Orienting Paradise examines the ways Western filmmakers have projected their desires and anxieties onto Asia. In response to the “Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography” exhibition at the National Library, this programme of nine films, many of which are considered canonical, including musicals, travelogues, psychological dramas and historical epics, frames cinema as a cartographic act shaped to different degrees by transnational desires, orientalist attitudes, and forms of Western imperialism. While the map aims to be a spatial representation of reality based on claims to scientific rationalism, the cartographic film is charged with seductive visions of the so-called ‘other’ through narratives of adventure, discovery and moral panic.
Much like early maps, the ‘East’ is a simulation that exists for and within the Western filmmaker’s imaginative cartography, varying in its desire to capture spatial realities. While some traversed across the continent, such as in Chris Marker’s meditative travelogues, and Jean Renoir’s The River shot on location in Bengal, others fabricated a ‘paradisal’ Asia in studios in the West, for instance in the fictional Mopu of Black Narcissus and the Thai courts of The King and I. Within these simulacrums constructed through ornate mise-en-scène, characters uphold binaries supporting the positional superiority of the West against the East—of noble and savage, virgin and whore, modern and traditional. These narratives become trapped within its dialectics, creating fractal images of conflict, hysteria and horror where the boundaries of self and other are blurred.
Through the films, the idea of the Orient as a passive mirror that reflects and completes the Western conception of self reveals itself as inherently illusory. Instead, the narratives and images evoke a mise-en-abyme, an infinite mirroring where meaning becomes increasingly fragmented. Orienting Paradise provides a space to examine the tropes that contribute to this illusion of dichotomy, presenting possibilities to rethink the relationship between image and spectator. Across paradisal landscapes of the lush tropics and rugged highlands, the camera’s gaze does not only map, but negotiates, mediates and manipulates.
Orienting Paradise: Western Projections of the East will run from 8 – 29 April 2022 at Oldham Theatre.
Shanghai Express (1932), dir. Josef von Sternberg, USA
Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, UK
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), dir. David Lean, UK
The King and I (1956), dir. Walter Lang, USA
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), dir. Alain Resnais, France, Japan
Double Bill: Sunday in Peking (1956) and Sans Soleil (1983), dir. Chris Marker, France
The Last Emperor (1987), dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, UK, China, Italy, France
The River (1951), dir. Jean Renoir, France, UK, USA, India
Disclaimer: This programme features films which include outdated and historically inaccurate depictions, including instances of minstrel shows, yellow and brownface. Rather than deny or erase the colonial apparatuses in film history, these films and their complex legacies should be critically viewed in its original form, contextualised and discussed.
Tickets will go on sale Friday, 25 March 2022.
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