Sensible Politics

William A. Callahan, Sensible Politics: Visualizing International Relations (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Discount code ASFLYQ6: so paperback is $19.57

Book abstract:

Visual images are everywhere in international politics. But how are we to understand them? In Sensible Politics, William A. Callahan uses his expertise in theory and filmmaking to explore not only what visuals mean, but also how visuals can viscerally move and connect us in “affective communities of sense.”

The book’s rich analysis of visual images (photographs, film, art) and visual artifacts (maps, veils, walls, gardens, cyberspace) shows how critical scholarship needs to push beyond issues of identity and security to appreciate the creative politics of social-ordering and world-ordering. Continue reading

Moulding the Socialist Subject

Xiaoning Lu, Moulding the Socialist Subject: Cinema and Chinese Modernity (1949-1966) (Leiden: Brill 2020)
Series: Ideas, History, and Modern China, Volume: 22
Hardback ISBN: 978-90-04-42351-0 Publication Date: 03 Feb 2020
E-Book  ISBN:  978-90-04-42352-7  Publication Date: 30 Jan 2020

What role did cinema play in the Chinese Communist Party’s political project of shaping ideal socialist citizens in the early People’s Republic? In Moulding the Socialist Subject, Xiaoning Lu deploys case studies from popular film genres, movie star culture and rural film exhibition practices to argue that Chinese cinema in 1949–1966, at once an important political instrument, an enjoyable yet instructive form of entertainment, and a specific manifestation of the socialist society of the spectacle, was an everyday site where the moulding of the new socialist person unfolded. While painting a broad picture of Chinese socialist cinema, Lu credits the human agency of film professionals, whose self-reflexivity and individual adaptability played an intrinsic role in the Party’s political project. Continue reading

Urban Horror

Urban Horror Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-Socialism and the Limits of Visibility
By Erin Huang
Duke University Press, 2020

In Urban Horror, Erin Y. Huang theorizes the economic, cultural, and political conditions of neoliberal post-socialist China. Drawing on Marxist phenomenology, geography, and aesthetics from Engels and Merleau-Ponty to Lefebvre and Rancière, Huang traces the emergence and mediation of what she calls urban horror—a sociopolitical public affect that exceeds comprehension and provides the grounds for possible future revolutionary dissent. She shows how documentaries, blockbuster feature films, and video art from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan made between the 1990s and the present rehearse and communicate urban horror. In these films urban horror circulates through myriad urban spaces characterized by the creation of speculative crises, shifting temporalities, and dystopic environments inhospitable to the human body. The cinematic image and the aesthetics of urban horror in neoliberal post-socialist China lay the groundwork for the future to such an extent, Huang contends, that the seeds of dissent at the heart of urban horror make it possible to imagine new forms of resistance. Continue reading

Three views of ‘One Child Nation’

Source: China File (2/6/20)
What a Picture of China’s One-Child Policy Leaves Out
Three Views of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s ‘One Child Nation’
By Jie Li, Susan Greenhalgh, and Karen Thornber

Kevin Frayer—Getty Images. A student performs eye exercises in her classroom in Beijing, December 18, 2015.


Brainwashed? Reflections on Propaganda in One Child Nation
By Jie Li

One Child Nation, a documentary distributed by Amazon Studios which was shortlisted for an Academy Award, is becoming one of the most influential films about China in the United States. Marketed as “the truth beyond the propaganda,” the film’s opening credits juxtapose luminous jars of aborted and abandoned fetuses against a military parade of robotic marching soldiers. Equating propaganda with lies, violence, and farce, One Child Nation at once reveals and recycles the logic, power, and aesthetics of propaganda.

Born in 1985, six years after the one-child policy was launched, filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up seeing its omnipresent reminders “painted on the walls, printed on playing cards, calendars, matches, snack boxes, posters, all of them blended into the background of life in China.” She brings her American-born baby son back to her village in rural Jiangxi province, and describes herself as starting to “remember” the propaganda about the policy in textbooks, plaques on people’s doors, opera and dance performances, TV, and children’s songs. The film includes a photo of her as a teenager in a choir: “This was me performing propaganda songs. We all had the same makeup, the same dresses, and the same mentality.” This makes her wonder “if the thoughts I had were really my own, or if they were simply learned.” The film’s agenda, then, is to expose and unlearn propaganda. . . [click here to read all three essays in full]

Indiescape HK and the Post-Handover Film World

Indiescape Hong Kong and the Post-Handover Film World
Feature Topic in the journal Ex-position
Guest editor, Kenny NG (Hong Kong Baptist University)

“Independent cinema” in Hong Kong has gained much currency both in academia and in film production and reception circles since the 1997 handover. Despite the fact that the term itself is frequently invoked in critical discourse and film festival programming, the meanings and contours of independent cinema as it is practiced in Hong Kong remain a matter of debate, except for the general consensus that being “independent” in moviemaking confers a disposition of distancing from the mainstream film industry in terms of styles, genres, modes of production and exhibition, financing, or public reception. Independent filmmakers can be bona fide auteurs who have greater control over the subject matter and stylistic choices of their works compared with their mainstream counterparts. Still, creative autonomy is never absolute and always comes with a cost. Filmmakers have to play by the rules of the emerging habitus of independent cinema, while the dynamic and ambivalent exchanges between independent and mainstream cinema are constantly at play in Hong Kong when an independent filmmaker (or film) enters mainstream production and circulation.

This special topic features articles that examine independent cinema in the context of post-handover Hong Kong, and attempt to reinvent or interrogate the notion of Hong Kong Indiescape.

All the articles are available at the journal’s website:

Continue reading

Hollywood losing ground the Chinese blockbusters?

Source: Taipei Times (1/20/20)
Hollywood losing ground to Chinese blockbusters?
In the world’s soon-to-be largest market, audience preferences may be shifting toward local productions

Movie poster for Detective Chinatown 3, which will be showing in China during the Lunar New Year holiday. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

China’s biggest week of the year for movie-goers is packed with at least 12 new releases — all in the local language — a sign that Hollywood studios are headed for another challenging year in their No. 1 overseas market.

The lineup of potential Lunar New Year blockbusters from Jan. 24 to Jan. 30 is drawing even more attention than usual because China is set to overtake the US as the world’s largest movie market this year. The milestone is important as well for US filmmakers that have come to rely on revenue from China to backstop big-budget “tentpoles,” films made to be big earners to offset the financial riskiness of a studio’s other titles.

“Chinese and American audiences are tired of these tentpole movies,” said Beijing-born Jean Su, a producer and co-founder of Broadvision Pictures, a Los Angeles-based independent film and TV studio that focuses on movies for global audiences including North America and China. She said some recent tentpoles haven’t done well in the US and may not get the box office they expected in China, either.

The rising dominance of Chinese blockbusters is in line with a broader shift toward local goods as a trade war with the US stokes nationalism. Older American franchise films like Fast & Furious and Transformers, that used to offset mediocre box-office sales in the US with big China receipts, have seen their share of China’s estimated US$29 billion movie market dwindle. Continue reading

HK protests inspire film fest organizers

Source: SCMP (1/21/20)
Hong Kong protests inspire film festival organisers from Rotterdam to New York
From a 1992 film about life in a cage-home apartment to dystopian feature Ten Years to newly shot short films, Rotterdam event aims to set protests in context. New York’s Metrograph Cinema programme To Hong Kong With Love is billed as a series of Hong Kong New Wave films paired with documentaries about the protests
By Richard James Havis

A still from the new documentary film If We Burn by James Leong and Lynn Lee, which will be showing at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

A still from the new documentary film If We Burn by James Leong and Lynn Lee, which will be showing at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

It is difficult for Hongkongers to see locally made films about the ongoing anti-government protests in Hong Kong cinemas. But interest in the demonstrations has led foreign cinemas and film festivals to programme documentaries and feature films relating to Hong Kong’s political movements.

This month, the Netherlands’ International Film Festival Rotterdam, one of the world’s top-10 film festivals, is screening a programme called Ordinary Heroes: Made in Hong Kong, which comprises more than 20 documentaries, features and short films that focus on the “umbrella movement” in 2014 and the current protests. The festival opens on January 22.

In New York, the popular Metrograph Cinema on Manhattan’s Lower East Side will present a programme titled To Hong Kong With Love, which it describes as a “series of Hong Kong New Wave films paired with timely documentaries about the current protest movement”. The programme opens on February 1. Continue reading

Gay romance Suk Suk wins top prize in HK

Source: SCMP (1/20/20)
Young directors honoured in 2019 Hong Kong Film Critics Society awards, with top prize going to gay romance Suk Suk
Director Ray Yeung’s first Chinese-language feature, Suk Suk tells of an affair between two elderly men; along with top prize, it earns best actor for Tai Bo. Derek Tsang named best director for Better Days, his second feature, while screenwriting award goes to My Prince Edward, debut feature of Norris Wong
By Edumd Lee

Tai Bo (left) and Ben Yuen in a still from gay romance Suk Suk, the first Chinese-language feature by Ray Yeung, named best film of 2019 by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Most of the awards went to films that were the first or second features of young directors.

Tai Bo (left) and Ben Yuen in a still from gay romance Suk Suk, the first Chinese-language feature by Ray Yeung, named best film of 2019 by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Most of the awards went to films that were the first or second features of young directors.

Melancholic gay romance drama Suk Suk has been voted the best Hong Kong film of 2019 by a panel of critics, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society announced on Monday.

The first feature directed by filmmaker Ray Yeung in the Chinese language, Suk Suk was previously nominated in five categories at the 2019 Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, even though it came home empty-handed on that occasion. The film tells of the affair between two closeted elderly men – played by Ben Yuen Fu-wah and Tai Bo – who are both married and have families.

Tai Bo is one of two actors recognised by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society: he shared the best actor honour with Terrance Lau Chun-him, a theatre and television actor making his big-screen debut in Beyond the Dream. Continue reading

China Independent Film Fest closes

Source: Reuters (1/11/20)
Independent film festival in China shuts, says ‘impossible’ to pursue independence

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – One of China’s longest-running and largest independent film festivals has suspended operations “indefinitely”, with the organisers saying it was now “impossible” to organise a festival with a “purely independent spirit”.

The China Independent Film Festival (CIFF), which was established in the eastern city of Nanjing in 2003 and has held 14 sessions so far, made the announcement late on Thursday.

It did not provide more details of what pushed it to such a decision, but the move comes amid growing media censorship in China, which has seen regulators crack down on content they believe to violate “socialist core values”.

“We believe, that under current local organisational conditions, that it is impossible to organise a film festival that truly has a purely independent spirit and which is effective,” the CIFF said on its official WeChat account.

“Of course, to those grassroots film festivals that under the mask of security still try to encourage independence, we express our respect.”

CIFF showed around 1,000 films and documentaries since its founding, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper. A number of them touched on topics considered sensitive in China, such as homosexuality and the relocation of residents under the Three Gorges dam project.

Zhang Xianmin, a professor from Beijing Film Academy who has been the CIFF’s core organiser, told the SCMP on Friday that the closure was “normal”.

“We are just back to the usual rule under the Party. We just went back to 20 years ago, when there was no room and opportunity for independent films.”

“If we had promoted the commercialisation of CIFF, that might have made it safer and we could have had the chance to survive.”

The Wild Goose Lake

Source: SCMP (1/8/20)
Starring Hu Ge and with a plot worthy of Raymond Chandler, film noir by Diao Yinan is a Chinese box office hit, and he says it’s a genre he’ll stick to
Why change a winning hand? Director of The Wild Goose Lake, who’s spun China-set films noir into gold, says he’ll pursue the genre and make films even better. Diao’s films are notable for their style, and he cites influences from Francois Truffaut and Robert Bresson to Chen Kaige and Jia Zhangke.
by James Mottram

Director Diao Yinan (left) and actor Hu Ge in a still from The Wild Goose Lake.

Director Diao Yinan (left) and actor Hu Ge in a still from The Wild Goose Lake.

According to Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan, there are two types of director.

One will continue pursuing a particular thematic and stylistic trajectory from film to film, “whereas some other directors will take a very different path”, he says. “After one success, they might want to try something thematically or stylistically completely different. Like Kubrick, say.”

As anyone who has seen Diao’s work will know, he’s very much in the former camp, “thinking about continuities”, as he puts it, “and how I’m going to stay on that particular thematic and stylistic track”.

A genre filmmaker who has become increasingly obsessed with the rich framework afforded by film noir, the 50-year-old Diao has already triumphed in this arena, with 2014’s Black Coal, Thin Ice.

Diao’s bleak tale of a murder, in which Liao Fan’s detective tries to piece together the mystery of a dismembered corpse, won the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, with the best actor award also going to Liao.

So it’s no surprise the writer-director has decided to continue on that same neon-soaked path in his latest film, The Wild Goose Lake. Continue reading

Censorship of ‘One Child Nation’

Source: Daily Beast (1/3/20)
How the Truth Disappears: Chinese Censorship and My Film ‘One Child Nation’
By Nanfu Wang
Nanfu Wang, who co-directed the doc “One Child Nation” exploring China’s one-child policy, writes about how state media has scrubbed mentions of her film.

Courtesy Amazon Studios

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an experience I had as a 13-year-old vocational school student in China. Each night, every class in the school would have to watch Xinwen Lianbo, a daily news program produced by the state-run broadcaster, China Central Television. The same program was broadcast in every city in China, and in schools like mine, it was required viewing for everyone.

To ensure that each student actually paid attention to the broadcast, we were required to write down 20 of the news stories mentioned during the program—10 domestic and 10 international. At the end of the week, every student’s news notebook would be carefully inspected, and anyone who failed to properly record the news reports would be publicly shamed on “Notice of Criticism” billboards positioned around main pathways throughout the campus. I remember being very afraid of seeing my name on those billboards. Continue reading

10 top grossing films of 2019

Source: China Daily (12/13/19)
Year-ender: 10 highest-grossing films of 2019
By Li Wenrui

Posters of six films on the list. [Photo/Mtime]

Editor’s Note: Despite the “cold winter” theory stemming from the lackluster start of 2019, China’s film industry has come through with a chain of homegrown blockbusters and impressive revenues. On Dec 6, the Chinese annual box office crossed the mark of 60 billion yuan ($8.53 billion) — 24 days earlier than the previous year according to China Movie Data Information Network.

At present, 78 pictures exceeded 100 million yuan ($14.22 million), and among these 15 grossed over 1 billion yuan ($142.2 million) and 6 over 2 billion ($284.5 million). In the last fortnight of 2019, highly-anticipated films like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Ip Man 4 will be screened in the Chinese mainland. So the annual box office total is waiting to be unveiled.

Eight of the top moneymakers are domestic productions, such as the phenomenal Ne Zha, the sci-fi saga The Wandering Earth and romantic crime coming of age film Better Days. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, two high-profile pictures My People, My Country and The Captain seized a considerable market share. Moviegoers in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen contributed most to the national box office. Continue reading

Abandoned children remembered in short film ‘Pearl’

Source: SCMP (12/20/19)
Based on a heartbreaking true story: China’s abandoned children remembered in short film
Chinese filmmaker Yuchao Feng believes his short film Pearl can help heal the wounds of the past for his family and many others who have suffered a similar fate. Feng based his short film Pearl on his mother’s account of being abandoned by her own mother in Fujian province at the age of six
By Kylie Knott

A scene from Chinese filmmaker Yuchao Feng’s heartbreaking short film Pearl, which is about child abandonment and is based on his mother’s childhood.

A scene from Chinese filmmaker Yuchao Feng’s heartbreaking short film Pearl, which is about child abandonment and is based on his mother’s childhood.

One Sunday afternoon in February, 2017, Chinese film director Yuchao Feng was in his flat in the US state of New Jersey when he received a phone call from his mother that would shock and inspire him.

Feng knew something was wrong – not just because it was 3am in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, where Wang Jingjing was calling from, but because they rarely spoke.

“My parents were not around much when I was growing up in Ningde,” says Feng, recalling the city of three million in Fujian province, in the country’s southeast, known for its tea cultivation. “And we talked even less after I moved to the US to study film in 2011.” Continue reading

Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals review

MCLC is pleased to announce publication of Els van Dongen’s review of Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals (Columbia UP, 2019), by Sebastian Veg. The review appears below and at its online home: My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, editor

The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals

By Sebastian Veg

Reviewed by Els van Dongen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December, 2019)

Sebastian Veg. Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. ix + 352 pgs. ISBN: 9780231191401 (hardcover); ISBN: 9780231549400 (e-book).

“Traditional Chinese scholar-officials are today known as intellectuals. This is however not merely a change in name—it is a change in essence. In fact, this change is the shift of intellectuals from the center to the margin.”[1] Thus stated the intellectual historian Yü Ying-shih in an article published in the Hong Kong-based journal Twenty-first Century (二十一世纪) in August 1991. According to Yü, along with the transformation of traditional scholars (士) into modern intellectuals (知识分子) following the abolition of the examination system in 1905 came a gradual political, social, and cultural “marginalization” (边缘化). Modern intellectuals became, echoing Karl Mannheim, “free-floating.” This marginalization continued unabated—even intensified—through the Mao era and beyond. With Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, 1992’s Fourteenth Party Congress, the commercialization of Chinese society, and the emergence of a new media landscape, traditional notions of Chinese scholars as moral saviors and members of a select club of luminaries have been even further transformed and/or subverted. As the philosopher Chen Lai 陈来 observed, in reform-era China, the public appeared to be more captivated by pop idol TV shows such as Super Girl (超级女声) than by the musings of intellectuals.[2] Concurrently, the repression of the Tiananmen demonstrations effectively ended the already shaky alliance between intellectuals and the state, leaving the “Enlightenment” ideals of the 1980s in tatters. Echoing Yü, we might say the early 1990s marked the double marginalization of traditional Chinese academic intellectuals by the state and the market. Hence, what did it mean to be a Chinese intellectual from the 1990s onwards? How did Chinese intellectuals perceive themselves and their relationship with the state and society? How did they adjust their approaches to changing realities? Continue reading

Vol. 31, no. 2 of MCLC

MCLC is pleased to announce the imminent publication of vol. 31, no. 2 (Fall 2019), a special issue on “Reportage and Its Contemporary Variations,” guest edited by Charles Laughlin and Li Guo. Below, find the table of contents, with links to a pdf of the introduction and to abstracts of the esssays. Subscribers will be receiving their copies over the next couple of weeks. If you would like to purchase a copy of this issue, subscribe to the journal, or inquire about the status of an existing subscription, please contact Mario De Grandis (

Kirk Denton, editor

Volume 31, Number 2 (Fall 2019) 

Special Issue on Reportage and its Contemporary Variations
Guest Editors Charles Laughlin and Li Guo