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A NOTE ON ASIAN FILM PROGRAMMING IN THE UNITED STATES
Black Film Bulletin, British Film Institute 1995


When, at the recent Flaherty Film Seminar, I said I saw my work more as a "programmer" rather than a "curator" of film, I was asked if the difference was political.

Yes, indeed; but not merely because of whatever elitist connotations the term "curator" has, as my colleague readily understood. Rather, I have found designing exhibitions from a political and social perspective more interesting: how these perspectives inform artistic and aesthetic intentions as well as audience appreciation. After all, saying what one likes or does not like is easy; more rewarding then to peer into the host of factors that lurk behind one's "tastes". When it comes to programming Asian and Asian American media, as I have done over the last ten years, I have found such a perspective crucial for one very important reason.

As an Asian in the US, I could not very well play to established Western notions about what was good Asian art or express a popular Western interest in an Asian subject. I remember when I first proposed a year-round Asian film program to The Asia Society in 1984, my supervisor remarked, "What's there to show?" Indeed, until then, besides Kurosawa, Ozu and Ray, there wasn't much else around in the US.

But as I had recently discovered, there was a cinema that needed to be shown: the new Chinese cinema, as filmmakers from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong began to emerge internationally. Merely showing them recognized their existence; keeping up a steady stream of these films familiarized American viewers with these works. Here, I have found it strategic and more enlightening to program these films thematically, so as to enable viewers approach the new work in a variety of ways, rather than assume a (non-existent) uniform standard of quality.

Therefore in the following years I programmed, in no particular order, Looking Back: The Chinese Cultural Revolution, an exhibition of films from contemporary China, propaganda film retrospectives, and Western documentaries by Ivens and Antonioni; the first US retrospectives of Ann Hui, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsui Hark, and on-going exhibitions of new works by China's Fifth Generation filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang.

Of course, there are other more straightforward programming I have done such as The Hong Kong Film Festival, the First US Festival of Vietnamese Cinema, and Projected Radiance: The Cinema of Indonesia - often necessary with Asian film cultures other than the Big Three of China, Japan and India. But even here, were one were to follow Duschamp's dictum that no work of art is complete without an audience, an Asian film is a different work when it is screened for an American audience. When we come to screening Asian works to an American audience, the audience brings a whole new system of cultural information to bear on the films, whether the audience is composed of European Americans, or Asian Americans, younger people, or any other racial, ethnic, generation, or class group. My interest in more activist programming led me to try to meet some of the expectations of an American audience as well as to explore some new dimensions in the appreciation of "good" cinema from Asian countries.

For instance, at the Hong Kong Film Festival at The Asia Society, I sought to do this by presenting on one platform what was then considered in the US, the High Art and Low Art, so to speak, of Asian cinema: that is, a Godardian film employing European structures like Allen Fong's Just Like Weather together with commercial films like Mr. Vampire and Peking Opera Blues with their unique and indigenous cinematic language deriving from folklore, traditional performance, Hollywood and popular culture.

It is noteworthy that since then, Hong Kong films are no longer confined to Chinatown theaters and are doing well in many other US venues. But it was important then in 1988, to establish that the quality of a Hong Kong film may not be judged by their correspondence to the established aesthetic of Western culture, but that a Western audience should expand its vocabulary of aesthetics to admit of cultural differences.

This vocabulary goes beyond aesthetics to politics, though audience responses are, more often than not, couched in allegedly objective terms like "good" and "bad" or even a more subjective "I liked it". A national political consensus becomes quite obvious among American audiences. It has been striking that almost every recent Chinese film has been appreciated by American audiences with the help of simplifying and decoding devices that renders most works into a "Cultural Revolution / Communism = Bad; New China/Capitalism = Good" paradigm that is as comforting as it is unjust to the complexities of the artist and the work.

As the programmer of The Tibet Film Festival of 1992, I found it essential to inject a programming theme to show films that went beyond the basic Western interest in the culture and religion of Tibet - which lay at the very core of the sponsors' approach to me for a film festival on Tibet - to the politics, not merely of the destruction of Tibet by Communist China, but of the nature of Western interest in Tibet.

It is curious that film programming does not get the scrutiny that is accorded, say, the curatorial perspective of a painting exhibition. Reviewers often concentrate on one or two films in the exhibition they have seen, or make superficial comments without either reading the program notes or asking the programmer the reasons behind a particular selection.

In recent exhibitions with particular programming thrusts, on Asian American film and video for From India to America: New Directions in Indian American Film and Video at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Asian Encounters: Recent Works by Asian American and British Asian Filmmakers at The Asia Society, not one critic commented on the mixing of film and video (most US festivals maintain a distinction between film and video exhibitions) in both exhibitions nor on the juxtaposition of Asian American and British Asian works in a latter program.

When a film exhibition is programmed with a certain event and audience in mind, programming does get its share of attention. And such are the rare occasions like the Flaherty Film Seminar, which this year focused on Asian and Asian Diaspora film and video. As the unpublished programming unreeled day after day, many connections were revealed to the cosseted participants, some of which I had not realized myself, like the American presence in the works of Mako Idemitsu and Go Takamine, connecting them thematically to Asian American film and video. But Flaherty is a luxury: where else can a programmer, by putting recognized Asian filmmakers side by side with emerging Asian American artists, do an Asian and Asian Diaspora program and not take the obvious route? But when a young video artist weeps, not out of rage or frustration during the discussion, but in rapture during Mani Kaul’s Siddeshwari, programming does seem to afford its satisfactions.

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Indonesian Film Poster

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