Edited by Gary Bettinson
Reviewed by Hongmei Yu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2016)
The geopolitical complexity of the Sinophone world makes any attempt to comprehensively address the filmmaking traditions of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese communities together a formidable mission. The two China volumes in the Directory of World Cinema series provide interesting insights into the fast-growing Chinese film industry, but exemplify at the same time the organizational challenges of such an ambitious project.
The first China volume in the series was published in 2012. Editor Gary Bettinson discusses in the introduction the overwhelming presence of Chinese co-productions. “Without denying the transnational, cross-fertilizing connections among the cinemas of Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong,” the book still categorizes Chinese cinema into these three territories, aiming to “elucidate[s] the careers of key personnel and survey[s] significant cinematic trends within and across the three territories.” The volume is composed of short essays, introductions to major stars and directors, and film reviews. However, its extensive coverage of Hong Kong, which might be a result of a United Kingdom-Hong Kong connection—most of the contributors live and work in the UK—as well as some contributors’ personal preference, makes the tripod unbalanced.
Published in 2015, Directory of World Cinema, China 2, also edited by Bettinson, is organized in the same format. Compared with Hong Kong and Taiwan, Mainland China is still, ironically, marginalized in this volume. For example, all six stars in the first volume are from Hong Kong (though the cover features the mainland actress Zhang Ziyi), and Ruan Lingyu is the only non-HK star among the nine stars introduced in the second volume. Moreover, Ruan Lingyu, who worked in Shanghai during the 1930s, seems out of place among the other stars, who all worked in the Hong Kong film industry after the 1960s: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Stephen Chow, Alexander Fu Sheng, Bruce Lee, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Jimmy Wang Yu, and Michelle Yeoh. As for directors, while Chen Kaige, Lu Chuan, and Tian Zhuangzhuang are covered in the first volume, three mainland directors—Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, and Zhang Yimou—are introduced in the second volume, along with Taiwan’s Ang Lee and Edward Yang as well as five directors from Hong Kong. But neither volume contains a single essay on cinematic trends in mainland China, such as the Fifth Generation or the more recent documentary movement. However, improvements in the second volume can be observed in two aspects: first, attention to socialist cinema; and second, a well-organized Queer Chinese Cinema section, which I shall discuss later.
Directory of World Cinema, China 2 contains seven short essays. It starts with Bettinson’s introduction of Hollywood representation of Chinese people and Chinatowns. He argues that China’s recent economic rise heralds a shift in the cinematic presentation of Chineseness—in both Hollywood and Chinese movies. From The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), in which a group of Chinese orphans is saved by a kind-hearted Western woman, to the scenario in Gravity (2013) in which China becomes the putative savior of the Westerner, Bettinson examines the pro-China ideological shift in recent Hollywood cinema. He also points out how a burgeoning Chinese confidence is demonstrated by a 2013 Chinese film American Dreams in China.
The following essay, by Cindy Hong-Yuk Wong, provides “an initial road map” to understanding the complicated film festival landscape in the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, including the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), which she reads as “a showcase for the Chinese to see themselves as ascending to the global stage,” and the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), which paved the way for Chinese cinema’s entry onto the international scene. While the essay lists many non-officially sanctioned underground film festivals in the PRC, Wong neglects to mention three officially-sanctioned awards—the Golden Rooster, Hundred Flowers, and Huabiao Awards—which stage elaborate and festive annual ceremonies.
This volume includes two essays on contemporary Taiwan cinema. According to James Udden, the box office success of Wei Te-sheng’s Cape No.7 and Seediq Bale does not represent a resurgent trend for Taiwanese cinema since the market remains completely open to Hollywood domination. Different from Udden’s cultural industry analysis, Yun-hua Chen examines the inward-looking perspective in Cape No.7 and many similar productions and observes the Taiwan dream, as reflected by those overly mediatized celebrities of the “light of Taiwan,” is “essentially a desire for global recognition behind the agenda of returning to the local.” This interesting twist highlights the tension between the global and the local in the contemporary world. Another essay by Law Kar traces, in a descriptive story-telling style, early Hong Kong cinema, mainly Benjamin Brodsky’s activity in Hong Kong and the production of Chuang Tsi Tests His Wife. Interesting as they all are, a problem lies in the organization of the three short essays—they seem randomly arranged with their grand titles “Contemporary Taiwanese Cinema,” “Recent Taiwanese Cinema,” and “Early Hong Kong Cinema,” and none of them actually provide the overall survey their titles would indicate.
The Queer Chinese Cinema section, by contrast, is better organized, with two essays and eight film reviews. In “Out of Time: Sinophone Cinemas and the Female Homoerotic,” Fran Martin draws on Shu-mei Shih’s conceptualization of the “Sinophone” to identify a historically embedded representational pattern in Chinese-language female homoerotic cinema—namely, a memorial mode that has no future. Furthermore, she also examines how the memorial mode is problematized and challenged in Zero Chou’s Spider Lilies: although it gets entangled with familial memory and the social memory of the 1999 earthquake, homoerotic memory eventually reasserts itself in this 2007 Taiwan film.
Andrew Grossman’s “Hong Kong Gay Cinema” offers a survey of alternative sexualities in Hong Kong cinema since the 1970s, when the tradition of Chinese opera performance encountered gay identity politics. These two essays are followed by eight reviews of queer films, including Bishonen, Butterfly, East Palace West Palace, Formula 17, Happy Together, Lan Yu, Peony Pavilion, and Vive L’Amour. Not surprisingly, only two out of the eight are lesbian-themed films, which speaks to the fact that the cinematic representation of homosexuality is mainly a masculine world. In his critique of Formula 17, Chris Berry points out how this commercial film made by young women appeals to young female audiences, which opens a new perspective to examine the production and reception of queer film.
As with the first China volume, film reviews are major parts of the second volume. In addition to the above-mentioned queer films, seventy-nine films, in four genres, are reviewed: (1) drama; (2) kung-fu and martial-arts films, (3) heroic bloodshed and crime cinema; and (4) comedy/musical. The drama genre is further divided into Mainland drama and drama in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the other generic categories are dominated by Hong Kong films, with only a few exceptions, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Let the Bullets Fly, and Monga. Given their total absence in the first China volume, it is great to see three so-called “red classics” of socialist cinema—Early Spring in February, Red Detachment of Women, and Stage Sisters, all made in the 1960s—appear in this volume. As Tony Williams argues in his critique, “Xie Jin injects radical elements into the structure of narrative cinema, giving it a revolutionary dimension that is also creative, unlike many vulgarized versions of socialist realist cinema” (151).
The eighteen drama films in the drama category, made from 1934 to 2010, are listed alphabetically, such that the 1993 Beijing Bastards is followed immediately by a 1934 leftist film The Big Road, an organization that is disorienting to the reader. Other sections have the same problem. For instance, in the Hong Kong and Taiwan drama section, the 1957 Mambo Girl, “a benchmark of the Mandarin musical,” is juxtaposed with the 2010 Love in a Puff, a film that belongs to the “SAR New Wave.” It would be much better if the film review section had been organized under topics such as “Chinese leftist cinema” or “new talents in Taiwan,” with short essays providing either close reading of certain films or some kind of historical survey. For example, how have the kung fu films produced by the Shaw Brothers evolved over the years? In this sense, the Queer Chinese Cinema section would have been a good model to follow. As a matter of fact, since readers/audiences today tend to read about films, stars, and directors online, where vivid images and video clips appear as accompanying materials, a volume such as the Directory of World Cinema, China 2 does not offer any particular advantage. Instead, it should have focused on providing its target readers, namely fans and scholars of Chinese film, a more systematic structure to comprehend this vibrant and expanding industry.
 Gary Bettinson, “Introduction by the Editor.” Directory of World Cinema, China (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), p.10.