|JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 4 (April 2015)
Thoughts on Asia Pacific Cinema
by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher
Film, once the purview of western societies, now serves as the storytelling medium of the world, no more so than in the greater Asia Pacific region. Once Tokyo lost the Pacific War, major Asian film talents rose to global fame, legends of cinema history such as Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Im Kwon-taek in South Korea, Zhang Yimou in China, Ang Lee in Taiwan, and Satyajit Ray in India.
Kurosawa gave his Japanese audiences samurai spectacles matched only in Hollywood with its cowboy westerns. He borrowed themes from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “King Lear” in classics such as “Throne of Blood” and “Ran.” In homage, Hollywood borrowed themes from Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” in making “The Magnificent Seven.” But Japanese films took a new turn with the introduction of anime by the grand master Hayao Miyazaki. His artful animation in masterpieces such as “Princess Mononoke” matched any Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks effort. Unfortunately his 2014 “The Wind Rises” does not rank as one of his best: reviews revealed romantic problems posed by a bifurcated plot, an airplane versus a woman, with the aircraft winning. The historic hero, Jiro Horikoshi, designed the Japanese fighter plane, the Zero, an aircraft that could not match the British, German, Soviet, or American fighter aircraft flown in World War II. Two anime masters outmatched Miyazaki in 2014, Hiroyuki Okiura’s with “Letter to Momo” and Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura with “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” the latter nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Feature. Here classic woodblock prints made up each frame of this gorgeous film. A sleeper of a sweet film, “Leoni,” went immediately to DVD. Based on a true story of a mixed American-Japanese marriage that does not survive a return to Japan and the war, it does show the story of a post-war survivor, their one son, the famous artist Isamu Noguchi.
Euny Hong celebrates South Korean pop culture in her book The Birth of Korean Cool; she reports that in 2014 Seoul raked in $5 billion from its pop-culture exports. Some of it came from gore and porn movies, such as Kim Kiduk’s “Moebius.” In contrast came a futuristic masterpiece, Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiecer,” a film that Bong decided to make with Hollywood wizardry and some Anglo-American actors such as Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton, while using as a script a French graphic novel. Bong’s earlier films, “The Host” and “Mother” do not prepare you for this post-apocalyptic world caused by a climate-change crisis. This Korean gem offers stiff competition to Lionsgate’s franchise of future doom, “The Hunger Games.”
Taiwan might be small, but its cinema is large. Its current master director, Hou Hsiao-hsien, has been shooting films since his 1985 autobiographical drama, “A Time to Live and a Time to Die,” followed by his 1989 success with his family story “A City of Sadness,” which captures the year 1945 when the Japanese leave Taiwan for good. In 1993 he gave the world his masterwork, “The Puppetmaster,” a true-life story of a performer who devoted his wartime years to spreading pro- Japanese propaganda. At the end of his long and productive life, Hou has presented us his 2014 martial-arts work, “The Assassin.”
China might be large, but its art cinema has recently been small. The December 21, 2013 issue of The Economist ran a story, “China’s Film Industry: The Red Carpet,” a tale of woe where government mandarins pulls the silk strings while imitation Chinese versions of Warner Brothers such as Huayi Brothers, one of China’s largest studios, front for the state. But big business it is; in 2012 China overtook Japan to become the second largest film market after America, with box- office revenue of $2.8 billion. Enormous IMEX screens and 3D movies are all the rage; over 18,000 screens now show homegrown movies. Cinema is now central to Chinese courtship and consumption, capitalism with communist compliance. What do you get for your yuan? Try Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly,” a Chinese western! Or try his latest 2014 epic movie of a dance competition in 1920 Shanghai titled “Gone With the Bullets”! When China has a film, like the 2013 “A Touch of Sin” by Jia Zhangke, which won a prize at Cannes, the government banned it and forbid journalist from interviewing the director. No wonder Chinese film addicts turn to the BBC website to watch “Sherlock”, making a Sino sex star of Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, whom they call Curly Fu after his Chinese name.
The Russian cinema north of China came alive in 2014; Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature film, “Leviathan,” was called “Russia’s greatest cinema accomplishment in years, maybe decades” by the New York Times (January 28, 2015) having already won the Golden Globe as the Best Foreign Film of 2014. The natural arctic beauty of the Barents Sea contrasts with the petty corruption of a tiny fishing community. A metaphor for Putin’s empire? Within hours of the Golden Globe award illegal downloads of the web by Russians amounted to 30,000 and have been growing each day since. Citizens united must be curious; perhaps Hobbes was correct, life can be brutal and short, even with vodka to ease the ceaseless pain. The Russian Far East and its trackless Siberia are not the Russia of glitzy Moscow and St Petersburg, but since Ivan the Formidable, they have made up part of the fabled motherland. Russia’s Asian lands have given her settings for impressive recent novels such as Andrei Makine’s “Once Upon the River Love,” along with leaping giants of the ballet world such as Rudolf Nureyev.
India makes more movies than Hollywood and has done so for several decades. The majority reminds American viewers of the mindless MGM movie musicals of the 1940s and 50s. But not all for some fine films find a home in that large market for which Mumbai furnishes the big sound stages. Celebrating cinema cultivates nation building in the diverse historic regions of the subcontinent. In 2014 Richie Mehta’s “Siddharth” offered a compassionate and emotionally devastating view of the ever-present poverty,” and Katherine Boo tells in her “Behind the Beautiful Forever,” which is now an acclaimed drama on the London stage where it received a simulcast to selected cinemas in the United States. Metha has his father-hero search from New Delhi to Mumbai for his likely kidnapped son, a victim of child traffickers. The film won Best Film and Best Director in the South Asian International Film Festival and is an Official Selection of Human Rights Watch.
The island nations of South and Southeast Asia have small film industries and don’t like much of what they see of themselves in the films made. Sri Lanka’s leadership wishes that Callum Macrae’s recent film, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” would go away along with the memory of its recent most gruesome civil war. The same can be said for Indonesian leaders and their reaction to the film “The Act of Killing.” As late as March 2014 the New York Times reported that this highly acclaimed film had not forced the Jakarta government to open an investigation of the state murder of over half a million of its own citizens, a political cleansing of communist with which America was complicit. In comparison, the dated and celebrated 1983 Hollywood film, “The Year of Living Dangerously,” was a Tinseltown white wash, and his 1957 heroics in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” in 2014 they shot their own version using Colin Firth’s star power in “The Railway Man.” Yes, an almost impossible rail bridge had to be built by slave labor, POWS of the Japanese Empire. Yes, most of those POWS came from Australia and New Zealand with a few Brits as officers. Yes, torture turned Japanese officers into animals, graphically depicted in this hard-to-watch film. Yes, forgiveness came hard but sometimes released the harmed spirit of the victim. Having recently visited some of the death camps run by the Japanese Imperial Army in Borneo, they reminded me of my visits to death camps the Nazis ran in Europe.
New Zealand films are often associated with the strong work of Jane Campion, films like “The Piano” of 1993 or the international hit of 2002, Niki Caro’s “The Whale Rider.” But the producers of “Mister Pip” did not have either the luck of Campion or Caro when they turned this magnificent novel by Lloyd Jones into a 2014 film of the same name. What was fun in the book went flat on the screen.
A Spanish-speaking cinema crescent curves from Chile to Mexico to California, the Pacific Rim of the Americas. Conservative, Catholic Chile offered outsiders a 2014 bonbon of a feminist film in “Gloria,” in which a working mother of grown children looks for love in all the wrong places. You could laugh, you could cry, but you would enjoy her travails. Liberation comes with a price. A giant from the Mexican film colony, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, crossed the border and gave Hollywood its Best Picture Award of 2014, the Oscar for “Birdman,” a film that has Inarritu’s fingerprints all over it. It also divided critics; Richard Brody, in the October 23, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, brooded that this film borrowed heavily from the work of the French New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard. So what! The French New Wave swept the world of cinema. Why should it have no impact in Mexican film circles?
The amazing aspect of American films about Asia should not come as a surprise—they concentrate on war themes. As a University of California Berkeley Ph.D. in 20th-century American history, I have published three books that deal with American wars and the military- industrial-education-nexus that built our national security state. From Presidents Truman to Obama we have had boots on Asian ground or drones in Asian airspace. Only former General Eisenhower gave us a peace dividend in his presidency in the 1950s. Truman took the U.S. into the Korean Civil War; JFK and LBJ gave us the Vietnam War, which Nixon expanded into Cambodia and then Ford bombed; Carter gave us the fiasco of the Iran rescue mission and help to the Taliban fighting the Soviets in Afghan villages, while Reagan gave us the Iran-Contra scandal and then decided to increase arms for his “Afghan freedom fighters” fighting the Soviet Red Army incursion, said fighters still mainly the Taliban. Bush Senior authorized the Gulf War, an oil war by another name; Clinton sent cruise missiles to blow up Taliban training camps in Pakistan; and Bush Junior gave us two full-scale failed wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama first staged a “surge” in the Iraq fighting, then got America out, then sent America back in, to include bombing Syria all the while trying to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with Iran, a state the U.S. and Israel jointly targeted with a computer bug, starting the first cyber war of the 21st century. Under Obama’s personal directives American military and CIA drones fly from Pakistan to Yemen targeting terrorists, some of them Americans. The U.S. in Asia: billions spent, millions killed.
These scenarios serve as red meat for Hollywood; in most cases producers there do not need a star to bring in an audience. The war serves as star. In 2014 the film “Korengal” made this point: unknown U.S. soldiers hold an Afghan pass near the Pakistani border—day time patrols, night time firefights. They celebrate their enemy kills, grieve for their fallen comrades. “Korengal” picks up where the Academy Award nominee “Restrepo” left off, sharing the same director, a best-selling journalist, Sebastian Junger. Killing civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq posed moral problems for American teenagers new to war’s carnage. Nowhere is that clearer than in the documentary “The Kill Team,” last year’s winner of the Best Documentary Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Taking the same theme, adding a big-name director such as Clint Eastwood, matching him with a rising Hollywood hunk such as Bradley Cooper, and 2014 exploded with a mega box office hit, “American Sniper.” And Vietnam remains a treasure chest of combat stories as well as endgame plots. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy discovered many high jinks she could use in her “Last Days of Saigon.” She is the youngest of Senator Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eleven children; her father an anti war candidate to replace his fallen brother, JFK, one of the architects of that very war. Strange the ways of history.
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, a member of the JPRI advisory board, has achieved distinction in many fields—most notably, military, academe, and media/cultural affairs. Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he served in the U.S. Army for twenty years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. For his second act, he received a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, then taught there in the Military Science, History, and Political Science Departments, rising to Vice Chair of Politics. For the past two decades he has also been a commentator on international affairs for television and radio as well as a popular host/interviewer for cultural events throughout the Bay Area. He is the author of The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1990), Economic Earthquakes: Converting Defense Cuts to Economic Opportunities (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, Berkeley, 1994), and North American Civilization at War (M.E. Sharpe, 1998), along with numerous essays and reviews.