodernism of Chinese literature and art.” (p. 154). Many of the articles in Lau’s book take this to heart, developing arguments about modernity as a social formation with aesthetics simply an illustration of certain cultural, political, and economic tendencies.
One question which the book tends to elide is the impact of Western culture on East Asian modernities. In her introduction, Lau rightly argues that her book needs to present “a scenario of multiple modernities in which each society mobilises its own cultural resources, less for ‘coping’ with Westernisation, as the West may view it, than for a double negotiation between social and cultural modernity” (p. 9). However, the kinds of articles she includes in her book suggest that this mobilisation of cultural resources can exist without reference to the kinds of Western culture that have infiltrated everyday East Asian life and in turn may have influenced local mobilisation. True, local negotiation of modernity should draw heavily from local needs, traditions, and values, but one definitely cannot avoid the pressing issue of negotiating Western influence in terms of these local imperatives. This question is raised again when Lau writes that “cinema may be popular in one Asian society (South Korea) and less popular in another (Taiwan)” (p. 3), suggesting that people in South Korea watch films while people in Taiwan don’t, which couldn’t be further from the truth considering the number of Hollywood and European films screened in the new Taiwanese megaplexes. Given varying local tastes, the strategies of local film production and distribution industries, and government attitudes towards cultural protectionism, discussion of the multiple East Asian modernities must include the role Western culture plays in the shaping of local popular media reception. A more complete discussion of local modernity must then deal with issues such as mimicry, for example in the political blockbusters that dominate South Korean mainstream cinema (1). Even though some of the articles in Lau’s book mention the reception of non-local culture (de Kloet briefly mentions the role of American, Cantonese, and Mandarin popular music in the reception of mainland rock), it is hardly a pressing issue in most of the articles. Curiously, the one article interested in cross-cultural reception, Desser’s “Consuming Asia: Chinese and Japanese Popular Culture and the American Imaginary,” is the opposite of the kind of analysis of local modernity I am calling for. It compellingly describes how American cultural conditions enabled and encouraged the importation and reception of Asian pop culture, which is an important topic, but is exactly the converse of what a book about modernities in East Asia should include.
Rodriguez’s article on alternative arts in Hong Kong does explore the influence of non-local movements on local artists, but limits its influence to the production end (identifying American and European influences on Hong Kong artists) rather than the consumption end (looking at the culture of international avant-garde consumption in Hong Kong). By simply placing Hong Kong art in the vein of the 20th century’s international mainstream of modernism and postmodernism, Rodriguez risks delocalising his subject, with frequent and lengthy comparisons between Hong Kong artists and Western ones like Italo Calvino and Jean-Luc Godard as well as non-local art movements such as magic realism and avant-garde collage. Using Western models isn’t necessarily wrong, but Rodriguez is vague about how he defines “collage” with its connotations of surrealism and Dada, and this vagueness keeps him from persuasively identifying a local incarnation or reinvention of Western art. This chapter doesn’t appear to represent a multiple modernity at all, but the transplantation of a art movement from one place to another. Although Rodriguez does include a later section connecting local movements to the “lyricism” (also vague) of classical Chinese art, it is too little too late.
However, deeper into the book, the reader encounters Augusta Lee Palmer and Jenny Kwok Wah Lau’s piece on gender in Hong Kong cinema, which puts Rodriguez’s Eurocentric perspective in a more illuminating context. Palmer and Lau compare gender representation in two streams of Hong Kong cinema: the second-wave art cinema and the mainstream action cinema. Admittedly this distinction is problematic – there is hardly a clear line between art and mainstream in Hong Kong cinema (which is probably why the authors omitted the wuxia epic Ashes of Time  from their discussion of Wong Kar-wai as a second-wave director), nor is mainstream cinema comprised simply of action, as romances and comedies make up the majority of Hong Kong films. Still, the authors make an interesting claim: that the “artistic” imperative of subscribing to Western artistic modes, for example allegory and nostalgia, leads female figures to be sacrificed to the (typically male) director’s artistic license. Palmer and Lau, like Rodriguez, read Hong Kong art cinema in terms of Western modes, but they recognise that using the conventions of international art cinema is simply one of the many expressions of East Asia’s multiple modernities (with Hong Kong action cinema being another) and therefore cannot be ignored. While this does not excuse Rodriguez’s shaky use of Western art terms in studying Hong Kong cinema, Palmer and Lau show the significance of Rodriguez’s reading by opening up the possibility that a Western-inflected local art movement can still be a representation of local modernity; although, like Rodriguez, they limit Western influence to the producers of cinema rather than the consumers. As is precisely the argument of Lau’s book, East Asian modernity manifests itself in multiple forms not only among different countries, regions, and cities, but within each specific locale as well, and it is the scholar’s responsibility to identify and discuss these various manifestations.
Multiple Modernities: Cinemas and Popular Media in Transcultural East Asia, edited by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2003.
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