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  • Southern Effects:Kaiju, Cultural Intimacy, and the Production of Distribution
  • Joshua Neves (bio)

The term "special effects" (FX) describes illusions created for cinema or television using camerawork, props, or CGI (the latter, alongside a range of postproduction practices, are increasingly referred to as "visual effects," or VFX).1 But this robust category of production and reception remains largely undertheorized in cinema and media studies, especially with regard to global frames. Beyond discussions of attractions and spectacle, blockbusters and high-tech, special effects animate modes of technological and cultural distinction. This boundary making has been crucial in distinguishing various national cinemas and their relationship to categories like "world cinema," not to mention the derivative genre films widely associated with non-Western productions, expressly the Asias (viz. the B movie status of Hong Kong martial arts, Filipino horror, or Japanese monsters in the West). Here V/FX at once signal the groundbreaking technologies of global Hollywood as well as the purported low-tech imitators whose media industries are understood through notions like cult cinema, technology transfer, and underdevelopment.

This essay examines the relationship between special effects and Asia or the South—what I am calling "southern effects." It has two major lines of inquiry. The first focuses on cultural circulation. It begins with monstrous and magical cinematic histories before tracing the recent effects of these southern trajectories. It then explores the role of technological-economic distribution as a form of production. Special effects are now central to Asian media, shaping not only their relationship to global markets but emergent popular geographies. The link between these two global modalities, one obtained from imperial legacies, the other from the economic-cultural "rise" of Asia, focuses our attention on special effects as one node of the global-popular. [End Page 127]


Southern FX marks the formative role played by special effects cinema in conjuring Asia as a site of the primitive, the excessive, and the monstrous as well as more recent transformations in not only technologies of production and postproduction (the making of special effects) but also distribution forms and platforms. These contact zones put on display V/FX's world-making capacity, including its designs beyond the image. Consider two perhaps odd examples: Hollywood's 2013 sci-fi monster film Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro) and the transmedial Hana yori dango (Boys over Flowers), whose global circulation via the 2009 South Korean TV series, among other adaptations of the manga source material, has emerged as a model for transnational cultural productions, achieving a kind of global intimacy. Whereas Pacific Rim signals the decades-long accretion of transnational Japanese and Asian popular culture—the film relies on Japanese pop vocabulary and is a tribute to the kaiju (strange beast or giant monster) versus mecha (robot) format—Boys over Flowers has become one of the most cited examples of the Korean wave (hallyu), Japan's media mix, and an emergent East Asian cultural sphere (Chua and Iwabuchi).

I bring together these disparate examples here to tease out a couple of framing points concerning special effects histories and futures. First is the tendency to understand transnational and transmedia clusters as a contemporary phenomenon—a penchant that overlooks a rich history of regional and supranational circuits and serialization. As I develop below, these entanglements are crucial to the prolificacy of FX forms. Second, and relatedly, is the tendency to focus on special effects from the perspective of image generation or consumption, overlooking the aesthetic and affective dimensions of distribution. Or as Thomas Lamarre puts it another context, drawing on Raymond Williams, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, scholarly discourse has tended to stress the production of production over the production of distribution. I aim to link these two problematics through both a particular historical genealogy and "affective media geography" that, as Lamarre argues, draws our attention to the fact that distribution itself "is producing something" (94). Put otherwise, this analysis centers on the relationship between special effects and distribution forms and platforms—what we might recast as "distribution effects"—and opens on to the fraught history of Asian V/FX. [End Page 128]

Not only have V/FX functioned as a marker of technological exceptionalism, separating...