Asian Cinematography

Cinematography is a relatively new art form. Comparing to ancient history of music, painting, and theater, its existence is very short. Nevertheless, that does not stop the movie industry to develop and prosper for several decades, being the most popular form of art. Nowadays, cinematography mostly lost its initial cognitive function. Today, movie is primarily an entertainment, and the growing number of senseless movies only proves this fact. However, Asian cinema differs from what people used to see on the screens. It is highly aesthetic, profound, and distinctive, unlike the European or American movies. Asian cinema tends to illustrate and describe their cultural and historical heritage, to point out what is really important – respect to parents, staying involved in the friends’ lives, and remembering ancient traditions. Asian films contain deep spirituality, which allows one to get acquainted not only with the film school of the Asian countries, but also with their social and cultural context, attitudes and beliefs, which later form the representation and the aesthetic taste of the viewer. This is especially important in terms of globalization since it becomes harder and harder to save the unique filming tradition.

When watching Asian movies, one can notice that they use similar filming strategies. Despite these films are made in different countries, they have much in common – a tinge of humor, some historical context or an ancient tradition, and the spiritual constituent. In addition, they are different from the common American filming tradition, which tends to spread worldwide in terms of globalization. Korean, Chinese, Japanese – no matter whose film it is – they are filmed similarly. Additionally, they have much in common in terms of their attempts to show the effect of economic and cultural globalization. At the example of the Departures by Yojiro Takita and Sunny by Hyeong-Cheol Kang, one can make a conclusion about the purpose and filming strategies of Asian cinematography as well as the problems of self-definition and national pride in terms of gradually expanding world.


The very filming tradition of Asian cinematography is a reflection of self-definition and national pride in terms of globalization. The fact that their films are unlike and unique is the proof of their desire to stay exclusive. For example, speaking of modern cinema in Asia, it is difficult to imagine a complex multi-layered drama in which the viewer is not sitting and pouring tears. It is the major filming strategy of Asian film and the main its distinction from European and American filming tradition. They even have a feature which serves as a tool for film evaluation – the more tears, the better is the drama. Exaggerated emotions are not unique to the anime (Japanese animation) and drama (Asian series), but are common to full-length films as well. When watching an Asian film without paying attention to the translation, one may be surprised by the loudness and pathos of dialogues in the movie. This feature is noticeable in Sunny, where it is sometimes necessary to make the sound softer since the girls are too loud, too angry, too joyful, and too depressed. Tears, laugh, anger, and other emotions seem “too much”. In comparison, the main character in Departures, Daigo, often overreacts. For example, when his orchestra was broken up, his facial gesture showed an exaggerated surprise; one can hardly see such a facial expression in the real life. When watching further, it becomes obvious that the film is, to some extent, build on the exaggerated emotions.

Specifically, almost every Asian film having the tag “drama” would contain death, which also shows the Asian desire to stay unique. A kind of “love” for the death of the protagonist of the Asian film is explained as follows: if a person undergoes tortures and humiliations throughout his or her life and eventually dies, it means that the next life will be wonderful and joyful. The death of the character is perceived philosophically, but not as a great tragedy. This characteristic feature also reflects the attitude of the Asian people to death itself. This can be seen in both analyzed movies: in Departures, death is one of the main characters, and the plot is, in fact, build around the notion of death and a respect to it. In Sunny, in turn, the director holds out death as a motive to reunite and remember the past.   

Asian culture is very old, and many things there are perceived with a great honor and respect, paying tribute to tradition, clearly following the centuries-old rituals. One cannot see such amount of ancient rituals in American or European movies. One can find ancient Asian rituals in almost every movie. It is an attempt to save the cultural heritage. In case the ritual is extinct, it would be, anyway, saved in the movie. Here, the purpose of Asian cinematography is very clear – to save the national pride. In addition, films in Asia are woven from invisible and barely perceptible concept of creativity and professionalism. Slowly and carefully, Asian directors clarify the mind and deftly wield the tools of the subconscious. 

Among the most complex rituals are the funerals. Daigo Kobayashi from Departures becomes a professional in the art of funeral, which is biased and condemned, but secretly respected and intimidated. Yet importantly, the idea that any profession can be an art and any professional can be an artist is shown throughout the film. After all, the former cellist reached the stages in his profession when it has become a special skill. The job of undertaker appears to be more creative than the one of a musician since, in the first case, the last performance is entirely written, directed, and designed by the professional, and in the second case, he is just a cog in the “machine” of the orchestra. On the contrary, Sunny does not contain ancient rituals or traditions. However, the action in the film are happening on the background of Korean revolution in 1980s. This event was particularly important for the country, and its involvement into the plot was, perhaps, an attempt to show the national history.

Asian directors create movies that are very close to the reality, and one does not need to make an effort to draw parallels between the film and his or her own life. They belong to one of the last filmic schools who try to stick to the reality. Nowadays, films tend to describe an ideal reality, and it is sometimes obvious that such a plot cannot happen beyond the screen. Unlike Western films, Asian ones are good stories, where understanding, sincerity, loyalty, and gratitude to parents denote the real value. What is more, despite the exaggerated feelings and emotions shown on the screen, Asian films are very realistic. The plot about a musician who tried to find his place in the large city but failed and went back to the countryside is very common nowadays. Besides, the story of a girl moving to a large city and feeling confused there, as in Sunny, is also not a rare scenario. The films turn out to be both sad and funny at the same time, reflecting the real life as it is, with all its white and black stripes. In some moments, one can be amazed with how humorous and ironic both directors show even the dark and violent moments. Whether it is the scene of confrontation with the soldiers of the Korean revolutionaries under the smash hit in 1980s, which causes a lot of emotions, or the copious amounts of funny scenes. Even the scene of funeral preparation, which, in fact, is very sad and even depressing, appears to be surprisingly funny when Daigo detects a “surprise” on the dead body. Both directors tried to show the saddest moments as common and usual, since they are, indeed, usual and should be perceived as entity. 

The Asian films are instructive, and they are certainly for those who love the “intelligent cinema”. Asian cinematography is mostly intended for knowledge and experience, but not for entertainment, unlike the overwhelming majority of the American ones. These films make people think over and wonder if they understand the meaning of their life correctly, whether to be aware of the actions or not. In Departures, Daigo was confused about his life choices, his vocation and talent. In Sunny, the main character Na Mi searches for her vocation and role in life, as well as other members of the group, who were also lost in life until they met again. These films leave an aftertaste. The director makes the audience involuntarily think about the transience of life, moments of joy, close relatives, and pleasant and sad life moments. Fleeting impermanence of life with the eastern philosophical irreversibility, presented in these movies frighteningly clear and realistic, occurs in front of the audience.

Again talking about the problem of self-identification in a globalizing world, it is worth mentioning that both films are a little common place. For example, in both Sunny and Departures the problem of self-identification and finding the right place to be is highlighted in details. Daigo cannot decide whether he is talented or not and finds his place in an unexpected sphere. Sunny group, in their turn, are spread around the country and feel miserable, until they gather and realize that they should be together. Both these plots are very common for the western filmic tradition. The problem of self-identification in life reflects the nation's desire not to be exposed to the influence of the West and to find their own place in the world cinematography.

Here, the negative influence of American and European filming tradition is very noticeable. For example, in Sunny, there is an extensive use of Western music, and the film as a whole reminds of some Hollywood comedy about teenagers. First love, “new girl in class”, popular and unpopular children, obsession with the appearance, school fights, and creative dreams plots are very common for Hollywood movies. Perhaps, the film was made following the American filming tradition, in order to make it popular among the audience outside the South Korea. Making a content for mass audience is usually an American production principle. However, here, one can notice it in the Korean movie. If to discard all the spirituality and characteristic features of an Asian film, one could think that it was made in Hollywood.

The Departures, in its turn, seems more traditional. The film is based on the ancient Japanese tradition. However, there are also signs of American filming. For example, Daigo playing cello against the background of beautiful scenery does not suit into the overall film image, it feels like something alien, and it is similar to the American filmic strategy when the character forgets about the others and simply does what he or she feels. Moreover, Daigo’s wife leaves him when he refuses to quit the job. It is a common American situation, but for Japan, it is quite strange for a woman not to support a husband in his choice. 

In conclusion, the Asian film industry, at the example of Sunny and Departures, is still unique, deep, and spiritual. These films still tend to describe their ancient cultural traditions, peculiarities of their characters, and characteristic features of their filming techniques. Asian cinematography is realistic, emotional, and differs from what people got used to see on the screen. However, due to globalization and the mixture of cultures, they began to lose their filming tradition. South Korea, being influenced by the popular culture and simultaneously producing some of its attributes, has changed more gradually. On the other side, Japan still tries to make films about Japanese and for Japanese, but it has already begun to acquire characteristic features of American and European cinema.

Mar 4, 2019 in Research
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