By Ying Bao
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 185-228
This essay presents a case study of film director Lü Ban, whose career tragically ended with the ban on his poignant satire Unfinished Comedy in 1957. Conceived amidst the relatively liberal atmosphere of the Hundred Flowers Movement, the film offers a treatise about the crisis in comedy filmmaking in the new political economy of the PRC, a rare matacinematic reflection on how artists—and comedians in particular—should respond to their immediate sociopolitical and artistic environment. The film’s layered narrative addresses sensitive issues of social criticism, the relationship between mass culture and political discourse, the conflict between artistic autonomy and official control, and the status of artists and performers from the “old society.” Using the metacinematic comedy as a starting point, the essay examines aesthetics, polemics, and industry history of comic filmmaking in 1950s China. Placing the genre in its historical, critical, cultural, and industrial contexts, it discerns a complex process through which notions of what is laughable are negotiated within a volatile political and cultural climate.