"Asian Minimalism" (Bordwell)

"[..] A Regional Tradition
By the mid-1990s, one stream of Asian art cinema shared many aesthetic features with specialist films from other countries. The prototype is now familiar. The story traces the lives of relatively few characters, with a focus on mundane activities. In place of the earth-shattering conflicts we see in more mainstream entertainments, these films present everyday and intimate human dramas, often embedded in routine activities - riding a train or bus, walking through a neighborhood, eating and drinking with friends and family. While the situations may recall the problems of love and duty we associate with melodrama, the characters tend not to burst into grand emotional displays. Instead, their feelings tend to be muted or stifled, repressed rather than expressed.
In plot, this strain of Asian cinema tends not to present the goal-oriented, problem/solution dramatic arc to be found in mainstream entertainment. Instead, we get episodic plot structures, which favor the loose accumulation of scenes. Characters' backgrounds may be left sketchy, and information about their pasts might never be revealed. Important action may take place between scenes, creating gaps in our knowledge about how the story is unfolding. We may be left with some uncertainties about why characters do what they do or what the outcome of their actions will be.
These qualities, stemming ultimately from postwar Italian Neorealism, are common to many national cinemas. What's significantly new is the visual style. I'm unhappy with the term "Asian minimalism," but I can't think of another that sums up the techniques that became common in many countries during the 1990s. The minimalist label indicates a stringency and austerity that refuses to utilize certain standard film techniques. The style emphasizes the long take, so that a scene is executed in very few shots, perhaps only one. The long takes tend to be made with a fixed camera, so that tracking shots and even pan shots may be avoided. The camera position tends to be fairly distant - usually no closer than medium-shot, often in long shot. This spare technique is well suited to the mundane story action and loosely structured plot. The plainness of presentation obliges us to concentrate on details of behavior that might reveal what is going on below the surface of the action.
This broadly "minimalist" approach recurs in many times and places, notably in the 1910s and in certain European films of the 1970s (by R. W. Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman, for instance). In the 1980s the style reappeared in the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien and other directors of the New Taiwanese Cinema. Ten years later it was very salient in the work of Tsai Ming-liang, Wu Nien-jen, and other Taiwanese directors. The approach also emerged in certain Japanese films, perhaps most famously in Kore-eda Hirokazu's Maborosi (1996) and in the early work of Kitano Takeshi. Recently the style has been taken up by mainland Chinese directors, most notably Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, 2000; The World, 2004), and by Malaysian filmmakers like Ho Yuhang (Rain Dogs, 2006).
To the "maximalism" of Hollywood cinema, of Hong Kong cinema, and of blockbuster filmmaking in Korea and Japan, this style offers an important alternative. Spare in its means, it can yield a wealth of artistic possibilities. The approach obliges us to focus on details, to register slight changes in characters' behavior, and to keep thinking about why we are seeing the story in this way. As a result, directors can offer us subtle and engrossing experiences. By taking away so much, the filmmaker reveals nuances in what remains.

A Narrow Focus
There are many important differences among Asian practitioners of this approach. Kitano uses minimalist technique to create laconic violence and deadpan humor. Tsai takes it toward comedy, often using a visual gag to enliven each shot. Most elaborately, Hou's dense staging techniques create an almost unprecedented gradation of visual emphasis within the fixed frame. HONG Sangsoo has innovated on another level. Accepting the visual premises of the style, he has developed a strikingly original approach to overall narrative architecture.[..]"

Beyond Asian Minimalism: Hong Sangsoo's Geometry Lesson” (David Bordwell in “Hong Sangsoo”, 2007)
For a 2007 book on Hong Sang-soo, David Bordwell wrote an essay introduced by a general reflection on a certain "minimalism" in non-Hollywood cinema based around Asia. This is all very loosely defined, and all encompassing, as if outside of the Classical norm, everything looked alike. Back in 2007, he told me he already wrote everything he wanted to say about this trend elsewhere... (which includes his books : Narration in the Fiction Film, 1985;  Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, 1988; Figures Traced in Light, 2005). It's interesting to see what he had in mind then.

Naming the thing 
" I'm unhappy with the term "Asian minimalism," but I can't think of another that sums up the techniques that became common in many countries during the 1990s."
"Asian Minimalism"; "A Regional Tradition"; "one stream of Asian art cinema"; "prototype"; "strain of Asian cinema"; "visual style"; "techniques that became common in many countries during the 1990s"; "minimalist label"; "broadly 'minimalist' approach"; "overall narrative architecture"...

The first thing I object is the wide net he uses to catch great many different styles and put them in the same indiscriminate bag. All this because he defines anything existing in cinema according to the Hollywood template, whereas minimalism existed prior to Griffith and the Studios Golden Age. Minimalism is not an "alternative" to mainstream entertainment, it was actually at the origin of cinema . What films of the 1910s is he thinking about that would somehow outdo the precedence of Louis and Auguste Lumière (unedited takes, no dialogue, no plot, no music)? Why always try to subordinate any style to the default commercial standard? 
He's talking about a "trend" as if it was a specific coherent aesthetic, while it is just a loose grammatical descriptor, by dividing the world into two families : the ones that use editing and the ones that don't use editing as much. I'm afraid it is not a pertinent distinction to make, but for a very basic-level taxonomy that was last salient in the 60ies maybe. I believe cinema theory has grown out of such simplistic distinction between edited cinema and non-edited cinema, meaning this is a very superficial observation, a stereotype. 


If he was speaking from Europe, instead of from Hollywood, he wouldn't feel the need to distinguish between the classical format and everything else. There is far less differences between European art cinema and Asian art cinema, on this very basic level of editing style (and justifiably so because this "Asian trend" is at least in part influenced by 60ies European cinema, the other equally important influence would be Mizoguchi and Ozu). So there is no need to isolate the Asian branch on a grammatical level.
We could find stylistic differences that certain Asian filmmakers share more among themselves than with their European  counterparts, but that would be on a more refined level (in term of means rather than ends, postures rather than assertions, situations rather than conflicts, discreet symbolism rather than overt metaphors, showing rather telling, hiding rather than showing...).
Conversely we could find more in common between Hong Sangsoo and Rohmer, Eustache, Rozier, Pollet, Pialat, Garrel, Fassbinder, Cassavetes, the Czech New Wave, than Hong Sangsoo has with any other Korean or Asian filmmaker around him. (I already talked about HSS's specificity here : Sabouraud a minima) So why refer to this as "Asian Minimalism"?
Someone like Ozu is criticized at home for being too "Western", but he's definitely unique and unmatched in the West, the style he developed could be referred to as characteristic of a certain "Asian Minimalism", because he makes use of a typical Japanese rigor inherited from Zen paintings and Shinto geometrical architecture.


The other aspect I reject is the idea of such a "tradition" (See: Forgotten Obsolete English Words #8 : Tradition). When there is academism, formalism, conventions, standardisation of formats, calibration, stereotypes, streamlining, mimetism... we could talk of a convergent goal of many filmmakers (or many countries) to develop, perfect and perpetuate a standard model, and solidify it in a tradition. A tradition is a stable collective culture, with solid, well-defined fundamentals, with clear rules, with followers, with generational transmission of a preserved format, with a common culture surrounding it, nurturing it, reaffirming its posterity. 
But when we talk about various films schools spawning independently (or almost in isolation), developing their own style (or remixing an existing style with a unique twist), exploring new avenues in divergent directions... how could we refer to this multifaceted, incoherent, disorganised, multiform radial spread in the margins as something like a "tradition"? There is no such a thing as an "art cinema tradition", there is no such a thing as a common tradition between Kitano, HHH, Hong Sang-soo, Kore-eda, JZK, Tsai Ming-liang... no more than there is any specific common tradition shared by Cassavetes, Malick, Gus Van Sant, Monte Hellman, Abel Ferrara, Charles Burnett, David Lynch in American art cinema... This is NOT "tradition" that links them, if there is any link to establish between them.


Also there is a notable difference between the minimalism of (some films by) Fassbinder (which is barely as minimalist as Modernity of the 60ies) and (some films by) Akerman (which is not merely relying on a lose plot and disconnected dialogue scenes like Fassbinder, but doing away with both of them). Just like there is a crucial distinction to be made between the use of dialogue and voice over in HHH, JZK, Hong Sangsoo, Kore-eda or Kitano, and the quasi-absence of dialogue in Tsai Ming-liang and these "minimalist films" made by Akerman. It is a pretty important difference. They just do NOT develop the same narrative method, nor do they reach the same level of minimalism in the mise en scène. Hou Hsiao-hsien is rather literary and verbal which makes his filmmaking style closer to Terrence Davies or Terrence Malick (to cite "broadly minimalistic-ish" filmmakers from the Western landscape who are fond of their voice over narrators). The voice and the verbal content is important to them, even necessary to the film content. Which is clearly not the case with Jeanne Dielman or Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I wish we could start making the nuance which is more blatant than an hypothetical nuance between 1940ies Hollywood and today's Hollywood!  

The small distinctions in mise en scene techniques Bordwell delineates in this introduction between these Asian "minimalist" filmmakers are very interesting, but they are seemingly limited to a variation in the use of this uniform minimalism (for personal purposes), rather than defining evident branches of an heterogeneous minimalism, to the point when even referring to "minimalism" shall become confusing rather than helpful.
If the distinction between minimalism used for violence or for comedy, for dead pan humour, or visual gags, for dense staging or barren frames... is worth mentioning, then most certainly the use of dialogue or not could be a pretty fundamental identity to acknowledge and integrate.


Even if we talk about an "overall narrative architecture"... it is a bit simplistic to consider that anything outside of the Hollywood format is one monolythic tradition, one standard narrative architecture. Being slower than Hollywood editing doesn't make disparate films become one single recognizable style. (See : To America Everything Foreign is SLOW)
Why speak of minimalism with such broad strokes, such vagueness, such imprecision, such generalities... when film theory has been describing it and commenting it for as long as the Hollywood studios format. It's like if a fairly simplistic and self-explanatory format like the mainstream narrative had many books and precise taxonomy dedicated to it, and ALL THE REST was left in the realm of barely identifiable, amorphic blobs, free-for-all categories, heterogeneous ensembles... Why can't we talk about these films in 2012 other than referring them as "slowish", "minimalistic-ish" or even "traditional"...??? Why can't we find more specific, pointed sub-groups, sub-genres, sub-categories that reflect a little better the diversity of input of the filmmakers who contributed to "minimalist cinema"?
Minimalism was the default label attributed to non-conventional cinema in the 60ies (before academic film theory arose), and it's still the same useless tag bandied about today, without any ounce of improvement. No wonder the uneducated spectators reject art cinema as a block if educated historians talk about it as a block. Academics and critics resist to refer to the Hollywood tradition, in American cinema or in any mainstream entertainment around the world, as a unified trend, a default international style, a standard template... even though it deserves it more than anything else, by definition, by its very nature, by the way it is made according to the same rules everywhere. However, the same people don't feel burdened to resort to such reductive descriptor for art cinema (festival films, default international style, art cinema, minimalism, slow cinema) which is more stylistically diverse (and sometimes as antagonist as Eisenstein and Benning) than mainstream cinema will ever be. Why the double standard? Why the over-complexity in the Hollywood format(s) where none is required, and the over-simplification in art cinema where discrepancy is vital? 

This is not helping film culture. I don't understand.

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Movie Kid/Nerd said…
Just want to say this post was incredibly helpful for a paper I've written on Asian Slow Cinema. I mainly focused on Hou and Tsai in the actual paper, but this still was some great groundwork for the topic.