Goodnight, goodnight. Wednesday, Nov 7 2007 

That’s it for the semester, I think. It’s been an excellent learning curve for me, since I have never done a cinema studies course before. I have very much enjoyed it. Doing a subject in an area you have no significant experience in can feel as if you’re starting to read a book from the middle, or something of the sort. But it has been great to step out of the usual surroundings and see how it is when you apply the knowledge you have in new ways.

Thanks for a great semester! For completeness, this blog was maintained by Joy Wu, for the subject World Screen: Aesthetics and Politics in Semester 2, 2007. I can be reached at maybetomorrow @ for any comments [I’m trying to prevent the horrors of spam – just remove the spaces!].

Good versus Evil: Politics and the child’s body. Saturday, Nov 3 2007 

Pan’s Labyrinth.

Pan’s Labyrinth.

Another retrospective post, and likely my last. I’m going to go all the way back to week one, here, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). What hit me while watching this film was the increasing number of films that seem to be using the form of a child’s body in a fantastical universe as a canvas on which to paint political stories and commentary. Just thinking quickly, in the past few years, we have had the Harry Potter films, The Dark is Rising (which apparently was butchered unrecognisably from its source material), the Narnia films, the upcoming His Dark Materials adaptations, and that’s merely the beginning of a list. Why has it become so enticing to tell our moral stories from the vision of children?

An answer to this might come in looking at the political world around us. It has been over five years since the “War on Terror” has begun, over five years since we have been at war with an adjective that often lacks any corporeal substance behind it. It might be arguable, then, that our culture is longing for the naivete of the child’s body and the child’s views of the world. This is a return to innocence, in a sense, to a time when not only our own morals were far simpler, but so were our views of others’ morals. Fantasy, on the other hand, allows a space where anxieties we are experiencing in our own world can be depoliticised and represented.

In Pan’s Labyrinth the world around Ofelia is a political quagmire in which she has no agency, so she copes by creating her own fantasy world in which her moral choices come to be imbued with meaning. Is the trend towards child protagonists a similar attempt on our culture’s part to find some understanding and meaning in our own moral and political actions? Is our consumption of them a crutch in a time where we feel we have no agency, just as Ofelia’s secret kingdom is for her? There is certainly something escapist about these films, and this idea is quite conversant with Laplanche & Pontalis’s view that fantasy is a setting for desire, ‘a place where conscious and unconscious, self and other, part and whole meet’. (Quoted from Linda Williams, Gender, Race and World Cinema)


Comparing Pan’s Labyrinth and Harry Potter.

Harry Potter.

I enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth immensely, and I think it did an excellent job of posing questions of morality and asking the viewer, and the characters, to answer them. Particularly affecting was, I think, the choice the town doctor is forced to make, when he gives up his life in a stand to give a man in pain a peaceful death. The heroine of the piece is also given an strong emotional dilemma, and the lack of Hollywood ending is what gives the film its emotional resonance for me. It is for these reasons that I think Pan’s Labyrinth, though it is a fantasy film with a child protagonist, escapes the prism of pure political escapism. It acts as a commentary on the phenomenon even as it is a part of it. When you compare Del Toro’s film to the Harry Potter series, for example, I think the moral simplicity of the latter becomes starkly clear. In Harry Potter, the titular character never has any true moment of moral questioning: he is essentially a Jesus figure who does not seem to have to undergo any moral interrogation. I do think Pan’s Labyrinth succeeds, in many ways, where the Harry Potter series fails as a mature work. (The comparison of Harry‘s origin in a book series and Pan’s Labyrinth as an organic film might also be interesting to think on.)

I risk sounding like a curmudgeon, so I’ll disclaim that I enjoyed the first few books of the Harry Potter series very, very much. I do feel, however, that the ultimate moral lesson of the series was extremely facile and the ending revealed the books as “just a children’s series after all”. Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, is far more a film for adults, even with its young protagonist, and so it’s through this film that we might achieve a level of self-awareness that we cannot in viewing purely escapist works.

“Truth is the first casualty of war.” Sunday, Oct 28 2007 

Since I started this blog rather late in the semester, I’m going to go back and post a few things that pertain to my reactions and thoughts to the earlier films in the course. We began by watching a lot of films to do with war, and discussed militarism, compassion fatigue, the notion of the “war hero” and the role of the media in the “war event”.

Of the films we watched, I thought No Man’s Land (2001) encapsulated these themes particularly excellently, deftly revealing the futility of war, the ridiculousness of bureaucracy in situations where human lives are at stake, and the ways a camera can both help and hinder — capture, and completely miss — the real issue.

My thoughts returned to these themes again when I read about Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), which mixes fiction and documentary to retell the real-life rape and killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by American soldiers. The film used the soldiers’ home-made war videos, blogs, and YouTube footage with fictionalised material to form a mosaic that reflects the real event.

De Palma, who made the somewhat similar Casualties of War (1989) about the Vietnam war, says that Redacted is, “an attempt to bring the reality of what is happening in Iraq to the American people”. These images exist, he says, but “not in the major media … The media is now really part of the corporate establishment.”


De Palma at New York Film Festival Conference.


But De Palma’s endeavour to present to the wider public what has been redacted has not been an easy one. In the video above he talks about how the cut of the picture montage at the end of the film was “violated”: “Redacted [itself] is in fact redacted”. De Palma then goes on to accuse producer Mark Cuban for making the changes since they “disturbed him”. At this, Eamonn Bowles (from Magnolia Pictures) speaks out from the back of the theatre, proclaiming, “that’s not true!”

When Bowles stresses the legal barricades that surround using the pictures, De Palma dubs them “specious”. Undeterred, Bowles ripostes that there would “be no legal recourse” to using the pictures, and further suggests, “the photos are extremely disturbing … I think, thematically, [the new cut] works even better”. “That”, quips De Palma, “is not your judgment to make.”

At the end of the conference, co-producer Jason Kliot spoke to clarify the issue as one involving Fair Use laws, which, he says, have “set it up so we cannot use images of our own culture to tell the truth about our own culture.”


A lot of questions arise out of the Redacted debate. Has the media really become part of the “corporate establishment”, and if so, why? Is it because of our compassion fatigue, which has meant that such images no longer have the impact to be newsworthy? Is it because of propaganda, as De Palma suggests (“being a film director, you’re very sensitive to the way — how should I say? — propaganda is presented”)? Is it a natural result of new avenues for free speech, like online news blogs and YouTube (these are, of course, only as available as people have internet access in a country where such sites are unblocked)?

I think there’s also something really interesting in the way Redacted seems to use the filmic gaze to capture what documentary film is unable to. This odd spinning together of fiction and reality is, essentially, a way to re-create reality the only way it can exist. Have we reached a time when “fiction” is truer than news (truth)?

I suppose that, for those of us sitting comfortably in our first-world living rooms, on a comfort-zone diet of advertising, reality television, and the Hollywood blockbuster, the only reality of wars in far-off places have for us, is through the images we consume from the media. Just as No Man’s Land suggests, the media has the ability to construct realities, but it is also able to question them.

The horrors of war are often all-encompassing, and likely there is no way to truly represent them through any physical medium (Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique poses this question), but that does not mean that war, and all that comes with it, is not a part of the world we live in. Surely, if film can be used to shake up our generation’s myopia that gives more import to trashy celebrity gossip than to the realities of war, if it is able to thrust into our vision some of the truths we seek to ignore — surely, surely, that can only be a good thing.


[ Redacted stuns Venice | Redacting Redacted ]

Culture Clash: authenticity on different horizons. Tuesday, Oct 23 2007 

Seven Swords.

Seven Swords.

The films we watched this week and last week, Seven Swords and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and … Spring), both come out of East Asia. Particularly in regards to Seven Swords, there was a lot of discussion of the “knock-off”. To what extent can we assess and consider the authenticity of the tropes and symbols which these two films both employ? Hyangjin Lee describes Tsui Hark’s films as “nationalism on speed”, while Kim Ki-Duk has been criticised for exploiting Asian stereotypes in his work. Is this reducing Asianness to categories that are defined by a “Western” framework, and how problematic is it?

What, exactly, does it mean for an Asian film to be popular in “the West” but not in its home country? Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon achieved far more success on foreign shores, and this may be in part because it was an Asian film made more for Western eyes than for its home base. For example, the actors in the film came from both China and Hong Kong, so the film was at times plagued with bad accents: something that will inevitably be distracting to those fluent in Mandarin, but not at all for foreign audiences.

So, how problematic are such things? Kim Ki-Duk, of course, is also an example of someone extremely popular with foreign audiences, but does not do so well at home. The idea of fetishising the ‘exotic’ is always problematic, but how far should films work to preserve realism? What if a realistic portrayal of a culture will lead to disinterest in it entirely? Is this a problem?

Before I mire myself in endless questions I’ll then fail to answer, I think it would be interesting to use the framework of hermeneutics to discuss this problem. Hans-Georg Gadamer was pet student of philosopher Martin Heidegger, and has been called ‘the decisive figure in the development of twentieth century hermeneutics’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The crux of his theory of understanding is that understanding is historically situated.



Gadamer on ‘horizons’ and meaning: ‘The real meaning of a text … is … always codetermined by the historical situation of the interpreter. The meaning of a text goes beyond its author not occasionally but always.’ (Gadamer, Truth and Method)


For Gadamer, all understanding is situated, and hence, limited. The limited vision we possess is what he calls our ‘horizon’. The interpretation of any text, then, will perhaps be the fusion of different horizons — the viewer’s and the film maker’s. Looked at in this way, when we watch a film from a different culture, we will inevitably superimpose our own values, from our own cultural histories and experiences, on the film’s. Each experience of a film would then be a re-creation of meaning.

What does this view yield? I suppose we can consider that different views and cultural understandings need not immediately be rebuffed: that their different truths may still hold some legitimacy. Of course, even as Gadamer’s theory seems to advocate subjective truths, he also suggests that horizons are flexible, and can change and grow as we do. The idea of a malleable horizon, then, means that though we are limited by our vantage point, our view need not be myopic. And perhaps this is a good tack to take when considering these somewhat sensitive problems.

There will always be some difficulty when ideas of different cultures come into contact, but the best thing we might do is accept these differences, but retain our curiosity and a willingness to re-examine our own beliefs and alter them, at least a little, if necessary. Having respect for different cultures is important, I believe, but we should not allow it to completely overtake artistic freedom. Perhaps the most important thing is to be always aware of the sensitive and sticky areas, accepting them as inevitable, and taking care to nurture them.

À ma soeur!: Truth and Freedom in Film. Wednesday, Oct 10 2007 

À ma soeur!

À ma soeur!: Anaïs and Elena.

This entry is going to contain a rather large infodump of theory before it gets to go anywhere else. =)

Claire Colebrook, in ‘Does Sexual Difference Matter?’ discusses differing metaphysical structures on which we might build our discussions of sexual difference through the work of three different theorists.

Firstly, Deleuze. In the duel between transcendental and empiricist philosophies, Deleuze falls squarely in the latter’s army. Transcendental philosophies operate on the assumption that there exist these “transcendental” truths, buried gems that we try to dig for and, possibly, discover. However, Deleuze, following empiricists like David Hume, suggests that we should see events as the site of the “creation” of these truths — that is, that truths only exist insofar as their empirical connections allow. For him, there are no transcendental truths: events and our actions are the only truths that exist.

Derrida. Derrida believes that the meaning of a concept is “above and beyond” factual or contextual determination. As such, there is no “final” meaning. Concepts, therefore, are decisions, demlimitations, determinations. But they are decisions that “cannot hold”: the meaning is merely deferred. An inevitable consequence of this theory is that laws cannot exist. A law must hold beyond one single interpretation if it is to have any concrete meaning.

Irigaray. Feminist philosopher Irigaray believes that sexual difference is not a difference within the given, but rather the effect of difference that enables the given. That is, Irigaray believes that philosophy itself is gendered: the subject is part of the prism that determines its own existence, and thus cannot escape it. This, of course, recalls Michel Foucault’s theory of the relation of subject and power: the power structures that control us are also the ones that sustain our agency.

After taking us to these three stops of differing metaphysical frameworks, Colebrook then seems to veer off the tracks completely. We should realise, she tells us, “that a philosophy of the body is less appropriate than a bodily philosophy”. With one phrase, she collapses entirely the pages of theory she’s taken pains to outline for us, and suggests that we should confront sexual difference as an originary problem, through which we may “think” bodily issues. Colebrook advocates a depoliticising of the body, unconnected and unencumbered by any form of wider metaphysical shackling.


Friedrich Schiller.

Friedrich Schiller


What, then, does this mean? How do we create this kind of space for non-political thinking? It might here be pertinent to look at the ideas of Friedrich Schiller. In his Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, Schiller says, “it is only through beauty that we come to freedom”. This seemingly outlandish statement unpacks to actually be a rather simple idea: that while we are in the thrall of beauty and art, we are able to be “nothing”. For, in beauty there is no single political or moral lesson: there lies no determinate truth behind the doors. It offers a space in which no particular drive compels us, but rather shifts the paradigm so that power is restored to our own will.

Schiller deems beauty our “second creator”, for it, just like nature itself before it, “has imparted to us nothing further than this capacity for humanity, but leaves the use of it to our own determination of will” (Schiller, Letter XXI). Art, essentially, returns to us the freedom to choose who it is we are.


Merging the ideas of Colebrook and Schiller, we might apply them to Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001) (and her other films, like 1999’s Romance), and discuss how it works to exemplify them. Breillat is hardly a by-the-books film maker, and she has generated much controversy due to her willingness to push the envelope. She films sex scenes which do not shy away from the erect penis, uses endings that viewers entirely would not expect, and depicts scenes that may be difficult to watch: her camera is often lingers long past where a viewer’s comfort zone has ended. Perhaps these shocks and techniques that Breillat employs serve to open up a space for us to re-imagine ourselves, to see find a place that has no anchors to any particular political discourse. It is in this space, then, that we might be able see things different, mine our thoughts and emotions for new ideas that we may otherwise have missed, or overlooked; in this space where we may find the freedom of the “second creation” Schiller finds so enticing.