Globalization and Cultural Identity in the Films of Ang Lee

By Dilley, Whitney Crothers | Style, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Globalization and Cultural Identity in the Films of Ang Lee


Dilley, Whitney Crothers, Style


A consideration of the filmic oeuvre of Ang Lee--he has directed ten films to date--reveals a startling array of genres and approaches to the topic of cultural identity in an increasingly globalized world. As Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) swept awards and garnered critical acclaim at the international level, Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun described Crouching Tiger as a crossing of boundaries--of film genres, musical traditions, and national cultures. This description of the film succinctly suggested the exciting trend toward globalization reflected by mainstream acceptance of a subtitled motion picture in Mandarin Chinese. This conception of globalization is not only realized as the synthesis and transcendence of opposites, but also as the representation of geographic localities and notions of territory--including nationalism, identity, narrative, and ethnicity. Ang Lee's films, including his early Chinese-language trilogy as well as his American films--he moves back and forth between the two cultures in his work--complement the current theoretical orientation of comparative film and literary study and its focus on cultural identity and globalization. In particular, the transnational appeal of Lee's films has been a topic of much scholarly criticism that has emerged in the past decade. (1) Lee's most recent film Lust, Caution (2007), and two of Ang Lee's earlier works, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), and The Ice Storm (1997), are particularly clear examples of the way in which, as Malcolm Waters (1995) has asserted, globalization is fueled by symbolic exchanges, such as images on television, film, commercial consumerism, fast food, art and culture.

The implications of globalization must be considered in light of the relationship between commodity and economic exchange and symbolic and cultural exchange--globalization studies are a continued rethinking of the relation among nations, economies, cultures, and social practices. Globalization theorists are divided on whether to view globalization historically or from a strictly postmodern perspective. Writers such as Edward Said and Roland Robertson argue that the globalization process has a long history and must be worked through key historical periods--beginning with the development of maps, maritime travel, and global exploration. This paradigm stands at odds with that of postmodern theorists Anthony Giddens and David Harvey, who argue that globalization is linked much more directly to modernity and postmodernity. According to Giddens, the "'lifting out' of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across time and space" is made possible by the cohesion and strength of twentieth century nationstates (Giddens 21). Meanwhile, Harvey takes his position on globalization from the point of view of recent developments in mechanization and technology--such as the Internet--causing the shrinking and contracting of time and space worldwide; thus globalization is a thoroughly modern or even postmodern phenomenon (Harvey 201-11).

Globalization--according to Giddens--leads to the "intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa" (Giddens 64). The implications of this theoretical paradigm are striking, and provide fertile ground for comparative literary study, itself a field caught up with influences and relationships. Though scholars of globalization focus largely on the fundamental impetus of capitalism and the spread of economic and commodity exchange, Malcolm Waters does not agree that "the driving force for global integration is restless capitalist expansionism" (Globalization 10) Instead he feels that globalization has been fueled by symbolic exchanges, i.e., television, advertising, films, novels, music, fast food--cultural entities that are circulated and recycled simultaneously in many locations throughout the globe. …

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