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Within Film Studies the experiences of migration and diaspora are often approached as neat categories situated within the wider

Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video

by Glen M. Mimura
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009
216 pp., illus. 27 b/w.  Trade, $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4830-6; ISBN: 978-0-8166-4831-3.

Reviewed by Aparna Sharma


Within Film Studies diasporas are often approached as neat and contained categories situated within the wider backdrop of metropolitan landscapes. Migration — the provocateur of diasporic identity is seldom historicised as more than merely physical movement. Implicated with modernity and colonialism, migration and the constitution of diasporas bears social, cultural and historical implications. In Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, Glen M Mimura situates Asian American cinema as an articulation of ‘new localizing strategies’, a term borrowed from James Clifford, to weave a multilayered and complex account through which Asian American cinema is critically historicised. Crucial in this project, is the relationship of Asian American cinema to the broader and now problematical corpus of Third Cinema. Mimura’s approach to Asian American cinema commences with a powerful assertion of Asian American communities as those sites where the stable narrative of colonial and first world nationhood gets destabilised. Speaking specifically within the context of the USA, Mimura holds diaspora as a site of cultural critique that destabilises national imaginations and assertions. Mimura states: ‘Against the myth of national self-making projected by Manifest Destiny and its ideological successors, and by modernity generally, the diaspora concept brings into focus contradictory experiences of those displaced by colonial modernity from its “periphery” to its “core.” (11) This is a vital move that bears wider currency as it situates in the study of diasporas and diasporic filmmaking a prerogative critiquing nationhood applied to both western narratives in the context of modernity, industrialisation and colonialism, as well as and perhaps more crucially to those of anti-colonial struggles and the national frameworks that resulted from those. From the position of the racially marginalized diasporas Ghostlife of Third Cinema posits Asian American filmmaking as a project that ‘allegorizes and represents a much more ambivalent, contradictory record, despite the nagging persistence of the Model Minority myth’s assertion of honorary citizenship in paradise.’(26) Mimura aligns with Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s understanding of Third cinema over the more strict adherents of the practice within the academy who have tended to define Third Cinema in terms of departures, often aesthetic and ontological from First and Second cinemas. For Mimura, Shohat and Stam bring ‘Third Cinema’s ideas and aesthetics into dialogue with post-structuralism’ (47) whereby politicized Third world and minoritarian discourse comes to embody theoretical and aesthetic cross-fertilization involving, interestingly the re-appropriation and redeployment of dominant culture and its aesthetic codes as an oppositional practice. According to Mimura Asian American cinema shares in the critical discourse of Third Cinema on the grounds that it is community-based, shaped by the ready accessibility and affordability of user-friendly video technology and grounded in grassroots media art movements and institutions (49).

In the extensive essay, Ghostlife of Third Cinema, from which the book derives its title, Mimura returns to the Edinburgh Film Festival’s conference on Third Cinema (1986) drawing attention to the disparity in approaches to the category of community between several Black and British Asian artists and critics on the one hand, and the North American participants at the conference, on the other. While the Black British and British Asians spoke ‘against calls for ethnic artists’ unqualified loyalty to their communities’, many North American participants argued in favour of the ‘indispensibility of community’ to the project (59). This disparity in approach to community cuts straight into complex issues surrounding ethics in ethnography and anthropology. While in the effort to redress links with the colonial moment and imaginary, ethnography and anthropology have venerated the voice of the communitarian subject; the modernist and postmodernist turns within these practices have reinstated the efficacy of the ethnographer’s analytic and critical prerogative. While this position has arisen through distinct courses within both the British and North American academies, yet one often encounters in the American context a prominent faith in the concept of the community that is of course central to the discourse of media arts within the terms of subalternity and postcolonialism; but it nevertheless merits subjection to rigorous critique and interrogation exactly because the postcolonial discourse particularly emanating from the Indian subcontinent has forcefully pointed to the near tensions in historiography after the colonial encounter. According to Mimura diasporic work in Britain is a collective effort grounded in a critique of the British left’s ‘historical blindness to race and racism in the name of working-class solidarity.’ (59) This collective effort collaborates with feminist and queer theory and politics opening for media practitioners and artists a ‘sovereign space’ that radicalises issues of representation pertaining to gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity. While Mimura raises a significant epistemological intervention on behalf of the British diaspora scholars and artists who have formulated the question of film vocabulary and form as the principle site of articulating the identity politics and discourse in the postcolonial context, his analysis overlooks the current tendency within British film culture whereby minority ethnic filmmakers find themselves positioned in a polarised and conflated binarism of the industry/ popular film on the one hand and the experimental/artistic alternative on the other. The popular/industry context is posited as antithetical to the arts-based and experimental practices. This binarism arises not so much on account of the subjectivities of individual artist as much as it is the projection of institutional discourse pertaining to multiculturalism and cultural diversity as circulating within the late capitalist modality.

The book contains five chapters. In the first two chapters, Diaspora, or Modernity’s Other and In the Afterglow of Regenerative Violence, Mimura provides an extensive overview of Asian American cinema by positioning within current debates surrounding Third Cinema and mapping more historically how the Asian American community developed its own cinematic practices in America. This discussion is rich with examples such as accounts of Asian American actors performing in the silent era, the racial segregation experienced by the Asian American community and its reactions against that segregation, onto Asian American media collectives taking ownership of their own films and narratives as exemplified by the Visual Communications media collective at UCLA. Chapters four and five specifically examine issues of memory and sexuality within the Asian American media arts context. An underpinning motivation of Mimura’s project is the formulation of a theoretical framework within which to situate Asian American media arts. According to Mimura; ‘… the most salient characteristic of Asian Americans’ symbolic racialization is that we ceaselessly “disappear,” ghostlike, in public cultural and national political discourses only to reappear as “strangers” or perpetual foreigners — that is symbolically out of place and outside history’ (64). In chapter three, Ghostlife of Third Cinema Mimura most eloquently contextualises this characteristic using Jacques Derrida’s concept of spectrality. He states; ‘… Derrida defines justice for unaccounted historical violence as “being-with-specters” — not to cleanse guilt and finally leave behind the past, but to learn to coexist equitably with past injuries, and to be accountable to their unfulfilled, messianic futures. In spectral, ghostly time, the past, present, and future remain permeable as nonsynchronous time.’ (65) Situating Asian American media practice into such a theoretical arrangement not only historicises and facilitates future scholarship surrounding the Asian American media arts, it contributes to a wider and more loosely defined body of scholarship surrounding postcolonial and subaltern narratives that do not quite fit into the binaries of mainstream and alternative; or aesthetic designations of first, second or even third cinema. 

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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