Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part One

Opening Ceremony of the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing (photo courtesy of CIFF)

By Shelly Kraicer

While attending the China Independent Film Festival last month in Nanjing (October 2010), I was invited to give a talk the next morning at the International Youth Art Film Summit Forum, a symposium for young directors organized by the Festival and Nanjing University. I couldn’t really decline, especially since I was benefiting from the CIFF’s generous hospitality and its wonderful programming. The problem: “forums” like these in the Chinese film festival context are rather more like formal ceremonies, featuring a series of presiding officials who drone out banal speeches welcoming the scholars and celebrating young Chinese directors’ unbridled creativity.

Various foreign guests are typically invited to give what (is hoped) are equally generic talks outlining their respective institutions and their wholesome and uncomplicated eagerness to cooperate with China, Chinese directors, and Chinese cinema institutions. I was advised to do likewise. I came up with something that I hoped might interest or at least not bore some of these young filmmakers who were supposed to be in the audience. My talk was called “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West)”. Since it was to be an eight minute speech (including translation, I think I went a bit over), I boiled it down to a list of seven abuses.

What follows below is a recreation from memory of the speech I gave, somewhat expanded from the original version. I’ve also added various clarifications (and complications), and the examples not included in the speech itself (as I was advised not to name specific films in front of officials). I’ve set off these extra sections by italicizing them, so what I hope results is something like a text that alternates between more formal discourse and a parallel informal stream of commentary that supplements, qualifies and even challenges my main argument.

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I start with a question: why do western film festivals need Chinese cinema? Films from the People’s Republic of China are eagerly sought after by festivals around the world, enjoy a generous portion of festivals’ programming slots, and receive a substantial share of prestigious competition prizes. This doesn’t happen by accident. The international festival system does not privilege films on the basis of “excellence” alone. Complex questions of power, commercial viability, and national self-representation come into play. So, phrased another way, the question becomes: What functions — political, commercial, and cultural — does Chinese cinema serve in the western festival and distribution system? How are these films used, what interests does programming them serve?

Allow me now to grossly oversimplify the ideological landscape that governs reception of Chinese cinema and other cultural products. I hope this generalization, as a first approximation of a complicated field, captures something useful and operative, even if it ignores (for the purposes of rhetorical succinctness) important qualifications and nuances. For one of my favourite Western elucidators of Chinese nuances, articulation of grey areas, and intellectually activated complexity, and for a sustained argument that it is exactly in these interstices that the most important things you need to know about China lie, see James Fallows’ extensive series of writings in The Atlantic and on his indispensable blog.

China currently appears in two strongly contrasted guises in the eyes of Western media, politicians, and a generally interested public.

A. China is weakness. This makes “us” feel strong. Orientalism, theoretically well-defined (see Edward Said’s Orientalism) and extensively researched, is still the dominant ideological system filtering Western perceptions of the East (whether it be the Middle or Far East). Classical and modern western notions of cultural supremacy, political strength, and ideological primacy are built at least in part on a supposed fundamental contrast between Oriental “weakness” and Western “power”, Oriental corruption / passivity / degeneracy is set against and functions to define the Western hegemony of dominance, agency and authority. Western universal values are contrasted with Eastern particularity. This ideological schema, originally the cultural engine driving European colonization, still persists as powerful thought patterns that reinforce Western identity well into the “post-colonial” age. An academic paper, which thankfully this is not, would ritually invoke the theorists of subalternity here: consider that done.

B. China is getting very very strong. This is the name of the new panic button of a world no longer so smugly comfortable under Western (read: US) hegemony. It seems that China can claim the honor of officially having ended the post-Cold War era, such as it was.

China’s astonishingly rapid rise threatens to upend the West’s self-image as the powerful centre, as the source of universal values and securer of world peace (or rather “stability”, to use its more American ideologically inflected name). This anxiety about China’s rapid ascent towards superpowerdom is a leitmotif of Western media today (every edition of the New York Times, for example, seems to have at least three articles articulating this theme in various ways). Hence: an undercurrent of fear, anxiety, and a sense of the world slipping out of Western control.

This fundamentally contradictory double image is the internally incoherent ideological system that requires certain images of China to sustain themselves. Here’s where misreading and abusing Chinese cinema comes in very handy. I owe my Chinese translator a debt of gratitude for the term “misinterpreted”, which is how she elegantly translated (softened, made more polite, but actually made more usefully precise) my term “abuse”. Both words are apposite, and nicely cover a range of mis-use, from accidental to intentional. For ease of comprehension, I will outline below seven ways that, following this schema of misunderstanding, Chinese cinema has been misused, misread, misinterpreted and variously abused in the West.

I want to be extra precise here, to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not criticizing the films themselves, or the filmmakers. I’m criticizing exactly people like myself (a Western film festival programmer and film critic) and our attitudes towards Chinese cinema. I’m not criticizing Chinese films and filmmakers themselves. This is directed towards the reception/ exhibition/ distribution stage of cinema, not conception or production. I’m also, to be even more fair, setting up something of a straw man (I admit). This characterization of misuse / abuse doesn’t apply to all of us programmers, by any means. There are many honorable exceptions, many dissenters, and many critics of this practice. What I am aiming at is an approximation of an overall tendency, a tendency that is clear, powerful, and has pernicious effects. But it’s a generalization, and as such recognizes, outside of its rough boundaries, nuance, exceptions, and finer gradations.

Curse of the Golden Flower (dir. Zhang Yimou) [Image compilation from girl.com.au

1. Western viewers may look to Chinese cinema for exotic, colorful diversion. This is easy to understand, I think, as neatly constructing and continuing to discipline the orientalizing gaze memorably defined by Said. Fabulous costumes, vividly detailed art direction, lavish period recreations, familiar images of an exotic other, all put on display for our delectation and comfort. Need I mention current Zhang Yimou as a prime example? Not just to pick on Zhang, but many formerly radical directors of his era have more recently been known to play the exoticization game.

2. Commercialized entertainment. This category overlaps with Category One. Certain selected (and often quite non-representative) bits of Chinese culture are invited to be processed through the West’s entertainment-generating machine: a resulting inoffensively generic “foreign-flavoured” mass media product comes out, like sausages (or spring rolls?), at the other end. See the current (and seemingly unstoppable) kung fu and wuxia epic trend, reactivated most recently by Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon re-energized global interest an easily exportable genre. The result is that just about every major Chinese-language director seeking access to a large budget has hitched their boat to ride the wake of this trend. These films are distinctly branded as “Chinese” while strictly delimited as an mass market exportable product, made with the blessing of the censors. For world audiences, it’s a safe, non-threatening and easily consumable form of “Other.”

3. Documentaries and documentary-like features in the National Geographic style. This is the documentary equivalent to #2. China has experienced an explosion of documentary production in the past decade, yet few have made the festival rounds, and even fewer have seen wide release in theaters or TV. The ones that are typically screened or distributed can be described as fitting a National Geographic style: anodyne travelogues of life in China, made readily consumable through a Western style approach to filmmaking that privileges exotic spectacle and narrative excitement. Recent documentary hits like Last Train Home and Up The Yangtze are vivid examples. See also Chinese features that the National Geographic Society itself distributes in North America: they know their own style best. To be fair, most documentaries of any origin that see wide distribution are held to these standards; what’s unfortunate is that much of the exciting, innovative work being done with documentary in China simply does not match these criteria. They demand a new paradigm of appreciation.

Part Two will be published tomorrow.

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