- Tradition, Culture and Aesthetics in Contemporary Asian Cinema by Peter C. Pugsley
Peter C. Pugsley’s Tradition, Culture, and Aesthetics in Contemporary Asian Cinema is, at 128 pages of text, a slim volume dedicated to an ambitious project, a text-based analysis of over a dozen films from China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore, that aims to conceptualize an Asian aesthetic and revive the discourse of Orientalism in relation to Asian cinema. The aesthetic of Asianness is [End Page 170] anchored in arguments about the specificity of Asian nations and cultures visible in the films’ formal visual and aural elements, as well as the local audiences’ relationship to the text through their familiarity with the narrative styles of the films. The book is organized thematically, with chapters devoted to defining the Asian aesthetic, tracing a history of orientalism and cinema, an auteur-based film analysis, an inquiry into the emerging consciousness of Asia in cinema, and a survey of the successes of the region’s cinema in the international festival marketplace.
Pugsley opens the book by reminding readers that while much has been written about the aesthetics of European and American cinema, little has been said about the similar construction of an aesthetic of Asianness, an omission that his work aims to remedy. The constitutive features of the Asian aesthetic, Pugsley argues, are to be found in the formal visual and aural elements of the films, the performance styles, and the pacing of the film. The visual elements of the Asian aesthetic as defined by Pugsley include the use of so-called traditional colors, such as red and yellow for Chinese cultures and white for Korea, as well as the physicality of Asian, or East Asian, faces on screen, the Asian mise-en-scène, and the culturally specific furniture and décor of the set. Music choices often feature nostalgic and/or transnational soundtrack choices, coupled with the local diegetic sounds present in the films. The highly melodramatic and physical performance styles found, according to Pugsley, particularly in Japanese and Indians films, differ markedly from those of Western cinema and are related closely to the traditional theatrical forms of Asia. Finally, Pugsley identifies both the slow cinema of the art house auteur and the quick pacing of more popular films from the region as unique to the Asian aesthetic. At moments like this, his expansive definition of the Asian aesthetic risks undoing the cultural and regional specificity he claims that Asian aesthetics possess. It furthermore confuses the structure of his argument, leading his analysis to teeter between a focus on the specificity of national cinema and the thematic commonalities of a regional cinema culture.
A similar problem exists at the methodological level. Pugsley suggests the terms “cultural proximity” and “critical transnationalism” help to theorize his approach to the media industries of the Asian nations with which he deals. He proposes that “what transnational means” might be more of an “ethereal spread—an enveloping fog—of circulating, drifting people, monies, cultures and products” (p. 4). He continues: “But such notions deny the text a birthplace, which is what, ultimately, media texts are trying to promote.” His book, Pugsley argues, navigates the national cultural discourses and the transnational cultural interstices that manifest in Asian films to show they are imbued with a “strong sense of Asianness.” He admits that, “such an aesthetic is, and always will be, fractured by the cultural and national difference across the region. It exists only at the broad level of ‘otherness’ in contrast to non-Asian texts” (p. 4).
Pugsley also invokes the work of several key cultural and film theorists, including Adorno, Jameson, Bazin, and Mitry, to “explore previous discourses on [End Page 171] the creation and importance of visual and aural aesthetics as either cultural or universal traits” (p. 30). Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is particularly instrumental to his argument on the aesthetics of Asianness, in which cinema is, importantly, an art that resists cinematic industrialization and builds a rapport...