Mapping the “Reel” China

Kimberly De Vries ● California State University Stanislaus ●

China Captures the Global Screen
Early in 2001, global awareness of Chinese cinema surged following the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 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. This controversy highlights the difficulty of defining a national cinema, or of identifying audiences in terms of national identity. Further, CTHD serves to mark what looks the beginning of a shift in assumptions about who constitutes the audience for “Chinese” film.

Mixed Reactions
Though majority reaction to CTHD was positive, this picture was deplored by some dedicated fans of martial arts films, and was officially disdained in Mainland China. In contrast, the government of Taiwan sponsors an official website honoring Ang Lee and this film.
“It's a Western privilege to just deal with anything you 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?” (Ang Lee)

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?”

Originality, Authenticity, Identity
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. -Increasingly, the past becomes our only refuge from postmodern frustrations of the present.

The “real/reel” China

Considering how other films have been distributed and how viewers have reacted, we can distinguish some trends in how the “real” China is perceived. Some films are critiqued in ways that may be more determined by these views than by the film itself.

Mainland Chinese are the only “real” Chinese. Mainland films must be political. Hong Kong films are (usually) only for obsessive fan-boys. Chinese film-makers are always in danger of being corrupted by the West. Westerners are only interested in China's past or its problems.

Director Jule Gilfillan: “I hope you'll feel a kinship with these characters, with these people.” Gilfillan's characters voice a central issue, that Americans use China as a “personal Disneyland,” an escape from responsibility or problems.
Restless, Arrow Films/Youth Film Studio, 1998.

Big Shot's Funeral
Directed by Feng Xiaogang. Columbia Pictures Corp., Huayi Bros. Advertising, and Taihe Film Investment Co. Ltd. 2001.

The film pokes fun at American film-making, the new Chinese consumerism, and the difficulty of deciding who or what is really Chinese. Very popular in China, it was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award as Best Asian Film but received scant attention in the US.

Fulltime Killer
Director Johnny To creates a hyperactive, transnational, and highly intertextual tale of dueling assasins. Wildly popular in China, and Hong Kong's Oscar entry for 2002, it got little attention in the US but again generated a love/hate reaction among critics and viewers.

Andy Lau poaches from El Mariachi. Fulltime Killer, Milkyway Image Ltd. 2001.

Enrichment vs. Corruption
Western directors' works are “enriched” by the addition of Chinese elements, such as in The Matrix or Kill Bill. Chinese Directors often are charged with being “corrupted by Western influences, losing an “authentic” voice. They also risk being corrupted by capitalism or “pandering to the Central Gov't.

Andy Lau impersonates Clinton and offers a homage to Point Break. Fulltime Killer, Milkyway Image Ltd. 2001.

Reactions Conditioned by Stereotypes
In almost every case of divided opinion, expectations of Chinese film generally and familiarity with the genre determine a positive or negative reaction. In some cases, (re)viewers are attached to a particular definition of authentic Chinese film, and object to its violation.

Stereotypes of Chinese Film:
Art House ● Anti-government (PRC) ● B-movie shlock (Hong Kong) ● Too foreign ● Not foreign enough

Accounting for Divergent Views
Do American and Chinese audiences just have wildly different tastes? Or are we using the reel China to represent :
A land protected from the stress of a global culture? ● A backwards culture to support our own self-image? ● A target for our projected anxiety about the privileged status of English and of the US?

When opinions diverge so widely and split along national lines, the cause is almost certainly NOT the actual content of the film.

Persistent Stereotypes
We see stereotypes continuing to afflict film distribution and reception, A continued insistence on authenticity as defined by most Western distributors and critics hinders our ability to even access the “reel” China. Still too much insistence of political films. ● Narrow view of an ignorant, largely white male audience, or an elite white audience in the US. BUT ● Greater contact between different viewing groups and growing awareness from some distributors.

Changes are Coming
Online retailers offer imports and region-less DVD players ● Filesharing = wide access to Chinese films ● Loosening regs. on the film industry in China = collaboration ● Growing recognition of: – diasporic communities – China's role in the global community – more Americans travelling to China all lead to breaking stereotypes and questioning the bounds of “Chineseness.”

Are National Boundaries Important?
The borders are dissolving . National identity slips as transnational film-makers and fans poach from national cultures.

Ang Lee and Heath Ledger on the set of Brokeback Mountain
From the Brokeback Mountain page.

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