Early Asian cinema and the public sphere

There’s an article by Professor Wimal Dissanayake just published on the Transcurrents site which provides a thoughtful analysis of the position of early cinema in India, Japan and China. Entitled ‘Relationship Between Early Asian Cinema And The Public Sphere‘, it looks at how the early years of cinema in each country, though it inevitably came with Western influences, was strongly directed by local needs and sensibilities. It makes this interesting argument about the purpose of film history:

When we discuss the concept of Asian cinema, it is important to bear in mind its close relationship to the writing of film history. Film history is an open-ended enterprise that admits of pluralities of interpretation. In writing film histories, we produce the historical objects we seek to study. This has great implications for the exploration of the idea of Asian cinema. Today, when we write film histories of diverse Asian cinemas – Indian, Korean, Japanese, Sri Lankan etc – we need to simultaneously occupy different spaces created by the past and history, by transnationalization, by the ever changing shapes of cultural modernities. Writing film history is also a way of charting the course, the preferred trajectory for growth for the future. Hence, in our efforts to understand and map the meaning of the concept of Asian cinema, we need to pay particular attention to the complex ways in which film histories have been produced, and are been produced today.

Of course, historians will always seek good arguments to justify their preoccupation, but he makes sound arguments for the relationship early cinema in India, Japan and China held with the ‘public sphere’ i.e. how the medium naturally/inevitably engaged with the national milieu; film in those countries bore, and still bears, what Dissanayake calls “the imprint of local desire”. It’s well worth reading, even if you are not that familiar with the silent cinema of those countries.

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