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The red herring of representation

We are a more globalised, diasporic and culturally-mixed audience than cinema has ever reached before. Let's act like it

A still from Lee Chang-Dong's 2018 psychological drama, Burning A still from Lee Chang-Dong's 2018 psychological drama, Burning

Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning is, by all accounts, a Korean film. Directed by a Korean director, starring Korean actors, set in Seoul and distributed by a Korean company, it was even selected as South Korea’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards. All of this is evident in the trailer that played during the ads at the cinema as I sat there with my friend. Despite this, when the words “based on Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami’ appeared across the screen, my friend promptly turned to me and asked “why is it Korean if it’s meant to be Japanese?”

Burning is one of a handful of Korean productions that have been adapted from foreign narratives, the other notable ones include The Handmaiden and Snowpiercer. Often, these films have been subjected to the same concerns that my friend expressed: the critique that narratives cannot travel across cultures. Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden was the topic of frequent debate for its ambitious goal of adapting a lesbian crime novel set in Victorian England, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, into a film set in Japanese-occupied Korea. The reactions to these films expose an underlying pre-conception that we hold about culture, particularly about non-Western narratives, that culture is immutable.

But Lee’s adaptation proves us wrong in this sense. Burning encapsulates and critiques Korean society. At one point the protagonist Jong-Su dejectedly says “there are too many Gatsbys in Korea”, commenting on the extravagant and wealthy lifestyle of many in Seoul, the product of a rapid capitalist industrialisation, while he travels from his parent’s country home in a dilapidated truck. At Jong-Su’s home, the echoes of North Korean propaganda are constantly heard in the background, amplified from across the nearby border. Even if the story itself is not about Korea, the setting is employed to supplement the human drama that plays out against it.

What bars us from considering these cross-cultural shifts in the same way that we conceive of remaking old narratives or translating literature across languages? After all, reading My Brilliant Friend in English and not the original Italian is an instance of reading the text from a different cultural perspective. The film, like the short story, even points to the fact that Barn Burning takes its inspiration and title from a William Faulkner story, adding yet another nation’s literature to this mélange.

The conventional rallying cry of social progressives on non-Western narratives in film has been, up to this point, a  call for greater representation on screen. Of course, this is a necessary and positive step in diversifying the social consciousness of audiences and remedying the Euro-centric bias that has pervaded media for centuries. Recent releases such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians were huge achievements in this respect, but their reception exposes how we continue to conceive of representation and minority cultures only within the insular borders of their nations.

Even in discussing Crazy Rich Asians, I, a Korean-New Zealander, was told I must feel excluded from a narrative which primarily featured Chinese-Singaporean characters, applying limiting labels like a homogenised “Asian” or a narrowly nationalised “Singaporean”.  I could empathise with Constance Wu’s portrayal of an immigrant child growing up in a Western country despite our national differences, but these possible connections such as the one between mine and Wu’s character’s narrative are often overlooked. Instead, we default to the connections that fall inside national boundaries, rather than seeing the nuances of how an individual’s unique cultural situation could be relevant to a narrative, regardless of nationality.

Representation is something that we should continually strive for, but treating representation as the ultimate goal for minority cultures and people of colour bars us from considering cultural complexities that transcend the insular stories contained in representation. Films like Burning supplement this discourse by crossing dogmatic national boundaries, to reveal commonalities across culture. Without actively pursuing these commonalities, the representation of Chinese-Americans in Crazy Rich Asians can easily be seen as a path only for economically elite sectors of Chinese-American culture. This, in turn, risks promoting a tribalistic and counterproductive cultural cinema without constructing any wider cross-cultural empathy.

We are a more globalised, diasporic and culturally-mixed audience than cinema has ever reached before. Our current view of representation does not adequately advance minorities beyond the defined boundaries of specific cultures and nations. Taken too far, it risks becoming an anachronism to a global audience which yearns for the acceptance of a truly world cinema.