Mondo Pop: the Challenge of Popular World Cinema

By Phoenix Fry

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Not that I want to instrumentalise an artistic experience or anything, but I reckon I have learned more things about the world through mass entertainment movies than any number of “world cinema” films.[1]

Take Ra.One (Anubhav Sinha, 2011), a sci-fi movie which tells a funky tale of what a globalised India and a globalised London look like in the near future. In this superhero blockbuster, Shahrukh Khan stars as a London-based computer games designer who creates an artificial intelligence game, Ra.One. The game’s villain crosses over into the real world and goes after his son, so the game’s hero G.One (also played by Khan, in a role that parallels Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 by James Cameron, 1991) must protect the family and claim victory. Relying heavily on CGI environments and special effects, Ra.One presents a London that is no longer a British space in which a migrant may or may not “fit in,” but is a transient, deracinated international zone to which any sufficiently wealthy Indian has access.[2] The film integrates CGI and “the ultimate ‘non-place’, cyberspace” intensifies the concept of contemporary migration as frictionless, temporary and generic.[3] Set within and around new sites of the global economic power (the glass-and-steel structures of Canary Wharf and the City of London, designed by international architects and owned by conglomerates of US-, Qatari-, and UK-based business interests) the film imagines a world in which Hindi is the global language in which international scientists and street muggers are apparently fluent.[4] To underscore this rejection of a “British” London, a CGI-powered Matrix-style fight between India – embodied by superhero G.One – and China – represented by Chinese-British martial arts star Tom Wu in a part originally planned for Jackie Chan – is played out on the site of Battersea Power Station, an abandoned relic of the capital’s extinct power.[5] When the action shifts to India, Mumbai’s iconic railway station, Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as the Victoria Terminus and designed by British colonial architect Frederick William Stevens) is destroyed by a train crash. The message is clear: the history of British colonisation has no relevance to contemporary India’s self-image as a powerful nation.

Or look at Dangerous Twins 1-3 (Tade Ogidan, 2004), in which Nollywood star Ramsey Nouah plays a double role as identical twin brothers. In London, the law-abiding, naïve and impotent twin is unable to get his British wife pregnant, so he convinces his brash Lagos-based brother to secretly take his place. The garishly melodramatic plot that follows speaks more fluently and persuasively about Nigerian ingenuity, corruption, mistrust and violence than any Third Cinema auteur or earnest documentarian. As Larkin notes, the “aesthetics of outrage” invoked by populist films such Dangerous Twins – the grotesque melodrama of the protagonists’ “extreme financial and sexual appetites, their willingness to betray friends and family to gain wealth” – is a mirror image of the outrageous level of Nigeria’s postcolonial state corruption.[6]

And it is the popular entertainment movies that showed me what cities and towns in the developing world might actually look and sound like: the shabby ordinariness of downtown Accra in the hip-hop musical Coz Ov Moni (King Luu, 2010); the social connectivity of Manila’s slums in Mondomanila (Khavn de la Cruz, 2012); and the neon-drenched malls of big-city Asia in Saigon Electric (Stephane Gauger, 2011).

Jonathan Haynes remarks that such films “may not give us what we thought we wanted, but there are good reasons to pay attention to them. They offer the strongest, most accessible expression of contemporary popular… culture, which is to say, the imagination” of the world’s emerging economic powerhouse nations.[7]

As a film programmer, it seems to me that if cinema audiences are able to engage with popular world cinema, they might open themselves up to a more demanding and more rewarding relationship with the rest of the world. So over the past few years I have studied how popular global cinema has reached British audiences in the past, and experimented with events that might put popular global cinema within the reach of current UK audiences.

I discovered that it was only through Britain’s south Asian diaspora audiences and distributors that Bollywood was able to migrate onto British screens. In 2002 the UK mainstream went bonkers for Bollywood; the V&A held an exhibition of film posters at the V&A, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bollywood Dreams opened in the West End, the London department store Selfridges gave itself a Bollywood makeover, and the British Film Institute ran Imagine Asia, a nationwide programme of film screenings, parties, publications and education projects. However, Kaleem Aftab notes that while Bollywood style was in vogue, the cool cognoscenti would never go as far as actually running out and seeing an Indian film.[8]

Khaushik Bhaumik argues convincingly that popular global cinema is a tricky sell for Western audiences, marketers and exhibitors whose three separate templates for understanding cinema are the First, Second and Third Cinemas of entertainment, intellectuality and radicalism.[9] Popular global cinema – as viewed by a non-native audience – requires new strategies of watching in which entertainment, intellectuality and radicalism are interwoven.

I write this in hindsight. Because despite my liberal enthusiasm, my first real-life experiment in screening popular global cinema was disastrous. In 2012 I organised a two-day mini film festival of popular world cinema in the outdoor courtyard of the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, south east London. I recruited young people from the local area to co-programme and event manage the screenings, and set up an ambitious plan of engaging with the diverse ethnic communities of the surrounding neighbourhoods. And nobody came. Sure, the weather was pretty bad that weekend, but the real reason all those hundreds of people stayed away was that the whole programme was too strange and contemporary. The brochure offered a Vietnamese hip-hop dance movie, a Congolese gangster movie, a racy Indian Romeo and Juliet thriller, and a Jamaican teen flick about boxing. There was nothing familiar for audiences to hang on to. No Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975), no The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1972), not even a decent martial arts movie or an Asian horror to sugar the bitter pill. As any decent DJ knows, it is all very well to want to educate your crowd, but you have got to get them dancing first.

In 2013 I had learnt my lesson. I ditched the idea of bringing a new form of cinema to the masses. We masses do not want to explore new strategies of watching in which entertainment, intellectuality and radicalism are interwoven, because we usually want to have a good time instead. But London’s hipster crowd, I realized, are made of less hedonistic stuff, and would relish the idea of an edgy night out. I replaced the cumbersome title “Global Picture Palace” with the sexier “Mondo Pop”, a title which gave a wink to the sensationalist and exploitative 1960s Italian “mondo” documentaries. I also scheduled the screenings in Enclave Projects, a fashionable contemporary art gallery that had a good bar. And I preceded the screenings with quasi-academic introductions like the ones on Ra.One and Dangerous Twins you have just waded through. And hell, I even showed an Asian horror film about a cursed K-pop girl band. You would have loved it.[10]

I am still trying to find the perfect way to present popular global cinema to a wider audience, but maybe I just need to wait for mainstream tastes to catch up with the digital technology that gives us such access to these movies. Western film lovers are developing a hunger for movies that tell us stories about a new world in which the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) countries might dominate the global economy and narrative. And those stories cannot be provided by Hollywood or the limited voice of international arthouse cinema. They are being told by the nations themselves.

 


[1] That is to say, international arthouse cinema.

[2] Keith Lawson, “The Airport and J.G Ballard,” Written Longhand, 13 April 2011. <http://writtenlonghand.blogspot.com/2011/04/airport-and-j-g-ballard.html> [Accessed 15/09/14].

[3] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.) “General Introduction,” in Transnational Cinema, The Film Reader (Oxford: Routledge, 2006), p. 8

[4] At first this strikes one as peculiar – but of course Western films such as The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987), M Butterfly (David Cronenberg, 1993) and Kung Fu Panda (John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, 2008) all feature Chinese characters speaking fluently in English.

[5] Cineswami, “Salman Khan, Jackie Chan, Kamal Haasan in epic film?”, BollywoodLife.com, 23 March 2012. <http://www.bollywoodlife.com/news-gossip/salman-khan-jackie-chan-kamal-haasan-in-epic-film/> [Accessed 15/09/14].

[6] Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 183-94.

[7] Jonathan Haynes, “Introduction” in Nigerian Video Films (Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2000), p. 4

[8] Kaleem Aftab “Brown: the new Black! Bollywood in Britain”, Critical Quarterly, vol 44, no 3, (January 2003): 88-98.

[9] Kaushik Bhaumik “Consuming ‘Bollywood’ in the global age: the strange case of an ‘unfine’ world cinema”, in Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, eds. Stephanie Dennison and Song Hui Lim (London: Wallflower Press, 2006), p. 191; Anthony Guneratne “Introduction: Rethinking Third Cinema”, in Rethinking Third Cinema eds. Anthony Guneratne, and Wimal Dissanayake (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 19-20.

[10] Each screening was packed. The four screenings (in a small gallery space) had an average attendance of 37 people.

 

Notes on Contributor

Phoenix Fry is a film programmer and event manager based in London. He organises film screenings in non-traditional public spaces such as pubs, museums and church buildings. Fry teaches academic communication and critical thinking for international students at the University of the Arts London and is currently working on Design on Film, a film festival devoted to international design and architecture. www.cinema-forever.co.uk.

 

Bibliography

Aftab, Kaleem. “Brown: the New Black! Bollywood in Britain.” Critical Quarterly 44.3 (January 2003): 88-98.

Ballard, J.G. “Airports.” The Observer, 14 September 1997. <http://www.jgballard.com/airports.html> [Accessed 15/09/14].

Bhaumik, Kaushik. “Consuming ‘Bollywood’ in the global age: the strange case of an ‘unfine’ world cinema.” In Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, edited by Stephanie Dennison and Song Hui Lim, 188-98. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Cineswami (2012). Salman Khan, Jackie Chan, Kamal Haasan in epic film? <http://www.bollywoodlife.com/news-gossip/salman-khan-jackie-chan-kamal-haasan-in-epic-film> [Accessed 15/05/14].

Ezra, Elizabeth and Terry Rowden, eds. Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.

Guneratne, Anthony. “Introduction: Rethinking Third Cinema”. In Rethinking Third Cinema, edited by Anthony Guneratne,and Wimal Dissanayake, 1-28. London: Routledge, 2003.

Haynes, Jonathan. Nigerian Video Films. Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2000.

Larkin, Brian.  Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

 

Filmography

Coz Ov Moni (King Luu, Ghana, 2010).

Dangerous Twins 1-3 (Tade Ogidan, Nigeria, 2004).

Mondomanila (Khavn de la Cruz, Philippines, 2012).

Ra.One (Anubhav Sinha, India, 2011).

Saigon Electric (Stephane Gauger, Vietnam, 2011).

White: Melody of the Curse (Kim Gok and Kim Sun, South Korea, 2011)