With host Stephanie MacDonell
Stephanie: Hi Nien-Chen! What are you drinking?
Nien-Chen: Hi! I have my sparkling water with lime flavor. That’s what I’m into recently.
Stephanie: I’m having a Chai…I know…you’re not drinking coffee with me.
Nien-Chen: I already had my coffee…
Stephanie: Oh I get it, you had to teach this morning… you needed your coffee. (laughs). So what are you working on right now?
Nien-Chen: I’m very interested in how Asian directors, mainly Hong Kong and South Korean directors, how they appropriate film noir elements into their films. I want to focus on a key figure in film noir… the femme fatale, how these women are represented within these films. The femme fatale, within the 1940s and 50s, was the ultimate threat to men and to… human destiny really. They are really dark and fascinating, they almost always die or lead the heroes to total destruction. And with that metaphorically, the whole human race so to speak. I would say that the gender roles in the West and East are very different, because we were…and are still, influenced by the Confucius philosophy, and that whole thinking of modesty and confinement of women. So as a result, in the Hong Kong films I don’t find too many threatening female characters in those films, instead they are fetishized, sexualized, beautiful but they are not the core of the narrative, they are just there as decoration.
Stephanie: Is there a specific time period that you are focusing on?
Nien-Chen: This is what’s happening in Hong Kong around the Handover in 1997. Here I’m also arguing that after 1997, New Hong Kong cinema is dead, or has disappeared. But Erin (Schlumpf, Ohio University Film Studies Professor) reminds me that Hong Kong filmmakers are still making movies. For instance Ann Hui, she’s a Hong Kong filmmaker. Most, however, operate out of or go out of China to make big budget films and they’re very successful. But there’s politics, like the politics of disappearance and anxiety in Hong Kong before and right after 1997. These films directly and indirectly address this collective anxiety of July 1, 1997. They implicitly try to mediate this trauma. And now, 20 years later, there are films after that, but I would say in terms of scope, they’re smaller and more local, they still talk about or try to talk about it…. There’s a compilation of young directors that try to imagine the future of Hong Kong and it’s not promising.
Stephanie: So you are focusing on current films as well?
Nien-Chen: Do you remember the revolution that happened in 2013, the Umbrella Movement? The political fact is that there are protests happening in Hong Kong. There’s a tendency for people in Hong Kong not to focus too much on politics, because for them there’s not much they can do, whether the British governed era or after 1997. Hong Kong people under the British governance were regarded as British citizens, and before the Handover they applied for passports so that they could go back to the motherland, which is England, and many of them were rejected. While they could not go to England, many people immigrated to other Western countries like Canada or Australia because they regarded this return to China as a death of their future. But there were people who couldn’t leave because of economic or political reasons. They had to stay and accept the fact that they are not in control. They cannot elect their mayor or governor; the Chinese government already assigns for them. They have a few senates there but the whole system is centrally controlled. That was what they were fighting against in 2013. It’s still going on because for China, I would say, again the future is still not very promising.
Stephanie: Were there many films that came out in 2013 that dealt with this anxiety for the future?
Nien-Chen: Yeah, before and after that time period more fictional stories like Trivisa came out. The film is about the conflicts: there are three criminals from Hong Kong before the Handover, and they try to make it big because they wouldn’t be able to once Hong Kong became part of China. That story was like the last struggle of the Hong Kong people. So this huge pressure coming from China is really the main focus of Hong Kong Cinema rather than women or their thoughts and their lives.
Stephanie: And you are focusing on the female figures within these films.
Nien-Chen: Yeah, and then I found out that South Korean directors were somehow able to find a trace of more and more empowering women. That’s very interesting. In South Korean cinema I focus on two auteurs, Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, both have more and more empowering women figures in their films. I began with their early films in the 2000s to current films, like The Handmaiden, which just came out last year.
My research questions are comparing and contrasting South Korean and Hong Kong films in terms of why or how the South Korean cinemas are able to present more threatening femme fatales.
Stephanie: You should be writing a thesis!
Nien-Chen: I’ve been there; I’ve done that (laughs). You guys are so brave, that’s all I can say.
Stephanie: Thank you!
Nien-Chen: After I found out more about South Korean history, I was really surprised that the American army is still there right now, since the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I know that there is always a tension between North Korea and South Korea, but American control of South Korea really affects modern South Korean society. First, there’s the army, and they use the taxes from the Korean people. With the soldiers…there were prostitutes around the camp… also in Japan… So because of these conflicts between white males and the young daughters of this country….If you work as a prostitute…sorry, this is so terrible. I really don’t like this…so the males in Asian countries are colonized, they are being feminized and recognized not as strong as these Western male figures. So what they could do back then was to sell their daughters to these colonizers. It didn’t matter what these women did or what their social status was, they were regarded as prostitutes and they were always wrong. Their mothers, their daughters, even if these women were educated, wherever they came from… even if they learned English from the schools, they were just educated prostitutes. For the poor girls who had no other choice, they went to these sex camps and were literally prostitutes… it’s like whatever they did they were always the ones to be blamed. Under this social context, these conflicts, anti-colonialism and feminism, are always at odds with each other.
There is one theorist I’m reading, she grew up in post-war Korea. Now she has moved to California and is a college professor. One of her chapters begins with the description of a day she was driving home and she noticed a soldier behind her and her first reaction was to pose herself and then straightened her back. It was a self-conflicting reaction, because she is a middle-aged women now, so she doesn’t really have to present herself to the soldiers, so there is a conflict inside her and her memory as a Korean woman which is really still bothering her even though she is not there anymore and really far from that time.
Stephanie: So you are looking a lot at collective memory too and how it is represented in these films.
Nien-Chen: Yeah, like Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area, which depicts a friendship between North and South Korean soldiers. And then there is one major female character that is an interpreter. She grew up overseas. In this film she is not the focus of the film and is interpreting a case before it goes to military courts. Here she is the bridge between the men, these North and South Korean soldiers. In Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy, in the film Lady Vengeance, he uses the same actress and she, the main focus of the film, is the one who drives the narrative to move forward and she completes her revenge not through physical strength but by her skills of manipulating people. This is one very unique quality.
Stephanie: So would all these films be considered Noir? Or Neo-Noir?
Nien-Chen: There’s another genre called Asian Extreme. These films with violence or incest, very violent scenes that almost have a physical impact on the audience, they are categorized as Asian Extreme. Some of the Hong Kong films are included too. So if the definition of noir films is “no way out” then yeah, I would say that some of his films, before The Handmaiden, are noirs. But not The Handmaiden, because he provided a bright future for the heroines, the lesbians.
It’s a really nice one, really, really nice one. The interesting thing is that the director adapted it from a British novel by the same name, I think. But he re-appropriated it to Japan-occupied Korea. So it has this historical conflicts between Japan and Korea. In the film these two heroines are involved in a scheme for money and legacy. The plan is to have a fake Duke marrying this woman so they can run away from her uncle who wants to marry her in order to get her money. So for this marriage, this patriarchal system, the only solution is she either leave or die. Her uncle wasn’t a very decent man, and this handmaiden who was supposed to help this Duke and send his wife into an asylum…which means death by then. The story turns out that these two women fall in love with each other and get rid of the Duke and start their lives. So there’s a bright future, that’s what I like so much about it.
Stephanie: Has Erin seen it for the Queer Feminist Film course?
Nien-Chen: I think she will because I have mentioned it every time. (laughs)…since last year. Stephanie: Going back to noir, as I understand, it began as an American movement. But now I question if it is just a phenomenon that happens during times of crisis or anxiety.
Nien-Chen: There is question of it as a genre or just a style, a movement, a phenomenon, or something. Well because right now many films that don’t include detectives or murders, you can still call them noir. I think there was this retro or Neo-noir that came back in the 90’s in the United States. In Asian countries, because we are regulated by the code of modest women, these directors are trying to confront that kind of anxieties in their own ways.
Stephanie: It seems like it is very liberating in some ways even though it’s not a very liberating style. So it’s being subverted in a way.
Nien-Chen: Also in Park Chan-wook's work I come to question if he is liberating or if he is the ultimate exploiter of women’s image because they are lesbians and how their sex is portrayed.
Stephanie: It goes back to that question of authorship. Nien-Chen: And we don’t want to fall into that trap of essentialism. Stephanie: Yes and that is a philosophical question that we are not going to answer here.
Nien-Chen: (Laughs) We will continue on that. I really like Varda’s Vagabond, have you seen that?
Stephanie: Yeah I have, I like it too. I remember getting so affected by it and going on that journey…the way the character gave up on herself.
Nien-Chen: That wasn’t a commercial success was it?
Stephanie: I don’t think so. I don’t think Varda’s films have necessarily been commercially successful, which is unfortunate.
Nien-Chen: Now that you say that. I was thinking of Ann Hui.
Stephanie: I think the only one I’ve seen is the Postmodern Life of My Aunt. But I really liked that one.
Nien-Chen: Yeah, it is super interesting and really fun. She grew up in Hong Kong and received her education through the British government. It’s super weird because they teach their subjects in English at a rather young age. They weren’t taught in Chinese, but in English, which creates this gap between what they learn in school and their daily lives. She also has a documentary that is called As Time Goes By in 1997.
Stephanie: I feel like with all these interviews I now just have a long list of movies to watch. So you are the only one of us who has a previous MA degree and you’ve already written a thesis, which is understandable why you don’t want to write another one. And you wrote about female figures in Manga books. Do you see a correlation in your previous work on that thesis and your work now?
Nien-Chen: Not directly related because the manga I wrote about was a coming-of-age story about someone going from a girl to a woman. In Japanese society shoujo is what you call a girl who’s not yet a woman before their marriages. They call them shoujo and they are supposed to be asexual. So there are a lot of comic books released for these girls that focus on romance…big eyes…the shoujo manga that everyone knows with the prince-like male characters, but that’s all too typical. And in the 2000s, many people in Japan reads manga so already, so in the 2000s, these manga stories became really detached from young girls’s actual lives. So they started making manga that depicted things like a girl’s period or how to get along with your male classmates, how to treat them like human beings, and saying that you are not asexual. So there’s this new category called Young Lady’s Manga. Instead of pretending oneself to be asexual and forever young, there’s a transition now to start seeing yourself as not yet a woman but also not an immature girl. That’s a theme and concept of reframing shoujo. I’ve always been interested in the representations of women in media like films and manga.
Stephanie: Are you planning on going on with academia after this?
Nien-Chen: Um not now. I plan on getting an internship, applying to extend my Visa that will allow me to work at least 20 hours a week. There’re a few internships with translation and audiovisual subtitling. There are a lot of places looking for researchers too; there are a lot of layers in this industry.
Stephanie: Yeah, with translation and subtitles, that can change meaning within the film.
Nien-Chen: Yeah, that’s localization. I think that is still an issue right now, especially with Mandarin and English, because these two languages are very different.
I rewatched The Handmaiden at the Athena with English subtitles. It feels different. Because I already knew what the story was about, but with the English subtitles it feels different. They speak both Korean and Japanese in the film and use different colored subtitles for each language, which is nice so if you pay attention you can see that. I think that’s a very important part of that film. The interplay of two languages functions as a key in that film. In terms of translation, maybe there’s something you can’t find a perfect counterpart for in the target language. There’s something harder to translate if we want to keep it’s essence. It [The Handmaiden] almost feels like another film. That kind of experience was because I had the Chinese subtitles before and then after, the English ones.
Knowing the other language is awesome. It really helps to appreciate the work whether it a movie or a novel.