by Chris Berry
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 87-94
The leftist films of the thirties may seem an arbitrary point at which to begin the critical examination of Chinese cinema. However, what I want to do here is demonstrate that the leftist films of the thirties are a very appropriate place to begin dealing with this relatively new critical object. My argument is based on the idea that these films constitute objects within two overlapping discourses, one Chinese and one Western. I would like to introduce the Chinese discourse below. The Western discourse that overlaps with it is that concerning the "third cinema," as it has been termed, and the politico-aesthetic standards derived from it.
I believe Chinese leftist films of the thirties may be usefully studied in relation to the third cinema, and so enter into Western critical discourse. However, at the same time it is also my hope that the overlapping character of the two discourses might allow them to be conceptually interlinked and mutually informing. In this way, a consideration of thirties leftist film may serve as an entry point to Chinese cinema that is reconcilable to the political demands of cross-cultural criticism.
It is these questions of cross-cultural criticism that face us most immediately in our consideration of Chinese film. There can be little doubt that the Chinese cinema is now established as a new object for our critical attention. With major film retrospectives in Paris, London, Turin and Pesaro as well as the distribution of many new films in the United States, the problem is no longer one of getting people to look at Chinese films. The question now is how we should look at them, how we should analyze them, and how we should integrate them into our critical discourses.
The fate of other non-Western cinemas provides plenty of examples of what to avoid, but little positive direction. All too often the films and filmmakers have been appropriated for deployment in already established Western discourses, with only superficial attention paid to their place in their original cultures. Japanese film provides an excellent example of these tendencies and illustrates these problems of cross-cultural criticism.
Two major lines of appropriation can be readily identified in Western criticism of Japanese films. One is the Hollywood aesthetic of Anderson and Richie, the other the modernist critique of their position by Noel Burch.[open notes in new window] His references to Anderson and Richie correctly represent their work as employing an aesthetic that values films emulating the codes of classical Hollywood realism, and in particular the post-war Japanese cinema.
However, Burch is equally guilty of applying an entirely Western aesthetic to the consideration of Japanese film, although his standards are antithetical to those of Anderson and Rithie. Completely in keeping with the left modernist tradition that collapses political and "formal" radicalism, Burch sees all the characteristics of prewar Japanese cinema branded as "errors" and "faults" by Anderson and Richie as marks of a systematic challenge to the Hollywood codes. In this way, Ozu's use of 360-degree space and "pillow shots" elevate him to comparison with Eisenstein and Brecht for Burch, even though there is nothing in his work that unambiguously suggests any comparable concern with radical politics as well as formal originality.
Both these critical tendencies figure Japanese film in terms of an already constituted network of Western critical discourses. One, approving of mainstream Western culture, is assimilation 1st. The other, preferring the challenge of alternatives, sees pre-war Japanese film as exotic, a desirable model for Western filmmakers to work toward. Placing the films in their cultural context, which Anderson and Richie and Burch make some attempt to do, does not help much. When this is done, the tendencies already noted are simply extended to the whole of Japanese culture.
For example, when Richie notes the frequent use of the camera at the eye-level of someone sitting on a tatami mat in a book on Ozu, I presume we are supposed to read this as one of the characteristics making him "the most Japanese of all their directors." Here the exoticist tendency seems to be at work. Would a shot with the camera at standing height be Western, or non-Japanese? Does Japan only exist in terms of its difference from the West?
What is missing from these pieces on Japanese film is any consideration of what film means to the Japanese themselves, or, to be more precise, what it means to various Japanese social groups and how it relates to their own various understandings of what Japan is. In the politics of criticism, the deployment of a non-Western culture only as a mark of difference by which the West may come to identify itself is an unequal, one might even suggest neo-colonialist, operation.
Of course, it is not possible nor is it my intention to suggest that Western analysis or viewpoints should be repressed and erased in work done by Western scholars. That would be idealist in theory and unrealizable in practice. However, it might be both less exploitative and more enriching if Western discourses could be developed that acknowledge and examine the self-perceptions of non-Western cultures, and that are also produced in relation to that knowledge. This move might be started by examining discourses on film produced in the cultures under consideration, a fairly basic procedure entirely lacking in the work on Japanese film I have just discussed.
Indeed, it is only by examining Chinese film criticism that we can perform the necessary preliminary step of understanding the relation between the films made available to us by the Chinese authorities and Chinese cinematic output as a whole. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), for example, only films produced in that period were exported, and the thirties films were banned along with everything else. As a result, many Westerners still think of strident "revolutionary" epics as the typical Chinese feature film, although they are in fact far from being representative of the whole. Since the fall of the "Gang of Four" in 1976 the tables have been turned. Now it is the pre-Cultural Revolution films that are back in distribution, and the Cultural Revolution films that have disappeared. The leftist films of the thirties have been featured very strongly indeed in the new range of films made available for foreign retrospectives.
However, there is no reason to presume that these films are a great deal more representative of Chinese film as a whole than the Cultural Revolution diet, and this is especially the case with the leftist films of the thirties. In fact, representativeness has never been a criterion in the selection of films for export. It is false to apply the post-Screen scholarly community's hopes and expectations for representative samples suitable for a quasi-scientific methodology.
Rather, the Chinese have sought in each different period to select the "best" of their output for foreign viewers. They have operated on aesthetic grounds. However, these aesthetic grounds are also shifting and not immediately accessible to Westerners. They are neither our almost forgotten standards of the fifties nor a Chinese equivalent also based on essentialist concepts of beauty. Rather, the various positions that have led to cinematic canons such as those referred to above constitute a politicized aesthetic field. The leftist films of the thirties have formed a central issue in that field since the founding of the People's Republic.
It is tempting to understand the fierceness of the arguments around the films of the thirties, and indeed around pre1949 films in general, in terms of a displacement. According to this perspective, all film production since the rise to power of the Communist Party in 1949 and the nationalization of the film studios in the early fifties has been necessarily good until proven otherwise. Only in exceptional circumstances might one risk being negative about a new film, and even then caution and hesitation would be the order of the day, because the critic would of course bear in mind that such a film had passed by censors at every point in its production and been approved by them for release.
Negative assessments of pre-1949 films, on the other hand, would be less dangerous, and so a tendency to displacement by historical allegory in critical work might be generated. Certainly historical allegory is a rhetorical technique with a long pedigree in China. And there are also elements of truth in the ideas that political expectations for pre-1949 films do not run so high, and that the arguments around them are directly connected with current issues.
However, these two factors do not add up to an allegorical discourse. Allegory would require that there be no connection between the thirties films and those of the People's Republic. In fact, many of the people associated with the earlier films were also active in the cinema of post-1949 China. What is at stake, then, is the relation between the earlier and later films, and, by way of this debate, the careers of filmmakers in China. Are these leftist films of the thirties heritage or heresy?
The pre-liberation Chinese cinema was located in the Eastern coastal cities, primarily Shanghai, and was producing for a market in which the vast majority of films shown were imported, mostly from Hollywood. The film-going audience was urban, upscale and attracted by the cosmopolitan, modern and Western connotations of the medium. All film production and screenings were, and long had been, subject to the censorship of the KMT nationalist government.
In these circumstances, most Chinese production was imitative of Hollywood, and, at least on any referentially explicit level, apolitical. Drawing room comedies set among the new Chinese bourgeoisie and Chinese musicals made up a large part of the overall production. However, in the 1930s Japanese attacks on China increased in both frequency and severity. In response at least partly to this, various socially conscious dramatists and other concerned culture workers gathered together and formed the League of Left-Wing Writers. They moved into the film world, and made their presence felt in a group of films very unlike those produced before. They represented contemporary social problems and participated in the growing call for national unity in the face of Japanese attacks at a time when Chiang Kai-Shek was still following a conciliationist line with the Japanese.
The above description is a ridiculously condensed outline derived from Cheng Jihua's History of the Development of Chinese Film. The first two volumes of this massive and ongoing project cover the years up to the founding of the People's Republic, and were published in 1963. It is the only book of its kind in China and therefore stands as the de facto official Chinese film history. This position has drawn attention to the book and encouraged controversy in many areas, including Cheng's stand on thirties film.
He continues from the above material to argue that the leftist filmmakers were operating under the guidance and inspiration of the Communist Party's directives on culture and propaganda, and that the resulting films were in accord with the policies of the time. On this basis, the leftist films of the thirties are figured as a part of the cinematic heritage of the People's Republic, and the forerunners of its own cinema.
It is important to understand that Cheng's statements here constitute an argument, not a statement of the obvious. It cannot be taken for granted that such a close relation existed between these filmmakers and the Party either during the thirties or during the early sixties, at which time this book was published and many of them were still very prominent in the film industry.
As Paul Clark has pointed out, although the Chinese Communist Party recognized that the cinema was one of the most efficient ways to reach the people, it was the medium with which it was least acquainted when it came to power in 1949. After the beginning of the Anti-Japanese War in 1937 and the invasion of Shanghai most of the leftist filmmakers lived out the war years in Hong Kong, the foreign concessions of Shanghai prior to their occupation, or else in areas controlled either by the KMT or by the Japanese. Very few of them were able to join up with the Party in its retreat from the interior where it was already based in the early thirties to the mountain fastness of Yenan, where it survived the war years in incredibly tough circumstances until 1945.
Filmmaking in Yenan was almost impossible, and the Party turned more to traditional Chinese art forms, for example developing a strong movement in traveling drama troupes which spread the message entertainingly and along the lines of the familiar traveling opera troupe. In accordance with these straitened circumstances, an aesthetic developed which placed value on the simple, the wholly Chinese, the truly peasant and worker-based, and on obedience to the Party by culture workers.
Mao developed this view in his famous Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art. The cosmopolitan, middle-class, Westernized east coast cities where the filmmakers came from and where they continued to operate can be seen as almost the exact opposite of this Yenan aesthetic. This separation helped to engender a series of tensions and even disagreements after 1949, all detailed in Clark's study.
In these circumstances, Cheng's assertion of a close relationship between Party and filmmakers in the thirties despite their geographical separation had a double implication for the film world in 1963. Within a general framework of affirming cooperation and harmony between the film world and the Party, Cheng's work can be read as calling upon the film industry to be loyal to the Party and its requirements, and as calling upon the Party to trust film workers as loyal and committed followers of the Party line. As we all know, this striving for consensus was overturned and replaced with the purist policies of the Cultural Revolution very soon after Cheng's book was published.
The elements that came to power during the Cultural Revolution are now dubbed "ultra-leftists. In the cultural sphere they espoused a neo-Yenan aesthetic that was strict and unforgiving. As I have indicated, very few filmmakers had the sort of class and political background that might have saved them from the attentions of the Red Guards and their backers. The studios were purged and the vast majority of their workers were sent to the countryside. So little of the existing talent was found to be acceptable that very few films were made during the Cultural Revolution decade.
The film workers from the thirties were among those criticized most heavily. Mao's Yenan Talks of 1941 were interpreted as a repudiation of all that had gone before them. Even the leftist films of the thirties were insufficiently proletarian, insufficiently militant to live up to the demands of Yenan. The films were no longer to be seen as the forerunners of socialist art but as "poisonous weeds", and the filmmakers were no longer glorious but rather tainted by their association with them.
As for Cheng Jihua, he was termed "a renegade and cultural spy who sneaked into the Party," and "lackey" for the now-condemned cultural big wigs from the thirties. He was alleged to have been working at their behest, submitting his work for their approval. His book was banned largely because of his line on the thirties films, the manuscript for the third volume of the study was destroyed, and he himself was imprisoned in solitary confinement for seven or eight years.
Now, of course, he has been rehabilitated along with the films he praised and the book he wrote. And in making these films of the thirties available again for foreign retrospectives, the Chinese are clearly signaling the return of Cheng's model of Chinese film history, representing the films as the heritage of the cinema of the People's Republic.
This Chinese discourse on the films of the thirties has very specific parameters, stakes and characteristics. Nonetheless, I would argue that not only can it inform us about film in China by itself, but that it can also be made to interlock productively with Western discourses on the cinema, specifically the various writings on the third cinema that have developed in the last decade or two.
The major manifesto of this tendency, Solanas and Getino's "Toward a Third Cinema," has clear relations to Chinese political and theoretical discourse in general. Solanas and Getino coin the very term "third cinema" as part of a rhetorical figure that speaks of a first, second and third cinema along the lines of the Chinese concept of the first, second and third worlds. Furthermore, the whole piece argues for seeing cinema as contributive and even necessary to the revolution, not merely as a superstructural element that lags behind infrastructural transformations.
This voluntarist line is explicitly rooted in Maoist theory, and various quotes from Mao's On Practice are used to buttress the call for a guerilla cinema that can act as a cultural vanguard for the revolution. Cultural vanguardism is of course a policy most closely associated with the Cultural Revolution period in China itself. And indeed, it seems that Solanas and Getino's politico-aesthetic line would be most compatible with the expressed policies of the Cultural Revolution period.
This is because they are expressly intolerant of any work that might be assimilated by the existing system or permitted under the umbrella of liberal reformism, and insist instead that revolutionary filmmakers must strive to make and distribute movies that can only function as direct and intolerable attacks on the system. This is somewhat analogous to the purist interpretation of Mao's Yenan Talks that rejects the leftist films and filmmakers of the thirties for working under censorship rather than flaunting it and for pursuing a "national unity" policy seen by the cultural revolutionaries as a compromise and a sell out.
In these circumstances, although it opens important possibilities, Solanas and Getino's manifesto alone limits the degree of compatibility between the writings on Chinese cinema of the thirties and its own discussion of third cinema. This is not only because it pursues a line that corresponds to only one stance in the Chinese framework. It is also because Solanas and Getino have a very specific practice in mind when they write of the third cinema. This consists of the use of lightweight mobile equipment for both production and projection beyond the control of the system, combined with close and direct interaction between filmmakers and viewers in which the films serve as only one part of a wider revolutionary project. They felt this practice was correct for the specific conjuncture they were concerned with, though corresponds in no way to any Chinese filmmaking practice, either during the thirties, or, to the best of my knowledge, any other period.
However, Solanas and Getino's manifesto is not the be all and end all of third cinema. Rather it has come to be a cornerstone in a much broader discursive field. This latter allows for the construction of a stronger and deeper relation with the Chinese discourse on leftist films of the thirties. Teshome Gabriel has synthesized and constructed a much broader field for discussion in Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation. He extends the term "third cinema" so that it may cover a considerable range of films linked by critical analysis according to a set of shared characteristics.
Among these characteristics would be independent production within the third world and a basic narrative representation of local social and political problems. These should preferably be made as part of an explicit political drive for decolonization and progress in the broad Marxist understanding of the term, and they should preferably match their anti-imperialism with anti-Hollywood styles of filmmaking itself. This much broader conception allows Gabriel to include in his considerations filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, who has patently not worked in the manner prescribed by Solanas and Getino. In so doing, Gabriel transforms third cinema from a prescriptive line into a descriptive field.
In addition to the characteristics mentioned above, Gabriel also limits the objects of his study to relevant film made during or since the sixties. This is where he locates the beginnings of the third cinema tendency with such self-conscious pieces as Solanas and Getino's manifesto. Certainly, this criterion would exclude the leftist films of the thirties from the third cinema. However, in other ways they possess the necessary basic characteristics to be considered as part of or at least as forerunners to the third cinema.
For this study I was able to examine six leftist films of the thirties. They are all major examples cited by Cheng Jihua and made with the involvement of some of the major figures in the Chinese filmmaking world. The films are SPRING SILKWORMS, BIG ROAD, PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM, THE GODDESS, CROSSROADS, and STREET ANGEL. All of them were made by Chinese filmmakers and producers, many of them explicitly making films as a leftist political effort.
Thematically, these films represent the types of social and political problems also found in the films discussed by Gabriel. SPRING SILKWORMS deals with the situation of silk farmers. It represents their control by the whims of the foreign market and their feudal dependence on useless superstition. BIG ROAD depicts the patriotic efforts of urban unemployed youth to go into the interior and support the Chinese army's efforts to resist aggressors (by implication, the Japanese). PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM is a narrative tracing the relentless decline of educated and principled youth, and THE GODDESS is a similarly tragic story of a prostitute and the discrimination she suffers.
STREET ANGEL is a sort of Chinese LOWER DEPTHS, and CROSSROADS shows a group of Chinese youth eventually banding together to go off and defend the nation, presumably against the Japanese. Even stylistically, they do not follow Hollywood paradigms and conventions. They often deploy group narratives which privilege a sense of community over the individual subject, which it has been theorized is so often central to the classic U.S. cinema. In the case of SPRING SILKWORMS, its unusually slow and regular rhythms could be said to express the lifestyle of the farmers.
Because of these characteristics which give the Chinese leftist cinema of the thirties so much in common with the broad range of films already considered by Gabriel to constitute the third cinema, I would argue that these earlier films could also be considered under this umbrella. I recognize that this is not an uncontroversial move. In a review of Gabriel's book, John Hess has already indicated that Gabriel's extended and looser use of the term "third cinema" avoids significant political differences among the films he puts in the category and their more specific contexts.
My aim in extending the term is not to obliterate the socio-historical specificities that would legitimate the third cinema of the sixties' claim to stand alone as a movement. Rather it is an intervention within the politics of education intended to open up a consideration of that specific movement as central among a number of similar tendencies, all of which demand a single, politicized critical rubric yet to be adequately concretized.
The investigation and search for antecedents in films such as STELLA DALLAS and filmmakers such as Dorothy Arzner has proved fruitful in the definition and delimitation of feminist criticism. Similarly, it is my hope that this investigation of the leftist Chinese cinema of the thirties and of the Chinese and Western critical discourses I believe pertinent to it may be useful in some way to the development of third cinema criticism, even if it later proves preferable to rename this field in such a way as to distinguish it from the specific sixties movement which engendered it.
As this suggests, as well as their objects of study, it is also useful to consider the two discourses under examination in terms of their projects, in terms of what is at stake in their respective arguments. Here again there is enough in common between them to provide the basis for a productive interchange. Broadly speaking, they share a common interest in Marxist aesthetics. Both discourses revolve around attempts to determine appropriate politico-aesthetic standards for the evaluation of films and then try to assess films according to those values.
Although Gabriel subtitled his book 'The Aesthetics of Liberation," and although it contains much theoretical discussion of its object, neither Gabriel nor Chinese authors such as Cheng Jihua spend a great deal of space arguing out their politico-aesthetic standards. In China, critical discourses tend to take the form of assertion rather than argument, and the possibility of alternative positions is rarely admitted. To do so would be interpreted as questioning the established line, a stance threatening to democratic centralist principles of discipline.
In the West, on the other hand, it seems that the unpleasant memory of now discredited essentialst standards of "art" criticism based on idealist assertions of what cinema "really is" such as auteurism or Bazinian realist aesthetics, combined with well-known institutional pressures may account for the widespread (although not universal) tendency toward abstentionism among academics in critical studies.
In the latter circumstances, although a vague leftism often infuses many writings, very few of us have developed the skills to be rigorous or even explicit in discussions of our aesthetics. We still have a very loose idea of what a Marxist aesthetic is, or of how we would determine if a film lived up to it. However, placing different politico-aesthetic traditions in juxtaposition may encourage a more thorough consideration by all parties.
Recently, many Chinese scholars and filmmakers are known to have expressed a personal interest in the left modernist tradition of the West. If radical formalism, for example, has some impact either as a negative or a positive model in Chinese criticism, the results might well be very interesting. Similarly, if this sort of situation can encourage a more thorough examination of "the aesthetics of liberation" here, the results will also be very useful indeed. I don't intend to consider the broad debate here. But I would like to make a few observations about the aesthetic aspects of the Chinese discourse on the films of the thirties, and also about Gabriel's aesthetic.
One of the most immediately striking observations to be made about the Chinese discourse is that there is almost no distinction between filmmaker and film. To condemn one is to condemn the other. If the filmmaker was working according to the correct line, that is to say if his intentions are perceived to have been good, it is very unlikely that the film will be condemned. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that most attention is paid to the production end of a movie. After all, reception is usually beyond the control of the filmmaker and why should she or he be held responsible for something they cannot control?
It seems as if two major elements come into play in judging a film. First, what were the intentions of the filmmaker and what policy was she or he following? Second, a Socialist Realist style principle of mimesis which appears to follow the traditional Marxist lines familiar to us courtesy of Lukacs, Stalin, Zhdanov, et al is also applied. Can the film be said to have accurately represented the topic it has chosen to deal with?
For example, Cheng's criticisms attend mostly to the faithfulness of adaptation and also representation in SPRING SILKWORMS. He praises its eye for accurate detail and its almost documentary investigation of the silk farming process from caterpillar to cocoon are praised. He pays no explicit attention to rhetoric or actual reception, except to note that the film was well received by the cinema-going public. This appears as an unproblematized zone of communication. If the film conforms to mimetic and political requirements it seems to be the assumption that viewers will learn from it as a sort of object lesson.
Gabriel's major concern is also with representation. This has already been indicated in my discussion of the ways in which Chinese leftist films of the thirties fit with his requirements for third cinema. Of course, style is covered in a preference for anti-illusionist or non-Hollywood filmmaking, but nonetheless the main stress is on themes. This again makes sense. In the West access to the means of production and access to representation, although important and possibly understated in film criticism, are much less difficult than they are in most of the third world.
The very fact that these films were made in China at a time of economic colonialism and that they represented the life and problems of Chinese people rather than bad simulations of Western fantasies are indeed considerable achievements. However, it does seem important to me that other aspects of the whole communication should also be given rigorous examination, most notably textual rhetoric and concrete reception.
On the rhetorical level, spectator positioning may best be examined in terms of knowledge assumed or required of the viewer for adequate decoding. Point of view shots are rare, not least because of the frequent narrative concern with a group rather than an individual, and these films do not generally lend themselves easily to a Bellourian type of analysis based on the delegation of the look. However, based on the six films I have examined, they appear to have been aiming for a fairly consistent audience.
Certain referential materials are represented as worthy of intense investigation, others as being so familiar as to slip into the background. In these terms, the films are clearly directed toward an urban, professional audience rather than to a proletarian or peasant audience. In SPRING SILKWORMS the painstaking labor involved in caring for the worms is presented in great detail, presumably to convey to an audience unfamiliar with the work or with the general effects of physical labor how exhausting it is. In BIG ROAD, road construction is represented with similar concern to communicate the physical strain of the job, and in PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM the impoverished hero's work in a factory is represented not only in detail but also with the unusual use of acutely angled shots of him heaving and pulling.
When the films present the urban middle-class, no concern appears that this might be unfamiliar or exotic to the audience. Such things as trams and automobiles are not deemed worthy of examination, and offices are matter of fact locations for many scenes. Filing and form-filling are never examined with the sort of fascination reserved for physical exertion. Most tellingly, not only is familiarity with professional city life taken for granted, but literacy and education are also necessary to decode many of the subtler points.
Many of the main characters are alienated and down-at-heels college graduates, and the narrative of such films as CROSSROADS and PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM concern themselves with their travails, which I presume would not necessarily attract the sympathy of the average factory laborer. It is not uncommon for these main characters to make literary allusions which would pass an uneducated viewer by. The implications of a wall poster of the leftist writer Lu Xun in the background of a shot in CROSSROADS could easily be missed. And in STREET ANGEL subsidiary headlines next to main headlines in shots of newspaper texts are often used to insert politically sensitive reminders of such things as the Japanese aggression, without running into censorship difficulties, in the face of Chiang Kai-Shek's conciliationism.
STREET ANGEL also features elements which although less obstructive than the newspapers to basic decoding by the uneducated, require a very esoteric left liberal knowledge. In the opening sequence of the film, there is a series of shots which seem to constitute a direct reference to Eisenstein's work. Various low angle shots of lion statues echo the famous rising lion montage in POTEMKIN. A series of shots of various religious buildings at extreme left and right angles seem almost to quote from OCTOBER. The very opening shot of the film seems to summarize the tendencies noted here. The shot opens with a view of a city skyscraper. Slowly the camera moves down the skyscraper, and the audience is moved from the elevated, Westernized location where it begins down until it is literally below ground level. A subtitle, requiring literacy and knowledge of foreign literature, appears: "Shanghai — the lower layers."
As well as being directed toward a middle class, city audience, the films often seem to depend upon that audience having attitudes that might seem questionable from any Marxist standpoint, and which certainly would not sit well with the purist requirements of a Yenan aesthetic. Despite my earlier observations, there is one scene in which an office is exoticized. This occurs in STREET ANGEL, when two of the main characters visit an office building. A great deal of humor ensues because of their ignorance of central heating, water dispensers, glue pots, coffee and so forth. For this scene to be effective, it is not only necessary that the film audience be familiar with these objects, but also that they should be prepared to laugh at those who are not.
Examples such as this indicate that the working class might be viewed sympathetically but that they are certainly not esteemed. This becomes most clear in films dealing with college students, such as CROSSROADS and PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM, both of which construct a move toward doing physical labor as a tragic decline for their main characters. In PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM it is interesting to note in addition that the transition is also marked by a series of changes of clothes for the hero.
When working in an office, he wears a new Western suit. Unemployed, he is in tattered Western clothes, and then, as things get worse, in a dour Chinese gentleman's robe. Finally, when reduced to manual labor in a factory, he wears the tattered clothes of a Chinese workman. Although most of the films make their anti-imperialism clear, instances such as this and the examples of references to foreign arts in STREET ANGEL indicate a far more ambiguous attitude to the West than a clear-cut call for the rejection of all things foreign.
The rhetorical instances given in the last paragraph would seem to call the leftist pretensions of these films into question. However, there are additional circumstances to be borne in mind. Mostly these revolve around the possibilities of the precise historical conjuncture. Although a great deal more work needs to be done in this area, it seems that the available audience was the middle-class city dwellers. Film distribution and exhibition was beyond the control of the leftists, and the financial and political restrictions of the time would have prevented them from moving toward an alternative structure.
In addition, they were dependent for capital and support on producers who were less likely to support their political cause. Again, there were no lightweight cameras available for a guerilla cinema in the sense that Solanas and Getino call for it. And finally, it is clear that the filmmakers themselves were precisely the sort of liberal middle-class people their audiences were implied to be, and that in the circumstances, these were the most leftist people who would be likely to have had access to the means of production.
Finally, although these films might not conform to an idealist notion of socialist art, they were certainly progressive when compared to other films in distribution at the time, and they appealed to an audience which, although not salt of the earth proletarians, constituted one of the main supports of the Communists when they came to power in 1949.
It seems, then, that these final considerations complicate any politico-aesthetic judgment. Various questions need to be discussed further. How much more information about conditions of reception can be obtained for these films? Were there any alternative, private distribution networks, and were they large enough to support an alternative filmmaking practice? To what degree was the attitude fostered by these films a desirable one, both in and of itself, and in terms of building a necessary political coalition for the Communists to eventually come to power?
In these circumstances, although it must be clear that my sympathies lie with Cheng Jihua's assessment of the films at this stage, it is necessary to suspend judgment because no clear statement can be made about the films. One thing however is clear. The very politico-aesthetic ambiguity that these films continue to raise is precisely what continues to make them fertile ground for the consideration and argument of Marxist aesthetics, and on this basis at least, they may productively enter Western discourse.
1. Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) and Noel Burch, To The Distant Observer; Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (Berkeley: U. C. Press, 1979).
2. See, for example, ibid, p. 66, n9; p. 81; p. 96, n4; p. 107, n15; p. 307.
3. David Bordwell makes this and other useful criticisms in his review article on To The Distant Observer in Wide Angle, 3:4 (1980). Another useful critique is Robert Cohen's "Toward a Theory of Japanese Narrative," Quarterly Review of Film Studies, (Spring 1981), pp. 181-200.
4. Donald Richie, Ozu, (Berkeley: U. C. Press, 1974).
5. Cheng Jihua, (chief ed.), Zhongguo Dianying Fazhanshi, (Beijing: China Film Press, 1963). Although hitherto available only in Chinese, plans are underway to publish this vital book in both French and English.
6. Heroes Without Battlefields: A History of Chinese Filmmaking since 1949, diss., Harvard University, 1983.
7. (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967).
8. For sample criticisms of Cheng Jihua, see: Renmin Ribao (People's Daily) April 1, 1966, pp. 5-6 and April 19, 1966, p. 6; Chinese Literature, 1968. No. 6, pp. 95-10G; and Jiefangfun Wenyi (Liberation Army Literature and Art Gazette), 1968, No. 10, pp. 17-24.
9. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, "Toward a Third Cinema." in Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: U. C. Press, 1976), pp. 44-64.
10. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1982).
11. SPRING SILKWORMS (Mingxing Studio, Shanghai, 1933. Directed by Cheng Bugao. Screenplay by Xia Yan), BIG ROAD (Lianhua Studio, Shanghai, 1934. Written and directed by Sun Yu), PLUNDER OF PEACH AND PLUM (Diantong Studio, Shanghai, 1934. Directed by Ying Yunwei. Screenplay by Yuan Muzhi), THE GODDESS (Lianhua Studio, Shanghai, 1934. Written and directed by Wu Yonggang), CROSSROADS (Mingxing Studio, Shanghai, 1937. Written and directed by Shen Xiling), and STREET ANGEL (Mingxing Studio, Shanghai, 1937. Written and directed by Yuan Muzhi).
12. Film Quarterly, 37:4 (summer, 1984), p. 36.