Author and memoirist Fatima Bhutto’s slender but potent volume for Columbia Global Reports (an imprint from Columbia University devoted to long-form journalism), surveys a shift in global popular culture in which America’s soft-power dominance is facing challenges from local art forms.
History has a way of inspiring quirky fanfiction. Back in the 1980s, Terry Johnson’s play (later Nicolas Roeg’s film) Insignificance imagined an evening where Marilyn Monroe (or as she was called simply, “The Actress”) finds herself thrown together with Albert Einstein (“The Scientist”), Joseph McCarthy (“The Senator”) and Joe DiMaggio (“The Ballplayer”), who collectively spin an intriguing rumination about the meaning of fame in America. Johnson’s dialogue rather deviated from historical record, but hearing The Actress explain relativity to The Scientist was a hoot.
Even if Philip Jablon had kept strictly to his original premise of documenting Thailand’s purpose-built movie theatres—an obsession he claims first took hold in 2008—this volume would’ve filled a worthy niche. From the book’s earliest temple of celluloid, Bangkok’s Prince Theatre from 1912, Jablon’s photographs capture a wealth of 20th-century architectural styles, from Bangkok’s tropical art deco Scala Theatre (built in 1969) to the brutalist Siri Phanom Rama Theatre (built in 1979) in Chachoengsao Province, each filtered through a distinct Southeast Asian sensibility.
Since the cinema that served as modern Hong Kong’s introduction to the world was such a hodgepodge of triad gangsters, crooked cops, ghosts, prostitutes and clueless romantics—sometimes all in the same film—one should hardly be surprised when a literary anthology shows the same genre-busting proclivities. Hong Kong Noir, the latest in a lengthy list of urban “Noir” collections published by Akashic Books, will surely raise the hackles of genre purists much as Hong Kong movies of the 1980s and ’90s initially did with filmgoers abroad. “Such a classic crime scene,” you can almost hear them say. “Why drag in the ghosts?”