From Wartime Propaganda to Challenging Documentary: Course Covers Ideas About Asian Identity in American Film

September 03, 2008

September 3, 2008 — "The war in Korea was over," the film's narrator says. "Captain — now Major — Bennett Marco had been reassigned to Army Intelligence in Washington. It was, by and large, a pleasant assignment, except for one thing. Night after night, the major was plagued by the same recurring nightmare."

In 1962, "The Manchurian Candidate" became a popular Cold War thriller about McCarthyism, international Communism, brainwashing and political intrigue. It features a U.S. Army officer whose dreams tell him one of his soldiers is not the Korean War hero everyone thinks he is. It turns out the soldier has been programmed by a cadre of Chinese, North Korean and Soviet Communists to become an assassin. One of the brainwashed soldier's targets is an American presidential candidate.

Sylvia Chong, an English and American studies assistant professor at the University of Virginia, explores a range of 20th-century cinematic views of Asians and Asian-Americans in the seminar, "Orientalism and the U.S. War Film." The class draws attention to neglected events in American history that continue to have relevance, Chong said.

She plans for students to examine issues of race and what she calls "American Orientalism" through films about World War II, the Philippines, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and possibly the Middle East wars, she said. Accompanying readings are drawn from history, Asian-American studies, cinema studies, feminism and post-colonial theory.

"Orientalism" in Europe was largely a product of colonization in Asia and Africa, Chong said, whereas American Orientalism encompasses the impact of Asian immigration to America, as well as America's numerous wars in Asian countries.

"Orientalism is different from racism in that racism is usually associated with personal prejudice, or false assumptions, about other people, while Orientalism can be completely impersonal, devoid of hate and entirely true, but still be used to advance a political project," Chong said.

"For example, even as the U.S. government herded Japanese-Americans into internment camps without due process, they enlisted many of those interned people in ethnographic research on their own communities as a way of understanding indirectly the nature of the enemy the U.S. was fighting in East Asia."

One of the class themes is "understanding how culture and scholarship become political, whether or not the filmmakers or scholars intended their work that way," said Chong, who also teaches a survey of Asian-American cultural history and directs the Asian Pacific American Studies minor program.

She assigns films that portrayed generally accepted stereotypes of Asians, such as Frank Capra's 1945 propaganda documentary, "Know Your Enemy-Japan," which features Disney animations of the Japanese "yellow peril," and Edward Dmytryk's 1943 film, "Behind the Rising Sun." That film, Chong wrote in her course description, features "a cast of white actors in yellow face portraying the transformation of normal Japanese citizens into vicious enemy soldiers."

More sympathetic views and questions are raised in "Black Sun," a 1989 film by Japan's Imamura Shohei that depicts life 10 years after the atom bomb destroyed Hiroshima, and the 1974 film "Hearts and Minds," which recounts the history and attitudes of the opposing sides of the Vietnam War using archival news footage and original interviews.

Chong said some students who take the film class don't know much about Asians and Asian-Americans in American history, even those who are American Studies majors.

Regardless of their previous experiences, students should be able to glean a relevant message from the class, she said.

"The examples of how American culture interacted with previous wars, such as World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, are instructive at a time when we as a nation are still engaged in war but ambivalent about how our popular culture should (or should not) respond to it," Chong said.