Stephanie Hemelryk Donald & Paola Voci. Handbook of Film Studies. Editor: James Donald & Michael Renov. Sage Publications, 2008.
In 2005, film scholars from inside and outside China came together at a conference to celebrate one hundred years of Chinese cinema under the rubric of ‘National, Transnational, and International: Chinese Cinema and Asian Cinema in the Context of Globalization’. This ambitious title implied a broad definition of ‘Chinese cinema’ that includes both Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinemas, whilst ‘Asian cinema’ was a gesture towards the rising star of Korean film. The terminology in part reflects a constraint of the Chinese language, in which the absence of plural markers does not allow the use of the English phrase ‘Chinese cinemas’. (An emerging alternative is the phrase huayu dianying or ‘Chinese language cinema’, which is increasingly being used to acknowledge the different geopolitical and cultural contexts in which Chinese cinema has developed.) In addition to its title, the location and the scope of the conference offer insights into Film Studies in the Chinese context. The conference took place in two venues, Beijing and Shanghai, and participants were expected to be present at both events. The split location reflected a commonly accepted, albeit oversimplified, view of these two cities and their roles in defining film production and discourse around cinema. The importance of place in shaping the subtleties of the Chinese tradition of film analysis is the first point in our story here.
Pre-liberation cinema—that is, films made before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949—is generally identified with Shanghai studios. Film scholarship on the Shanghai pai, the Shanghai movement or trend of the 1930s and 1940s, has grown both in China and abroad especially since the mid- to late 1990s (Lee, 1999; Zhang Y., 1999). Beijing studios gained more importance after 1949, and informed discussion and scholarship on film has since developed mostly, although by no means exclusively, in the capital. For example, scholars based at the Beijing Film Academy and Beijing University in particular played a major role in the theoretical debate on new cinematic trends in the 1980s. According to this division, Chinese cinema’s tension between the national and the transnational, mirrors the opposition between Beijing’s political soul with its idealism and ideology, and Shanghai’s cultural essence with its creativity and pragmatism. Whereas Beijing is the default setting for a cinema concerned with the nation, the choice of Shanghai as an additional location for the centennial celebration points to the importance of a more globally oriented cinema and also implicitly pays homage to Hong Kong filmic tradition (Fu, 2003).
Spatial contingencies and political movements define the histories of Chinese film analysis rather more accurately than would a narrative based on individual scholars and their influence. It may be a question of attitude within China studies in general or it may truly be a reflection of a different process in the formation of knowledge, but, whereas names define movements in Anglophone traditions, it is more usual in Chinese Film Studies for names to become attached to, or representative of, times, places and political events. That said, we shall, of course, cite those film scholars who have been particularly responsive to historical conditions, or especially alert to the key issues in film of their day.
The stated goal of the 2005 conference was ‘to re-examine the role of cinema in the formation of Chinese modernity’ (our italics). This is not surprising to scholars of any aspect of Chinese culture, society and politics. Chinese modernity sits at the centre of much discussion of how China has developed over the past four hundred years, and of how its particular trajectory both complements and contradicts patterns of development elsewhere in the world. In Chinese Film Studies the issue of Chinese modernity as a shaping discourse for the politics of culture over the past century has been a major inspiration for filmmakers and a preferred critical angle for cultural commentators. Western scholars writing about European film and the emergence of Hollywood have also associated cinema with technological revolution and, very early on in cinema’s growth, viewed it as a modern medium which could capture and possibly transform the new, fast-paced, changing reality of modern life. As such, the discussions were not far removed from Walter Benjamin’s observation that the speed of film was almost necessitated by the pace of modern existence. In China, however, the introduction and development of cinema were not just apposite to modern times, it contributed to the revolutionary and radical character of the entire twentieth century. Studies of Chinese film theory should never omit this socio-political understanding.
The modernity in China was not new to the twentieth century. Modernity was emergent throughout the Manchu-Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, cinema began as imperial China ended, with the revolution of 1912 which ushered in the first republic and a period of great uncertainty and multiple conflicts. From the start, the discourse on cinema found itself closely tied to the debate surrounding the rebuilding of a nation in a new international context. One hundred years later, after the refashioning of the old Communist regime and the explosion of consumerist culture in China, things seem to have come full circle. In the latest ‘global age’ of cinema, as film scholars are asked to reflect on the role of cinema in the formation of Chinese modernity, cinema still finds itself deeply linked to the nation, in a more or less tense relationship with the state, and central to the articulation of the idea of China through cinematic art, spectatorship and narrative.
We have begun this chapter with the brief tale of two cities in the 2005 centennial celebration of Chinese cinema in order to establish the premise that Film Studies in China has traditionally enjoyed very little autonomy, and most of the work that addresses issues of film culture and film theory relates them directly to the more prevalent discourse generated by national film history. For instance, Li Daoxin’s in-depth survey of the century of Chinese film culture from 1905 to 2004, published in 2005, still frames the story as a sequence of stages in the creation of a national cinema. Film culture as it developed up until the late 1940s is related almost exclusively to film history and the discussion of representative films; film culture after the 1980s is presented through the discourse surrounding some of its most prominent auteurs. The first three sections of Li’s history, covering the period up to 1979, present long lists of movies accompanied by in-depth analyses of films like Yijiang chunshui xiangdong liu (Spring River Flows East, Cai Chusheng, China, 1947) and Wuya yu maque (Crows and Sparrows, Zheng Junli, China, 1949). In the final section, which spans the period from 1979 to 2004 that Li defines as ‘integrated cultural expansion’ (2005:351), the focus shifts to specific directors: whole chapters are dedicated to Xie Jin, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou as the leading auteurs in Mainland China; to Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Ang Li in Taiwan; and to John Woo and Tsui Hark in Hong Kong. As a result, notions of genre and film aesthetics are mostly derived from commentaries on specific film texts or filmmakers. The role of audiences in the creation of the film experience—that is, not just as consumers of films but also as producers of meaning—is not acknowledged. It is therefore history above all that drives forward the framing of Li’s analytical approach.
Two other important factors further complicate the localization of film culture in China. The first is that film theory in China has traditionally been linked to film practice. Up until very recently, many Chinese film theorists and critics have worked outside universities. Even nowadays, although more Chinese film scholars are affiliated to tertiary institutions, many not only teach both theory and practice but they are also often involved in the film industry as screenwriters, consultants or producers. The blending of practitioner and critic is less usual in the Western context. Although one could argue that the film practice and writing of the ficto-documentarist Cui Zi’en (2001; 2003) is somewhat akin to the marriage of practice and theory attempted by someone like Laura Mulvey, the difference is that Cui is professionally both a writer and a filmmaker whilst most Western writers take up filmmaking as a secondary exploration of their theoretical ideas.
The second complicating factor is that up until the late 1970s, most Western film theory was not available in translation, and concepts such as cinematic ontology, auteur theory, or simply discussions about cinematic forms of expression and artistic techniques did not become part of the discourse on cinema until the early 1980s. It is important to remember that some Chinese film theoretical concepts, such as minzu shi (nation-style), emerged from problematics and philosophical traditions other than the imported ideas of more recent debates. For instance, in the 1980s, many film scholars distanced themselves from Western film theory and argued that in China film aesthetics were better approached by relying on earlier Chinese traditional arts (Chen Xihe et al., 2005: 13).
Now, however, Chinese Film Studies has moved decisively beyond the nation and into a global context, and film theory has become thoroughly internationalized in relation to the study of global Chinese cinema. Comparative studies and collaborative projects between Chinese scholars in China and other scholars, both Chinese and non-Chinese, living elsewhere in the world are becoming routine. There has been a shift away from the translation and adaptation model—a model that was characterized by periodic discoveries (and translations) of Western theories which were subsequently applied to the national context. Chinese scholars are now also translated into English (Dai, 1995; Dai, 1999; Dai, 2002; Lu, 2005; Ni, 2002), and Chinese cinema scholars are seeking publication in Chinese rather than exclusively in English-language publications (see Lu and Yeh, 2005; Marchetti, 2005; Voci, 2006; Zhang Y., 2005, 2006a and 2006b; Zhang Z., 2006). Conferences, like the one referred to at the beginning of the chapter, now discuss not only Chinese national cinema but also broader issues in film theory and aesthetics in specifically Chinese contexts (Chen Xihe et al., 2005).
Despite the increasing interaction between scholarly traditions, however, Chinese theory continues to depend on historical periodization to frame both its ideas and reflection on its own development as an intellectual field. In a collection on contemporary film theory, Chen Xihe (2005) discusses what he terms the three main stages in the development of Chinese film theory. This first is the ‘red phase’ (1949-79), in which film was seen as a vehicle for didacticism and revolutionary ideology. Second is the ‘blue phase’, characterized by the Chinese appropriation of ideas from main Western theorists like Nick Browne, Janet Staiger, Bill Nichols, Robert Rosen and Ann Kaplan. And third is the ‘post-blue phase’, referring to contemporary developments including discussion of new media. Chen argues that this latest phase has largely been shaped by globalization and transnational trends which, rather than leading theorists away from the focus on contingency, have revived questions of the national, although now in a more complex international and global situation (Chen Xihe et al., 2005: 10). According to Chen, a top- down approach was dominant in the earlier periods, with an emphasis on ideology in the red phase and on aesthetics and theory in the blue phase. In the post-blue phase of recent years, however, Chinese film scholars have begun to adopt a bottom-up perspective that pays greater attention to the film text, to films’ cultural and social context, and also to data analyses reflecting the industrial context of production and distribution (Chen Xihe et al., 2005:10). As many of China’s concerns and debates likewise focus on this issue of regional, national and transnational influence, it is reasonable to infer that once again film theory is being true to its political and social time and space (Zhang, 2002).
Our central argument, then, is that the link between cinema and the nation has always been, and remains not only a crucial analytical framework in the analysis of Chinese cinema (Berry and Farquhar, 2006) but also in the development of Chinese film theory. This chapter therefore has two main objectives. The first is to provide a guide to some of the key moments and issues that have contributed to the film experience in China. Yet as we want to challenge any monolithic vision of Chinese Film Studies, our second objective is to show how, even within the ‘nation’ paradigm, the role of cinema has changed quite considerably—most notably through the impact of the diverse Chinese cinemas from within the Mainland and beyond. Although a chronological narrative of Chinese film history and the tensions which have characterized film culture in China structures the chapter, our final section switches the focus away from historical periods to three overarching issues that have helped to define Chinese Film Studies: realism, national style (minzu shi) and the opening of the national to other (non-Mainland) Chinese cinemas.
In 2000, Ann Hu directed Xi yang jing (Shadow Magic, China/Germany/ Taiwan/US), a romantic retelling of the beginning of Chinese cinema, inspired by the first historically documented Chinese film, Ding Jun Shan (Dingjun Mountain, RenOingtae, China), which in 1905 captured the performance of the famous Beijing Opera actor Tan Xinpei (Ge, 2002). In the film an English entrepreneur, Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), arrives in Beijing in 1902 to start a new business: showing movies to the Chinese. Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a young photographer with a deep curiosity for novelties, becomes his partner and friend. Together they manage to attract the public to their screenings and also begin to shoot films locally. Liu’s love for cinema, along with his passion for the woman of his dreams, causes a series of cultural misunderstandings and social conflicts that arise from the opposition between Chinese tradition and Western modernity. Despite oversimplifying both historical events and cultural issues, Xi yang jing thus dramatizes a couple of themes that have been at the core of critical work by film scholars inside and outside China. First, cinema started out as a foreign technological innovation. And secondly, cinema was viewed as a symbol of an imported modernity and, as such, became part of the larger debate concerning the West and its influence on Chinese culture and society.
The Debate About Form and Content
By the early 1920s, cinema had gained significant popularity, mostly within the urban limits of Shanghai and Beijing. As film showings became more frequent and more accessible, movie stars began to appear on the pages of pictorial magazines and joined—without quite displacing—opera performers in the eye of public fascination (Voci, 2002). Among the first to address theoretical issues were intellectuals coming from literary studies and the question of cinema was thereby mixed up, in the 1920s and arguably through to the 1950s, with a broader controversy concerning the respective values of socially and politically engaged literature and popular reading matter.
Cinema was thus seen not as an object to be appreciated or analyzed for its own sake, but as a medium to be struggled over and improved for the sake of the nation. Some of the intellectuals in the 1920s viewed cinema as a symbol of a more international or transnational modernity. For them, cinema was primarily a spectacle to be appreciated aesthetically, an icon of the new cosmopolitan urban culture most evident in Shanghai. They championed a ‘soft cinema’ (ruanxing dianying) that would emphasize form as well as content. Liu Na’ou, a writer who was part of the New Perceptionist literary movement, criticized the use of theatrical or literary strategies and advocated the use of a film language and visual grammar which reflected the medium’s visual and technological nature. In Zhongguo dianying miaoxie de shendu wenti (Problems of depth in Chinese film representation), Liu criticizes Chinese cinema for not being cinematic and for overemphasizing words (intertitles) over images: ‘in our national cinema, words are many but images are few’ (‘guochan dianying shi zi duo ying shao’) (Liu, 1993: 260). Liu’s support for a soft cinema was echoed by Huang Jiamo’s critique in the same period of the low artistic quality of leftist cinema, which he accused of being too concerned with content to pay attention to form (Voci, 2002: 74). Liu argued that form (xingshi) should be of equal importance at least to content (neirong) (Liu, 1993: 256-61).
Supporters of the May Fourth movement presented an opposing view of cinema. Taking its name from demonstrations on May 1919 protesting against the treaties of Versailles, May Fourth intellectuals advocated cultural and political renewal through social responsibility. Cinema, like literature and art in general, was viewed as a modern tool for engineering social and political change. In opposition to the New Perceptionists, May Fourth adherents argued that cinema needed to serve the greater cause of rebuilding the Chinese nation. A ‘hard cinema’, or ‘leftist cinema’ (zuoyi dianying) as it was labelled later, should contribute to educating the people and inspiring revolution. In ‘Qingsuan ruanxing dianying lun’ (‘Acritique of soft cinema’), Tang Na attacked the softness of soft cinema explicitly, criticizing it for being too concerned with emotions (ganqing) and being simply entertaining (yule) (Tang, 1993: 269-80). He argued that films should convey ideas as their main goal and that form and technical concerns should be subordinate to content. For Tang, filmmakers’ ideas (sikao) rather than their formal aesthetic choices should define a film (Tang, 1993: 274-78). Although after 1949 the needs of ideology increasingly determined which ideas were acceptable, up until then the debate about form and content remained relatively open. At the time, there were no clear winners. Even so, Mainland Chinese histories up until the late eighties conventionally, and conveniently, portrayed pre-liberation cinema as dominated by leftist filmmakers and theorists (Cheng, 1963).
Leftist Cinema and Shanghai Star Culture
Although supporters of soft cinema remained visible both at the level of production and public response, they tended to be less vocal than their leftist counterparts. This may have been in part because they seldom fulfilled the dual role of filmmaker and film critic that was already a feature of film culture in China. People involved in leftist film productions, like the screenwriters Tian Han and Xia Yan, took an active and a high-profile role in political and theoretical discussions about cinema. And crucially, their writings appeared at a time of national emergency (Xia, 1982). It is not surprising that those who saw themselves as creating the nation’s future displayed more passion and more conviction when championing their vision of cinema’s role in the new society than modernist intellectuals like the New Perceptionists. Furthermore, the foundation of the PRC in 1949 sanctioned the ‘victory’ of leftist cinema. This version of film history was further entrenched in 1963 with the publication of Cheng Jihua’s History of the Development of Chinese Cinema, which became the authoritative point of reference in the field. Emphasizing the leftist tradition as the driving force in the development of both Chinese film production and film criticism, Cheng disregarded or denounced any alternatives. Even though pioneering histories by Western scholars like Jay Leyda and Paul Clark (1987) clearly diverged from Cheng’s Communist party orthodoxy, they, like him, still emphasized political concerns over other critical perspectives and left unchallenged the view that socialist realist productions of the 1950s and 1960s were a natural development from the earlier leftist films.
A re-evaluation of non-leftist films from the 1930s and 1940s really got underway only in the 1980s when Fifth Generation directors like Zhang Yimou, Li Shaohong and Chen Kaige were attracting the attention of domestic critics and winning prizes at international festivals. At the same time as establishing new Chinese cinema’s connections with Western cinema, to which the Fifth Generation directors had been the first to be exposed after many years of quasiisolation, Chinese and Western film scholars started to rediscover pre-liberation Chinese cinema, seeking sources of inspiration outside the leftist and socialist-realist tradition, and setting out to uncover a variety of previously unexplored issues related to both genre and production. In this vein, for example, Zhang Zhen has noted the self-referential approach to femininity and womanhood of films made in the 1930s (2001: 229).
The reassessment of the role of leftist cinema pointed to the existence of a less explicitly ideological and more escapist cinema which proved to be popular in the decades before 1949. The fact that Hong Kong-based scholars led this revisionist history may have had something to do with Hong Kong and Guangdong’s part in film history being written out of the Communist orthodoxy (Fu, 2000; Li S., 2003 and 2005). Studies of early Hong Kong cinema and its development after 1949 highlighted the role played by the Hong Kong industry before it became internationally popular—first in the 1970s though the success of the martial arts genre and then again in the 1990s thanks to directors like John Woo, Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-wai (Fu and Desser, 2000).
The new histories also noted that, even at their most dominant, leftist themes were often complicated or even distorted by cinematic genres and studios’ economic priorities. Iconic leftist (zuopai) films like Dalu (Big Road, Sun Yu, China, 1934), Shizi jietou (Crossroads, Shen Xiling, China, 1937) or Malu tianshi (Street Angels, Yuan Muzhi, China, 1934) were revisited to reveal their neo-realist flavour and melodramatic mise en scene, or to uncover representational and narrative elements that belied the revolutionary tenor of the times (Berry, 1988a; Berry, 1988b; Feng, 1985; Ma, 1989; Pang, 2002; Pickowicz, 1993).
Many studies demonstrated that rather than being simply oppositional to leftist ideology, Hollywood-like star culture and fascination with certain film genres radically upset the political agenda. Christine Harris’ 1997 analysis of Xin nuxing (The New Woman, Cai Chusheng, China, 1937) focuses on the intersection between film star culture and leftist cinema and reveals the connections between the film’s narrative and iconography as well as its industrial and cultural contexts: publicity, production conditions and an audience reception mediated through the debate about ‘new’ or ‘modern’ women. Similarly, Yomi Braester’s essay on Maxu Weibang’s Yeban gesheng (Singing at Midnight, China, 1937) argues that the role of ‘monstrosity’ in the revolutionary rhetoric of 1930s cinema has been overlooked in analyses that privilege a binary opposition between ideological or political messages and commercial entertainment strategies. In Yeban gesheng, argues Braester, the horror genre reveals both a Hollywood-influenced pleasure in spectacle and an implicit political commentary on the Revolution’s contradictions and unsolved problems (2000: 107).
Two films that exemplify the shift in critical discourse surrounding pre-liberation films and the reassessment of the role of the nation in filmmaking are Shennu (Goddess, Wu Yonggang, China, 1934) and Dalu. Both belong to the revolutionary tradition of left- wing filmmaking committed to patriotic and communist ideals, and were praised for their service to nation-building ideals in Cheng Jihua’s standard history (1963). From the late 1980s on, however, both were critically re-evaluated, especially in light of theoretical work on performance and charisma in stardom studies (Berry, 1988b; Chow, 1995: 23-6; Mu, 1985). Shennu’s protagonist, a prostitute who fights her evil pimp to achieve a better life for her son, was played by Ruan Lingyu, a legendary actress who committed suicide at the age of 24. Ruan Lingyu’s intense close- ups and ‘regard en camera’ create a sensual atmosphere in which the political message is almost totally lost. A shot of her legs as she walks side by side with a client, for example, is a textbook example of fetishization. The narrative of Dalu concerns six young road workers who are constructing a strategic road for the Chinese army during the war of resistance against the Japanese invasion. The film’s political message is complicated, however, by the presence of two female characters who befriend the workers—one of them played by the glamorous Li Lili, a sexual icon of her times (Berry, 1988b). The girls experience a social and political awakening, but they are also protagonists in several scenes which clearly evoke romantic connections, intimacy and sexuality.
In the 1940s the urgent need to rescue the nation from both external and internal dangers—Japanese invasion and the corrupt Nationalist government—led to an even stronger push to homogenize and rectify film productions and scholarship in order to eliminate possible distractions from, or distortions of, the political message. In his Yan’an Talks on Arts and Literature (1942), Mao Zedong challenges artists to ensure that ‘our literature and art are first for the workers, the class that leads the revolution’ (1967: 78). He insisted that they should put ‘the political criterion first and the artistic criterion second’ (1967: 89). Such changes did not occur overnight, but it is fair to say that Chinese filmmakers’ work became progressively constrained by Party critiques and the demand for self-critique. Similarly, the scope for critical analysis was increasingly limited by the demands of revolutionary Communist ideology.
Cinema and Revolution: 1949-76
In Chinese Film Studies, the conventional view is that socialist realism dominated the period from 1949 to the early 1980s. That this politicized aesthetic was given a particular slant in China, with realism imbued with a unique sense of romanticism and revolutionary passion, became apparent in the critical revisionism of the late 1980s and the 1990s. In 1989 Esther Ching-mei Yau commented on the intensity of the central relationships in war films—an observation given further weight by Michael Berry’s account of Hongse nianzi jun (Red Detachment of Women, Xie Jin, China, 1963), which cites the admission of the director Xie Jin that political interference spoilt the second half of the film by insisting that all sexual references be removed from the script (2000). Likewise, Stephanie Hemelryk Donald (1997; 2005) observed the passionate kernel of the Party-state-people relationship in cinema drama and has more recently shown how children’s films of the 1980s, many of them commissioned through the Children’s Film Studio which was founded and directed by the older revolutionary film elites of the 1950s, continued to present human feeling (ganqing) as an emotional core of sociality rather than as interior individual feeling. Such approaches find, in other words, a degree of connection or convergence between the soft and leftist turns of thirty years earlier. At the time the films were made, however, few international film scholars were paying much attention to what was being screened in China.
Just as the creation of a film industry dedicated to promoting the socialist romance of revolution was not achieved overnight, so the adoption of socialist realism failed to banish completely all traces of other styles—despite the often brutal imposition of censorship that reflected not just formal Party directives, but also, and less predictably, the state of play in factional infighting between hardliners and ‘softer’ forces in the power hierarchy. Although often subordinated to revolutionary themes, romance remained evident in many comedies and dramas. Other genres with their origins in traditional Chinese opera, early Hollywood and popular entertainments of the 1920s—melodrama, family movies, war films and historical romances, for example—continued to be produced, and their formal conventions and cultural connotations led to moments of slippage, or even contradiction, within the orthodoxies of socialist realism. The 1959 drama Lin jia puzi (Lin Family Shop, Shui Hua, China), for example, tells the story of the self-interested but ultimately hopeless decisions of the shopkeeper Lin (Xie Tian) in response to the boycott of Japanese goods after the 1919 treaty. Finally bankrupted, Lin flees leaving poorer creditors behind him, and the voice-over reminds the audience that big fish eat little fish in a cruel, capitalist world. Against the grain of this heavy-handed extra-diegetic voice, the complexity of the film’s narrative suggests that Lin’s decisions are driven by multiple forces and confusions and, in the end, the character comes across as not entirely unsympathetic. Despite its socialist-realist style, then, Lin jia puzi could be seen ultimately as a bourgeois film—as it was a few years later during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-74). The lead actor, Xie Tian, was criticized for taking on the role of the shopkeeper. This was typical of incidents at the time. Key members of the film elite like Yu Lan and Tian Fang were thrown out of the studios and into labour camps. Jiang Qing, Mao’s last wife and a former actress, used her factional power during the Cultural Revolution to punish more successful erstwhile colleagues from the film and theatre worlds of the 1940s. The denunciation of Xie Tian provides an unhappy example of film theory being used to undermine the film as a work of art and the actor as a professional performer for reasons of personal advantage in political factions.
After Mao: 1976-89
The economic reforms following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 are generally referred to as the ‘New Era’—a term that is designed, as Zhang Xudong observes, ‘to make discontinuity clear while leaving ambiguous room for continuity with the socialist past’ (1997: 9). This ‘ambiguous room’ meant that during the New Era, albeit within certain limits, criticism was not just tolerated but actively encouraged. As a result, all aspects of both cultural production and critical discourse underwent major changes.
In Film Studies, debates during the 1980s focused on issues of modernization, tradition and innovation, and national cinema. Among the main critical voices during this time were Chen Xihe, Shao Mujun, Li Tuo, Yang Ni and Zhu Dake; and in the Chinese tradition of combining theory and practice, filmmakers such as Xie Fei, Zheng Dongtian, Wu Yigong and Zhang Nuanxin also took an active part in the conversation (Semsel et al., 1990; Semsel etal., 1993).
Many scholars complained about the overwhelming preponderance of literary adaptations and the continuing dominance of melodramatic mise en scene and narration. They objected to the theatrical acting, ethical preoccupations and excessive sentimentalism that characterized most Chinese cinema both before and after liberation in 1949. The film critic Bai Jingsheng called for the revival of a specifically cinematic language:
It is time that we throw away the walking stick of drama that we have used for so long. We should let ourselves go and make great progress in our filmmaking … The key is not to construct film on the basis of dialogue, but rather on that of synthesis. Furthermore, filmmakers should deviate from their concept of drama and adopt montage, which combines sound and image. (1990: 6, 8)
This debate heated up even more when the Fifth Generation’s new wave of films began to appear. Even though they did not have an immediate impact in Chinese movie theatres, the films’ exploration of new styles and new genres fuelled the ongoing debate on how to renew Chinese cinema and generate a chain of changes in both film production and scholarship.
The complexity of these changes and their ramifications can be illustrated by the different fates of two ground-breaking Fifth Generation films: Yige he bage (One and Eight, Zhang Junzhao, China, 1984) and Huang tudi (Yellow Earth, Chen Kaige, China 1984). Both films relied on a very simple storyline, a very slow narrative pace, and the use of cinematography, depth of shot and frame composition to get across their political points. Both were labelled as ‘art films’ in China as well as overseas and neither became a blockbuster. Yet Huang tudi became an international phenomenon, whereas Yige he bage remained a domestic one.
Even though it was mostly limited to film festival circles and film scholars, the unprecedented international attention given to Huang tudi had a great impact within Chinese film culture as it marked a shift in the dominant paradigm of national cinema. While the West had previously been seen as a source from which to import and adapt new film theories and techniques (and to a lesser extent films), from the mid- to late 1980s on, filmmakers started to become aware of the potential Western audience.
Huang tudi’s international achievement was followed by the even greater success of Hong gaoliang (Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou, China, 1988). This film managed to perform well at the domestic box office as well as gaining some distribution on the European circuit. Initially, the commercial aspect was subordinate to the need for intellectual and artistic recognition. As Chinese directors won awards at Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice, it became clear that some themes were more easily exportable than others. Zhang Yimou’s narrative style and his portrayal of China as the land of ‘primitive passions’ fell within the broad appeal of orientalism and exoticism to Western audiences, and thus attracted the interest of Chinese film scholars and cultural critics working in Western paradigms but with a finely nuanced intra-cultural understanding which made strong and innovative critiques of these new wave phenomena: Rey Chow’s Primitive Passions (1995), for example.
Starting in the mid-1980s, film scholarship on Chinese cinema exploded and articles on the Fifth Generation like Clark’s ‘Reinventing China’ (1989) and Yau’s ‘Cultural and economic dislocations’ (1989) were published in Europe and the US. In more recent years the Fifth Generation has continued to provide a focus of attention. In 2002, Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy, a first-hand account of the ‘genesis of China’s Fifth Generation’ by the screenwriter, historian and critic Ni Zhen appeared in English translation, while Clark’s 1989 article grew into the 2005 monograph Reinventing China: A Generation and its Films. At the same time, scholarship on Chinese cinema has expanded around and beyond the phenomenon of the Fifth Generation, continuing to embrace the central theme of modernity in Chinese cultural debate while bringing Chinese cultural scholarship to the forefront of new critical theory in the West. For example, American-based cultural critics Chen Xiaomei and Jing Wang championed the work of Dai Jinhua, a leading Chinese intellectual, who has effectively raised the issue of women’s cinema in terms of both production and representation throughout the 1990s. Their campaign successfully culminated in the publication of a collection of Dai’s translated essays as Cinema and Desire and a number of visiting fellowships in the US.
As noted earlier, this period of scholarship has also seen ‘soft’ cinema re-evaluated for the first time since pre-1949, as Chinese cinema was analyzed from new critical angles beyond the national paradigm. In an influential article, ‘Chinese classical painting and cinematographic signification’ (1994), Ni Zhen points to the similarities between the Fifth Generation and the Taiwanese new wave director Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose Beiqing chengshi (City of Sadness, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1989) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1988, and relates their overlapping styles to traditional Chinese painting. In China into Film (1999), the Princeton art historian Jerome Silbergeld likewise underlines the importance of his disciplinary perspective for understanding the aesthetics of Chinese cinema, while in Hitchcock with a Chinese Face (2004) he expands the method to include comparative cross- cultural analyses of image-making in films and other visual arts. This approach enables Silbergeld to demonstrate the influence of Chinese philosophical and artistic views as they are worked through in the presentation of cinematic space and time. He also pays heed to the impact of Western cinema, however, recognizing it as an unstable point of reference rather than a straightforward source of inspiration or appropriation. Rather like the ‘translingual practices’ in literature studied by Lydia Liu (1995), Silbergeld shows how Chinese filmmakers have translated and transformed foreign cinematic practices as well as traditional Chinese aesthetics into a distinctive cinematic visuality.
Ni Zhen’s observation that the Taiwanese New Wave was coterminous with the Fifth Generation is important. Although Taiwanese cinema theory is beyond the scope of this chapter, some issues are so closely related to film in the PRC that they must be mentioned if only in passing. The government-sponsored
In Our Time project that started in 1982 fostered the careers of new filmmakers like Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen as well as Hou Hsiao-hsien. The outcome was a self-consciously intellectual cinema that has attracted significant scholarship, much of it interested in the relationship between Taiwanese national (or quasi-national) identities and ethnicities, and its cinematic tendency to ask difficult questions about time, space and the evaluation of human suffering (Berry and Lu, 2004; Chen F., 2000; Yeh and Davis, 2005; Yip, 2004). The existence of the Taiwanese new wave, along with the increasing links between production houses in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan that cater to both PRC and ‘greater China’ Chinese-language audiences and also the interlinking of the star system in Asia, has helped to establish the themes of transnationalism and regionalism at the centre of contemporary debates.
New Directions: 1990s and 2000s Urban Cinema
The publication in 2006 of Paul Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang’s From Underground to Independent, a collection of essays examining and explaining alternative film culture in contemporary China, consolidated another step in the development of Chinese Film Studies. Building on a number of earlier, mostly Chinese-language, publications (Cui, 2001; Cui, 2003; Zhang X., 2004; Zhang Z., 2006), the volume represents a considered response to some new social, cultural and theoretical questions posed over the past fifteen or twenty years by the emergence of new styles of filmmaking.
One label for this new trend has been the ‘Sixth Generation’—but the term has proved both controversial and misleading. Certainly, not all ‘Sixth Generation’ filmmakers would see themselves as part of a single movement, let alone the same generation (Dai, 2000; Teo, 2003; Zheng, 2003). They constitute a very broad and diverse grouping that embraces not only emerging filmmakers working in Mainland China, such as Jia Zhangke whose films include Zhantai (Platform, Hong Kong/China/Japan/France, 2000) and Ren xiao yao (Unknown Pleasures, South Korea/France/Japan/China, 2002), but also transnational talents like the German- based Li Yang, whose best, known work is Mangjing (Blind Shaft, China/Germany/Hong Kong, 2002). The two directors most often associated with the ‘Sixth Generation’ are Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan, both of whom boast long filmographies. Wang’s key films are Dong Chun de rizi (The Days, China, Shiqi sui de danche (Beijing Bicycle, France/Taiwan/China, 2001) and Er Di (Drifters, Taiwan/China, 2003). Zhang Yuan, who creates a breakthrough with almost every work, is best seen as an ‘issues’ director. Of his fourteen features, which include a number of documentaries, Mama (Mom, China, 1990) deals with disability and maternal emotion, Beijing za zhong (Beijing Bastards, China, 1992) ruminates eloquently on the post- Tiananmen atmosphere of Beijing bohemian life, Fengkuangyingyu (Crazy English, China, pursues the mad brilliance of a millionaire English teacher, and Dong gong xi gong (East Palace West Palace, China, 1996) paints a tense and erotic picture of the capital’s gay and transgendered populations.
Film scholars have attempted to provide an alternative analytical framework to the overly loose ‘Sixth Generation’ label, which perpetuated the periodic or generational model established by Cheng Jihua’s Party line history (Cheng, 1963). This had imposed a somewhat simplistic categorization that grouped directors on the basis of their affiliation with a particular historical moment. The impact of the Fifth Generation actually helped to undermine the model. That group of directors at least had in common the fact that they enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy just after the Cultural Revolution and graduated together in 1983. However, the categories of First and Second Generation are rarely used in relation to directors active before the 1980s as debates about earlier cinema are usually couched in terms of the opposition between ‘leftist’ or ‘nationalist’ cinemas.
Third Generation directors, including Xie Jin who is still working today, tend to be subsumed into discussions of socialist realist cinema. Since Cheng’s day, the labels of Fourth Generation and Fifth Generation have been commonly applied to directors active after the Cultural Revolution period ended with the death of Mao in 1976. But the attempt to extend his approach and categorize directors who began their careers in the 1990s or after as Sixth or even Seventh Generation filmmakers, often simply on the basis of the date they graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, fails to take account of their differences or of the loss of a sense of historically-defined cohesion or shared concerns.
The search for alternative descriptions or explanations of the newer films has led some scholars to emphasize their urban location and inspiration—although, again, this does not apply to them all. Others use a paradigm of independent filmmaking (duli dianying or duli zhipian). Some of the more cynical talk rather of ‘individualistic film’ (geren dianying) and criticize some of the works as representative of a new ‘me-me-ism’ (wowo zhuyi) (Pickowicz and Zhang, 2006). This controversy is compounded by the notion that all new and interesting talent in Chinese film is necessarily believed to be ‘underground’. The ‘underground’ quality appears in many cases to be a question of style rather than substance. Again, sceptics allege that some young filmmakers are not actually censored by the Film Bureau, but elect to bypass its official approval processes so that they can claim the status of being banned, dissident or underground and so enhance their recognition and credibility abroad. Selling a ‘banned’ film to a non-Chinese-speaking audience is easier than trying to persuade people that a mainstream film with subtitles might be educational and entertaining.
The emergence of this independent or underground movement has had the interesting consequence of prompting Chinese film scholars, both local and transnational, to focus more than previously on political-economic questions about production, distribution and viewership—to the extent that these discussions have sometimes overshadowed critical assessment of the films’ formal innovations and narratives.
This debate has also pointed to the split between directors making films for Chinese audiences and those making films for the West or for the international festival circuit. There are no grounds for assuming that the more commercially successful and ‘entertaining’ side of urban cinema is of poor artistic quality, nor that it unquestioningly serves propagandists government goals. Xizao (Shower, Yang Zhang, China, 2000) and Shouji (Cellphone, Feng Xiaogang, China, 2003) are two films of this type that have not yet received intensive critical attention because, despite their huge popularity at home, they are entertainment pieces which touch on modern issues (alienation, relocation, technology and marital discord) in ways which do not conform easily to ‘independent’ or ‘underground’ paradigms. Arguably, Zhang Yuan’s Guo nian hui jia (Seventeen Years, Italy/China, 1999)—which tells how a prison officer gives up a precious holiday weekend to help a killer on day-release find her family—is much more actively supportive of the social order and the representatives of state paternalism than either of these light-hearted popular films.
It is noticeable how in the contemporary period the old critical distinction between ‘soft’ cinema and ‘hard’ films recurs—entertainment, aesthetics and commercial success versus ideology, plot and social message—even though it has become much more complicated and can no longer be easily reduced to a binary opposition.
Overlapping with the new urban, independent or underground cinema that helped to shape the discourse of what Chen Xihe calls the ‘post-blue phase’ (2005: 10) in Chinese film theory has been the work of a new wave of documentary film- and videomakers like Duan Jichuan, Du Haibin, Cui Zi’en, Jiang Yue, Li Hong and Wu Wenguang. Since the early 1990s they have gone a long way to reinventing the genre—incidentally shifting Chinese Film Studies away from its almost excusive concern with narrative feature films in the process. Since documentary film in China traditionally took the form of war reportage and political or educational propaganda, this new documentary has no official history. It certainly did not develop in a vacuum, however, and it needs to be understood in relation to the renewal of television, to the emergence of urban cinema, and to the world of avant-garde artists.
Reforms to Chinese television have been instrumental to the development of a less ideological approach to documentary. Although great emphasis is placed on the independence of the new documentarians, most of them have also worked for Chinese state television from time to time and some of the resulting productions have displayed typically ‘independent’ characteristics and concerns. They stress authenticity, minimize intervention (by eschewing or underplaying ‘voice of God’ commentary) and tend to focus on marginal communities, the poor and ‘outsiders’ (Voci, 2004).
This approach brings the new documentary close to urban cinema in terms of both subject matter (marginal worlds and antiheroes) and style (fragmented and often minimalist narratives). Zhang Yuan and Jia Zhangke have directed both feature films and documentaries. Li Yu’s Jinnian xiatian (Fish and Elephant, China, 2001) uses a documentary style to portray a lesbian couple (played by two actresses, but with many other characters in the film playing themselves). Both Zhang Yimou’s Qiuju da guansi (The Story of Qiuju, China/Hong Kong, 1999) and Li Yang’s Mangjing also mix professional and non-professional actors and were shot on location, often using hidden cameras to achieve a more ‘authentic’ outcome. As filmmakers work across genre boundaries, the very division between fiction and nonfiction has arguably become artificial and inadequate.
The discourse on film generated by the new documentary movement also overlaps with the underground and avant-garde scene in the visual arts. Some of these artists are the topic of Wu Wenguang’s Liulang Beijing: zuihou de mengxiangzhe (Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers, China, 1990). Zhao Liang’s experimental videomaking blurs the boundaries of the real and the surreal, and his work includes art video as well as documentary—for example, his video on drug addicts in Beijing, Zhi feiji (Paper Airplane, China, 2001). The concerns, approaches and socio-economic spaces shared by the new documentarians, urban filmmakers and other underground or avant-garde artists are clearly chronicled and catalogued in events such as The First Guangzhou Triennial Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (19902000) and its associated publications (Wu et al., 2002).
The scholarly debate about documentary remains quite specialized. Among those taking an active role in the discussions in China are, typically, filmmakers like Wu Wenguang along with scholars like Lu Xinyu and Wang Weici (2000; 2001) (see also Fang, 2003; Mei and Zhu, 2004). In the West, Chris Berry (1997; 2002) and Berenice Reynaud (1996; 2003) have taken the lead in opening up the topic (see also Leary, 2003; Voci, 2004; Zhang Y., 2004). Increasingly, however, the two groups are involved in transnational conversations as both scholars and theory travel. In March 2006, for example, a Chinese-language volume on contemporary Chinese documentary edited by Ping Jie was published in Shanghai. The collection combines essays by Western and Chinese scholars, who are based overseas and who had previously published mostly in English. This format represents a challenge not only to the divide between domestic and international Chinese Film Studies, but also to the translation and adaptation model that assumes the flow of theory from the West to China (Ping, 2006). Fixed boundaries between Chinese and Western critical discourse are giving way to flows as scholars move in and out of China, publishing in both Chinese and English.
In this final section we review briefly a few enduring themes and topics that are likely to continue to set the agenda for Chinese Film Studies in the coming years, as they have done over its history.
A Chinese Perspective on Film Studies
According to Hu Ke (Hu 1995; Hu et al., 2000), critical discourse on film in China has mostly focused on social politics, rather than art or, in fact, cinema per se. For most of its history, it had no autonomy from the unified system of film production and distribution, which in turn was subservient to political propaganda. It remained almost wholly isolated from international film culture: Western film theories were simply inaccessible.
Even though it underplays some of the earlier, pre-revolutionary debates about soft and hard cinema, Hu’s overall assessment is in general terms accurate. Our chronological overview has also shown why ‘serving the nation’ has been the main concern of both film theorists and practitioners, and how cinema and nation can hardly be separated in the Chinese context. From the mid-1930s, the emphasis was on cinema’s role in the building of the modern Chinese nation. When, following Mao’s directives on the arts, cinema was asked to become a political tool for the promotion of ideology and education of the masses, the revolutionary ideology simply incorporated the nation into its rhetoric and claimed, in fact, that the two were the same. ‘Meiyou gongchandang meiyou xin Zhongguo’ was the slogan: ‘Without the Communist Party there is no new China’. In many ways, despite its claims of ‘breaking with old ideas’, socialist realism remained closely related to the earlier realism of leftist cinema: both essentially identified the primary responsibility of cinematic realism in a Confucian loyalty towards history, society and the Chinese nation.
Hou Yao, for example, a major filmmaker and one of the few film theorists of the early history of Chinese cinema, in 1926 defined cinema as a kind of drama and the film script as the soul of film. Identifying this principle of Hou Yao’s as the normative thread running through the history of Chinese cinema, Chen Xihe (1990) argues that the focus on everyday life and society, which derives directly from the Confucian tradition, is the reason why Chinese cinema is concerned with narrative—and in particular narrative drama with educational goals—rather than cinematic techniques or formal experiments. Although this may be an overgeneralization, it is reasonable to maintain, as Chen does, that ‘the social and instrumental values of film’ (1990: 200) have been the main concern for the majority of directors. The realism that Chinese films strive to achieve has been conditioned most of the time by ideological and educational purposes which lie behind the faithful reproduction of reality. It was only after the debates of the 1980s that Soviet film theory was opened up to Andre Bazin’s cinematic realism and Chinese scholars began to argue about film aesthetics, semiotics and spectatorship. Even though many of them called for a more autonomous discourse on cinema, the concern with the making of a modern nation remained the central overarching issue, even after social politics loosened its control over film culture (Semsel et al., 1990; Semsel et al., 1993).
The shift in perspective in the early 1980s was a major one, as translations were published of Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, and then of Christian Metz, Dudley Andrew, Browne and Mulvey. While still within the boundaries of a national modernity, film scholars began to reflect not just on Chinese cinema but on broader ontological issues concerning cinema. Those first debates quite soon became available in the West, with the publication of two anthologies which included a number of articles by Chinese film scholars in English translation (Semsel et al., 1990; Semsel et al., 1993). Although these anthologies potentially made Chinese Film Studies and Chinese perspectives on cinema accessible to Western film scholars they were, for the most part, read only by the circle of Chinese film scholars who had already been following the original debates in China. Twenty years on, however, the number of international conferences about Chinese film and collaborative research projects between Chinese and transnational scholars provide evidence of a belated response to those first exchanges.
National Style and Chinese Cinemas
Much of the analysis chronicled in this chapter has focused primarily, if not exclusively, on the relationship between politics and style on the Mainland. Nevertheless, we have also noted the work of writers and commentators who think about the formal properties of film art in China, and their work is particularly valuable in revealing the continuities in aesthetic production values and perspectives over many years, and across different media. Art historians, directors, cinematographers and designers are successfully claiming a national style (minzu shi)—which also encompasses ‘consciousness’ of national identity and cultural belonging—in the high points of Chinese filmmaking (Chu, 2002; Hu J., 2003; Lin, 1985; Silbergeld, 1999). Of course, such Chinese cultural consciousness is not homogeneous, nor is it limited to the PRC or to cinema created on the Mainland. The cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Macao, possibly in that order, have contributed a great deal to the art and depth of Chinese film, defined through language and location. In the past few years, Mainland Chinese scholars have increasingly tended to include consideration of at least Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinemas in their work on aesthetics, theory or audience studies. Whether in the Chinese context this indicates a new internationalism or an expansionist nationalism remains an open political question.
To conclude this survey of Chinese Film Studies, however, it is appropriate to note not only the growth of international interest in Chinese film over recent decades but also the broadening of that interest to include non-Mainland Chinese cinemas. The reasons for both developments are several. Global communications and distribution opportunities have made a wider range of Chinese films more freely available to Western audiences. The flowering of talent in a series of new ‘waves’ in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the PRC drew attention to the emerging regional cinemas in the first place. The theoretical work of Teshome Gabriel (1982; 1994) and Paul Willemen (1994) on Third Cinema offered young scholars new ways of thinking about ‘other’ cinemas -perspectives and approaches which they quickly adapted to specific films and film cultures. At the same time, a number of dedicated journalists as well as academic writers have helped to create the time and space for thinking about China on the world scene: people like Tony Rayns, Derek Elley, Chris Berry, Berenice Reynaud and Mary Farquhar, who in turn built on the earlier work of Regis Bergeron (1983) and Joris Ivens. A broader debate about ‘Chineseness’ in the 1990s paved the way for the publication of Sheldon Lu’s influential collection on transnational Chinese films in (Chun, 1996; Tu, 1994). The emergence of transnational and global China as a compelling analytical framework for studying Chinese film was no doubt due in part to the increasingly diasporic nature of Chinese film scholars. Many of the younger generation were born and raised in the PRC, Hong Kong or Taiwan, but have received their tertiary education in the US and gone on to achieve tenure in American universities.
Recent scholarship has begun to study the small but politically and socially interesting Singaporean and Macao industries in the context of ‘global’, transnational, or, most immediately, ‘regional’ Chinese cinemas (Khoo, 2006). At the same time, work on the major film centres has continued. Hong Kong has been a vital centre of Cantonese- language film since the 1950s, supplying the region with at least one cinema that was not obliged—at least not all the time—to produce films in standard Mandarin, and that has claimed a realm of authenticity, energy and local grounding for its genres, stars and fads. It now also boasts a number of locally- based scholars who are giving a lead to international colleagues in analyzing Hong Kong cinema. The film historian Law Kar has published widely in Chinese on aspects of its style, genres and history, and acts as the advising historian to the Hong Kong Film Archive and Gallery. In 2004, he was the curator of an exhibition that programmed a retrospective season at the Archive to celebrate the contribution of Lai Manwai, the ‘Father of Hong Kong cinema’. These events, along with a documentary Law Kar produced, not only remind cinema scholars of the relationship between Guangdong and Hong Kong in the development of early film, but they also suggest how it is possible to link location and place to film analysis. The exhibition was related to a series of ‘trails’ devised to take visitors around Hong Kong to see places and sites of note in film history. This approach exemplifies the sense that, despite the international take-up of theoretical adventures in Chinese film over the past two decades, the field is now returning home to its sources and origins. This is not to say that the field is shrinking back to a place ‘outside’ traditional centres of film scholarship in Europe and the US, but rather that film scholarship is becoming regionally and spatially coherent.