By Laikwan Pang
Reviewed by Shaoyi Sun
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October 2007)
Despite the fact that in recent years Chinese cinema has grown to be one of the most popular subjects taught and researched in area and cinema studies in English-speaking colleges, much of the subject’s rich history remains unexplored and frustratingly murky. Biased and constrained as they are, Cheng Jihua’s A History of the Development of Chinese Cinema (Zhongguo dianying fazhan shi; co-authored with Li Shaobai and Xing Zuwen; Beijing, 1963) and Jay Leyda’s Dianying: Electric Shadows (MIT Press, 1972) still cast long shadows on any scholarly endeavor attempting to piece together the historical puzzles of early Chinese cinema. The over-reliance on a few questionable sources is largely due to a lack of primary materials. Historians and scholars of Chinese cinema sometimes have no choice but to depend on print media, including memoirs and other secondary sources, for knowledge on a film, since many titles were either destroyed during China’s many wars and political campaigns or have deteriorated beyond restoration. On the other hand, the lingering influence of Cheng’s and Leyda’s works speaks volumes about the field of Chinese cinema studies itself: contemporary films tend to attract more scholarly attention than do those of earlier areas. One of the reasons for this may be that latter requires more time, as well as more nuanced and contextualized knowledge, to fully appreciate it.
Against this background, Laikwan Pang’s book on the 1930s Shanghai-based leftist cinema movement stands out as a solid and well-researched contribution to the field of Chinese cinema studies. Pang’s book, which makes extensive use of archival materials and includes careful documentation, can be viewed as a sister project of Wang-chi Wong’s Politics and Literature in Shanghai: The Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers, 1930-36 (Manchester University Press, 1991). Wong’s book was the first English publication to pull together the story of the League of Left-Wing Writers. Similarly, when it was published, Pang’s book was the only English-language study to focus on the controversial yet fascinating subject of China’s left-wing cinema movement. One may question the comparability of the two–namely, the League of Left-Wing Writers and the leftist cinema movement–because the former is more rigorous and disciplined in organizational and political terms. Yet Pang’s book deserves respect for its systematic treatment of the leftist cinema movement. The carefully constructed appendices, particularly Appendix II, “Chinese Films with the Longest First-Run Screening Periods in Shanghai, January 1932 to July 1937” (pp. 245-247), testify to the author’s sound scholarship and meticulous documentation.
Readers already familiar with the history of the left-wing cinema movement, which is reconstructed by the author in the first part of the book, might find the book’s last part, “The Spectators and the Film Culture,” especially refreshing. Considering the scarcity of available data, it is by no means an easy task to locate the audiences of left-wing cinema. Relying mostly on 1930s newspaper commentaries and articles, and on Zhou Jianyun’s (then managing director of the Star Film Company) account, Pang comes to the conclusion that, despite this cinema’s political intent, left-wing films were able to attract an audience that “spanned a large spectrum of population in Shanghai” (p. 157), chief among them the “petty urbanites” ( xiao shimin ), a term that refers to, at least from leftists’ point of view, a community of urban consumers who were “unenlightened, conservative and with a taste for things popular” (p. 152). Pang illustrates the point through Zheng Zhengqiu’s 1933 film Twin Sisters (Zimei hua), arguing that it was probably not the film’s political message, but rather its ability to “evok[e] and manipulat[e]” the audience’s emotions (p. 152), that made it popular. The author even speculates about “some simple pragmatic reasons,” such as the “enjoyment of air conditioning” (p. 157), that played a role in the popularity of some of the left-wing films. This investigation of spectatorship paves the way for the author’s overall assessment of the left-wing cinema as at once “political” and “commercial,” relying heavily on “sentimentalism and populism” (p. 141), and constituting what Pang calls “engaging realism” (p. 197).
That said, certain judgments and perplexing misconceptions prevent the book from rising far enough above mainland publications on the same subject. In her remapping of the rise of the left-wing cinema movement, for example, Pang repeatedly reminds the reader of the “licentious, criminal,” and “morally questionable” nature of the Chinese cinema prior to the 1930s (p. 22), asserting that “pornography and violence were . . . put into the films [of the 1920s] relentlessly and irresponsibly” (p. 29), and that “public condemnation” (p. 29) forced the studio owners to change the directions of their filmmaking. Given the fact that most 1920s Chinese films are no longer extant and that what we know of them comes only from print media and still images (including most parts of the often-mentioned popular series, Burning the Red Lotus Temple), one should at least exercise scholarly caution when making such broad or even moralistic statements. Recent scholarship, including papers delivered at the 2005 Centennial Celebration of Chinese Cinema conference in Shanghai, has also shown the possibility of an overall reevaluation of pre-1937 Chinese cinema. Pang’s book is informed by a sustained reflection on the scholarship, both inside and outside China, but it seems odd that on several occasions she goes so far as to define this loosely formed film movement (many film historians have expressed doubts about Xia Yan’s claim to leadership of the movement as well as about the movement’s close affiliation with the CCP) as being guided by “socialist realism” (p. 7, p. 222), which also contradicts her understanding of left-wing cinema as “engaging realism.”
I have other disappointments. For instance, considering the author’s marked emphasis on the “government’s total control of the [leftist] films’ messages” (p. 57), including the control by the colonial administrations, one would like to see a more detailed and nuanced discussion about how the censorship policy was implemented in everyday practice. If film censorship was as rigorous and strict as the author would like us to believe, one might wonder how such a potentially subversive film movement could be launched in the first place. There is no denying that Hollywood productions had a great impact on early Chinese cinema, but this alone is not sufficient to support the reverse argument that “the real impact of the Soviet cinema” on the left-wing films “was restricted to [a] symbolic level” (p. 145). As the author points out on several occasions, Soviet productions, including Eisenstein’s and Pudovkin’s films, were shown in Shanghai soon after they had been released in their home country. According to the Annual Mirror of Greater Shanghai, 1937, there was even a film theater in Shanghai, Omon Theater, devoted exclusively to the screening of Soviet productions. It is easy to identify traces of Soviet influence, such as the excessive use of quick cuts of close-ups, and the opening sequences of City Scenes (Dushi fengguang; 1935) and Street Angel (Malu tianshi; 1937). In fact, one may argue that UFA films and German expressionism in general played a sizable role in the formation of leftist film aesthetics, as evidenced in Sun Yu’s Daybreak (Tianming; 1933).
Lastly, it has been already pointed out that Pang’s work suffers from lack of editing (see Yiman Wang’s review in Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 62, no. 4). A brief perusal of the book reveals that misspellings of names and film titles are annoyingly abundant. To name just a few: Li Zehou, Li Shaobai, Ma Ning become Le Zehou, Li Xiaobai, and Ma Ling, respectively, and Xiao Wanyi (Little Toys, 1934) and Yapo (Oppression, 1933) become Xiao Wan’er and Yabi. In the book’s “Epilogue” (pp. 231-240), Pang takes the reader at a speedy pace toward what she calls “the second phase of China’s left-wing cinema movement” (p. 231) in postwar Shanghai and beyond. This “first phase”/”second phase” demarcation serves the author well in constructing a simple linear narrative about the history of left-wing cinema, but an informed reader has to wonder whether an overarching term like “left-wing cinema” is adequate or even appropriate to address the complexity and richness of postwar Shanghai cinema.
Building a New China in Cinema provides a well-researched and informative account of the history of the left-wing cinema in China. It succeeds in maintaining a skillful balance between archival research and critical analyses, avoiding the practice of over-theorization so pervasive in some scholarly endeavors. Most important, Building a New China in Cinema is among the first studies in English to tackle the thorny issue of spectatorship in early Chinese cinema, a crucial one that will help us draw a fuller picture of early Chinese cinema. To be sure, it contains many questionable judgments, and some of its arguments are debatable, but it is reassuring to note that Building a New China in Cinema exemplifies the gradual maturity and sophistication that defines the current features of Chinese cinema studies. The book is of much use and interest not only to its intended audiences–namely, scholars and graduate students of Chinese cinema–but also to scholars and students in many other disciplines, such as cinema studies and intellectual history.
 A recent contribution to left-wing cinema is Vivian Shen’s The Origins of the Left-wing Cinema in China, 1932-37 (New York and London: Routledge, 2005).