A review of The Transnational Asian Studio System: Cinema, Nation-State, and Globalization in Cold War Asia, by Sangjoon Lee.
“Globalization” has become a buzzword in contemporary film studies, but national film history remains the standard approach for examining language, culture, and national identity in film culture. Sangjoon Lee’s dissertation convincingly argues for a proper “transnational film history [which] examines cinemas within, beyond, and between the nation-states” (pp. 76-77). In his sweeping history of postwar regional cooperation among East Asian studios, Lee provides abundant justification for analyzing these cinemas together in what he calls the “transnational Asian studio system,” or TNASS. His focus on collaborations and exchanges yields new perspectives on Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, and other Asian film industries, making this an important study for scholars working within any of these fields.
The dissertation has a two-part structure. It consists of a section called “Perspectives” that lays out the methodology and major concepts of transnational film studies, and a section entitled “Histories” on the history of the Asian Film Festival, the history of Shin Films, and the history of Korea and Hong Kong’s co-productions during the 1950s and 1960s.
In Chapter One, “On Transnational Film History,” Lee argues that the concept of “world cinema” sustained the centrality of national film histories within the discipline of film studies. New historiographies of non-Western cinemas play an essential role in sustaining nation-centered film history. Lee historicizes this expansion of national cinema studies into new territories, noting that, while the disciplinary framing of non-western cinemas has shifted (from “other cinemas” to “third cinemas” to “globalization” and “transnational film history”), the study of non-western cinemas keeps national cinema studies alive. Reflecting on the current state of the field, Lee provocatively suggests that the “aged concept of ‘world cinema’” remains central to film studies because the category permits the field to defend its disciplinary boundaries and its unique expertise (p. 61).
In Section Two of Chapter One, “Overcoming the Nation: Toward a Theory of Transnational Film History,” Lee turns his attention to concepts of the “global” and “globalization” in film studies. The globalization of Korean cinema has been treated as a “new” and uniformly affirmative phenomenon, but Lee points out that Korean film production always depended on relationships with adjacent producers and markets. He shows that a critical, historical, transnational approach to postwar East Asian cinemas offers flexibility in considering “the colonial period’s coproduction between colonizer (Japan) and colonized (Korea, Taiwan, China, and Manchuria), the American Occupation period’s collaboration with the ‘new’ colonizer’s cultural agents, and the 1960s’ inter-regional and trans-regional networks between Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and even India” (p. 95). This polycentric approach entails the historicization of non-governmental organizations and institutions like the international film festival that played key roles in mediating collaboration and exchange. While the film festival is typically treated as a European phenomenon, Lee shows that the Asian Film Festival and other Asian festivals during the Cold War were “regionally constructed entities, and were closely tied to non-governmental organizations or cultural policies of the postwar hegemonic supremacy of Washington” (p. 101).
In Chapter Two, “Conceptualizing the Transnational Asian Studio System: Technology, Nation-State, and Globalization in Cold War Asian Cinema,” Lee argues that the “Transnational Asian Studio System” (TNASS) took shape in the 1950s, from about 1953 until 1959, then showed signs of decline during the early 1970s, and finally disappeared in 1976 due to the normalization of U.S.-China relations. He attributes the TNASS to U.S. influence within the region during the Cold War, as well as attempts by Asian countries to encourage “the rapid grown of the number of vertically or semi-vertically integrated motion picture studios that aspired to rationalize and industrialize the system of mass-producing motion pictures” (p. 104). The Asian bloc did not achieve a unified mode of production with a systematic structure but rather was divided into militarized states like Taiwan and Korea with highly regulated industries and “developmental states,” and “market-oriented states” like Hong Kong. Lee identifies three engines behind the development of the transnational Asian studio system: (1) international coproduction; (2) the possibility of catching up to Hollywood cinema by working with Japan, which offered superior film technology and training in advanced production techniques; (3) economic advantages of the inter-state division of labor, which contributed to both competition and greater stability in the region.
In Chapter Three, “The Emergence of the Asian Film Festival: Postwar Asian Film Industry and Japan’s Re-entrance in the Regional Market in the 1950s,” Lee shows how American funds were instrumental in the establishment of the Asian Film Festival (AFF), which in turn played an important role in strengthening regional cinema networks. The AFF was established with the help of U.S. government agencies financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provided economic incentives for Asian countries to cooperate with one another, forming a bloc against the expansion of communism. Previous histories of the AFF focused on the few personnel that dominated the festival without fully considering the political and economic determinants that gave rise to the AFF. The history of the AFF points to the ways that “Japan, a former imperial power, re-entered the regional film industry as a leading force of FPA [the Federation of Motion Picture Producers Association of Asia] although each Asian country had not recovered yet from their traumatic experiences of the Pacific War and Japanese colonial rule” (pp. 178-179).
Chapter Four, “Enter the Shin Films: Rise and Demise of a Developmental State Studio,” is a case study that focuses on Korean film production. Shin Films is used as an example of how the AFF shaped collaboration and exchange among participant countries. Here Lee makes another valuable contribution to Korean film studies, where Shin Films has not received extensive study despite the fact it was the largest Korean film company of its time. Of particular interest is Lee’s analysis of the impact of Park Chung Hee’s policies on Korean film production and Shin Films’s strategic navigation of those policies. His analysis allows the reader to appreciate Korean genre productions and Korean collaborations with Hong Kong in their historical context. His examples convincingly demonstrate that in order to understand Shin Films’s production system between 1964 and 1975, one must also pay attention to the company’s import business.
Chapter Five, “Constructing Asia through Cultural Geopolitics: Postwar Hong Kong and Korean Coproduction, 1957-1975,” examines many of the same issues within Hong Kong cinema production. In this chapter, Lee examines collaborations between Hong Kong and Korea in detail, specifying how Shaw Brothers and Shin Films arranged the division of labor, their respective contributions toward expenses, and other logistics. As examples, Lee points to the production, distribution, and reception of films like Last Woman of Shang (1964) and The Goddess of Mercy (1966), two big-budget historical epics set in China.
In Chapter Six, “Going Global: New Regional Division of Cultural Labor and the End of TNASS,” Lee explains the expansion of transnational Asian film productions in the early 1970s by turning to transformations in the American industry of the same time. At the beginning of this decade, Hollywood faced financial difficulties due to the impact of television and overproduction at the end of the 1960s. The “runaway production” became an important strategy as the studio system underwent dramatic transformation. Against this background, Lee examines the Warner Brothers distribution of Hong Kong kung fu films in the U.S. and American-made kung fu films, showing how the global market was important to Hong Kong as well as Hollywood.
Finally, Lee’s Epilogue, “The Transnational Asian Studio System Redux,” considers more recent Korean involvement in pan-Asian film productions and the startling success of transnational Chinese-language film productions since the 1990s. In his concluding remarks, Lee extends his valuable institutional history into the present day, taking up the initiatives of the Asian Film Industry Network and the Pusan International Film Festival.
Lee’s fascinating study is a must read for anyone interested in East Asian cinema and Hong Kong, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese-language cinema in particular. This wide-ranging and masterful study is not only an important contribution to non-Western film historiography, it also provides a thorough introduction to transnational cinema studies. This dissertation is recommended for any scholar working on the international film festival, Cold War cultural history, or the global economics of studio filmmaking.
Diane Wei Lewis
Film and Media Studies Program
Washington University in St. Louis
Hong Kong Film Archive
Korean Film Archive
Korean National Library
National Archives of Korea
Personal interviews with East Asian studio personnel and film historians
New York University. 2011. 461 pp. Primary Advisor: Zhang Zhen.
Image: Original film poster of “Love with an Alien” (1957).