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Hollywood, East Asia and the enigmatic signifier

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How the field of film studies has been an obvious beneficiary of researches inspired by Edward Said and his stimulating Orientalism (1979) is exemplified by Homay King’s Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. By interpreting films that range from D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), Homay King argues that, beyond the depictions of Asian in Orientals in popular culture and their stereotyping, their unintelligible alterity is an “enigmatic signifier”. Depictions of East Asia and its diasporas have remained consistent across the twentieth century (p. 3) and real Asian Americans have been underrepresented in the classical Hollywood era. However, Homay King, by exploring Asian racial representation in cinema, demonstrates that the entrenched dichotomy between East and West, often assumed to be monolithic and completely diametrically opposed (p. 4), is central in classical Hollywood film. Inspired by Said’s legacy and Homi Bhabha The location of culture (1994), Homay King uses the psychoanalytic theory, in particular the Jean Laplanche (especially: 1999) and Laplanchean theory of the stereotype, that is defined as a representation not of an external other but rather of an internal alterity. According to this model, stereotypes are products of anxiety about an extricable component of the self The “Shanghai gesture” In chapter 2 (“The Shanghai Gesture”), Homay King demonstrates how the Orient appears as enigma in the mise-en-scène of classical Hollywood narrative films. Through her opening reading of D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, the author identifies and defines a trope she calls the “Shanghai gesture”, after Josef von Sternberg’s film The Shanghai Gesture (1942). In her analysis, the Shanghai gestures involves a double abduction: an appropriation of superficial, even kitsch elements of oriental aesthetic by Hollywood, and a tope in which that aesthetic comes to invade and take over the logic of the film. Homay King explores the Shanghai gesture in two classic examples, Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). These films, like other examples of noir from this period, feature small orientalist objects (silk curtains, Chinese coins, bowls of incense, etc.) that at first glance seem insignificant or meant only to evoke a vague sense of dark exoticism. East and West are revealed, through their representatives, in a an infinite mise-en-abyme and each appears as the inextricable internal alterity of the other (p. 74). However, these eastern objects and touches of décor become dexterously symbols of the irresolvably enigmatic and unintelligible. Chapter 3 focuses on two films of the Hollywood Renaissance era and its immediate aftermath: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Both films are set in fantasy versions of Los Angeles, Chinatown in the noir past of the 1940s and Blade Runner in an imaginary future in 2019. Homay King suggests an interpretation of the two films that centers on ambiguous and indeterminate Eastern signs and objects that ornate the both films and her reading of Chinatown reveals clearly how the Shanghai gesture of classical noir is satirized in this film Within her Shanghai gesture frame, Homay King demonstrates how Blade Runner associates the otherness of the replicants with simulation and virtuality and she exposes how these qualities are occasionally associated with the East. As an example, the story of the replicants echoes the discourses of the assimilating “model minority” Asian immigrant, who is replicant-like in her seemingly limiteless capacity to mimic and even outperform her Western counterparts (p. 14). Lost girls The closing chapter (“The lost girls”) analyzes Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation (2003) and Sophie Calle’s image and text installation Exquisite Pain (2003). The latter documents the artist’s own journey throughout Europe, Russia, China and lastly Japan in 1984. The both pieces have in common to tell the stories of young Western women abroad in Tokyo for the first time and their encounter with alterity. The both characters are also ultimately sent back home into the found safety of familiar relationships. Through Freud and Laplanche, Homay King reads the “lost girls” as a figure conducing a reciprocal translation between East and West, but saved protected the intervention of a paternal figure The treat of the Orient is assuaged through. Although a prerequisite to fully comprehending it is at least some basic knowledge of the psychoanalysis concepts, Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier is definitely insightful, compelling, and inspiring. Homay King’s book is a significant contribution not only in film studies, psychoanalysis and race studies fields. It should be of interest to a wide range of scholars and students, and also to those who look for a substantial understanding of orientalism.

Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage. Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge. Laplanche, Jean. 1999. Essays on Otherness. New York: Routledge.

Gwenola Ricordeau, Université Lille I (France) Email:

A review of:
King, Homay. 2010. Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. Durham: Duke University Press. 205 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-4743-9 (paperback)

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