Anthony Bourdain: How a Culture Is Viewed

By: Z. Cancienne

“Anthony Bourdain: How a Culture Is Viewed”

The evolution of Anthony Bourdain’s work from A Cook’s Tour to No Reservations and then finally Parts Unknown is clear in the way its filmmaking has shifted from focusing on just the food of a particular culture to understanding various cultures, with food becoming the force that drives Bourdain and his guests to deeper topics and conversations. In the Parts Unknown episodes especially, Bourdain does this by exploring a certain culture or place through the use of a specific filmic influence/lens. An example of Bourdain’s use of a filmic lens to view a culture is how he emulates Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love in the “Hong Kong” episode of Parts Unknown. Through using In the Mood for Love and its elements as the filmic influence as well as questioning the ethics of ethnographic filmmaking and breaking the fourth wall in the “Hong Kong” episode, Bourdain makes the viewer aware of the construction of the episode, and with that awareness, Bourdain conveys one of his central worldviews seen throughout Parts Unknown as a whole – one’s view of a culture is shaped by past experiences, such as the filmic lens.

To understand how Bourdain strives to show how a culture is shaped by past experiences, it is important to first understand ethnographic filmmaking. Essentially, ethnographic filmmaking is the filming of an individual culture, shedding light on it, and trying to get an understanding of that culture. However, ethnographic filmmaking likes to pretend that it is unbiased, yet it seems to me that most of the time it actually is biased. A notable example of this bias in ethnographic film is the The Ax Fight, which documents an ax fight in a Yanomami village, resulting in a negative depiction of the Yanomami people and their culture. That is to say, the film presents itself as an unbiased perspective, however, its authenticity is questioned when it is noted that the filming crew gives goods to the villagers, such as the weapons seen in the ax fight itself, thereby altering the negative view of the Yanomami. Bourdain, too, questions the authenticity of ethnographic filmmaking and provides an answer for it through his own filming. According to Bourdain, ethnographic filmmaking is biased and that affects the way one views a culture, and so Bourdain chooses to make the viewer aware of this bias, either by being direct or through his use of other filmic lenses while filming. Above all, Bourdain wants the viewer to be aware of their own bias, and also realize that what they are watching is a product of Bourdain’s own bias.

In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai is a romantic film that makes the viewer an outside observer to a love affair. Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-shen find themselves living next to each other while their spouses are away. Over the course of the film, the two form a platonic friendship that grows to be a hint of something that could be more when they find out their spouses are sleeping together. Their bond continues to grow from there as the reveal allows the two to acknowledge their budding feelings for one another. The viewer is left with an inconclusive ending. In the final scene, Chow Mo-wan whispers his deepest secrets into a hollow point of a wall at a Buddhist temple, secrets that remain unheard by the viewer. The film is an ode to poetic realism; it recreates a realistic space, yet also makes it so idealized and beautiful to the point the viewer becomes aware of their outside perspective of the two characters and their unspoken, arguably platonic, affair. The film’s cinematographer, Chris Doyle, also did the cinematography for Bourdain’s “Hong Kong” episode. Bringing Chris Doyle in to be the cinematographer for the “Hong Kong” episode ties the episode with filmic influence together even more as Bourdain uses the elements from In the Mood for Love, from cinematography to poetic realism, to create his view of “Hong Kong” and then argue his central worldview.

In the episode, Bourdain sets up his central argument of how the view of a culture is shaped by one’s past experiences with films. With alternating shots of Bourdain jotting down notes and scenic shots of Hong Kong, Bourdain opens with a voice-over saying, “Chapter One. To fall in love with Asia is one thing. To fall in love in Asia is another. Both have happened to me…. it is a gift, a dream, a curse. The best thing, the happiest thing, yet, also, the loneliest thing in the world.” Bourdain is referring to himself and more specifically his travels. This opening sort of stands on its own; it is removed and personal to Bourdain himself. His travels are both the happiest and the loneliest experiences for him, a blessing and a curse. Bourdain, in other words, is creating a metanarrative about his own travels. By drawing attention to this personalized story-telling statement, he is reminding the viewer that the episode is his view of Hong Kong as shaped by a personal experience. Thus, although this is ethnographic filmmaking, the filming of an individual culture, Bourdain presents a biased view of Hong Kong culture. In this way Bourdain sets up his worldview at the start of the episode, allowing the remainder of the episode to contemplate or question Bourdain’s ethics, all while employing the filmic lens of In the Mood for Love.

Following the voice-over, the Parts Unknown “Hong Kong” episode starts to use the romanticized elements of In the Mood for Love. The opening shifts into more shots of Hong Kong that not only have a similar, faded, yet vibrant, coloring and tone found in In the Mood for Love, but also the same orchestral music. Mimicking these elements cause the viewer to be aware of the filmic lens through which Bourdain is choosing to view Hong Kong’s culture. Bourdain continues his voice-over, providing a very direct and jarring argument: “All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the things we see through different eyes. And how we see them is shaped by our previous lives. The books we have read. The films we have seen.” In the Mood for Love shaped the way that Bourdain sees Hong Kong. Bourdain’s central argument is not undermined, but it is instead enhanced by being combined with the same elements employed In the Mood for Love (the coloring, the music, etc.). Bourdain is drawing the viewer’s attention to the construction of the episode, which is to say, the construction of Hong Kong and its culture. With the viewer aware of how the episode is constructed, the viewer’s interactions with a culture, too, are shaped by past experiences, just as Bourdain’s interaction with Hong Kong’s culture is shaped by the film In the Mood for Love.

Furthermore, Bourdain challenges the ethics of ethnographic filmmaking, by highlighting his central argument, namely that one’s view of a culture is shaped by their past experiences, including film that one may have viewed. He does this through direct conversation, as when Bourdain asks Chris Doyle, who has worked with Hong Kong’s culture through his cinematography, and Simon Go, a Hong Kong photographer of small, family-owned businesses that represent “old” Hong Kong, about the preservation of “old” Hong Kong culture. He gets opposing answers from the two men. Switching between the conversation and the black-and-white pictures Go has taken, Go states that by making people aware of the particular culture, people will want to protect these practices. Doyle, on the other hand, believes that these family-owned businesses will disappear, that is to say, “old” Hong Kong will disappear, and one can preserve only the idea of these past ways. Bourdain himself thinks about these conflicting views. What is his duty as an ethnographic filmmaker? Should he preserve these cultures in the filmic image? Does he impose his own comments on these cultures? Bourdain reflects that there is not a solid answer for these questions, or really any right answer either. The questions, nonetheless, are important, as they explore how cultures are constructed, especially through ethnographic filmmaking. Bourdain’s filmic images reinforce the notion that the way a culture is viewed is always influenced or shaped by previous experiences, like the filmic lens or in this case ethnographic filmmaking.

It seems to me that what Bourdain is essentially doing in his “Hong Kong” episode is not only documenting a culture, but also romanticizing it. Again, Bourdain’s choices appear to emulate the poetic realism seen in In the Mood for Love. As I mentioned earlier, In the Mood for Love idealizes and romanticizes every day, normal life, but also captures the realism of it such as the disappointment that follows the two main characters’ chance at love. Like Doyle’s cinematography in the film, Bourdain uses a shaky, handheld camera, and employs blocking that makes the viewer aware of the fact that they are watching the events of the episode unfold while also romanticizing and presenting an idealized version of Hong Kong’s culture and food. Bourdain’s way of “preserving” or capturing Hong Kong in this way deconstructs the episode for the viewer. Subtly, the viewer is able to recognize both Bourdain’s bias and their own bias in the construction and depiction of Hong Kong.

At certain moments in the episode Bourdain “breaks the fourth wall” by showing the camera that is filming the episode. Once again, the viewer is made mindful of the construction of the episode. In one scene, in the middle of an interview with an immigrant in Hong Kong, Bourdain stops and says, “Let me reset.” Chris Doyle then enters the shot, and basically, the two readjust the entire shot, shifting the table, scooting people over, and making sure everything is set up correctly. Next, another camera captures Chris Doyle and the camera he is shooting the scene with as he directs on what needs to happen. “Breaking the fourth wall” as described happens again at the end of the episode. There is a shot of Chris Doyle as he focuses on shooting Bourdain. Once again, we see the cameras being used to shoot the episode. Again, and again there are shots of the camera that collapse the realism of the episode and the actual construction. Bourdain brings to the viewer’s attention that everything that they are watching is being constructed in some sort of way, more specifically in Bourdain’s filmic lens. The “Hong Kong” episode is just another example of a filmic lens that we are viewing the culture through.

In various Parts Unknown episodes, other filmic influences are obvious. For example, in his “Bhutan” episode Bourdain reproduces certain themes of isolation and destruction from director Darren Aronofsky’s films Black Swan and Mother!. In his “Jamaica” episode, Bourdain takes from the James Bond film Dr. No, specifically Bond’s opening sequence. In some way, each of Bourdain’s episodes are influenced by an artistic medium, although not necessarily film all the time. He continues to make the viewer aware of the construction of the episode. In his “Budapest” episode, the influence of cinematographer Vilmos Zigma can be seen. As Bourdain and Zigma sit in a theater talking with the camera behind them, clips of Zigma’s films and documentary appear on the theater screen. The viewer remains aware of their own spectatorship and witnesses how the scene is being constructed since can only listen and watch Bourdain and Zigma view these clips from the camera’s outside perspective. As in the “Hong Kong” episode, numerous episodes from Parts Unknown contribute to Bourdain’s central worldview seen throughout the series.

Bourdain’s Parts Unknown “Hong Kong” episode clearly demonstrates his central interest for the entire series, namely exposing the fact that one experiences a foreign culture through previous filmic lenses. Bourdain’s episode replicates Wong Kar-wai’s coloring and music along with its poetic realism. The episode uses poetic realism to document Hong Kong and its culture as well as romanticize it, and by doing so, it also serves to deconstruct the episode for the viewer. This imitative approach is a means of questioning the ethics of ethnographic filmmaking. What is the filmmaker’s responsibility to a culture? By repeatedly breaking the fourth wall by exposing the camera, the viewer is made aware of the fact that all they are watching is in some way shaped or constructed by Bourdain. In the end what is made clear is that this is Bourdain’s story; this is how Bourdain sees Hong Kong or any place that he visited for that matter.

Works Cited
Bourdain, Anthony. “Hong Kong.” Parts Unknown, season 11, episode 05, CNN, 3 June 2018.

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