Cultural representation and cultural violence in The Jammed
By: Selvin Kwong and Jen Tsen Kwok
No longer is it sufficient to ask how stereotypes injure real human beings. Rather, it becomes necessary to consider exactly how stereotypes duplicate and imitate, and what they can tell us about the negative acts that are often attributed to them – injury, violence, and aggression – and the assumptions that support such attributions.
Rey Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 54.
Is it possible that bad films are judged by a different set of standards when they happen to be ‘important’? Looking back at The Jammed, an independent Australian thriller about sex trafficking in Melbourne, a film almost universally lauded after its August 2007 release, we come to either of two conclusions: Australians are too parochial and will support bad films as long as their politics are good, or worse, Australian cinema has some way to go before it comes to terms with cultural diversity in the twenty-first century.
The Jammed is a political film that attempts to represent Australia’s modern ‘subalterns’, the voiceless and exploited women ‘jammed’ between global capitalism’s voracious hunger for human lives, and the borders which govern them. With this political representation in mind, we would assume that it would be sensitive to portrayals of cultural difference, and that it would extend beyond the cultural generalisations we are accustomed to in popular media.
In assembling its political vision we would expect that it would pause long enough to try to also assemble the lifeworlds of its subjects, not only in terms of the ‘truth’ of their exploitation, but with an intention to represent these strangers with some of the language and behaviours of their cultural origins. Beyond the presumed ability for such a film to connect a broader audience to its characters, some of its strength must surely rely upon the possibility that somewhere in Australia people like this exist. However, instead of empathy one can be left with the kind of response you have when watching badly-dubbed kung fu films.
What we find in this film is that most of the characters resembled a mish-mash of ‘Asian’ stereotypes, in particular regarding their fake foreign accents. The various Chinese or Vietnamese characters, be they the trafficked women or pimps, were generally not of those linguistic origins. Crystal, the half-Shanghainese spoke English with more of a European accent, whilst Rubi and Sunni, either spoke very bad Cantonese with each other or at least one of them did not speak Cantonese at all. The relationships between the characters were also lacking in authenticity. Take two of the main characters, Crystal and Rubi, who were both allegedly Chinese. In a foreign country, under duress, it is likely that these women would talk to each other in Chinese, but they did not. Neither did the women appear to find it difficult or at least challenging to communicate with each other in English, at least in a way that would dampen their intimacy. Instead, there were scenes of intimacy between the women which portrayed them as though they were posing for a girlfriend magazine.
Yes, the accents were bad, but underpinning these defects were more serious deficiencies in the cultural translation in the film. The character in search of her daughter, Sunni, probably represented one of the worst examples of Asian stereotyping. She was portrayed as illiterate, incapable, and demanding unrealistic things of the white female protagonist, as though she had just come out of a fishing village. As far as Rubi was concerned, if she was half-white in Shanghai, she would have had immense cultural capital, and probably would not have had to get into Australia by trafficking.
The great concern in the failure to think through cultural translation leads us to wonder who the film was written for, and why the filmmakers would permit the exclusion of audience members who could not recognise these young women as members of anything but an awkwardly fictive reality. The concern becomes that a film bearing the flag of ‘good politics’ might also be programmed with ‘bad stereotypes’.
Beneath its surface, The Jammed is a film beholden in equal measure to cultural insensitivity, as it is to moral outrage. Its failed cultural translation reveals a perhaps even more disturbing voyeurism for a voiceless and exoticised other. Maybe if The Jammed hadn’t done the NGO rounds of World Vision’s Don’t Trade Lives and the UN’s Conference on Human Trafficking it could have been left to flounder. But having been elevated to the mantle of ‘important’ Australian cinema, it is relevant to situate it as yet another ‘iteration’ about who gets left behind, according to the identity politics of mainstream Australia. For a film that was set to inform its audience about globalisation, The Jammed is very Western-centric, Orientalist, and failed to reflect the complex ways in which people of different nations and cultural origins are increasingly interlinked in the twenty-first century.