Panel ONE: Screening Southeast Asia and the Cultural Cold War
Screening the Nation, Khmer Rouge, and Displaced History in Cold War Cambodia: The Films of Norodom Sihanouk and Rithy Panh
Darlene Machell Espena (Singapore Management University)
Two of the most famous influential filmmakers that Cambodia has ever seen are Norodom Sihanouk and Rithy Panh. Coming from two different backgrounds, both filmmakers have a few things in common. Both come from a strong political background and share an experience of being in exile. Norodom Sihanouk rose to power in Cambodia as king in 1941 during the French colonial rule and in the 1950s and 1960s, dominated the Cambodian political stage as the foremost figure steering Cambodia’s route to independence and autonomy. In 1970, he was ousted by his right-wing opponents and was forced to lead a government-in-exile. He returned in 1975 only to be exiled again in 1979 when Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer Rouge. Rithy Panh was born in 1964 amidst Cambodia’s volatile political landscape. He came from an educated and middle-class family. In fact, his father had served as an official at the Ministry of Education, but when Pol Pot took the reins of the government, Panh’s family were forced to leave Phnom Penh and work in a farm collective. At the age of fourteen, Panh successfully escaped from Cambodia into Thailand and eventually settled in France.
A king and a refugee, both Sihanouk and Panh lived through the turbulent and violent period in Cambodia’s Cold War history. Both produced films capture the complex and multifaceted narratives of hopes, anxieties, dreams, and memory of the Cambodian society’s path away from its colonial path and into independence. This paper is an attempt to probe into the myriad of narratives in Cambodia's entangled history of Cold War politics, decolonization, and nation-building. This paper explores the films produced by these two filmmakers and examines how their films depict Cambodia’s complex and tumultuous history of decolonization, nationalism, and the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge. How do these films reflect the anxieties and hopes of the Cambodian people? What kind of future do these films project for Cambodian nation? This paper provides a comparative approach to understanding the cinematic milie of Cambodia and identify the role of these two prominent filmmakers in constructing the Cambodian nation and reconstructing the Cambodian past.
Landscape, Identity, and War: The Poetic Revolutionary Cinema of North Vietnam
Man Fung Yip (University of Oklahoma)
With few exceptions, the revolutionary cinema of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DPR)—or North Vietnam—has received little attention in English-language scholarship. In an earlier essay (“Art in Propaganda: The Poetics and Politics of Vietnamese Revolutionary Cinema”), I offer a preliminary study of this unjustly ignored filmmaking tradition and try to make a case for its historical and aesthetic significance. Vietnamese revolutionary films, I argue, were not mere state-sponsored propaganda devoid of artistic values. Rather, they developed novel techniques of communication and engagement as filmmakers drew upon their national cultures and various cinematic traditions (such as socialist realism, Soviet montage, and the poetic cinema of Dovzhenko) and creatively utilized narratives, styles, and genres to assert their ideological standpoints. In this paper, I intend to deepen my inquiry by focusing on a central defining element of Vietnamese revolutionary cinema—i.e., its highly expressive use of nature and rural landscape. This propensity for expressive natural and pastoral imagery not only evokes an intense poetic lyricism but also serves as an affective site for articulating an “authentic” Vietnamese identity for political mobilization. Through close analyses of a few representative films (including Nguyễn Văn Thông and Trần Vũ’s The Passerine Bird [Con chim vành khuyên, 1962], Hải Ninh’s Miss Tham’s Forest [Rừng O Thắm, 1967], and Nguyễn Thụ’s Portrait Left Behind [Bức tranh để lại, 1970]), I seek to illuminate the essential role of landscape, both aesthetic and ideological, in Vietnamese revolutionary cinema and show how it has continued to inform and inspire Vietnamese films of the post-revolutionary era.
Islam and the cultural cold war: Tauhid and the quest for the modern Muslim
Eric Sasono (King’s College London)
The role of Islam has been left untouched, or peripheral at best, in the discussions regarding the ‘cultural cold war’ that has revised the roles of cultural institutions behind the Cold War. The role of Islam as political force has been acknowledged in Indonesia during the 1960s, especially in the land conflict in Java (Lyon, 1982) and the involvement in 1965-66 massacre to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and sympathizer (McGregor, 2004 and ), and its discourse is deemed to justify the killings (Heryanto, 1999 and 2014). This paper is going to argue about the more dynamic role of Islam, rather than merely inimical to Communism, in the context of cultural cold war in the 1960s through examination of Tauhid (directed by Asrul Sani), a film that was written and made in 1960-64 as part of a direct ideological contestation against the Indonesian Communist Party who were the dominant force in Indonesia during that period. In the personal level, the writer-director Asrul Sani made Tauhid as an apologia for his position as a quasi-secular artist-activist (Sani, 1963) who had to defend his art in the context of ‘revolution’. More than to justify the killing of communist sympathizers or retaliate to the cultural offensives from the leftist in 1960s, Tauhid has shown concerns regarding the quest for relevance, if not insecurity, of Islam in modern Indonesia.
ASEAN Cold War Myth from Elite Democracy to Martial Law in the Global Genre Cinema of Fernando Poe Jr. in the 1960s and 1970s
Elmo Gonzaga (Chinese University of Hong Kong)
With box office hits spanning five decades of Philippine history, the iconic actor, producer, and director Fernando Poe Jr. or FPJ was commonly known the ‘King of Philippine Movies’ or ‘Da King.’ A frontrunner for the presidency in the mid-2000s, his immense popularity derived from his mythic persona as an iconoclastic hero for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. The few existing works of criticism and scholarship about FPJ explore the “mythopoeic” quality of his stardom, which was defined by a transcendent, dualistic moral imaginary. This paper aims to examine how the production and circulation of FPJ’s mythic persona in the passage of the 1960s to the 1970s is entangled with the Cold War geopolitics and economics of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN at the height the Vietnam War. If myth could be understood to operate discursively as an arbiter of the ideals and concerns of a community, then, in the context of the Cold War, myth negotiates the anxieties and fears of individuals against communism. The paper argues that an epistemological and aesthetic shift occurs in the mythicization of this anti-communist, ethnonationalist identity with the establishment in 1972 of Fernando Marcos’ Martial Law dictatorship, which deployed state mechanisms of media censorship and police violence against the perceived threat of the Communist Party of the Philippines with the support of the US government. In artistic collaborations with auteurs Eddie Romero, Celso ad. Castillo, and Lino Brocka, FPJ’s films exhibit a changing remediation of global genres such as the western, noir, and melodrama, whose tropes of mistaken identity, imagined persecution, and violent retribution negotiated Cold War tendencies toward secrecy, suspicion, and paranoia.
Panel TWO: Representing Southeast Asia in Hollywood
Ugly Americans and Indeterminate Asians: Strategies/Symptoms of Southeast Asian Representation in Cold War US Film
Adam Knee (Lasalle College of the Arts)
One logical part of US cultural Cold War strategy in cinematic soft-power terms was to be circumspect and sensitive in on-screen portrayals of nations whose alignment it wanted to win over or ensure—in particular in Southeast Asia, as has been convincingly demonstrated in Christina Klein’s Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961. This paper will make the case that one manifestation of such sensitivity is in portrayals of Southeast Asia that lack or obfuscate clear national designations, thereby muting or obviating the issues of contention that might arise with respect to specific nations. In the cases examined here, all of which involved a significant level of US cooperation with Southeast Asian localities (in either their film industries or local figures of influence), it will be argued that such muddling of national designation goes hand-in-hand with a figuration of American characters and/or US influence as partially problematic but also ultimately well intentioned and potentially beneficial.
An example of this trope is the Philippine-US co-production Terror is a Man (1959), in which an ambivalently sympathetic American protagonist encounters dangerous scientific experimentation in a nationally anonymised Southeast Asian tropical isle. Another illustration is offered by the novel adaptation The Ugly American (1963), quite obviously filmed in an unnamed Thailand, and including a real-life Thai politician and cultural authority (Kukrit Pramoj) in the role of the ambassador of the unnamed country. And the final and strangest case study will be that of Operation CIA (1965), also extensively shot on well-known locations in Thailand—while being putatively set in South Vietnam. While all three films figure virility, heroism and protectiveness as being distinctively American (and positive) qualities, the American presence is shown to be not without its own problems and difficulties—but problems and difficulties which are largely mitigated (or representationally obscured) on balance.
Silver Screen Reversals of the Domino Theory: American Movies and the Re-Imagining of Britain’s Triumph Over Asian Communism in the Cold War
Wen-Qing Ngoei (Singapore Management University)
My essay examines two films of the 1960s—The 7th Dawn (1964) and King Rat (1965)—that concerned the experience of American characters in British imperial zones Malaya and Singapore. It contends that, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened and the Saigon government’s viability declined, films such as these served as cultural spaces upon which an American victory over Asian communism was envisioned, performed and contested. Instead of being set in Vietnam, or substitutes for Vietnam such as Sarkhan as in The Ugly American (1963), the action of these films unfolded in British imperial zones where the Asian enemies of the Anglo-American powers did not enjoy complete dominance despite their seemingly advantageous positions. The 7th Dawn, which delves into Britain’s anticommunist struggle in 1950s Malaya, sees a U.S. counterinsurgency expert (played by American William Holden) use his skills to locate and contribute to the defeat of the Malayan Communist Party’s charismatic leader. King Rat, set in Japanese-occupied Singapore toward the end of World War Two, has an American prisoner of war—a lowly corporal at that—employing his formidable ingenuity to thrive in the P.O.W. camp while other prisoners, including high-ranking British officers, know only suffering. Historically, neither of these contexts actually featured Americans in such circumstances, underscoring that these films indulged fantasies to articulate a palpable optimism about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Importantly, these films resisted the fatalism of President Eisenhower’s “domino theory” that communism would sweep the Southeast Asian countries one by one. In fact, as this essay shows, these films mirrored the impulses of America’s policymaking elite which strove from the mid-1950s to import British counterinsurgency tactics to South Vietnam, and in the early 1960s placed Malaysia and Singapore at the center of a geostrategic arc of U.S.-friendly states that contained Vietnam and China.
Panel THREE: Cold War Geopolitics
Taiwanese-Language Cinema as Cold War Cinema
Chris Berry (King’s College London)
Once forgotten, the Taiwanese-language films (taiyupian) of the period from the late 1950s through to the early 1970s have become the subject of renewed interest and scholarship. During this period, private companies made over one thousand taiyupian, only 20 per cent of which survive. A lot of existing scholarship has focused on how to understand the relationship between taiyupian and the differences between the local Taiwanese-speaking islanders and the Mandarin-favouring forces that took over from the Japanese in 1945 and retreated to the island after defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949. Put simply, are taiyupian the cultural legacy of today’s DPP independence party?
This paper seeks to open up a slightly different question: how should we understand taiyupian as a Cold War cinema? It seeks to answer this question in three ways. First, it considers the impact of the Cold War on the production, distribution and exhibition circumstances of taiyupian, when the Minnanhua-speaking population that was their natural market was divided between those inside the People’s Republic and those outside it, and when the KMT government on Taiwan’s policies towards Hong Kong and Japan also impacted the taiyupian industry’s potential in various ways. Second, how can we consider the films themselves as not just part of Taiwanese local culture or part of a new post-war cosmopolitanism, but also as shaped by and contributing to the culture of the Cold War? Finally, in East Asia, the Cold War is not over. So, how does the revival of interest in taiyupian participate in the ongoing Cold War, and how does it maintain its autonomy from it?
Ishihara Yūjirō and the Cold War
Hiroshi Kitamura (College of William & Mary)
This paper explores Ishihara Yūjirō’s engagement with Cold War geopolitics. Born in Kobe in 1934, Ishihara first achieved nationwide fame (and infamy) by starring in Season of the Sun (Taiyō no kisetsu) and Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu), which helped inaugurate the Sun Tribe (taiyōzoku) film genre, and went on to perform a range of manly and masculine characters—from assassin, pilot, musician, to school teacher—for Nikkatsu Studio. In 1963, Ishihara founded his own production company (Ishihara Promotion, Inc.) and ambitiously marketed his films overseas.
My presentation will focus on the works of this production company. By looking at such films as Alone on the Pacific (Taiheiyō hitori bocchi), Safari 5000 (Eikō e no 5000 kiro), and The Walking Major (Aru heishi no kake), I examine how Ishihara exemplified a wider desire to break out from the confines of nationhood, reconcile the problematics of war with the United States, establish economic and cultural partnerships with Western Europe, and reify African colonial/postcolonial subordination. Looking at such themes will help crystallize the transnationality of this “local” and “national” star as well as the centripetal influence of his masculine image in constructing Japan’s postwar “growth” in relation to broader Cold War dynamics.
Escapeways: USIS-Korea’s Honorable Withdrawal from Film Propaganda
Han Sang Kim (Ajou University)
This paper traces the film activities of the U.S. Information Service in Korea (USIS-Korea) in the 1960s and early 1970s, facing their declining role in propaganda and the rise of South Korean government propaganda agencies, with due regard to the shift in international relations after the Nixon Doctrine and to the radical change in South Korea’s mediascape. While the previous decade saw an obvious disparity of film production environment between prominent U.S. agencies and their underdeveloped South Korean counterparts, the 1960s was a new period for South Korea government agencies. Through the aid programs of the U.S. and the United Nations after the Korean War, as well as the over-development of the state due to Park Chung-Hee’s military dictatorship, South Korea’s government propaganda agencies grasped an opportunity to elaborate and institutionalize their activities. The Office of Public Information of the Republic of Korea (OPI), for instance, established its own film production studio with the aid from the U.N. Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA) in 1958, and this became the cornerstone for establishing the National Film Production Center (NFPC), South Korea’s counterpart to USIS-Korea Liberty Productions, in 1961. This shift served as the starting point for the decline of USIS-Korea’s film activities. NFPC’s own newsreel series, Taehan nyusŭ (Taehan News), could successfully catch up on the quality of Liberty News by Liberty Productions, and the U.S. Congress raised a question whether the substantial budget for Liberty Productions was necessary. The closure of Liberty Productions in 1967 and the dissolution of the film production division of USIS-Korea in 1972 demonstrated the inevitable change in both international and domestic environments, including the establishment of the Yusin regime. Since then, USIS-Korea started using film as a means to approach a more sophisticated and educated population. Their target audience shifted from the general public to intellectuals
A Frozen Fraternity: Kungfu Yoga and Cold War Archeologies
Nitin Govil (University of Southern California)
In June 2013, soon after Li Kiqiang visited India to discuss relations during a period of political tensions and skirmishes along the Indo-China border, plans for a possible coproduction treaty were outlined at a Chinese film festival in Delhi. An India-China coproduction treaty was signed the following year, encouraging excited talk about a possibly “massive Sino-Indian market.” This paper focuses on the first film announced under the new initiative: Stanley Tong Kungfu Yoga (2017), in which a Chinese archeology professor (Jackie Chan) partners with members of an Indian royal family to recover their ancestral treasure, lost during an ancient trade and diplomacy mission during the overlapping periods of the Magadha dynasty in India and the Tang Dynasty in China. The joint Indo-Chinese archeological dig – at a site locked under the ice of their shared Himalayan border – retrieves artifacts that testify to the presence of an ancient friendship between the two nations.
This paper locates the film within the larger historical context of enduring Cold War tensions between the two regional Asian powers. I ask, what is the role of interrelated historical mentalities like the Cold War and antiquity on ideas of inter-Asian fraternity used to rationalize transborder film production today? My intention here is to trace the affective nature of these transcultural encounters and show how historical Asia has been taken up by Indian-Chinese co-productions. My aim in the paper is to think about how historical fantasies of Sino-Indian space map onto Cold War tensions and ask, what are the forms of entanglement used to smooth out cultural border-crossings among two nations that have gone to war and continue to struggle over their shared border? I am particularly interested in the film’s representation of the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, now known colloquially as “Belt and Road,” a massive infrastructure project proposed in 2013 and designed to promote and implement a kind of alternative China-centered global trade network across Europe, Asia, Oceania, and East Africa. While the reference to the ancient trade network of the Silk Road, is at worst, a kind of primordialist account of Han supremacy and at best an attempt to “reorient” the global economy by calling attention to its non-Western origins in antiquity, India has actually objected to the Chinese partnership in recent years. I will show how Kungfu Yoga’s fictional reconciliation of competing national priorities poses a “remembering” of fraternal history shattered by Cold War tensions beginning in the 1950s.
Panel FOUR: Hong Kong and Macau
The Predicaments of Cosmopolitanism: Chang Kuo-sin and His Fiction Enterprises
Kenny Ng (Hong Kong Baptist University)
What does it mean to be a Chinese cosmopolitan in the Cold War era? Can a cosmopolite be a true border crosser when he is bound by the nation and ideologies? In what sense has the exilic movement contributed to the intercultural vision of a modern intellectual and cultural entrepreneur? This paper traces the cultural project established by Chang Kuo-sin (1916–2006) during the 1950s and 60s, with the support of the Asia Foundation (American agency based in San Francisco), as a means to counteract Communist influences on Chinese culture in Asia. Born in Hainan Island, Chang was educated in Kuching, North Borneo (East Malaysia) in his teens. He returned to China and later served as a journalist and translator to cover the civil war for Kuomintang and American news agencies. Chang left China for Hong Kong in December 1949. Taking Hong Kong as a strategic Cold War locale in Asia, Chang operated his media projects labelled as ‘Fiction Enterprises’ by founding Asia Press to publish the works of Chinese scholars and writers who had left the mainland. He also ventured into filmmaking by launching Asia Pictures to produce movies and screen Chinese images through transnational Asian networks. The paper focuses on the visual representations by Asia Pictures as critiques of traditional Chinese and colonial Hong Kong societies, in which Chang emphasized the artistic and social merits of the films rather than explicit anti-Communist propagandas. It seeks to understand how transnational Cold War culture shaped a cosmopolitan Chinese mentality.
Where is My Homeland? Three Movie Songs in Hong Kong Film during the Cold War Era
Yung Sai-Shing (National University of Singapore)
1952 is a notable year in the cinematic Cold War of Hong Kong. On 10 January 1952, core members of the pro-Beijing Great Wall Movie Enterprise Ltd were arrested by the Hong Kong colonial government and deported to Mainland China. The year also witnessed the founding of the Sun Luen Film Company, a “progressive” Cantonese movie company allegedly financed by Beijing. In the same year, supported by the Asia Foundation of the United States, Chang Kuo-sin established the Asia Press, and in the subsequent year its film-making wing, the Asia Pictures Ltd. Both were considered as anti-communist institutions. This paper examines the Cultural Cold War in Hong Kong through the lens of three film songs from three Mandarin movies, namely, Father Marries Again (Yijia chun 1952), Half Way Down (Banxialiu shehui 1955), and Bachelors Beware (Wenrou xiang 1960) that were produced by the Great Wall, Asia Pictures, and the MP&GI (Motion Pictures and General Investment Film Company), respectively. Analyzing and contrasting the thematic expressions, rhetorical strategies, and melodic allusions of the three film songs---- “My Homeland”, “Yearning for Homeland”, and “Abode of Tenderness” ---- this study explores the impact of sounds and images in this battle for hearts and minds.
Cleansing Macau’s image as the ‘wickedest city in the world’: Eurasia, Long Way and Luso-tropical film productions in Macau in the 1950s
Ana Catarina Leite (National University of Singapore)
This paper discusses the Eurasia Film Company, the making of its 1955 film Long Way, and more generally the issue of film production in Macau in the 1950s. This was a period of crisis for Portugal as the postwar era saw the beginning of decolonization, yet it was the régime’s policy to preserve the colonies. The government appropriated Luso-tropicalism, a theory developed by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, which argued that the Portuguese had created a harmonious hybrid civilization in the ‘tropics’ through biological and cultural miscegenation. Luso-tropicalism became a major propaganda tool used by Portugal to deflect decolonization. Eurasia, which had links to the colonial government, presented a Luso-tropical ideal in terms of the content of the film which celebrated interracial love and also by its very nature—a Sino-Portuguese enterprise that also had Eurasians as shareholders, and in its production method. Its main objective was to propagate a positive image of Macau, in response to its pervasive negative portrayal in the international press and film, which often characterized it as a centre of vice. Long Way specifically responded to Hollywood and French films set in Macau by using similar elements, plot and characterization but transformed Orientalist tales of crime, smuggling and sin into a Luso-tropical one of refuge, order and interracial love.
Eurasia aimed to cleanse Macau’s image and thereby justify Portuguese sovereignty in Macau in a period of uncertainty marked by decolonization, Cold War and tense Sino-Portuguese relations. This paper further examines Eurasia’s engagement with the cultural Cold War in Asia and its collaboration with the Hong Kong film industry, as well as how the film was caught up in the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Portuguese establishment in Macau, which was meant to affirm Portuguese sovereignty in the territory yet received strong condemnation from the PRC.
Panel FIVE: Cold War Film Genres
Counter-Occupying Americanism: 1960s Musicals of Taiwan and South Korea
Evelyn Shih (University of Colorado)
In the 1960s, an American form of live entertainment emerged on the local music scene in East Asia. This was not merely due to the cultural power of America among its client states, but related to the actual presence of Americans on US bases. Entertaining Americans became a significant industry in countries like Taiwan and Korea, and the spatial entity of US presence expanded into spaces of entertainment such as bars, hotels, and dance clubs.
Embracing the new styles of song and dance, as a kind of Americanism, was always fraught: while the ability to entertain in American style gained value, due to its attraction for Americans, anti-American sentiments came hand in hand with the emergence of this new hierarchy between American and local culture. The rise of American music and dance as a popular form in Taiwan and Korea, however, was not the disappearance of anti-Americanism, but the ingenuity of local performers, who claimed the attractive new forms as their own.
This paper will analyze musical numbers in films from the 1960s in Taiwan and South Korea, discussing their representation of the entertainment space and their fashioning of cinematic attraction as a mode of vernacularizing popular music. These films, I argue, not only bring an exclusive experience of American base-adjacent entertainment into mass consciousness, but stage their own counter-occupation of these spaces with charismatic performance. This move to appropriate both the musical style and the space is embodied in gendered practice: though there is an emphasis on female spectacle in the 1950s, including exotic dance and mambo, there is by the 1960s the emergence of a charismatic male singer/performer, as well. This figure becomes a new model for masculinity within rising anti-American sentiments, but cannot escape irony, since it is ultimately modeled on American pop stars of the time.
Malay “Bond-ing” in Hong Kong: The MFP-SB(HK) Connection in the Malay Bond Films
Yeo Min Hui (University of Oxford)
The four Zain films – Jefri Zain in Operation Lightning (Jefri Zain dalam Gerak Kilat, 1966), Nora Zain: Ajen Wanita 001 (no English title available, 1967), Shadow of Death (Bayangan Ajal, 1968) and Danger Valley (Jurang Bahaya, 1968) – catapulted Malay Film Productions (MFP) stars Jins Shamsuddin and Sa’adiah Ahmad into the Malay James and “Jane” Bonds of Singapore and Malaysia. Their screen characters, Jefri Zain and Nora Zain, quickly became cultural icons that to this date continue to capture the popular imagination of communities in Singapore and Malaysia. Despite this resolutely “local” positioning, however, a closer look into these Bond-style films within their historical contexts would complicate the situation: with the exception of Jefri Zain in Operation Lightning, all the other Zain films were shot in Hong Kong under the direction of Lo Wei (羅維) with a Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong) (SB(HK)) technical crew and supporting cast. The scripts were also based off other SB(HK)-produced Mandarin Bond films of the same time. Nora Zain and Shadow of Death even open with the characteristic SB(HK) company logo. In other words, the Malay Bonds of Singapore and Malaysia were produced largely as the result of a crossover between Singapore-based MFP and SB(HK). This prompts the question: how exactly, and why, did this crossover take place, and how might this impact existing narratives of Malay, Singapore and Malaysia film histories, as well as that of the Shaw studios? Drawing mainly from biographical records, newspapers and movie magazines, this paper seeks to restore the hitherto underexposed scenes where the MFP made inroads into Hong Kong via the “Zain crossover”, positing that the political environment in Southeast Asia, especially labour movements in 1950-60s Singapore, played a key role in facilitating this crossover, and that it was also primed by earlier similar, albeit failed, attempts to bring renowned MFP star P. Ramlee to Hong Kong.
Cosmopolitan Koje-do: Dance and Utopia in the Korean War Musical Swing Kids (2018)
Christina Klein (Boston College)
Kristen Sun, in her article “Breaking the Dam to Reunify our Country,” observed that South Korean filmmakers in recent years have taken up the project of crafting “alternate histories” of the Korean War. Pointing to JSA (2000), 2009 Lost Memories (2002), and Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), she argued that each of these films imagined new possibilities for resolving the deeply rooted hostilities between North and South Koreans via homosocial friendship, a magical return to pre-modern Korea, and a reimagining of historical events. In this paper I extend Sun’s model of “alternate histories” to consider another entry into this series: Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (2018).
Swing Kids is a successful hybrid of two radically distinct genres: the backstage musical and the Korean War film. Set in the Koje-do POW camp, the film tells the story of an African American sergeant who must form a dance troupe in order to garner positive press coverage for the camp. The process of soliciting volunteers from the camp’s ideologically diverse population (North Korean, South Korean, Chinese), teaching them how to dance, and performing before military brass forms the film’s narrative core.
This paper explores how the film combines the genre conventions of the musical with a magical realist style to imagine the possibility of healing the ideological divisions of the Korean War. Like other “alternate history” films, Swing Kids crafts a utopian community that transcends the brutal divide between North and South. In sharp contrast to those films, however, Swing Kids eschews a nationalist framework and instead envisions the formation of a cosmopolitan community that transcends not only the intra-Korean divide but national, racial, and gender boundaries as well. The foundation of this community, far from being a shared Korean-ness, is constituted by a passionate commitment to a cultural form rooted in African American culture: tap dance. Swing Kids has a deeply historical sensibility, and in narrating the formation of this community it in taps into – and reimagines -- the rich vein of cosmopolitanism that was one defining feature of 1950s South Korean culture.
Panel SIX: Ghosts of the Cold War
Ghosts of the Cold War in Film from Japan - Information Society Discourse and the Pessimistic Shift in 1970s Film
Alexander Zahlten (Harvard University)
In the late 1970s leftist theorist and activist Tsumura Takashi diagnosed a shift from the information society optimism of the 1960s to a pessimistic 1970s. The main examples he chooses to illustrate this shift are from cinema, and films such as Japan Sinks (Nihon Chinbotsu, 1973) or The Prophecies of Nostradamus (Nosutoradamusu no Daiyogen, 1974). Tsumura’s diagnosis itself employs (Cold War) information society concepts such as homeostasis and systems theory to analyze the shifts in the attitude to information in Cold War Japan. He finds a hyper-rational model – in film as much as in information society capitalism – of unbreakable cycles of irrational destruction and restructuring.
This paper examines 1970s film as bound to exactly that double-facing dilemma to analyze the relationship between the content of films and the larger structures they are embedded in. From the mid-1960s film in Japan was already moving rapidly towards a systemic economic model shaped by Cold War theories of systemic connectivity. Yet even as the films became an inextricable part of cybernetic or informational business models, they often enacted a highly conflicted view through an assemblage of supernatural themes, weird science, and irrational repetition. This also had direct consequences for the presence of film from Japan in East Asia. As a constellation ostensibly defined by division, Cold War information theories were focused on unifying, systemic analyses. Business strategies in Japanese cinema quickly moved in this direction as well, making the foreign market a larger priority than before. The paper will also map how the (catastrophic) consequences of this ambivalent emphasis on weird connectivity in Japanese cinema and popular culture reach well into the 1990s.
Spectacle of Violence and the Tragic Masculine: Post-war Structure of Feeling in Taiwan Pulp
Ting-Wu Cho (New York University)
Taiwan Pulp, also known as the Taiwan “social-realist film,” is a group of hybrid films produced from the late 1970s to mid 1980s Taiwan that exploit elements ranging from crime, violence, sex, to anti-communism. The 1970s and 1980s was a time of great turmoil in East Asia. Towards the end of the Cold War, Taiwan was losing its geopolitical advantages. The international recognition of the PRC forced the KMT government in Taiwan to seek legitimization through liberalization in both politics and economy.
Capitalizing on the growing consumerism, the global exploitation film frenzy, and social unrest towards the end of the martial law period, Taiwan Pulp swept the dwindling film market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The article examines a series of Taiwan Pulp films that depict men torn between the rural and urban experiences; their past crimes and capitalist aspirations. The tragic masculine in these films embody a space of perpetual desire, violence, and nostalgia. I argue that this crime-centric genre articulates the conflicting post-war ideologies in Taiwan as a structure of feeling through its narrative strategy and visual excess. The repeating narrative of a man's degeneration and falling to a criminal life, enhanced by the stylized violent scenes, is an anxious cinematic representation of the entanglement between the island's colonial trauma, nationalist crisis, and the neoliberal turn in state policies.
Memories of the Future: Speculative Cold War Histories in Yosep Anggi Noen's The Science of Fictions and Daniel Hui's Snakeskin
Elizabeth Wijaya (University of Toronto)
In 1965 Indonesia, the CIA helped Suharto spread false reports on a PKI coup plot, contributing to an anti-Communist purge; that same year, a farmer chances upon a film shoot by a foreign crew of a fake moon landing, is captured and has his tongue cut off. The latter is a speculative invention of Noen's fiction film The Science of Fictions (2019), where the transmissibility of cinema, history, and fiction are on slow-motion trial. Noen's film focalizes on the farmers' gradual loss of control of his body as, unable to speak of what he witnessed, he mimes the slow rhythm of an astronaut on a moon. In Daniel Hui's hybrid speculative fiction documentary Snakeskin (2014) set in an imagined Singapore in the year 2066, the narrator's tale of a dictatorial cult leader intertwines with personal remembrance of things past in Singapore—including that of a young woman who attempts to time travel to find a woman from her childhood who had mysteriously disappeared. References to the still-contentious 1950s Chinese leftist movements form part of these fissures of national myths and half-forgotten memories in Snakeskin. In a post-screening discussion, Hui revealed that he was unable to locate moving images of the 1950s political protests at the National Archives of Singapore so he decided to film the present-day sites. Noen's turn to an imagined past and Hui's turn to a speculative future meet in the Cold War tensions of the 1950s–1960s that remains cloaked in forms of national and archival secrecy. Taking up Susan Buck-Morss' provocation that the 1969 moon landing marks an era of visibility that compels attention to "seeing global," this paper consider the filmmakers' aesthetic strategies of probing what remains, what remains unknowable, yet —including the lunar landing in Kidlat Tahimik's Perfumed Nightmares (1977)—returns periodically to haunt independent Southeast Asian cinema.