It may sound like a truism to say that film is a global industry. Bollywood movies play in theaters in Los Angeles, while Hollywood movies play in theaters in Bombay. And many films, of course, are produced outside these two great hubs: pictures made in Thailand, South Africa, Egypt, China, Argentina, Finland, among many other countries, circulate on a global market and through the network of international festivals. But what — if anything — do these films share in terms of theme and content? What is "global cinema"? Does such a thing exist?
NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies Seung-hoon Jeong is working on a book project in which he identifies and develops key terms for addressing the idea of "global cinema," which he describes as a new frame in which to examine films that comment on phenomena like cosmopolitanism, terrorism, and global capitalism. This current project follows his previous book, Cinematic Interfaces: Film Theory after New Media, published by Routledge in 2013.
Seung-hoon believes that many contemporary movies, whether they are produced in Southern California or South Korea, share a way of addressing a global community that values cosmopolitanism and cultural difference. "Since we have a global community that is expanding more and more, differences between groups within a community in terms of race, sex, class, ethnicity, is increasingly less decisive because there is more toleration than there was in the past," he explained.
Similarities across cultures also extend to values and ideologies. Concepts such as human rights and equality, ideas that have developed according to their own historical trajectories, have, in a way, become default values shared by many cultures throughout the world. This homogeneity means that some of the most pressing antagonisms today are between the global community and external or excluded forces: "The whole global community wants to be inclusive," Seung-hoon said. "But on the other hand, this globality isn't perfect. There are always examples of exclusion."
Seung-hoon has recently written about how animals and machines are presented as "others" that exist on the boundaries of human society in global cinema. The paper, "A Global Cinematic Zone of Animal and Technology," published in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities in May 2013, considers how animals and machines can stand in for humans and provide an element of difference that cannot be accounted for by humans.
Since we have a global community that is expanding more and more, differences between groups within a community in terms of race, sex, class, ethnicity, is increasingly less decisive because there is more toleration than there was in the past.
If nature and technology exist on the edges of society, so too does terrorism, "which is not driven by states or nations: it's the abject of the whole global community," Seung-hoon explained. And whether it's in the form of a terrorist attack, super storm, or alien invasion, threats from outside society manifest themselves in film in the form of catastrophe.
Seung-hoon notes that a film does not need to be shown internationally to comment on issues that relate to global cinema: "Local films can reflect global phenomena, including multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, network society, capitalism, and neoliberalism on the one hand, and also terrorism, catastrophe, and immigrant workers' issues on the other. These are two sides of the same coin of globalization."
Alternatively, a Hollywood blockbuster, like the final installment of the recent Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, can be considered as it relates to the idea of global cinema, too.
The movie begins with a down-and-out (though still extremely wealthy) Bruce Wayne, who is "retired" not only from his day job as head of Wayne Enterprises, but also from his moonlighting gig as Gotham's (in)famous vigilante. But Wayne returns as Batman when Gotham experiences a catastrophe: the city is attacked by the mysterious Bane and his gang of terrorists.
Bane threatens the city not only with violence but also with financial instability and social upheaval. His first target is the Gotham Stock Exchange, and his populist rhetoric promotes expropriating wealth from the rich and redistributing it to the poor. "This movie is an example of global issues of terrorism on the one hand, and global financialization on the other, of which Batman is an example, since he is the CEO of a large company," Seung-hoon explained.
Global cinema often features "abject figures" like Wayne and Bane "who are on the boundary between these two worlds" of the global community and its outside. "They don't completely belong to the system, but then they are not completely outside it either," Seung-hoon said. "This kind of in-between state is my focus. I want to develop key terms to map this idea of global cinema."
This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report.