Why “The Chinese Cinema”?

Why “The Chinese Cinema”?

The question of why I named this project “The Chinese Cinema” and not something else has come up more than once since I adopted the name in 2017. The objection is that it flattens out the very real cultural, cinematic and political distinctions between the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, implying that there is a single monolithic “Chinese Cinema.” It’s a kind of film critic equivalent to the One China policy. This has political echoes at present as the PRC is increasingly attempting to assert its authority over regions that would prefer to see themselves as more or less independent of its control (not just in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but in Xinjiang and Tibet as well). Even a phrase like “Chinese-language Cinema” is fraught, as it implies the existence of one single Chinese language, as opposed to the dozens of different dialects within which “Chinese” films are made (not just Cantonese and Mandarin, but Shanghainese, Hokkien, and other regional derivations, slangs, and accents of the larger Chinese language groups). Basically, there are lots of different kinds of cinemas produced in the areas of Eastern Asia that have been at one time or another ruled by one form or another of a political entity that calls itself “China”, and any approach that neglects these differences is doing the work of the “power-hungry regional hegemon”.

This is all basically more or less true, but I’m sticking with the title anyway. The first and most obvious reason is that it is a reference to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, which is the structural model I’ve been following for several years now, and not acknowledging that debt seems to me far worse than implying that there’s no difference between Kwan Tak-hing’s Wong Fei-hung serials and Xie Jin’s cinema under Mao. This project dates back to the early months of 2013, when as research for a guest appearance on a podcast hosted by a couple of friends, I watched all of Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image movies. We were only going to talk about three of them on the show, but I was having so much fun I decided to go ahead and watch them all. But even then, I still felt I was missing essential pieces of what his movies were about, so I set about rewatching some of the classics of earlier Hong Kong cinema that I’d seen years before, Heroic Bloodshed films like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. For the next few months, I’d pick up a Hong Kong movie every once in a while on my weekly trip to the video store. One day, I grabbed Sammo Hung’s Eastern Condors, my first Sammo Hung movie, and was immediately hooked by not just the beauty and lunacy of the action scenes, but the absolutely bizarre mixture of tones and references Hung utilized in telling his Vietnam War story, zipping dangerously from slapstick farce to real-life tragedy. I spent the next several months diving into Hung’s work (I called it the “Summer of Sammo”) and the films surrounding it: his contemporaries in 1980s Hong Kong and his predecessors in 60s and 70s martial arts movies.

Summer ended, but I wanted to keep exploring, so in November of 2013 I started a new project: I’d watch all of Johnnie To’s movies in chronological order, starting with his 1980 debut. I couldn’t think of a really good name for it, so I smashed together a couple of To titles and called it “Running Out of Karma”. From the beginning, this was designed to be a digressive project. I knew I couldn’t understand Johnnie To without understanding the people he worked with, his rivals and collaborators, and the filmmakers who influenced him, along with the ones he influenced. In four years, I’d managed to cover just seven of To’s movies, but I’d watched and written about hundreds of other films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. At that point, continuing with the To-centric title seemed ridiculous: this was no longer a project about Johnnie To, but something that embraced everything from the Shanghai cinema of the 1930s and 40s to the huangmei musicals of the 50s and 60s, to the international festival films of the 21st century PRC. My index of reviews was out of control: I needed a structure. The Sarris book provided it.

The America Cinema has something like a biblical status among film critics of a certain persuasion and generation. A systematic listing of the major (and not so major) Hollywood directors of the studio era (running roughly from 1929–1968), it’s one of the foundations of the auteur strain of film criticism, the idea that film can be a means of personal artistic expression and that those films that express the personality of their creator (usually but definitely not always the director) are more valuable than films that lack such a personality. As a general organizing principle, Sarris sorted his directors into various categories, roughly scaled along how well they met the requirements of his auteurist scheme: Pantheon, The Far Side of Paradise, Expressive Esoterica, Less Than Meets the Eye, Lightly Likable, Strained Seriousness, etc.

I figured I could do the same thing with the directors I’d been watching, so I roughly adapted the categories with my own labels and started sorting directors. The categories aren’t meant to be a strict hierarchy, nor or they immutable or inflexible. I remain open to persuasion on any filmmaker you may think I’ve over- or under-rated, even Lou Ye. This system not only has the benefit of organizing my writing into an easily searched and referenced structure, but it also meshes perfectly with the critical approach I’ve been taking, which is very much indebted to Sarris and his movement.

One of my favorite things about auteurism is its inductive approach: an auteurist is never done with a film or a filmmaker, because there’s always more to discover and critical insight is gained by ever expanding the context within which one sees the work(s) in question. To approach an understanding a Lau Kar-leung kung fu movie, you not only have to understand as many other Lau Kar-leung movies as possible, but as many other kung fu movies as possible. Because that often indefinable difference between a Lau kung fu movie and a non-Lau kung fu movie is what makes Lau an auteur, and trying to define it is one of the most interesting things a film critic can do. Thus an auteurist project is essentially infinite: there’s no end to the discoveries to be made that can further contextualize any given artist or work; every movie is a part of every other movie. This satisfies my personal fondness for contingency and uncertainty as well as my abhorrence of conclusion.

This approach also prizes finding the interconnections between works. Not just within a given director’s filmography, but horizontally across their contemporaries and vertically to the artists who inspired them and whom they in turn inspired. To this end, siloing off the various branches of the Chinese cinema can only be counter-productive. While it is possible, say, to study the New Taiwanese Cinema without reference to the Hong Kong New Wave, to do so would give an incomplete account of either movement. Similarly, one cannot discuss the development of Mandarin language Hong Kong cinema without reference to the Shanghai films that came before the war sent so many filmmakers out of China and to the colony. How could one classify a filmmaker like Sylvia Chang: a Taiwanese woman who went to school in Hong Kong and the US, started acting in Hong Kong working for Mainland-born veterans Li Han-hsiang and King Hu, helped produce and star in key early works of both the Hong Kong New Wave and New Taiwanese Cinema, and then continued to direct, write and star in her own films and others’ across Taiwan and Hong Kong and the Mainland? Or a director like Jia Zhangke, part of the 6th Generation of Mainland Chinese directors who references Hong Kong films and pop music as much as he does Shanghai Cinema or his 5th Generation predecessors? Or directors like Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, natives of Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively, who had their greatest successes in America? To say nothing of the fact that films across the region are building on a common literary and philosophical tradition that has been built, with significant and important regional variations, over thousands of years.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we ignore the differences between filmmakers, eras, or regions, of course. Part of understanding what makes things alike is knowing what makes them different. Why did the generational film movements of the 1980s in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China develop in different ways? Why did the Hong Kong group turn to popularly successful genre filmmaking, while the Taiwanese and Chinese groups turned to the international festival circuit, and why among those did the Mainlanders achieve success in the American art house while the Taiwanese became cult figures? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions and a lot more besides, but this project is, if nothing else, a chronicle of my attempts at understanding them.

That’s why this project is “The Chinese Cinema” and not “The Hong Kong Cinema” or “The New Taiwanese Cinema” or “The Heroic Bloodshed Genre in Post-Handover Hong Kong Cinema”. It’s because I’m interested in all these things and much much more. This is a record of seven years and counting of investigations in to all kinds of Chinese cinema. All its languages, territories, eras, genres, filmmakers, and more. It can’t ever end and it can’t ever be bound.