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Book Reviews

Book Review: Stars in World Cinema

WorldCinemaBook

Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems Across Cultures, eds Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer, I. B. Tauris 2015, £62 (hardback) 272 pp, ISBN 9781780769776, eISBN: 9781857738356

This new title in the World Cinema series from I. B. Tauris presents a collection of essays offering ideas about theorising film stars and stardom. Such studies have conventionally developed in studies of Hollywood and European cinema but here they are applied in the wider context of ‘World Cinema’. It is unfortunate that the publishers decided to use that term for the series since it perpetuates that Hollywood v. ‘World’ binary, but the editors for this volume emphasise the ‘pluricentric’ nature of the essays (the same idea, I think, as ‘polycentric’ in other similar collections). The editors also use the term ‘transnational’ and refer to the ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘commonality’ of accounts from five continents. As several of the essays point out, even when the stars themselves have crossed borders to appear in Hollywood films, many other star studies start from the preferred Hollywood model rather than recognising how star personae are developed in different cultures.

There are sixteen essays in total, divided into four sections. The first, Film Icons and Star Systems, offers four different case studies of stars and star systems outside Hollywood. The second, Stardom Mobility and the Exotic, focuses on examples of actors who have become ‘transnational’ in appeal, but for whom ‘crossing borders’ makes them ‘exotic’ in the cinema that is not native for them. In most cases this translates to travelling to Hollywood and being treated as exotic, but in the case of Viggo Mortensen it means appearing in Spanish films as ‘Danish-American’ and speaking fluent Argentinian Spanish. Section three is The Politics of Stardom with four studies of stardom in distinctive film cultures/industries where individual artistic expression and control have wider implications. Section four, Stars, Bodies and Performance, studies more or less what the title implies in relation to four further case studies.

This sounds like a carefully considered structure to the collection and it does indeed make sense. However, there are inevitably the pros and cons of a multi-authored text. The main pro is that the study has a genuine ‘local’ perspective and therefore a collective overview that no single author could produce. The main con is that there will be some repetition of basic arguments. But this is probably helpful as it serves to emphasise the ‘interconnectedness’ of these studies. More practically the sheer range of the case studies means that most readers will come across stars they have not encountered before or film cultures they know little about. For me the discussion of two specific female stars of the ‘post-studio Philippine Cinema’ was new territory as were the specific stars of Egyptian and Greek films. In other chapters I could always find something that I recognised. I think that the sixteen essays represent a good selection. They include studies of global figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Antonio Banderas, Jackie Chan and others still active in contemporary cinema as well as earlier stars such as Romy Schneider, Emmanuelle Riva (in relation to Hiroshima mon amour and the more recent Amour) and Carmen Miranda (on the book cover – see above).

The two editors are Australian academics, as are several of the contributors. Most of the others are based at UK universities. Rachel Dwyer, who writes about Amitabh Bachchan, is perhaps the best-known name but Scottish readers will be pleased to see the founder of the Africa in Motion (AiM) Festival, Lizelle Bisschoff of the School of Culture & Creative Art, Theatre Film and TV Studies, Glasgow University, writing about Nollywood. The real question is who would read/use these accounts outside quite specialised areas of study and how accessible are the individual essays? I’m going to mention just a few essays in detail in the hope that they offer a useful sample.

Hara Setsuko was the great female star of Japanese studio films, best known in the West for her roles in Ozu Yasujiro’s post-war films, including Tokyo Story (1953). Mats Karlsson titles his essay ‘Japan’s Eternal Virgin and Reluctant Star of the Silver Screen’. Hara is a star who became emblematic of Japanese womanhood, representing in the 1930s the young girl/woman who supported the men going to war in the propaganda films of the period but then switching dramatically in the first post-war films to be first the ‘new woman’ of democratic Japan and then switching again to the traditional woman during the 1950s and the return to patriarchy. As Karlsson highlights, the Japanese Studio System operated in a similar way to Hollywood with Hara contracted to Toho for much of her career but able, because of her status, to work with Ozu who was usually working for Shochiku. But Hara can’t be studied just like Hollywood stars because her star image was restricted in ‘secondary circulation’. As an intensely private person she maintained a silence outside the studio walls. Garbo had to retire to become anonymous but Hara could continue to have a strong screen persona and still be a private person. Karlsson’s is a useful essay especially since two contrasting roles for Hara are available for study on UK Region 2 DVDs of Naruse Mikio’s Repast and any one of her six films for Ozu.

One of the most accessible and contemporary studies that students might undertake is of the way in which Chinese film stardom operates in conjunction with Hollywood’s current interest in the extraordinary recent growth of the Chinese box office. ‘Dancing with Hollywood: Redefining Transnational Chinese Stardom’ by Sabrina Qiong Yu approaches such a study fully aware of the difficulties and the problems associated with earlier scholarship. She begins by noting that Hollywood seeks Chinese stars to appear in its blockbusters for purely commercial reasons and not to help diversify the range of representations. This has recently meant that Chinese stars have been seen in insignificant roles and are on screen only fleetingly – resulting in the observation from audiences that they constitute ‘Hollywood soy sauce’ – an attempt to enhance the flavour, but nothing substantial in the dish.

Yu uses Bourdieu’s concept of four forms of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic – to analyse how succeeding generations of Chinese stars (and later Korean and Japanese) have worked on Hollywood productions. She concludes that social capital is very difficult to develop for any star based outside the US since it requires the kinds of social networks associated with politics or social activity such as charity work (e.g. for a Clint Eastwood or an Audrey Hepburn). Symbolic capital based on ‘fame and fantasy’ associated with a star image can be converted into economic capital if the star’s presence increases investment in the production, helps to secure distribution etc. Cultural capital can accrue for stars with specific skills such as dancing or combat skills. Otherwise it is economic capital that is most important. Yu demonstrates that while Bruce Lee and to a lesser extent Jackie Chan and Jet Li had the opportunity to develop their status because of martial arts skills, other major Chinese stars such as Chow Yun-fat are better known for straight dramatic performances and their skills are less distinctive in cultural capital terms. Yu notes that the more recently-established stars Chinese stars have smaller roles in bigger Hollywood blockbusters, but that some of these films are being made in two versions so that the Chinese stars have more screen time in the versions for the Chinese market. This is a rich field with scope for ongoing study.

From the third section I would pick Karen O’Brien’s essay about the indigenous Australian star David Gulpilil. Beginning with Walkabout (1971) Gulpilil has received international recognition which has proved important in his activist role in promoting authentic representations of indigenous Australian life through films like Ten Canoes (2016) which stars his son Jamie.

Indigenous Australian cinema is perhaps more accessible (partly because there are several recent examples) than some of the films featured in the fourth section. From this section I would opt for the essay by Michelle Royer which considers the two best-known roles for Emmanuelle Riva in the context of how cinema represents the ageing process. Royer argues that cinema has great potential to be a site for real understanding of what ageing means but that too often older characters are presented only in heavily typed roles. By focusing specifically on Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Amour (2012) Royer is able to offer a fascinating perspective on how a study of ageing might proceed.

I could certainly use this book and I would imagine that it offers something for everyone. It’s a shame that the current economics of publishing means that this only available in hardback. The book carries an e-ISBN number as well but I can’t find any sign of a digital copy online.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 58, Winter 2015/16 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

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