Victor Fan’s Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory encourages a concept that has been long forgotten in studies of aesthetics and film criticism: “approaching reality”. There is a more accurate word to denote this idea in Chinese “bi zhen”. The concept of “bi zhen” or “approaching reality” has long existed in traditional Chinese arts and aesthetic criticism. Although at first glance it looks similar to André Bazin’s concept of the “reproduction of reality”, it is in fact different in its philosophical and conceptual specificities. “Approaching” is an attempt to get closer, and it does not refer to a replacement; “reproduction” on the other hand, contains a certain impulse toward a replacement of reality. When painters paint, it is not their intension to replace the people or objects in reality, but only through their skills to get closer or to produce something that looks like the way they are in reality. How can we then theorise such a delicate relationship between cinema and reality? How can the concept “cinema approaching reality” provide us with a new inspiration toward such thinking? In his monograph, Fan wishes to revisit the philosophical discussion about the relationship between cinema and reality, and to reread early Chinese film theory and criticism in order to bridge a cross-cultural theoretical dialogue about the ontology of cinema. Such a dialogue is extremely important in an academic climate marked by the era of globalisation. In the past two decades, research on Chinese cinema in English-language academia has invariably centred on the theme of defining Chinese cinema in the era of globalisation. Fan’s book comes as a breath of fresh air, as it not only aims to establish a cross-cultural dialogue on the ontology of film, at the same time, it also intends to relocate the position of Chinese film theory alongside the current debates on Chinese cinema studies.

In scholarship written in Chinese, there have already been several volumes on Chinese film theory as well as collections of film criticism written by Chinese filmmakers and intellectuals. However, within English-language academia, Chinese film theory (or Chinese film criticism) is a rather new area. In comparison with other “methodologies” on researching Chinese cinema, the exploration and discussion of “Chinese film theory” is still relatively marginal. For example, George S. Semsel and his students Xia Hong, Hou Jianping and Chen Xihe have edited two volumes which anthologised English translations of essays written by Chinese scholars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, Chris Berry, Chen Mei and Ted Wang translated Hu Ke’s article “Contemporary Film Theory in China” (1995) into English, while Jim Cheng compiled An Annotated Bibliography for Chinese Film Studies (2004). These attempts have invested efforts into establishing a space for a cross-cultural theoretical dialogue on Chinese cinema studies. However, since this time, the topic of “Chinese film theory” has been rather invisible within English-language academia.

Fan’s book also mentions the “crisis in film studies”, referring to the fact that, with the domination of the study of cinema by Euro-American scholarship, intellectual thinking and writing about cinema from other areas has been marginalised. In recent years, many scholars began to discover writings on films by intellectuals and filmmakers outside of Europe and America. This is a good sign. However, it can also easily slip into a false logic of radical resistance (by using non-Euro-American scholarship to critique Euro-American scholarship’s Eurocentrism). For Fan, so-called “Chinese” film theory is in fact an ongoing process of learning from other areas (the Soviet Union, Japan, Europe and America). In other words, “Chinese film theory” is in fact a comparative space, a space that can accommodate dialogue. I remember a metaphor Fan used at a conference in 2014 at the Beijing Normal University. Filmmakers and intellectuals who work on Chinese film theory in China have always been writing “love letters” to their counterparts in Europe and America – but these “love letters” were never answered. For this reason, Fan has selected representative filmmakers and intellectuals from the 1920s and 1940s in China as well as British Hong Kong in order to demonstrate how these pioneering theorists attempted to establish dialogues with their counterparts in other cultures. At the same time, the writer seeks to present how these pioneering Chinese theorists attempted to explore the relationship between cinema and reality differently.

The first chapter “Approaching Reality: Chinese Ontology and the Potentiality of Time” retraces the history of the debate between Chinese and Euro-American scholars on the subject of film ontology, and wishes to define the term “approaching reality” more specifically. When western contemporary film theory began to gain awareness in China, Chen Xihe and Zhong Dafeng once used the term “bi zhen” in order to rethink the theoretical explorations of early screenwriters such as Hou Yao and Gu Kenfeng. For Chen and Zhong, what Hou and Gu pinned down as ontology was fundamentally different from André Bazin’s idea: instead of being a trace of reality, cinema is in fact a form of “xiju” (play-drama). However, this theoretical dialogue was not continued. Here, Fan uses “approaching reality” as an important point of intervention. In his opinion, the idea of “cinema approaching reality” is not completely different to Bazin’s ontology, but they share some similarities: both ways of thinking acknowledge the imperfection of cinema. Film is a potentiality which can approach reality but never fully actualise it. This chapter, therefore, focuses on this argument, in a hope to pick up the dialogue that Chen and Zhong did not finish in the 1980s. In addition, it also touches on the idea of ontology (and cinema “approaching reality”) in the digital era.

Chapter two, “Cinema of Thought: Directed Consciousness in Chinese Marxist Film Theory”, discusses the Marxist turn that took place in Chinese film theory in the 1930s. Fan focuses on one particular debate which emerged from this period of the Leftist Movement in China. The debate was sparked by the writer Lu Xun’s borrowing of a Japanese term “mokuteki ishiki” (directed consciousness) in his literary criticism. The debate around this term was central to left-wing film criticism in the 1930s. For these critics, who were deeply influenced by Lenin’s ideas, film itself (and not just filmmakers, or the audience) has a consciousness, and it can think, feel and instil its consciousness in the sentient bodies of the viewers. This chapter patiently outlines the historical and intellectual background behind this debate on the term “directed consciousness”, and discusses the differences in how critics at the time used the word “consciousness”. This chapter aims to establish a dialogue between left-wing film criticism in China during the 1930s and writings from the Soviet Union, France, Italy and other countries, as well as Giles Deleuze’s notion of “cinema of thought”. It further argues that Chinese intellectuals during this period reconfigured the concept of ‘approaching reality’ in more political terms.

The third chapter, “Soft Film Theory: Life in All Its Presence and Concreteness”, discusses another branch of film theory which emerged at around the same time. The proponents of “soft film theory” were in opposition to their Marxist counterparts. By taking Liu Na’ou and Haung Jiamo’s Modern Screen magazine as an example, this chapter wishes to present another scene of Chinese film theory. In Fan’s understanding, “soft film theory” considers the cinematic image as an aesthetic experience; during the cinematic encounter, the spectator and the object would unite and become one. Such a theoretical exploration emerged through Chinese intellectuals’ discovery and readings of Western philosophy at that time, in particular through Kant’s thoughts on aesthetics. In Fan’s understanding, Republican intellectuals maintained three interrelated notions of life: “human life”, “life form”, and finally “national life”. Due to philosophical influences from both Western philosophy and Buddhist thinking, “soft film theory” treated film as an aesthetic experience, as well as the space for reconfiguration for the three aforementioned modes of life. Fan provides the historical context for the emergence of this particular film theory, and he also puts it in a broader space of comparative philosophy in order to make sense of the concepts used. “Soft film theory” therefore, Fan argues, can be understood as a dialogue between Immanuel Kant and Wang Guowei on aesthetics and Buddhism. At the same time, “soft film theory” also, to some extent, pre-emptively responds to Gilles Deleuze’s definition of life in its pure immanence. This chapter therefore invites us to think about the possibilities in pushing further our discussion on the relationship between the cinematographic image, life and temporality.

Chapter four, “Fey Mou: The Presence of an Absence”, discusses the theory of cinematic immanence proposed by Fei Mu.1 Many of Fei’s thoughts on cinema were actually practiced in his filmmaking. He was deeply influenced by Chinese theatre, and adopted a highly abstract style in order to express realism – or the state of “approaching reality” – in the most effective way. For Fei, by being absorbed into the characters’ every lives, the audience would gradually stop following the film narrative, and instead “breathe in” the characters’ unfulfilled desires as oxygen. Deeply inspired by Confucianism, Fei saw cinema as a vehicle which delivers the highest ethical principle in all social and political relations. In his chapter on Fei, Fan draws comparison between his writings on cinema with those of David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Christian Metz and André Bazin on the relationship between art and reality, alongside some detailed analysis of Fei’s own films Spring in a Small Town (1946) and Kongfuzi (1940).

Chapter five, “Cinema of Ideation; Cinema of Play: The Early Cantonese Sound Film”, examines a unique cinematographic phenomenon in Hong Kong between 1930 and 1940. In Fan’s view, early Cantonese cinema was in fact a very unique form, which shared an intimate relationship with Cantonese opera. As a result, early Hong Kong Cantonese cinema had its own way of “approaching reality”. This chapter particularly focuses on the work of Mak Siu-ha, Ouyang Yuqian, and Sit Kok-sin, in order to demonstrate how all these thoughts converge the notion of Cantonese cinema as an art of ideation, which also puts life and political existence into a state of play. This chapter also provides the historical background necessary to provide context for these particular theoretical thoughts on cinema’s emergence.

Fan’s book delivers a unique theoretical intervention in the field. Conveying dialogues between theorists from East and West, Cinema Approaching Reality represents a good example of research into cross-cultural film theory. The questions and arguments in all of the chapters deserve further exploration, and each can also be further developed into an independent and more in-depth project. In summary, Fan’s book not only maps out several important theoretical debates between the 1920s and 1940s in China and British Hong Kong as a gesture to relocate Chinese film theory, it also put these local debates into dialogue with major film theories in the West from the past and the present.

Victor Fan, Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

This review was originally written in Chinese and published in Contemporary Cinema, 2016, issue 12, available at http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/SLrPtbfzn0zs7SD8n_iL0w . The English version is translated by the author herself.



  1. Fei’s name is also spelled as “Fei Mu” in contemporary Chinese Mandarin pinyin, which is different from the name’s original Wade-Giles version.

About The Author

Hiu Man Chan is Research Assistant at the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts, Birmingham City University as well as a PhD candidate at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University.

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