- Eastern Approaches to Western Film: Asian Reception and Aesthetics in Cinema by Stephen Teo
This well-written, engaging volume by Stephen Teo is a welcome intervention in the field of film studies in that it confronts the hegemony of Western theoretical approaches to cinema and provides a counterbalancing model that applies what Teo calls “Eastern theory” to Western film classics. Although Teo’s use of terms such as “Eastern theory” and “Eastern essence” could be construed as perilously totalizing--painting “the East” with a monochromatic brush that beckons toward a regression into Orientalizing--his apologia for the study and his execution of the analyses are sufficiently adept and focused to remediate the occasional sweeping generalization. Indeed, Teo spends much of his introduction and first chapter, which examines the Star Wars saga, explaining his notion of the “Eastern,” which follows a few general principles: 1) it is “distinctive from ‘Orientalism’”; 2) it refers to “an inherent quality in the West”; 3) it is consistently didactic (p. 22). He takes time to elaborate on these ideas, connecting, for instance, (post)colonialism and commercial trade to an “Orientalized West” wherein East and West are “bidirectional interpenetrating” entities (p. 3). In addition, Teo specifies that he is not using any particular Asian film theory in the book but, rather, is applying “Eastern thinking broadly derived from philosophical ideas and vernacular proverbs, maxims, or aphorisms” (p. 12). However, his “Eastern” perspective, as he admits, is rooted firmly in his Malaysian Chinese background, leading to “charge[s] of Sinocentrism” (p. 8). He is clear from the start that this book will “mainly invoke Daoist and Confucianist ideas and beliefs borrowed basically from the Zhuangzi and the Analects,” and this holds true throughout (p. 7). Though this approach is hardly “pan-Asian,” Teo largely succeeds in his stated goal of proving the enriching potential of applying Eastern ideas to Western works.
The nine chapters of Eastern Approaches to Western Film cover an eclectic array of Western cinema from Europe and the United States, mainly released during the studio era (1930s – 1960s), though not all the films are studio pictures and the first Star Wars trilogy falls outside of these dates. Some chapters focus entirely or mainly on one film, such as the chapters on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), and other chapters look at several films in one filmmaker’s oeuvre, such as the ninth chapter, “John Ford [End Page 1] and Asian Family Values,” in which Teo deftly discusses multiple Ford Westerns and a trilogy of non-Western family melodramas. He convincingly argues that “Ford’s Westerns may be seen as the most basic Confucian tracts of family and state in the American cinema” (p. 238), making salient points regarding Ford’s seminal and ever-straining binaries of rural versus urban, tradition versus modernity, and the individual versus the family. Teo’s reading of Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) is even more impressive as he takes the tale of an Irishman living in the U.S., played by John Wayne, who returns to his Irish village to establish a family, and connects its themes--nostalgia for a homeland, the immigrant experience, yearning for the natural world, and the primacy of family--to dominant Daoist and Confucian concepts, pointing out that the film would have been quite relatable to diasporic Chinese audiences.
The chapters in Teo’s book, then, move from George Lucas’s space opera in chapter one to John Ford’s genre films in chapter nine, revealing that the order of chapters is not tied to a historical timeline but rather to the author’s judgment of how obvious the “Eastern” referents and qualities are in the films. Thus, the Star Wars trilogy is a perfect place to start due to its overt Daoist allusions (e.g. “the Force”), and it is in this chapter that Teo is able to dive more deeply than many other “Eastern” readings of these films by...