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Understanding Humanity

Film in Culture; Culture in Film

Helping Viewers Appreciate the Complexity of Films

As an adolescent, Kenneth Chan loved to go to the movies. His parents, whose ancestors were Chinese immigrants to Singapore, thought films were largely a waste of time and believed that he should be investing that time in studying and other more productive pursuits. In responding to his parents’ questions, Dr. Chan became increasingly reflective about the purpose of films in a multicultural society. Now an associate professor of English at UNC, Dr. Chan has been teaching film studies since 2008 and, thus, putting his reflections on film into educational practice.

Dr. Chan considers his cultural identity status in the United States to be a form of “double diaspora” because he grew up in a Chinese immigrant family in Singapore and then relocated to the United States and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 1999. This rich cultural background prompted his fascination with the immigrant experience and the idea of “otherness” that comes from being removed from the majority population. Dr. Chan’s research journey began with concerns about the Chinese in the U.S. and evolved into an exploration of the impact of cultural texts, as represented in film, literature, and other non-literary sources such as the World Wide Web. Dr. Chan explored this topic in his dissertation, and he continues to develop it by studying how cultural minorities are portrayed in film.

theatreDr. Chan’s first publication was an essay on Black-action cinema. As he continued to publish in the area of film studies, he discovered he had a lot to say about Asians in Hollywood. An essay on the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon spawned other pieces that eventually became the topic of his book, Remade in Hollywood: The Global Chinese Presence in Transnational Cinemas, in which he critically examined the nature and origins of Chinese stereotypes and representations in American and international films.

Social issues and politics motivate Dr. Chan’s research. He views his writing as a small way of intervening in matters of cultural politics. Dr. Chan explains his need to stay personally connected to his work: “How can I carve out an area of research in which I identify with it, I believe in it, and I can speak on it with authority? I can only write about something if it truly means something to me.”

filmDr. Chan’s research explores the argument that diasporic Chinese filmmakers “sell out” by often perpetuating racial stereotypes of the Chinese people in order to make it in Hollywood. On the other hand, he has discovered that stereotypical representations in films are part of a more complex cultural discourse, hence making a straightforward critique of stereotypes much more complicated. Films are a negotiation between what is pleasurable to watch and what is culturally and politically “real.” It is important to understand how people consume films and their beliefs about cultures represented in them. Dr. Chan’s research helps explain why certain stereotypes exist, and why the stereotypes continue to get reconfigured instead of just disappearing. Dr. Chan also emphasizes the importance of remembering that films are an international industry: “Hollywood culture is a global culture; you cannot run away from it. It’s everywhere.” American films are shown in China and in Asia eventually. So, films not only affect the way Americans think about the Chinese people; films also influence how the Chinese people think about America.

A long-term goal for Dr. Chan is to help others learn to appreciate the complexity of films. “There is intellectual pleasure that can be had from film. It’s okay to just sit back and enjoy a film for the purpose of escaping into a fantasy, but that is only one of the multiple pleasures a film offers. If we can learn how to watch films in a way that allows us to tap into our intellectual pleasure, we have just multiplied the ways in which we enjoy a film.” He encourages viewers to work toward understanding how the film industry works because it does impact the way we view the world. Intentionally or unintentionally, “We learn so much about each other through film.”

Dr. Chan is grateful to UNC for providing the opportunity for him to travel and further his research. He hopes to continue his scholarly work to investigate portrayals of other populations and cultures in film that have personal meaning to him.

“As a scholar, you evolve. It’s part of the discovery. You find yourself asking, ‘What do I want to do with my research time?’ You have to love your research topic; it has to mean something to you.”