Book Review The Oriental Obscene: Violence And Racial Fantasies In The Vietnam Era
The Oriental Obscene is a study of how the proliferation of violence in visual representations of the Vietnam War has shaped modern America. By analysing news footage from the time and depictions of Vietnam in film, Chong uses the idea of violence as social trauma in order to illuminate the relationship between America and Asia.
Chong’s work situates itself within a psychoanalytic framework using Deleuze and Laplanche’s idea of national trauma as a way of deconstructing the American identity. Her main argument is modelled on Freud’s famous 1919 case study of the beating fantasy, which has historically always been the foundation for studies into violence and fantasy, as well as the gaze and spectatorship. The structure of the beating fantasy is characterised by four stages; “my father is beating the other child; my father is beating me; a child is being beaten, and I am looking on.”
In the book, each chapter is modelled on a stage of the beating fantasy, but projected onto the body of the nation and the experience of violence, so that it becomes “the nation is being beaten, is invaded, is invading, is triumphant.” Thus the main argument of the book is clearly mirrored in its very structure, maintaining a constant sense of internal coherency throughout. However, for those not too familiar with psychoanalytic theory, it is still possible to glean knowledge from the work as it follows a chronological timeline, mapping the events in the lead up to, during and after the Vietnam War. By interweaving news reports, photographs, films and first-hand accounts from war veterans, Chong creates a detailed and thought-provoking study of what representations of Vietnam can ultimately reveal about America.
In the first chapter, Chong considers the turbulent events of 1968 in America to be the birth of the Vietnam era, constituting a type of national primal scene. As racial tensions grew volatile and rioting spread across the country, scenes of violence began to figure more and more in news media. The emergence of footage, such as the Zapruder tape and the shooting of Lee Oswald, meant that the actual moment of death was captured on film, ready to be beamed across to living rooms around America over and over again. Television and journalism also had a massive impact during this period on reporting the Vietnam War, producing some of the most iconic and powerful images of the 20th century. The idea of Vietnam being a “living room war,” as posed by Michael Arlen, emphasises the importance of this technology in effecting public opinion. As a result, news coverage of conflicts in the aftermath of Vietnam was a much more tightly controlled and orchestrated affair, with the US government only allowing journalists access to certain regions. Reporting of the Persian Gulf War, for example, tended to focus on the “hard” targets of “weaponry, machinery and buildings,” as opposed to the “soft” targets of unarmed civilians or residential areas.
One particularly iconic image of the war that Chong analyses in great detail is the photograph of the ‘Napalm Girl’. However, Chong is careful to not simply classify it as merely having an anti or pro-war effect. Following the international outcry prompted by the photograph, Kim Phuc (the girl featured in it) was the subject of many news features and reports in the US. Her image was widely used by anti-war protesters around the world to demonstrate the tragic human cost of war. On the other hand, she was also featured in many magazine articles, which tried to shift focus away from the brutality of her ordeal by following her recovery at the American hospital in Saigon and subsequent move to Canada.
Television and journalism had a massive impact during this period on reporting the Vietnam War, producing some of the most iconic and powerful images of the 20th century.
This culminated in 1996 at a Veteran’s Day memorial, where Kim Phuc was publicly ‘reunited’ with the soldier who allegedly dropped the fateful bomb on her village many years ago. Thus, as an iconic symbol for the war, Kim Phuc is transformed from the victim of militarism to a shining example of American goodwill and charity via the narrativisation of violence. Her forgiveness of the soldier acts as collective easing of American guilt, allowing the nation to console itself over its past actions. However, later on it was revealed that the soldier was a fraud, and that the perpetrator of the crime was confirmed to be South Vietnamese soldiers all along. What this shows is how the images and narratives of Vietnam can be appropriated for different purposes, to both justify and/or critique individual versions of history.
In the latter sections, Chong focuses on representations of Vietnam onscreen, in films such as First Blood, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Here, Chong posits that the suffering of the Vietnamese, as depicted in shocking images such as the ‘Napalm Girl’ and the My Lai massacre, becomes transferred onto that of the American soldier. In First Blood, John Rambo is depicted as a soldier ‘turned native’, adopting the same guerrilla tactics as the Vietcong in order to booby-trap his enemies. The woods of Washington become transformed into the Vietnamese jungle, restaging the war on home soil so that it becomes a literal embodiment of the phrase “bringing the war home.” The sheriff deputies’ treatment of Rambo even evokes flashbacks to a POW camp, equating one abuse of power with another. First Blood and many other films all use the body of the disillusioned, suffering soldier in order to illustrate the physical and psychological trauma of war. Although these films are often viewed as being critical towards the war, in some ways, this re-appropriation diverts attention away from the other, much more obvious victim of the conflict, the Vietnamese.
Moreover, these war films preface what Chong addresses in the final part of the book, the alignment of the Asian body with violence through the popularisation of the martial arts genre. This alignment is considered to be directly brought on by the experience of war, and can be seen portrayed in the beginning of Apocalypse Now, when Willard drunkenly practices kung fu in his hotel room. Chong regards the Western fascination with martial art as a kind of racial fantasy. In order to account for the US military’s embarrassing losses against the Vietcong, martial arts became regarded as a sort of shadowy, secret weapon which only Orientals were privy to.
How else could one possibly explain America’s defeat at the hands of a bunch of ‘pyjama-clad’ untrained civilians, who were often fighting with homemade weapons and booby-traps? Hence America’s eagerness to master the violence of the Orient becomes a way of making up for its past defeat. As a result, many Western martial arts films all tend to focus on the teacher-student relationship, portraying the protagonist as a disciple to a learned old Shi-Fu or Sensei. One of the most popular and well-known example of this is The Karate Kid franchise, which transforms the violence of the Orient into something that is attainable, non-threatening and ultimately marketable.
Chong’s book is compelling and detailed without being too bogged down in theory. Although many of her arguments rely on psychoanalytic ideas, the application of them to films, news reports and archival footage means that much of the theory remains easily digestible. In addition, she is also careful to not over-simplify the discussion and often outlines both the evidence for and against many of the issues that she addresses. Some readers may find this slipperiness slightly frustrating, but given the inherently complex nature of the topic and transnational studies in general, it is not surprising to find such an approach.
For martial art films fans, this book provides a fascinating insight into the historical significance of the genre, and goes some way into explaining why its popularity in the West grew so rapidly during the 1980s. For fans of Vietnam War films, this book also offers a comprehensive account of their social contexts in relation to visual culture and American history. In a more general sense, The Oriental Obscene is an exploration of how media and popular culture can effect and influence society via mediums such as cinema and photography. But most importantly, it is concerned with how such mediums become contentious and over determined when representing the Orient and otherness on film. As Chong concludes, it is only by looking backwards towards the past that we can better understand of the complex nature of nation identity and its relationship to the present.
Oriental Obscene provides an in-depth analysis of how the experience of Vietnam has shaped American history, identity, race and popular culture. A fascinating read for fans of martial art and war films, and also those more generally interested in the historical relationship between cinema and society.
Release date: 2011 / Author: Sylvia Shin Huey Chong / Publisher: Duke University Press
Similar Special Features
The Deep, Iceland’s recently shortlisted Academy Award nominee, is a
classic examination of man vs. nature; it also explores how one man survives…
The Swedish nihilist – for want of a more cursory phrase – and his brand
of humanist high modernism has arguably fallen somewhat out of fashion. As…
Rio Breaks is a film about the colourful, dangerous and poverty stricken
favelas of Rio and the two teenage boys trying to escape them through their…