What is Chinese Cinema? Ask Shelly.

It's been a year since I went on a two-week research/writing trip to Beijing for a feature that my partner Atsushi and I are hoping to shoot next spring and summer. I just read a fantastic article reflecting on the nature and purpose of contemporary Chinese Cinema, written by one of the leading young experts in the field, Shelly Kraicer. This year Shelly took the reins from Tony Rayns as programmer for the Asian film program at the Vancouver International Film Festival. He also programs for the Udine Asian Film Festival in Italy. His website chinesecinemas.org is infrequently updated (he more actively manages an email list-serv), but on his site you can find a list of the 100 Greatest Chinese films as determined by Asia Weekly magazine, which was my go-to list for broadening my historical understanding of Chinese cinema. The following article was originally published in the Toronto Film Festival Daily in September. Shelly expanded it and republished it on his list-serv. Since there's no way to read this article any other way, I am posting it here. I hope this doesn't negate its chances of being published in Cinema-scope or some other print publication because I think it's essential reading for any enthusiast of Chinese cinema, especially the last two paragraphs.

What is a Chinese film?

What is a Chinese film? Ever since I've started living and working in Beijing, almost five years ago, most issues about the local cinema I've been researching and writing about come back to this elemental question. Surprisingly often, it's filmmakers themselves who seem most anxious about the issue. Behind it lie several subsidiary anxieties: "what do Westerners want from Chinese films?" "What's my role in Chinese society?" "Are films art, or commerce, and if art, then what is the duty of an artist in today's China?"

In English, we don’t distinguish between zhongguo dianying (movies made in China) and huayu pian (movies made in Chinese). Chinese film can simply mean a national cinema extending from its early years in Beijing and Shanghai to the present day, both within and outside the state run system of production, distribution, and exhibition. A broader meaning adds to this films from "greater China", encompassing Taiwan and Hong Kong. A still broader meaning includes any films in the various Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc). A still wider circle would embrace filmmakers of Chinese ethnicity like Ang Lee and John Woo, who now work mainly in English.

So much for the first term in “Chinese film”. The second term, “film”, is equally ambiguous. Look at the catalogue of the state-run Shanghai Film Festival, and you’ll find the official narrow interpretation of Chinese film, encompassing state-owned film studios' mainstream propaganda films (zhuxuanlu pian) , and independently financed commercial movies authorized by the Film Bureau, both on film and DV. Small-scale independent “image exhibitions” in China (the Chinese Independent Film Screenings in Nanjing, or the documentary film festivals in Kunming, Yunnan and Songzhuang village, near Beijing) will show films made outside of the system, these days almost exclusively on digital video. These are film festivals in all but name, who keep a lower profile in order to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing government bureaucrats responsible for controlling (and sometimes suppressing) them.

With foreign film festivals, the picture becomes even more complex. There are festivals (you know who you are) that largely follow the Shanghai Film Festival model. There are festivals such as Rotterdam’s International Film Festival who exist to “discover” (for western viewers), support (though financing and programming) and promote independent, alternative, non-commercial cinema. Most festivals lie in between.

All attempt to satisfy certain ideas about what constitutes “China” and what constitutes “film”. No choices are completely objective, and none escape the confines of pre-existing notions of cultural and national “difference”. We have to change the question, then. Instead of asking “what is a Chinese film”, let’s ask instead “what kind of cultural work Chinese cinema, and other cinemas, can do”.

Foreign film festivals, especially, play critical and controversial roles in presenting, labeling, constraining, defining, and shaping foreign cultural production for domestic (i.e. Western) consumption. Since the era of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, “Chinese film” has often meant something gently or violently exotic: old models of Orientalism carried over quite easily into our so-called “postmodern”, “post-colonial era”. Sex and violence, preferably vibrantly coloured and richly costumed, sells, because it offers western viewers a comfortingly familiar vision of a China that they think they already know.

For many in the West, “China” is currently being re-defined as something increasingly powerful and ominous. This fear of a new economic and cultural adversary colours how Western media outlets chose to depict China. Films that in some way underline social problems, films that are bleakly depressing, films that adopt some sort of adversarial stance in relation to power, all become the currency which flows towards to Western audiences. Again, the point is to comfort audiences with images of what they think they already understand: China as a place essentially different from their own home, a place whose internal problems and contradictions need to be exposed and in a sense “enjoyed”. This essentially is just a way of confirming one’s own “normality” in the face of a menacing “other”. The role of critical, independent Chinese directors in making these films is therefore sometimes all too painfully ambivalent. This year's Chinese documentaries at TIFF illustrate some responses to these dilemmas: Jia Zhangke's Useless dramatizes China's present image as a production powerhouse, while Wang Bing's Fengming: a Chinese memoir insists that an open accounting of China's troubled recent past is a necessary condition to understand and to shape where it's heading.

So what can be done to avoid these traps? It’s not easy: people see what they want to see. Mass media is about giving comfort, reinforcing patterns of thought, policing the boundaries of what we call knowledge. So, instead, why not shake people up? If I had to give the Chinese filmmakers an answer, I'd say: Make and exhibit films that show audiences what they don’t already know. Find images that are fresh, provocative, that destabilize the complex of pre-established, pre-thought concepts that a film audience totes like baggage. Don’t show what’s already been seen; don’t depict what’s already been imagined. Unsettle, surprise and disturb, and you’ve started to point in the right direction.

Shelly Kraicer

December, 2007 Beijing, China

And to commemorate my trip from last year (where I met Shelly at the lovely Zha Zha Cafe nestled in the hutongs), here's a video of highlights from the trip: