24 August 2014

Cinema and Representation in China

The distance between Hong Kong and China can perhaps be measured by what is considered representable in each culture. Hong Kong is permeated by advertising, like a Western city. It is dominated by writing: signs of all descriptions festoon city buildings and stretch across the street. The Chinese cities we visited in 1981 (including 'sophisticated' Shanghai) treated sign writing functionally, to indicate a locale or slogan that needed indicating; advertising had begun to appear, but tentatively. In cinema, too, the same contrast appears. Hong Kong cinema has developed a strong tradition of depictions of violence, involving its own system of performances and special effects, its own codes and conventions. The Chinese film-makers we met in Shanghai were assessing their first foray into the explicit depiction of familial violence: a scene in Family Festivities (1980) in which a husband slaps his wife who has been intriguing to break up the extended family group into a series of independent nuclear households. Such a level of aggression is new in Chinese cinema, and the scene was shot so as not to emphasise the physicality of the moment of husband striking wife. However, it is dangerous to treat such comparisons as emblematic of general features of a society. All that we can do is to record certain impressions.


We saw a China beginning to construct a new political line, that of the Four Modernisations, which includes the principles of learning from Japan and the West, and of re-introducing material incentives and luxury consumer goods. The ideological line being launched seemed to be one of denigrating large parts parts of the history of post-Revolutionary China as mistakes, and of emphasising China's 'backwardness' in relation to other cultures. This seems a dangerous process, courting a widespread political disillusion. It also seemed that 'Modernisation' was close to 'Westernisation,' a contention strenuously denied by those we spoke to, who emphasised the durability of China's cultural traditions.

We paid a brief visit to the Shanghai Film Studios, which again emphasized the immense distance between the two cultures. The major concerns of the studio seemed to be those of the efficient use of resources; the problems in making ideologically effective films; the development of television and the relationship that cinema should have to it. We had come with questions (primed by friends in Hong Kong), but scarcely had time to ask them. We were overwhelmed by our host's thirst for knowledge about Western cinema. The fall of the gang of four has meant a reintroduction of Western films into China on a cautious and cash-conscious basis. Just before our arrival, the greatest successes had been Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965), which a Lukacsian-derived thematic analysis had discovered was an anti-fascist film, and David Lean's two adaptations of Dickens, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). This selective discovery of Western cinema by China's mass audience does not seem to have enabled the personnel of the Shanghai Studio to have made a wider exploration of foreign films. There seemed to be no scheme of importing films for study within the film industry alone. Hence they had seen no films from European art cinema since the time of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): no Godard, no Antonioni apart from his condemned film on China, no Fassbinder. Hence much of our time was taken in trying to explain the Western phenomenon of the fragmentation of mass cinema in the face of competition from television; the emergence of formal challenges to the dominance of Hollywood textual forms; the increasing division of the art cinema market itself into a conservative humanistic content-based aesthetic (served by Truffaut, for example), and a tendency concerned with reading images and sound rather than treating them as an aestheticised imprint of an impossible real.

We did however gain a certain sense of the current organisation of feature film production at the Shanghai Studios, and the current points of stress. The studio has a permanent salaried staff that includes 70 to 80 directors and assistant directors and a troupe of actors. There is consequently a problem of underemployment of many of the studio's personnel, which it is proposed to solve by undertaking the production of material for television, which in China is exclusively produced on videotape. The development of television will exacerbate the major problem of the current feature film production methods at the studio: the slow speed at which films move from conception to completion. A clear distinction was made between television production (with an immediacy of response to social issues) and cinema production (demanding a more reflective, and hence ideologically more risky, approach). The ideological risks involved in film production have traditionally meant that films spend a long time in the script stage: an absolute minimum of three months, usually at least six, and sometimes a matter of a year or years. Themes are not generally set in advance by agencies outside the industry. Presumably the political calculation of those involved in the process is adequate. Our hosts indicated that there was a certain problem of over-production on certain themes, like the recent rash of films on China's relationship with Taiwan.

Once an idea has been approved, it is drafted and re-drafted in the extensive script department, and once a final script has been approved by the studio hierarchy (in which the Communist Party is of course heavily represented), the actual production of a film can be a swift affair. A typical production schedule is that six weeks preparation follows the approval of the final script, with one to two months' shooting time and another month post-production. Post-production time is reduced by undertaking as much editing and dubbing as possible whilst shooting is still underway. Mise-en-scene is very much subjugated to the importance of the script, and script tends to be thought in Lukacsian terms: the problem is one of finding a fictional form that presents the typical, that diagnoses social contradictions. The basic conception of how to make films still seems to be that worked out in post-Revolutionary USSR.

Within this process, several changes have been made recently. The first is to reverse the trend of the Cultural Revolution period, which was to base film production entirely on post-synchronization, and to reduce location work. Though synch shooting is still comparatively rare, location work (with portable Arriflexes) has returned to the pre-Cultural Revolution proportion of being about half of the studio's work. Hence on the Saturday that we visited, neither stage was in use, though shooting on one (a Peking Opera) had ended the previous day. Another major innovation is that of developing group or unit production methods. Five groups have been set up, comprising producers, director and writers (and, potentially, art directors and camera-operators). These will have a high degree of autonomy and ability to generate their own projects as well has having projects assigned to them in the usual manner. This is a response to a certain problem in the style of films produced, as well as to that of the underemployment of personnel and the slowness of the script stage. Such groups are expected to be a little more adventurous; though the directions that this experimentation will take seem much determined by the foreign models that are available. We were eagerly questioned about the 'realism' of American acting.

Another major innovation, part of a general trend in Chinese society, is the introduction of the calculation of profitability on a film-by-film basis, and with it of a level of material incentive to the personnel. Until recently, the studio has sold the rights in its films at a flat rate, guaranteeing a comfortable return even if the film failed at the box-office. Notice was taken of the popularity of films, as a guide to their effectivity, but the system is now being changed. Currently, negotiations are taking place to link the studio's income from a film to the box-office success of a film. This enables (and justifies) the re-introduction of material incentives in the form of bonuses to those involved in a successful production. The level of these bonuses, however, will not produce huge disparities between earnings for equivalent grades.

China is a society in transition, and film, with its massive capital investment in ideological work, is in many ways a crucial indicator of the extent of changes. Shanghai Studios indicated these changes to some extent; the viewing (in the Hong Kong Festival) of a comedy from 1979 Look, What a Family! provided another optic. It is a factory comedy, close in style to a Hollywood comedy of the 1930s like My Man Godfrey (1936). It has the complex plot and sharp juxtapositions of characters that comes from close scripting, but most bizarre (especially for a film directed by a woman, Wang Haowei) is its use of women. The film's issue is that of factory improvement, and it is centred in a textile factory: women are made crucial to the film as consumers as well as workers, where men are only workers. Women consume textiles, demanding better quality and a wider range of goods. In relation to the urban China we saw, the clothes worn by the women in the film (each seemed to have numerous print dresses) were presented as models; the men's were ordinary, conforming to a verisimilitudinous accuracy of depiction. All of this takes place in the context of an optimism about the programme of Four Modernisations that has evaporated by 1981. The attitude towards women in this film was reflected in the advertisement hoardings that are beginning to appear. Having no tradition of advertising, the calculations made in the images may well lack subtlety, but the conception of women as consumers of commodities is crucial. Here too, the depictions of women are startlingly at variance with the women seen on the street. This process is a reinstatement of inequality between the sexes within representations. The films we have seen from the period of the Cultural Revolution tend to portray women as equals to men, in the sense that they are not particularly endowed with a special status simply by the fact that they are women. Taking women as the target for consumerist blandishments immediately returns women to that special status: and it is inevitably an inferior status. In Look, What a Family! women are concerned with romance to a greater extent than men; they neglect their work more than men; they follow where men lead. In Intimate Relations (no credits available), a recent film we saw on the theme of China-Taiwan relations, the main juvenile characters were brought together by shipwreck on a desert island. He, the Communist, was able to find food, fire and shelter; she, the 'decadent Taiwanese,' was helpless. The return to the use of such typing on the grounds of sex seems to be a general feature of Chinese representations, and seem to coincide (at the least) with the calculated re-introduction of material incentives.

The problem of the representation of women re-emerging in China seems directly related to the introduction of Japanese and Western models of 'progress' and of material incentives. The major problem is that these models seem to have been adopted without real knowledge of the competing tendencies within these societies. Just as we can speak of 'China' to designate a society conceived as monolithic, without internal conflict, so too can the Chinese uncritically adopt forms from the West which are extensively criticised and challenged in the West. This is as true in cinema as it is elsewhere. The narrow range of models available for feature film production may produce a turn in Chinese cinema that depends too heavily on American commercial models, and underestimates other cultural forms. In particular, it may lead to a fetishism of the conception of American cinema as 'realistic' without adequate realisation of the importance of China's own traditions of acting and representation. Here, the Hong Kong International Film Festival has a crucial role to play as a point of cultural exchange between Chinese filmmakers and the West. It would be less one-side than the exchange of technology and skills between the West and China, because it would be crucial to the future development of Hong Kong's cinema. However, the timidity of the festival's sponsors, the Urban Council, may well make it impossible. That would be tragic for both sides.

[The foregoing was extracted from a longer piece entitled 'Hong Kong - China 1981' by Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, originally published in Screen, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 1981, pp. 96-100.]

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