By Jason McGrath
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 90-132
Beginning in the late 1990s, film director Feng Xiaogang established himself as the most commercially successful mainland Chinese filmmaker ever through a series of popular hesuipian or “New Year’s celebration films.” The hesuipian phenomenon results from the new market conditions facing the Chinese film industry since the mid 1990s. The expectation that government owned studios turn a profit, combined with the sudden domination of the domestic box office by newly permitted Hollywood imports, meant that domestic filmmakers would have to emphasize turning out an entertaining product as never before in the People’s Republic. The entertainment cinema of Feng Xiaogang thus represents a new model of a Chinese national cinema that positions itself vis-à-vis Hollywood.
Close readings of three of Feng Xiaogang’s hesuipian—Jiafang yifang (Party A, Party B, 1997), Bujian busan (Be there or be square, 1998), and Dawan (Big shot’s funeral, 2001)–reveal that this new genre of entertainment cinema had a strong metacinematic tendency and an aesthetic of irony that mitigated the overall lighthearted and often sentimental tone of the films. Reflexivity often appears in cinema during times of industrial crisis, and Feng Xiaogang’s metacinema can be read as the self-reflection of the film industry during a time of transition from socialist conditions to competition within a globalized cultural market. At the same time, the entertainment value of Feng’s metacinema comes from the skilled exploitation of a certain reflexive, self-deconstructing element that is intrinsic to the enjoyment of entertainment cinema in general.