- Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video
In the introduction to his 2002 edited collection, Screening Asian Americans, Peter X. Feng describes Asian American film studies' incipient stage in which "every essay on Asian American cinema is forced to define its parameters, to constitute the field of inquiry afresh" (7). That Feng's own scholarship goes a long way toward establishing significant points of reference in a fast-developing field is evident in his 2002 monograph, Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video. This text is sure to be "required reading," not only for Asian American film studies, but for Asian American Studies more generally. Unlike such texts as Gina Marchetti's Romance and the "Yellow Peril" (1993) and Eugene Franklin Wong's On Visual Media Racism (1978), which concentrate their analyses on the Orientalist portrayals in mainstream American films, Feng's Identities in Motion focuses on those films and videos with Asian Americans behind the camera. A few edited collections have provided a meeting place for this conversation, including Russell Leong's Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts (1991), Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu's Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism (2000), and, of course, Feng's own edited collection Screening Asian Americans, but Identities in Motion is more akin to Jun Xing's Asian America Through the Lens (1998) as a monograph offering a sustained analysis of the politics of representing identity and history. The unique and important contribution of Feng's text is its theory of racialized representations, based in the specifics of film and video, yet with larger repercussions for how we conceive of identity, stereotypes, and political resistance. [End Page 102]
Eschewing what Darrell Y. Hamamoto, in his introduction to Countervisions, calls "the excesses of psychoanalytic abstractions and theoreticism" (3), Feng offers with remarkable clarity a sophisticated theory of representation and identity formation, grounded in close readings of the visual texts, detailed production histories, and historical and political frameworks, that should resonate with the various audiences of Asian American Studies, film studies, and even scholars of autobiography and historical reference. Identities in Motion has as its central concern the ambivalence that necessarily marks Asian American production as these film- and video-makers (or, as Feng abbreviates them, "makers") must contend with established cinematic discourses, steeped as they are in racist and Orientalist legacies, even while they may seek to dismantle those discourses. The stark polarization of much oppositional discourse is limited, Feng recognizes, since to emphasize either complete cooptation or resistance to Orientalist ideologies is to elide the complexities of Asian American makers whose own identities and relationships to film are constituted both within and against the field of Hollywood's circulation. (Indeed, he cites the famous passage from Maxine Hong Kingston in which the perplexed autobiographical narrator asks, "What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?") Given the implications of ideological interpellation, not to mention the representational limitations of a panethnic term, Feng asserts, "the term Asian American is a discursive construction that implies a series of identifications that are not so much primordial (with ties to a mythic past of continuity) as instrumental (that is, political: dependent on a particular construction of the historical past)—a past predicated on discontinuity" (17). Understanding identity and historical representations as "discontinuous" means recognizing that the assumed transparency, coherence, and authority of identity and history are effects of power relations; such constructions are never adequate to the complexity and heterogeneity of what they seek to represent, and yet they too easily maintain authority as they are repetitiously performed. Given Asian American makers' ambivalence towards cinema's ability to be representative, and given the referential power cinema is too readily afforded, Feng argues the importance of recognizing the discontinuity of such influential representations of identity and history. How then to intervene in those "continuous" histories and in a sense of coherence both imposed and desired, in order to evoke a more ambivalent conception of what it means to be Asian American?
Identities in Motion argues that Asian...