On the Subject of Popular Chinese Cinema

Chinese cinemas and their industries have gotten a lot of attention in the last ten years, both academically and in the news. It’s an attention it fully deserves and which will only increase in the coming years. The growing presence of Hollywood players in China, both behind-the-scenes and in front of cameras will make sure of that. But, in all of the coverage Chinese films get in both academic journals and news outlets, it feels like something big keeps slipping through the cracks: China’s (where China = Mainland China aka PRC) domestic mainstream productions.

To this day, the general feeling I get is a continued fascination with the more ‘artistic’ and/or culturally/politically critical/subversive films that come from China. These primarily include what has come to be known as the Fifth and Sixth Generation filmmakers, as well as the various ‘underground’ directors. The ubiquitousness of these directors – which most frequently include Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and more recently Jia Zhangke – is evident in virtually any film history survey book in which the already brief amount of space devoted to Chinese cinema is often dominated by a lengthy discussion of either Zhang and/or Chen. More recently, Chinese independent documentaries have also been the subject of much consideration. It is no coincidence that these films are the ones that have a history of sweeping awards at prestigious international film festivals. That’s a whole other story that is related but unnecessary to go into right now. For a great look at film festivals and the notion of what makes a ‘festival film,’ check out Cindy Wong’s Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen.

While these films go on to garner international prestige and admiration (and I’m a big fan of many of them), they often remain unseen by the majority of people in China. Plenty of articles have been written about how these films are self-ghettoizing, self-exoticizing, or self-orientalizing and pandering to a Western audience fascinated by the uniqueness and Otherness of developing China. Although the criticism continues to come, what remains lacking is a look at films that are NOT guilty of those charges. I’m talking about the films that people in China are actually paying high prices to go and see in the theaters. Not just the big imported Hollywood blockbusters or the (oftentimes) opportunistic co-productions but the popular films being made by directors in Mainland China getting seen in theaters by the people of Mainland China.

That’s right, I’m talking about the Chinese films that get approved by government censors. Some of you might say: “Surely any film that gets approved by the censors is Communist propaganda unworthy of our attention and calls for opposition!” While such a response is completely understandable, I believe it is also problematic. Yes, there are plenty of films that are blatantly propagandistic – the so called ‘main melody’ films – but there are many that are not.

Those are the movies I want to talk about.

In my next post, I’ll discuss one of my favorite current directors in China, Dayyan Eng (aka Wu Shixian) and his latest film Inseparable, starring Kevin Spacey, Daniel Wu, Gong Beibi, and Peter Stormare. It opened a few weeks ago in China and has been the center of interesting critiques – both in China and in the West – that I believe deserve a little more attention.

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