Making the Spectral Real: Asian American Film in Glen M. Mimura’s Ghostlife of Third Cinema

“What is Asian American cinema?” asks Glen M. Mimura in Ghostlife of Third Cinema. As other scholars in related fields have addressed Asian American citizenship, housing segregation, and racialization, Mimura explores the cultural production of Asian American film and its relation to the transnational Third Cinema. Mimura describes Third Cinema as a “revolutionary international movement,” radical in its politics and form. Emerging in the 1960s, the Third Cinema proliferated over the following two decades. According to Mimura, it helped to develop community based film centers and independent Asian American cinema, while also creating spaces for previously marginalized identities, notably queer sexualities. Drawing on the work of Paul Gilroy, Nayan Shah, and Lisa Lowe among others and exploring the film and media productions of numerous Asian American artists/filmmakers, Mimura focuses on “the meaning of Asian Americans’ discursive occasional presence” a constant vacillation between foreign threat and “conciliatory Model Minority.” Along the way, Mimura engages in discussions of modernity, spectrality, and erasure.

In her 1998 work Immigrant Acts, Lowe argued Asian American culture, due to its experiences with fragmentation and erasure, provided a unique site for resistance. Mimura builds upon Lowe’s assertion suggesting that the cultural production of Asian American cinema illustrates a resistant creative agency that challenges hegemony. Third and Asian American cinema’s development during the 1960s and 1970s influenced their collective political leanings. Shaped by events, the two film communities pay close attention to politics, social justice and transnational solidarities. Rising from the Bandung Conference and the non-alignment movement, Mimura argues that “Third Cinema shares complex histories and relations with the Third World . . . “ (Mimura, 29) The community of Third Cinema exists more as a membership of political ties than geographical localities. (Mimura, 29) Mimura identifies Third Cinema as an intensely political project committed to “a democratic, participatory, socialist cinema” that challenges traditional ideas. (Mimura, 30)

As with other authors incorporating transnational perspectives, Mimura points to the increasing interconnectedness of peoples, movements and ideas in the last half of the 20th century. Invoking Saidian Orientalism, Mimura notes that as late as the mid-twentieth century, many western imaginaries considered Asia “the last refuge from history.” This primordial designation works to legitimate western hegemony while inscribing inferiority on non-westerners. Undoubtedly, the issue of modernity functions as a key factor in conceptualizing diasporic communities. Furthermore, observers attentive to transnational histories and peoples have altered understandings of what and who is “modern.” How Asians fit into the racial hierarchy of western imaginaries remains a fluid issue. In the past, “Asianness” emerged as analogous to blackness … “as the West’s redemptive other. (Mimura, 3) However, Mimura argues “Asia has also been figured as ambivalent,” a term occupying a space between “black and white.” This has been particularly notable in regard to Western discourse on sexuality. Accelerating in the early 1990s, the deconstruction of binaries has served as a central task of many scholars. The pervasiveness of binary thinking fractures our understanding of history, while obscuring peoples, events, processes and interactions. Mimura attempts to uncover the very erasures binary thinking has hidden.

Undoubtedly, the process of globalization influences Mimura’s work. As a process it performs the paradoxical task of both expanding and contracting community. On the one hand, increased interaction and interdependencies draw people closer but critically this also serves to differentiate. Supralocalisms are sometimes enacted, confining membership to very specific local contexts that exclude as many as it includes. Moreover, as Arjun Appadurai argues, globalization unfolds in various ways, affecting various peoples in equally diverse manners. The process of globalization fetishizes localities. Lowe adds that “it obscures a much longer history of global contacts and connections.” (Lowe, 120) Earlier connections and interactions deserve attention as they reveal spaces of resistance and cultural politics. In an intriguing reversal of Adam McKeown’s “globalization” argument, Mimura suggests that today’s globalization and the perceived reduction in racism or prejudice serves not as evidence of improved race relations “here” but rather “because middle class (primarily white) consumers are now going there.” (Mimura, 79)

The dispersal of labor globally contributed to the growth of diasporas. Paul Gilory most famously suggested that there exists a “Black Atlantic” which postulated that diaspora existed as a space for countermemory. (Mimura, 26) Similarly, Mimura explains Asian American film and Third Cinema as a similar space. Despite their obvious relationship, few scholars have explored the relationship between the two, which Mimura credits with helping to create a cinema that was “politically, aesthetically, and institutionally self aware as Asian American . . . ” (Mimura 45) According to Mimura, Asian American film served to both “articulate” many of the goals within Third Cinema but also to critique its tendency to “fold gender into class, feminism into socialism and to regard sexism as a residual social inequality to be resolved by authentic class solidarity and consciousness.” (Mimura, 45) Asian American filmmakers addressed these inadequacies, most notably in the 1990s, as feminists and queer filmmakers produced works exploring issues of sexuality, gender, and subjectivities in an attempt to reorient, rework, and engage with “the politics of representation.” (Mimura, 45)

In this way, Mimura points toward diasporas not dependent on race and ethnicity alone. The contours of Asian American sexuality often excluded queer and transgendered voices. Since the 1990s, independent Asian cinema has promoted these voices. Harnessing Stuart Hall and to a lesser extent Lowe, Mimura credits the “politics of difference” for opening up a space “for the margins to gain visibility as dominant discourses . . . ” (Mimura, 124) Accordingly, the fissures of identity politics need to be attended to, considering the potential problems that may arise from intersectionality. Intersectionalities serve as a source of strength when viewed through this prism as “the politics of difference” enables numerous subjects, even those “marginalized simultaneously by race, class, gender and sexuality, ” to gain intelligibility. Clearly, Mimura shares a fundamental distrust of liberal democracy. The promises of multiculturalism and liberal democracy serve as levelers that obliterate valued differences, while erasing our understanding of the longer history of peoples.

Unsurprisingly, Mimura addresses the spectrality of Asian American representation. While Mimura acknowledges the scholarship of Ronald Takaki and the aforementioned Lowe and Shah, he also incorporates more theoretical works by Avery Wood, Bliss Lim, and Derrida. (See Wood, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination; Lim, “Spectral Times”; Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.) Spectrality haunts Asian American representation and identity as Asian Americans flicker in and out of public visibility, often representing a foreignness placing them outside of time. (Mimura, 64) Attempts by Asian Americans at claiming “political or cultural subjecthood” result in reactions of “disbelief, skepticism, disavowal,” responses not unlike those of a “scientific, rational, secular society to the presence of ghosts, and the fantastic more generally.” (Mimura, 68) The emergence of ghosts threatens the normal historical consciousness, undermining the idea that modern history remains stable, progressive and linear. Like Lowe and others, Mimura rejects multiculturalism, arguing it symbolically embraces Asian Americans culturally while failing to address the social, economic, and political “material exclusion” imposed them.

Conflicts arising within Asian American media illustrate the film’s ability to disrupt traditional normative forms, enabling previously excluded voices to thicken our understanding of histories. Mimura juxtaposes the goals of the Japanese American Redress and Post-Redress movements. The difference between the two categorizations rested on epistemological concerns rather than chronology. To put it succinctly, the Redress movement focused on broadening mainstream history to include Japanese Americans as soldiers, advocates for Asian American riots, draft resisters, and so forth. In general it embraced an Americanism that continued to privilege liberal democracy, neoliberalism, and the nation state. Critics argue Redress’s maintains a reductive approach that squashes internal complexities in favor of uniformity, thus, silencing segments of Asian America, while failing to account for the long term psychological trauma imposed on those who experienced it and their children. Moreover, many in the Redress movement “privileged heroic, therapeutic stories.” (Mimura, 88) In contrast, Post Redress works address the continuing effects of internment on Japanese families, while avoiding the silencing of voices that Redress’s uniformity required. Post Redress conventions often employ non-linear fragmented approaches, reaffirming, as Mimura points out, that “remembering is itself a generative, creative, fictionalizing act.” (Mimura, 95) For Mimura, Asian American politics of the 1960s and 1970s, the same politics that informed Third Cinema, rejected the “silence in Japanese American history.” Asian American history more broadly exhibited a “short circuiting” of collective memory. According to Mimura, the danger in the Redress approach meant “relegating Japanese American life to historical artifact, we are not confronting racism today, and we are failing to confront the tremendous changes in our own cultural identity.” (Mimura, 116) Focusing on family life and more personal, less stereotypically “heroic” examples uncovers the pervasiveness and meaning of the internment experience.

For some, Mimura’s focus on abstractions like spectrality, ghosts, and hauntings undermine what they consider more clear eyed approaches. Ghostlife is not social history. Additionally, Mimura employs terms like violence in a fashion that continues to divide academics. Older scholars and some younger ones will surely bristle at this methodological approach. Still, in Ghostlife, Mimura provides a useful synthesis and reconfiguring of transnational Asian American cultural production, placing it in dialogue with transnational forces of the last three decades, thus, adding to the groundbreaking insights of scholars like Lowe.

Ryan Reft