When Mao died in 1976, the Great Proletarian Chinese Cultural Revolution drew to a close and a paralysed film industry began to function again. For a few years, the state allowed films like Kunao ren de Xiao (Troubled Laughter, 1979) and Ba shan ye yu (Evening Rain, 1980) to confront the madness of over a decade of Mao-sanctioned violence. But while mainland China had overcome Maoist totalitarianism, it was far from transitioning to democracy, and it did not take long for the state to discourage films that were political in nature. A new filmic language was born soon thereafter, one that prized ambiguity and long takes over causality, one that seemed critical of the state but not in any way a censor could point to with confidence. Films like Huan tudi (Yellow Earth, 1984) and Haizi wang (King of the Children, 1987) were art films par excellence – films oriented around what the French philosopher Deleuze has called the time-image, with unconventional framing, a melancholy sensibility, and a distinct lack of closure. Like Troubled Laughter and other “scar films,” the films made by the first post-Mao graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy rejected authoritarianism but, unlike those films, they used aesthetic form rather than narrative to do so.
Kalling Heck’s excellent After Authority: Global Art Cinema and Political Transition is interested in cinema that turns to ambiguity “in order to both digest and deflect the effects of a wildly unchecked authority.” (p. 3) After Authority does not discuss China’s fifth-generation filmmakers, but it testifies to the book’s success in achieving its goal that it might have. Arguing that ambiguity “is a form of politics” and that “art cinema is at its core anti-authoritarian,” Heck wants “the model presented” in After Authority to be “valuable for identifying and evaluating the political projects of art films in general.” (p. 4) Reading the book, I thought not only of the early fifth-generation films of China but also of the Czech New Wave, Taiwan New Wave, and the Romanian New Wave – none of which make up Heck’s archive but all of which might be read usefully through his lens.
The body of After Authority is made up of four chapters, each analysing one film in the context of the political times in which it was made. Heck moves from post-fascist Italy and Roberto Rossellini’s Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948), to post-communist Hungary and Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1997), to South Korean democracy and Hong Sang-soo’s Haebyeoneui Yeoin (Woman on the Beach, 2006), and ends with America’s political turmoil at the time of the 1968 Democratic Convention and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969). Of all the films, the first – Germany Year Zero (1948) – provides “the most clear and direct example of a post-authoritarian response.” Karl Schoonover, Heck acknowledges, has explored how the first two films of Rossellini’s trilogy – Roma città apperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) and Paisà (1946) – use the long take’s “looking” to reckon morally with the post-war destruction and ultimately to direct political hope outwards towards international aid. Germany Year Zero by contrast, Heck argues, uses the same techniques to ask the same political questions regarding “how one is to see and understand the problems of living together, but it asks these questions literally from the perspective of Edward just before he jumps.” (p. 36) In other words, here as with the films Heck explores in the following chapters, no political alternative to fascism is indicated or gestured towards. Instead, the film evinces a messianic streak, a conviction that new possibilities might be born only after total destruction.
The impossibility or near-impossibility of imagining a non-coercive political future out of the ruins of authoritarianism is the central problematic of chapter two as well. As with Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, so with Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994), a future is possible only after a radical break from the past, but “whereas for Rossellini communism was within the range of available futures, for Tarr it has been rejected at least in any recognizable form.” (p. 59) If ruins are aestheticised in Rossellini, then it is the long waiting that is aestheticised here as Hungary transitions out of an authoritarian communism and into a capitalist future that is no less authoritarian. This transition is embodied in form (the long take) and also embodied in character – namely, in Irimias, who “stands at the crossroads between communism and capitalism.” (p. 59) Sátántangó, Heck concludes, is fundamentally about waiting, the waiting of the characters and the spectators alike for something to happen even when they and we both suspect that the hope exercised in the waiting will more than likely result in hopelessness. “Waiting,” Heck writes, “has become an imperative, a system for elongating the hope that transformation carries but always immediately extinguishes.” (p. 74)
Readings of Hong San-soo’s Woman on the Beach and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool make up chapters three and four respectively. Whereas Germany Year Zero was made in the aftermath of fascism, and Sátántangó in the aftermath of communism, these two films were made in countries enjoying the allegedly happy embrace of democracy – South Korea in the early years of the twenty-first century and America in the 1960s. A deep distrust of both capitalism and democracy underwrites each film, however. In Woman on the Beach, the opportunism of the characters betrays the dark side of a democratic capitalism always collapsing into neoliberal rootlessness. A similar mistrust of any possible organisation or authority characterises Medium Cool. Heck thoughtfully explores the way Wexler’s film devolves into something less like ambiguity and more like ambivalence as its main characters are pushed and pulled between political positions without becoming capable of espousing one themselves.
All of the films Heck discusses express a “messianic hope for the radically different” (p. 6) and, again, I was reminded of the early films of China’s fifth generation – particularly Chen Kaige’s King of the Children. The protagonist is chosen for a job teaching the children of an impoverished mountain village. The enormity of both the challenges the children face and the challenges he himself faces in bucking the mechanical education system overwhelm him, and, at the film’s end, he begins his trek back to the work camp from which he was originally plucked. As he walks, the entire mountain inexplicably goes up in flames behind him, as if to say that all of China must burn before a humane civilisation might emerge.
After Authority sketches a formative and central way that post-World War II global art film is inherently political. Critics often gesture towards the political quality of art film but without offering specific or consistent arguments. A similar, related trend can be seen in recent discussions of “slow cinema” as a genre. Paul Schrader’s influential 2019 essay “Rethinking Transcendental Style”, for example, identifies in both “transcendental” and “slow” films many of the same techniques of duration and ambiguity identified by Heck, but Schrader focuses on the form’s effects on the spectator and leaves unexplored the way form functions as a reaction to, and rejection of, the politics of the societies in which the films originate. Moving across films of different countries and different eras while maintaining a focus on its abiding concerns of aesthetics and politics, After Authority provides a model for connecting form to political context that is a needed and welcome contribution to film studies.
Kalling Heck, After Authority: Global Art Cinema and Political Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2020)
 See Karl Schoonover, Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 111. Heck cites Schoonover on p. 28.
 See Paul Schrader’s introduction to the new edition of his Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).