“East is East, West is West;
and never the twain shall meet.”
- Rudyard Kipling
On the contrary, the distinction between the East and the West has become increasingly blurred as globalisation continues to impact upon the modern world. In today’s global climate, culture is duplicated and traded at such a rate that there is an ever-present feeling of a solitary worldwide identity (Keane, 2007: 24). The media is a driving force in this process, particularly through the proliferation of stereotypes and cultural identities. The hegemonic ability of mass media institutions to influence the way people perceive certain ethnic groups has multifaceted consequences. A chief example is the way in which the media has portrayed Asian people in film, both historically and contemporarily which is said to reflect overriding Western media supremacy and spawns larger moral concerns. This essay explores the effects of Asian, media-spun film stereotypes and the changing relationship between Eastern and Western film industries upon global and local audiences, making reference to the arguments of scholars and practical examples.
Eastern themed films have become increasingly enmeshed within the fabric of popular culture while mass-consumed content has ensured a continued push towards a homogenous universal and Westernised culture (Kwok Wah Lau, 2003: 54). Within this process, film producers capitalise on the mores of even the most resilient societies. (Keane, 2007: 21). The beginnings of Eastern invasion cinema can be found in Hollywood from the early 20th century, where Shah (2003) deconstructs the representation of Asians at this time into four stereotypes. Firstly, Shah touches upon the correlation between identity and difference, remarking that “identities are forged through the marking of difference” (Shah, 2003: 1). This binary representation of “us and them” condenses complex distinctions between social groups and the media plays an integral role in distributing these identities (Shah, 2003: 2). The four Asian stereotypes adapted into Hollywood films are: yellow peril, the dragon lady, Charlie Chan, and the lotus blossom. The yellow peril and dragon lady stereotypes portray Asian men and women in a threatening and negative light (Shah, 2003: 3). While Charlie Chan and the Lotus Blossom lie at the other end of the spectrum, representing Asian men and women as submissive, docile, and non-threatening to White people. Furthermore, in many cases these roles were brought to life by Caucasian actors, which gave the advantage of “bring[ing] once forbidden pleasures to the mass movie audience [while] actual Asians [are] kept out” (Chin, 2003). The West, at this time, had become enamoured with the exotic orient as reflected in Eastern films of the early 20th century which were in their crudest form, “repositories of Western desire” (Kwok Wah Lau, 2003: 168).
Shah concludes that the four Hollywood Asian stereotypes laid foundations for all modern interpretations (Shah, 2003: 4). The menacing representations (yellow peril and dragon lady) are still used as a tool to justify racism and exclusion towards Asians who are portrayed as a threat to white people. While the meek stereotypes (Charlie Chan and lotus blossom) set the behavioural bar for Asian people wishing to “fit in” to Western society (Shah, 2003: 5). Tierney (2006) identifies a trend stemming from these early representations which reflect a propensity for Western cultural imperialism or the tailoring of Eastern culture to Western ideals. From the 1980s to the present day, Hollywood has churned out films which centre on Caucasian protagonists enmeshing themselves in Asian locations and mastering martial arts skills. These characters (such as Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill) learn a martial art in a condensed amount of time before eventually surpassing the talent of Asians (often acting as mentors) who have been practising the skill for a lifetime. The metaphor derived from this is that Asians must surrender to white supremacy in order to avoid an inevitable defeat. Tierney refers to this alarming juxtaposition as a continued assertion of the “centrality of whiteness” despite situations that are logically farfetched. Furthermore the term “supraethnic” is used to explain the perceived “right” White people invoke when imitating and reinventing other cultures (Tierney, 2006). The aforementioned ideas of Shah and Tierney each tie into Edward Said’s famous 1978 publication regarding ‘Orientalism’ which describes how global cultural production leads to a continued and reflexive propensity for representing the orient as “subordinate” (Park, 2005).
Generally in film history, filmmakers have made little attempt to distinguish between different Asian countries, consequently meshing them altogether in one glossed-over “Asian” identity. A prime example of this is when Philip Ahn (a successful Korean actor of the 20th century) spoke Korean while playing a Japanese character (Ahn could not speak Japanese) which went unnoticed by producers and most audiences (Seung Chung, 2006). This amalgamated Asian identity is also deeply relevant to and embedded within Australian perceptions where people are distinguished by their “Asianess” and bundled together with no regard for the rudimentary differences between them (Ang, 2000: 29). Shah notes that there is some deviance from the stereotypical images of Asians distributed by Hollywood (Shah, 2003: 7). These films put forward “liberating images” which are intended to break the mould created by dominant Asian representations. However, these films have failed to make any significant impact in eradicating the persistence of Western-created stereotypes (Shah, 2003: 8).
Harindranath (2006) refers to the impacts of dominant media representations. Whether completely dominated by the West or incorporating the ideals of Eastern film markets, the filmic representations of Asian people (or any other cultural group) result in real life repercussions. The primary one being that common representations or stereotypes become so naturalised that they are seen as reflections of reality when, literally, they are not (Harindranath , 2006: 49). This is explained to be a manifestation of power, in that hegemony is affirmed through the creation of naturalised perceptions of “the way things are” (Harindranath , 2006: 52). Hegemony is most readily affirmed through the distribution of culture. Therefore the ‘subaltern’ or marginalised group (in our case, Asians) in the global cultural environment are seldom permitted to represent themselves, instead being spoken for by parties who are not qualified to do so truthfully (in our case ‘parties’ being Western media producers) (Harindranath, 2006: 53). Chin (2003) presents evidence to a similar effect, concluding that in the broadest sense, Hollywood today has remained unable to represent anything other than the “cardboard cut out” interpretation of what Asian culture is perceived to be or should be. The honest representations that are created by small studios and autonomous producers remain fundamentally unreachable for most people. Therefore Hollywood becomes a necessary evil in Asian film industries in order for filmmakers to make an impact at a global level. India represents the only self-sufficient Eastern market containing little Hollywood filmic presence and studio involvement. Bollywood produces huge revenues consisting of 1100 films annually, only four percent of which involve American companies (Lorenzen, 2009). Though this is not to say that Hollywood plays absolutely no role in the Bollywood film industry; Indian directors are increasingly remaking and re-adapting Hollywood blockbusters into extravagant Bollywood counterparts (Ostrowski, 2007: 2). Bollywood has a phenomenal share of local audiences however does not makes a global impact, as the Hollywood film industry does. Consequently, India has begun attempting to permeate into global markets following in the footsteps of successful Asian art-house filmmakers such as Ang Lee. Conversely, Hollywood, in colonialist fashion, has its eyes on India due to the regions’ ever-growing economy and vast population topping more than one billion people (Klein, 2004: 364).
Many scholars, though, are taking a less imperialistic view of the relationship between West and East or Hollywood and Asia. According to Wu (2007) the success of films created from an Asian perspective, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001), reflect a change in “global cultural flow” (Wu, 2007: 2). More specifically, there has been a shift in the production of content. Where the balance of power used to permit content to flow only from West to East, today the East readily filters content into the West. Influxes of movies created and filmed in Asia are finding a global audience. Wu attributes this to “glocalization”; the concept that filmmakers are finding a balance between local cultural integrity and global appeal in their productions (Wu, 2007: 3). This balance is evident throughout Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in multiple ways; for example the martial art scenes were slowed to become more aesthetically pleasing and eliminate the violent brutality that had alienated Western audiences in the past. Also, the story was led by a strong heroine, touching upon the Western affinity with feminism. However the film pertained to a traditional Chinese “wuxia” (the term encapsulating the concepts, mythology, and traditions of the genre) telling of the story (Wu, 2007: 15). Wang (2005) argues though that what is actually presented with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a simple watering down of Eastern cultural traditions to please Western audiences. This in itself is describes as a form of “deculturalization” in order to pertain to “universal aesthetics” or one compromised global identity (Ang, 2000: 120). Furthermore, this returns to the argument that tailoring Eastern films to Western ideals reinforces a continuing “phenomenon of imperialism and colonialism” (Lam, 2008: 124).
However, the research of Klein (2003) again underpins a positive change in the process of Eastern and Western cultural flow. Notably, in the past twenty years there is evidence tending towards an “Asianization of Hollywood and Hollywoodization of Asia”. This idea involves the activism of Asian actors and filmmakers (such as Ang Lee, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat) in Hollywood, the relaxing of global trade laws, the Japanese purchase of a key Hollywood studio, and the increase in revenue from Asian film markets. Asia has become the most lucrative export audience with Hollywood films taking huge shares of ticket sales (96 percent in Taiwan, 65 percent in Japan, 78 percent in Thailand). Furthermore, exports today account for over half the profits of Hollywood studios (a figure which is expected to become as high as 80 percent), accounting for a primary focus on global appeal. Park (2005) agrees that there is fluidity in the construction of Eastern identities within the dominant media, which is beginning to question the continued rigid separation between East and West. There is a growing level of interconnectedness between Eastern and Western cultures which can be attributed to a number of reasons: the rise in Asians immigrating to America following the relaxing of laws in 1965, the economic and industrial advancement of countries such as China, India, Japan and Hong Kong, the presence of “multicultural media marketing” beginning in the 1990s, and the continued demand for Eastern films, animations, and technology.
From the evidence presented it can be said that academics are currently contesting two conflicting ideas in regard to the cultural relationship between West and East. One reflects an idea of homogeneity, or the belief that all cultures are being assimilated into forced unity, and the other argues for heterogeneity- the belief that the current global climate allows for diversified and complementary cultural constructions to prevail (Klein 2004: 362). The first ideal views the Hollywood machine as a merciless entity, absorbing and repackaging Asian/Eastern culture to ensure the continuance of white cultural supremacy, whereas the latter credits a relationship of negotiation between East and West with preserving cultural particularities. It seems impossible that each statement could be true to some extent. Yet Klein (2004: 379) deduces a complicated process involving elements of both ideas. Hollywood films, which have been distributed globally for nearly a century, are incorporating increasing amounts of Asian culture (including the contributions of actors, writers, directors, and labourers) while Asian film industries too are becoming less globally exclusive. Countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, and India now capitalise on and replicate Hollywood practices of production in order to win back local audiences and also market their films to a global audience. This complementary and necessitated filmic relationship between East and West is summed up with Klein’s succinct quotation: “Hollywoodization and Asianization—globalization and localization, homogenization and heterogenization—go hand in hand.” (Klein, 2004: 379). The arguments of Western imperialism versus global cultural production freedom, with the evidence presented, make it impossible to discern an inarguable position on either side of the coin. This impossible distinction may result from purely thinking in terms of geographical semantics, of divisions between East and West. These overlook the real media power structure at play; one that is controlled by powerful institutions all over the world. While most of these institutions do reside in the West, Eastern entities (such as those in Japan) cannot be ignored as powerful global media players (Park, 2005). It is through the complex relationships between these media conglomerates that dominant media stereotypes are distributed, that cultural “others” are formed, and that the lines between East and West are distorted.
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