…or, The Eternal Burden of Chinese Cinema
The other day I finally got around to watching Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War. It was alright. Christian Bale and Chinese movies are pretty high up on my list of favorite things, so the film didn’t have to try very hard to keep me interested. There are a lot of things that I’ll eventually want to think through about the film itself. For instance: the often awkward English dialogue, or the changes in Zhang Yimou’s status as a filmmaker, or if he can even be considered a “Fifth Generation” director anymore. But that’s not what I want to discuss today. Nor will I discuss the movie’s excessive moments of emotion/violence/melodrama/sentimentalism. And I DEFINITELY will not be talking about how completely incorrect this headline is:
(see my previous post about the REAL game-changer here)
Instead, the issue came up while watching the DVD’s special features and which can be very clumsily described as China always trying to prove itself to the rest of the world.
One of the readings for my comprehensive exams will help me explain what I mean. The essay was written by Carole Sklan and can be found in the collection Film Policy: International, National, and Regional Perspectives (1996) edited by Albert Moran. Titled “Peripheral Visions: Regionalism, Nationalism, Internationalism,” Sklan’s essay discusses various issues surrounding regionalism in national and international contexts with a focus on the Australian TV and film industry. The most interesting thing about this article for me was just how many instances there were in which I could replace “Australia” with “China” and accurately describe the situation of China’s film industry.
Sklan identifies some of the tensions in attempts to revive the national Australian film industry. Among them: a push for international products that should at the same time represent Australia China to itself; the double objectives of cultural responsibility and commercial viability; and the desire for exotic Australian Chinese products that conform to Hollywood conventions. Sklan then discusses two dominant approaches in dealing with the tensions above.
The first approach results in films that are essentially Hollywood copies, featuring big budgets and one or two imported stars. Here are some excerpts about this approach, with certain edits…
“[The films] are generally uncomfortably second rate versions of what Hollywood does consummately well – there is nothing value added coming from Australia [China].”
“This school is primarily interested in the film industry as an industry of economic benefit, with little concern for its cultural interest or relevance to Australia [China].”
“It advocates the use of the local industry as a cheap offshore production base for overseas companies. Australia [China] provides the raw resources – exotic locales, competitively priced production facilities and services, crew, and cast – which can be utilized by production companies from America” (244).
Besides the various international “co-productions” that actually feature China as nothing more than the backdrop for a Western-centric narrative, all of these quotes reflected pretty accurately the feeling I got from watching the behind-the-scenes footage of Flowers of War. Besides the repeated mention of just how ambitious and well-funded the project was, everyone seemed to be in full “let’s try to be like Hollywood” mode. With such a large project, various members of the crew were understandably given headsets in order to better communicate with each other on the huge sets. What proved curious to me was just how much their use of headsets seemed tied to an idea of having reached “professional” (read: Hollywood) filmmaking status. As one crew member stated, relating specifically to the use of headsets: “We want to be world-class filmmakers.” Another similar line from the feature: “We’re trying to make a world-class film,” spoken, I believe (it’s been a few weeks since I watched it and the notes I took were minimal), by Zhang Yimou himself. One final quote of interest, also from the director, this time during pre-production and in relation to the project’s high ambitions: “We’ll have to get montage professionals from outside.” In other words, China’s own editors are not good enough for a film that is trying to appeal to the WORLD.
The second approach Sklan suggests is much more interesting:
“The way for Australian [Chinese] films to compete on the overseas market is not to attempt to duplicate Hollywood but to explore international themes, based on our own stories and inventive ways of telling, which have a resonance in other cultures” (245).
“These films would be informed by a vision that is particular and idiosyncratic, the outcome of a dynamic set up between an individual and a social imagination from a culturally specific time and place”
“The challenge is the production of new political and cultural identities rather than the fairly safe, predictable regurgitation of popular mythologies” (246).
Now THAT’s some exciting stuff.
In the case of the PRC, I think it would be safe to say that the “predictable regurgitation of popular mythologies” would include the seemingly unending cycle of historical epics and state-sanctioned “main melody” films. The new “particular and idiosyncratic” vision, on the other hand, is exactly what filmmakers like Dayyan Eng (aka Wu Shixian) and Ning Hao are accomplishing. It’s also what I find most exciting about the future of not only Chinese cinema, but Chinese cinema studies as well.