The experience of going to the movies, eyes glued to the screen as the smell of popcorn fills the air, is familiar to almost everyone. Regardless of whether one is a cinephile or only goes to see blockbuster movies during the summer, films have played a role in many people’s lives. Often, film is considered merely a visual medium or a source of entertainment, but beyond that, what else can films reveal?
Elizabeth Wijaya, a fourth-year PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, studies Asian cinema, continental philosophy, and critical theory. She has BA degree in English literature and MA degree in literary arts from the National University of Singapore. As an undergraduate, Wijaya was involved in filmmaking. Her first co-directed feature film, I Have Loved, was in competition at several international film festivals. After her undergraduate degree, Wijaya decided to pursue her studies further and notes that a “huge pull factor,” which drew her to Cornell was the strength of the Comparative Literature Department and background in critical theory.
Film as a Philosophical Medium
Wijaya believes that film occupies an interesting space as an accessible medium to the masses that is both an artistic and commercial form. Rather than looking at cinema as an “ideal” and focusing only on the internal aspects of a film, such as its themes and aesthetic content, Wijaya looks at cinema as a philosophical medium.
“What were the relationships between the people working on the films? What do these things reveal about certain desires and hopes of the time? What makes certain films remembered and others forgotten?”
Wijaya’s dissertation concentrates on trans-Chinese Cinema, and she examines subjects such as transnationality and ethics through reading Chinese-language films from different territories. Although Chinese Cinema is mostly associated with China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Chinese-language films are also popular and profitable in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. This is one example of how Wijaya has tried to reconsider the concept of "Chineseness" and the porous boundaries of citizenship and community-formation.
Another question that fascinates Wijaya is the preservation and remembrance of certain films. Part of her work includes placing cinema in context and asking questions about the conditions that allow certain films to flourish or persist. For example, she asks, how is cinema inherited from generation to generation?
While studying the production and the industry that surrounds cinema, Wijaya asks, “What were the relationships between the people working on the films? What do these things reveal about certain desires and hopes of the time? What makes certain films remembered and others forgotten?” Wijaya has been studying the Taiwan’s New Wave period (1982–1990) of cinema, particularly City of Sadness (1989) by Hou Hsiao Hsien and A Brighter Summer Day (1991) by Edward Yang and examining the political conditions of the time period. She is interested in what conditions allow certain cinematic movements to occur at certain times and in certain places.
For her research, Wijaya is the recipient of the Milton L. Barnett Scholarship, Mario Einaudi International Travel Grant, and the Tan Ean Kiam Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities, which have allowed her to travel to Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan to conduct interviews with people in the film industry. She emphasizes that it is important to consider films as part of an important industrial structure and that many people are involved in the completion of each film. As she states, she wants to answer theoretical questions “from the ground up.” Wijaya has received a Taiwan Fellowship to travel back to Taiwan in Spring 2016 to conduct more fieldwork.
Other Cinematic Pursuits
Outside of her work, Wijaya is heavily involved with the Cornell Cinema and serves on the student advisory board as the chair for the Cornell Cinema Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Committee. She co-runs the Theory Reading Group at Cornell, which brings undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty together to discuss theoretical readings. They organize conversations with Cornell professors who teach and write about theory, as well. Wijaya also teaches a first-year writing seminar, called “Cinematic Worlds,” which asks students to examine world cinema. In Singapore, she co-manages a film development company, E&W Films.