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Shelly on Film: What is a Chinese Film?

San Yuan Li

San Yuan Li (dir. Ou Ning, 2003)

What is a Chinese film? Ever since I’ve started living and working in Beijing over six years ago, most serious discussions about Chinese cinema ultimately come down to this elemental question, either in its descriptive mode (what defines a Chinese film?) or in its more urgently prescriptive version (what should a Chinese film be?). 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, or politics?”

In English, we don’t distinguish between zhongguo dianying (movies made in China) and huayu pian (Chinese language films). Chinese film in the first instance can simply mean the national cinema of China, 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 geographical definition 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, whose work can be in English or in Chinese.

So much for the first term in “Chinese film.” The second word, “film”, is equally ambiguous. Look at any catalogue of the state-run Shanghai International 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 (see my previous article for an overview) will show films made outside of the system, these days almost exclusively on digital video.

With foreign film festivals, the picture becomes even more complex. There are still international film festivals that largely follow the creaky old Shanghai IFF model, filtering out non-sanctioned cinema (several of the old-style “Category A” film festivals fit this bill). On the other hand, there are festivals such as Rotterdam’s International Film Festival that exist to “discover” (for western viewers), support (though financing and programming) and promote independent, alternative, non-commercial cinema. Most festivals lie somewhere in between.

Foreign festivals of either bent 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. Even the most independent, enterprising festivals can have a stake in constructing a vision of a product, the “independent Chinese cinema” brand. This is a brand that can satisfy certain prejudices and requirements of an alternative art film distribution network. We have to change the question, then. Instead of asking “what is a Chinese film?”, let’s ask instead “what kind of cultural work can Chinese cinema 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, sell, because they offer western viewers a comfortingly familiar vision of a China that they think they already know. It’s hard to account for films like Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia, 2006) any other way.

For many in the West, China is currently being re-defined as an increasingly powerful and ominous nation. This fear of a new economic and cultural adversary colours how Western media outlets choose 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 constitute an approved set of images which flow towards Western audiences. Examples abound. To pick three, almost at random: Zhang Lu’s Grain in Ear (Mang zhong, 2005), Han Jie’s Walking On The Wild Side (Lai xiaozi, 2006), Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (Mang shan, 2007). Again, the point for festivals and distributors is to supply audiences with comforting images of what they think they already understand: China as a place essentially different from their own home. China is a place whose internal problems and contradictions need to be exposed, defined, and consumed. 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.

Enter the Clowns

Enter the Clowns (dir. Cui Zi'en, 2001)

Within the Chinese filmmaking community, there are other fault lines. Particularly visible is an implied polemic between film art and film politics. For many independent filmmakers enmeshed in China’s particular political situation, film offers an imperative duty of opposing power. Facing a Party whose old style hegemonic control of political discourse is no longer matched by its control over China’s social and economic space, cinematic discourse has an unavoidable responsibility to engage. Alternatively, the Party’s now only sporadic surveillance of visual culture provides filmmakers with a new freedom to explore questions of form, to create or challenge film aesthetics. Exemplary figures include young filmmakers like Liu Jiayin (Oxhide [Niu pi, 2005]), queer experimentalist Cui Zi’en (Enter the Clowns [Chou jue deng chang, 2001]) and avant garde artists Ou Ning (San Yuan Li [2003] and Meishi Street [Meishi jie, 2006]) and Yang Fudong (An Estranged Paradise [Mosheng tiantang, 2002] and Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest [Zhu lin qi xian, 2003]).

Another tendency newly visible in mainland Chinese independent cinema is the urge to record and catalogue. This is the work that these new Chinese films do. There has been a virtual explosion, mainly on the documentary side, but also in new narrative fiction, to use cinema as a kind of archive, capturing communities and disappearing or threatened ways of life. This movement, if it’s not premature to call it that, results in long (sometimes very long) films that function as exhaustive catalogues of data, seemingly assembled more than structured, presenting in some sense a “complete” view of a certain slice of Chinese reality, presented raw and un-altered, for a viewer to digest and analyze on his or her own. I’m thinking of recent films like Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town (Feicheng, 2008), Cong Feng’s Doctor Ma’s Country Clinic (Ma Daifu de zhensuo, 2008), and Lin Xin’s Classmates (Tongxue, 2009). Derived from the ethnographic documentary tradition, but injected into mainstream independent film discourse (if that term makes any sense), these catalogue films respond to what can be seen as a political imperative to show the truth: real, unmanipulated reality, untainted by the ideological manipulations of previous Chinese cinema. Watching this movement is fascinating: the resulting works can be exhilarating, or pretty mind-numbing, or a provocative mixture of the two.

So what can be done to avoid the traps of cramming “Chinese cinema” into restrictive definitions? What should Chinese film be and do? It’s not easy: people largely see what they want to see. Mass media is about giving comfort, reinforcing patterns of thought, policing the boundaries of what we call knowledge. 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.

This article, revised in June 2009, is based on a shorter article that originally appeared in the Festival Daily, published by the Toronto International Film Festival, September 2007.


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