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CinemaTalk: Interview with Julian Ward and Song Hwee Lim, Editors of The Chinese Cinema Book

By Maya E. Rudolph

Song Hwee Lim and Julian Ward are editors of the recently published The Chinese Cinema Book (BFI and Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Song Hwee Lim

Song Hwee Lim is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas (University of Hawaii Press, 2006), co-editor of Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film (Wallflower Press, 2006), and founding editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas. His next monograph, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, will appear in 2013.

Julian Ward

Julian Ward is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies attached to the Asian Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. He is Associate Editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas and has written articles on the representation in film in different eras of Communist China of the Sino-Japanese War. He is the author of Xu Xiake (1587–1641): The Art of Travel Writing (2000), a study of China’s foremost travel writer of the imperial period.

The Chinese Cinema Book, published earlier this year, provides a crucial and comprehensive guide to Chinese cinema history, contemporary scholarship, and a range of discussions of Chinese cinema in both national and trans-national contexts. Incorporating contributions from many leading scholars in the field of Chinese cinema studies, as well as writings from editors Lim and Ward, the book is divided into five thematic sections: Territories, Trajectories, Historiographies; Early Cinema to 1949; The Forgotten Period: 1949–80; The New Waves; and Stars, Auteurs and Genres.

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dGF: In the prologue to “The Chinese Cinema Book,” you state that, despite its rather authoritative title, “this book does not pretend to offer a comprehensive coverage of Chinese cinema throughout its long and complicated history and multifarious manifestations,” but rather aims to provide “an overview of the ‘state of the field’.” In selecting works to represent the “state of the field” and assembling this most recent collection of scholarship, what was your approach to comprehensively taking the temperature of today’s climate for Chinese cinema studies?

SL and JW: First of all, we’re fully aware that this is an English-language publication designed to be a useful resource for academics and students, and that it should also appeal to a general readership. This means covering fairly familiar territories while introducing some new areas, and bearing in mind the availability of film materials on DVDs with English subtitles. In our other role as editors of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, we are keenly attuned to the state of the field in terms of established and emerging scholarship, and we therefore attempt to reflect that in this book as well. Overall, we are pleased with the coverage of the book in terms of the range of topics and scholars.

dGF: In editing the book, did you discover any particular areas of focus or recent trends that unexpectedly begged attention?

SL and JW: Following initial discussions with the publishers in September 2008, we were aware that, given the available space, it was impossible to do full justice to a variety of diverse topics, including the Cultural Revolution and documentaries produced in the People’s Republic of China since the 1990s. Having commissioned authors to write on specific topics, we were delightfully surprised by the focus that some authors had chosen within the remit of their chapters. For example, the exploration of previously neglected areas such as Cantonese cinema of the 1950s and less famous martial arts stars, as well as of recent phenomenon such as transmedia celebrity have opened up the scope of the book in rather unexpected but interesting ways.

dGF: As you write, the field of Chinese Cinema Studies is rapidly expanding and can no longer fit its entire scholarship population working outside of Chinese societies comfortably “in the average living room.” With this influx of scholars, what new ideas and approaches to material have you observed coming into play?

SL and JW: This is an exciting time to be working in the field of Chinese Cinema Studies. The first ten to fifteen years since 1991 (taking Chris Berry’s edited book, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, as the marker) can be described as a phase of emergence and consolidation during which important work was done on key issues, periods, genres, and directors. Since the new millennium, I believe we are witnessing a pluralization of the field both in terms of topics covered (for example, gender and sexuality, time and space, ecocriticism) and background of scholars (film studies, art history, and media and communications in addition to the more conventional area studies, comparative literature, and history). More importantly, with transnational cinemas becoming a more common phenomenon in film production, Chinese Cinema Studies is increasingly breaking away from a national cinema model and staging dialogue with world cinema cultures, whether in its consideration of films, directors, stars or genres.

dGF: The first essay in the book is Chris Berry’s “Transnational Chinese Cinema Studies.” The discussion of “transnational” and “translocal” has long been the locus of much discourse in Chinese Cinema studies. In beginning the collection with Berry’s essay, a rather frank appraisal of “transnational” and how the term may be most effectively used, did you hope to offer a point of clarification, preserve this buzzword, or simply offer Berry’s view as a jumping-off point?

SL and JW: As Chris Berry argues in his piece and elsewhere, the 1997 book edited by Sheldon Lu, Transnational Chinese Cinemas, has now come to name the field that we study. By foregrounding the “transnational” our book rightly acknowledges this state of the field. More importantly, Chinese cinemas, for a variety of reasons, are particularly productive for interrogating the concept of “transnational cinema”, which in itself is gaining foothold in the discipline of film studies. Given the still pervasive Anglo- and Euro-centrism within film studies in western academia, Chinese Cinema Studies has a lot more to offer to the discipline beyond a national cinema model through which westerners can understand “the region”. Rather, it has potential in taking centre stage in the rethinking of certain conceptual models in film studies, the “transnational” being a prime example.

dGF: In terms of contemporary mainland film, the articles in the book tend to reflect a tendency towards more “mainstream” or strictly “independent” filmmaking in China. Yet, as filmmakers like Jia Zhangke have drifted away from the margins of filmmaking and into international limelight, how do you see this gap being bridged in Chinese cinema? What is the current you see forming, if any, in terms of a “median” film culture between extreme mainstream and extreme underground?

SL and JW: Over the past few years, it has become increasingly apparent, as the templates of historical rural allegories for the Fifth Generation and edgy urban dramas for the Sixth Generation played themselves out, that the old categorisations of Chinese film are no longer sustainable. Feng Xiaogang, who rose to fame as the master of the New Year comedy, has made big budget epics about the Chinese Civil War and the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, while Huang Jianxin, one of the most interesting and subversive of the Fifth Generation directors, now makes state approved ‘Main Melody’ productions, such as Beginning of the Great Revival, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Jia Zhangke, on the other hand, can now be seen as an international auteur whose “national label” – whether in terms of sixth- or seventh-generation (a label many filmmakers categorized as such actually reject), or mainstream or independent – has become less relevant.

dGF: What impact do you hope this book will have on the Chinese cinema studies community? There is a fair amount of cross-reference between scholars evident here, so I was wondering if you could comment on that.

SL and JW: The Chinese cinema studies community is a very visible presence, not just in print but also at international academic conferences. Cross-referencing between authors, while incidental in this book, is a healthy sign of a substantial body of work having been established in the field and receiving recognition from peer scholars working within it. Of course it remains important for the field to continue to discover new areas of research interests and to push theoretical frameworks, but it is heartening to witness a palpable sense of confidence in the quality of scholarship in the field within the chapters of the book.


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