Chinese Cinema: Identity, Power, and Globalization

Cam-Thu Tran

Chinese Cinema: Identity, Power, and Globalization could not have been published at a more appropriate time than now, when issues of identity, power, and globalization are central to research into cinemas around the world. As the title of the book might suggest, this volume is highly political in its approach to Chinese cinema. Divided into four parts and twelve chapters (three chapters each), it covers the relationship between cinema and politics through an exploration of issues of politics and dissent, audiences and reception, Chinese identities, and financial reforms in film markets – i.e., the whole process from production (content and financing) to distribution to reception.

Part I uses the lens of politics and dissent to explore the complex global relationships of Chinese cinema. With only three chapters for each section, the editors managed to select three points of view that spanned decades in a chronological order: the struggle sessions (pidou) that marked the era of land reform against the background of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, with reverberations still felt today; recent democratic movements in post-1997 Hong Kong that are still fresh in the minds of millennials like myself; and critiques of Chinese (and global) environmental destruction that is central to today’s world. The transnationality of Chinese cinema was not only reflected through the nature of productions that portray similar issues from both Chinese and international perspectives, but also through how Chinese cinema has engaged in global cinema through discussing the most pressing issues in the world. Such issues include the environment in films like Behemoth, which utilizes a filmmaking style that resembles that of contemporary world cinema and references Western culture, making it more appealing to international audiences.

Part II examines critical and audience receptions of Chinese movies through a juxtapositioning Chinese movies and Hollywood movies in different genres. Analyzing the genre of melodrama as well as thematic content and artistic styles of Gone with the Wind and The Spring River Flows East, Chapter 4 demonstrates how Chinese filmmaking in a globalized market of the 1930s and 1940s responded to “the pressures of nationalistic sentiments, local tastes, and a wordly cinematic regime of Hollywood in China,” an issue even more relevant today than back then. In Chapter 5, the Chinese aesthetic concept of yijing was employed to explore spatial perception in transnational two Kungfu films – The Grandmaster and Kung Fu Panda – which shows that the affective appeal transcends borders. Chapter 6 investigates the success formula of a transnational coproduction between China and European cinema that tells a very Chinese story but with a universally appealing theme of ecological consciousness and environmental protection. It did not go too far in terms of political critique and therefore avoided censorship. It also overcame the constraints of cultural contexts that usually hinder an international coproduction.

As with any national culture going into the 21st century, China was faced with identity issues, which are taken up in Part III. In Chapter 7, contestations of the local, the national, and the global play out in shijing comedies. These films are directed by Hong Kong directors, are set in Shanghai, and showcase the use (or non-use) of Shanghainese and other dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin) and languages (English). All of this reveals the city sandwiched between an attempt to capitalize on its unique urban regeneration and re-globalization, and the sacrifice of its distinctiveness in favor of a unified China. Using the popular songstress trope in Shanghai and Hong Kong cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, Chapter 8 analyzes the narratives of Roystan Tan’s 2010s musicals with the linguistic and cultural politics of Singapore. In so doing, it demonstrates the relatedness of small yet diverse Sinophone cinemas such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Chapter 9 skillfully follows on this by comparing the femme fatale figure – popular in the postwar American cultural context – with the Chinese version in the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Picture Black Coal, Thin Ice. The chapter illustrates how Hollywood and mainland China cinema differ in their approaches to tackle masculinity crises and the threat to patriarchal society.

Part IV moves on to aspects of political economy – i.e., the financial constraints and market orientation of Chinese cinema. Chapter 10 provides a history and analysis of the initial public offering of China Film Co., Ltd. (CFC), a state-owned and -run enterprise that was tasked with growing Chinese film industry in terms of quantity and quality to increase China’s soft power. This attempt to transition from a subsidized entity to a commercial enterprise illustrates the pressure of harmonizing the cultural and ideological acceptability imposed by the Chinese government and the imperative of staying globally relevant. Using the planning of a funeral as an allegory for a filmmaking project that was released only seven days after China joined the World Trade Organization, Chapter 11 investigates Sino-foreign collaboration and industrial commercialization of the film industry. Chapter 12 concludes this part (and the book) by putting the film industry under the larger context of China’s soft power promotion and public diplomacy using film.

All in all, the book lived up to its promise of exploring the transnationality that permeates the manifold complexities of Chinese film production, signification, and reception. The chapters managed to capture the essence of Chinese cinema with its past glory and current success from multiple angles including genres, themes, and filmmaking techniques. However, given such enormous scope – that is, researching the cinema of a culture so rich and complex, and of an economic and political powerhouse – it was not surprising that the book would make for a moderately difficult read and at times could easily overwhelm readers without sufficient background on Chinese cinema. While there are juxtapositions of themes and motifs that connect the chapters and sections, given its relatively short length and the number of issues it tries to address, the book might come across as a loosely put-together collection grouped into four areas. That said, the book is still a remarkable effort by the editors to piece together the multifaceted Chinese cinema in its hundred years of existence through the lenses of globalization, identity, and power.