Converting a 15-minute talk on the Aesthetics of Asian Cinema into an article is a difficult task. How can one put parameters to ‘aesthetics’? This overtly means that there should be a comparison between the beauty and iconography of Asian Cinema versus Western Cinema, to create differences where there may be none or to further delineate and categorise a fluid art and craft. Why is there a need to identify or create such a difference? Is it a distributor driven demand to spawn and then cater to a niche audience? Or an exercise in anthropology to comprehend the ‘mystical ways of the Orient’ and stereotype Asians?   Do our own actors, such as Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai unconsciously mouth their platitudes to Indian culture as prompted by the West or are they simply unstudied? 

Cultural, geographical and socio-political factors give rise to imagery and aesthetics. The term Western Cinema, Asian Cinema, Indian Cinema or any other such regional cinemas are broad-brush strokes that dumb down cinematic offerings coming from cultural specificities. It is like saying that New Zealand cinema is the same as Australian cinema and both are Western Cinema. The narrative style is but not the aesthetics. New Zealanders would be horrified to be put in the same category as the Australians. That is why perhaps New Zealand does not claim ownership of Russell Crowe. That is why a film like WHALE RIDER could not have come out of Australia. WHALE RIDER is the story of Paikea who wants to be like her ancestor who came to New Zealand from Hawaiki on the back of a whale. What she needs is acceptance from her grandfather as his successor and become the first female leader of their iwi (tribe). WHALE RIDER is a Maori story whereas in Australia the aborigines are  mostly annihilated so there are no ancient indigenous stories and myths to tell. (BENEATH CLOUDS, an Australian film about an aboriginal boy, is a tale of rootlessness and displacement not an aborigine myth.)

All cinemas come from local traditions of storytelling and all forms of storytelling, epics, performing arts, even philosophical traditions are drawn from humans, their emotions and social conditions prevailing at that time. Every culture has its godly figures and demons. Why should the basis of Asian Cinema be any different or make it distinctive? The Mahabharat is a complex compilation of human foibles and power play. So are the Iliad and all the works of Shakespeare. Any number of films are derived from these ‘classics’. Even if Bollywood films are, to a certain extent, imitative of ancient Hindu epics one can argue about the popular perception on which these films were based. Is it the television serials or TulsiRamayan or the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma on whom the gods and goddesses in Indian movies are modelled? The great painter himself was influenced by European aesthetics. Storytelling styles, narratives and aesthetics of any art and craft form bleed into each other and are not inherent to any part of the world. 

If mythology was and is a source of inspiration for Asian Cinema how that myth resonates in a particular socio-political and cultural setting gives it meaning. A cinematic construction of the Jataka Tales from Thailand would be aesthetically different from one made in India. To say that Asian Cinema is aesthetically distinctive because only Asia has the greatest myths, legends and philosophies is too self-laudatory and limiting. Being Asian is a Western concept. So is ‘exotic Asia’ and we Asians buy that concept because we want to believe that we are unique. After centuries of colonisation, suppression and exploitation by the West the least we can tell the world is about the Great Asian Civilisations through our films. Otherwise within the continent people are Indian or Chinese or Thai and other nationalities with each country creating its own cinema and aesthetic. 

What distinguishes a film culturally and aesthetically is the story and the ownership of that story. The Thai film ONG BAK tells the story about a young Thai villager, proficient in the martial arts who goes to Bangkok to retrieve the village deity that had been stolen by another villager. There is a drought in the rural community and the rains will come only if the deity is brought back into the temple. Could this be an Indian story? That is what I thought as I watched the film. Yeh to India mein bhi ho sakta hai! Pure villager hero who will not misuse his knowledge of the martial arts, funny best friend, God, redemption, death, testosterone, antique smugglers, great action sequences and mainstream cinema. Of course it could be Indian! But ONG BAK is a Thai film.  So there is muay-thai, illegal boxing, drugs and prostitution that give ONG BAK Thai aesthetics and not ‘Asian aesthetics’. Yet the story lends itself to any part of Asia or even to South America and because the concept of a village deity is very native and indigenous. 

Another Thai film MEKHONG FULL MOON PARTY could be set anywhere in Asia or indeed any Christian pilgrim centre. The story of fireballs that go up on a particular full moon night over the Mekhong river could have scientific explanation or be a miracle. So there are scientists investigating, local elected representatives spreading rumours, television channels twisting reports for ratings, stoic Buddhists monks trying to create balance in the world and wonderfully real characters that makes for a very entertaining film. 

Or take RAGHU ROMEO, which is a universal film. Raghu could be the product of any television-saturated society. He is not a mythical character and his behaviour is conditioned by the urban Indian society he lives in. So are the aesthetics of the film. The language, the mannerisms, the address are Indian. Otherwise Raghu could be from Taiwan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, East Europe or even the UK and America. Which of these societies would not have a shy, lonely, romantic loser obsessed with a television character?

The aesthetics of MUNNABHAI MBBS cannot be dismissed as those of just another Bollywood film. Even within the mainstream framework the film has a different narrative and aesthetic. Munna is a great representation of the undertrodden who does not want to live the Indian middle class wet dream. The Bambaiyya speaking, street smart, slum dweller kept out by the system is not a stereotype at all because he does not desire to live in the penthouse next to his jhopdi. Scriptwriting guru Robert McGee says in his book ‘Story’ that ‘Stereotypical stories stay at home and archetypal stories travel’. That is why Munna is being transplanted into regional India and is going across the oceans. That is why he gets a mention in medical journals. Because Munna resonates globally. He is Indian but can also be Filipino or from any slum across the world.

The Hong Kong film INFERNAL AFFAIRS, may initially seem like a B-grade cops and robbers Hindi film from the seventies.. Not because it had ‘Asian aesthetics’ but because once upon a time every other Hindi film was a chor-police film and that overlap is obvious. 

At the first instance Korean films appear to be very Western. With their meticulous production design, special effects and urbane feel these films could have only come out of the West. Instead they arise from a Korean mindset. While the chill of INTO THE MIRROR, the unsolved murder from MEMORIES OF MURDER or the male bonding of CHINGU could be transpositioned any part of the globe, the economic crash, communists-as-terrorists and the grey human psyche of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE could not be anything but Korean. This film by Chan-wook Park, the director of OLD BOY, which starts as the story of an unemployed deaf-mute who kidnaps his ex-employer’s daughter and changes protagonists half way through is completely reflective of the socio-political realities of South Korea and the American influence over it.   

Neither of these films mentioned are based on traditional stories or derived from mythology. They are urban tales from a post-webbed, imbalanced world where non-unionised sweatshop labourers and their multinational employers exist on the same street. Of course such situations will be breeding ground for great films. Negotiating cultural, social, economic and political changes always has. In his book ‘The Production of Space’ Henri Lefebvre emphasises that ‘Social space is a social product.’ and the space constructed in films is exactly that. Even mainstream Hindi films depict a popular representation of Indian society.  This is not just happening in Asia.  Wherever people encounter upheavals and disruption it takes the form of films. Of course films can be made only if there is access to filmmaking equipment, which is why digital equipment makes the film world equal. There are great films coming from the Asian diaspora like Greg Pak’s ROBOT STORIES from the USA and Asif Kapadia’s THE WARRIOR from the UK because for the filmmakers it is a way of dealing with different cultures and friction. Organisations like NAATA (National Asian-American Telecommunications Association) have recognised the need to promote ‘Asian’ culture a long time ago. Why has the mainstream cinema circuit zeroed in on Asian cinema now? Nothing to do with ‘Asian aesthetics’ really, it is all about the money. To put it simply, Asian films first travelled because the diaspora took the films with it. Martial arts movies and popular Hindi cinema have always had their lovers. Then the World Wide Web helped add to the cult following for certain Asian forms like anime. Underground and specialist video shops started storing Asian films. The big distributors were not going to lag behind. So if they term Asian cinema as ‘aesthetically different’ the whole of Asia better believe it. 

What Asians should actually think about is that Asian cinema portrays a socio-political aspect of the world, which except for the connoisseurs and cult members, the rest of the West has not seen and doesn’t understand. That is where the ‘different aesthetics’ and ‘exotic Asia’ are positioned and that is where the debate begins. It is a by-product of the politics of culture. Of course this does not discount the good work that Ang Lee has done with CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. It is a starting point though. All films coming out of Asia do not have to be like that. Neither do they have to be Bollywood musicals just to pander to the tastes of the distributors and endorse colonial stereotypes which is what Mira Nair and Gurinder Chaddha do.

For the rest of the world to see and appreciate Asian cinema, Asians need to take ownership of the distribution. It is possible to have a pan-Asian network that helps distribute Asian films not just in the West but also across Asia. The only fear is that this network could either be riddled with bureaucratic obstacles or a few private, undemocratic production houses and distributors could dominate it. Perish the thought that only the Western world is imperialistic in nature. The history of Asia is filled with local invaders. These invaders now simply don’t go to war but appropriate or suppress cultural forms and art. Then there is a ‘commercial censorship’. Small independent producers could be cut out because the distributors have decided what they think will run or sell.  Beautiful regional Indian films like SHWAAS will not find space in this pan-Asian network or films like SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER…SPRING from Korea and HOTEL HIBISCUS from Japan will not be seen in India because producers here have the power to prevent the audience from seeing ‘other’ cinema (even though they continue to make terrible films). Or worse still try making an Asian-pudding because Asian cinema is the flavour of the season so why not cash in and put off audiences forever. One reason why Asian films are so big in the West is precisely because of those crazy cult members and film geeks who diligently watched small and crazy films, because Quentin Tarantino was a Shaw Brothers fan.  

So while at one end of the spectrum it is great to be finally recognised by the west, not just with sporadic awards but as producers of good cinema, on the other hand it is important not to adhere to stereotypes (because that is exactly what the West wants) to get the awards and box-office figures. Or live with the misconception that Asian mythology is distinct. It is not as if being stuck in some golden past gives Asian films their aesthetics. Rather we should continue to make what we believe in and tell the stories we want. It is the process of evolution and of creating a space in which to be able to display a certain mindset is what gives any film its aesthetics.

Sapna Samant 

Sapna moved to New Zealand from Bombay, India. She has an M. A. in Film, TV and Media studies from the University of Auckland with a dissertation on the Representation of New Zealand in Hindi films. Sapna was one of the founders of the Asia Film Festival – Aotearoa and is now the festival director. She is also a freelance writer and produces programmes for Radio New Zealand. Based in Aotearoa, New Zealand.