This article looks at the changing shapes of global Chinese cinema through the works of Hong Kong/New York filmmaker Evans Chan. As Chinese films cross beyond traditional borders, they move in directions and among audiences far removed from the Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asian, and “Chinatown” markets that transnational Chinese cinema addressed from its inception. From the edges of Hong Kong’s traditional markets, there emerges a new kind of film culture, mingling more freely with Taiwan and the PRC, drawing on the overseas Chinese experience, produced by filmmakers who often live outside Asia. This give and take between Hong Kong (or China) and the world necessitates a new way of thinking about film culture that transcends the linguistic and cultural determinism of national cinema as well as the aesthetic strictures of established auteurs, genres, and styles.
Thinking Beyond Culture
The politics of multiculturalism has recently been hotly debated within American society. However, few efforts have gone beyond the “smorgasbord” approach to culture. A “taste” of African music, a sampling of Latin American literature, an appreciation of a Chinese holiday represent tokenism at its worst or the frustrations of identity politics seeking to convey the essence of a culture to the broader body politic with little more than a tourist’s gaze. Scholarship coming from a variety of disciplines has sought to engage this problem (see Shohat and Stam). How can culture be looked at within the context of a national body politic when that body is divided by race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality? Postcolonial theory has contributed the notion of hybridity to these debates, and a call to place all notions of an “essential” identity into question within the multiple identities available within the postmodern metropolis (see Bhabha and Chow). Others call for a “radical” multiculturalism that refuses to conceal the issues of power and struggle behind the “melting pot” veneer of contemporary culture (see West). Within these debates, the centrality of the economy and globalization of the culture industry cannot be neglected. Filmmakers, for example, may live in one country, make all their films in a second country, and find financing in a third, while hoping to address a global, polyglot audience with a localized narrative. Because of the transnational nature of these films, a new, “transcultural” politics of representation needs to be elucidated.1.
The oeuvre of Evans Chan can be taken as a case study of the difficulty and the necessity of developing a transcultural approach within film studies. Chan is a New York-based filmmaker, born in mainland China, bred in Macao, educated in Hong Kong and America, who makes independent narrative films primarily for a Hong Kong, overseas Chinese, “greater China” audience. His films straddle the gulf between the international art film and Hong Kong commercial cinema, and thus have also attracted some international art film viewers.
To date, Chan has completed two features, To Liv(e)2 (1991) and Crossings3 (1994). Both these films openly address issues that find only a marginal voice in the mainstream cinema of Hong Kong and the United States. With one foot in the United States and the other in Hong Kong, Chan can freely address diverse issues. His films look at Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 and the legacy of June 4th in Tian’anmen Square. Both examine the role of women in the world economy (in the “official” economy and the “informal sector” that can include prostitutes and traffickers in narcotics). Each film looks at the processes of immigration and dispersal involving the Chinese globally. While fears of censorship arising from Hong Kong’s laws and the unofficial censorship of the marketplace in the United States place a boundary around what can be said in the cinema, Chan, with his transnational production team, manages to seriously explore controversial topics. In this way, Chan creates a transnational, transcultural discourse through the medium of the motion picture, pointing to a new type of cultural...