I am taking my very first film class ever on Asian American film and its issues of whitewashing, mainstream media representation, and its subsequent consequences in the lives of real Asian Americans.
This class, however, is a little different in that whilst we watch films relevant to topics we study, we also do readings that elaborate on these ideas. We analyze films using a critical lens with respect to history and sociology all while we try to read it like a book, paying attention to detail and trying to find out how film form expresses meaning just as literary form expresses meaning. It’s completely changed how I watch movies and I find myself unconsciously using skills we’ve learned in class at the movies or with any film.
One film we’ve watched so far in the class is the 1961 movie Flower Drum Song based on the 1958 Broadway musical which was based on the 1957 novel of the same name by C. Y. Lee.
It’s not unusual to analyze text in search for its deeper meaning in English and literature courses but we do the same thing in film class using film form, allowing us to watch the movie in a way that’s deeper than what’s shown on the surface.
For example, the iconic “I Enjoy Being a Girl” scene in the movie when Linda Low is getting ready for her date with Wang Ta is overwhelmingly white. The walls are white, the furniture is white, her clothes are white. The only thing that really isn’t white is herself. Without looking at it with an analytical point of view, we don’t think much of it. However, when we use its film form to find a deeper meaning behind it, we can use it to connect it to the film’s bigger picture theme of Asian assimilation in white America.
Similarly, the 1982 film Chan Is Missing is at its surface like a documentary and leaves its viewers confused about the point of the movie since its seemingly obvious mission to find the character Chan is never accomplished. When we carefully examine director Wayne Wang’s creative choices in sound, mise-en-scène, and cinematography, tell a bigger story about what the idea of Chinese American identity entails and who has the authority to determine these factors.
Next time you watch a movie, whether it’s brand new in the theatre or just on a computer, try watching it as if you were reading a book. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the messages hidden behind its film forms just as novels hide meaning behind its styles of writing.