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Asian American Film Home > Commentary > A Slanted Canon - Kevin Lee

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A Slanted Canon - Kevin Lee

09.05 - Posted by Editor
A Slanted Canon
The top Asian films in the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll and what it means for Asian American cinema
Commentary by Kevin Lee
Post your responses!

09-05-02 - In mid-August, Sight and Sound magazine announced the results of their international top ten film survey, in which they polled over 250 film critics and directors for their top ten films of all time. Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, has been conducting its poll every 10 years since 1952. In the words of film critic Roger Ebert, "Because it is worldwide and reaches out to voters who are presumably experts, it is by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies--the only one most serious movie people take seriously."

Given the relative stature of this poll, it is worth investigating where these experts would place the masterpieces of Asian or Asian American cinema among established classics like Citizen Kane or Vertigo. Tallying the votes by both Critics and Directors, the top 16 films originating from Asia or directed by Asians are ranked as follows:

Overall S&S Rank Title Director Critics votes Directors votes Total votes
7 Tokyo Story (1953) Yasujiro Ozu 22 9 31
8 Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa 15 12 27
9 Rashomon (1950) Akira Kurosawa 14 11 25
35 Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray 9 3 12
41 Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) Kenji Mizoguchi 7 4 11
53 The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1938) Kenji Mizoguchi 8 0 8
80 Ran (1985) Akira Kurosawa 1 5 6
80 A City of Sadness (1989) Hou Hsiao-Hsien 4 2 6
80 Ikiru (1952) Akira Kurosawa 4 2 6
80 Sansho Dayu (1954) Mizoguchi 5 1 6
122 Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa 1 3 4
122 The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) Hou 2 2 4
122 Floating Clouds (1954) Mikio Naruse 2 2 4
122 The Music Room (1958) Satyajit Ray 3 1 4
122 Close-up (1990) Abbas Kiarostami 4 0 4
122 Yi Yi: A One and a Two... (2000) Edward Yang 4 0 4

Of course, given that the intent of the poll was not to compile a list of the greatest Asian films of all time, the above results should not necessarily be construed as such a list. On the other hand, as I have yet to find an international survey of that kind, this may be as good an indication as any of what the world considers the best of Asian cinema.

Looking at this list, my reaction is deeply divided. Being familiar with the results of previous Sight and Sound polls, I can say that this is the strongest showing yet for Asian cinema - I don't think there were enough votes among Asian films in the 1992 poll to even compile a top 10, let alone 16. I am glad that The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums has received belated recognition after languishing for decades in obscurity. (Although it was one of Mizoguchiís early films, made 15 years before he gained international stature with Ugetsu Monogatari, Late Chrysanthemums may very well be his most modern for its amazing use of framing and space.) I am also happy that recent masterpieces City of Sadness, Close-Up and Yi Yi (only two years old!) made their debuts in the poll. Their appearance is all the more impressive given that virtually all of the other films date from a single decade, the 1950s!

What does one make of this observation, that 10 of the top 16 Asian films were all made within 7 years of each other? Are we to presume that Asian cinema enjoyed a golden age that has yet to be equaled? What do we make of the fact that 10 of these 16 are Japanese films? Does Japan really tower over the rest of Asia in the quality of its films? On a related note (after all, this is the asianamericanfilm.com site), why didn't any Asian American film receive a single vote in the poll? And finally (though I'm sure I'll come up with more objections in a little while), what do we make of the fact that half of these films were authored by only two directors, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi? Do these guys really outshine the rest of the field?

Addressing the last question first, we can sort the results by director to determine which Asian directors received the most praise by votes:

Overall S&S Rank Name Critics votes Directors votes # of Films Cited Film with Most Votes Total Votes
4 Akira Kurosawa 38 38 10 Seven Samurai 76
15 Yasujiro Ozu 28 11 5 Tokyo Story 39
15 Kenji Mizoguchi 27 4 6 Story of the Chrysanthemums 31
22 Satyajit Ray 15 10 6 Pather Panchali 25
34 Abbas Kiarostami 15 3 7 Close-Up 18
45 Hou Hsiao-Hsien 8 5 4 City of Sadness 13
64 Wong Kar-Wai 5 3 4 Chungking Express; In the Mood for Love 8
73 Mikio Naruse 3 3 3 Floating Clouds 6
73 Edward Yang 5 1 3 Yi Yi 6
73 Guru Dutt 4 2 2 Khagaaz ke phool (Paper Flowers); Pyaasa (Thirst) 6
82 Hayao Miyazaki 4 1 2 Spirited Away; My Neighbor Totoro 5
95 Zhang Yimou 2 2 4 Red Sorghum; Ju Dou; Story of Qiu Ju; To Live 4
95 Nagisa Oshima 2 2 2 Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) 4

Again, ambivalent responses felt by this author. I am thrilled that Abbas Kiarostami, a major figure in the New Iranian Cinema, placed so highly in his debut (he even tied Martin Scorsese in the critics' voting). I am also pleased for the other contemporary auteurs, Hou, Yang, Zhang, Wong and Miyazaki (who even outdistanced Walt Disney to be the top animator in the poll). But again, nearly half of this list is comprised of Japanese names; India, which for decades has been the largest filmmaking industry in the world, is represented only by 1950s festival darlings Ray and Dutt. And again, half of these filmmakers made their reputation five decades ago.

To remedy these gross inequities of time and geography among the list, I'd gladly submit Yuan Muzhi's Street Angel (1937), Shi Hui's This Life of Mine (1949), Raj Kapoor's Awara (1949), King Hu's A Touch of Zen (1969), or Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982), to name just a few. But I'm still not even mentioning any films from the Philipines, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries, about whose cinemas I plead ignorance for the time being. My lame excuse is that I've never had a good opportunity to see these movies -- which may be your excuse for not having watched any of the films I just mentioned. I even wonder how many of the participating critics and directors had seen all of the films that had received votes. Which brings us to a deeper, more pervasive problem: the self-perpetuating and exclusivizing tendency of the canon.

Does the fact that most of these top films were made in the 1950s have something to do with the fact that the Sight and Sound surveys (and the internationalization of both film industry and film scholarship) began in the 1950s? There's no question that 1950s auteurs such as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu and Ray are great, but, judging film-for-film, I'm not convinced that they overshadow their Asian predecessors, successors or even their contemporaries (I think Raj Kapoor can give Satyajit Ray a run for his money, and Kon Ichikawa's films are every bit as potent as Kurosawa's).

Though I risk oversimplifying a complex issue, I have reason to believe that the elite films identified by this poll benefit from being recycled from one decade to the next as the token Great Asian Films, to the detriment of the immense array of other Great Asian Films waiting to be discovered. To take a lesson from Don DeLillo's anecdote of the Most Photographed Barn in America, whenever someone sticks a superlative on anything, chances are it's going to be considered "The Best" for a while, which in turn breeds ignorance about whatever else may be standing around that is also worthy of being labeled "The Best." So long as most film buffs see only Kurosawa movies, Kurosawa is going to be The Asian Director, virtually by default.

But there's a problem on the other end of this inequity. Just how many people, Asian, Asian American or otherwise, have seen even half of the Asian Sweet 16 listed above? (For the record, I'm one shy of a full deck myself). What hope is there of championing unheralded masterpieces if even the heralded ones don't get watched? Which leads to an even bigger problem -- how can you build an Asian or Asian American cinema if its constituents have very little in common other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? In spite of all I have said to challenge the authority of this makeshift canon, I think all the films on that list are masterpieces that every film lover must experience, whether they care about an Asian cinema or any kind of cinema. To explain why each and every one of those films are indispensably great would require an ongoing column, much like Roger Ebert's "The Great Movies."

Which leads to the matter of the Asian American cinema not being represented AT ALL in the voting. As I wrote above, this poor showing may be due to the participants not giving a thought to films outside the established canon. Maybe one day more people will recognize a film like Chan Is Missing for the world-class masterpiece that it is. This is the challenge given to film critics, as well as anyone who cares about the movies they watch: to tap into the riches of these movies and expand our collective understanding of what great films are all about.

But there may be a second reason for the poor showing of Asian American films, and this time, instead of the critics, the challenge is posed to Asian American filmmakers: how would they size their films up alongside those of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or Ozu? Or even if those three studio-bound masters seem like an unfair comparison, how about films like Pather Panchali or Close-Up, which were made on budgets that would make even the most die-hard indie producer quiver, and yet rank among the greatest films ever made? These are films that are extremely observant to the details that comprise the world we inhabit, that raise fundamental questions about the way we live our lives, and do so with a heightened awareness of the tremendous possibilities of the film medium.

It seems that Asian American cinema, being largely tied into the independent scene, is sharing in the indie world's current state of crisis. Financial hardships are bleeding our sense of morale and inspiration; many filmmakers seem more preoccupied with "making it" than with making it for the ages. But what the films in the top 16 show is that with a strong artistic vision, anything is possible.

And that is why these Asian films should be watched by Asian American filmmakers, even those who, for justifiable reasons, prefer not to address Asian culture in their films. The fact is that these oft-neglected films have so much to offer, both in what they say and how they say it. If the Asian American cinema has yet to see its glory days, I think these films have much potential to help us usher them in.



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