An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937

Zhang Zhen,
An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0-226-98237-8 (hb) US$75
ISBN: 0-226-98238-6 (pb) US$30
(Review copy supplied by University of Chicago Press)

As the surging metropolises of contemporary China loom increasingly large for international economies, as international film industries look toward China as a source of production and consumption, and as film archives and festivals start to make the few surviving films more widely available, it is timely to see more works on Chinese film history appear in English. Zhang Zhen, who is based at New York University, has written a history which will quickly become essential reading for those interested in Chinese cinema, especially Shanghai cinema’s golden age period of the 1920s and 1930s. It is not so much an introductory survey, but rather a book whose value is its intensive analysis of key films, its detailed cultural geography of a city-based industry, and its use of previously untranslated material to open these films up to the cultural contexts and intellectual debates from which they sprang.

Given that this book stems from Zhang’s dissertation at the University of Chicago and that it appears in the ‘Cinema and Modernity’ series edited by Tom Gunning for that university’s press, there should be few surprises about the approach to film history which we will find here. Zhang’s study of cinema in Shanghai prior to the Japanese invasion is heavily taken up with the epochal historical assumptions that derive from the work of Gunning and his colleague at Chicago, Miriam Hansen, whose interest in early cinema is grounded in the analysis of vernacular modernism.

This vernacular modernism approach assumes that early cinema (a term which for western cinemas designates the period prior to the institutionalisation of the continuity editing system around 1917, though Zhang extends this another two decades in China) has to be understood as a popular reflection of, and influence on, urban modernity. In its more extreme version – and Zhang’s introduction seems to want to push the party line as far as she can – it extends to the observation that cinema is a manifestation of a basic change in perception (“a new human sensorium” [1]) wrought by the conditions of modernity. At the base of this is the assumption that senses are “shaped” (10) by the environment including the cinema. Films are often used, circularly, as symptomatic evidence of this change, and at times, the major form of evidence is the appeal to the authority of Walter Benjamin.

If it takes a while to wade through some of this introductory ground-clearing, the close analysis of Shanghainese film which Zheng then delivers, provides ample riches, providing a strong empirical basis for her theoretical assumptions. Zhang’s most useful insights are in the ways that Shanghai cinema combined heavily localised forms with international influences (primarily Hollywood filmmaking as what Hansen calls a “global vernacular” [17] though Soviet montage and German expressionism also have their place in this story). Zhang demonstrates quite persuasively that “the Chinese film industry is thus a tension-ridden process of negotiation between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, between film as utopian ‘universal language’ on one hand and local vernacular(s) on the other.” (21) These are important issues for people interested in conceptions of nationalism and globalism in contemporary cinema, and it is extremely important to see a sustained historical study of the ways that a city-based cinema such as this was simultaneously local, national and international in its orientations.

The vernacular influences on Shanghainese filmmaking include intensely local consumption contexts, such as the language and teahouse culture of Shanghai’s entertainment districts, along with wider cultural and aesthetic movements. Some of these broader contexts are relatively well known in the west, including the May Fourth movement and the increasing influences of patriotic and leftist elements in China during this period, as Japanese aggression came to be felt more strongly. Other movements have enjoyed much more limited publicity, such as the Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly school of elegantly classical fiction which was transforming itself in the 1920s to accommodate mass cultural urban tastes.

Zhang does an impressive job of showing that there was no univocal response to modernity (though who would ever assume that there was?) in her chapters on ‘Competing moderns’ which comprise the largest part of the book. Given the small proportion of the period’s films that have survived, she also incorporates ancillary texts, including cinema magazines and scriptwriting correspondence courses, as key components in her analysis. One of the strengths of the book, however, is the use of a small number of films which she works over intensively as being emblematic of the movements, negotiations, and tensions she traces.
The Mingxing studio’s Labourer’s Love (1922) is read as a text which registers the transition between a cinema of attractions and a cinema of narrative integration. Other chapters are similarly based on transitional moments, such as cinema’s movement from teahouses into purpose-built cinemas, or between competing versions of what the cinema should be – the tension between a drama-based cinema and an image-based cinema, or the tension between ‘Hard’ films (which are explicitly socially and ideologically engaged) and ‘Soft’ films (in which entertainment genres celebrated urban modernity). The chapter on the sudden explosion in the popularity of martial arts films during the 1920s is crucial hjstorical context for anyone interested in the resurgence of the genre in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, especially for its emphasis on the role of nuxia, or female protagonists.

In her final case study, Zhang analyses Song at Midnight (a 1937 re-working of Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera) for what it tells her about the tension between sound and silent cinemas, between local cinema and Hollywood, between a nationalist cinema and an entertainment cinema. In a familiar critical move, she converts the film into allegory of its own production, making it into a reflexive study on the role of sound and the voice.

An Amorous History of Chinese Cinema makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of Chinese film history. It is doubly welcome, given the difficulties in getting access to copies of the relatively small number of Shanghai films which have survived and been sub-titled. I hope it will increase the demand for retrospectives and subtitled re-issues so that we can finally start to get a sense of the ways in which peripheral cinemas in the pre-war period registered social change and responded to it with a rich array of aesthetic strategies.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, South Australia.

Created on: Saturday, 9 June 2007

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →