Drifting in Los Angeles | 漂泊洛杉矶
This document serves as a companion to the MFA thesis documentary Drifting in Los Angeles. However, this paper is not a journal of the production process. Instead it analyzes how contemporary Chinese cinema and filmmakers have attempted to make their way to Hollywood, which contextualizes the documentary in a historical background. In addition to reading this thesis, the author recommends viewing the DVD, which will be available in the Library of The University of Iowa.
Drifting in Los Angeles documents the gap between Hollywood fantasy among a generation of Chinese filmmakers and film school reality in Los Angeles. Shot on Canon DSLR 7D with sound recorded on Zoom H4N, and edited on Final Cut Pro, Color, Motion and Pro Tools, the documentary runs approximately twenty-three minutes.
The project originated as a means of exploration of Los Angeles film school experience and Hollywood fantasy among a generation of Chinese students. With the world’s most populous nation swelling with new cinemas and the rising of the middle class, Chinese students have flocked into American film schools in recent years. Such booming film school enrollment was representative of a larger trend in American Higher Education since the economic downtown and the loosening of university policies of intentional students quota. According to a report in August 2011 by the Council of Graduate Schools, U.S. graduate schools saw applications from China grow 21% from a year ago.1
I personally witnessed, and might have even contributed to, this new wave of American film school crush/rush. In 2009, I was admitted to The University of Iowa with the Iowa Arts Fellowship, a packet that not only waives all the tuition fees, but also provides a stipend for living expense. After I received my F-1 visa and booked my air ticket, I wrote an article about my application experience and posted it on one of the biggest study abroad forums in China, the Bulletin Board System (BBS) of gter.net. My article was shared and viewed more than 20,000 times within a year, and my email was inundated with inquiry emails about film school application.
However, my experience in Iowa with full funding was not representative of the majority of Chinese students pursuing an MFA degree in an American Film Institution. When I talked to my friends who went to film school in Los Angeles, I was amazed at the fact that most of them are actually paying around $150,000 to $200,000 for their film school education. This amount of money is almost equal to 20 years of saving of my family.
A series of questions suddenly popped up in my mind: “Is such a big investment really worthy it?” “How’s their film school experience different from mine?” “How long will it take for them to earn the investment back?” “What kind of works are they making at such a great expense?” “Do they really enjoy their lives?” In the meantime, I was more curious by the questions that have also bothered me personally, such as “What’s their cross-cultural experience?” “How do they adjust themselves and interact with Americans?” “Do they fit in and succeed?” and “How do they deal with loneliness and alienation?”
With all the questions in mind, I submitted my proposal for my thesis documentary and went to Los Angles in May 2011. The title of the project, Drifting in Los Angeles, came from my experience of riding on highways with my host Ah Hui, a typical wild Chinese driver who drives as if he is drifting. It’s also a metaphor of my feeling as an outsider from a developing country adventuring in the metropolitan Los Angles, and it reflects the commonality that young Chinese filmmakers share in pursuing their Hollywood dreams. Drifting is adventure, romance, floating, bumming and dreaming. During the production process, it takes about three hours everyday for me to travel back and forth between where I lived to the locations where my subjects lived.
Therefore, drifting also became a constant feeling that’s both physical and psychological to me.
Over the course of 30 days, a total amount of 44 hours of footage was recorded for Drifting in Los Angels, and painstakingly edited to the final cut of twenty minutes. A great deal of the raw material ended up as the underwater iceberg, although some of them were really interesting and could have been recycled to show different aspects of the subject matter.
Drifting in Los Angeles was greatly inspired by several documentary films. The confrontational scenes in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters opened me the door of creating narrative structure with non-fiction materials while American Movie was exemplary of caricaturing zealous characters pursuing unreachable dreams. The representation of the conflict between modernization and humanity in Koyaanisqatsi offered me the alternative to manipulate images to build transcendental experience of flying through space. Los Angeles Plays Itself provided me with the background stories of the geography and interesting hot spots for filming. The acclaimed cinema verité masterpiece Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation taught me how to weave disparate subjects, texts, images into a logically and emotionally integrated argument and also inspired me to talk to the camera. Academy award winner Sam Greene’s documentary performance, Utopia in Four Movements once allured me to turn my documentary into a live performance event for my thesis screening, considering my strength of performing and communicating in front of an audience. The live performance plan was abandoned for the 23 minutes thesis screening as I restructured the film and trimmed down the narration. However the idea of a documentary performance is still a possibility for my future exploration.
Nevertheless, Drifting in Los Angeles was none of the above-mentioned films; it is more of an adventure and discovery journey towards an unknown area that’s both geographical and spiritual. It is a document of me and my fellow Chinese filmmakers’ cross-cultural experience, desire, and anxiety. It is also part of the dilemma that contemporary Chinese cinema and filmmakers face in attempt of breaking into Hollywood and the economic and cultural arena in America.
This thesis summarizes the dilemma of the American presence of contemporary Chinese popular cinema, with a focus on individual Chinese filmmakers from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and their different approaches to Hollywood in the last two decades. The notion of Chinese filmmakers in Hollywood includes those ethnic Chinese filmmakers shooting films in Hollywood and Chinese filmmakers who are involved in co-productions with Hollywood, as well as those who make films outside of Hollywood, but target at the American market, pursue the Academy Award and seek Hollywood’s recognition.
Chapter 1 starts reversely with a brief history of Hollywood’s global presence and its recent penetration into the Chinese world. It also analyzes the inundation of white supremacy in Hollywood cinema and the exportation of Orientalism to the Orient. Chapter 2 lampoons the continuing self-Orientalism among Mainland Chinese filmmakers as a shortcut to the West. It also describes the poor box office performance and audience acceptance of popular Chinese cinema in America. Chapter 3 follows the exceptional models of directors and actors from both Hong Kong and Taiwan making their presence in Hollywood, their compromise and sacrifice. Chapter 4 concentrates on current Chinese students in film schools in Los Angeles. The works of this future generation of Chinese filmmakers reflect their experience of being alienated and underprivileged outsiders in America, the “melting pot with nothing melted”, and in Hollywood, a predominantly White industry.
The term China will be frequently used in its broadest sense to include Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Diaspora; the term Chinese will be used broadly as a reference to the great Chinese civilization and people of Chinese origin, whether they are in the Chinese triangle area or overseas. However, both terms might also be used for short to replace the People’s Republic of China and Mainland Chinese when it comes to a specific place or political region. This usage is often introduced within a context. The term Mainland China will be used interchangeably with the People’s Republic of China. Hollywood, on the other hand, refers to both American popular cinema, and the film industry surrounding the Hollywood Studios.
NEO-COLONIALISM: HOLLYWOOD HEGEMONY
When the People’s Republic of China and Russia vetoed the military interference of Syria in 2012, some scholars and journalists have announced the cold war between the P.R. China and the United States. However, the “cold war”, if there is one, must have already started 30 years ago, neither in the field of politics nor economics, but cultural production and communication in its modern form – cinema. The war was not even a balanced battle between the two countries, but a one-sided neo colonialism featuring Hollywood’s cultural juggernaut. It was the infiltration and invasion of Hollywood movies and its well-packaged ideology into the Chinese film market and cultural sphere that accompanied and even shaped the growth of a whole generation of Chinese youth. In order to understand the dilemma of contemporary Chinese cinema in America, we are better off to start with the entrance of Hollywood cinema in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Smashing Chinese Market – The Hollywood Invasion
The loosening of the People’s Republic of China’s cultural censorship policy has always been a compromise in exchange for its greater international political presence. Following Deng, Xiaoping’s “Opening up and Reform” policy, The Fugitive (1993) was first introduced (引入) to Mainland China, followed by 9 other Hollywood films including Rumble in the Bronx, True Lies, and The Lion King in 1994. The government then passed the legislation to allow ten Hollywood imports to the Chinese market every year. The quota was later extended to 20 movies in 2001 as China joined the World Trade organization. In 2012, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (国家广电 总局) extended the quota to 34 movies after Chinese vice president Xi Jinping’s US visit. In the meantime, the market share of Hollywood films was raised from 13% to 25%. In the year 2011, Chinese filmmakers witnessed 20 Hollywood movies taking away 46.39% of the market share.2
Hollywood studios have always been blaming the Chinese government for domestic protectionism. However, due to the fact that cultural production was very politically oriented prior to the early 1990s, there wasn’t a film industry in China by the time Hollywood entered. Therefore, contemporary Chinese popular cinema was a beat up kid since its birth.
In Taiwan, Hollywood grabbed 98% of the domestic market share when it landed with full permission. Local businessmen colluded with Hollywood studios, and almost ripped the vulnerable Taiwanese popular cinema out of movie theatres. Art cinema that mostly relies on foreign investments became the synonym for Taiwanese cinema until the recent resurgence of Taiwanese popular cinema in the new millennium.
Hong Kong, as the center of Asian popular cinema production and consummation until the 1980s, was probably the least affected at the inception of the global Hollywood tide. However, in the 1990s, Hong Kong handed over its market dominance to Hollywood due to the disparity in production qualities. The “1997 returning to the motherland” was another milestone in the history of Hong Kong cinema as it witnessed the decline of domestic cinema production, and the exodus of filmmakers to North America.
However, what’s scarier than the profit that Hollywood is taking away is the ideology it is giving away. On the surface are individualism, liberation of sex, Christianity and other American values that challenge the Chinese traditions and conventions, but more dangerous are probably the hidden ideologies such as white supremacy and Orientalism and capitalism.
Hollywood spent 30 years in China to captivate and adopt an audience group. The adventurism turned out to be more than successful, and now Chinese viewers are comfortable and eager to consume Hollywood movies. The viewers identify with the white hero in Avatar who flies a dragon and saves the indigenous people from colonization. They are happy to watch the white men saving the world and win over the beautiful woman, sometimes even with an Asian sidekick (Green Hornet). They laugh at the Asian computer nerd in The Transformers who was controlled and killed by the aliens, and the Asian man (played by the same actor) with a small penis in The Hangover II.
The viewers also learned to appreciate and even internalize the whitewashed aesthetics, and the Anglo-centric hierarchy of race throughout Hollywood movies. Many young Chinese people nowadays fantasize romantic relationships with the foreign exotic and find Caucasians more attractive. In big cities such as Beijing, and Shanghai, it became a trend (and pride) for a Chinese woman to have a white boyfriend. In small towns a white person would even get picture-mobbed on the street. However, African Americans and Asian Americans wouldn’t enjoy the same privileges of their white counterparts in China. Interestingly, in Drifting in Los Angeles, two among the four Chinese male characters demonstrated preferences for white women, especially Blonde. The female character Catherine, on the other hand, made a romantic love story of an interracial couple, a Chinese woman and a white man.
Cinema is a cultural production that not only reflects culture, but also affects culture. The social impact of American popular culture and mass media in East Asia is more than what most people are aware of. There is a whole plastic surgery industry in South Korea that is trying to make Asian women look more Caucasian, with Chinese women being its biggest customer source. Beauty standards in many East Asian countries are also shifting, women with big, rounded eyes, high noses, pointy faces and other Caucasian features, are considered as more beautiful. A glance at the majority of contemporary East Asian screen stars and popular idols would easily prove the point.
Hollywood cinema, taking advantage of the post-colonialism establishment of English as the world language, coupled with its strong visual power, star creating system, and unprecedented financial back up, has captivated worldwide audience and branded itself as the world cinema that’s consumable in all countries. In the meantime, the occasional stereotypical presence of people of color in Hollywood hypocritically suggests its diversity.
In addition, Hollywood has been doing a great job throughout its history in alienating and exploiting Asians both on and off screen. Among the Chinese filmmakers and actors who made it to Hollywood, compromise was made at different levels. This will be discussed in later Chapters.
Exporting to the Orient: Selling Chineseness
As the P. R. China becomes the second biggest film market in the world and Hollywood’s biggest foreign market, studios are also responding and making adjustments to maximize profits. In the meantime, an ironic and bizarre phenomenon occurs, Orientalism is packaged as Chinese elements, being exported to the Orient.
When Chinese elements are encoded with jargons and insider jokes that are only comprehensible within English context, the mocking and selling of Chineseness becomes surprisingly well received in China. With Chinese box office contributing to 20% of its international box office, Kong Fu Panda 2 was credited, by some Chinese media, as a lover letter to China.3 The animated feature is a perfect example of Hollywood’s exportation of Orientalism to the Orient with smart packing and marketing strategy; it’s a hamburger sandwiched with some Chinese noodles. However Chinese as it claimed, it consists of a total American production with only one Chinese worker among its 800 production crewmembers.
The paradigm of the Kung Fu Panda series is basically the comedy of a junk food eating, fat American middle class man, whose language ability is limited to use “awesome” as the only adjective, saving the world. It eulogizes American individualism and grassroots heroism, but mocks and ridicules traditional Chinese culture and philosophy, such as Taoism. Other than the universal slapstick elements, the film’s comedy is structured on the untranslatable, and therefore indecipherable, humor of the English language. In one scene in Kung Fu Panda 2, Po, the panda, practices the Taoist idea of “inner peace,” but while he is enunciating the words, a raindrop hits him and he loses balance, yelling “inner pee” instead.
The Panda is half white half black with green eyes, which signifies his identity as a biracial American, while the Tigress, being yellow and “hardcore” as the Monkey claimed, is an incarnation of the dragon lady and tiger mom stereotypes of Chinese women. She is hardworking and has practiced martial arts for twenty years, but she is also rigid, and inflexible. Eventually the humorous Panda came to her salvation and sexual liberation.
The depiction of the dogs in the movie is an innuendo of the infamous “Urban Management law enforcement” in China. These “government officers” rob the pots and pans from the “civilians”, represented by rabbits and pigs. The metals are used for steelmaking, weapon manufacturing, which symbolizes the Chinese governments recent military expansion.
In another scene, a drooling pig mom bribes Po’s father to set up a meeting of her pig son with Po, the “dragon warrior.” This is a restaging of a common social phenomenon in China, the privileged “second rich generation” inheriting social benefits from their rich, powerful parents. In addition, there are two Kung Fu masters imprisoned by the dictatorial emperor peacock, who were later emancipated by the panda, which draws subtle connection of the Chinese governments’ imprisonment of two artists Liu, Xiaobo and Ai, Weiwei.
If the same content were made in Chinese, the film would have been banned forever, but Hollywood did a good job that it not only managed to circumvent the censorship radars with all the tied-in political innuendos, but also garnered huge box office revenue, despite the fact that some Chinese artists were openly boycotting this movie. Hollywood touched down again in the cultural, economic and political interaction with the Chinese.
Hollywood’s exportation of Orientalism to the Orient movement continued with international hits such as The Karate Kid, Forbidden Kingdom, Green Hornet, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Packed with Chinese action stars, The Forbidden Kingdom is a White boy’s Kung Fu adventure to the East, a weird hybrid of China’s epic story “Journey to the West” and a modern male version of “Wizard of Oz.” The Karate Kid is an American boy’s self-growth and ass-kicking journey in Beijing. The film follows the Western formula that the American boy not only defeats the evil Chinese boys in the end, but also wins the Chinese girl. However, due to the fact that the American boy is black in this movie, Orientalism is ironically covered with an anti-racism theme (the Asian projection of racial discrimination against Black people).
From Bruce Lee to Jay Chow, Green Hornet has not made much progress in its positioning of the Asian sidekick character. A martial arts master, mechanical genius, and a badass coffee maker, Jay Chow’s Kato pushes the overachieving “model minority” stereotype to the extreme. However, perfect as Kato is, he is still the sidekick serving a white master, who is rich and tells better jokes. In addition, Kato’s sexual frustration with the white female lead played by Cameron Diaz symbolizes castration, a reinforcement of Hollywood emasculation of Asian masculinity.
According to the Frankfurt school, Western culture is a culture of domination, both of an external and internal nature.4 Hollywood, as the forefront of Western popular culture, reinforces the current status quo with suppression and absorption of negation of the other.
SELF-ORIENTALISM CONTINUES: PATH TO THE WEST
The power of cinema lies in its ability to involve the vicarious gaze of its audience, a gaze that is often projected onto a constructed figure of Otherness, be it national, ethnic, gendered, sexualized, or cultural.5 If Hollywood is to be blamed for the formulations of cinematic Chineseness in recognizable stereotypes and racist clichés, then Chinese filmmakers should take responsibility for self-Orientalizing and catering the Western gaze.
Shameless Pimp – Zhang Yimou’s Oscar Complex
Zhang Yimou, the most celebrated fifth generation art-cinema-turned-to- commercial filmmaker in China, is undoubtedly the grandmaster of self-Orientalism. As a director mostly known for his flamboyant cinematography and display of female body, Zhang successfully kick-started a pimping career in the European film festival circuit, peddling auto-ethnography, self-exoticism, absence of the Chinese male body (and therefore Western male gaze) and self-positioning as the sexual other. His directorial debut, Red Sorghum, won the Golden Bear award at Berlin International Film Festival in 1988. Zhang further strengthened his career with the Chinese ethnography of incest and sexual repression in Ju Dou, and the present, but also absent, father image that always faces the camera with his back in Raise the Red Lantern. Other than the Golden Bear, he was also rewarded a Silver Lion and Golden lion at Venice, and a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
As his popularity expands, Zhang Yimou has smartly transitioned from art cinema to popular cinema and made several martial arts movie packed with stars, such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of Golden Flowers. His success and glory became unprecedented as he was crowned to be the director of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, yet there’s still one dream that he has not fulfilled – his Oscar complex, an obsession of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Zhang’s films have been nominated for the category four times. The critically acclaimed Ju Dou was China’s first film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Raise the Red Lantern was nominated in 1992. Hero, the international martial arts hit was nominated in 2003, and then became the box office champion of the week in North America two years after its Chinese release. However, Zhang’s break from self-Orientalism didn’t grant him the award he had expected.
In 2012, Zhang returned to self-Orientalism for his fourth attempt for Academy Award Best Foreign Film. The Flowers of War, with a budget of $90,000,000 was the most expensive Chinese film ever made and the first Chinese production featuring an Academy Award winning actor, Christian Bale. The story falls into the typical Orientalist formula of a white man finding refuge with a group of Chinese women in a church during Japan’s Massacre of Nanjing in 1937 and falling in love with a prostitute. Finding himself in the unwanted position of protector of Chinese women from the horrors of the invading Japanese army, the white hero discovers the meaning of sacrifice and honor, and eventually leads the female students to safety. The film has showcased all of Zhang’s skills in courting the judges and feeding the western male gaze.
First of all, the film exemplifies Zhang’s scheme of self-emasculating: it depicts Asian men as either weak and passive (the defeated Chinese soldiers) or evil and ruthless (the invading Japanese military). On the other hand, it characterizes a bad boy type of white guy as a comparison: a drunken mortician who arrives at a Catholic Church to prepare a priest for burial, finds moral sublimation and becomes a hero to replace the priest and save lives.
In the second place, the casting of one white man and thirteen Chinese women (the literal translation of the Chinese title is Thirteen Beauties of Jinling) was a pageant display of exotic Eastern beauty for voyeuristic pleasure.
In the third place, Zhang invested a lot in building a epic-war set up to make the movie look like a Hollywood “blockbuster,” a common misperception among Chinese filmmakers that Hollywood favors big budget production, war theme and magnificent mise-en-scene.
However, Zhang’s successful European experience didn’t work out at all with the Americans. He was trying too hard, and the film was too courteous to be respected. It was wiped out of the nominations even before the last round. China’s most prestigious director’s Hollywood dream ends up with another failure, and perhaps a lethal frustration.
Zhang’s obsession with the Academy Award probably originated from his jealousy of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, who won the Best Foreign Language film in 2001 with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons, and the best director with Brokeback Mountain. Zhang followed Lee in making stunning choreography in martial arts cinema, trying to duplicate his success, but the flat characters in Zhang’s later films didn’t send him to reach the same level of profoundness that Lee achieved. On the other hand, Zhang’s Oscar complex might have been a result of Gestalt psychology that one always overvalues the missing part of a whole. For Zhang, what lacks in his wholeness is the American recognition of him as a world-class director, which is sadly, a self- victimization as a result of the Hollywood cultural hegemony. Zhang’s Oscar experience also suggests a lack of self-confidence and self-value and the pathetic post-colonial syndrome that Eastern civilization has to submit to the rules of the Western discourse for approval, understanding and recognition.
Marketing Dilemma – Chinatown Distribution
Feng Xiaogang was one of the very few popular cinema makers in Mainland China who did not court Hollywood. Feng was known for making heavily language- based New Year comedies mainly targeting at Chinese audience. He was probably the only filmmaker who overtly mocked Hollywood in his early film Dream Factory. In Be There or Be Square, he even went further to adopt an Occidentalist approach in othering American culture.
Feng changed his style and directed the 2009 disaster epic about earthquake in China Aftershock, which created the Chinese Box Office record of nearly 80 million dollars within 25 days of its release. However, after its huge success in China, Feng decided to take it to North America. The film was released 4 months later in 25 AMC theatres in the cities where there are relatively big Chinese population. However, Aftershock only awkwardly made $60,000 in its box office.6 Feng’s next New Year comedy If You Are the One 2, did much better than Aftershock in North America. Released in 23 theatres, its box office was $420,000.
However, as China’s box office champion, Feng’s cinema never really entered America, its limited niche audience was the Chinese diaspora. Due to the disheartening fact that American audiences are not used to watch foreign language films with subtitles, Feng’s cinema neither draw attention nor made influence in America.
NAVIGATING IN THE SYSTEM: COMPROMISE AND DETOUR
When Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) leapt onto global screens, many saw it as a cinematic event that heralded the unprecedented arrival of Chinese cinemas in Hollywood. However, it turns out that the Chinese swordplay spectacle was only the cultural flavor of the month, a transient trend soon to be replaced by the next big thing capable of revitalizing Hollywood.7
Hope and Struggle – The Hong Kong Migration
The post-1997 Hollywood saw a new, resurgent interest in the Chinese presence in its cinema due to the British government’s handover of Hong Kong back to China and the exodus of Hong Kong filmmakers. Among the crowd are Chinese stars Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat and Jackie Chan and Chinese director John Woo.
John Woo made his first Hollywood directorial appearance in Mission Impossible 2, featuring Tom Cruise. Although Cruise and Woo had reportedly clashed several times throughout filming over creative differences, the film turned out to be a financial success, totalling $546,388,105 worldwide.8 However, overshadowed by Tom Cruise’s shining fame, Woo remained almost anonymous in American households after the film’s release. The subsequent two movies Woo made in Hollywood were mismatches of his directorial talent, which eventually led to his return to East Asia, where he made the next international commercial hit Red Cliff.
Chow Yun-fat had a similar experience with John Woo in Hollywood. Being Hong Kong’s big brother actor who appeared in 40 films in 10 years, he had merely 5 acting appearance over his 5-year sojourn in Hollywood. Feeling his talent greatly limited, he followed suit of John Woo and returned to East Asia where he starred in Zhang Yimou’s box office hit Curse of the Golden Flowers. Chow maintained connection with Hollywood and later returned for supporting roles in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Dragonball: Evolution.
Jackie Chan and Jet Li were probably the two “lucky” men who really be-petted Hollywood with their impregnable martial arts stunt skills. However, their frequent screen appearances were not able to change their powerlessness in satisfying Asianploitation (a derivative of Blaxploitation) in Hollywood. Their characters as asexual, Zen-buddhist, Chinese, Kung Fu, Monkey Kings have not contributed much in reversing the stereotypes of Asian men since the Bruce Lee era.
Ironically enough, most members of the Hong Kong exodus army have migrated to Mainland China for better opportunities and career development, while Hollywood, the land where dreams come true, bid farewell to many talented Chinese filmmakers along with their disillusionment.
Breaking from Independent – Taiwanese Presence in Hollywood
The Taiwanese directors Ang Lee and Justin Lin were probably the most successful among their Chinese counterparts from Mainland and Hong Kong in terms of playing the power game in Hollywood. They both broke into the Hollywood industry and have made movies inside the studio system. Ang Lee is the first Taiwanese/Chinese filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Academy Award for Best Director.
Born in Taiwan, Lee came to the United States after college, and enrolled in the MFA filmmaking program at the New York University. He landed his first Hollywood deal for Sense and Sensibility after the completion of his Family trilogy, Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Men and Women. These films gained him festival awards, critical acclaims, an Oscar nomination, and paved his way to direct Hollywood films. However, Lee’s Hollywood production wasn’t as successful as his non-Hollywood works. He directed three Hollywood movies, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil before 2000. They all received accolades and critical praises, but the box office performances were mediocre. Lee met his waterloo while directing his first big-budget Hollywood blockbuster in 2003, the Hulk. The moderate success of grossing over $245 million at the box office was a setback for him that he even considered to retire early. Lee also turned down another offer to direct Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
Although Ang Lee broke into Hollywood successfully, his most successful works are non-Hollywood. They are either Chinese/foreign language films or small budget, independent English films, and Hollywood is not a good fit for his artistic directorial vision.
Similar to Lee’s success, Justin Lin got his first Hollywood deal after the Sundance debut of Better Luck Tomorrow, an independent film that breaks the “model minority” stereotypes of Asian Americans. He is the first director of Taiwanese/Chinese descent to direct a Hollywood franchise on the top ten list of box-office gross, the Fast and Furious. It is also the only one among the ten that has an ensemble cast of non-white male lead roles.
Born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States, Lin is considered a hero in the Asian American community for breaking stereotypes. Celebrated for giving the Asian American image a testosterone injection, he was bold enough to wield his power against Hollywood repression and arrange an interracial romance and a kissing scene of an Asian man and a white woman in Fast Five. However, Lin’s success didn’t come without compromise. His first Hollywood production, Tokyo Drift, unfortunately falls into the Orientalist formula. Diverging from the previous Fast and Furious episodes, Tokyo Drift was an independent episode set in the backdrop of Japan about a white kid defeating the Japanese gang leader, and winning over his girlfriend, once more fulfilling the Western fantasy of castrating the Eastern masculinity, and conquering the Eastern woman as a trophy.
Lin’s early compromise was undoubtedly a safe step to secure his position in Hollywood. In the following episodes, he successfully transformed the white hero dominance into a shared buddy film of people of color. In Fast Five, there was even a car race scene of people of four different races: a White man, a Hispanic man, an Asian man, and a Black man. The White man eventually won the race, but it was only because his Hispanic brother-in-law helped him and blocked the other two competitors.
Lin and Lee shared some similarities in their paths to Hollywood, both Taiwanese born directors went to a prestigious film school in the United States, Lee was an NYU Tisch alumnus, and Lin graduated from UCLA. Both broke into the industry with independent films that emphasize the cultural experience of being Taiwanese or Asian American. Both Lin and Lee are citizens of the United States, and their educational experience and relatively longer stay in America has granted them better understanding of the Hollywood rules of the game, and the American taste. Therefore, they have relatively higher assimilation levels and can navigate better in Hollywood than most of their Hong Kong and/or Mainland born counterparts.
CAUGHT IN-BETWEEN CULTURES: FUTURE GENERATION
Following Ang Lee and Justin Lin’s success, the Chinese students in American film schools today would very likely to become the next generation of Chinese filmmakers in Hollywood. However, going to school far away from home, these students are also cultural communicators who are caught in-between cultures.
Cross-cultural Curiosity, Desire and Anxiety – Drifting in Los Angeles
Drifting in Los Angeles follows four Chinese students enrolled in different MFA programs and film schools in Los Angeles. The film focuses on the difficulties these young filmmakers are facing in the path to their Hollywood dreams: being a foreigner using English as a second language, being an outsider who is vulnerable to the domestic culture, being an ethnic minority who is underprivileged, being a no-income student in a film school that charges a lot of tuition fees but does not guarantee a career, and being a filmmaker in the centre of the most competitive industry in the world.
However, every person has his or her own experiences and challenges. Zhao Xuhui “Ah Hui” was a cinematographer at New York Film Academy at Universal Studios (NYFAUS). Coming to the United States, he was not happy with the fact that he was enrolled in a for-profit film school, so he quit after a year. He then registered for a language school in Orange County, without taking classes, just to stay in Los Angeles legally. In the meantime, he worked on his former classmates’ film projects as director of photography to gain experience. Au Hui had eventually transferred to a degree program at Florida State University by the time the documentary was finished. Ah Hui was very concerned about money. He hardly ever went out to eat, choosing to cook most of the time to minimize his spending. Originally a character in the film, Ah Hui’s character was dropped in the final version of the film.
Zhu Lianyu “Larry,” Ah Hui’s friend, was a writer/director at NYFAUS. He was from a more well off family in Shanghai, and he didn’t have a bachelor degree prior coming to the United States. He dreamed of becoming a big director before he arrived in Los Angeles, but only came to realize the intangibility of his fantasy. He talked about the fierce competition, language barriers, and the unrealistic director’s mindset that prevent Chinese filmmakers from acceptance in Hollywood.
Yang Qianbaihui “Catherine” was a sound designer at the University of Southern California (USC) and the only female character in the documentary. She seemed to be very comfortable and happy with her film school life in general. She commented on the fact that sound design is a predominantly male activity in Hollywood and expressed her desire of becoming a female sound designer. Surprisingly, she also told the author that she was actually not a feminist.
Catherine experienced some cultural and professional difficulties in her first year; she was not able to find her classroom the first day of class since nobody told her about it. She also didn’t like the idea of directing her own short films, even though they turned out to be very good. Catherine’s biggest concern was the insecurity of living in a neighborhood where intense racial tensions existed and revenge murder happened between the African-American gang and the Hispanic gang.
Huang Chen was an animator at USC. With a strong accent, and an even stronger personality as an artist, Chen seemed to be a “troublemaker” frequently bumping into the cultural barriers. There was a huge cultural gap in Chen’s daily life, and no one seemed to be able or responsible to fill in the gap for him. He learned by making numerous mistakes just like every other F.O.B., but his introvert personality and accent prevented him from better communication and understanding with others, making his life a even harder.
The “car being towed” scene in the documentary was a live capture of Chen’s difficulty in daily life. He parked his car near a fire hydrant one day and his car got towed away. A common sense for all Americans is befuddling for him, “there is no sign saying that I couldn’t park there, so I just parked there…” Whose fault is it? Nobody has ever told or taught him such common sense in America, and he had to pay $200 to learn this lesson. In the towing office, the officer definitely had problem understanding what Chen was talking about. However, the officer was not willing to really listen to him patiently and actually figure out what is going on. The two people were just talking, but not communicating.
Another of Chen’s awkward, cross-cultural experience includes sleeping in the department building and being kicked out by his advisor. Chen was fooled by an apartment agent and broke his lease before he found a new apartment to live in. He then slept in the student lounge in his school until his advisor saw his sleeping bag and kicked him out of the building. During the interview, he explained that if such a situation were to happen in China, the professor would feel very sympathetic for him and even acknowledge his diligence and painstaking virtues that are highly appreciated in Chinese culture. However, as Chen stated, “they don’t buy it here.” Chen’s “weird behavior” was neither understood nor appreciated. His advisor asked him to “get your shit out of here,” which made him feel really hurt.
Chen talks in a very slow pace, which creates a big contrast with his dislike of the fast rhythm of life in Los Angeles. People are too busy in this city; no one is willing to slow down and try to understand him. In addition, Chen’s frustration came from the fact that the Chinese culture that he identifies with was not respected at all in the dominant American cultural discourse as it devalues alien culture. People judge him from their own cultural perspective and read his “Chineseness” as creepy, awkward, and unattractive. As Chen lamented in an interview, “Americans don’t have much culture, and people are ignorant.”
Chen even went further and boldly critiqued the institutionalized education in the world’s most renowned film school for making everyone the same. He has a desire to be a master and a rich artist like Andy Warhol, but he feels that it’s unachievable if he simply follows the doctrine at USC. Chen admitted in an interview that he was not very confident about his career after graduation, pointing out the gap between dream and anxiety. The interview was later cut out due to length constraints.
Liu, Zheng “Leo” was an actor/director/writer/cinematographer/editor at the California State University at Los Angeles (CSULA). He basically did everything himself for most of his film production because of the difficulty he had trying to find help from his fellow classmates. Leo felt alienated, excluded, and even self-segregated due to his failed attempts at assimilation. In a response to a somewhat racist experience he had encountered during a production class in which a white girl yelled at him to stop him from touching the camera, Leo emotionally exploded in the end that “this issue doesn’t bother me. I’m from China, and I’m definitely gonna go back to China! It’s something that you guys need to worry about.”
According to sociologist Richard Schaefer, individuals of subordinate groups who experience denial of acceptance and the frustration of rejection from the dominant group would tend to withdraw from that group and go back to his/her own culture and seek identification.9 Leo’s personal experience is actually very representative of the marginality that all young Chinese filmmakers experience, although they might not be able to decipher it. As cultural ambassadors, these Chinese filmmakers travel across the ocean with great curiosity of a different culture, only to find themselves after years coexisting in two conflicting cultures, often never completely comfortable in either.
Romanticism of the Underrepresented and the Underprivileged
Drifting in Los Angeles used several excerpts from the student films that the characters in the documentary produced, including Filming the Dark, Dancing Dream and The Pawnshop. Made by filmmakers who didn’t know each other before, these films interestingly shared some incredible similarities and commonalities in terms of content and subject matter. They all involve, to some extent, romanticism of the underrepresented and the underprivileged.
Filming in the Dark, animated by Chen, is about a blind girl who becomes a photographer. She was born blind, and went through several surgeries, but was still not able to cure her blindness. Then, she learned to “dance in the dark,” to accept herself as who she is, and to love the world around her.
Dancing Dream, written and directed by Leo, is about a deaf janitor who wants to become a Ballet dancer. The janitor fell in love with a ballerina, and dreamed of dancing with her. His best friend, a girl who knew sign language, saw him dancing with a mop in the studio. She then arranged a special birthday gift for him to make his dancing dream come true.
Both films follow a person of disability as they pursue a utopian dream of becoming an artist. If an one’s work somewhat genuinely expresses one’s own emotional feelings, then either film could be read as an allegory of the filmmaker’s own hope and struggle as an alien ethnic minority in America with a utopian dream. They are different, and inherently unprivileged because of their birth of origin, native language, skin color, and cultural identification.
The Pawn Shop, written and directed by Catherine, is an adaptation of the short story “The Gift of the Magi” with a mysterious Chinatown set up. A dying woman wants to pawn her life in exchange for the love of her boyfriend, while her boyfriend went to the same pawnshop to pawn his love to extend her life. The story unfolds in a montage sequence as the audience gradually begins to realize that the woman actually set up the man to fall in love with her in the first place, and she is running out of life to maintain his love for her. “Your love was not real,” the woman confesses when she sees the man at the pawnshop. “But it was real to me,” the man replies and erases his love memory to extend her life.
This story eulogizes an ideal love relationship in which two people both decide to sacrifice themselves for the well being of the other. In the meantime, Catherine cast an interracial couple for the film. Structured from the perspective of an Asian woman who has an obsession of a Caucasian man, the film subtly indicates an Asian female fantasy of having a romantic relationship with a White prince.
During the editing of Drifting in Los Angeles, I watched the 2012 Academy Award ceremony on television. The show is predominantly a white celebration, with a few black people accepting awards to demonstrate Hollywood’s awareness of diversity. Ironically enough, the only Asian face I saw on the show was the violinist who was performing live music.
Hollywood is not going to give away its power. In fact, it protects its current status quo in favoring the privileged people, who are predominantly setting the rules of the game in the industry. The power needs to be won over, but the Chinese popular cinema is still far from able to compete with its Hollywood counterpart that enjoys bigger budget, more advanced technology and higher production quality.
The contemporary Chinese popular cinema has left its traces in Hollywood, but the Chinese filmmakers going to Hollywood have always been travelling with frustrations, struggles and compromises. Although some of them have made progress in terms of changing and shaping Hollywood’s representation and consumption of Chineseness on screen, the future still remains a great challenge for the next generation filmmakers who attempt to break into the industry. In the meantime, as China becomes the new global super power, its cultural discourse will likely to follow its economic growth. Hopefully the future Chinese popular cinema will have its own international influences, without the need to seek acceptance or recognition in the Western world.
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