Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hong Kong Mega-protests: From the Leftist Riots of 1967 to Occupy Central, 2014

Police leap into action during the Hong Kong riots, 1967.

Over the Summer I have been working on article on the relation between Chang Cheh's The Assasin (Da Ci Ke, 1967), and the Hong Kong Riots of 1967 - a connection which Chang himself has made repeatedly in articles and in his memoirs.  (The 1967 riots are a theme I've mentioned a couple of times here already.) However, just as I have been finishing my article with a view to sending it for publication, it's suddenly developed a new degree of topicality, what with the recent mass-scale protests in Hong Kong, and so I feel I need to do a little more untangling what and whether there is a relationship here. Cue the blog – whose immediacy might help me get together a few first thoughts about 1967 and 2104. Does it make sense to mention both in the same breath?

Of course, the two events were very different – the Hong Kong Leftist Riots of 1967 were, to start with, distinctly violent, and extremist, in contradistinction to the Ghandiist non-violence espoused by the leaders of the current demonstrations, who, in spite of the name "Occupy" which in the West is associated with a rather minority position at the leftmost edge of the political spectrum, are generally clearly very much political liberals. 

Occupation in Causeway Bay, 2014, photo by Citobun, from Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0 license. 

Sit-in in Harcourt Road, Admiralty, 29/09/14, photo by Citobun, from Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0 license 
The Hong Kong Leftist Riots also developed in a very different context: that of colonial occupation, a systematically racist government, and startling inequality at a time when hundreds of thousands lived in Hong Kong's slums, some 45% were below the poverty line, with little healthcare or educational provision for the poor, and ultimately little protection offered to them by the forces of law and order. And definitely no democracy. [1] Triggered by a series of strikes over labour conditions and pay in Hong Kong's factories, the conflict of workers with the factory-owners and the Hong Kong authorities were escalated by Leftist groups who felt, in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, that they would be remiss if they did not militate for revolution in the heart of a capitalist, colonial Chinese enclave, and it is clear that their final hope was that the Red Army would step over the border to give them aid, returning Hong Kong to the mainland. The '67 riots were a significant breach of order, and caused a draconian crackdown from the British authorities on Leftist and militant groups – a crackdown that makes the teargas and pepper spray used so far by the police in the current disturbances look decidedly mild. (I very much hope that the state violence against the current protesters does not escalate, though such hopes seem rather unrealistic. We can only cross our fingers.) As cited by Gary Ka-wai Cheung, the author of a book-length study of the 1967 Leftist Riots (Hong Kong's Watershed: The Leftist Riots), the official figures are a staggering 51 dead at the end of the disturbances, and 4,979 arrested. [2] Most of the dead here seem to have been Leftists killed in the police crackdown and in police responses to the riots; however, the movement was a distinctly violent one, turning (in response to brutality from the authorities) increasingly to terroristic means, with a series of bombings bringing the city to a halt and losing the campaign what legitimacy it had with the wide public.

I am generally unclear as to the extent of support for the 1967 campaign. As Cheung draws a picture of it, there was certainly some widespread enthusiasm and sympathy at the start, with regards to the demands of the striking workers, and also fuelled by an unrest at continuing colonial conditions. However, the general Hong Kong populace was suspicious of the extremism of the movement – and increasingly so as it unfolded. However, the scale of the riots seems to have been larger than the support base the Cheung seems to imagine for them, and the testimony he cites of the time suggests a certain amount of (sub-)proletarian rage being vented at the police during the disturbances, suggesting to me that we are not just dealing with a politically isolated pre-Beijing clique of  militants, however much these groups may have attempted to steer the events. I find myself wondering whether there may be a kind of split between the polite opinion of the public sphere, to which Cheung seems keyed, and a lower sphere of "mass" response – and I am thinking here of the distinction that Chen Kuan-hsing makes between "civil society" (minjian shehui) and "popular democracy" (renmin minzhu). [3] This popular political sphere may be largely invisible in Cheung's account – but I am not a primary historian of the times and can only speculate on this…

In many ways, then the 1967 riots offer few clear parallels for the present situation, though it's perhaps worth noting that – certainly according to Cheung, who dubs them the "watershed" of modern Hong Kong history – they are the event above any other that established the (limited) freedoms and happinesses that Hong Kong citizens seem to be protesting to protect today. The initial political response to the 1967 riots was strong, with tight censorship over the press and the arts, but in order to forestall more thoroughgoing change, the British administration set about wide-reaching reforms of housing,  healthcare and welfare. They established anti-corruption campaigns, started the negotiations with China for the return of Hong Kong, and, with  a generally moderate response from the citizens of the island to the Leftists' call to arms noted, they started to introduce forms of public consultation, bringing the Chinese population more squarely into the civic processes of the colony, and fostering the development of institutions of the public sphere. The longer results, then were paradoxical – a society in which politics became something of a taboo, but where new political freedoms and participation were nurtured; the parallel growth of an identity of HK as a separate people to those in the mainland; increased cultural confidence; and the inclusion of poorer people within the economic part of the social contract.

However, one of the things that seems fascinating to me is that within the debates on the current protests, 1967 is so rarely mentioned. Newspapers (and, of course, my main source of information is Western newspapers) will often mention that political disturbances in Hong Kong of the scale of the current one are rare in the island's history, and some even paint them as unprecedented. In this regard – however qualitatively different the two events were – it seems striking that the last political disturbance that rivals (and even outstrips) the current events in scale is so very rarely brought up.

Of course, there are different reasons for this. Within a Western media, "1967" doesn't mean much to readers who have never heard of it. And it's much more convenient to trot out stereotypes of the Hong-Kong Chinese as an orderly, peace-loving and business-minded people, generally not interested in politics. As much as some of this has factual basis, of course, it is also deeply in line with a set of orientalising stereotypes. The idea of these protests as "unprecedented" also plays well into discourses that would like to play up the exceptionalism of this as a moment. Such amnesia would also highlight what is new in the situation – Chinese Communist Party rule rather than the British – and serves to sever links between the present events and continuing traditions of unrest in colonial-era Hong Kong. This allows the Western press to paint a picture of British rule as implicitly benign and free – when in fact, as the 1967 riots highlight, there was certainly no democracy at all for most of the 150 years of colonial occupation, and only minor reforms offered in the final years before hand-over, and it was only serious rioting that forced the British colonial powers to give the mass of ordinary people of Hong Kong any kind of piece of the economic pie.

However, there may also be Chinese reasons why 1967 is rarely mentioned in the discourses around 2014. The historical amnesia about these events has in fact been more generally systematic. Cheung opens his book noting that in the Hong Kong Museum of History there is not a single exhibit or panel mentioning the Leftist Riots. The British government wanted to forget them for obvious reasons. The Communist Party in the mainland was never really behind the riots, and it is far from a glorious episode in revolutionary history for them, either. Plus which, the Party often does not want to foster modern forces of protest and revolt that it may not be able easily to manage. 

In the present context, the demonstrators, too, may not want to look back at the Leftists of the sixties as their political ancestors, either: this would involve a certain paradoxical identification with the enemy (with Communists). Such an identification with a violent, and to large extent proletarian moment would also sit extremely uncomfortably with the moderate, liberal values which the current protest seems to embody. For spokespeople or supporters to make these comparisons may well seem like stirring up illegal revolt in a way that they would not like.

An interesting example of 1967-amnesia is a recent quote from Hung Ho-fung offered by a British newspaper, which I found very surprising because Hung is a scholar I respect very deeply, and who has looked into histories of Chinese protest going as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and who has written specifically about the histories of the left in Hong Kong in the New Left Review. [4]  From evidence of that article, Hung certainly knows quite a bit about 1967, and has been one of my own key sources in finding out about it. However, here he is in The Guardian

“This is a watershed,” said Hung Ho-fung, of Johns Hopkins University. “This time people are using civil disobedience and setting up barricades. There’s also the disruptive aspect; in the past, they emphasised that demonstrations would not affect everyday life. This time they really don’t care. I really haven’t seen anything like this in Hong Kong history.” [5]
It's interesting that Hung uses precisely the terms of the title of Cheung's book on 1967 – a "watershed" –  to describe the current events. i would be very surprised if Hung does not know of this book, and wonder if it is an unconscious referent in his statement. The idea that disruption is a new thing would seem a striking idea here – certainly it seems new within recent demonstrations, but to then claim that such is a total novelty "In Hong Kong history" seems surprisingly to repress the memory of 1967. Of course, I may be reading far too much into an offhand media interview, and there may be an editor's or journalist's compression creeping in to distort what Hung actually said. He may mean, in his last sentence, simply that the event, as a whole, is a very new thing in Hong Kong – and with some of the major differences between it and 1967 which I've noted above, it certainly is that…. 


[1] For more on the situation in Hong Kong, in the sixty , see for example Poshek Fu, “The 1960s: Modernity, Youth Culture and Hong Kong Cantonese Cinema", in David Desser and Poshek Fu (eds), The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 73-4; Verina Glaessner, Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance (London: Lorimer, 1974), p. 15; Hung Ho-Fung, “Uncertainty in the Enclave,” New Left Review, no. 66 (Nov/Dec 2010), p. 57; and of course Gary Ka-wai Cheung, Hong Kong’s Watershed: The 1967 Riots (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

[2] Most of the material in this paragraph is drawn from Cheung's account. For the figures in question, see p. 123.

[3] Chen Kuan-hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham: Duke UP, 2010), p. 230. 

[4] The article is cited in my note above!

[5] "Hong Kong: More Join Protests as Crowds Are Urged to Keep Going" The Guardian, 29 Sept, 2014, online ed: (accessed 1 Oct 2014).

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Hito Steyerl - November

Hito Steyerl, November (2004)

Amongst many other things, Hito Steyerl's film November (2004) provides – within the realm of contemporary art practice – a startling reflection on some of the themes that I have been starting to explore on this blog.

The film traces the enigmatic figure of Andrea Wolf through a series of circulating media representations. Wolf - the film tells us - was a teenage friend of Steyerl, and the star of Steyerl's first movie, a home-made teenage feminist appropriation of martial art and exploitation tropes, shot on super-8 back in the 1970s. Only the action scenes were ever made, and the film involves a group of girls seeking out and beating up men for reasons that no longer seem clear to Steyerl herself, reprising imagery from Russ Mayer's Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!, a film that Steyerl notes is "tacky," and which is ideologically dubious to say the least, but which nonetheless seems here to have provided a model of identification within which feminist (or at least proto-feminist) desires could be negotiated by the young, somewhat radical, women who took part in Steyerl's shoot.

A still from Steyerl's early movie, reproduced in November shows Andrea Wolf,  age of 18. 
Wolf, however, also went on to lead a life involved in rather more actual radical politics, becoming involved in far-left groups in the orbit of the Red Army Faction, and ending her days in Turkey as a guerrilla with the Kurdish PKK. It was there that she met a tragic death, executed by the Turkish authorities. The fantasy violence of teenage identifications with media images are transformed into the messy real life violence of war. Wolf, however, was turned once again into a media image, in the guise of a political martyr, and made to circulate once more in the realm of imaginary identifications and kitsch fantasies.

Kurdish propaganda poster celebrating Andrea Wolf (with her assumed Kurdish name of Sehit Ronahi) after her death as a revolutionary martyr. These images were used on marches by PKK-sympathetic groups. 

Within her exploration of the power of images – in their continual circulation and with their continual transformations of meaning, to feed into reality, producing myths that are then performed – Steyerl's film includes a meditation on the martial arts cinema with which she and Andrea Wolf alike were obviously so fascinated as youths – Steyerl making a home-made B-Movie homage to the genre as her first directorial experiment, and Wolf taking up karate as a part of her self-creation as a militant, as an act, if you like, of self-empowerment. In November, Steyerl also recounts the myth of Bodhidharma travelling from India to China and founding the Shaolin Temple, creating the archetype of the lone, wandering warrior, dedicated to truth and justice and fighting the strong and the tyrranical with bare hands alone. It was a myth spread globally by the martial arts movies that boomed in the seventies, even finding its way into avant-garde texts such as René Viénet's Situationist classic Can Dialectics Break Bricks? – a film I've started to discuss elsewhere on this blog, and which Steyerl quotes at a number of points in her own twenty-first century revisitation of the "kung fu" moment.

Still from Steyerl's early film, as reproduced in November.
Of course, as much contemporary scholarship has set out to show, the story of Bodhidharma and the story of a Shaolin rebellion is so much myth, constructed largely only in the twentieth century, under the radical modernising programmes of the Nationalists and Communists, which sought to co-opt the physical cultures of martial arts into a nationalist revival of the body politic. Much of the discourse around the martial arts (and out of which martial arts cinema emerges) seems to hinge on the obsessive and contrary acts of making and unmasking myth. It has recently become something of an industry to debunk the Chinese martial arts' claims to older and more subversive histories, with writers in particular such as Peter Lorge and Stanley Henning in the forefront.

But this, for me, is where Steyerl's complex negotiation of the territory trumps the demythologisers. Her film at once criticises and lays bare the treachery of images and myths, their mutability, their seductive but dangerous power, and their ability to never quite mean what you want them to mean, even in your own acts of appropriation; but it also seems to embrace the productive power of myth, and of popular culture as a site of its circulation. Myth is the very power (the puissance, as Lacoue-Labarthe put it)[1] to produce a self and a position in the world, however compromised such a position may become by the instability of representation, and the powers that already colonise the image. The grasping and active, critical renegotiation of myth, rather than its simple rejection, becomes an important emancipatory activity.

In marking this complexity and ambivalence, Steyerl manages to avoid the trap into which the martial arts mythbusters fall. Such mythbusters fail to grasp the mythological power of their own acts of demythologisation. Thus when the Jingwu academy, back in the early twentieth century, broke the image of the Shaolin Temple as the fount of martial arts (a myth at that point not actually that old), it was only to replace it with the myth of the patriotic Huo Juanjia and his death at the hands of Japanese oppressors. And similarly it seems hardly co-incidental that at the moment when there is a rage for Western Scholars such as Lorge and Henning who (to put it a little crudely and to exaggerate just a little) deracinate the cultural aspects of Chinese martial arts in order to turn them into objects of comparative study, this is actually also the moment of the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), perhaps one of the most reactionary forms of martial artistry since the kung fu craze, in its gender politics as well as its spectacularisation of violence as pay-per-view spectacle, and one that also pretends to a "scientific" and trans-cultural neutrality in order to assert its suppose superiority over backwards forms of ("foreign") traditional practice. Such a scientism is in its own way an ultimate form of magical and mythologising gesture, set now under capitalist imperatives for making money.

(Some interesting analysis of the mythical nature of MMA and the like has recently been given in the "Martial Arts Studies" edition of JOMEC, to which I also contributed – see in particular Paul Bowman's reflection on "realism" in contemporary martial arts, and Daniele Bolelli's analysis of the role of "Gladiator" movies in the forming the nature of the visual spectacle of MMA. But I digress...)

Steyerl's film is called November. Within the film, the title is explained through the contrast to the revolutionary moment of October, a moment where things appear simple and true, and revolutionary action can be grasped confidently. By November, things are looking much more tangled and messy, the revolutionary enthusiasm shown as always already compromised by – and fallen into – the false images on which it depended. Steyerl doesn't retreat from problematising a radical legacy in her self-construction as a critical leftist, noting the ways in which in real history the "good guys" (even Andrea Wolf) are often not nearly as innocent or lilly-white as their mediatised images. November is a time of distrust and scepticism. It's a time when identifications need to be rebuilt, but also when they need to be guarded against.

It seems to me that martial arts cinema as a global phenomenon was always a cinema of "November" - a cinema of the aftermath – springing up in the wake of the global wave of decolonisation and the protests of "1968." It was always a cinema where the real had passed into its simulations and its uncanny (and untrustworthy) imagistic doubles. The question might remain, however, of the "truth" that such images nonetheless might carry into the present.

November, then is a time of haunting. A time, as Derrida might suggest, quoting Hamlet "out of joint." (See his Spectres of Marx.) Steyerl seems to capture this haunted and haunting quality of media images very well, neither there nor not-there. To live in the realm of media images is to live a haunted existence.

Perhaps this is the point, more generally, with the martial arts film, too. Even if the myths they recount don't simply tie us to a simple continuity with the past, in the way that official Chinese Communist Party histories sought to imagine the Boxers Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion, the uprisings of the Hongmen (Tiandihui), or further back peasant revolts such as that of Li Zicheng, in their own image, there seems to me to remain the question of what it is that returns in them, what haunts them, from elsewhere, as it were.

Steyerl's film can be seen here:

[1] According to Lacoue-labarthe, myth "is a 'power' [puissance], the power that is in the gathering together of the fundamental forces and orientations of an individual or a people, that is to say the power of deep, concrete, embodied identity." See his Heidegger, Art and Politics, p.93.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Lau Kar-leung and Walter Benjamin

An authentic and auratic performing body – Gordon Liu in Lau Kar-leung's 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Having made two blog posts here recently, I realised that I should probably also add a link to my recent ("proper") article,  "Lau Kar-leung with Walter Benjamin: Storytelling, Authenticity, Film Performance and Martial Arts Pedagogy," published in am exciting special edition of the journal JOMEC (JOurnalism, MEdia and Cultural studies) on the expanding new field of "Martial Arts Studies," edited by Paul Bowman.

The article is here:

and the table of contents for the journal is here:

There's some really fascinating material in the journal besides my own contribution!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Pacific Rim (2013) and The Wolverine (2013) Part 2 – Pacific Rim


In my last post, I started a comparison of a pair of films: Guillermo de Toro’s Pacific Rim and James Mangold’s Wolverine. Both of these were released in 2013, and both seem to articulate a shared fantasy space of the global realm, articulated around the Orient as a locus of desire and anxiety. The films, of course, were released at a moment when – at the very least in the Western imagination – the political and economic hegemony of the West, and of America in particular, were increasingly being challenged by the growth of China and the “Asian Tiger” economies. Recently, for example, it has been projected that the twenty-first century will be an “Asian Century” in the same way that the nineteenth century was British and the twentieth was an American one. [1]  I would bet good money that a search under the keyword “China” on any mainstream Western news site (the BBC for example) will easily confirm the pervasiveness of this as a media narrative, with articles dealing with China consistently focusing on its growth, industrialisation and supposed impending economic dominance over the West – peppered of course with criticisms of its human rights record – to produce an overall picture of a set of fears that perhaps hasn’t moved on enormously since the era when “yellow peril” was a frequent idea. Recently, however, more sober analysis in the New Left Review has highlighted the extent to which, in spite of the tectonic shifts in the global economy caused by the shock of 2008, such prognoses are a matter of the Western imagination rather than stark economic fact, with Peter Nolan and Jin Zhang, for example, showing just how far behind American dominance far-Eastern corporations are, and the extent to which the current markets are still stacked to perpetuate this situation. [2] (I use the metaphor of “tectonics” with Pacific Rim in mind, to which I will be turning shortly!).

The argument in my recent post, through a fairly basic analysis of Wolverine, has been to suggest that the plots of some recent American action movies are formed as a response to such anxieties. What ensues is a renewed sense of the East as a privileged object or space of desire and mystery, and the revivification of a hardly reconstructed orientalism. A further dimension is added to this by the way that Asia’s growth as an economic and political power has been mirrored by the arrival of popular-cultural and cinematic forms (we are concerned here in particular with action cinema) imported to the West. Such a process started, of course, with the arrival of the Japanese chanbara during the “economic miracle” of the 50s and 60s, followed by the kung fu movie at the height of Hong Kong’s 1970s electronics boom, the appearance of Korean cinema with the rise of the Four Tigers, and an interest in swordplay (wuxia) films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero at the time when the PRC was coming to the fore as a global power. These genres, rising to compete with Hollywood, have had a decisive impact on global cinema – especially action cinema – and their tropes, images and ways of filming have started to permeate Hollywood’s language, creating a situation where a cultural as well as an economic hegemony seems to dissolve, and must be negotiated by Western directors such as Mangold and del Toro.

In this post, I move on to look at how the same factors play out in del Toro’s Pacific Rim.

Pacific Rim, to give a brief overview, is set in a future in which giant Godzilla-like monsters from a mysterious other dimension emerge from the intercontinental rift at the heart of the Pacific Ocean, to attack humanity. (The monsters are named, after the Japanese monster-movie genre, kaiju.) To fight these monsters, humanity unites and builds a series of hyper-technological giant robots, called in the film Jaeger (the German for “hunters”), each piloted by a pair of pilots whose minds are united to form a single consciousness through a psycho-cybernetic link. However, the war is not going well for mankind. The film’s hero, Raleigh Becket (played by Charlie Hunnam), is a washed up Jaeger pilot, who has lost his brother whilst on a mission. He has a chance to prove himself once more, and teams up with the mysterious Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) – a Japanese woman who was saved as a child by an African-American Jaeger pilot, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who now plays the role of a father-figure for her, but also the General in charge of what’s left of the Jaeger programme. Mako and Releigh are each suffering too much from a mental trauma to be fully trusted pilots – Raleigh’s brother has died whilst he was in an electronic “mind-meld” with him, and Mako’s parents were killed in front of her whilst she was still a child. This being a movie, earth’s last stand will, of course, be left to them.

The film’s Pacific setting – tying it to the concerns of Wolverine – seems, as the movie progresses, to slide further and further East: the first monster attack, shown at the very start of the film, is in San Francisco, and the final scenes are set around Hong Kong, which is imagined in the mould of 1930s Hollywood Chinatown: a dark and impenetrable world of criminal networks, money, and exotic black-market commerce.

Concept art for the Hong Kong scenes in Pacific Rim.

In many ways, del Toro’s film, then, reiterates a series of the tropes that we are offered in Wolverine. At its core is an image of a “Pacific Rim” culture that might, perhaps, stand in for the global and for contemporary processes of globalisation (and for a dream of global reconciliation), and that connects, on the one side the American Occident, and on the other the easternmost reaches of Asia. Like in Wolverine, the fantasised Asian city in which much of the film is set is a locus of crime, gangsterism and decadence. Like Wolverine, the film riffs on Asian (and especially Japanese) cinematic genres, in particular this time playing on and making a series of explicit intertextual references to the Godzilla movies of the 1960s, but also providing us with some spectacular – if CGI-heavy – martial-arts style choreography, with giant anthropomorphic robots fighting monsters, and even a “dojo”-type scene where the hero and heroine square off with staves. Like Wolverine, Pacific Rim has a white American male protagonist, with the exotic, oriental setting doubled by the prominence of an Asian female love interest.

Pacific Rim, however, seems nonetheless a rather different kettle of fish from Wolverine. It’s an altogether more subtle and complex cinematic experience, and much harder to run the kind of crude semiotic-style analysis I have recently performed on The Wolverine. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh on the film, (I’d ove to read any kind of counter-argument!), but I’m not sure that there is much to be found in The Wolverine that lies in excess of the kind of analysis that I have run on it, but del Toro’s offering would, I think, be far from exhausted by a similar exercise. This may well make the analysis I’ll try and set out here a rather more unsatisfactory one than previously, bit I’ll do my best to make some sense of it here, in any case.

The first thing that probably complicates the picture is the “authorial” nature of the work. I just admit to not knowing enough about de Toro as an auteur to really push this kind of analysis, but Pacific Rim certainly reiterates many of the themes and motifs that have interlaced his other work: for example, the opening of a portal between this world and a hellish and daemonic “other” reality, that might itself, especially in combination with del Toro’s surrealistic visual language, be equated with the dark zone of the id. And perhaps, as with for example Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is also concerned with the influences of such an id on the nightmare of modern history. There is certainly, then, a potential for reading a degree of critical intent, and even self-reflexivity in del Toro’s evocation of the Pacific Rim geography as the setting of his film. Perhaps, however, we might need to consider the nature of the very gesture of locating the id, and all the monsters of the mind, in the Far East – its alterity transforming it into a kind of space of projected Western nightmares.

In spite of the ways in which such a gesture might be retrograde, Del Toro’s vision of the future is nonetheless altogether more dystopian and critical in its relation to an American world order than Wolverine. When aliens attack, and humanity is finally united to fight them, the ensuing world, resembling as it does the current global order of media image and free-market corruption, is hardly benign. It is depicted as a militarised, quasi-fascistic order in a state of economic and military crisis, sustained through the infantilising media worship of a warrior class, and with war turned into a video-game spectacle. (Does this sound familiar anyone?) This order is underpinned by the hopeless and ultimately futile labour of a proletarian mass building walls against the aliens. The divide between an exceptional military elite and the wall-building workers is dramatised by the protagonist’s fall and subsequent rise between these two classes. This world-state seems, in many ways, the uncanny double of the monstrous kaiju that invade our reality from beyond, and the imperial dreams of their alien creators. We can, of course, turn such a formulation around and find in the hellish monsters the uncanny double of the imperialism of global capitalism. (An article I published on the cultural history of sharks, might suggest as much, in any case!)

It seems to me that the question of trauma – and of the forms of splitting or fragmentation that accompany this – lie at the thematic heart of the film. Such a split, in geopolitical terms, might be at the core of the film’s picture of Pacific space, with the global imagined as a space of fracture and conflict – an interdimensional war, no less, even if this is one imagined in terms of a battle between an “other” marked with an Asian name (kaiju) and a “self” marked with a European word (Jaeger). These figures of trauma are also mirrored in the psychic traumas of the protagonists, of course. In the film the Asian-American transcontinental divide is envisioned in the form of a volcanic fissure – the crust of the earth opening up where plates collide – which also doubles as a kind of a rupture in space and time through which the kaiju arrive. This is located in the Mariana Trench, a place of enormous depth. If the Pacific is a human place, the film seems to suggest, it is a place that exists only on a series of edges, and these have between them a black gulf of division, which in terms of the film’s imagery equates with the dark heart of the unconscious. The Pacific Rim, however, is also a place where humanity (its Eastern and Western halves) are brought together – with the ocean as much a space of interchange, trade and linkage as it is of division, separation and conflict. 

The Marxist in me would suggest that, of course, it is the traumatic nature of capital and its turbulent histories that might constitute the trauma that lies at the heart of the film. More specifically, however, it is, perhaps, the histories of Western colonialism and imperialism. Interestingly, the three central protagonists of the film, Raleigh, Mako and Pentecost, form a racialised trinity (African, Euro-American and Asian), and it is only in their uniting as a kind of a family that the kaiju can ultimately be defeated. (Though we might ask about the cinematic conventionality of the fact that this will also involve Pentecost’s sacrifice. As L L Cool J wryly notes in Deep Blue Sea [dir. Renny Harlin, 1999], in a moment of cinematic reflexivity, when being pursued by  giant genetically modified shark, “I'm done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!”)

Mako, Pentecost and Raleigh – three races working together in Pacific Rim. 

A further answer to the nature of the trauma in question, which once again propels the film into the familiar territory we found ourselves in with Wolverine, might be the suggestion that this trauma is a matter of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. The film’s key movie reference is, of course, the Godzilla story, which first hit the silver screen in 1954. This in turn, it is often argued, was an image that formed in response to the anxieties about radiation in Japan at a time when the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh, and in the wake of the “Lucky Dragon 5” incident in which Japanese tuna fishermen were poisoned by the radiation produced by US atomic tests in the Pacific. It is perhaps, then, significant that in Pacific Rim the situation is only put right by the insertion of a nuclear charge into the intercontinental fissure from which the kaiju emerge – hence symbolically closing the circle of a set of anxieties stemming from the US atomic explosions of 1945. These explosions, furthermore, might also evoke a whole Cold War history – Korea, Vietnam and the like – which has also conditioned Hollywood’s vision of Asia as a zone of trauma.

The Pacific Rim also stands, however, not only as the image of trauma, but also as a potentially utopian image, of redemption and the restoration of wholeness and unity, an image of healing. Such wish fulfilment can be seen on the one hand as carrying with it a progressive wish, but it can also be understood as ideological in nature, staging a merely symbolic resolution of real conflicts that its catharsis ultimately supports. In a film named after an ocean, we might also think of this desire in terms of Freud’s “oceanic” wish, the desire to be one with the cosmos, a deeply ambivalent desire which is both about an absolute egoism in which the self swells to encompass the Universe, but is also about the desire for a complete loss of the self or ego.

This process of healing or uniting is thematised most strongly in the figure of the “mind-meld” which is necessary to control the giant Jaeger. Wired together through the neural “bridge,” the pilots find themselves “in” each other’s minds and fantasies, feeling each other’s emotions. It is an erosion of difference, and of the boundaries between self and other, an experience of absolute intimacy, and a thematic opposition to the oceanic “rift” from which the film’s monsters appear. The ability to form this bond between pilots seems to initially rest on forms of similarity, shared experience and shared biology – that is to say, by a form of shared identity. The film emphasises the importance of forms of “compatibility” between co-pilots. One can bond with the “other”, this is to say, only inasmuch as they are not really other at all. The first pilots we meet, Raleigh and Yancy, are brothers. The film’s antagonist, Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky) is paired with his father (Max Martini), making a similar familial-genetic (and all-male) bond. The Russians, if perhaps not family, and if a male-female partnership rather than a homo-social one, are represented with emphasised ethnic uniformity, making much of their linguistic difference, and their shared “look”/haircut, etc. A Chinese crew, seen very briefly, also display marked facial similarities, and sport identical shaved heads.  

Two pilots in harmony - undergoing a bridging of minds to control the Jaeger - video still from Pacific Rim

Interestingly, then, the key neural “bridge” of the film is between characters with seemingly the most obstacles between their making this connection: with Raleigh and Mako, it is a bridge between people with very different experiences, races and a different gender, and even seemingly very different temperaments. What Raleigh and Mako, perhaps share, is their status as outsiders (i.e. their very difference) and, above all, their traumatised pasts – their very fragmentation. This movement in the film, then, between characters who bond through similarity (bond with “the same”) to characters who are able to bond with those who are different from them could be understood in a series of different ways. It might in some psychoanalytical readings equate to a certain maturation process, recognising and coming to terms with difference, the existence of the other, and the limits to the power of the self, and forming emotional and social (and, ultimately sexual) bonds with “others”. [3] (One question might be whether such a narrative, as presented in the film, is fundamentally hetero-normative.) such a narrative might also be read on the geo-political level – given the thematisation of such a space in the film, as marked by its very title. The trauma, the scar, the rift which must be bridged is the gulf between East and West. (As Kipling put it, back in the heyday of orientalism, “East is East and West is West / And never the twain shall meet.”)

Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako in Pacific Rim

What Pacific Rim does, then, is collapse the social/sexual with the geopolitical – and again we might ask whether this is a matter of a kind of utopian wish in a split world, or an ideological image which actually amounts to a form of imperial culture. Perhaps the answer is not either/or, but both/and.

Such a recognition of the collapse between the psycho-sexual and the geo-political brings us to the character of Mako. In some ways, it is striking how the same kinds of stereotypes as we meet with in the case of Wolverine are replayed here, but it is also interesting the ways that del Toro’s film complicates the picture.

Mako, then, may seem at first to integrate the two figures of the Asian-woman-as-object-of-desire that are offered in Wolverine, Mariko and Yukio. Like Mariko. she is at points delicate, vulnerable and passive, especially as the girl who is rescued by Pentecost, and with regards to him she is dutifully submissive, as dictated by filial piety. On the other hand – as we see her, for example, in the “dojo” fight/training scene – she is also the lethal and phallic woman warrior like Yukio. She remains, as a character, almost entirely defined by the image of her suppoesd racial/ethnic/cultural characteristics. To a large degree, in spite of these contradictions, and despite having a complexity far beyond the Mariko/Yukio pair in Wolverine, Mako remains not a whole lot more than a cardboard cut-out character.

Mako strikes a martial arts pose during the "dojo" training scene in in Pacific Rim 

However, in spite of these limitations, Mako certainly has a lot more agency in the film than Yukio and Mariko do, becoming very much a partner and co-protagonist to Raleigh. In this much, we are already doing fairly well for Hollywood in terms of gender politics. It’s also interesting that Mako in fact becomes the only character actually endowed with the eroticised cinematic gaze, in a scene where she watches a shirtless Raleigh through the keyhole of his room, with the white male body turned into the erotic object for an Asian female looker – a scene that must be something of a rarity in the history of American cinema. In fact, Mako fits into a much longer standing fascination in del Toro’s films with active (if girl-like) female protagonists, such as, most obviously, Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth. This comparison might remind us to cast her as a kind of fairy-tale princess. The nuances of a gender analysis of this figure of the fairly-tale girl in del Toro’s work – and in film and literature more generally – are definitely beyond my present expertise, however.

Pacific Rim as fairy tale.

The ending, of the film, then, in which Raleigh and Mako journey together into the darkest depths of the Oceanic fissure (and, in fact, at the same time into the dangerous “drifts” of their shared unconscious minds) to destroy all monsters, and from which they emerge only by saving each other, to end in a triumphal embrace, marks a real “partnership” in a very different form from what we are offered in Wolverine. The fantasy that this final coupling entails is very much in harmony, overall, with the analysis that I have been presenting here: in many ways Pacific Rim hardly escapes the basic cultural structures or fantasies through which Hollywood has negotiated the collision of East and West. It is worrying, in terms of the film’s bid to do more than fall into clumsy racial stereotypes and retrograde orientalist fantasies, that ultimately its eroticised vision of the geopolitical hangs on the all-too-familiar pairing of a masculine occident and a feminine orient. (I wonder: how might the film be transformed if Raleigh were to be cast as a white woman and Mako an Asian man?) But Pacific Rim – even in offering us a different kind of partnership, and one that is at least more fully human – certainly seems to take a step towards working away at the contradictions of Western cinema’s fantasies of the orient, “traversing” them, and re-positioning us differently within them.

Raleigh and Mako at the end of Pacific Rim

I’m pretty sure that this post has hardly “cracked” the enigma of del Toro’s film, and I remain quite conscious that I’ve largely been dependent on a fairly literal reading of its narrative and said little about the cinematic and visual aspects that perhaps actually make it an interesting film to watch. I’m also rather aware that it’s been something of a rambling and over-long piece, so I hope that some readers get this far, to the very end! I hope, however, that it has been of interest to a reader, and helps in some way in furthering an understanding of, or the development of a critical angle on, the film in question.

I’d also be very glad to hear from anyone with other ideas about the film or if anyone has any comments on the argument I’ve made here.


[1] See for example Michael Elliott, “China Takes on the World,” Time (11 Jan 2007),9171,1576831,00.html.]

[2] Peter Nolan and Jin Zhang, “Global Competition after the Financial Crisis,” NLR 64 (July/Aug 2010): 97-108.

[3] I'm thinking primarily of the kinds of analysis offered by Melanie Klein.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Pacific Rim (2013) and The Wolverine (2013) Part 1 – The Wolverine

Pacific Rim (dir. del Torro, 2013) and The Wolverine (dir. Mangold, 2013)

On this blog I've "started" a number of pieces of work with promises for continuation that have never been kept. Many of these are projects that are on the way to going elsewhere, possibly with views to future publication, so further posts on those projects here may well probably never  see the light of day. Especially with the loads of teaching and administration that I seem to labour under these days. However, with the article started below I really do promise (honest!) to get a "part two"out during the Summer. It's even mostly written. And I've no intention of publishing this material elsewhere.

This piece of writing starts with a co-incidence – or rather something that perhaps just seems like a co-incidence: a conjunction at the heart of which lies a complex tangle of motivation that is both my own but also that of the contemporary American movie industry. On a long-haul flight from the UK to America for a conference, I decided to dip into the in-flight movies. Over the hours on the plane, not wanting to plump for the more exhausting fare of the art-house offerings available, I found myself watching a couple of action movies, and the films that I landed on (out of an admittedly huge choice) were Guillermo del Torro’s distinctly auteurial spin on the popular generic effects movie, Pacific Rim, and James Mangold’s rather less directorially distinguished The Wolverine. What struck me was that in each of these films alike I had been thrown into a Hollywood vision of the global which revolved around the imaginary Far East as a locus of desire and a space of fantasy. Each (in their different ways) reclaimed and reworked iconographic and technical elements of Asian popular movies in their attempts to reinvigorate the phantasmatic space of American action cinema. Each, I think, is also involved in a negotiation of cinematic language itself, as this has been reconfigured by Hollywood's brush with Asian film production. (The conjunction perhaps has a renewed interest at the present moment when a new remake of Godzilla has just been released...)

First, them, The Wolverine.

The Wolverine takes us to Japan, rehashing an almost-unreconstructed set of orientalist stereotypes and, over the course of the film, reasserting white/Western symbolic ownership of the “action” genre, integrating motifs, from Asian genres, of the Yakuza, ninjas, samurai, and so on, into an all-American superhero spectacle, at the heart of which is the strong, masculine, “superior” white hero, who gets to out-action the action specialists of the East, quite literally picking up their weapons (the katana, etc.) and using them to defeat the “natives”. The ideological message is clear: the American Way is naturally superior to its alternatives.

Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), gripping the Japanese katana in The Wolverine (2013)

Over the course of the film, the eponymous hero wins the heart of not one but two Japanese women, each standing for one of the paired stereotypes through which Asian femininity is represented. One the one hand there is Mariko (Tao Okatomo): a delicate, vulnerable “butterfly”, marked out in the film’s narrative through an association with “traditional” ways of life and modes of femininity. She is the damsel in distress who seems for the body of the film its preferred erotic object. On the other hand there is the sword-toting, subculturally dressed bodyguard Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a “kick-ass babe” in whose company Wolverine in fact metaphorically sets off into the sunset at the end of the movie (flying West on a plane, rather than on horseback). But this, it seems, in the film, is an altogether more Platonic friendship than the association set up with Mariko. The movie gets it both ways: the hero gets the (exotic) girl(s), but returns to his monadic, asexual state (as is common in the superhero genre). In terms of its gender politics, the film gets to assert the triumph of the “empowered”, modern, phallic (Asian) woman over her castrated double, but only on the proviso that she becomes de-sexualised, turned into a “buddy”, perhaps a partner in some cross-gender, doubly sublimated “bromance” rather than “romance” per se… The threat to white-Western masculinity constituted by this fantasmatic object of desire is thus neutralised on a number of levels.

Rila Fukushima as Yukio, in The Wolverine (2013)

In the process of working out (winning and then rejecting) these romantic attachments, Wolverine is contrasted with a series of dysfunctional Asian masculinities – he defeats them through physical superiority and moral integrity. These misfiring Asian men include Mariko’s fiancée Singen. (This being a Hollywood representation of the East, this is an arranged marriage of course). Singen is a corrupt politician who, even when caught in a moment of heterosexual excess with two call girls, is nonetheless feminised, wearing a pair of red “panties”. (One of the aforementioned call girls is, of course, a blonde, raising the spectre of the yellow-peril “other” who threatens the Western/white male’s possession of a racialised “womenfolk”.) There is the tyrannical father who is jealous of the daughter’s inheritance and plots to kidnap and kill her in order to take this over. Then there is the young ninja and childhood sweetheart who is supposed to protect Mariko but in fact sells her out to her enemies, ultimately more connected to an ethic of “family” and “duty” than to one of personal romantic attachment and individuation, setting up a classic East-West binary. And finally there is the sick and dying grandfather, Yashida, the originary point of the film’s fantasy of the East as a decaying, monstrous patriarchy, which cannot fully present a core of masculinity from which to order its gender-space. It is from this network of representatives of corrupt masculinity that Wolverine rescues the heroine (and ultimately thus an invidious “tradition” involving duty, arranged marriages, and so on which they manifest). This, of course, is the frequent orientalist trope: we must invade country X to protect the women there from their misrule by primitive, corrupt, decadent, and thus improperly manly men.

Hal Yamanouchi as Yashida in The Wolverine (2013)

The sexism of the film (and the racism involved in its negotiation of gender) is doubled by a disturbing historical revisionism. The film’s narrative spur – the cause for Wolverine’s visit to Japan – lies in a story from the very close of the Second World War. Wolverine is held in a prisoner-of-war camp and the guards are releasing the prisoners, recognising that defeat is now certain. A guard lets Wolverine out of the bunker in which he is imprisoned, and in return Wolverine prevents the guard from committing hara kiri. (Again, then, we have an American saving the other from the barbarity of his/her own culture…) At this instant we see, across the landscape, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Wolverine uses his mutant’s body – which has the power to regenerate in response to any harm done to it – to shield his new protégée, and when they emerge from the bunker, the entire landscape around is in ruin.

The main events of the film take place years later, and the one-time prison guard, Yashida, has become an industrial magnate, and it is his invitation to visit to say goodbye before he dies that brings Wolverine to Japan. At the heart of the film, then, is a complex of guilt and denial, with the all-American hero on hand to save the Japanese other, and to be marked as himself present at the scene as a victim (even a saviour) rather than an aggressor. It is obviously (though this is not stated) the radiation dose that the industrialist has received that is the cause of the cancer from which he is dying. Yet it turns out that in fact he is the film’s real (hidden) villain, who has set up the whole visit (including faking his own death) in order to trap Wolverine, and rob him of his immortality, which Yashida seeks to appropriate for himself. Turning the victim/perpetrator relationship around, Wolverine appears as the wronged party in the film, with Yashida taking on the role of a corrupt betrayer of American largesse – suggesting perhaps that the film constitutes an expression of anxiety about the growth of the East as an economic and political power in recent decades, marking a reversal and decay of American (neo-)colonial mastery. The quest for immortality takes on, in Yashida, the flavour of a sinister quest for power, in contrast to Wolverine’s “manifest destiny” as an immortal. For Wolverine, in contrast to Yashida, his special superpower is a “white man’s burden” that, unasked for, he must bear stoically – the mark of a natural right and duty to rule and take responsibility for others.

The film can be read as telling of a renewal of this (American) destiny. At the start of the film Wolverine has taken to the woods, living amongst animals, withdrawn from society and its purposes. Perhaps we might recognise the trope as an echo of the “Rambo-esque” retreat to the woods in a range of post-Vietnam Hollywood offerings. Wolverine is drawn back into the world of men first through his sense of justice: when a bear is killed inhumanely by hunters he goes into town to take revenge for it. (Is this, then also a vision of a corrupt order that needs renewal? A structuring trope of the film seems to be this renewal or regeneration of moral and social orders – akin perhaps to Wolverine’s own ability to heal his body. Wolverine taking his place of leadership back in the world is a matter of rejuvenating both his own society and that of the Asian “other”, with America unnaturally atrophied and the rise of the “other” appearing as a kind of excessive, disorderly, destructive cancerous growth, like Yashida’s illness.) But Wolverine’s sparking of conscience is reinforced with the arrival of Yukio, who adds to the “quest” the reappearance of an erotic dimension – the seduction of the orient. (Yukio, of course, serves only as a step that leads him to the film’s key object of erotic fascination, the wan Mariko.) This renewal of Wolverine’s warrior charter and his erotic attachment in the gendered and raced other could easily, of course, be read as a parallel to the return of an American interventionist policy in the late twentieth century, a reversal of the isolationism that has at other points marked its history.

The film, then – read at least in the rather crude ideology-critique/semiotic analysis terms above – seems to make a kind of a claim to the importance of the American hero’s warrior identity and destiny, as the natural leader and saviour of all the other inhabitants of the world. But what interests me is the way that this in its turn folds back into the very form of the film, and its relation to international genres. Can the film be better understood as a kind of an allegory of its own production, a fantasy of its own place in the landscape of global culture? Is it American action cinema whose destiny is reasserted in this film, which just like Wolverine within the work, seeks to pick up the tools of its other – the motifs and techniques of Japanese and Hong Kong cinema – and refashion them into an all-American genre? Is this a reinvigoration of a moribund superhero genre, which perhaps has had its period metaphorically isolated in the woods before its reinvention in the movies of the noughties? (Especially after Spiderman [2002], a film itself made in the wake of the highly significant moment of 9-11, and which reminded us, at a moment when America was stepping up as a global policeman, that “with great power comes great responsibility”.) Like Wolverine, part of what brings this popular-cultural genre back out into the light of day is the emergence of a set of oriental objects of desire. These objects are the films of the Japanese and Hong Kong New Waves of the eighties and nineties (and, before that, the trans-national phenomena of “kung fu” and “chanbara”), and the absorption of their action techniques and aesthetics into a mainstream Western visual/cinematic language. The “orient” becomes a space of fantasy, desire and identifcation through which such movies can re-articulate themselves. The only thing that is, perhaps, notable in Wolverine is the extent to which this becomes so visibly thematised within the film as well as forming its very form. Perhaps, however, it is not even unique here – think of the fetishisation of martial arts in Batman Begins (2005) or even Electra (1996).

The point behind this, too, of course, is the shift in power away from the West and the rise of Eastern economic, political and cultural power – a shift that has gathered momentum since the 60s and 70s when the superhero comics of Marvel first had their day. Film form, content and economic reality seem startlingly aligned in the anxieties that seem to be articulated within this film.

In the next instalment, I'll be looking at the somewhat more complex and nuanced way in which Guillermo del Torro's Pacific Rim – released the same year as The Wolverine.

Part 2 is now online - available here: