Futures of Chinese Cinema: Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures

Futures of Chinese Cinema: Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures


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In recent years, Chinese film has garnered worldwide attention, and this interdisciplinary collection investigates how new technologies, changing production constraints, and shifting viewing practices have shaped perceptions of Chinese screen cultures. For the first time, international scholars from film studies, media studies, history and sociology have come together to examine technology and temporality in Chinese cinema today.

Futures of Chinese Cinema takes an innovative approach, arguing for a broadening of Chinese screen cultures to account for new technologies of screening, from computers and digital video to smaller screens (including mobile phones). It also considers time and technology in both popular blockbusters and independent art films from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diasporas. The contributors explore transnational connections, including little-discussed Chinese-Japanese and Sino-Soviet interactions. With an exciting array of essays by established and emerging scholars, Futures of Chinese Cinema represents a fresh contribution to film and cultural studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841502748
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 09/15/2009
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Olivia Khoo is a Targeted Research Fellow at Curtin University of Technology in Australia. She is the author of The Chinese Exotic: Modern Diasporic Femininity and has published widely on Asian film and media.


Sean Metzger is assistant professor of English and theater studies and former codirector of the Center for Asian and Asian American Studies at Duke University.

Read an Excerpt

Futures of Chinese Cinema

Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures

By Olivia Khoo, Sean Metzger

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-274-8


Celebratory Screens: Chinese Cinema in the New Millennium

Dai Jinhua, translated by Yiman Wang

At the centenary of cinema

The centenary of Chinese cinema was celebrated in 2005. Like all other centennial celebrations or mournings, the 'genesis' of the film centennial was shot through with various detractive voices. Nevertheless, the celebration remained ebullient and exuberant.

Chinese cinema in 2005 still maintained a high volume of production for the third year in a row, an unprecedented achievement in its film history since the founding of the PRC. This stunning output testified to the freedom that the Chinese film industry achieved after breaking away from a planned economy. Furthermore, it suggested the historical necessity for China's national film industry to respond to the pressures of globalization while undergoing privatization (minyinghua). However, the frenzy accompanying the high-volume production did not light up the sky of the centennial celebration. Even though the number of films released in theatres has increased in recent years, most films that went through the tortuous process of censorship and successfully obtained the necessary 'screen permit' remained outside the theatre circuit. The completed copies remain suspended in some company storage or in the hands of the producers or directors. The fortunate minority that were released in theatres included some international and domestic prize winners, as well as the officially supported 'political main theme' films. However, they constitute less a visible market phenomenon than mere subjects of media publicity. The film posters remain dominated by Hollywood productions. The handful of films that, due to the overwhelming media publicity, do generate box-office profits comparable to that of Hollywood blockbusters, or that have become the box-office disasters of certain private companies, were costume (martial arts) 'big productions' (chaoji da zhizuo) such as Hero (Yingxiong, Zhang Yimou, 1998), House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, Zhang Yimou, 2004), The Promise (Wuji, Chen Kaige, 2005), and Curse of the Golden Flower (Mancheng jin dai huangjin jia, 2006). On top of these, we need to add a less iconic film of this period, Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tiandi yingxiong, He Ping, 2003), and big pictures from Hong Kong including Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (Gong fu, 2004), Jackie Chan's Myth (Shenhua, Stanley Tong, 2005), and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords (Qi jian, 2005). In addition, Feng Xiaogang's contemporary urban comedies are also noteworthy.

It seems that computer-generated spectacles such as The Matrix were combined with mythic-cum-martial arts cinema (shenguai wuxia pian) to create a quasi-Chinese genre promoted globally via Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and then superimposed upon an exaggerated version of Chinese style ethnography à la Zhang Yimou. These have led to a new spectacle culture in China. Shot with production costs of over several hundred million RMB (the contemporary average production cost approximating the total production costs of the entire Chinese film industry in the mid-1980s, i.e. 25 to 50 times the former total budget of four million RMB), these films also generated comparable box-office profit on the domestic market. Starting as media events, these enviable achievements in the cinema/market economy are fulfilled not only within China. Through simultaneous release in East Asia and deputy distribution via Hollywood, they encourage and gratify the age-old fantasy of modern China. If 'a trip of a thousand miles starts with martial arts film', then Chinese cinema has become a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of China's economic boom.

The Zhang Yimou model is the centerpiece of this productivity. Harnessing the Europe of Turandot, the modern ballet (Raise the Red Lantern), the Yangshuo landscape (Third Sister Liu), the so-called 'Mou Girl' (Mou nulang) who graced Time Weekly and Vanity Fair, etc., the 'Zhang Yimou Model' involves mega amounts of investment, international crews, transnational locales, landscape spectacles, exaggerated icons of China plus myth-martial arts, maximally streamlined plots, expensive computer technologies and an unwavering Hollywood strategy. All of these allow Zhang Yimou to join the Hollywood distribution circuit by marching toward the Oscars. This time, the Zhang Model no longer aims at the 'narrow gate' of Chinese art cinema; nor does it follow the Third Word Cinema's small-budget strategy of mobilizing the victim's language. Rather, it signals large-scale transnational commercial production, the success of which is much more indisputable than the 'classic freeze frame' of the last two decades of the twentieth century, namely, Zhang Yimou's films, that garnered all sorts of European international film festival awards. The evidence of his success this time around lies in swelling box-office profit and the absolute logic of 'the winner taking all'.

Nevertheless, like other global economic miracles, the inglorious aspects are obscured. What is left out of the 'heterogeneous' big screen is the following fact: even though quasi-big pictures have begun to enjoy the Chinese market share that has since 1995 almost been monopolized by Hollywood, they have attained the maximum screening space obtainable for Chinese cinema (which perhaps includes Hong Kong, even South-east Asia cinema as well). Consequently, other films meant for theatrical release, resulting from the high production output in recent years, have to be suspended, even permanently doomed to the fate of 'waiting for Godot'.

Exclave (feidi) revisited

In this chapter, I do not intend to elaborate on the lineage of martial arts, mythic-martial arts cinema that constantly re-incarnates itself in the 'costume play craze' throughout Chinese film history. However, I want to point out that, as a China-specific popular cultural form, this quasi-genre, like its origin, i.e. martial arts fiction, consistently plays multiple important roles in the process of cultural modernization. Insofar as the quasi-genre's reincarnation each time is interconnected with specific sociopolitics, it effectively enables the exclave (feidi) effect. Therefore, it is not just the only effective popular entertainment under many specific historical conditions, but also the only Chinese genre that transports well overseas. Unsurprisingly, this quasi-genre gradually evaporated after 1949 in mainland China and Taiwan during the Cold War era. The only form it could take was the primordial costume (opera) format. Meanwhile, martial arts/myth-martial arts cinema has become a unique Hong Kong film genre in the past half a century. This is undoubtedly related to Hong Kong's position as an exclave (feidi) in the cold-war geopolitics. Following the laborious Hong Kong-mainland co-production of Shaolin Temple (Shaolin si, Cheh Chang, 1983), the awkward writing manifested in Deadly Fury (Wulin zhi, Huaxun Zhang, 1983) andMagic Braid (Shen bian, Zien Zhang, 1986); with the early 1990s impact of Tsui Hark's films, Hero emerged, signaling a reincarnation and a new stage of the (supra) Chinese mainland's myth-martial arts cinema. Combined with early twenty-first-century Chinese social conditions, the return of the 'exclave' half a century later registers a significant cultural phenomenon.

Indeed, this set of 'big costume productions' (gu zhuang da ju pian) suggests a grotesque cultural phenomenon of the new millennium China. That is, since the making of Hero, the shooting has been accompanied by overwhelming media publicity. The endless media publicity not only generates expectation, mystery and suspense, it also declares the capacity for luxury from the very beginning. If a contemporary Chinese audience is still not able to fully enjoy the pleasure of consuming an expensively made cultural product like film, the film's publicity nevertheless successfully produces popular identification with and desire for power, wealth and fashion. The consecutive premieres modelled after VIP events and fashion shows which swept mainland China and South-east Asian cities further reinforce the new mainstream identification. More interestingly, as much as they follow the model of the Oscar awards ceremony, these premieres mostly bypass the film and even cultural circles and become the get-together of high officials, business tycoons and fashionable figures unrelated to art.

Hero also initiated another phenomenon. The release of this kind of film instantly intrigues crowds of curious audiences while provoking angry responses. Paradoxically, the angrier the responses are, the more popular the film becomes. Thus, the main venue of cultural discourse shifts from print media and TV toward cinema and the internet, the latter providing the ideal site for relentless comments. These comments stage the full gamut of angry voices, rather than the contention between the positive and the negative. Witty or angry, these voices constitute an endless, non-descript trend of the time. Undiscouraged by the exorbitant premiere price (i.e. 80 to 100 RMB, higher than the first-run theatre ticket price in developed countries), the eager crowds rush toward the theatre, for 'how can you condemn it if you haven't seen the film?'Hero represented only one absurd episode in the China spectacle. Starting with the pre-history of a mainland-made TV series adapted from Jin Yong's martial arts fiction codified through the Hero phenomenon, such spectacle has been repeated through films such as House of Flying Daggers and The Promise. The release and condemnation of The Promise climaxed in a parodic internet short film, entitled A Murder Case Triggered by a Steamed Bun (Yige mantou yingfa de xue'an, Hu Ge, 2005). Chen Kaige's unwise action and the media's full-scale intervention combined to constitute a 'parody' with Chinese characteristics, which facilitated maximum nation-wide entertainment.

Perhaps, it is in the encounter between China's big pictures and the internet that a new dimension of the big pictures as 'exclave' was inadvertently revealed. Hero and The Promise do not simply signal the revival of a certain type of film; they also provide a trendy new commodity for the big-city clique audience. Cliquish as the audience is, its voracious expenditures already make the films box-office miracles, which is further reinforced by the internet commentaries and condemnations. The audience/consumers of similar films are also the trendy figures of contemporary China. This group, defined by their high income and consumption capacity, significantly overlaps with China's internet users. Whereas the internet has been frequently cited as a social space for democracy and equal sharing in the new millennium, its far from cheap hardware, unequal distribution and high connection service determine that the net population in the real sense, or what I call the net frequenters, remains confined to the highly educated, highly paid urban young and middle aged. This social stratum (not to say class) specificity makes this group highly homogenous, especially in comparison with other rapidly splintering social groups. Undoubtedly, even though this group is sizable and capable of generating box office miracles, they are no more than 'a handful' in comparison to the huge base of the Chinese population. This phenomenon also characterizes contemporary Chinese culture; that is, the mass culture of a clique audience forms the centre stage of the general social culture.

Multiple transpositions

If we consider this phenomenon in connection with the China-specific reincarnation of costume drama (that often culminates in myth-martial arts, then tapers off), we realize that, in comparison with the acme of Hong Kong costume/martial arts film that matured in the 1960s, recurred in the 1980s and 90s and generated a large number of mainland copies in the 1980s, the new round of reincarnation in the form of Hero and The Promise demonstrate multiple social, cultural transpositions.

First of all, the fictional historical setting of the costume/martial arts film experiences a conspicuous shift. In Hong Kong's new martial arts fiction/film, the two privileged historical periods are the late Ming and late Qing dynasties. Arguably, martial arts stories rely upon the historical imaginary and conventionalized narrative inspired by the two historical periods. The narrative elements include: internal uprising and external invasion, despotic emperor, degenerate court, treacherous cliques seizing power and loyal followers suffering maltreatments. All of these provide the stage for the knights errant and swordsmen to execute their justice, while creating space for the development of folk martial arts culture that hinges upon credos such as executing justice for Heaven, weeding out the evil and protecting the good. Meanwhile, such a scenario properly ensures the tension between the knights errant and the traditional figures of power; the former adhere to the authority from the distant margin and execute the law in the latter's stead: hence the saying, 'to kill off the greedy officials, so as to pay back to Official Zhao'. The subconscious allegorical implications are partially manifested in colonial Hong Kong's ambiguous status during the Cold War era. It conveys hesitancy between homeland identification and anti-communist ideology by posing as a lonely yet graceful survivor from a previous dynasty.

In the 1980s mainland martial arts films were modelled upon Hong Kong productions; however, the late Qing became virtually the only setting. Indeed, in terms of costume/martial arts films, the so-called 'Qing court drama', be it film or TV soap opera, has constituted a key subject of Chinese mass culture that spans the last two decades of the twentieth century and crosses into the new millennium. These martial arts films undoubtedly mimicked the Hong Kong model. However, they also derived from specific political needs and the tradition of 'critique through historical allusion' that grew out of the leftist/communist literary policy spelled out in the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s. The task was to reflect upon reality, pave the road for new 'modernization' and provide legitimacy for the new government. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, historical drama/costume drama, as a self-conscious sociopolitical allegory, converted its historical setting into a vehicle for China's self-imaginary and discourses of quasi-enlightenment or reconfigured Cold War rhetoric.

The turn of the new century ushered in a new craze for costume drama. Spearheaded by TV series that have replaced cinema as the site of mass culture, these costume dramas surreptitiously moved the historical setting back, from the late Qing crisis to the prosperous Kangxi and Qianlong Reigns, from late Ming and late Qing to Qin, Han and High Tang. The refocus on the Qianlong Reign starting with the TV series, The Prime Minister Liu Luoguo (Zai xiang liu luoguo, 1996), reached its climax in the fast selling Qing court fiction by Er Yue He, and TV series such as The Yongzheng Dynasty (Yongzheng wangchao) and The Great Kangxi Emperor (Kangxi dadi). What follows is popularization through parody, as registered in The Incognito Trips of Emperor Kangxi (Kangxi weifu sifang) and Ji Xiaolan the Critic (Tiezui tongya ji xiaolan). In terms of cinema, the three films dealing with attempted assassinations of the first Qin emperor form a clear trajectory that indicates a continuous subconscious concern. In all of the above-mentioned big budget TV series, overflowing nostalgia replaces deliberate self-reflection and critique; uplifting the China imaginary replaces negative criticism.


Excerpted from Futures of Chinese Cinema by Olivia Khoo, Sean Metzger. Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Sean Metzger and Olivia Khoo

Part I:   Historiography

Chapter 1

Celebratory Screens: Chinese Cinema in the New Millennium

Dai Jinhua


Island of No Return: Cinematic Narration as Retrospection in Wang Tong and New Taiwan Cinema

Guo-Juin Hong

Chapter 3

Socialist Geographies, Internationalist Temporalities and Travelling Film Technologies: Sino-Soviet Film Exchange in the 1950s and 1960s

Tina Mai Chen

Chapter 4

Hong Kong Ghost in the Japanese Shell? Cross-racial Performance and Transnational Chinese Cinema

Kwai-Cheung Lo

Chapter 5

Jia Zhangke and the Temporality of Postsocialist Chinese Cinema: In the Now (and then)

Chris Berry

Part II:  Capital - Economic and Industrial Contexts

Chapter 6

From BitTorrent Piracy to Creative Industries: Hong Kong Cinema Emptied Out

Laikwan Pang

Chapter 7

Genre Film, Media Corporations and the Commercialization of the Chinese Film Industry: The Case of ‘New Year Comedies’

Shuyu Kong

Chapter 8

Demand for Cultural Representation: Emerging Independent Film and Video on Lesbian Desires

Denise Tse Shang Tang

Part III:  Epistemologies

Chapter 9

The Queer Space of China: Expressive Desire in Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu

David L. Eng

Chapter 10

Saving Face, or the Future Perfect of Queer Chinese/American Cinema?

Sean Metzger

Chapter 11

Remaking the Past, Interrupting the Present: The Spaces of Technology and Futurity in Contemporary Chinese Blockbusters

Olivia Khoo

Chapter 12

Multiple-screen Realities

Paolo Voci



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