‘The past is a foreign country’: exoticism and nostalgia in contemporary transnational cinema

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This article argues that global interconnectedness has resulted in cultural homogenisation and a growing disenchantment with the perceived deficiencies of contemporary (Western) culture. This has led, on the one hand, to an elegiac longing for an idealised past and, on the other, a buoyant interest in cultural difference, specifically, the exotic. The essay aims to advance scholarly debates on exoticism in cinema by tracing its close affinities with nostalgia, attending to the concepts’ shared aesthetic and ideological trajectories. Both mobilise distance, be it spatial or temporal, to enable an imaginative investment that replaces historical accuracy and cultural authenticity with the construction of an embellished past and an idealised alterity. The essay theorises and differentiates between the ‘imperialist nostalgia film’ and the ‘exotic nostalgia film’ by using Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) as case studies. While the former fetishizes imperial power and control, thereby evoking nostalgia for the British Empire, the latter engenders a universal longing in the spectator for a time and place when intensity of feeling was possible. Although anchored in the cinematic text itself, nostalgia and exoticism also denote particular modes of aesthetic perception that are elicited in the spectator. Therefore, in a second line of argument, the article develops a model of transnational reception which explores the hypothesis that nostalgia and exoticism evoke different aesthetic responses in local and global spectators. While nostalgia is premised on familiarity and the remembrance of shared local traditions, the exotic gaze is that of an outsider to whom the cultural Other seems enigmatic and alluring.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)34-52
Number of pages19
JournalTransnational Screens
Issue number1
Early online date25 Apr 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Apr 2019


  • exoticism
  • nostalgia
  • imperialist nostalgia
  • transnational cinema
  • transnational reception
  • In the Mood for Love
  • Viceroy's House

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