Cinema in East Asia countries has become of the most fruitful study areas that have inspired scholars and other stakeholders in the field in the 21st Century. One of the key reasons is that the film market in East Asia (Japan, The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong) is increasingly expanding and garnering popularity in the global markets. In the 2018 Theme Report by MPAA (Motion Picture), the East Asian film sector (the five markets) accounted for more than 32 per cent of total global cinema box office revenue (Wang et al., 2021). Besides a growing market potential, the East Asian film performance in the international is growing. Wang et al. (2021) suggest that more than 500 East Asian films were released in the European nations between 2010 and 2018 alone. In particular, Japenese Cinema and Chinese Cinema, coupled with Holywood presence in these ,sectors have evoked serious scholarly attention as Japan and China have been among the leaders in terms of overseas box office revenue contribution recently. Besides the economics of the cinema industry, East Asian cinema reflects the mutating and complex network of social, national, and geopolitical discourses shaping and informing the past and the present (Cal, 2021). East Asian films, like the Japanese cinema and the Chinese cinema, tend to address local and international issues, spanning revolution, migration, cultural identity, civil war, globalization, gender, ethnicity, cultural hybridity, and more. The countries in this region have used cinema in many ways, sometimes to encourage boundless creativity and interaction and others as a political weapon. They also use cinema to underscore ideas of the nation with regard to the global Holywood and current affairs. This paper critically evaluates how and why East Asian countries, mainly China and Japan, as examples, construct and contest various ideas of the nation through cinema. It will use different examples and movies from these two countries to support the claims.
Ways through which East Asian countries construct and contest different ideas of the nation through cinema
By advocating and campaigning for the ideas of the nation on international matters.
East Asian countries use cinema to construct and context ideas of the nation through advocacy and campaigns on their positions regarding international issues, like War and conflict. It means films help to articulate their view on a particular issue and contest it through plot and themes in the films. These international issues could be war between countries or political tensions with another state. To this end, cinemas will design themes that communicate the issue as the nation understands it and even use scenes that underscore its stance. For example, China has previously used Chinese cinema to construct and contest the ideas of war between states. In 2029, Patriotic films dominated Chinese cinema screens throughout the National Day Holiday, with new releases and selected old movies marking the Communist Party’s list. The Battle at Lake Changjin, a piece appraising the triumph of the Chinese military against the American soldiers during the Korean ,War tops the list for the Patriotism movies that glazed the Chinese cinema screen throughout this campaign (Cal, 2021). This blockbuster, directed by Chen Kaige from Mainland China and Hark Tsui of Hong Kong and Dante Lam garnered a historic US$210 million in investment, underscoring the strength of the confidence in the genre in the wake of a growing nationalism and when China-West rivalry is escalating (Cal, 2021).
This film genre has a track record concerning the box office. Chinese Wolf Warrior II, a Rambo-style action movie, is the all-time leading-grossing Chinese movie. The film presents a soldier from Africa who saves locals and hundreds or thousands of his colleagues from American mercenaries. Released in 2017, this movie used almost 5,700 million yuan at the box office (Cal, 2021). It became so popular that it also produced the phrase ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy,’ which described a highly confrontational and more aggressive strategy embraced by foreign ministry officers and some ambassadors in recent years.
Similarly, the film, The Battle at Lake Changjin, which starred Wu Jing, the leadan on Wolf Warrior II and Jackson Yee, presents a fatal 1950 17-day clash in freezing weather, popular as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. In this period, Chinese soldiers sent to help Kim II-Sunh, a North Korean leader, encircled and attacked the UN troops under the US leadership (Su, 2014). The Republic of Mainland China had joined this war to aid North Korea and prevent them from being overpowered by US armies. In this movie, China depicts its stance on the tensions between North Korea and America by portraying Beijing as a victim of American aggression. Using the film, China constructs its involvement in the war as a move of self-defence. This happens despite an ongoing debate regarding if Mao Zedong knew about Kim’s decision to “liberate the South.” As the movie depicts, despite China suffering a heavier casualty than America, the UN forces were pushed ways from borders protecting the Korean territories. Through this film, China wanted to contest the American rise against Korea and construct itself as a powerhouse. One of the movie directors argues that the film seeks to warn Chinese enemies that China cannot be bullied.
Like China, Japan constructs the ideas of the nation of matters, like war using Japenese Cinema. For the country, as other forms of art, including literal literature and poetry, reflected on and contested the issue of war after the Word War II, several films were produced and directed to construct a shared identity among war victims, contesting against the issue. Through visuals instead of words, Japanese cinema constructed war as a challenge and enemy of progress as it kills and negatively affects innocent children more than the general population. Grave of the Fireflies, that Takahata Isao directed, and The Barefoot Gen, directed by Masaki Mori, are authentic examples of movies contesting against civil war. Barefoot Gen constructs these ideas through a plot involving a young boy (protagonist) during the War War II struggling to survive in the country with his little sister. A passivity time characterizes the film Grave of the Fireflies from the beginning. In the opening scene, the movie shows a tousled and scraggy boy slumped against a train station (Takahata, 1988). Simultaneously, the voice goes, “September 21st, 1945 was the night I died.” As other people pass by with a frightened and despicable facial expressions, the young boy helplessly collapses and lies on the ground. As the plot unfolds, nobody is willing to help as everyone stares at the corpse except the maintenance man who attempts to steal his belongings. After opening the boy’s box, some white objects are evident, which turn out to be her little sister’s bones. The visual of bones thrown into the ground may be interpreted to symbolize the death of vulnerable and innocent children during wartime. Through this film, Japan appears to construct war as regressive to the countries’ productivity and sustainability efforts as it kills boys and girls who should be the next generation to participate in nation-building as employees, employers, and leaders. A similar constatation is communicated by Masaki’s The Barefoot Gen through the story of a young striving to survive following the American bombing (Nakazawa, 2001). Unlike the Grave of the Fireflies, this plot gives the Japanese hope for self-cultivation and survival but still seems to condemn civilly, the country’s position on civil war. In the opening scene, the viewers encounter the picture of a vibrant and worthwhile life, where Gen, a young boy and the protagonist, goes out in the company of his family: his father and Shinji, his little brother, to the wheat field. The plot spends almost half an hour describing the well-being, happiness, and contentment in Gen’s family prior to the bombings, underscoring the good quality of life which peace cultivates for people in East Asia.
Through policy development
East Asian countries also construct and contest ideas of the nation using cinema through policy development on cinema’s relationship with global Hollywood. For instance, in China, the government developed policies to regulate the cinema through a strategy popular as Main Melody” films to minimize the global Hollywood influence and gain control on communicating the issues of culture, money and worship, and collectivism, among other ideas of the nation (Su, 2014). “Main Melody” films are a cultural asset special to post-socialist China. Earlier branded by the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin as the “Main Melody” message movies, their main goal is to universally promote socialism, patriotism, and collectivism; to vehemently contest and resist the issue of hedonism, money-worship, and extreme individualism; to vigorously condemn capitalism and any exploitive and corrupt trends. China created The “Main Melody” message and later included these themes in all films that were considered fit for Chinese people welfare and for “social progress.” The countryside uses these movies as one of the most essential instruments of the state’s ideological apparatus, tools for convincing people of the validity and inevitability of socialism in China. Through Chinese Cinema, mainly movies under Main Melody, the ruling party constructs its position and ideas on issues of imperialism versus anti-imperialism, capitalism versus anti-capitalism, and national identity.
Through providing selective subsidy to cinema industry partners
Japanese cinema and Chinese cinema tend to address local and international issues, spanning revolution, migration, cultural identity, civil war, globalization, gender, ethnicity, cultural hybridity, and more. The countries in this region have used cinema in many ways, sometimes to encourage boundless creativity and interaction and others as a political weapon. They also use cinema to underscore ideas of the nation with regard to the global Holywood and current affairs. East Asian countries contest ideas of the nation through cinema by subsiding movies that support their position in the national or international arena. For example, China offered subsidies to movies that promoted its position to encourage film-makers and directors to transfer the Main Melody message. The Chinese government took several measures to support the ‘Main Melody’ and reduce the effect of the global Hollywood to ensure its ideas were effectively communicated through cinema. First, in the film production area, China adopted a strategy of utilizing income from Hollywood imports to provide subsidies to domestic film producers (Su, 2014). This strategy aims to filmmakers construct and contest issues of imperialism, transactional, gender, and cultural hybridity as the ruling party needs.
Communicating issues of nationalism and multiculturalism
Japan and China, among other East Asia countries, communicate the issues of nationality and multiculturalism by writing and airing films that educate the public and show the countries’ ideas and stances on these concepts. For example, contemporary Japanese Cinema communicate different national ideas of multiculturalism and diversity and contest the issue of “otherness” or minority discrimination both directly and indirectly. The concept of otherness was used to define foreign residents, mainly Zainichi (Korean immigrants) in Japan, and it promulgated discrimination against this group of people. However, after the World War II and increasing globalization, Japan has embraced multiculturalism and diversity, appreciating both the foreign people. Cinema has been at the forefront of communicating these ideas. The number of Zainichi filmmakers and characters starring in Japanese films, for instance, has plummeted, depending on the country’s plan and attitude toward minorities. Licensing of such movies by the state and having many minority actors on the screen itself manifest the country and society’s perceptions of multiculturalism have positively changed, and the idea of “otherness,” which divides Japanese natives versus minority groups, has dwindled. For example, after World War II, Japanese cinema welcomed more than 25 drama movies that starred Zainichi characters and touched on issues affecting them (Martin, Pablo, and Morita, 2020). According to Martin (2020), nine of these films had Zainichi as the protagonist, and themes revolved around matters affecting this group. An example of such a film is Imamura’s Nianchan, which is based on Yasumoto Sueko’s diaries that were published. The plot entails the family breakup after the parent’s death. This family, which constituted four brothers and sisters, broke up and sank into poverty after their father and the eldest brother lost jobstheir . The setting of the film is a mining town, with the overarching theme of greed, sheer poverty, and struggles for survival in the regions that were left behind during the postwar recovery. In a nutshell, this theme contests the issue of marginalization of the Zanichi community and other immigrants who live in abject poverty in Japan.
Chinese Cinema produced or directed by ethnic minority filmmakers in China has also increased since the late 1980s, indicating the representation of minorities in Chinese film and the country’s progression toward multiculturalism. These products are consumed locally and internationally, so they are a true representations of how China constructs the issue of multiculturalism and contests racial discrimination in Hollywood. Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2007), A Little Bit of Heart (1985) by Dim Sum, and .Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), ‘Father knows best’ trilogy, and The Wedding Banquet (1993) are some examples such movies, which glazed screen locally and globally, communicating Chinese stance of cultural diversity and multiculturalism (Han, 2018).
Additionally, in the advent of globalization, films have been used to promulgate East Asia countries’ ideas on culture and identity, like in China. Chinese cinema has constructed this subject by integrating Western culture into local films, which has progressively been a trend among Chinese martial art movies. Some examples of such epics include Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, which won the 2002 Oscar Best Foreign Language Film Award in 2001 (Zhang, 2019). This film has influenced the Chinese filmmakers to integrate foreign culture into their works, substantially constructing Chine as a multicultural and culturally diverse country. Because Chinese culture differs with Western culture in terms of identity, styles, and forms, the integration of Western culture into the Chinese Cinema has resulted in hybridization, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One might argue that through Cinema, China has shown its support for hybridization and cultural integration in the film industry and other spheres of society.
Why do East Asian countries construct and contest different ideas of the nation through cinema
Ability to hold audience captive
East Asia countries use cinema to contest or conceptualize national ideas because of the film’s ability to hold audiences captive. Movies are used to create awareness about and popularize the country’s ideologies and policies among the masses and international players because they can convince audiences more than other forms of mass communication (Igbashangev and Ongunyemi, 2018). As earlier highlighted, the East Asia cinema industry has grown with increasing consumers locally and globally. Therefore, as they serve the growing consumer base, countries use the cinema to promote their ideas on social transformation, and communicate their position on international matters (like civil war and tensions), anti-corruption, and diversity. Besides, films help to create a compelling story, combining speech and visuals, reaching all populations, including those with visual impairments and reading problems. Therefore, cinema offers an effective tool to communicate the social and political position of a country concerning a pertinent issue.
Integrating entertainment and Message of ideas of the nation
Additionally, East Asia countries use cinema to construct the national idea because films are used by all population segments for entertainment, so they can reach their audience better. The consumers of movies include fans of martial arts, drama and comedy, action movies and series, and more. As such, This feature enables films to pass the intended message to the viewers as they entertain themselves with the scripts.
Wide global reach
Lastly, East Asia countries can take advantage of the growing digital technology to reach a wide audience faster and have a lasting impact. With the growing use of the internet and social media networks, including YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, TikTok, and more, consumers of movies across the globe can stream from the comfort of their smartphones, tablets, or personal computers. This factor has made it possible for the message contained in movies to reach many people both within the East Asia countries and worldwide. For these reasons, governments and filmmakers use cinema to construct their ideas on prominent issues and contest others which they think have a negative impact on society or the country. The bottom line is that the message will reach a wide audience in a cost-effective manner, especially when a film goes viral or trends in social media. Furthermore, social media allows the audience to give their immediate reactions through comments, likes, and sharing, allowing countries to get feedback about their communication effectiveness. The bottom line is that gains a negative reception can cause massive destruction because online communities share and influence each other quickly and throughout a wide geographic coverage (Igbashangev and Ongunyemi, 2018). On the positive side, a movie that substantially impresses the public through its message can be a good tool for construction due to rapid sharing across the Internet and social media sites.
This essay has explored ways through which East Asian countries construct and contest ideas of the nation through cinema, using different examples of films from Chinese cinema and Japanese cinema. The general argument has been that East Asian countries, especially China and Japan, have significantly constructed and contested ideas of the nation through cinema. For example, both countries have used cinema to construct the national and citizen’s view about civil war and its impact using Chinese cinema and Japanese cinema. They both construct civil war as negative, destructive, and a barrier to social transformation and the country’s progress. China also contested the American-Korea tensions and war using cinema by airing Patriotism films that condemned the war during a holiday campaign. The analysis also revealed that East Asian countries construct the ideas of the nation through policy development and subsidizing films that engender and promulgate their ideologies. Ideas of the nation about multiculturalism, corruption, and cultural diversity are some of the issues that the filmmakers construct and contest. Finally, East Asia countries use cinema to communicate or contest national ideas because film can hold people captive better than other mass communication channels, have a wide reach in the current technological age, and helps blend entertainment with a social and political messages.
Cal, J., 2021. Korean war epic leads the way as patriotic themes set the tone for Chinese movie releases over the National Day holiday. https://hero-magazine.com/article/182727/east-asian-cinema-analysis-chinese-transnational-dreams
Berry, C., 2016. Pema Tseden and the Tibetan road movie: space and identity beyond the ‘minority nationality film’. Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 10(2), pp.89-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17508061.2016.1167334
Martin, C., Pablo, M. and Morita, N., 2020. Japan beyond its borders: transnational approaches to film and media. Seibunsha. http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/40885/
Igbashangev, P. A. and Ongunyemi, M., 2018. The Role of Film in National Development https://ssrn.com/abstract=3891597
Wang, X., Pan, H.R., Zhu, N. and Cai, S., 2021. East Asian films in the European market: The roles of cultural distance and cultural specificity. International Marketing Review, 38(4), pp.717-735. https://doi.org/10.1108/IMR-01-2019-0045
Han, Q., 2018. Negotiating identity in the diasporic space: transnational Chinese cinema and Chinese Americans. Continuum, 32(2), pp.224-238. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2017.1301380
Su, W., 2014. Cultural policy and film industry as negotiation of power: The Chinese state’s role and strategies in its engagement with global Hollywood 1994–2012. Pacific Affairs, 87(1), pp.93-114.
Zhang, J., 2019. A cultural discourse analysis of Chinese martial arts movies in the context of glocalization: taking crouching tiger, hidden dragon and hero as cases. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 10(3), pp.32-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.5509/201487193
Takahata, I., 1998. Grave of Fireflies. [Video].Youtube https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Grave+of+the+Fireflies&qpvt=Grave+of+the+Fireflies&FORM=VDRE
Nakasawa, M., 2001. TheBarefoot Gen. [Video].Youtube https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=the+Barefoot+Gen&qpvt=the+Barefoot+Gen+&FORM=VDRE