The Asianization of Global Cinema Still Remains Largely a Niche Phenomenon
by Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park
In the past, we had to depend on film festivals “discovering” the next Asian cinema du jour and then living close to a major metropolis with a dedicated art cinema or a college town with a student run film cooperative to experience Asian films outside of Asia. Then VHS, Beta, laser discs, and DVDs allowed us to bring Asian films into our private living rooms as long as we had the right machine for the video standard in question. The internet makes it even more convenient since we can now access almost any film while going about our day as long as we have dependable access to a smart device and a robust wifi connection. YouTube, Netflix, and numerous unofficial peer-to-peer video sharing websites make Asian films even more conveniently accessible anywhere on the planet. Geography and hardware issues no longer pose an impenetrable barrier to limit what we can experience presently when it comes to our desire to engage with Asian cinema.
Tied to this technological transformation is the realization by national governments that soft power is equally important as hard power to define a nation as first among equals. The goal is to project domestically and internationally a country’s national aspirations, achievements, and spirit. National policies supporting the cultural sphere are both good investments in diplomacy as well as economics since soft power provides the velvet glove to enshroud the iron fist of hard power. In some instances, especially with autocratic governments or in countries with a rise in hyper ethno-nationalism, it becomes a form of imposed propaganda at worst or just a clumsy exercise in failed public relations. Not every film that can win at the local box office can necessarily repeat that same level of success internationally since the avenues of global film distribution and exhibition remain largely still an American monopoly.
Netflix represents the latest incarnation of the vertically integrated film studio but this time by bypassing the brick and mortar exhibition component of a physical cinema. But this practice is amended whenever Netflix wants to bring a particular film up for Oscar contention such as Roma since an actual theatrical exhibition is a requirement for a film to be nominated for an award. The miracle of video streaming is also enabling China to compete with the United States as the world’s biggest national film market, as Asian films that would not be picked up for distribution and exhibition are now discoverable by new American and global audiences. China’s blockbuster film, The Wandering Earth, is just one prominent recent example. Still, even with Netflix, there are national firewalls in place that may not provide equal and full access to its entire library. Moreover, Netflix alone cannot serve as the sole platform for the global distribution of all of the world’s films since the annual global output of new films is just too staggering. And of course Netflix remains heavily committed to showcasing American films since Hollywood is still the dominant when it comes to creating films with the most globally mobile “legs” to predictable and repeatable box office profitability. Still, while Netflix provides a new venue to encounter a more diverse range of Asian films that would otherwise be inaccessible, it is still a gatekeeper with many of its Asian offerings financed by Netflix itself.
In reality, we want to have the universal master key to the main gate of global cinema in our own hands so that we can unlock everything that it has to offer rather than have things chosen in advance for us without our consent or active participation. What will constitute this generation’s or even this century’s Asian cinema classics remains yet to be determined. While the potential remains ever present, Asian cinema still remains a niche market globally rather than a quotidian constant.
Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. He has published in Asian Cinema, The Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, The Journal of Korean Studies, and Post Script. The Palgrave Handbook of Asian Cinema is available now.