Long Thoughts on Updating a Cahiers du Cinema Debate.
Part 1: John Woo and Junichiro Tanizaki
In my first blog of some months ago, I decried the fact that major Chinese films of the last few years went unreleased in the U.S., as for example, to mention my major example, Woo’s Red Cliff. Well, lo and behold, the film opened recently (November 20) in New York.
That’s not to say this is the same film I saw in China or that can be rented in Chinatown video stores, for, in fact, the original was in two parts and some five hours long. As I understand it, this film is a one-shot (unacknowledged) compilation of the two films, reduced to half the combined length. The Times review (by Mike Hale) doesn’t mention that nor does it shed much light (to borrow Hales’s metaphor) on why Woo has been absent from the film world for 5 years. Hale writes, “After [the film] Paycheck in 2003, he went dark as far as feature films were concerned.” Why?
I don’t have the answer, although it might be guessed it is simply that Woo’s later Hollywood efforts, viz., Paycheck, weren’t doing much box office. However, let’s not totally discount the influence of two other, more cultural factors that may have been in play. For one, many Chinese film workers have expressed dissatisfaction with Hollywood. Since it’s the opinions of the movie stars that make news, let me mention a few of their thoughts. Gong Li, although she appeared in the less-than-inspired Miami Vice, said she had so long resisted offers to play in HW films because all the parts she was offered were so demeaning. Jackie Chan has also expressed his unhappiness with his (sometimes popular) Hollywood works, which he said were lacking creativity. In a backhanded way, Jet Li said the same thing. He was interviewed when he was acting as lead villain in the Mummy franchise and said he enjoyed working in HW. It gave him a chance to relax since the roles he played (unlike those he took on in HK films) required no acting preparation. In fact, they required no acting at all!
But to get back to Woo, there’s another possibility for his (conjectured) discontent, one broached in a piece by Wai Kit Choi in the anthology Masculinities and Hong Kong Cinema. Wai notes that the masculine subject in Woo’s Hong Kong films “is constructed … by juxtaposing scenes of emotional turmoil generated from a deeply felt male bonding with images of extreme violence.” The critic is not arguing that this is necessarily a more progressive view of the male, but it is an alternative to the usual depiction in Hollywood, and it is a representation that was excised from Woo’s American films. “The melodramatic structure of feeling that infused Woo’s pre-Hollywood films is nowhere to be felt” in them, Wai says. Thus, it might be speculated, if Woo was no longer able to make films that carried over the central themes from his Asian works, he had grounds for dissatisfaction with his achievements in Hollywood.
Let’s go one step further and ask why in the early 1990s so many HK directors, not only Woo but Kirk Wong, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, among others, were tapped by HW. The answer is that in the 1980s and ’90s these directors developed a dynamic style in Hong Kong action flicks. They had a talent the U.S. industry could use. On the other hand, directors who specialized in other genres, such as comedy or horror, were not summoned. So, we can surmise, a process took place among the moguls in which it was determined which HK personnel had visions usable in the American studios.
Deciding which Asian directors work in a way that is compatible with Western sensibilities is not something confined to business decision-makers in L.A., indeed, to move far afield, it has been a staple discussion of film criticism. Perhaps it was a bit presumptuous, but in the 1950s writers at the Cahiers du Cinema went to war among themselves over Japanese film-making. Some championed Mizoguchi, as the true revealer of his country’s soul, and some took the part of Kurosawa, who was undoubtedly more Westernized; but, in so being, it was said, more fully reflected the unique position of Japan in Asia, as the only nation that had industrialized substantially without being colonized.
It hardly seems judicious for Europeans to pass judgment on which director was most Japanese, which is how, in those unenlightened times, the question was put. However, if we reconfigure the query, it might less offensively be formulated this way: Could a Western film student, with some knowledge of American, Asian and European cinema, detect which Japanese film-makers relied more on Japanese styles and forms and which drew more from the West? This could plausibly be answered yes, though with qualifications.
First, let’s do away with the vague term Western. For Japan, then, and for China now (in a less unadulterated form), the West meant the U.S. The first part of this assertion is explained clearly by Ravi Arvind Palat in Pacific-Asia and the Future of the World-System, “The geopolitical context of the Cold War and the dismemberment of the Japanese colonial empire led to … U.S. plans to reconstruct these [intraAsian] economies under its tutelage as a bulwark against communism … predicated on the revival of Japan as a second-rank economic power.”
The special relations the U.S. had with Japan, as well as with Taiwan and Korea, where it set up large military infrastructures, extended to the granting of access to U.S. markets, which allowed these export-oriented economies to take off. Parenthetically, it is this same connection between the U.S. market and its surging industrialization that ties Hong Kong to America.
This being said, it must be acknowledged that the Cahiers distinction makes most sense where the Asian country’s home tradition recognizes such a conflict between Western and native influences. This was certainly the case in Japan. One only has to look at the major novelist Junichiro Tanizaki to see this. In his Some Prefer Nettles (written in the 1930s), the hero, Kaname, has been attracted to “modern” Western things throughout his life, so much so he encourages his wife in an infidelity since he thinks such liberal attitudes of a husband are in the European mode! His own mistress is half Russian. However, the novel charts a counter-movement, as Kaname begins to feel the pull of the town of Osaka, once seen by him as a vulgar, pre-modern dump, in strong contrast to Westernized Tokyo. Now, he experiences a longing for the old puppet shows (now disappearing) of indigenous Japanese culture. In short, the tension between an attraction to homegrown cultural patterns and to those of cultural imports was felt by Japanese intellectuals well before it surfaced in the offices of Cahiers.
Also, it might be argued, to further nuance my earlier point, that the HW influence will be felt most strongly in commercial cinemas, such as that of HK, which received (in the period under discussion) no government subsidies. In state-supported film industries, such as that of Mainland China, while Western influences are still felt, they are not so decisively those emanating from the U.S. To take three major names, it can be seen that Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) is indebted to Pudovkin (in his early work) and Ophuls; Jia Zhangke (Platform, Still Life) to Ozu, as mediated through Hou Hsaio-hsien; and Lou Ye (Summer Palace) to the French New Wave, which brings us back to Cahiers.
Part 2, the next blog, will be the place to see if we can find the HK equivalents of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa.