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Shelly on Film: Does China’s Past Have a Future?

by Shelly Kraicer

The persistence of the past, and the present’s attempts to colonize it, tame it, and re-engineer it, is a remarkable phenomenon of recent Chinese culture, including Chinese cinema. There is no other place I’m familiar with where the past is so constantly present.

Shanghai Film Studio (photo by gumbase)

Shanghai Film Studio, pre-demolition (photo by gumbase)

Fundamentally, the past here in China is both utterly disposable and simultaneously completely re-creatable. This was brought vividly to mind while I read about the recent demolition of the Shanghai Film Studio (SFS). Located in the Xujiahui neighbourhood of downtown Shanghai, the Shanghai Film Studio’s land is apparently far too valuable to continue to house the sprawling and outdated facilities of this fabled centre of Chinese mainstream film production. I was lucky enough to visit twice. The second was an official working visit, when the very helpful staff assisted me in finding prints for the retrospective on the Fourth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers that I presented at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2008. My first visit, though, was somewhat surreptitious. After visiting the neighbouring St. Ignatius Cathedral, I wandered around the Xujiahui neighbourhood just southwest of central Shanghai, a vast area that formerly contained the grounds of the the substantial Jesuit mission to China (the wonderfully restored library, the late 19th century Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei remains, along with part of the former Jesuit school). Just across the street was an ancient-looking stone barn-like structure enmeshed in a wall. The wall was decorated with a flamboyantly kitschy 70s style gate. The gate turned out to be the entrance to the Shanghai Film Studio. The guards seemed too bored to bother to stop me, so I wandered in and strolled around the grounds, where I found some sound stages, a fleet of 1940s style cars marshaled for some period film, perhaps, and a general air of somnolence.

It was thrilling, though, to think of the Shanghai Film Studio’s illustrious past, the amazing movies that were created on this spot, in these buildings. Founded in 1949, the SFS absorbed workers from Shanghai‘s golden age of movies (which was led by Lianhua Film Studio and Mingxing Film Studio’s 1930s productions of modernist melodramas and comedies, featuring great directors like Sun Yu and Yuan Muzhi, and sublime film stars like Ruan Lingyu and Zhao Dan). The SFS was responsible for its own post-golden age of great movies, including Xie Jin’s series of classic films (Women Basketball Player No. 5, The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, Hibiscus Town) and many of the foundational works of the Fourth Generation (Evening Rain, My Memories of Old Beijing).

But that’s merely history, and the buildings were looking shabby in 2006. Today, the SFS is just rubble. Presumably to be replaced by something of real, contemporary value: another shiny glass shopping mall or luxury condo complex reflecting Shanghai’s imagination of what its future should look like. What particularly caught my attention in the account I read of the demolition was the fate of that old building I noticed in the corner of the wall. It was one of Shanghai‘s oldest structures, a Carmelite convent, St. Joseph‘s Convent of Carmel, constructed in 1874. It is also now rubble. But not gone forever, or so the guardians of China‘s physical history would have it. As the invaluable blog Shanghai Scrap describes it, a city bureaucrat explained that “they are knocking it down and rebuilding it on the old foundation. It will be a new version of the old convent. It’s much cheaper this way. Restoring it would take too much time and money.” Instant history! It will be a brand new-old, an “improved” copy of the original, but presumably much less shabby and much more appealing.

That’s the key: it is fake, re-constituted “history”, built right on top of the smashed rubble of the actual past. In China, this is quite common, and from a Chinese perspective, one might ask why Westerners like me fetishize actual relics of the past, with their supposed aura of authenticity. We worship this authenticity, and insist that it gives some kind of mystical, direct, non-mediated access to what we think of as a real, objective past. But is it not also a complicated proposition, that needs critiquing and unpacking too?

The key popular mainstream films of this holiday season are about trundling out, as mass entertainment, official versions of history. Both Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man devolve into Party-approved accounts of patriotic resistance against Japanese invaders (coincidentally, one of the key historic pillars of the Party’s own legitimacy). John Woo’s Red Cliff epic plays it a bit safe: its history is set far back in the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 CE). But it still updates, with state of the art cinema technology, a foundational myth about heroism, Chinese unity, and legitimacy that, on the surface at least, nicely harmonizes with the Party’s current view of things.

Outside of the zone of official discourse, there are independent artists and filmmakers whose works are obsessed with documenting this disappearing past before it succumbs completely to State-defined ideological re-construction. Jia Zhangke’s recent 24 City digs deeply into a moment of transition: the obliteration of a socialist-era factory in Chengdu. Jia insists on animating, through documentation and reconstruction, the lives and social history that are about to be obliterated. Hu Jie’s controversial series of documentaries, offering radical historical re-investigations of the most controversial episodes of China‘s post-1949 history, are one filmmaker’s act of resistance against faked, ideologically massaged history.

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

On a grassroots level, Ou Ning’s documentary Meishi Street addresses the human cost of Beijing city government’s policy of near-total obliteration of its traditional residential quarters. The inhabitants of Meishi Street have a special burden to bear. They are in the way of a “re-creation” of the Qianmen district just south of Tiananmen Square. This vast urban demolition project is the Carmel convent story writ super-large. Beijing has prepared a modern copy of an imaginary late Qing dynasty commercial district , this time ready for visitors to Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games (I wrote a bit about my visit there in my last blog entry). This for the sake of a master plan that sanitizes the city’s real history — this area was a vibrant commercial district of Qing dynasty Beijing, where Manchu courtiers and Chinese subjects could mingle and enjoy the city’s famous brothels, among other things. Today’s Qianmen is a purified zone, a 3-D diorama that tourists can safely consume..Some of the people who actually lived on Meishi Street, as the film shows, were creative enough to mount a form of resistance, but were ultimately powerless against the collusion of government regulation, police power, and property developers’ interests.

Here, in the People’s Republic of China, history still actively determines contemporaneity. In a place with China‘s still heavily contested history, political power’s ultimate responsibility, to safeguard and bolster its own legitimacy, is deeply rooted in its control of that past, or, to be more specific, in its control over the discourse surrounding the past. As long as power can control that discourse, in its essentials, it maintains a lock on what it perceives to be the historical foundations of the legitimacy of its own rule. Copies are more “real”, in an ideological sense, than the “real thing”, or at least more stable, more reliable. Shanghai will have its new-old Carmelite Convent, as part of a newly projected Shanghai Film Centre. And what version of the history of Chinese cinema will that film centre offer? I’m pretty confident that it will be as problem-free, as purged of messy thought-provoking details, as reassuringly consumable as Qianmen today.


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