The compiler of any volume of critical essays on Chinese films will inevitably encounter a number of challenges. For one thing, there is the question of where to draw the boundaries of “Chinese film” – does this category include films from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and transnational collaborations? This is something that even the filmmakers themselves do not agree on. For films from Mainland China, where violent political discontinuities scar much of the 20th century and where political regimes play heavy-handedly in the creative arts, does it make sense to place films made in the ’30s in the same volume as a film made in the last decade? Last but not least is the problem of deciding how to navigate between showing the relevance of Chinese films in contemporary cinematic studies while exercising caution in deploying the language of film theory: after all, film theory largely developed and evolved from consideration of Western (Hollywood) films, and cannot be applied to Chinese films without some modification.
For these reasons, such a compilation of essays will have to bear the unusual burden of serving not only as film criticism but as a volume of much-needed cultural translation in the broad sense; the essays must not only interpret the films but also help transfer a whole set of social and institutional knowledge and assumptions to the English-language audience (assuming, of course, that the targeted readers include not just academics but other informed filmgoers). The academic film theorist, perhaps more than “commercial” film critics, should be uniquely able to deliver this balance of didacticism with enthusiasm, cultural ambassadorship with skepticism.
Defining “Chineseness” loosely and apolitically, Chinese Film in Focus: 25 New Takes includes films from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the diaspora, dating from 1934 to 2000, and ranging from blockbuster hits such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2001) to cinematic Cinderellas that are nonetheless important to the history of Chinese film such as Evening Bell (Wu Xiniu, 1988). The book admirably resists the temptation to sort the films according to geography, time period, or even a particular theme, instead focusing on them as individual works. The essays have mixed success in realising both the stated aim of the volume – to map the growth of Chinese cinema studies – and the unstated but nonetheless indispensable aim of translating discussion of Chinese film into a larger, international arena. Contrary to the claim on the back cover that that the essays are also “general reading for the Chinese film fan”, at their worst they can be mired in self-conscious jargon and pedantic language, making readers long for the joy and curiosity that a thoughtful critique inspires. Some interpretations rely too heavily on reference to shared cultural values that are too conveniently packaged as Maoism or Confucianism. Another reason for the mixed results is a sometimes excessive concern for novelty, overvaluing polemic at the expense of other issues. Anxious to offer fresh perspectives, some essayists deploy theoretical frameworks and vocabularies on films before examining whether these are appropriate, and without adjusting them to Chinese film’s social and historical contexts.
For example, in the essay “Love Eterne: Almost a (Heterosexual) Love Story”, Tan See Kam and Annette Aw call attention to the importance of cross-sex performance in this classic love story (where an actress plays the female protagonist, who falls in love with a male companion while she is disguised as a male classmate and wins his admiration in return). Their valid argument, however, is weakened by a rather injudicious introduction to the essay: in response to the director Ang Lee, who saw this film as a nine-year-old and expressed in an interview his admiration for the film’s “purity and innocence”, Kam and Aw comment that this remark “smacks of (self)-Orientalism…[and] also belies a latent homophobia…In other words, Lee’s take on the audience in regards to the love story and cross-sex acts amounts to a denial of the queer gaze” (p. 138). In this assertion, the essayists slip into the easy habit of redressing a perceived absence by retrofitting a modern framework onto the film, without pausing to show how this queer dimension was actually received by the audience in the film’s era – an audience that should not be represented by the then nine-year-old Ang Lee alone. The crossing of gender lines not only takes place in this particular movie, but also within the classic Chinese love story (which has many incarnations on stage and in literature). In their eagerness to produce a new polemical interpretation of the film, the essayists failed to recalibrate the boundaries of queer theory to accommodate the modified gender dynamics of Chinese drama and narrative, where gender roles have always been more malleable than in their Western counterparts, and where it’s not uncommon for a statesman to address his ruler “cross-dressed” rhetorically by speaking as a loyal wife. This historical malleability of gender manifests itself not just in cross-dressing in poetry, drama and in narratives, but also in a tendency in traditional scholar-beauty romances for heroines to prize not virile, proverbially “masculine” heroes (as defined by Western culture) but heroes that would be seen as effeminate by today’s society. In short, western queer theory, and Bakhtin’s model of the carnivalesque inversion of social hierarchy, cannot be deployed wholesale on a Chinese film with a classic story line without considering the history of gender dynamics in Chinese drama and classic tales, and without recognising some differences in how heterosexual gender roles also played out in the tradition. If concepts in film theory such as the queer gaze can inform the interpretation of Chinese films, it should also be expected that Chinese films that have evolved from a very different narrative or dramatic tradition can offer opportunities to test the (often tacitly-assumed) universality of these theories. Unfortunately, in some of these essays, the essayists are more than eager to generate interpretations without holding the models up for scrutiny in light of the films.
This is not to say, of course, that all the new perspectives in the volume are merely newfangled: some of the essays combine the freshness of discovery with measured observations and well-founded analyses. By addressing some of Sony Pictures’ strategies to capture an international audience for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and asking why it was met with different degrees of enthusiasm in and outside of China, Felicia Chan’s essay eloquently addresses the problem of cultural translation – and the limits thereof – that looms large over many of the films included in this volume. Several very successful essays incorporate the reception of a film and use it as a mirror to help us understand what was at stake in its making. Rey Chow’s essay on Not One Less (Xhang Yimou, 1999) is a wonderful example. After his early movies such as Red Sorghum (1987), Judou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Zhang Yimou had been accused by Chinese critics of “selling out” to Western tastes by depicting in these films a mythic, Orientalist China. The film Not One Less – in which Zhang Yimou depicts a young rural teacher’s struggle to keep her students from dropping out of school because of poverty – belongs to a changed and seemingly more realistic style of movie-making. So has the cinematic prodigal son turned himself around? Rey Chow argues that not only is this not the case, but the very fact that the public expects him to “come around” to more realistic filmmaking is problematic. For one thing, she points out that the preference for depicting China in a “realistic” fashion is driven by a politicised history of Chinese self-representation and appraisal. She argues eloquently that in this film, Zhang Yimou has not adapted a more documentary-like style to accommodate this politicised representation of China but rather, like a prodigal son who only makes people think he has come around, has created a sly subtext beneath his seemingly realistic film. In Not One Less, the schoolteacher’s relentless efforts to keep her students in school through labour (she mobilises the kids to move bricks to raise money) prove futile against the larger socio-economic desperation of her village; it isn’t until she stumbles into the broadcasting network in the metropolis and magnifies her efforts exponentially through the media that the children are saved. Rey Chow argues that Zhang makes a sly and ironic commentary on the nature of media straddling labour and image, and that Not One Less shows Zhang Yimou’s film (and by extension, Mainland Chinese film with international exposure generally) caught between the twin forces within China – one force that wanting to wrest the film free from the international (Western), Orientalist gaze, and the other force wanting to turn it toward a national gaze with what she calls “benevolence-driven coercion” exemplified by the embedded message in the film to save the future generation by keeping the children in school.
Another essay that expertly uses a film’s reception as a touchstone for deepening our understanding is Yomi Braester’s interpretation of Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993) which, because of its setting in the collective trauma of the Cultural Revolution and its engagement in collective memory, has been often interpreted as an epic, national narrative. Using a combination of sensitively rendered close viewing and biographical information about director Chen Kaige, Braester shows us how, contrary to this popular reception, Chen focuses on the intimate architectural spaces of his native city Beijing and recalls its past; the pain of betrayal depicted in the film (where two stage brothers are forced to denounce each other with irrevocable consequences) echoes that of Chen Kaige’s personal regret at having been forced to denounce his father during his own youth during the Cultural Revolution.
Other notable essays in the volume succeed in bringing to the foreground uniquely Chinese sensibilities and forms of interpretation. Corrado Neri’s essay on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s autobiographical A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) astutely points out the distinctive nature of self-representation found in written narratives in the Chinese literary tradition. Although Neri takes this literary history back in time too far (beginning with the famous poet Qu Yuan, born in 340 BC, before claiming Hou’s filmmaking style is akin to the literary genre of desultory writings dating to the Song Dynasty) and does not make a strong enough case for the affinity of Hou’s film to this literary tradition, the essay nonetheless sheds light on Hou’s taciturn style of representing the self and childhood memories. Similarly, Chris Berry’s own essay on The Wedding Banquet refreshingly searches outside the conventional framework of identity politics and tries to view it as a family melodrama – a Chinese family melodrama distinct from a European one in its emphasis. Especially valuable in Berry’s discussion is an analysis of camera work to show how director Ang Lee uses it to maintain openness in the viewer’s identification with any one particular character, thus accommodating two value systems.
Finally, if at times academic film criticism leaves the reader feeling as if the field has forgotten how to delight in watching the movies and letting them extend our visions beyond our limited lives, a couple of essays in this volume are happy antidotes: John Zou’s essay on A Chinese Ghost Story, despite its many theoretical digressions, is written with an intelligent verve and is particularly engaging; focusing on the aesthetic of action in martial arts movies, Mary Farquhar’s essay on A Touch of Zen is both analytically rigorous and has the rare ability to make us feel pleasure just by reading about the film and looking forward to seeing it (again, as it were) on screen. In these ways the best essays in the volume succeed as sensitive translations and energetic advocates of Chinese film, rather than mere mechanical dissections using the hippest jargon.
Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, edited by Chris Berry, British Film Institute, London, 2003
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