Once Upon a Time in Chinese Film: Meta Narratives of Authenticity

Kimberly De Vries Massachusetts Institute of Technology kdevries@mit.edu

China Captures the Global Screen
Early in 2001, global awareness of Chinese cinema surged following the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (CTHD). This film broke new ground in its enormous popularity with both audiences and critics, while also spurring heated controversy over questions of originality and authenticity. In the wake of both the popularity of and controversy around CTHD, critics have made claims about the film's authentic Chineseness, or lack thereof, in ways that bear questioning. Finally, in the last four years, several other Chinese films have entered, or tried to enter the global market whose reception reveals an ongoing meta-narrative of Chineseness shaping their reception.

Reactions to CTHD (Wo hu cang long)
Though most reactions were positive, this film was reviled by some fans of martial arts films, and officially disdained in Mainland China. This dislike was arguably based in the entrenched dogma that East and West are irreconcilably different, so that any film popular in the West could not be truly Chinese. In contrast, the government of Taiwan sponsors a website honoring Ang Lee and this film.
Ang Lee responded at the time: “It's a Western privilege to just deal with anything you want....be careful here, because what you're saying is: you good Asians, you good little Chinese and Hong Kong Artists, you do your authentic real stuff. You stay in your genre.” (James Schamus) “What do they want me to be? A panda in a zoo?”

Narratives of Masculinity and Nationalism
Sheldon Lu and Stephen Teo have argued that masculinity and national pride have been conflated in Chinese martial arts films. In some cases this is overt, as when Jet Li uses superior kung fu to defeat Japanese or Colonial British forces. But we also see nationalist anxiety in the concern over authenticity, when the foe is cultural imperialism
Jet Li as the legendary martial artist Wong Fei Hung, in Once Upon a Time in China, 1990.

Originality, Authenticity, Identity
Criticisms tend to focus on how the first two terms shape perceptions of the third. CTHD has been critiqued as unoriginal, compared to other Hong Kong Martial arts films, but also as misrepresenting Chinese culture and being too Western. Whose opinion is the most “authentic?”

Zhang Ziyi flees through the bamboo forest in CTHD

Who tells the real story of China?
Ang Lee has been reported as calling this film a dream of China.
Lee seems to tap the nostalgic feelings shared by many diasporic Chinese, as well as a more general nostalgia for times past. At the same time, he and his characters participate in the meta-narrative of national pride that encompasses the martial arts genre.

Narrative Entanglement
If we consider how other Some implicit (and spurious) films have been received, assumptions: we can see that reactions to ● Mainland Chinese are the the actual narrative and the only “real” Chinese. meta-narrative are often ● Mainland films must be entangled. political (anti-government). Some films are critiqued in ways that may be more determined by reaction to the film's perceived place in the meta-narrative than by the film itself.

Hong Kong films are (usually) only for obsessive fan-boys. Chinese film-makers are always in danger of being corrupted by the West.

The Legend of Zu
Tsui Hark re-made his own 1983 film in order to use the most advanced special effects. Viewers of the film as it was released in 2001 were happy with it as action/eye-candy. In fact the original was made for similar reasons; Tsui mentions Star Wars as inspiration.
The Legend of Zu, Film Workshop, 2001.

Hero (Ying Xiong)
Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, is the latest of several films relating the history of the first emperor of China. The film was popular in China and was promoted with statements like "China's 'Hero' is telling the world that Chinese culture is fighting back!" from the Beijing Youth Daily. On the other hand, many westerners accused Zhang of selling out to Another aerial flight in Hero.. the government.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi Mian Mai Fu)

House of Flying Daggers was aggressively marketed in China, and while ticket sales were strong, reception was weak. Criticism focused mainly on an undeveloped storyline and lack of romantic chemistry.

Another fight in a bamboo forest

Interestingly, meta-narrative concerns have shifted from how the film represents China to how the film represents Chinese film-makers.

Miramax vs. Sony: What makes a movie Chinese?
The routes chosen by distributors reveal perceptions of the audiences that border on being mutually exclusive. In contrast to Sony's “arthouse” approach, Miramax has often dubbed films with heavily accented English or otherwise altered them, and blocks import of the original versions.
“Disney thought it was best to give every single dubbed voice an ASIAN accent. This was done with so little taste that it disgusts me because it almost sounded like it was a parody.... First of all, there were walk outs. In a FREE test screening! ... people began saying racist comments.” (Mr. Gil, commenting on Zu Warriors at the “City on Fire” forum)

The Cure for Anxiety is Success
While some anxiety remains to maintain the meta-narrative of national identity, China's booming economy and growing presence in the global community seem to have allowed increasing separation between actual and meta-narratives.

Concern with “too much” Western enthusiasm remains. Western audiences still often perceived as white and/or ignorant. There is growing recognition that negative or nostalgic images of China are no longer taken as accurate. Growing confidence that Chinese films can stand up to Hollywood.


What Lies Ahead
Though changes have not rolled out as quickly as some anticipated following the success of CTHD, changes are coming steadily.
Increasing contact between Chinese and Americans.

Growing recognition of diasporic communities

China's expanding role in the global community.

Loosening regulations on the film industry in China

Questioning the bounds of “Chineseness”

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