AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 239

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Session 239: Film Culture in Communist China During the “Seventeen Years” (1949-1966)

Organizer: Jessica Ka Yee Chan, University of Richmond, USA

Chair: Robert Chi, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Discussants: Nicole Huang, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA; Robert Chi, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

This panel aims to reflect the complexity and diversity of filmmaking practices in communist China during the “Seventeen Years.” Since the last three decades, film scholars have begun to situate the beginnings of early Chinese cinema in international context. However, vast territories of film history during the “Seventeen Years” remain largely unmapped and unexplored. This panel aims to shed light on the vibrant revolutionary film culture and its often overlooked archive by highlighting 1) the transnational flow of ideas through the work of translation and cultural exchange with Soviet and Japanese filmmakers; 2) the creative ways in which the aesthetics and politics of genre conventions, acting style and filmmaking practices underwent a process of redefinition, reinterpretation and reinvention during the “Seventeen Years.” Daisy Du and Jessica Chan reconstruct the transnational flow of people, studios, ideology, cinematic conventions, and acting style between Chinese, Japanese and Soviet cinema as a result of apprenticeship, collaborative work and the work of translation. Ying Bao unveils the seemingly conformist “socialist new comedy” that nonetheless creatively and playfully reinvents an alternative cinematic space. Yuan Zhao and Yali Pei suggest a potential complexity in the early “socialist transformation” of the movie industry, and in the representation of intellectuals that is often neglected. To ensure that the panel is an integrated event, this panel will have shorter and sharper presentations (max. 10 mins), leaving time for conversation and exchange among the panelists and with the audience.

Moving Pictures and Border Politics: Chinese Animation Film and its Japanese Connection in Early New China
Daisy Yan Du, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

Chinese animation films produced during the “Seventeen Years” traveled abroad and won many international awards. Some critics argue that it is the assertion of “nationality,” “Chineseness,” and “tradition” that paradoxically makes Chinese animation film transnational. However, as Mary Ann Farquhar has pointed out, the over-emphasis on Chineseness, nationalization, tradition, and essence in Chinese animation film can be seen as a “frog-in-the-well” mentality—namely “a walled in ignorance which believes the sky is only as large as the patch glimpsed from the bottom of a well.” Taking cue from Farquhar’s metaphor, this paper attempts to jump out of the “well” by looking at the transnational undercurrents neglected in the homogeneous grand narrative of “national” cinema. I argue that it is actually the “transnational” that makes Chinese animation film “national.” Emphasizing more on transnational “routes” than Chinese “roots,” I examine Chinese animation film not as a static and essentialist entity rooted in a fixed time and space, but as fluid movements enmeshed in transnational flows and relations. More specifically, I will examine the role of Japan in the history of Chinese animation film by focusing on Mochinaga Tadahito (1919-1999), a Japanese animator who became the founding father of the animation film industry in communist China. Tracking the multi-directional movements of people, studios, ideology, films, and film style, I argue that the “Chineseness” of Chinese animation film was a media construct, and had always already been contested by those transnational flows from the very beginning of New China.

Creating Positive Hero and Heroine on Screen: Discourses on Screen Acting, Stanislavski’s System, and Revolutionary Realism in China (1949-1966)
Jessica Ka Yee Chan, University of Richmond, USA

This paper takes the revolutionary discourses on screen acting, Stanislavski’s system and revolutionary realism as points of departure, and looks at the cinematic creation of positive hero and heroine during the “Seventeen Years” (1949-1966). How did Chinese revolutionary cinema create positive hero and heroine as prototypes in revolutionary society, and resolve the tension between the “typical” and the “individual” under the banner of “a combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism?” Screen acting, which mobilizes the emotions, gestures and corporeal bodies of performers, plays a key role in engineering climatic moments in Chinese revolutionary cinema. Stephanie Hemelryk Donald suggests the term “socialist realist gaze” as a way to understand the cinematic convention that was used to evoke “the romance of revolution and a heroic future.” My paper goes one step further and focuses on a crucial element that is seldom looked at closely—screen acting. While Constantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares and Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons had been translated by Zheng Junli in the 1930s and 1940s, it was not until the 1950s that Stanislavski’s system was widely embraced by Chinese filmmakers who looked to Soviet performers for inspiration. I argue that in the discourse on screen acting since the 1950s, Chinese filmmakers and performers creatively transposed elements of Stanislavski’ system into Chinese cinema through processes of selection and supplementation.

From Satire to Eulogy: Reinventing Film Comedy during the Seventeen Years
Ying Bao, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA

The heavy-handed political and administrative intervention in the early PRC cinema created deeply entangled and problematic relationships between film aesthetics and political campaigns. The generic shift from contemporary social satire to the so-called “gesongxing xiju” (eulogistic comedy) in the late 1950s is particularly illustrative of the conflicts and negotiations among political agenda, genre conventions, artistic creativity, and critical reception in the cinematic representation of a state-sanctioned popular culture. Focusing on the production and discourse of the “socialist new comedy” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this paper examines how film comedy as a genre has been constantly redefined and reinterpreted aesthetically and ideologically. In addition to exploring the constraints and potentials of artistic agency under political obligation and intervention, the paper also suggests how even seemingly conformist eulogistic comedies may create alternative cinematic space to harbor people’s everyday anxieties and desires.

Intellectual Figures in Shen Fu’s Films (1956-1959)
Yali Pei, Independent Scholar, China

The depiction of intellectual figures in films produced during the “Seventeen Years” (1949-1966) is considered by many as flat and unsuccessful. Films produced during that era often depict workers and peasants as main characters, while efforts to reveal the complexities of intellectual life are restrained. As the representative of “social realism” which appeared in Chinese cinema in the late 1940s, Shen Fu portrays workers and peasants in a simple and direct style without jeopardizing the complexities of intellectuals’ inner world. I argue that despite the widespread depreciation of intellectual figures during the “Seventeen Years,” Shen Fu fearlessly depicts traditional intellectual figures in a positive light in Li Shizhen, New Tale of the Old Soldier (Laobing xinzhuan) and Colorful and Vital Spring (Wanziqianhong zongshichun), revealing a potential complexity and pluralism in films produced during the “Seventeen Years.”

A Forgotten History: the Private-owned Movie Industry of China (1949-1952)
Yuan Zhao, Independent Scholar, China

Within four years after the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, the private-owned movie industry had undergone rapid “socialist transformation,” and the private movie-makers merged themselves entirely with the state-owned studios. It is a history of dramatic adjustment and alignment, and films produced during this period deserve close observation and analysis. However, among more than fifty films made by the private movie-makers during that time period, film historians have only studied very few of them, typically singling out several well-known ones such as Between My Wife and I and Captain Guan, while the rest has been largely ignored. Furthermore, the development and the fall of the private-owned movie industry after 1949 remains a blind spot in current scholarship. In reality, from 1949 to 1952, films made by private movie makers not only continued China’s cinematic tradition, but also greatly supplemented the insufficient production of the state-owned film studios to meet the increasing demands of the new society. For example, in 1950, there were sixty movies made in China, among which thirty-four were by private film companies, and only twenty-six by state-owned ones. Many films by private companies such as The Life of Wu Xun (1950) and Corruption (1950) were highly evaluated for their artistic excellence. By examining the condition and production of film companies such as Kunlun and Wenhua, this paper aims to explore the historical point of transition and recession of the private-owned movie industry in China.