- Envisioning Asia: On Location, Travel, and the Cinematic Geography of U.S. Orientalism
Jeanette Roan insightfully traces change and continuity in American cinematic representations of Asia in this intriguing book, which will be of interest to scholars in film studies, history, and Asian-American studies as well as those researchers, scattered across multiple disciplines, who investigate the ways in which travel and its resulting cultural products shape perceptions of the national and the foreign. Roan begins her inquiry with an engaging question: How was it possible that publicists for The Good Earth (1937), shot mostly in the San Fernando Valley, could credibly claim that seeing the movie was “equivalent to a year’s worth of travel in China”? She answers this question by arguing that location shooting—or allusions to location shooting—has served to construct an imagined Asia that grounds its representational authority in the apparatus of cinema itself, while simultaneously producing a highly Orientalized vision of Asia and its inhabitants.
Roan begins her study with a chapter analyzing the now-lost films shown during the popular travel lectures of E. Burton Holmes. Largely forgotten today, Holmes spoke in his early-1900s heyday to packed audiences on subjects such as “The Hawaiian Islands” and “The Forbidden City.” Roan [End Page 46] does a brilliant job of piecing together what the actual places shown during Holmes’s lectures must have been like, and her careful research in the periodical press supports her interpretations of how these films were received. Holmes’s films, which offered viewers glimpses of Pacific Islands, Chinese cities, and Philippine villages at the very moment when the U.S. was expanding its imperial reach into these areas, offers an early example of the interconnection between the “indexical” nature of film and the production of an exoticized Other for white American consumption.
The rest of Roan’s study extends this theme by examining images of Asia in early film, such as street scenes and Philippine-American War battle re-enactments, before taking up more well known narrative films including The Good Earth, Sayonara, and M. Butterfly. Her readings aptly support her contention regarding cinema’s power to lend the aura of “truth” to representations of Asia that all too frequently relied on racialized discourses of primitives and degenerates in need of American guidance. At the same time, however, Roan is attentive to the ways in which these films occasionally presented other possibilities. The films in Edison’s Oriental and Occidental Series, for instance, record the evasions and interventions made by Japanese people on a street in Yokohama as they look into the camera, observing the observers, and then move out of the frame. Similarly, Charles Leong, a Chinese-American extra on The Good Earth, took the opportunity presented by participating in the film to reflect on the meaning of community, place and self in an essay that Roan sensitively analyzes.
At times, Roan relies perhaps a bit too heavily on quotations from the theories of othersin order to underscore the significance of her own arguments. However, on finishing the book, this reader found her claims utterly convincing and her examples well chosen. Envisioning Asia deserves to be widely read and assigned. [End Page 47]