Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video

By Fyne, Robert | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2004 | Go to article overview

Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video


Fyne, Robert, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video

Peter X. Feng. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

As a minority subject for Hollywood film producers, the image of the Asian American - from the rudimentary, silent picture days to the post-World War II period-can only be described as marginal. Here, American directors aggrandized the stereotypical world of white slavery, opium dens, Fu Manchu mustaches, hijacked sailors, and cleaver-wielding cooks. Other pejorative images included femme fatales, enemy agents, mad scientists, and laundry workers.

Occasionally, some positive roles emerged as Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, employing their ratiocinative skills, helped their Caucasian peers solve difficult criminal investigations. And, of course, the second World War propaganda screenplays had a field day as one title after another reduced the Japanese soldier to a crazed, banzai-spouting subhuman who tortured blue-eyed GIs, raped blond-haired nurses, and committed hara-kiri at the drop of a hat. On the plus side, these combat-related photodramas heaped dollops of praise on Chiang Kai-shek and Pearl S. Buck for their strong commitment to the Allied victory cause. Clearly, with Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston guarding the rice paddies, the Nipponese soldiers-wearing those coke-bottle eyeglasses-would never advance inland.

While V-J Day ushered in the atomic era, it also began the slow transmogrification of stateside filmmaking. Soon television antennae replaced blackout shades, and a new type of cinema quietly unfolded. Motion pictures, once the prominent domain of Hollywood moguls, became global as other nations produced variegated titles with innovative themes. Who would have thought that by 1951, a mere ten years after Pearl Harbor, American audiences would embrace a Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, while prominent critics heralded this multilayered storyline a "masterpiece?" Clearly the pendulum was swinging to the other side.

But what is the current status of Asian American filmmaking? Who are the leading exponents of cultural oneness and thought? Which directors stand in the vanguard of contemporary images and ideas? These are some of the provocative questions Peter X. Feng deracinates in his wonderful study Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video, a book that explains the influence of this moving picture genre in current cinema studies. …

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