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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 54.3: Michelle Cho
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Postscript to “Genre, Translation, and Transnational Cinema”

Michelle Cho, McGill University

 

My article “Genre Translation and Transnational Cinema” was motivated by surprise at the ways in which Kim Jee-woon’s deliberately derivative The Good, the Bad, the Weird seemed to use genre intertextuality and repetition in novel ways. Going beyond mere pastiche, and also not relying on the knowing spectatorship of cformernemas, Kim’s repetition of genre tropes was both an idiosyncratic love letter to transnational westerns—earlier instances of genre translation—and a result of unconscious processes of transference. I emphasize the unconscious dynamics of transnational cinemas by suggesting, in the final analysis, that these unconscious translation processes on the part of contemporary audiences signify the global popular today.

In the time since writing this piece, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the question of the popular and the unconscious pleasures and processes that motivate transnational connection and use genre as a container for experience. To find answers that neither celebrate the popular without acknowledging the power relations that shore up dominant ideologies through popular narrative, nor dismiss popular entertainment as a mere purveyor of false consciousness, I’ve continually moved between the level of generality (or generic claims), in order to propose explanations of the transnational popular that could be portable, and the specificity of particular cases/works, with their incommensurable details, contexts, and histories. In this, I‘m in good company, as several anthologies on East Asian genre cinemas have been published since 2013. The cognitive movement between generality and specificity mirrors genre-filmmaking itself, which produces genre’s heuristic function, as an interpretive tool and a form that makes it possible to bridge incomparable works, contexts, industries, and modes of engagement. In both recent films and recent scholarship on Korean film and media (especially since 2012, when I submitted my piece), I’ve found support for my intuition that genre transference continues to be a more and more important avenue for transnational exchange.

If genre is understood as a principle of legibility, as a heuristic, the specifics of the generic economy continue to be crucial; since 2013, I daresay that discussions of genre have become central to critical and industry discourse on East Asian cinemas per se, whether mainstream commercial productions or art cinemas (as genre vocabularies are almost always employed within film markets), with auteur frameworks of interpretation bridging both art and commercial categories and industry sectors. With his 2013 Cannes entry Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke seems to have put a fine point on the uses of genre filmmaking to make perceivable contemporary and localized social problems, which are effaced by the oft-repeated and reductive developmental accounts advanced either by the Chinese state’s triumphalist reform narrative (especially after the grandiose spectacle of the Beijing Olympics) or contemporary Euro-American sinophobia regarding the “Asian century.” Indicating as well the historicity of genre cinemas in the East Asian context, Touch of Sin opens ups a way of thinking about the critical function of genre filmmaking, or what genre tropes seems to offer, over and above social realism.

Moreover, the equation of East Asian cinemas and genre filmmaking has been reinforced by the meaning-making produced by sites and contact zones of circulation, in particular the film festival. While genre film festivals become larger and more important to local industries, high status international film festivals such as Cannes admit more explicitly generic fare. The latter seems attributable in some part to the former, as global film markets seek frameworks of legibility. To offer the example of a film explicitly made possible by the film festival as genre (and concomitantly the festival-film genre) that uses repetition and narrative impasse in similar yet stylistically distinct ways as The Good, the Bad, the Weird, I’d like to take a brief detour through Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country (2012), another Asian auteurist art film that premiered at Cannes, one year before A Touch of Sin. [1] Marking a turn towards a direct address to European art film audiences, In Another Country is a formal experiment originating in a chance encounter between Hong and Isabelle Huppert (at a film festival, of course) in which the filmmaker asked the actress if she would consider being in one of his films and, to his surprise, she said yes!

True to the project’s intent, at least as the story is told, In Another Country is a form practically evacuated of content, which traffics entirely in clichés and stereotypes, but which, for that reason, effectively illustrates the work of translation through the repetition of forms and gestures that I emphasized in my reading of The Good, the Bad, the Weird. In the film, Huppert, playing a proverbial fish out of water as a Frenchwoman named “Anne,” is plopped unceremoniously in a boring Korean resort village. Anne/Huppert is divested of her significance as a particular, exceptional sign of European art cinema through her repeated (and repeatedly) incongruous appearance as a generic body—the familiar, foreign object of desire within the generically banal, yet locally specific mise-en-scène of rural Korean beach resorts, which are themselves a generic staple of Hong’s oeuvre. Although Hong’s films, whose reception relies on connoisseurship and cinephilia, could be considered anathema to the popular entertainment sensibilities of Kim Jee-woon’s mode of genre translation (and thus a counterpoint to what I argued was the case for The Good, the Bad, the Weird), In Another Country nonetheless exhibits a transferential mode to activate the legibility of estrangement, the all too common experience of non-comprehension in contemporary cross-cultural encounters. In Another Country reveals this incomprehensibility to be both banal and appealing—the basis for the drive to translate.

 

    

Huppert’s Anne repeatedly invites the curiosity and desire of those she encounters in Mohang, the sleepy beach town, yet this contact leads less to the overcoming of differences than their containment and preservation as difference, allowing incongruity to become the source of amusement, humor, and pleasure. As a demonstration of Korean cinema’s strategy of genre-reflexivity, owing to the importance of festival acknowledgement as an important part of “cultural branding” that has particularly strong structuring force in Asian film industries, In Another Country presents an object lesson in the translation work that genre offers, by which repetition and depthlessness afford a deeper (so to speak) understanding of the work of contemporary transnational cinemas.  




[1] It’s no coincidence that both Jia’s and Hong’s films have the same North American distributor, Kino Lorber.


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