Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010
US $25.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)
As a study about race, ethnicity and films, Jane Park’s Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema has much to both admire and be interested in. The study is methodologically distinctive within its disciplinary genre and breaks new ground in that regard. However, I am less certain about how to interpret its shortcomings, because the case can be made that they represent a consequence of its strengths.
Park introduces her project with two standard statements about its inquiry. The first establishes Edward Said’s Orientalism as a significant source of intellectual inspiration. The second avers an intention to transcend dated methods commonly known as image studies, which restricts the discussion to issues of representation. That is to say, are they (merely) positive or negative, racist or progressive? Variations of Steve Neale’s eminent critique of that approach have been voiced for almost four decades. He adjudged them to rely on an overly empiricist attitude towards reality, and to be politically aporetic. Many writers adopt these two mantras, but subsequently fail to follow through on their objectives. This is where Yellow Future bucks that trend.
It is a common tendency of the field to perfunctorily cite Orientalism before proceeding to dwell on the latest iteration of Orientalized representation. Thing is, Said’s concerns lay considerably beyond what is simply negative or misrepresentative. He grounds his analysis within material considerations of the economic base, and his view of Orientalist phenomena in British and French culture constantly brings into focus the metanarrative of their colonial projects and imperial militarism. Park recognizes this fully. Her close readings of contemporary Hollywood cinema never proceed for too long without attributing her findings to specific points in political and economic history, supplemented by a keen awareness of Hollywood’s mode of production as well as the production histories of particular films. Therefore, her attention to the United States’ economic relationships with Japan in the eighties, and more recently with China, amount to more than decorative allusions that scholars rudimentarily assume to provide cultural or social context.
Readers of Yellow Future are thus unlikely to mistake the text as a discussion of just racism or Otherness. Park attaches her analysis to history in two ways. The book pauses for extended historical explication in subsections devoted to substructural issues like “Pacific Rim Discourse” (42) or “Post-1965 Immigration” (44). Park also peppers her prose with briefer but deceptively pregnant references to other films and cultural iconography. Take, for example, this sentence on Laurence Fishburne’s character in The Matrix (USA/Australia 1999): “Morpheus morphs from a dangerous cyber terrorist, kung fu master, and poststructuralist professor to a battered Rodney King in need of rescue” (177). This rapid-fire mode of cultural referencing is not restricted to her analysis of The Matrix, whose pastiche qualities lends itself to being described in this fashion. It all results in a rather dynamic and holistic expression of history and culture that becomes more satisfying by relying on readers to connect the dots.
Less generous appraisals would fault Park for lacking follow-through and favoring breadth over depth in these instances. There is also a sense that the book might be more content to make observations than reach conclusions with its close textual readings, which can occasionally prattle without anchor. Orientalism stands in stark contrast to this. Compared to Said, to whom it was always clear that the cultures of imperial Britain and France served colonial domination, Yellow Future appears willing to assume relativist and ambivalent sensibilities for itself when speaking about films that are rife with postmodern tropes. Then again, part of that disparity is attributable to how current realities of economy and culture differ from the past; although Hollywood’s hegemony shows no sign of abatement, America’s national economic stature is far less certain during globalization and its “new kind of transnational subject” (5). What then does Hollywood’s power to Orientalize add up to as we inch towards the end of the American century, if that is indeed occurring? One can certainly offer this book as a primer for such a debate.
Yellow Future opens a compelling avenue to table this question by casting Orientalism as a style. This moves the focus away from exhausted discussions of ethnic characters and their storylines, towards timely considerations of mise-en-scène and film style. This is thus a work uniquely about cinema. In that sense, it shares much in common with Rosalind Galt’s sweeping chapter about “Oriental style” in her 2011 book, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (Columbia University Press), where the author explores cinematographic movement in addition to mise-en-scène. The field should hope that Yellow Future and Pretty represent two steps in a new direction for film studies’ engagement with race. Unfortunately, not nearly enough of Yellow Future is dedicated to this fresh approach. A stretch in its middle reverts to criticism of stereotypes and archetypes. They are no doubt convincing, but would or should be met at this disciplinary juncture with hardly more than a shrug. The details of why 80s white-and-Asian buddy movies are racist simply feel old, especially when bookended by the far less obvious and more forward-looking studies of films like Batman Begins (USA/UK 2005), Blade Runner (USA/Hong Kong 1982), The Matrix and Kill Bill (USA 2003, 2004), all of which are exemplary mixes of commerce and style.
Finally, one must note that the prescience of what Park has written is well demonstrated in recent films that fall slightly outside her purview of Hollywood. In associating Oriental style with the mise-en-scène of film noir, Yellow Future positions Blade Runner as an influential work that typifies the vision of an Asianized future created by overdevelopment and overpopulation. Can Park help us to understand the meaning of urbanity in Jia Zhangke’s oeuvre or recent Chinese documentaries like Last Train Home and Dystopia (both 2009)? Do all these films emerge from a cultural imagination that Hollywood helped to conceive? Yellow Future’s value might not lie in the answers it provides, but in the questions we are led to ask.