Cultural Control and Globalization in Asia:
Copyright, Piracy, and Cinema

By Laikwan Pang

Reviewed by Shujen Wang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October 2007)

Laikwan Pang. Cultural Control and  Globalization in Asia: Copyright, Piracy, and Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN: 9780415352017 (Hdb); ISBN: 9780415426893 (Ppb)

Laikwan Pang. Cultural Control and
Globalization in Asia: Copyright, Piracy, and Cinema
. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN: 9780415352017 (Hdb); ISBN: 9780415426893 (Ppb)

Identified as one of the most prominent problems for the digital millennium, piracy of entertainment and informational products on a global scale is a matter with complex economic, political, and cultural implications. It also became a hot-button issue between the United States and China in bilateral negotiations and in China’s 15-year quest to gain accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Pang’s timely book takes a very unique approach by tackling both idea copying and product piracy. She focuses on the intricate relationships between culture and control, and between piracy and copyright, in the post-WTO environment. Unlike other books on piracy or copyright, which tend to deal with either the legal or the political/economic/technological, Pang’s book focuses on the dynamics between the legal and the cultural and does a fine job doing so.

Pang divides her book into two sections. Chapters Three and Four focus on idea copying, while Chapters Five and Six address product piracy. There are two additional chapters– Chapters One and Two–covering the legal and philosophical groundwork of copyright and a chapter introducing theoretical framework for the book, respectively.

Of these seven chapters, the Introduction and Chapters Four and Five are especially well argued and presented, offering plenty food for thought for the readers while providing an engaging reading.   In the Introduction, Pang looks first at idea copying from the standpoints of mimesis and cultural production and of difference and identities (pp. 5-6). She frames copyright in the context of globalization and through the relationship between “two cultures”: cultural production on the one hand and national/regional cultures on the other (p. 10). Her thesis that “copyright levels culture in the name of culture” is especially bold and thought-provoking. Because culture’s “will to copy” is fueled by the globalization processes that drive the world to desire similar yet different products, copyright’s relationship to globalization is “both structurally necessary and doomed to fail” (p. 8).

Chapters Three and Four deal with idea copying by focusing on film violence. Given the recent popularity of “Asian extreme” or J-Horror films, the discussion of filmic violence in Asian films and its global impact could not have been more timely. Unlike Chapter Four’s lively and engaging discussion of the case of Kill Bill, however, Chapter Three offers a promising but ultimately unconvincing argument about the inter-Asian copying of violence. In this chapter, Pang reviews “New Asian Cinema” and violence as a transcultural connection and as both a theme and a style (p. 51). Like her two-pronged approach to the writing of idea copying and product piracy, Pang’s take on film violence in Asian cinemas is also dichotomized. She looks at violence in commercial cinema as opposed to that in the art house cinema, as if the two do not overlap. Violence in Hong Kong action films is used as an example of violence in commercial cinema that other commercial Asian films imitate. Pang suggests that the style of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is copied by other art film directors. She refers to the kind of violence seen, or suppressed, in art-house cinema as “social and psychological violence,” while the violence seen in commercial films such as Hong Kong action films simply as violence.

While this premise is interesting and provocative, the arguments are oversimplified. The kind of social and psychological violence seen in some of the recent South Korean films, for example, is very different from that in Hou’s films, or in Takashi Miike’s films, two directors whom Pang discusses in the chapter. By grouping together these films or the kind of violence in them, the author suggests that violence is an act of conscious copying. Contrary to her argument on mimesis and its crucial contribution to the formation of cultural identities given mimesis’s contribution to our thinking of identity and difference, by condemning the commercial copying of violence among Hollywood, Hong Kong, and Thai cinemas, while praising those acts of copying among art house films, Pang places a value judgment on the commercial and the art house. Her argument seems to ignore the facts that art house cinemas too are the products of a certain market logic and that the distinction between commercial and art house has never been clear-cut. Pang ends up arguing against a dichotomized view of violence, by stressing “the extreme malleability and richness violence as a transcultural form of representation contains,” yet her analysis through the chapter suggests otherwise (p. 60).

Using Kill Bill as a case study, Chapter Four follows the arguments made in Chapter Three to “investigate how transcultural copying is also fundamental to Hollywood’s movie industry” (p. 63). Here Pang focuses on how Hollywood copies Asian films in particular. By questioning and problematizing the “American-ness” of Hollywood, Pang does a fine job examining both the text of Kill Bill and the context of its global circulation. While her reasons for using Kill Bill are understandable, that film, or any other work by Tarantino for that matter, is too obvious and easy an example since Tarantino is especially well-known for paying homage to Asian and other films. It is even more problematic to useKill Bill as an example to discuss the status of Hollywood as a national cinema, since Tarantino has been cited, and sometimes celebrated, as a prime example of the postmodern politics of pleasure and pastiche. If Pang’s choice had been other more subtle or more classically “American” texts such as the westerns The Magnificent Seven (1960) or The Outrage (1964), the arguments and discussion would have been far more complex and interesting. While both films are remakes of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950s works (Seven Samurai and Roshomon, respectively), the exponents of the classical western celebrate the frontier myth of America and the birth of the nation, thereby going beyond remakes. That Akira Kurosawa cites John Ford as a major influence on his films adds another dimension to the complexity of filmic culture and the problems of defining national cinemas simply on the basis of national boundaries.

Chapter Five offers one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date analyses of the current state of technology, piracy, and their relationships to Hollywood. Dissecting through the “cultural and social density of piracy . . . entrenched in and fueled by recent developments of globalization,” Pang examines the ambivalent meanings of pirated Hollywood products in Asia (pp. 80-81). Her thorough research on, and analysis of, the complex history of VCD technology and its implications shed important light on one of the most fascinating and fast-changing developments in a digital technology that has challenged existing power structures. Furthermore, the analysis of the dynamics between technology and control, as well as the highly contested relations between culture and control, is especially illuminating. Pang argues that because owners of pirated VCDs care less about ownership, they tend to share and circulate pirated movies. Thus, a “new imaginary transnational community” surfaces (p. 96). Viewed as having filled the gap between consumer desire and purchasing power, piracy has also become an essential component in the chain of globalization.

Pang inaccurately identifies in several places the piracy market as a “black market” (e.g., p. 83, 104, and 106), where goods sold are illegal in and of themselves, such as narcotics. Piracy markets are rather “gray” markets, where the goods sold are not necessarily illegal; it is the production, sale, or use of the goods that is illegal. This distinction is crucial, since it is the process of the circulation of the goods that is in question. As its name indicates, a gray market is situated in an in-between space (between legal and illegal, formal and black, markets), attesting to the spatial and temporal problematic of global capitalism in which the location (and speed) of legitimate production, distribution, and consumption is essential.

Turning in Chapter Six to the national, Pang focuses on two important issues concerning cultural control in Asia, “the internal contradictions of globalization manifested in contemporary (inter-)national cultural politics, and the impacts of globalization on a culture’s collective identity, both on the levels of representation and public participation,” p. 98). This chapter brings the discussion of cinema and piracy back into the dynamic relations between the national and the global and between culture and control. Focusing on China, Pang examines China’s ambiguous position in the process of globalization and in the effort to combat piracy. A slight problem in Pang’s take on globalization is her insistence on viewing the national and the global as necessarily contradictory, ignoring the regional as an important factor in shaping transnational politics. The national and the global collude and overlap, just as even prior to the impact of globalization a culture may not exhibit an integral collective identity.

These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Pang’s book raises many important questions. It will no doubt make an important contribution to the study of copyright and piracy. Her superb research on piracy, compelling arguments on idea copying, and thorough discussion of theoretical, legal, and cultural frameworks of copyright have all made this a most valuable and timely book.

Shujen Wang
Emerson College