News Analysis: ‘Brokeback’ to ‘Kill Bill’: We’re All Asians Now By ANDREW LAM New American Media

Tuesday March 07, 2006

BANGKOK—Catherine Deneuve, grand dame of world cinema, sat serenely on stage at the International Bangkok Film Festival recently and declared her admiration for Asian films thusly: “I think Brokeback Mountain is something special.”  

Though she also mentioned several Asian films actually made in Asia like Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, what I liked about her declaration was the cross cultural ease with which she imagined what would constitute an Asian movie. The movie about American gay cowboys directed by a Taiwanese-American director—Oscar winner Ang Lee—is somehow as much part of the Asian sphere these days as, say, a Japanese movie from Japan.  

Indeed something as facile as Deneuve’s open-ended definition is happening here, too, in Asia as the various forms of Asian popular cultures are crossing borders as easily as the bird flu. Pan-Asianism, that is to say, is on the rise. Once more. 

Let me explain: Pan-Asia was first a dream of 19th century Japan after the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war. It imagined Asia as one, a continuous land, its people interconnected. That idea was resuscitated by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore a century later, during the rise of Asian economic powers in the post-Cold War era. While Lee spurred the phrase “Asian Values,” nearby Malaysia’s leader, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, came up with a similar “Look East Policy.”  

But those ideas had been more or less top down and largely ideological—a regional chauvinistic reaction to its colonial past and a need to assert its new-found prowess against Western influences.  

What is happening now a generation later, however, is much more organic, and solidly on the cultural ground—and hardly anti-West.  

American cultural influences remain strong here, but so increasingly do Korean soap operas, pop singers and movies, Japanese mangas and cuisines, and as has been traditionally, Hong Kong kung fu films. And collaboration between the various entertainment nodes in Asia and Hollywood is happening at a faster pace.  

Nowhere is that more self-evident than in the world of cinema. “Today,” notes Christina Klein, writing for Yale Global, “the notion of a distinctly American or Chinese or Indian cinema is breaking down, as film industries around the world become increasingly integrated with one another in ways that make them simultaneously more global and more local.”  

Memoirs of a Geisha, for instance, is an American production but with an all-Asian cast. The same for Ang Lee’s Mandarin-speaking martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 

Invisible Waves, a Thai production which opened the Bangkok International Film Festival, on the other hand, is as Pan-Asian as it can be. A movie which takes place in Macau, Thailand, and Hong Kong, with a cast and crew from Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Korea, it deals with the question of Karma. Directed by Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, and starring Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu, it eludes any national identity. Instead, as its famous cinematographer, Australian-born Christopher Doyle, whose string of well-known movies include Happy Together and Chungking Express, giddily declared, “despite my skin, I am Asian.”  

Indeed, if this region was a couple of decades ago separated from each other by the Cold War’s bamboo curtains, these days collaboration across the borders and oceans has become the norm. We are witnessing Chinese movies being filmed in United States, Vietnamese films made in Thailand, and American movies made in China, Vietnam and everywhere else. Crossing-over is not only the norm for many local films, but the aim of many aspiring film makers.  

Pan-Asianism was originally the vision of the unified East as separate from the West, but it must now be redefined in its full global implications, which, in terms of movies, includes Hollywood. 

“A handful of Hollywood executives are scouring in this region [East Asia] for film ideas,” said Monica Edwards, a Hollywood film producer and the author of the book I Liked It, Didn’t Love It, on how to pitch a film script. “The Korean market has produced great films made into English language films.” 

Bollywood inspires American films like The Guru and infuse Moulin Rouge. Japanese movies prompt remakes like The Ring or Shall We Dance?, and Japanese manga inspired The Matrix, just to cite a few examples.  

As local Asian films have become more sophisticated and popular, Hollywood too is propping up local studios in Asia, creating special divisions to produce and distribute in-language films to local audiences.  

Even that ground-breaking filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is very much part of the Pan-Asia sphere. While his previous movies like Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill I & II may pay homage to Chinese kung fu movies, now he’s gone one step further: he’s making a kung fu movie entirely in ancient Mandarin to be filmed in China.  

A decade or so ago, Singaporean pop star Dick Poon prophesied the new phenomenon of Pan-Asianism in his song: “Our separate lands are one from now on/ We are Asians/ We sing in one voice, and we sing in one song.” In the new Pan-Asia the song may have to be revised a bit: “We are Asians. We sing in many voices. And we sing in many songs.”