Global Citizens Finding Their Voice in Transnational Film

Transnational film was a foreign term to me as I sat in my lecture way too early, on Wednesday morning.  My initial understanding was ‘across nations’ or ‘between nations’. Oxford Dictionary told me I was correct; a definition of transnational is ‘Extending or operating across national boundaries’.

“transnational, on the other hand,[as opposed to globalization] is seen to denote cultural practices that take place across the national boundaries, which have structured the discussion of human geography for much of the twentieth century.”(Athique 2014)

So let’s accept that ‘Transnational Film’ is one of these cultural practices that operates across national boundaries.

These definitions appear to lack concrete boundaries of what is and what is not.  As Athique discusses further in his article, the measures for taking such a concept of transnationalism past theoretical are yet to be found.  In today global climate the topic, in regards to film is worth investigating.

Given the commonality and ease of transience in today’s society compared to decades ago, there is a rise in the number of people who touch the film making process in any country that come from the diaspora. As people on earth have always moved whether inspired by adventure, war or natural disaster, at some level this has always been the case. Leading to the question, aren’t almost all films transnational then? Perhaps there was another buzzword such as multicultural or polycentric. Transnational is a term used in in response to the rising global discourse and cultural flows finding a language of self awareness. So I took this idea for a walk (figuratively) and found that scholars are having the same discussion. In ‘Concepts of transnational cinema: towards a critical transnationalism in film studies’ Will Higbee (University of Exeter) and Song Hwee Lim (University of Exeter) speak at length regarding the rise of the term ‘transnational cinema’ within the realm of film studies:

‘While it is clear from film history that transnational flows and connections in cinema are nothing new, this recent theoretical and paradigmatic shift raises the questions: why the concept of transnational cinema, and why now?'(Higbee and Lim 2010)

The journal article goes on to pose that one of the demands for the terminology is a response to ‘a wider dissatisfaction expressed by scholars working across the humanities__ with the paradigm of the national as a means of understanding production, consumption and representation of cultural identity (both individual and collective) in an increasingly interconnected, multicultural and polycentric world.’ (Higbee and Lim 2010)

In the field of  film, thousands of films adhere to the criteria of transnational film. Films such as The Passion of Christ (2004), The English Patient (1996), Finding Nemo (2003), Chocolat (2000) and Persepolis (2007). One of the films I have found that has stimulated a great deal of transnational discourse is Ang Lee and his 2000 film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

A poster child for transnational film

Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954 to Chinese parents who fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Nationalist’ defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Lee was educated in Taiwan and after completing his national service he went to America to study for a Bachelors Degree in Theatre. (IMBD 2015) Ang Lee directed Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon which is a modern day Wuxia film. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has gained such status as it is the highest grossing Chinese film worldwide and is the most successful foreign language film of all time (Guinness Book of World Records 2015). The success of this film as a transnational success and example is discussed at length at this ‘Symposium: Ang Lee and the Art of Transnational Cinema’ which was held at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University in 2013. The film is hailed as a true example of diasporic cinema as are many of Ang Lee’s other pieces such as Eat Drink Man Woman. All the lecturers concluded that a director being of the diaspora is able to bring a greater understanding that transmutes the boundaries of country, culture and language. Christina Klein of Boston College says quite succinctly:

‘to see crouching tiger as a work of diasporic cinema then, is to see how its story and its visual style have been shaped by Lee’s enmeshment in a network of transnational relationships. By his desire for a symbolic return to a lost China, by his lateral affiliation to his other ties of the diaspora and by his partial embrace of the cinematic conventions of Hollywood’.

Even more apt and pertinent to the discussion do I find Ang Lee’s description what he attempts to do is to ‘transcend culture’ and to make his films a ‘global translation’ of the story he has set out to tell. Perhaps it is this cognoscence of his role as a transnational film maker that makes him so successful across many markets in translating our human stories no matter what the culture of origin.

Other References:

Athique, A. (2014). “Transnational audiences: geocultural approaches.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 2014 28(1): 4-17.

Higbee, W. and S. H. Lim (2010). “Concepts of transnational cinema: towards a critcal transnationalism in film studies.” Transnational Cinemas 1(1): 7-21.

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