THE GIRL ON THE COVER of East Asian Film Noir: Transnational Encounters and Intercultural Dialogue appears caught in an uncertain narrative. Her coquettish demeanor suggests a sexual encounter (heightened by her side-eye to a subject just out of the frame), yet her raised fists seem to prelude a sprint or a fight. That the publisher or editors of the book chose this film still, of the luckless female protagonist from Seung-wan Ryoo’s critically panned flick No Blood No Tears, says something about representation and recognition of East Asian films in the noir rubric.
Films from the East Asia region are rarely inscribed, by general consensus, into the traditional noir canon; to even be asked to think of a film or director that is faithfully representative of the genre draws a blank. In this volume, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Mark Gallagher, 12 essays attempt to decode cinema from Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in the framework of noir or neo-noir criticism from the 1950s until now. The very first lines of the book’s introduction by Gallagher already raise questions — “does film noir exist in East Asia? Do East Asian filmmakers make films noir?” — that seem to contradict the declarative title, as if Gallagher had anticipated that readers would be startled, if not incensed, by the assignment of the likes of Kurosawa to the film noir genre. But this uncertainty is not just confined to film noir’s validity in an East Asian context. As the introduction and several contributors to the book suggest, the label “film noir” itself is contentious, as the genre and its myriad conventions are generally applied to a huge swathe of Hollywood films from the early 1940s through the late 1950s by critics, writers, and cinephiles — not necessarily by the directors themselves.
The first section of the book picks up where this classic period film noir is thought to have ended and transports us to a post-World War II Japan. In “Out of the Past: Film Noir, Whiteness and the End of the Monochrome Era in Japanese Cinema,” Daisuke Miyao ascribes the agendas of Japan’s political transitions at the time to the extreme contrasting of whiteness (criticism of rapid modernization) and shadowing (the traditions of prewar Japan) in the flicks Conflagration and Tokyo Twilight — an aesthetic device usually associated with classic noir. Referencing Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows,” Miyao argues for the Japanese preoccupation with darkness and suffusion of shadows in film, hinting that the style in these films was born from sociopolitical reaction, rather than just cultural borrowing of the American noir genre. In “Kurosawa’s Noir Quartet: Cinematic Musings on How to Be a Tough Man,” the lens is swung from object and composition to characterization: the psychologically complex, ornery male figure, another film noir convention, is discussed. Dolores Martinez looks at the problematic moral representations of boys and men in what she calls Kurosawa’s “modern noir films”: Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low, and Yojimbo.
Already, the specificities of cultural DNA in film are so meticulously discussed that any sort of general conclusion about the validity of East Asian film noir would be impossible. But we suspect that is not the point of this book. Rather, the writers, who have written these essays independent of each other, have penned a series of impassioned love letters to the East Asian films, filmmakers, or actors of their choice. The only consistent structure is that which pins these essays together in three sections, the first two being, respectively, essays on Japan and South Korea. Rather unfairly, the essays on mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have been cobbled together into the third and final part. As each writer’s style and focus differs from the next, the fluctuations in comprehension of content and caliber of writing are jarring, but separately each essay illuminates a different corner of East Asian cinema.
After the discussion of Kurosawa and the black-and-white era, the essays vacillate largely between conditions of film such as setting, composition, inhabitation, and characterization. The introduction and geographical placing of neo-noir begins with a study of Japanese-American cinema set in the gritty, gang-ridden alleys of Los Angeles in Suzanne Arakawa’s essay “The Japanese Los Angeles of The Crimson Kimono and Brother,” and continues to appear for the remainder of the book, including in Dan North’s exploration of Ghost in the Shell’s dystopian landscapes. The latter discusses the only anime series present in the book, and ties artificial bodies (half-robots) and artificially created bodies (in animation) to the negative noir reaction to modernity. Later, Philippa Lovatt writes on the social critique of “black economy” in China’s “docu-noir” cinema in the 1990s through to the 2000s in “Life is Cheap: Chinese Neo-Noir and the Aesthetics of Disenchantment.”
The South Korea section looks at a wide range of films, including those by Myung-se Lee and, of course, Seung-wan Ryoo, through the essays of Hyun S. Park, Kyu Hyun Kim, and Daniel Martin. Here, the films are discussed simultaneously in the context of postwar South Korea and the country’s increasing exposure on an international scale. Interchangeable East/West cultural flow and pastiche is described here as mutually influencing. In Kyu Hyun Kim’s essay, he explains that No Blood No Tears was, interestingly, labeled as “pulp noir” simply because marketing agents saw the film’s violent properties as vague parallels to Quentin Tarantino’s works — a label that was heavily disputed by film critics at the time. Kim, however, finds some truth in the mislabeling, stating,
No Blood No Tears may be seen as an experimental neo-noir that does not entirely cohere stylistically and formally. It tries to address, not always successfully, diverse and fascinating impulses found in a contemporary neo-noir in relation to the classical noir typologies: why can’t the femme fatale get away with it after all? […] How much ‘realism’ can one incorporate into a story while staying true to key genre conventions?
In her study of Black Hair and The Devil’s Stairway, Hyun S. Park references Western philosophers’ (Jean Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin) study of spatial aesthetic as an allegory for social and political ruin in a discussion that is perhaps more abstract than rooted in fact but is nevertheless interesting.
Already, the idea of a “Hong Kong noir” — perhaps the closest in terms of social and critical acceptance to “East Asian film noir” — has been lightly discussed in the first two sections. This is also heavily present in the section dedicated to Chinese cinema, which seems more cohesive than others in its analysis of film. Andy Willis looks mostly at the critics’ and directors’ points of view (from local publications such as Time Out Hong Kong) in a discussion of noir and neo-noir, mostly in relation to the 2011 Hong Kong film Wu Xia; while Erin Yu-Tien Huang points to Taiwanese-Malay Ming-liang Tsai’s Rebels of the Neon God as an example of Taiwan’s de-spectacularization of crime. Here, the illogical overrides the logical, which is, as Huang argues, a dramatic concept of noir.
The two editors of the book, Gallagher and Shin, also contribute to the final section. The closing essay, Shin’s “Double Identity: The Stardom of Xun Zhou and the Figure of the Femme Fatale,” looks at the disparate characters of the mainland Chinese actress as representative of the ambiguities wrought from China’s political uprisings. Ironically, it is in this essay that the pressure of noir labeling is almost invisible, only present in the title of “femme fatale” and Zhou’s mysterious characterizations. Similarly, Gallagher’s very specific, but not unwarranted, essay on the Hong Kong actor Tony Leung and the gamut of his facial expressions in films such as Lust, Caution, and Infernal Affairs is an absorbing read that actually attempts to distance itself from the label of noir.
There is a quote at the front of the book that states: “this book will do for East Asian noir what the French did for Hollywood noir in the 1950s: name it, define it and make sure it is firmly ensconced in global film history.” Written by the reviewer Professor David Desser of Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, the quote reveals an ecstatic reaction to the essays, if not a slightly misguided one. The writings are convincing and enlightening in their deconstructions of the films mentioned, but less so as arguments in favor of the concrete existence of East Asian film noir. If anything, the book serves to simply open the door into that territory — which is still no small thing — and provides a much-needed reintroduction to East Asian cinema, if not exactly noir.
Ysabelle Cheung is a writer, editor and restless nomad. Her culture writing has appeared in Artforum, VICE, Hyperallergic, Time Out, and Asia Literary Review; she is also the founder of the Hong Kong branch of Liars’ League.