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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.1 (2002) 78-81
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Asian American Film Criticism
Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Edited by Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
Anyone who has recently taught an Asian American Studies class recognizes the need for scholarship on the rapidly growing number of films and videos by Asian Americans. In response to this need, Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu have compiled Countervisions, a sophisticated, innovative, and engaging collection. Asian American film criticism from its inception in 1960s and 1970s counterculture has had a political engagement that has honed its analytical edge. As editor Hamamoto suggests, "in the main, Asian American film criticism has avoided the excesses of psychoanalytic abstractions and theoreticism while holding to the primacy and determinate force of history and politics in explaining and [End Page 78] understanding the impact of racial inequality on minority communities" (3). This is not to say that this volume is light on theory. Essays in the collection employ current approaches to analyzing filmmaking practices and reception in a broad range of examples from independent and mainstream venues.
The first two essays by Cynthia Liu and Peter Feng move back in time to consider how contemporary Asian American concerns might reassess film icons such as the actresses Anna May Wong and Nancy Kwan. Liu and Feng eschew simple dismissals of certain screen roles as stereotypical; instead, they speculate on the power of spectators to re-interpret and recast "Orientalist" films, imaginatively or literally rewriting such performances in a form of "creative redress." Though somewhat different in spirit from the rest of the book, these two essays present fascinating possibilities for reassessing Orientalist cinematic representation and the performances of Asian American actors from earlier in the century.
The remainder of the book concentrates on instances of contemporary Asian American and Asian film and video. Darrell Hamamoto traces the pervasive deformation of Asian American sexuality through looking at its manifestation in films ranging from Wayne Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea (Columbia Pictures, 1989) to video pornography. Sandra Liu uses Wang's career to measure how filmmakers must negotiate economic as well as creative and political pressures. Her essay argues that the tremendous changes of the film industry in the 1980s and 1990s blurs the distinction between "good" independents and conformist or "bad" mainstream movies; she concludes that "[a]ssuming that the United States will continue to be a consumption-oriented market economy, film activism cannot be the sole responsibility of filmmakers" (104). Lindsey Jang's tongue-in-cheek advice to Asian American filmmakers seems in keeping with this hard pragmatism. Jang suggests that Asian Americans take the lead from successful Asian filmmakers—making their films "exotic," "sexy," and "violent"—so as to win box-office success and more widespread recognition.
A trio of essays by Kent Ono, Glen Masato Mimura, and Elena Tajima Creef all deal with the "genre" of films and videos depicting Japanese American internment. Each of these essays acknowledges the political importance of reconstructing this historical past through film yet remains skeptical of particular films and techniques that reinforce conventionally racialized and gendered representations. Ono provides a thoughtful overview of how these films partake of different discourses of transnational migration, U.S. racial politics, and "ocularcentrism" (131). Mimura looks at the "postmodern" work of Lise Yasui, and Janice Tanaka, as well as Rea Tajiri's History and Memory (1991), a film that [End Page 79] draws praise and attention from a number of the essays in this book. Creef's essay provides a careful reading of Steven Okazaki's Days of Waiting (National Asian American Telecommunications Association, 1988), with an eye towards reading the particular tropes of gender and spectatorship within the film's own version of trauma, repression, and recuperation.
Part VI, "Exploring Form" acts as a forum for experimental filmmakers such as Valerie Soe and Trinh T. Minh-ha to discuss their sources of inspiration and techniques of filmmaking. This section also includes an essay by Jun Xing on the experimental techniques of Trinh, Soe, and...