Asian cinema is extremely varied and complex and East Asian Cinema provides keys to appreciate films of the Far East and to understand how and why they are made. To do so David Carter contextualizes the cinema industries from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea within their own respective historical and cultural backgrounds.
Granted, the amount of info and background data could easily be daunting to the readers if another author had tackled such task. What determines the value of such book is not the mere quantity of information thrown at the readers, but actually the fact that Carter has made an accessible, readable and, most importantly, enjoyable book.
Indeed, East Asian Cinema is pleasurably readable, for the specialist or the novice alike, and helps to understand the impacts local history and culture have had on national cinema.
This reviewer has read many times the history of HK and Chinese film industries and still enjoyed thoroughly reading these chapters here again. What’s more, the last chapter on Korean cinema is fantastic, with great accounts on the North Korean mysterious and less known state-sponsored film industry (Kim Jong-il being a great film buff, he checks all the North Korean films before national release) and even on the kidnap of South Korea filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, known as the Orson Welles of South Korea, by the North Korean authorities to revitalise their own regional cinema industry. East Asian Cinema is a page-turner and at this point nearly reads like a spy novel.
The rest of the volume is equally riveting and colourful and Carter’s approach is consistent as he connects each cinema together into a coherent whole, since discussing films of various territories is often perilous, for their connections might not be obvious to the layman. The films of China, Japan and Korea, for example, reflect their shared Buddhist and Confucian heritage. The films of China and North Korea are conditioned by the Communist ideology. Early Korean cinema was dominated by the effects of Japanese colonial domination, and the Japanese cinema greatly influenced Taiwan’s films.
Maybe we regret that, probably due to space limitation, Carter didn’t delve more into the production connections between each country and their mutual influence. For instance, how in the 1960s the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers sent local technicians to Japan to learn modern Japanese techniques and how they also recruited Japanese and Korean talents to bring freshness and innovation to their local productions.
Instead of detailing these mutual influences, for each chapter Carter chose to offer a list of major national filmmakers with details of their films. This is to help the reader appreciate the cinema characteristics of each country. The selected films and filmmakers are refreshing and propose a fair representation of the local cinema. These movies aren’t simply culled from a list of arty films seen only in film-festival circuits or films that cater to the Orientalist taste of Western audiences, they are screened in their home country, and watched and appreciated by local audiences. These checklists are also fresh departure from tired lists in many Western books on the subject.
Another novelty here is the inclusion of a video with the book. The video from BFI TV is a bit dated (1995) and won’t provide much clues about the current vibrant Korea cinema, but it will certainly help understand the unique history of the country and of its film industry.
In this sense, the DVD is an excellent companion to this excellent book on film culture in East Asia.