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A Conviction All Its Own

Some Divine Wind, dir. Roddy Bogawa

Still from Some Divine Wind, dir. Roddy Bogawa

By Ryan Swen

One of the key issues in Asian American representation in film is the question of specific experience. Despite the popular (i.e. marketable) perception of the cause as monolithic, dedicated to putting Asian American faces on the screen without distinguishing between them, such an approach can be actively harmful. It can erase the crucial cultural aspects that define one’s American status, rooted in social and historical backgrounds that extend far beyond the individual. One director who has constantly strove to counter this stance has been Roddy Bogawa, a Japanese American filmmaker who, over the course of twenty-five years, has worked in various media and modes to tackle these very issues.

A particularly salient example comes in the form of his debut feature, Some Divine Wind (1991). Best categorized as defying all attempts to concretely categorize it, the film functions as a loose cross between essay film and autoportrait, tracing the dissolution of a relationship between a Japanese American man and a white American woman (Benjamin Tu and Helen Molesworth, both playing characters named after them) living together in Southern California. The film proceeds along its own strange rhythms; though it remains largely linear throughout, Bogawa uses a mélange of modes that directly clash and bounce off of one another, always plugging back into the central divide between each person’s respective identity.

It should be noted up front that this divide isn’t nearly as exclusive as one might assume: Ben is a motorcycle rider who devours McDonald’s and plays harmonica in the style of Bob Dylan, while Helen has an interest in Japanese art and history. It’s never specified whether either of these predilections were encouraged by the other over the course of their year-long relationship, but in many ways, this only deepens the gulf between them, neither expressing much interest in the other’s interests. Throughout, the central focus remains on Ben’s split identity as perceived by both him and Helen, something which is familiar to most Asian Americans: he was born and raised in Los Angeles but is unmistakably marked by his appearance and his accent as coming from a different background from the culture that surrounds him.

These two elements are rendered central by Bogawa through the film’s essayistic modes. Most of Some Divine Wind is constructed as a dialogue between Ben and Helen, although in a less conventional manner. There are only a handful of sync sound dialogue scenes; in their place are long stretches of voiceover that, while not directly made as call-and-response, implicitly comment upon one another. These, in turn, are broken up by snatches of archival audio and recordings of people reading in the style of a documentary, some speaking more directly to the film’s concerns — a sister city partnership between San Diego and Yokohama or a series of statements read in both English and Japanese — and some more tangential, like a recording of a Giants-Dodgers game playing over footage of a younger Ben participating in Little League.

Bogawa constructs such relations cannily, each scene contributing its own angle on identity: a sequence at a museum exhibit on faces that first morphs Ben’s appearance, then moves on to white faces like Andy Warhol’s and Reagan’s; a scene at a movie theater where Ben appears to be viewing the infamously racist Looney Tunes propaganda short “Tokio Jokio” followed by footage of bombs being dropped. As such, the connective tissue aside from the loose narrative is purely formal: in an otherwise black-and-white film, the use of color footage almost exclusively for objects of or conduits to the past (a Japanese garden in San Diego, maps, Hokusai woodblocks, tattoos) and Godardian intertitles largely made of outline drawings.

All of this communicates a restlessness on the part of both Ben and Bogawa, and indeed the film ends with the beginnings of another journey, one captured in the juxtaposition of crude, frequently racist Air Force nose art and a commercial plane taking off in the distance. As a film largely told in the agglomeration of signifiers, Some Divine Wind understands how they shape one’s ethnic and national identity as much as any historical or relational context, and this contrast says everything about the complications of a Japanese identity that is necessarily shadowed by the devastation of firebombing and nuclear destruction. The specter of Hiroshima mon amour is present throughout, but this is its own thoroughly quotidian, ambiguous work, irresolvable but possessed with a conviction all its own.

Ryan Swen is a Los Angeles-based freelance film critic and a cinema and media studies MA at the University of Southern California.

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