Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions

By Kwai-Cheung Lo

Reviewed by Liansu Meng
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2014)

Book cover for Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions

Kwai-Cheung Lo.
Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. 251 pp.
ISBN13: 978-1-4384-3209-0 (cloth);
ISBN13: 978-1-4384-3208-3 (paper)

Kwai-Cheung Lo’s Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions is a commendable piece of work that addresses widely-held misconceptions about Asia in the West and offers a corrective to Eurocentric Marxist theories of modernity. Focusing on the notion of masculinity as a critical aspect of Asian modernity, Lo examines a range of cultural productions in Asia, including gangster movies, ethnic films, religious writing, travel writing, fantasy literature and on-line games, and provides a nuanced study of Asian masculinities in the context of global capitalist modernity. Simultaneously drawing on and critiquing Marxist theories in explaining the complex and overwhelming changes experienced in modern Asia, Lo argues that Asian modernity poses an inherent critique of the Western hegemonic universality of capitalist modernity and may offer an alternative model for development. Below, I first summarize Lo’s arguments chapter-by-chapter, and then offer evaluations and appraisals of the book.

The book is comprised of an introduction and six chapters. Lo opens the introductory chapter, “Asian Modernity and Its Unassimilable Male Excess,” by directly addressing recent Western anxiety over the rise of Asia due to the latter’s increasing sex imbalance in favor of males. Parsing the simplistic nature, historical origins, and theoretical basis of this anxiety, Lo challenges the reader to step out of conventional Eurocentric frameworks and proposes a conception of Asia as “a reality of multiple, active, and antagonistic relations among individuals, groups, and states” (10), a region that is more aptly conceived of and characterized by “excess” than by any supposed united binary opposition to the West. Lo then critiques Western hegemonic discourse in terms of its history of gendered representations of Asia, including its contemporary masculinization of Asia. Drawing on Lacan’s “formulas of sexuation,” Lo offers a more nuanced interpretation of the term “masculine excess” in the context of Asian capitalist modernity (19-22). Lo disagrees with Western Marxist theorists who reject the cultural notion of an Asian modernity, and contends that Asian modernity is an “excess” to the established universality of Western modernity and will present a challenge to “the dichotomy of male-order and female chaos” in the Western discourse of capitalist modernity (22). He proposes the possibility of thinking of Asian modernity as “an inherent critique of capitalist modernity” and “a potential utopia” (18) that might “even change the conditions for political action and lead us to a new praxis beyond the existing economic rationality” (23).

In Chapter 1, “Ethnic Ghosts in the Asian Shell,” Lo discusses the notion of Asia by examining cinematic representations of Asian identities in four popular transnational films directed by Hong Kong filmmakers. The first film Lo analyses is Sleepless Town (不夜城,1998). This Japanese-financed film directed by Lee Chi-Ngai was adapted from a Japanese novel and is set in Tokyo’s ethnic Chinese underworld. The second film is Fulltime Killer (全职杀手,2001), directed by Edmond Pang Ho-cheung. This film, adapted from a popular Hong Kong novel about a Japanese killer living in Hong Kong who speaks no Chinese, features a Japanese and Taiwanese cast and was shot in various Asian countries. The third film Lo analyses, Throw Down (柔道龙虎榜,2004) directed by Johnnie To, draws heavily on a popular Japanese television drama broadcast in Hong Kong. The last film, Initial D (头文字D,2005), directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, was adapted from a Japanese manga series and filmed in Japan. Through detailed analysis of leading characters (mostly male), cinematography, and casting in these films, Lo demonstrates the impossibility of representing one unified Asian identity. On the contrary, he points out, antagonism is always present in the reality of Asia. Looking closely at the frequent practice of racial impersonation, or what he terms “cross-racial performance” (44) in these films, Lo further demonstrates the multiplicity of Asia by identifying racial impersonators as “a third category that constitute a condition of indiscernibility and undermines clear distinctions between racial groups” (55). He attributes this fluidity of Asian identity to the rapid process of capitalist globalization during which traditional sources of identity formation —such as values, beliefs and cultures—quickly melt away (56).

Chapter 2, “The Racial Other and Violent Manhood in Murakami Haruki’s Writings about China,” examines cross-cultural writings from the Japanese side. Lo mainly discusses three of Murakami Haruki’s fictional works, “A Slow Boat to China” (1980), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995), and After Dark (2004), and two works of travel writing, Rainy Sky, Blazing Sun(1990) and Remote Region, Short Distance (1998). Lo examines how the appearance of China in Murakami’s fictional and non-fictional accounts addresses issues of masculinity and national character through the figure of the Chinese other, and argues that gendered and ethnic being are fundamentally performative (60). Lo observes that Murakami’s works do not contain predestined notions of masculinity or ethnicity. In Murakami’s writings, “Chineseness,” the supposedly external ethnic object for the Japanese self, always exists inside the Japanese self as its excessive other and helps define Japanese masculinity, yet it only emerges through the Japanese self’s external traumatic encounter with this Chinese other. Lo observes that Murakami’s work expresses a strong sense of rootlessness due to the loss of imperialist masculinity stemming from the emasculating process of capitalist globalization, and attempts to reconstruct a masculine national self through these encounters with China.

In Chapter 3, “Becoming-Woman in the Male Writings of Hong Kong Chinese Society,” Lo draws attention to the growing feminization of heterosexual Asian men. He discusses three forms of writing by male Hong Kong authors—namely, religious writings on fatherhood and manhood by Christian leaders, autobiographical writings on fatherhood by young liberal middle-class professionals, and fantasy literature on gender transformation. The works Lo discusses from the three categories are Father in the Making (从未遇上的父亲, 1991), Shier Baba (十二爸爸, Twelve papas, 2001), and Shuangshen (双身, Double body, 1997), respectively. Drawing on the Deleuzian concept “becoming-woman” (84), Lo interprets this trendy phenomenon of feminization among elite Hong Kong males as both an effort to reconstruct their masculinity and a means of reaffirming the patriarchal system in the face of the challenges created by the rapid expansion of capitalism. At the same time, Lo also interprets this feminization as Hong Kong men’s attempts to reconstruct their national identity as they face the transition from a British colony to a Chinese special administrative region. He points out that, despite the fact that colonial discourse has traditionally placed the colonized in a weaker and feminized position, Hong Kong Chinese under British colonial rule enjoyed more freedom than their mainland counterparts. Embracing a notion of femininity that coincides with their feminized position under colonial rule shows Hong Kong men’s uncertainty about their new identity under PRC rule and their attempts to create a new free identity in alliance with the other—that is, women (105-106).

In Chapter 4, “Fighting Female Masculinity: Modernity and Antagonism in Woman Warrior Films,” Lo examines representations of female warriors in Hong Kong cop movies in the 1970s and 1980s as well as recent mainland martial arts movies, all by male directors. Drawing on Judith Halberstam’s concept “female masculinity” (107), Lo contends that masculinity, rather than being naturally inherent in males, is a construct of patriarchal society. He sees these representations of the woman warrior as an aggregation of various social, cultural, sexual and ideological codes. Through close analysis of these representations, Lo attempts to reexamine the implications of masculinity, question traditional assumptions about gender, and understand Hong Kong’s colonial modernity. He observes in these woman warrior figures a kind of “deviating excessiveness” (120) vis-a-vis the traditional opposition between femininity and masculinity. He interprets this “excessiveness” as indicative of the social antagonism in Hong Kong’s colonial history. Meanwhile, Lo emphasizes that the female masculinity represented in these movies is derived from the patriarchal norm and simultaneously supports and transgresses this norm. He argues that the popularity of woman warrior figures in Hong Kong and mainland movies does not indicate a rise in feminist consciousness or women’s social status. Rather, women warriors are vehicles through which male directors rebuild the gender norms that capitalist modernity has radically subverted and simultaneously adapt to the intense competition of capitalist society. Films Lo focuses on are Chu Yuan / Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (爱奴, 1972), Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam (皇家师姐, 1985) and Righting Wrongs (执法先锋, 1986), David Chung’s Royal Warriors (皇家战士, 1986), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (英雄, 2002) and House of Flying Daggers (十面埋伏, 2004).

Unlike previous chapters that deal with issues of masculinity, Chapter 5, “Ethnic Excess in Films about Minorities,” focuses on ethnic issues in recent films about ethnic minorities in China by Han Chinese filmmakers. Lo considers these films “Asian” films because they address a fundamental antagonism that resonates with his conceptualization of Asia. As Lo observes, Chinese films about ethnic minorities endorsed by the government generally treat ethnicity as a symbol for the other, for what is beyond the Han majority’s cultural knowledge. The self-other relation demonstrated in these films corresponds to China’s notion of Asia. Historically, China has conceived of itself as the center and master of Asia both geographically and culturally, and disavowed its Asian neighbors’ cultural significance, as well as that of the ethnic minorities within China. However, in recent films by Han Chinese filmmakers such as Lu Chuan’s Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (可可西里, 2004), Wang Quanan’s Tuya’s Marriage (图雅的婚事, 2006), and Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑, 2005), the state ideology is contested rather than echoed. Lo argues that while the Han Chinese filmmakers still project their concerns about national issues in China on the ethnic others, they are becoming more aware that the ethnic other cannot be totally symbolized and that the excess eluding symbolization is not external to the culture of the Han majority, but an integral part of it. Lo concludes that movies can serve as a means to raise China’s consciousness of itself and its relation to others both within and outside China.

Chapter 6, “Clean Modernization, the Web-Marriage Game, and Chinese Men in Virtual Reality,” returns to the issue of masculinity. This chapter moves on to a new technology—the Internet, “one of the forefronts of global modernity” (169). Lo contends that the cultural appropriation of the Internet in China may challenge Eurocentric teleology and demonstrate different visions of modernity. Focusing on a web-based marriage game popular among male Internet users, Lo observes that the Chinese government is effective in promoting Internet-driven economic and social developments while trying to eliminate political challenges, cultural conflicts, and ideological disputes in cyberspace. Rather than using it as a subversive tool against the authoritarian regime, Chinese Internet users see the Internet as part of a newfound consumer lifestyle in capitalist modernity. In its attempts to eliminate antagonisms provoked by changing gender relations embedded in the capitalist system, this virtual game conforms to the values upheld by the regime and reconstitutes shattered Chinese masculinity or patriarchal virility by reinforcing a male-dominated heterosexual marriage system and a hierarchical patriarchal order. Lo concludes that the phenomenon of the web-marriage game allows space for thinking about new forms of self-control and the possible emergence of a non-disciplinary power within Chinese modernity.

This book is an ambitious project that offers a timely and wide-ranging investigation of a critical area of inquiry. Like all ambitious projects, though, it achieves something remarkable while at the same time leaving some gaps, or in Lo’s term, excesses. While the wide spectrum of topics and genres covered in the book allows the reader a glimpse into the complex reality of Asia, the lack of connections between the chapters makes the book read more like a collection of articles with a common theme than a book. A concluding chapter that ties the loosely structured chapters together would have helped considerably. For example, in Chapter 4, Lo discusses the presence of female masculinity in Hong Kong cop movies in the 1970s and 1980s as well as in contemporary mainland movies, but does not mention its presence (or absence) in contemporary Hong Kong. Lo does discuss the predominance of tough masculinity in contemporary Hong Kong movies in Chapter 1 and the adoption of feminized masculinity in contemporary Hong Kong writings in Chapter 3. It would have been fascinating if Lo had addressed the possible replacement of women warriors by tough guys as leading characters in Hong Kong movies, or reflected on the seemingly contradictory co-existence of tough masculinity and feminized masculinity in contemporary Hong Kong culture. However, rather than synthesizing the arguments put forth in previous chapters via a conclusion, Lo moves on to a completely new subject in his final chapter.

While the subject of the last chapter (Chapter 6), Internet technology and on-line marriage games, is probably the most intriguing in the book, this chapter is at the same time the least persuasive. By focusing his analysis on secondary materials such as newspaper articles and on-line comments rather than primary sources from actual web-marriage games, Lo winds up undermining, rather than bolstering, his own argument. Having argued in Chapter 5 for film as a potential alternative voice against government censorship, Lo here comes to the opposite conclusion concerning the Internet, which he does not find to be politically subversive. Had he looked at specific cases in the original data from the marriage games or different Internet forums, he might have drawn a different conclusion. In addition, incorporating findings from other studies on the role of the Internet, such as Zhou Yongming’s Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China (2006), and Yongnian Zheng’s Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China (2007), would have helped to enrich Lo’s argument and likely have led him to different conclusions.

While the book’s title indicates a focus on issues of masculinity in Asian cultural productions, the works discussed in the book represent only Hong Kong, China and Japan. Additionally, Chapters 1 and 5 do not contain much gender analysis, though all the films discussed in both chapters are directed by male filmmakers and most of the characters analyzed are male. While the ethnic excess discussed in Chapter 5 supports Lo’s conception of Asia, discussions of the intersection of ethnicity and gender would have better supported his argument. In chapter 1, Lo does make some important observations concerning gender. For instance, he points out the connection between Hong Kong’s tension with mainland China after the 1997 handover, and the male-dominated Hong Kong film industry’s new obsession with “masculine excess.” As he notes, the masculine excess expressed through “violence, masculinity or male bonding” highlights an antagonistic rather than unified image of Asia (42-43). He also notes that, since conventional masculine male leads in Hong Kong cinema seemed to be losing their appeal after the handover, the racial impersonation inInitial D offers new possibilities to revive masculine strength and patriarchal bindings through the agency of a tough Japanese masculinity (54). However, the bulk of the chapter argues for the nonexistence of a unified Asian subject through the analysis of a range of male leading characters and actors with an emphasis on their racial identity. In other words, this chapter argues more for the impossible representation of a unified image of “Asian man” than for the gender-neutral term “Asian subject.” Lo does occasionally mention the female presence in this male-dominated industry. For example, he discusses a young female protagonist in “Throw Down” (48), but focuses his analysis on her racial identity rather than the gender dynamic between her and her male counterparts. Lo also mentions the interesting fact that, in the casting of Initial D, the Japanese male characters are all played by Cantonese-speaking Chinese actors, while the female characters are all played by Japanese women. (52) Further analysis of the intersections of gender and race would have not only helped to provide a more complex notion of Asia, but also better address Western anxiety over the threatening masculine excess in Asia.

These minor flaws should by no means be taken to undermine the originality and insight of the book as a whole; Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions makes a significant contribution to the fields of Asian studies, gender studies, and cultural and media studies. It adds a welcome and invaluable gender perspective to the growing corpus of scholarship on the study of rapidly transforming Asian cultures. Any scholar who is interested in understanding the complex reality of Asia beyond popular Euro-American stereotypes will find intriguing and thought-provoking insights in this book. Teachers will find this book an essential resource for courses on gender issues in Asia, contemporary Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese and transnational Asian films, literature and culture, as well as comparative cultural studies.

Liansu Meng
University of Connecticut