Theorizing Colonial Cinemas


Keynote Speakers:

Zhen Zhang (NYU/NYU Shanghai)
“‘Orphan Island’ Revisited: Star-crossed Love, Disfigured Face and Wartime Shanghai Film History”

Most of the existing scholarship on wartime Shanghai cinema follows the two-part periodization of the “Orphan Island” 孤島 phase (1937-941) and the “fallen city” 淪陷 phase (1941-1945) as demarcated by the outbreak of the Pacific War and the ensuing Japanese occupation of the foreign concessions. While useful in outlining the changing contours of the film industry and related institutions such as film and culture policy and censorship under war exigencies, the rigid temporal and spatial separation when grafted on film historiography constrains the exploration of a more porous and multifaceted film culture. It also isolates the wartime film culture from prewar and postwar film history, which were not entirely discontinuous. This paper will attempt to rethink the problem of periodization by opening up the term “Orphan Island” for new conceptual and historiographic possibilities, in part through intertextual readings of several films—both Chinese and Hollywood films shown in Shanghai–that feature disfigured face, the trauma of becoming orphan, and star-crossed love. I ask: When and where is the Orphan Island? Is there a connection between the Orphan Island imaginary and a Chinese orphan consciousness in modern times? To what extend does this imaginary articulate a persistent yet multifaceted orphan condition and imagination in Chinese-language film history and historiography?

Jane Gaines (Columbia)
“What Did Hollywood Export to the Rest of the World?”

One can hardly miss the triumphalism in the tone of the industry vehicle Motography in 1914: “When peace reigns once more in Europe, one of the first harbingers of the return to normal living will be the re-opening of the picture theaters. And their programs will be made up of American-made films. Then will come the greatest prosperity the American manufacturers have ever known…and with the domestic market bigger than ever, American-made films will not only lead the world—they will constitute it.” It is well known that the World War I conflict that consumed European competitors gave the U.S. industry the chance to expand into world territory never before “conquered.” In the war years, the language of colonial expansion served a market strategy. In addition, the metaphor of conquest has organized the narrative of world film history, seen, for instance, in Lewis Jacobs who in his 1939 film history, looks back to sum up the market coup the war handed the U.S.: “When war broke out in Europe in 1914, American motion picture production constituted more than half of the total movie production of the world; by 1917 America was making nearly all the world’s motion pictures” (159).

The question for “Theorizing Colonial Cinema,” however, is not one of what exactly it was that was exported. What was exported were reels of motion picture films. The more difficult question is one of how we theorize that “export” relative to all of the world cities and towns to which motion pictures were shipped. And this question will be in relation to what it was that Hollywood personnel in the 1910s and 1920s said that they were producing to distribute to a world audience. This paper examines the three paradigms that have been in play relative to this question: The classical Hollywood narrative fiction or “classicism” paradigm, the “vernacular modernism” challenge to that paradigm, and, more recently, the argument that melodrama, not “the classical” has been “the dominant.”


Nayoung Aimee Kwon (Duke)
Handmaiden and Other Perversions of Postcolonial Remembrances”

This presentation will serve as an introduction to this workshop and its impetus as a broader transnational collaborative among scholars and archivists. The talk will focus on the framework of the project and of our current efforts toward creating an ongoing space of dialogue and a planned publication volume. This project brings together scholars and archivists who are seriously engaged in the films of the early twentieth century and their legacies and afterlives in Asia but whose work may not have traditionally engaged one another. Collectively, we ask how might prior articulations about film theory, history, form, content, and ideologies be expanded when we put the colonial question at the center rather than the periphery of our inquiries? Lived and imagined experiences of modernity’s imbrication with coloniality in these tumultuous times of transition will be examined. The conceived volume focuses the problem in the region of Asia. The contemporary rise of Asia, its perceived promises and perils, offers a timely vantage point in considering global colonial legacies as entwined in film theory and history in relation to the region. The presentation concludes by introducing a sample chapter on the unresolved dialectic of desire and repulsion in postcolonial memories of the colonial past as manifest in such contemporary films as Park Chan-Wook’s recent film, Handmaiden.

Yiman Wang (UC Santa Cruz)
Chinese Cinema’s Other: Anna May Wong and Her “China-humiliating” Films

Since its very inception, Chinese cinema derived its raison d’être from global coloniality that caused China’s subjugated sovereignty. Struggling with its disrepuation on the international stage, Chinese intellectuals and politicians became eagerly critical of Western films deemed disrespectful of China. This led to the compulsive discourse of humiliation and anti-humiliation. Western films that portrayed China and Chinese characters as backward and negative were labeled as “China-humiliating” (ruhua), instigating protests that campaigned against such derogatory representation by seeking to shut down the screening of such films.
Such nationalist and anti-colonial ethos put Anna May Wong, the early 20th-c. Chinese-American performer, in an impossible position of embodying China’s pride and shame all at once. Her films ranging from the 1920s to the WWII period, some shown, some censored in China, refracted the multiple ways of negotiating Chinese cinema’s identity and China’s international image. A historical analysis of the Chinese discourses concerning Wong’s films, therefore, illuminates the ways in which Chinese cinema forged its directions in interaction with global coloniality as filtered through Wong’s transnational and interstitial stardom.

Stephen Poland (Harvard):
“Cinema of Security: Regulating Ethnicity in Manchukuo’s Feature Films”

Despite a recent surge in interest, the films of the Japanese “puppet-state” Manchukuo (1932-1945) remain noticeably under-theorized in both the disciplines of Area Studies and Film Studies. Similar to scholarship on other forms of cultural production in Manchukuo, studies of cinema are dominated by an emphasis on the films as propaganda aimed at molding new subjects of the state through the power of cinema to propagate state ideology, particularly the “Harmony of the Five Peoples” (gozoku kyōwa) under the guiding hand of the Japanese. And yet, in his 1942 article “Making Films for Manchurians,” Amakasu Masahiko, the head of the Manchukuo Film Association (Manshū eiga kyōkai), attacks the dogmatic propaganda of Japanese films exoticizing Manchuria, arguing for the promotion of entertainment films made by subjects of Manchukuo that appeal to the majority Chinese population of the client-state. This paper takes Amakasu’s points seriously, not in order to argue that Manchukuo cinema was politically uninterested, but to examine how “entertainment” functioned in feature films such as Winter Jasmine (Ying chun hua, 1942), My Nightingale (Watashi no uguisu, 1943), and Tuberose (Wanxiangyu, 1944) as an ideological project through which ethnic flux could be regulated. Rather than treat notions of ethnic harmony as a smokescreen masking the reality of Japanese domination, I understand the idea of ethnic harmony to be a new strategy of control as imperial formations sought to recapture the nation after the rise of the discourse of national self-determination and wave of decolonization struggles after the first World War–Manchukuo was a proto-neocolony. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notion of “security,” I analyze Manchukuo’s feature films as differing from the more “disciplinary” Japanese propaganda films in that they attempt to “let differing ethno-nationalities be” but regulate the social conditions of their co-existence. Complicating such attempts, however, is the fact that Manchukuo’s nominal claims to state independence had very real consequences for efforts to construct an independent state culture that facilitated performative movement between the different ethnic subjectivities recognized by the state. In this sense, my analysis of the films also gestures toward a consideration of how Manchukuo’s films might be put alongside the Cold War cinema of the Soviet Union and United States to inquire into how cinema articulated with shifting forms of imperialism and colonialism throughout the twentieth century.

Takushi Odagiri (Duke)
“Seo Mitsuo and Wartime Japanimation”

Momotaro Kami No Shinpei (Divine Warriors of the Sea) is an animation film directed by Seo Mitsuyo (1911-2010), a legendary animation artist of the wartime Japan. Under the Motion-Picture Law (Eiga Ho), issued and enacted in April 1939, the film was used for war propaganda and colonial cultural politics. Possibly because of this, despite its artistic solidification, this animation has been erased from history of Japanese popular culture, being a stigma of history of Japanese animation. This presentation aims at complicated historical and art-historical background of Seo’s animation production, mostly during 30s and 40s.

Michael Baskett (Kansas):
“Struggles for Independence: The Cold War Afterlife of Japan’s Colonial Cinema”

As Sandra Ponzanesi and Marguerite Waller have noted, although cinema studies and (post)colonial studies have much to offer each other, it is a paradox as to why the two disciplines have not engaged each other more fully. In the field of Japanese film studies, a similar enigma exists wherein much of the scholarship broaching the topic of Japan’s colonial project of film does so primarily to dismiss it. Routinely characterized as fragmentary, ineffective, and ultimately, a failure; few scholars have examined Japan’s colonial enterprise of film as a system and instead subordinate it within a more general discourse of war mobilization. I maintain that recentering our focus back onto colonialism is a necessary strategy that can more effectively account for the nagging resiliency of desire for and revulsion towards the cultural legacy of the Japanese empire. This paper examines Japan’s Independent Film Production Movement (dokurituspuro undo) as a key site of struggle over how the colonial legacy of film was expunged and denied in film discourse during the Cold War. Drawing on primary sources, I analyze how colonial models and interpersonal relationships made during the imperial era enabled the Japanese major studios to strategically re-enter the markets of “free Asia” in the early 1950s when mainstream Japanese cinema was being hailed at international film festivals. The major studios ideologically purged and systematically shut out the independent film producers whom they deemed as leftists, communists, and other “undesirables.” The Independent Film Movement valorized itself as an anti-imperialist cinema and its members were some of the first to participate in film exchanges with Communist Chinese film workers (many of whom were former colonial film workers under the Japanese). Ironically, the number of co-productions and technology exchanges between Japanese and Asian film workers increased steadily throughout the early 1960s on the right as well as the left. The major studios and the independents both produced films about the Japanese empire but the latter’s frequently dealt with controversial topics such as exploitation of colonized and/or marginalized populations, sexual slavery, and war crimes. In their manifestos and writings, members of the Movement actively sought to challenge and subvert the discourse of Japanese colonialism which they linked to American Imperialist aggression in Cold War Asia.

Aaron Gerow (Yale University):
“Colonial Era Film Cinema and the Problem of Internalization”

The problem of internalization, or the colonization of the mind, in relation to colonial cinema of the Japanese empire, first considers the issue of film form by analyzing several films produced in Korea during the colonial era. While on the one hand, these works can seem to present examples of Korean characters quite literally internalizing the voices or visions of Japanese authority, they can also problematize the assumption that there is a distinct subject with an established “inside” open to absorbing such commands. This is further complicated, I argue, by the fact that the cinema of the Japanese metropole was itself often contradictory, despite and sometimes because of its place in a neo-colonial world system. These Korean films offer multiple examples of complex subjectivities crisscrossed by split subjectivities and intersubjective relations that render it difficult to clearly demarcate “internal” and “external.” These issues may also be reflected in the film theory produced by colonial subjects. Then again, there are complications in the theory of the metropole, as Japanese theory, I argue, suffered through a “theory complex” in which theory was produced but could not be called theory in part because of its Eurocentric definition. In some cases that led to self-conscious attempts to rethink theory, especially through considering cinema and spectatorship as modes of theory. I conclude by speculating about the “internalization” of these complexes in the colonial case.

Moonim Baek (Yonsei University):
“Proletarian Screens of the Empire: (Dis-)Alliance Between Japanese and Korean Socialist Film Movements”

This paper focuses on various relationships between proletarian film movement in colonial Korea and that of the Japanese metropole, ranging from their respective theoretical stances, organization of proletarian film units, to resistive strategies against censorship.  By comparing legitimate and commercial feature film productions from Korea to illegal, independent, documentary film productions from Japan, I will analyze the process through which Soviet filmic texts and theories such as “montage” were introduced, circulated and adapted in these East Asian screen cultures. The paper will also discuss how the proletarian film movements as an international and universalist project reoriented the political and cultural interactions between the imperial metropole and the colony.

Nadine Chan (University of Chicago)
“A Time-Lagged Medium: Colonial Documentary in British Malaya and the Asynchronous Reproducibility of Reality”

Writing on the mechanical reproducibility of the image, Walter Benjamin has noted how the near immediacy of reproductions through photography and film have collapsed the continuum between sites of production and sites of consumption. Indeed, the workings of colonialism’s visual cultures were very much dependent on the quick and easy reproducibility of images through the technologies of the cinema. From the 1920s until the 1950s, the British colonial government widely circulated films featuring scenes from around the British empire, cultivating a sense of familial intimacy and immediacy that sought to foster ideas of imperial modernity and Commonwealth camaraderie. However, as this paper argues, film proved to be an unexpectedly time-lagged medium. For example, even as newsreels and educational films sought to document the latest news from the colonies, inequalities in technological access meant that post-production services were still carried out in London. This meant that film footage and prints travelled back and forth across continents thus extending the duration between the capturing of an image and its consumption. Weighed down by their material bodies, films encountered inevitable lags during the translation of the image as it first appears behind the camera’s lens to its ultimate reproduction on the screen before an audience. I examine the filming of Voices of Malaya (1948), an educational film about Malaya’s racially plural society, as an example of how the complexities of producing colonial propaganda met with the necessities of working with film as a material medium. Delays over disagreements about the apparatus’s competing intentions—a recorder of reality or a magician of possibility—rendered the film terribly out of date when it was finally released three years after its shooting. This paper seeks to unpack and politicize the space between the seemingly instantaneous reproduction of the image into what I call “colonial time”—anachronistic zones where “old” cinematic technologies circulated beside the “new” and the inequalities of technological availability meant that the reproducibility of the image was not instant, but stretched out the geographical space between colony and metropole.

Hieyoon Kim (UCLA)
Returning to the Colonial, Claiming the National: Korean Film Historiography in the 1960s

In the 1960s, members of the Korean film industry engaged in various attempts to create an official history of Korean cinema that emerged across films, newspapers and other publications. In seeking to articulate the nation as the locus of history, Korean filmmakers and critics soon confronted the limits of the colonial in both archives and historiography. On one level, the loss of a significant number of films made in the colonial era (1910-1945) created a practical challenge for the task of historicizing the Korean cinematic tradition. On another level, the colonial period, a historical time without sovereignty, posed fundamental problems for narratives based on the nation-state as the agent of history. Taking both of these challenges as a starting point, this paper examines Yi Yŏngil’s 1969 A Complete History of Korean Cinema, the first comprehensive monograph on Korean film history. Although generally dismissed as early nationalistic historiography, a close analysis of this book reveals both the strategies and tensions involved in making the nation the historical locus. Locating his book within broader attempts to create official film history in the 1960s, I trace the ways that Yi tackles challenges of the colonial in archive and historiography in order to construct a historical narrative premised on the nation’s continuity. Though his narrative reproduces ideologies of the postcolonial nation-state, it also intervenes in the statist dogmatic notion of “national culture” forced on the Korean film industry toward the end of the 1960s. Yi’s complex reconciliation of tensions allows his work to be understood as a generative site that both reflects and alters the cultural politics of postcolonial historiography.