[Paleopsych] Prospect: The Asian aesthetic

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The Asian aesthetic
Prospect Magazine, 4.11

        Hollywood used to give just a nod to the east. But now a real
          alternative has emerged to change the face of world cinema
                                                         Mark Cousins

    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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.

    Mark Cousins is author of "The Story of Film" (Pavilion)

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