For those of us with an interest in Australian film, the idea of Asian Australian cinema might evoke a short list of names and titles, all from the very recent past. Examples might include Clara Law’s SBSi-produced Floating Life (1996), a drama about a Hong Kong family who settle uneasily in Sydney’s suburbs; or Tony Ayres’ The Home Song Stories (2007) – an autobiographical drama about the director’s childhood with his beautiful and unstable Chinese mother in 1970s Australia; or perhaps the works of former Young Australian of the Year, Khoa Do, whose experimental low-budget film Mother Fish (2010) explored the tragic boat journey of Vietnamese refugees to Australia.
What these directors and films have in common is the fact that they are easily identified as being both Asian and Australian. Also, the films themselves are essentially about the problems and possibilities of being both Asian and Australian. The temptation is to immediately try to locate them within an existing model of post-1970s revival Australian national cinema (1). These films from the 1990s onwards could be seen as fitting in with the Australian cinema’s underlying concerns with national identity and the changing shape of our national culture in response to immigration, globalisation and the ongoing (though declining and contested) project of state-supported multiculturalism.
Transnational Australian Cinema: Ethics in the Asian Diasporas is a direct challenge to such ideas we may have about what constitutes Asian Australian cinema. Written by Australian film and television scholars Olivia Khoo (Monash University), Belinda Smaill (Monash University) and Audrey Yue (Melbourne University), the book is based on foundational research into the history of Asian Australian cinema, and claims to be the first sustained and wide-ranging history of Asian Australian cinematic connections. That it has taken so long for such a study to be made – given Australia’s geographical location in the Asian region, and its high proportion of Asian immigrants – is significant, and speaks of numerous persistent national phobias about military invasion, being ‘swamped’ by refugees, and also the fear missing out on the economic possibilities of doing business with the new economic powerhouses in Asia. As the authors note, ‘relations with Asia have constituted the most important and uneasy dynamic for Australian nationhood in a range of domains’ (p. 11). An important part of the book is its historical exploration of the way Australian cinema has dealt with and reflected these anxieties.
The authors expand the definition of Asian Australian cinema to include ‘films by Australians of Asian descent, films producing images of Asians in Australia, and films produced by Australians working in Asia’s film industries’ (p. 12). By defining their subject so broadly, they are able to map a fascinating history of significant cinematic moments and encounters between Australia and Asia that dates from the very start of Australian cinema in the early 1900s to the present day. By examining these encounters in terms of three central research themes – History, Policy and the Ethics of ethnic identity, the book shows how the field of Australian cinema itself is far more porous, diasporic and transnational than earlier accounts have acknowledged.
This illuminating history takes in films like Raymond Longford’s Australia Calls (1913), with its depiction of an Asian military attack on Sydney and fears of a ‘yellow peril’, through to tokenistic depictions of Chinese cooks, thieves and drug-dealers (often played by white actors in yellowface) in 1920s films like Beaumont Smith’s The Gentleman Bushranger (1921) and Phillip K. Walsh’s The Birth of White Australia (1928).
Another chapter focuses on the Colombo Plan Films – a group of documentaries and newsreels produced in the 50s and 60s to improve social stability and economic development in South and South East Asia, with the chief governmental goal of preventing the spread of communism. Promoting the ‘Australian way of life’ and protecting it from potential threats was a key philosophical underpinning of these films, which had titles that now seem astonishingly blunt and patronising: Australia Friend and Neighbour (1958), Australian Experts Teach Asians Food Science (1954) and Rotary Picnic for Asian Students: Narabeen (1961). Special attention is given to The Builders (1959), a 30-minute documentary about Australian aid in the region, produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit, but overseen by the Department of External Affairs. Shown on Australian television’s ABC and screened throughout North America, Europe and parts of Asia, the film is examined as a prime example of the official attitudes and policies of the time – that is, supporting Asian modernity and cooperation, and counteracting negative perceptions around the White Australia Policy, without significantly altering this race-based immigration policy or the deep paranoia that underpinned it.
Continuing to build their ‘alternative historiography of the national cinema prior to the 1970s film renaissance’ (p.61), Khoo et al. unearth the 1968 Japanese Western Koya No Toseinin/The Drifting Avenger (Junya Sato), which was made for a Japanese audience, starring ‘the Japanese Clint Eastwood’, Ken Takakura, but shot in the New South Wales gold mining town of Nundle, which stood in for the American west. In this same year, 1968,Shôgorô Nishimura’s Japanese romance/drama Moeru Tairiku/Blazing Continent was both made and set in Australia. Here the Asian protagonist becomes lost in the outback for a time, before flying home on a Qantas jet. Such films are important, the book argues, in creating a fuller and more accurate picture of historical intercultural representation.
Moving into the more recent era, a chapter titled ‘Romance, Entrepreneurialism and the Intercultural Couple’ looks at the ways in which Australian films have used romantic relationships between Asian and white characters to reflect changing socio-cultural concerns, and also to create new production, distribution and reception channels from the late 1980s onwards. Films such as Phil Noyce’s Echoes of Paradise (1988) and Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991) and Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story (2002) are referenced as examples of ‘fantasies of radicalized erotic encounters’ (p. 79) that stand in for national encounters between the Australian and the other.
The book traces how such representations shift, as Asian characters and their stories take centre stage. Particular attention is given to The Home Song Stories (2007) and Mao’s Last Dancer (Beresford, 2009) as being ‘…significant for the way they align intercultural heterosexual romance with a revised narrative of selfhood and diaspora, one that is constituted through the figure of the mobile, entrepreneurial individual’ (p. 76). It is argued that both the troubled and seductive Rose (Joan Chen) in The Home Song Stories and the determined and gifted dancer Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) in Mao’s Last Dancer, are presented as diasporic subjects ‘engaged in activities of self-narration and self-inscription’ (p. 84). The transnationalism of these particular narratives and characters are also intriguingly echoed in the financing and distribution models employed by these internationally successful Australian films.
A chapter on Asian Australian road movies (yes, there is such a sub-genre) argues that while films of the past like Japanese Story and Heaven’s Burning (Craig Lahiff, 1997) can be read as failed intercultural encounters (often ending in the death of the Asian characters), more recent examples offer hopeful and productive engagements. While not actually taking place on physical ‘roads’, journey films like Mother Fish, Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland, 2007) and Letters to Ali (Clara Law, 2004) explore ‘ethical engagements’ between Australia and Asia that are primarily concerned with the search for freedom and the possibilities of mutual understanding.
Chapter Seven, ‘Landscape Cinema – Asianness and Indigeneity’ presents the persuasive argument that white Australian national identity is typically constructed through representing Indigenous and Asian characters as marginalised ‘others’. This builds on Annette Hamilton’s description of Australian anxiety towards these two groups, who are typically imagined as being respectively as being located in ‘the empty heart’ (Indigenous) and on the ‘fragile boundaries’ (Asian) of Australian culture (p. 107). Referencing the landscape tradition in Australian cinema, this chapter offers an extensive and fascinating reading of Baz Luhrmann’s 2009 epic melodrama Australia, arguing convincingly that the film is a post-reconciliation fantasy that unites Aboriginal and white characters in their fight against the Japanese invaders in WII Darwin, therefore subsuming the trauma of the Stolen Generations, and also closing down any real engagement with historical Australian Asian relations. In this sense, Australia is a film which does not offer the ‘particular encounters’ and the re-opened futures that constitute real ethical encounters.
Other hopeful developments are discussed in Chapters Eight and Nine, with an examination of the rise and prominence of Asian short filmmaking, as well as the development of action cinema arising from community development initiatives, particularly those of Vietnamese filmmakers living in Australian capital cities. Using amateur crew and cast, shooting on digital and distributing via the internet and word of mouth, these predominantly self-funded and small community development grant-funded films draw on genres like Hong Kong martial arts, crime dramas and gambling comedies. The authors argue that while such films are often seeded by multiculturalist policies and strategies of participation and empowerment, the resulting films ‘do not celebrate pluralist multiculturalism or happy hybridity’, rather, ‘they cast unhappy families, dead parents, orphans, junkies, crime and homelessness and make no apologies for their content’, and show ‘the multicultural tension of diasporic coexistence’ (p. 162).
A final chapter examines co-produced films by Asians who have ‘returned’ to Asia to for new audiences and new financial opportunities. This is, in a sense, a completion of the loose arc the book has traced – from a few scarce and racist representations of Asians in Australian films, through to difficult and failed encounters, through to ethnic self-representation and now finally, a kind of return home to renew economic and symbolic ties, albeit from an Australian base. The Asian Australian co-productions of filmmakers like Clara Law (Like a Dream, 2010), Pauline Chan (33 Postcards, 2011) and, in particular, Tony Ayres (The Home Song Stories, 2007) are discussed as forms of deviation from the usual model of seeking partnerships with the West and Hollywood (p. 165). The term ‘queer migration’ is invoked to discuss these ‘non-normative’ routes for the Australian film industry, and The Home Song Stories is examined at length in terms of its finance and distribution. The deep Asian financing connections, and the different ways it was marketed to Asian audiences, is illuminating, especially for those of us accustomed to claiming the film as predominantly Australian. As a concluding chapter, this makes sense, though a final summary and recap of the book’s arguments and conclusions seems to be missing.
Transnational Australian Cinema is an important and extensively researched contribution to Australian cinema studies, Asian studies and cultural studies. It must be noted that this book is academically interpretive, deeply steeped in the language of transdisciplinary cultural studies and thus will be unwieldy for the ordinary reader who may long for a simpler historical account (2). Some of the strongest arguments for the authors’ hugely ambitious theoretical approach appear when their theories are applied through extended individual readings of films like Letters to Ali, Australia and The Home Stories.
A number of the films discussed are explored in repeated chapters to make different points (The Home Song Stories, for example is one of the chief texts.) While this is a valid approach, the broad scope of the project makes this seem unbalanced. Some important films, like Clara Law’s seminal Floating Life, are only mentioned in passing. As a ground-breaking example of Australian cinema’s engagement with Asian filmmaking (and the first Australian film to be entered into the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film Category) Floating Life is a work that deserves more attention in a study such a this – even if it fits too comfortably within the model of multicultural nation-building that the authors are attempting to transcend.
Such concerns aside, Transnational Australian Cinema’s chief success is in its sophisticated and deeply researched expansion of our understanding of what constitutes Asian Australian cinema. By doing this, the work expands the field of Australian national cinema itself, showing it to be more diasporic and transnational than ever before.
Transnational Australian Cinema: Ethics in the Asian Diasporas by Olivia Khoo, Belinda Smaill, and Audrey Yue, (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2013).
- Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1996).
- The initial research forming the basis of the book was undertaken between 2009 and 2011, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), utilising Australia’s national film archives. On its own, this history is of profound value and can be further explored and utilised here at the Asian Australian Cinema website, created to accompany the project.