The portrayal of race and gender in media has become an increasingly studied subject matter in the twenty first century. In the fall of 2015, professor Mila Zuo started working at Oregon State University as an assistant professor of film. Her work in the realm of academia and her creative projects both explore the representation of women in film and the role of Chinese film stars in American media.
Professor Zuo spent six months in China where she conducted field research for her dissertation. While in Beijing, she created several documentaries and experimental short films which catalogued the time she spent there.
Her documentary “Spark: Aesthetic Encounters In Mosuo Country” documents the Mosuo culture of Southern China.
“[The Mosuo people] are one of the few matriarchal and matrilineal societies in the world today. They have a society where women have assumed positions of power in ways that are unparalleled because not only are they assuming power in society and in the family home, but their conception of marriage is totally different as well,” Zuo said.
“They have no binding legal marriage. What they do have instead are partnerships for any amount of time really. It lies in the women’s hands to say when that relationship is over. Lovers don’t live together and the men live in their mother’s homes. You could be married for one night, ostensibly and if the woman decides that she doesn’t want you any more, you’re gone.”
The practice known as “a walking marriage” contributes to the unique sexual politics of the culture that has drawn artists from all over the world to observe and experience life among the Mosuo.
Professor Zuo filmed the short movie, “Carnal Orient” with the collaborative efforts of co-producers, Angela Seo and Camille Mana.
“The genesis of the project was to respond to this music video called “Asian Girlz” two years ago, but actually it’s taken a life of its own since. We’re premiering at Slamdance International film festival in two weeks in their anarchy shorts program. But in general what I was trying to do was experiment with the ideas of genre cinema and excess, which is to say taking what is normally assumed to be low brow or conventional techniques in film like using shock and horror in the grotesque—to make a comment about Asian fetishization in American media, but to not directly become a lecture or pedagogical in nature but also to be an artistic object in its own right. The film blends horror and thriller elements and the music genres—to push the stereotypes of Asian people, so much that they implode,” Zuo said.
Zuo’s project focuses on the different stereotypes that are commonly attributed to individuals of Asian heritage.
“What we’re trying to do is take different types of belief systems surrounding Asianness and ideas of what Asian food and Asian bodies look like—this general mythology of orientalism and ideas about Asianess—and were making very tongue-in-cheek dark satire surrounding all those kind of ideas. Hopefully to point to the absurdity of all of these conventions,” Zuo said.
In 2014, Professor Zuo spoke at UCLA’s annual Thinking Gender conference. She presented her research piece, “Who Is Josie Packard? Joan Chen, Lucy Liu and the Uncommon Sense Of Pleasure.” Zuo elaborated upon the ideas she had been exploring while conducting research for her post-graduate degree.
“Specifically I was looking at the way Chinese women have been represented in the American film and media industry,” Zuo said.
Historically, Chinese American women have been cast as caricatures of oriental culture in American film. Film stars of Asian heritage are often put into roles that contribute to broad archetypes which exoticise the Chinese American actress.
“The first Chinese American female star, Anna May Wong would often depict dragon ladies or lotus blossoms—very one-dimensional representations of Chinese women,” Zuo said.
Zuo sought to subvert the common notions of the Chinese American womens role in film and the psychological implications of such roles.
“Instead of criticising these representations and just deeming that they’re bad, what I was looking for is if there is a space for Asian women to find some kind of pleasure in these archetypes and representations,” Zuo said, “We do have actresses like Joan Chen and Lucy Liu who I think are resisting and nuancing through their performance—they’re complicating what we might think as these simple archetypes. There’s a space for resistance, there’s a space for a kind of perversity of pleasure for the Asian American female spectator.”
Her research goes on to explore what goes through the mind of American viewers when watching films with people of color. Zuo theorizes that we experience films through our whole body—through all of our senses. She calls it “cross identification” when Asian people had to primarily identify with caucasian characters.
“Visually speaking, it offers a different kind of spectacle than a white body that you might see. It’s its own set of unique characteristics, even just visually and empirically speaking, but also the fact that Americans had not really seen a lot of Asian bodies on television in the early nineties. To go from the mid-seventies where they are seeing a lot of asian bodies vis–à–vis coverage of the Vietnam war, to fifteen years later when Asian bodies are becoming more conventional in American television series. I think there is something of a shock there that happens in that time period.”
The medium of film provides a various array of opportunities for subject matter, which includes Zuo’s work with ethnic representation.
“It can offer a diversity of different subject positions. It can certainly be empowering for some people, it can also be a source of anxiety because with so little representation there is a burdensome pressure on the few and limited representations that we do see. So we overload our expectations and we want them to represent our group well so to speak, and so your just invested in it. So whether you feel empowered or you feel it’s not enough, I think what it offers is diversity. At least it offers the space to negotiate with.”
In terms of her own teaching, professor Zuo illuminated several of her own methods.
“I’m sensitive to the possibility that there are different kinds of power differentials in the classroom and sensitive to students as not a homogenous bunch—to each individual bringing something to the table and the conversation. I try to give students a voice… and try not to overly lecture… I’m really interested in what students have to say and how they are understanding these larger concepts in terms of their analytical worldview.”
Zuo remains passionate for academic research and the implementation of creative practice. She looks forwards to the growth of the film program at OSU and watching student participation.
“I think that my role is to help the film program continue to grow and expand and I’d love to see more enrollment in the film minor, and also support the graduate students in the school of writing literature and film if a component of their work has to do with film and media—I’d love to see the program at the school expand and flourish,” Zuo said.