The Asian aesthetic

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The Asian aesthetic

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Western film used to give just an occasional nod to the east. Now Hollywood is in thrall to Korean horror, Japanese experiment and Chinese pyrotechnics. India’s industry is the largest, but it is in Buddhist and Taoist Asia that a real aesthetic alternative has emerged to change the face of world cinema

At the end of August, a Chinese film, Hero, topped the US box office chart for the first time, despite already being available on DVD. A lush kung fu film in the manner of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was directed by former cinematographer Zhang Yimou. Screen International called it “one of the most eagerly awaited films in Asian film history.” It also went to number one in France and cut a swathe through the box office in many Asian countries. This is unheard of, yet Zhang’s follow-up, the even more beautiful House of Flying Daggers, looks set to follow Hero’s extraordinary breakthrough. Shot partly in the rust-red forests of Ukraine, it has already broken box office records in China itself.

Something remarkable is happening in Asian cinema, and Hollywood has cottoned on. “Check out the latest US movie production slate and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hollywood is turning Japanese,” commented the Guardian in July. “And Korean. With a dash of Thai and Hong Kong thrown in.” No fewer than seven new versions of box office hits from Asia are preparing to go before western cameras. Tom Cruise is developing a remake of the Hong Kong/Thai horror picture, The Eye; Martin Scorsese is in pre-production with a new version of Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong policier; a Japanese thriller, Dark Water, is being reworked for Jennifer Connelly; British director Gurinder Chadha is remaking the Korean feminist crime comedy, My Wife is a Gangster.

This is not the first time that Hollywood’s imitation of Asian cinema has seemed like flattery. Star Wars borrowed from Kurosawa; the Matrix films used Hong Kong fight techniques. But western film industries have never banked on the east to this degree before. Virtually every Hollywood studio has optioned an Asian project. Their interest in the continent’s movies has become a groundswell. Part of this is the usual Tinseltown faddiness, but that is not all. Dark Water, The Eye and The Ring films – also being updated in the US – unnerved Hollywood because they beat it at its own game. They found new, subtle, inventive ways of doing what producers in southern California have spent a century perfecting: jangling audiences’ nervous systems. From Frankenstein to Jaws and The Blair Witch Project, western cinema has prided itself on being able to electrify filmgoers with novel terrors. All of a sudden, Japan and Korea have stolen its thunder. Directors from these countries are using the power of suggestion, and turning the screw of tension to scare audiences profoundly. They build up tension more slowly, hint at unseen horrors, use sound more evocatively. The American studio system is constantly in search of fresh material and ideas. In the last few years, Asia has been western cinema’s new source.

Asian cinema, however, doesn’t merit our attention merely because it has captured Hollywood’s. Despite the brouhaha caused by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in Cannes this year, the lasting impression of the festival was the overwhelming beauty of a quartet of films from China, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand. I have been going to Cannes for well over a decade but had never seen audiences applaud the visual magnificence of an individual scene as they did with House of Flying Daggers. Meanwhile, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows was one of the greatest works of observation that cinema has produced. And although I had to stand throughout Wong Kar Wai’s two-hour 2046, the world it created was so ravishing I didn’t even shift on my feet. Finally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady delivered one of the festival’s greatest coups. While Hollywood can easily ransack Asian horror cinema to renew its own techniques, it is unlikely ever to match the beauty of these four.

How is it that, despite the occasional blink of recognition, the west has remained so blind to Asian cinema for so long? There has always been a sense in which America and Europe owned film. They invented it at the end of the 19th century in unfashionable places like New Jersey, Leeds and the suburbs of Lyons. At first, they saw their clumsy new camera-projectors merely as more profitable versions of Victorian lantern shows. Then the best of the pioneers looked beyond the mechanical and fairground properties of their invention. A few directors, now mostly forgotten, saw that the flickering new medium was more than a divertissement. This crass commercial invention began to cross the Rubicon to art. DW Griffith in California glimpsed its grace, German directors used it as an analogue to the human mind and the modernising city, Soviets emphasised its agitational and intellectual properties, and the Italians reconfigured it on an operatic scale.

So heady were these first decades of cinema that America and Europe can be forgiven for assuming that they were the only game in town. In less than 20 years western cinema had grown from nickelodeon to vast rococo picture palace; its unknowns became the most famous people in the world; it made millions. It never occurred to its Wall Street backers that another continent might borrow their magic box and make it its own. But film industries emerged in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi and Bombay, some of which would outgrow those in the west. India made its first feature around 1912 and was producing more than 200 films a year by 1930, Chinese production managed 400 films between 1928 and 1931 alone, and Japan was quicker off the mark – four production companies were established by 1908, four years before Hollywood became a production centre, and by the end of the 1920s, Japan was releasing 400 films a year. Vast production factories were built. On sound stages as grand as anything in Hollywood or Rome, huge sets re-created scenes from Asian history.

In some ways the film industries of the east mirrored their western forbears. Just like scandal-ridden Hollywood, the eastern film world killed the thing it loved, its movie stars. The Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu was as famous and enigmatic as Greta Garbo, yet the Shanghai tabloids hounded her. When she took a fatal overdose in 1935 (aged 25), her funeral procession was three miles long, three women committed suicide during it and the New York Times ran a front page story, calling it “the most spectacular funeral of the century.” Despite her key role in Chinese cinema in its heyday, she appears in almost no western film encyclopedias. She was better known in America and Europe than almost any other figure from Asian cinema. And yet her fame did not introduce eastern to western cinema in any meaningful way.

In the five years before Ruan’s death, her country had produced more than 500 films, mostly conventionally made in studios in Shanghai, without soundtracks. As western film industries refitted for sound, the film industries of China and Japan entered a golden age. Tokyo and Shanghai were as much the centres of movie innovation as southern California. China’s best directors – Bu Wancang and Yuan Muzhi – introduced elements of realism to their stories. The Peach Girl (1931) and Street Angel (1937) respectively are regularly voted among the best ever made in the country. But after 1937, Yuan Muzhi went to Yen’an to work with Mao’s communists, and in 1938 the Chinese film industry moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong. There, directors like Wang Weiyi and Zhu Shilin paved the way for the flourishing of Hong Kong cinema in the 1950s and again in the 1970s.

India set a different course. In the west, the arrival of talkies gave birth to a new genre – the musical – but in India, every one of the 5,000 films made between 1931 and the mid-1950s had musical interludes. The effects of this were far-reaching. Movie performers had to be able to dance. There were two parallel star systems – that of actors and that of playback singers. The films were stylistically more wide-ranging than the western musical, encompassing realism and escapist dance within individual sequences, and they were often three hours long rather than Hollywood’s 90 minutes.

The cost of such productions, combined with the national reformism of the Congress party, resulted in a distinctive national style of cinema. Performed in Hindi (rather than any of the numerous regional languages) and addressing social and peasant themes in an optimistic and romantic way, “All India films” (the style associated with Bollywood) represented nearly half the continent’s annual output of 250-270 movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s. They were often made in Bombay, the centre of what is now known as Bollywood. By the 1970s, annual production in India reached 500 and a decade later it had doubled once more. All India Films, as well as some of the more radical work inspired by the Indian Communist party, found markets in the middle east, Africa and the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, however, the centre of gravity had moved away from Hindi production in Bombay. Madras began to produce an astonishing ten films a week (more than Los Angeles), and there were around 140 productions a year in Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam.

In Japan, the film industry had long ceased to rival India’s in size but was distinctive in two ways. Until the 1930s, commentators called benshis attended every screening, standing in front of the audience, clarifying the action and describing characters. Directors did not need to show every aspect of their tale, and tended to produce tableau-like visuals. Even more unusually, its industry was director-led. Whereas in Hollywood, the producer was the central figure – he chose the stories and hired the director and actors – in Tokyo, the director chose the stories and hired the producer and actors. The model was that of an artist and his studio of apprentices. Employed by a studio as an assistant, a future director worked with senior figures, learned his craft, gained authority, until promoted to director with the power to select screenplays and performers.

These radical digressions from the norms of industrial cinema are in part explained by Japan’s psychological retreat from 20th-century westernism. Its chauvinistic belief in Japanese superiority led to its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937, to catastrophic effect. Yet in the 1930s and 1940s, no national cinema was more artistically accomplished than Japan’s. Its directors had considerable freedom, their nation was (over)confident and the result was cinema of the highest order.

The films of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse were the greatest of these. Mizoguchi’s were usually set in the 19th century and unpicked the social norms which impeded the liberties of the female characters whom he chose as his focus. From Osaka Elegy (1936) to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and beyond, he evolved a sinuous way of moving his camera in and around a scene, advancing towards significant details but often retreating at moments of confrontation or emotion. No one had used the camera with such finesse before. Great western directors like Vincent Minnelli and Bernardo Bertolucci would borrow his techniques.

Perhaps significantly, given the political climate, Mikio Naruse’s best films were also beautifully controlled accounts of women’s lives. Even more important for film history, however, is the work of the great Ozu. Born in Tokyo in 1903, he rebelled at school, watched lots of American film comedies in the 1920s, and imported their boisterous irreverence into his own work. Then he rejected much of their physicality and from I Was Born, But… (1932), embarked on a string of domestic films about middle-class families which are the most poised and resigned in world cinema. Brilliantly cast and judged, Ozu’s films – the most famous is Tokyo Story (1953) – went further than Mizoguchi’s emotional reserve. Where Hollywood cranked up drama, Ozu avoided it. His camera seldom moved. It nestled at seated height, framing people square on, listening quietly to their articulations. This sounds boring, but the effect is the opposite. The families we see are bracingly alive. Their hard-earned wisdom is deeply moving.

The human elements alone in Ozu’s films would have been enough to endear him to many of those in future generations – Wim Wenders in Germany, Hou Hsiao Hsien in Taiwan and Abbas Kiarostami in Iran – who have called him the greatest of film directors. But there was his technique too. Ozu rejected the conventions of editing, cutting not on action but for visual balance. His films analyse the space in which his characters move rather like the cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque – intellectually, unemotionally, from many angles. Even more strikingly, Ozu regularly cut away from his action to a shot of a tree or a kettle or clouds, not to establish a new location but as a moment of repose. Many historians now compare such “pillow shots” to the Buddhist idea that mu – empty space or nothing – is itself an element of composition.

By the beginning of the 1950s, and despite the ravages of nationalism, war and independence struggles, the three great Asian powers had national cinemas of distinction. Influenced by western directors, those in the east rethought the medium musically and spatially, making it rapturous or rigorous, according to their own national sensibilities.

Western directors still took no notice. They had new darlings by this stage – directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Marcel Carne; actors like Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart. But their blindness to Asian cinema was now chronic. Then, in 1951, a film festival in Venice, started by Mussolini’s cronies in 1932, awarded its top prize, the Golden Lion, to a Japanese film – Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Audiences on the Lido couldn’t work out what they loved more, the film’s ravishing cinematography, or its philosophical disquisition on relativism. Rashomon went on to be shown in cosmopolitan cities throughout the west and to win the Oscar for best foreign film. (Japanese films won again in 1954 and 1955.) The floodgates opened. Kurosawa had been crowned. The effect was compounded by his remarkable, cancer-themed Ikiru, made two years after Rashomon. Lucas, Coppola and Scorsese were soon paying attention.

Japanese cinema was pored over for new discoveries. Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai was fêted in 1955 and remade in Hollywood in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa had himself been influenced by John Ford, but at least the flow was now two-way.

India, too, found the limelight. A new master director, Mehboob Khan, gained international acclaim – and an Oscar nomination – for Mother India, an epic often compared to Gone with the Wind. In their belated rush to raid the treasures of the east, the western cognoscenti even started to take notice of Japan’s least showy director, Ozu. Still, it took a while. Despite festival screenings of his work and six of his films being named “best film of the year” in Japan, Ozu was recognised by few people abroad. Eventually, the British Film Institute called him “one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in any medium, in any country.” Wim Wenders declared him “a sacred treasure of the cinema.”

Watching the Asian films in Cannes this year, I had an idea of what it must have been like in Venice in 1951 or 1954. The sheer loveliness of the breakthrough films of 50 years ago was somehow feminine – certainly delicate, rich, soft, and shallow-focused. Each of the latest new wave of Asian films is highly decorated, tapestry-like, with an emphasis on detail, visual surface, colour and patterning, and centred on a woman, or feminised men.

It comes as no surprise, for example, that Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is so beautiful. His Raise the Red Lantern was visually striking and he started as a cinematographer on the breakthrough work of modern Chinese cinema, Yellow Earth. Daggers, however, may be one of the most photographically distinguished films ever made. In it, the actress Zhang Ziyi, who starred in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, plays Mei, a blind dancer in the year 859 who is sympathetic to a revolutionary group threatening the Tang dynasty. An early sequence takes place in a large pavilion decorated entirely by peonies. A local captain suspects that Mei is a subversive and sets her a test. In the pavilion, he surrounds her with 100 vertically mounted drums. She stands in the middle, dressed in a coat of gold silk, embroidered with turquoise chrysanthemums. Presented with dishes of dry beans, the captain flicks one at a drum. The camera follows it though space. As it strikes the taut surface, Mei spins and flicks the enormously long sleeve of her coat in the direction of the sound. It travels as the bean did and strikes the drum in a rococo flourish. Then the captain flicks another bean, and Mei spins and flicks again. Then another. Then a small handful which scatter around the circle of drums. Mei responds to the percussive effect, her sleeves darting and soaring, her face still serene and expressionless, at the centre of the vortex. The bean shots are computer-generated – the most satisfying use of CGI yet. The combination of such cinematic modernity with martial arts choreography, photographic splendour and, centrally, Zhang’s enigmatic performance, makes this scene, at once, a classic.

If anything, Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 goes even further. It, too, is a widescreen film of seductively shallow focus, surface patterning and feminine beauty. Zhang Ziyi stars again, this time joined by two other great Chinese actresses, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung. Like Wong’s previous film, In the Mood for Love, it is an evocative exercise in atmosphere and music, set in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Tony Leung plays a brilliantined writer caught in a destructive web of relationships. Wong and his cinematographers take the colours and lighting of Edward Hopper but reconfigure them into wide, flat, scroll-like images where everything has a melancholic sheen, where women move in slow motion, their stilettos clicking in night-time alleyways. To this Wong adds a futuristic element. A dazzling bullet train rockets forward through time to the world of 2046, a place where robotic people symbolise the empty state of love.

At first glance, the Japanese director Kore-Eda’s new film, Nobody Knows, is different from the aesthetic worlds of Zhang and Wong. Set in present-day Japan, it tells the story of a neglectful mother who rents an apartment with one of her children and who, when she moves in, opens her suitcases to reveal two more. In his way, however, the former documentary director is equally interested in stillness, in shallow focus and in production design. The mother leaves her children, but instead of declining into Lord of the Flies chaos, they subtly transform their apartment into a world suitable for themselves: scruffy, but full of play and adventure. Nobody Knows is another tapestry film like Daggers, but it is about the timeless ways in which children amuse themselves.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Tropical Malady is more enigmatic still. In its first half, a soldier befriends a young peasant man who lives in the country. They drift around, sit talking, grow fond of each other. In one scene the soldier puts his head in his friend’s lap, in another the soldier licks his hand. As their growing eroticism looks as if it might become explicit, the peasant walks into the jungle. Then the screen goes black: no sound, no picture, as if the film has broken. Then a second film begins. The actors are the same but their situation is more fable-like. A monkey talks to one of the characters, the other is the spirit of a tiger running naked through the jungle.

Tropical Malady is likely to be seen as one of the most experimental films of its time, but what is again striking is its gentleness and stillness. Though made in very different countries, the films of Weerasethakul, Zhang, Wong and Kore-eda share certain ideas about art. Just as the work of Ozu can be fully understood only by balancing its psychological aspects with more abstract Buddhist questions of space and stillness, so the influence of Buddhism can be seen in these new films. Despite the range of western cinema today, most of it derives from the assumption that movies are narrative chains of cause and effect, that their characters have fears and desires, and that we follow the film by understanding these fears and desires. The new films of Zhang and the others make similar assumptions but are less driven by them and balance questions of selfhood with Zen ideas about negation and equilibrium. This makes their beauty hard to replicate in the west.

But Buddhism is not the whole picture. Another Asian philosophy explains the sense of gender and use of space in these films. Unlike Maoism, which pictured a clear moral opposition between the good workers and bad bosses, and unlike Confucian philosophy, in which masculinity is noble and femininity is not, Taoism is less clear-cut. Morally, it sees good within bad and vice versa. The feminine is a virtue in the same way that emptiness may be for artists.

Every one of the great Asian films in the pipeline evinces Taoist ideas of sex and space. In none of them is gender polarised. In all of them, space is crucial. And the influence is acknowledged. Zhang, for example, has talked about the way Chinese painting has affected his work. His shots are often very wide. Space and landscape weigh as heavily within the frame as the human elements. Art historians have long discussed the Taoist component of such paintings.

Indian cinema, deriving from Hindu aesthetics, is not currently as innovative as that of other Asian countries. Although Indian film continues to be economically successful, and has become synonymous with high spectacle, the Hindu nationalism of the country’s recent, backward-looking BJP government has coincided with a spell of cinematic complacency.

As the art form most swayed by money and market, cinema would appear to be too busy to bother with questions of philosophy. Other Asian nations are proving that this is not the case. Just as deep ideas about individual freedom have led to the bracingly driven aspirational cinema of Hollywood, so Buddhism and Taoism explain the distinctiveness of Asian cinema at its best. In Venice in 1951 and Cannes in 2004, audiences left the cinemas with heads full of dazzling images. But the greatness of Rashomon, Ugetsu, 2046 or House of Flying Daggers is, in the end, not to do with imagery at all. Yes, they are pictorially distinctive, but it is their different sense of what a person is, and what space and action are, which makes them new to western eyes.

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Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins
Mark Cousins’s collected columns, “Widescreen: Watching Real People Elsewhere,” are published by Wallflower Press 


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