The Chinese Film Forum was established in Manchester in 2009 as a research network involving the universities of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan and Salford, the Chinese Art Centre , the Confucius Institute and Cornerhouse Cinema. The network is supported by a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The second symposium entitled: ‘The Creation and Circulation of Chinese Identities in and through Cinema’ was held at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester on January 29-30 with an associated screening of Memories Look at Me (China 2012) by Song Fang at Cornerhouse. (Just as good on a second viewing.)
The first symposium in March 2012 had covered the distribution and exhibition of Chinese and Asian films in the UK. I thought it was a very successful event generating plenty of discussion and I signed up for the second event without any hesitation. The programme this time included a total of 24 papers arranged in 9 panels. In the event, one presenter had to withdraw but the panels seemed to form themselves into quite logical groupings of papers in the main. The keynote paper at the end of the first day was delivered by Chris Berry (Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London). He stayed on to introduce the film screening and to contribute to discussions the following day.
With so many papers, I’m not going to attempt to report on them all, but an overall comment would be that compared to last year’s symposium this one was more wide-ranging, raising several different issues. However, because of the structure of the panels and the good organisation of the event, each panel produced a focused discussion and there was a clear sense of extending the reach of Chinese film studies rather than simply hopping from one issue to another. As one of the Forum’s leaders, Felicia Chan of the University of Manchester remarked, it was good to see that the participants had selected areas of research that stretched far beyond previously safe areas such as the work of auteurs well-known in the international film market. So, I found myself jotting down film titles and actors/directors to investigate further that ranged from stars of popular mainland cinema to Tibetan and Korean directors working in China, Chinese-American and Italian films (with Chinese characters) and popular Taiwanese films.
Chris Berry’s keynote explored ideas about female characters who are trapped between tradition and modernity – the ‘double bind of modernity’. His starting point was a Paul Willemen paper ‘Detouring through Korean cinema’ (included in The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader edited by Chen Kuan-Hsing and Beng Huat Chua, Routledge 2007). In the paper Willemen reflects on his time in South Korea in 1997 and his attempts to understand what he calls ‘blockage’ in Korean culture (i.e. the struggle over ideas about ‘modernity’ and whether resolving this problem could help South Korean Cinema to become more successful in a global context). He then tried to relate this to the propensity for many South Korean films of the 1970s and 1980s to end in freeze frames – literally preventing characters from ‘moving forward’. Berry stressed the importance of comparative film studies and suggested that it would be useful to ask why Chinese films don’t end in freeze frames. He observed that a woman in a ‘public space’ is an image of ‘modernising China’. He then traced back representations of female figures representing the possibility of modernity to Cai Chusheng’s New Women (1935) with Ruan Lingyu in the lead role. He introduced a range of contemporary films, none of which I have seen unfortunately but some I will certainly look up. I confess that I missed aspects of this analysis, partly because I was reflecting on some of the other points that Chris Berry made. For example, à propos of narratives about single women in urban China, Berry suggested that a third of the huge Chinese work force could now be considered ‘mobile’. In her closing remarks Felicia Chan said that Chris Berry had been the perfect guest speaker and indeed it was impressive how during each panel discussion he asked questions, made observations and afterwards was generally accessible to delegates. I’m sure that this was useful for many of the younger film scholars presenting their papers.
I found all the panels useful, but I’ll just comment on two or three that really piqued my interest. I picked up several ideas about contemporary mainland filmmaking and questions of control and censorship. Chris Berry pointed out that 50% of Chinese films are now privately-funded but enter the mainstream film industry via the state censors whereas the other 50% avoid/evade (?) the censor and presumably find other means of distribution. He also suggested that a commercial film like Feng Xiaogang’s World Without Thieves could virtually cover its production costs through product placement. I had noticed the prevalence of Western brands in recent Chinese films but I wasn’t aware of how widespread, or how lucrative, product placement was. I’m also grateful to Anthony McKenna for an insight into the importance of Han Sanping, the Chair of the state-controlled China Film Group, who wields considerable power as the ‘middle-man’ of Chinese film. Han is able to make links between government and commercial filmmakers in terms of the blockbusters that constitute the contemporary version of a ‘main melody film’. McKenna’s paper focused on the films made since the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a period in which censorship has tightened with pressure on possible dissenters and when ‘historical event blockbusters’ have attempted to create consensus in the domestic market. Han has had a crucial role in the production of films such as The Founding of the Republic (2009) and also in attempting to ensure that these films engage international audiences and project ‘acceptable’ forms of ‘Chineseness’ overseas.
One issue that popped up in discussion during more than one panel was the ‘categorisation’ of ‘Chinese’ films. I was a little surprised by what seemed to be a passionate debate about whether particular films could be called ‘Chinese’. This occurred during Corrado Neri’s fascinating discussion of Inseparable (China 2011) – a film written and directed by Dayann Eng, a Chinese-American who trained in the US but then went to Beijing and has so far made three films in China. Inseparable is a ‘comedy drama’ about a young man (played by Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu) who fantasises about helping people with his ‘superpowers’. He finds a mentor in the form of a mysterious American played by Kevin Spacey. Wholly financed and produced in China, the film has both English and Mandarin dialogue. I would say that this was a Chinese film and I’m intrigued that anyone would want to categorise it differently – but then it is precisely the kind of filmmaking that this blog is interested in.
Hui M. Chan presented a paper entitled ‘Limehouse and its Haunted Nostalgia’ which considered representations of Chinese characters and Chinese communities in early and silent cinema. This included work on the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong who arrived in the UK in the late 1920s and featured in Piccadilly (UK 1929). The presentation asked us to think about films that were “about us, but not for us”. I was intrigued by the references to British cultural life in the 1910s and 1920s and in particular the promise of what work on Chinese representations in the UK might uncover. I was also reminded of the important discussions in the previous symposium about the difficulties faced by Chinese-British filmmakers.
Other panels discussed films and aspects of production that I have not previously had access to. One such panel discussed popular film in Taiwan so I’m pleased to be able to flag up that the next offering from the Chinese Film Forum will be a special screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester of You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu ha, Taiwan 2011) showing to celebrate Chinese New Year. The film (a teen ‘coming-of-age romance’) will be preceded by a ‘One hour intro’ to Popular Taiwanese Cinema by Felicia Chan.
The Chinese Film Forum will be holding a conference in the Autumn – so look out for announcements, or better still subscribe to the forum here.
Many thanks to all the organisers of the Forum, including Felicia Chan, Andy Willis (University of Salford) and Robert Hamilton (Manchester Metropolitan University), to all the panellists and chairs and to our hosts the Chinese Arts Centre.