Pop Music and Wong Kar-wai

In 2005, I took a graduate seminar with Janet Bergstrom on the “DVD essay,” now of course known as the “video essay.” My final project was entitled “Pop Music and Wong Kar-wai,” a 19-minute piece turned in on a DVD with menus and subtitles. In 2011, the video was published in the UCLA online journal Mediascape, which, no doubt influenced by Bergstrom’s class at UCLA, became one of the first journals to regularly spotlight video essays online. Unbeknownst to me, in 2016, the Harvard Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures found a ripped version of the video and uploaded it to their Vimeo channel. Since Mediascape no longer exists, I’m grateful for their piracy! Below is the video essay, embedded from the EALC Vimeo, followed by the complementary essay I wrote for Mediascape in 2011.

Brian Hu on Wong Kar-wai from Harvard EALC on Vimeo.

The impetus for this DVD essay was to answer the question: what makes the use of popular music in Wong Kar-wai’s films different? Is there a musical “signature” that defines Wong’s specific way of spinning familiar (and de-familiarized) tunes into a film narrative? The question of authorial specificity led, perhaps inevitably, to a consideration of industrial and cultural specificities – namely if there was something about Hong Kong’s star system, music landscape, and (post-)colonial ethos that could feed the audio-visual imagination of a wizard like Wong Kar-wai. I continued to pursue this latter question, which led my project to utilize tools from cultural studies (such as a consideration of stars, intertexual materials, emergent cultural practices) rather than approach the topic from purely formal considerations (such as Wong’s use of pacing, volume, juxtaposition, etc.). And yet, because I was working in the DVD medium, formal attributes became exceedingly hard to ignore, such as Wong’s use of music video devices and his famous repetition of songs.
This DVD essay was produced five years ago, in 2005, and is here reproduced in linear video format. The original DVD experimented, however feebly, with the use of the optional subtitle track as a “footnote” track.1 However, to minimize the amount of text on the screen, the video is presented here without the “footnotes.” As it was completed in early 2005, the DVD does not address Wong’s films made after 2004, though I do feel that the repetition of “The Christmas Song” in 2046, the 1930s Shanghai tunes in The Hand, and the use of Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights reverberate with the discourses of colonialism, nostalgia, and stardom of Wong’s earlier films.
Re-viewing this DVD essay now, I can’t help but wish I had benefitted from the terrific recent scholarship on Chinese film stars.2 I realized then that I lacked a model for thinking about stardom within a specific cultural and industrial context, and were I to revisit this project today, I would take a better articulated theoretical position on Faye Wong and Andy Lau, given the developments in the field. Then, as now, I consider stardom to be one of the most important and most understudied aspects of Chinese cinema and pan-Asian media culture more generally, and it strikes me as an important maturation of the field that scholars are beginning to frame their studies within the circuits of desire embodied by stars.
I wish I could say the same about the study of music in Chinese cinema, a gaping absence also noted by Yingjin Zhang in his essay on the state of the field.3 Music permeates nearly every axis of inquiry in Chinese cinema: reception, marketing, stardom, industrial organization, sound/dubbing, dialect, genre, narrative, gender, sexuality, cross-cultural circulation, historiography, the nation. And yet, aside from the work of Emilie Yeh Yueh-yu4 and Sue Tuohy5, there is little sustained attention to music, popular or otherwise. Is it really possible to conceive of a study of Jia Zhang-ke without attention to popular music? Or of the nightclub film genre? Or of practically any Hong Kong star since the 1980s?
I tackle this last question in my article, “The KTV Aesthetic: Popular Music Culture and Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema,” which I see as a companion piece to the DVD essay, which focuses exclusively on Wong Kar-wai.6 Readers seeking a more contextual (and less visually and aurally enticing) approach should refer to the print article.
1. The multi-linearity of the DVD medium is a topic that particularly preoccupied me at the time, and is elaborated further in my essay, “DVD Deleted Scenes and the Recovery of the Invisible,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20.4 (December 2006): 499-508.
2. Some examples include Farquhar, Mary and Yingjin Zhang, eds. Chinese Film Stars. London: Routledge, 2010.; Hudson, Dale. “Just Play Yourself, ‘Maggie Cheung’: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas.” Screen
47.2 (2006): 213-32; Horng, Menghsin C. “Domestic Dislocations: Healthy Realism, Stardom, and the Cinematic Projection of Ho
me in Postwar Taiwan.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 4.1 (March 2010): 27-43; Meyer, Richard J. Ruan Ling-yu: The Goddess of Shanghai. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005; Edwards, Louise and Elaine Jeffreys, eds. Celebrity in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
3. Zhang, Yingjin. “Comparative Film Studies, Transnational Film Studies: Interdisciplinarity, Crossmediality, and Transcultural Visuality in Chinese Cinema.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1.1 (January 2007): 36.
4. Yueh-yu Yeh, Emilie. “Elvis, Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: American Music and Neocolonialism in Taiwan Cinema.”
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 15.1 (2003): 1-28; Yueh-yu, Yeh. Phantom of the Music: Song Narration in Chinese-Language Cinema. Taipei: Yuan-liou, 2000; Yueh-yu Yeh, Emilie and Lake Wong Hu. “Transcultural Sounds: Music, Identity,
and the Cinema of Wong Kar-wai.” Asian Cinema 19.1 (Spring/Summer 2009): 32-46.
5. Tuohy, Sue. “Metropolitan Sounds: Music in Chinese Films of the 1930s.” Yingjin Zhang, ed. Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999) 200-21; Tuohy, Sue M.C. “Reflexive Cinema: Reflecting on and Representing the Worlds of Chinese Film and Music.” Mark Slobin, ed. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. 177-213.
6. Hu, Brian. “The KTV Aesthetic: Popular Music Culture and Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema.” Screen 47.4 (Winter 2006): 407-24.

In Response to the AFI: Top 100 American Films by Women Directors

In Spring 2007, Erin Hill and I, then editors of the UCLA-based online journal Mediascape, conducted a poll to determine the “Top 100 American Films by Women Directors.” It was conducted, published, and promoted to counter the American Film Institute’s “10th anniversary edition” of their famous “greatest 100 American films” list.

Over a decade and a half later, the project seems both redundant in that such lists are commonplace on the internet, and still essential given that the majority of the films on our 100 are not the types that pop up on the more mainstream, post-2010-leaning Indiewire or Rotten Tomatoes lists. It should be underscored how different the view was in 2007, before streaming, social media, the Criterion Channel, Letterboxd, and #MeToo. Despite the absence of social media, our list got some traction online. Henry Jenkins dedicated a post to it. Readers discussed it on the estimable Dave Kehr blog.

When I did a similar alternative-canon poll for the LA Times (the 20 best Asian American films of the past 20 years) in 2019, the motivation and process was very much the same as what Erin and I did over a decade prior. I hope the Mediascape list still serves as a useful resource today.

By Erin Hill and Brian Hu

In 1998, the American Film Institute celebrated the centenary of cinema by announcing its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. Needless to say, their list, topped by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, sparked more than a little controversy. The AFI responded that dissent was exactly their mission: their list was meant to elicit discussion about a century of American cinema.

However, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was one of the few commentators bold or astute enough to pinpoint the AFI list’s real mission: to get viewers of the AFI’s CBS TV special to go out and view all of these movies again. Rosenbaum draws attention to the “holy or unholy alliance of the AFI, Blockbuster Video, CBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, and the home-video division of 13 film studios,” all of which had financial incentives for revitalizing interest in their classic film libraries. His main point is that the American Film Institute’s list is more a product of “corporate greed” than any cultural reflection, and so he came up with his own alternate list of 100 American films, many of which were not distributed by the major studios, and of those that were, many at that time were not available on home video.i

Nine years later, it looks like Rosenbaum’s list, predictably, had little impact on public demand, and even less on the AFI’s criteria for their “10th anniversary edition” of their original list, to be announced the night of June 20, 2007. Like any DVD anniversary edition, this list promises to sell the same product to the same consumers, with a few updates to re-whet the public’s appetite.

Mediascape took a look at the AFI’s ballot of 400 eligible films, and instead of writing the usual criticism against canonization, bad taste, or corporatization, decided to “review” the AFI’s new list with a top 100 of its own. Of the 400 films on the ballot sent to AFI voters, only 4 were directed by women. (Five if you include Shrek, which was co-directed by a woman.) Does that mean that women are inferior directors? Hardly. Does that mean that women have been kept out of the director’s chair? Yes and no. What our list aims to demonstrate is that, while women have certainly faced sexism in Hollywood, both in and outside of the mainstream American film industry (which the AFI list represents almost exclusively), women directors have made extraordinary achievements in filmmaking. But 100 films? That’s the challenge we put to several dozen film scholars, filmmakers, and movie buffs.

From their responses, we compiled a list of the 100 greatest American films directed or co-directed by women. What we discovered was that there are indeed many great American films by women—in fact, many more—but to come to this realization, one must alter how we define such terms as “great,” “American,” and “films.”

We’ll start with the last term. The AFI list is limited to feature narrative films—a format traditionally monopolized by Hollywood—at the exclusion of documentaries, experimental films, or shorts, formats in which women directors have traditionally excelled. For that reason, we opened our list to non-narrative films and video works. While our intention was never to rank our top 100 list, it’s worth noting that our top vote-getter was Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon (co-directed by Alexander Hammid). Deren’s film may not be very well-known to mainstream audiences, but it’s generally accepted among film buffs and historians as perhaps the most influential work of the American avant-garde. But if we play by the AFI’s rules for how to define “film,” Deren’s landmark work won’t see a spike in Netflix rentals, as Citizen Kane certainly will after June 20th.

Any attempt to define “American” will certainly be problematic, so we at Mediascape had no intention of doing so. Officially, we defined “American film” as the AFI does on their ballot: “Motion picture with significant creative and/or production elements from the United States.” Beyond that, it was up to the voter to define “American.” As with the AFI list, many of our titles were foreign co-productions, and given how complicated the world of co-production is (which includes both culturally-hybrid films, as well as “American” productions that take advantage of foreign financing benefits), we decided to simply accept them all.

However, the AFI ballot of 400 films has a rather whitewashed definition of “America.” Few films by American-born minority directors are represented, even though many European-born directors working in Hollywood (such as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean) had multiple films on the AFI list. Here at Mediascape, one of the biggest inspirations for our own list was Chon Noriega’s 1998 list of the 100 greatest films by Chicano filmmakers, which was published in the journal Aztlán as a response to the stark absence of minority American films on the AFI list. Noriega prefaced his list with the stirring proclamation: “But why should we care? Because the list is being done in our name: Americans.”ii Mediascape is proud that its voters have a more comprehensive definition of “American” than the AFI list does.

Finally, there is the tricky term “great.” It’s not very important to us that we have criteria for greatness (in fact, we didn’t specify any such criteria in our invitation to voters). It’s not that we’re necessarily against canonization, but simply that our time and resources were limited. A better top 100 list could be possible if we had a larger sample size. (Let’s forgo the old “canon wars” debates for now; refer to Mediascape’s review of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book Essential Cinema for more of our thoughts on the topic.iii)

A few conclusions can be drawn from our list of 100 films by women directors. First, it’s clear that women directing is not a new phenomena, and that in fact, before Sofia Coppola, Penny Marshall, and Amy Heckerling, there were prolific pioneers like Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Stephanie Rothman, and others who worked both outside the industry and within it.

Second, this list asks that we divorce the idea of “classic” from “greatness.” If CBS’s presentation of the AFI’s top 100 is like a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, our list is a contestation of expectations and conventions. “That was directed by a woman?” “I forgot about that film.” “Why is it that I tend to forget the titles of great documentaries I’d seen in the past?” “Why is it that I can’t find any of these films on video?” Our list forces readers to ask questions rather than simply throw around the old titles in a new order.

Third, the list asks that we give more attention to non-mainstream formats and distribution channels. As our list demonstrates, many of the great works by women are documentaries, experimental films, exotica—not formats one typically thinks of when thinking about the “greatest American films of all time.” They are also aligned with social movements off the mainstream radar: African American cinema, Asian American cinema, queer cinema. And while they may not be available at Blockbuster, they can be found at public libraries, specialty rental stores, or educational outlets. In fact, one of the most important American distribution companies of all time, Women Make Movies, specializes in films directed by women.

Lastly, we hope that our list shows that it’s not hard to come up with a list of 100 American films directed by women. You just have to know where to look, and to realize that some of your favorite films, unbeknownst to most, may actually have been made by a woman.

Here is our list, in chronological order:
MABEL’S BUSY DAY (Mabel Normand, 1914)
SOMETHING NEW (Nell Shipman & Bert Van-Tuyle, 1920)
THE LOVE LIGHT (Frances Marion, 1921)
THE BLOT (Lois Weber, 1921)
TWO WISE WIVES (Lois Weber, 1921)
THE WILD PARTY (Dorothy Arzner, 1929)
LINDA (Dorothy Davenport aka Mrs. Wallace Reid, 1929)
CHRISTOPHER STRONG (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)
DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)
FIRST COMES COURAGE (Dorothy Arzner, 1943)
MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid, 1943)
NOT WANTED (Ida Lupino & Elmer Clifton, 1949)
OUTRAGE (Ida Lupino, 1950)
THE BIGAMIST (Ida Lupino, 1953)
THE COOL WORLD (Shirley Clarke, 1964)
BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (Doris Wishman, 1965)
PORTRAIT OF JASON (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
FUSES (Carolee Schneemann, 1967)
RAPE (Yoko Ono & John Lennon, 1969)
WANDA (Barbara Loden, 1971)
A NEW LEAF (Elaine May, 1971)
THE VELVET VAMPIRE (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)
TERMINAL ISLAND (Stephanie Rothman, 1973)
DYKETACTICS (Barbara Hammer, 1974)
THE WORKING GIRLS (Stephanie Rothman, 1974)
HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
NEWS FROM HOME (Chantal Ackerman, 1977)
GIRLFRIENDS (Claudia Weill, 1978)
CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER (Joan Micklin Silver, 1979)
OLD BOYFRIENDS (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979)
TELL ME A RIDDLE (Lee Grant, 1980)
LOSING GROUND (Kathleen Collins, 1982)
SMITHEREENS (Susan Seidelman, 1982)
VALLEY GIRL (Martha Coolidge, 1983)
YENTL (Barbra Streisand, 1983)
DESERT HEARTS (Donna Deitch, 1985)
WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, 1986)
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (Randa Haines, 1986)
BORDER RADIO (Allison Anders, Dean Lent, & Kurt Ross, 1987)
NEAR DARK (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN? (Christine Choy & Renee Tajima-Pena, 1987)
DAMNED IF YOU DON’T (Su Friedrich, 1987)
ISHTAR (Elaine May, 1987)
BIG (Penny Marshall, 1988)
SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989)
BLUE STEEL (Katherine Bigelow, 1990)
SINK OR SWIM (Su Friedrich, 1990)
PARIS IS BURNING (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
RAMBLING ROSE (Martha Coolidge, 1991)
A PLACE CALLED LOVELY (Sadie Benning, 1991)
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (Julie Dash, 1991)
LITTLE MAN TATE (Jodie Foster, 1991)
DOGFIGHT (Nancy Savoca, 1991)
GAS FOOD LODGING (Allison Anders, 1992)
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Penny Marshall, 1992)
WAYNE’S WORLD (Penelope Spheeris, 1992)
HISTORY AND MEMORY (Rea Tajiri, 1992)
MI VIDA LOCA (Allison Anders, 1993)
GO FISH (Rose Troche, 1994)
THE ELEGANT SPANKING (Maria Beatty & Rosemary Delain, 1995
STRANGE DAYS (Katherine Bigelow, 1995)
CLUELESS (Amy Heckerling, 1995)
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (Jane Campion, 1996)
WATERMELON WOMAN (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)
FOXFIRE (Annette Haywood-Carter, 1996)
WALKING AND TALKING (Nicole Holofcener, 1996)
MANNY & LO (Lisa Krueger, 1996)
ALL OVER ME (Alex Sichel, 1997)
PRIVATE PARTS (Betty Thomas, 1997)
COMING SOON (Collette Burson, 1999)
HOLY SMOKE (Jane Campion, 1999)
BOYS DON’T CRY (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
AMERICAN PSYCHO (Mary Harron, 2000)
GIRLFIGHT (Karyn Kusama, 2000)
LOVE AND BASKETBALL (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000)
THINGS BEHIND THE SUN (Allison Anders, 2001)
SOUTHERN COMFORT (Kate Davis, 2001)
STRANGER INSIDE (Cheryle Dunye, 2001)
LOVELY & AMAZING (Nicole Holofcener, 2001)
THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY (Jennifer Jason Leigh & Alan Cumming, 2001)
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen, 2002)
PERSONAL VELOCITY (Rebecca Miller, 2002)
FRIDA (Julie Taymor, 2002)
AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003)
LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, 2003)
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (Nancy Meyers, 2003)
YES (Sally Potter, 2004)
THE TIME WE KILLED (Jennifer Todd Reeves, 2004)
SHERRYBABY (Laurie Collyer, 2006)
MARIE ANTOINETTE (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton, 2006)
OLD JOY (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)

i Jonathan Rosenbaum, “List-o-Mania: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love American Movies” (26 June 1998)
<http://www.chicagoreader.com/movies/100best.html&gt;. Another version of this article appears in Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See. Chicago: A Capella Books, 2000.
ii Chon Noriega, “The Aztlán Film Institute’s Top 100 List.” Jump Cut 42 (1998) 65-67. Republished online at: http://www.chicano.ucla.edu/press/Media/Top100List.asp
iii Brian Hu, “Taking Film Studies to the Streets (and Back Again): On the Necessity of Criticism,” Mediascape 1.1 (2005)