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

By Shelly Kraicer

This is the conclusion of Shelly Kraicer’s essay “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West).” Click here for the introduction and first half of the essay.

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Oxhide 2 (dir. Liu Jiayin)

4. Exemplary Asian independent art cinema. This misreading has something in common with Number 1 (“Exotic, colorful diversion”) , but in a more rarified, sophisticated form. It also contradicts (but exists in a weird sort of symbiosis with) Number 5 below. There is supposed to be something essentially “Asian” (meaning usually East Asian) about the predominant mode of contemporary art cinema now celebrated in festivals worldwide. Films that convey China’s backwardness (see Number 6 below) often employ a Andre Bazin-influenced mise en scène that is post-realist in its effect. Long takes, a demandingly slow pace, opaque storytelling, a distant motionless camera, inexpressive, non-professional actors, lots and lots of visual and narrative blankness, emptiness, stillness. Examples abound, the best recent exponents being Yang Heng (Betelnut, Sun Spots), Yang Rui (Crossing the Mountain), and in her own inimitable way, Liu Jiayin (Oxhide and Oxhide 2).

This analysis reduces an often surprising diversity of film styles into something that is assumed to spring, essentially and almost automatically, from a specific historical and cultural background, with local visual and pictorial traditions transmuted directly into their filmic correlatives. This in a sense over-simplifies and over-particularizes Chinese filmmakers who are utterly fluent (more than most of us) in the world-cinema image market (you can easily find films from everywhere, from every era, in China’s wonderfully eclectic bootleg DVD shops). By insisting on the “Chinese-ness” of these films, a special understanding, a privileged access to the films’ “essences,” may reserved for Sinological experts.

5. International art cinema master(s’) works. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to abuse Chinese cinema as some sort of proof that master directors work in a universal style recognizalbe to experts, critics, professionals, and well-trained festival audiences. In absolute contradistinction to Number 4 above, this attitude says “you don’t need to know anything about China and its specific cultural history to appreciate these films. They are great cinema, full stop”. This can be a branding exercise, like Number 2 (“Commercial entertainment”), but one for a more discriminating audience who needs to be reassured that she or he will be able to enjoy the latest Chinese masterpiece without unduly stressing over its foreignness. This is global art, i.e. It belongs to “Us,” not to its incidentally “Other” creators. Hegemony reasserts itself as art / film criticism, denaturing a film for our appropriation and viewing pleasure (with emphasis on the pleasure). This tendency can be seen in the flattering (for a forty-year-old director) inclusion of the latest Jia Zhangke film I Wish I Knew in the “Masters” section of the Toronto International Film Festival programme.

Little Moth (dir. Peng Tao)

6. Films that confirm China’s backwardness. This is a reception trap that many films of the sixth generation and later can be snagged by, through not fault of their own. Starting with Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan, Jia Zhangke, and now including the newer generation of Chinese DV filmmakers whose work frequently depicts marginal lives of lost loners and gangsters in small cities and rural backwaters — the frequently told Chinese indie tale of alienated losers who drift through disillusionment, crime, prostitution, and self-destruction (see my Chinese indie shop fantasy) Some Western viewers of Chinese cinemaseem to derive a perverse form of comfort from these films. This goes something like: Is China really so powerful, so advanced? Don’t be anxious: the core is still rotten, the social contradictions are so intractable, that China won’t have the power to threaten us nor the force of example to lead us for a very long time.

A completely opposite yet somewhat related response often erupts from some Chinese audience members in their frequently heated reactions to many of these grim, downbeat indie films that are welcomed at film festivals all over the world. When I host discussions after one of these films, there’s always some person in the audience who denounces the film and its director for flaunting China’s backwardness, distorting Chinese problems, airing China’s dirty laundry, exposing only the negative (and unrepresentative) side of recent Chinese reality. These complaints stem almost exclusively from a strong and rather unsettling sense of national pride. From older audience members who remember their idealistic support for Chinese socialism this is perhaps understandable, but from younger “angry youth patriots” it is distressingly common. (see Jia Zhangke’s recent China Weekly articles on his visits to Toronto and Vancouver, in Chinese.)

Some recent and exemplary representatives of the kind of films that might unfortunately attract misunderstandings from both sides of the China-West divide are social issues-driven features and docs: fiction films like Peng Tao’s Little Moth or Ying Liang’s The Other Half; bold explorations of lives on the margins of Chinese society such as Xu Tong’s Fortune Teller and Yu Guangyi’s Survival Song. I actually witnessed the latter being criticized by a Chinese audience member as a director’s perverse indulgence, wallowing in the unrepresentative dark, miserable recesses of Chinese society. No film that takes a critical stance seems safe from certain viewers.

7. There’s still no more seductive media attractant to spray onto Chinese movies than the overused “Banned In China!” tag. It still works to sell tickets, too. Genuine politically radical films from China are exciting to see, and benefit from the sustained support of more adventurous festivals around the world. I hope we have done our part at VIFF, where we’ve recently introduced North American audiences to explicitly political films like Hu Jie’s Though I Am Gone, Huang Wenhai’s We, Xu Xin’s Karamay, and Zhao Liang’s Petition.

Though I Am Gone (dir. Hu Jie)

It’s possible for films like this to be misused, though. There is an unfortunate lazy receptiveness among some in the West to seeing China through the “Soviet model”, a misperception of Chinese reality that conflates it with a classic jackbooted Eastern European Cold War-style repression. The reality of Chinese political repression merits condemnation, but for its specifically Chinese and contemporary details, not for a kind of McCarthyite hangover that wants easy confirmation of its misperception that there is a familiar, simple totalitarian Other, ideologically opposite to idealized Western democracies, still lurking in today’s People’s Republic. It’s heartening to see that several Chinese film critics, scholars, and directors whom I know recently rather courageously signed a petition supporting Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize and condemning his continued detention.

I want to be careful and clear: this is a particular, minor key misuse, but it’s there, quietly pernicious (often evident in places like newspaper editorials and right wing American commentary). It doesn’t by any means dominate the discourse around these films. It rather warps the edges of this discourse, sometimes blocking a nuanced and historically informed view of Chinese government unconstitutionality and lawlessness in favour of the boogey-man kind. A Chinese colleague of mine who otherwise admired Wang Bing’s new prison camp feature The Ditch was exactly worried about this potential misappropriation. He feared that Western audiences might view this film simply as confirmation that China essentially was and still is one big prison camp, period.

What is to be done? I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive: I’m sure there are abuses and misunderstandings lurking out there that I haven’t catalogued. I also don’t claim that this is an ineluctable, closed, all-pervasive system. These are traps, phenomena that hinder and sometimes distort — but don’t by any means block — all sorts of interesting possibilities, uses, interpretations, and understandings of Chinese cinema. Note the plurals. I’m not saying that there ought to be One Correct Reading, just the opposite. Though I’m partial (overly partial, it’s been suggested) to ideological deconstruction, that’s just one pathway into the movies. There are as many fruitful, provocative, and unruly readings, uses, and understandings as there are open, thoughtful, and motivated critics and audiences. But perhaps it’s useful to have a little map demarcating a few wrong turns other pitfalls to warn the wary traveller of problems along the way.

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My talk was directed primarily towards the Chinese filmmakers in the audience in Nanjing. But it is also partly, I hope, a kind of self-criticism (I hope that my awareness of these misuses helps to some degree in inoculating me against relying on them), partly as a very quick tour of what Chinese filmmakers might expect from a world looking both at their films and at China with increasing fascination and various admixtures of apprehension and admiration. I’m not sure at all what conclusions one might draw from this, if one were a Chinese filmmaker. But a formal Chinese symposium doesn’t lend itself to any kind of formal participatory feedback. Maybe the filmmaker’s answer is “Who cares how the outside world misuses our films? ” Perhaps it’s only our (the West’s) problem, not theirs. Perhaps it’s only a transitional problem, as the “rest of the world” adjusts itself, awkwardly, fearfully, tentatively, to an emerging Chinese presence on the international stage, culturally as well as economically and politically. In time, it may be we who care very much about analyzing just how China misuses and abuses our “universalizing” cultural products. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

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