China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema  

Jerome Silbergeld,
China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema
London: Reaktion Books, 1999.
ISBN 1861890508

(Review copy supplied by Thames and Hudson (Australia) Pty Ltd)

Uploaded 1 November 200

Although the subtitle claims this book to be about contemporary Chinese cinema, its primary focus is on the internationally well-known Chinese film of the mid-1980s to early 1990s, or what is also often spoken of as “Fifth Generation” Chinese film. Key directors include Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and key texts include Black Cannon IncidentRed Sorghum, and Yellow Earth, as well as Farewell to My Concubine and Sacrificed Youth. Given the renown of these films – and the liberal use of handsome illustrations – it should find a ready readership. No doubt the entire volume is intended for classroom use. Chapter four, which deals with the representation of women and uses Army Nurse and Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls  as its main examples, and chapter five, which looks at the question of melodrama with a special focus on Hibiscus Town, are particularly strong in this regard, because they summarize the existing extensive debate as well as giving Silbergeld’s own considered opinions.

Reaktion Books is mostly known for art books, and Silbergeld himself is a professor of art history. So it is not surprising that the primary focus of China into Film is art historical, with an emphasis on appreciation, exegesis and the tracing of antecedents in paintings. By this I mean that as we come to each of the texts Silbergeld has selected for his cinematic exhibition, first its beauty is extolled briefly, then the plot is summarized and additional social and cultural background given to enable us to understand its meanings, and finally visual motifs and styles are traced back into examples from Chinese painting.

Generally speaking, although I might personally disagree with some of the conclusions Silbergeld reaches, the exegesis is solid and detailed, with extensive reference to other writings in English. There are some strange and in explicable omissions, so that, for example, Silbergeld gives an extensive analysis of a scene in Army Nurse written about previously by Anne Kaplan without mentioning her work at all, but then cites her article a few pages later. Chinese-language texts are omitted, at some risk to the author of accusations of orientalism, but presumably because students could not consult these materials. This is unfortunate, however, because the most extensive critiques of these films have been written in recent years in the People’s Republic, where they have been condemned as exotica designed to appeal to wealthy westerners.  Issues like these surely deserve some attention in a book devoted to these films.

The book’s greatest strength probably lies in the tracing of antecedents in painting, as this is where Professor Silbergeld gets to display his particular expertise. Ranging widely through the history of Chinese art, an array of classical and modern paintings are used to illustrate certain character types, perspectives, and styles that these contemporary films can be said to draw upon. Again, there are some strange omissions. For example, the famous hyperrealist painting, Father, which is the direct source of the famous image of the old peasant farmer in Yellow Earth, gets no mention. However, overall, this is the most illuminating part of the book, genuinely adding to our knowledge of these films, and the book could only have been improved by less discussion of plot and more focus on the intertextual connections these films share with painting.

This emphasis on painting may indicate that the most avid readership for China into Film will be fellow art historians seeking ways to bolster flagging student numbers in their classes. For it must be acknowledged that those with a particular interest in the cinema itself are less likely to be satisfied. Despite all the illustrations and extensive summary of existing debate and cultural background, consideration of cinematic narrative structures, framing, mise-en-scene and editing structures is largely absent. Also sadly missing is an adequate knowledge of world cinema. However, as those of us who do work in cinema studies are only too well aware, this has never stopped experts from other disciplines rushing in. On page eleven, for example, Silbergeld makes a rare stab at the discussion of the actual cinematic quality of these films by comparing them to Hollywood cinema and noting how they often break with Hollywood patterns such as the 180-degree line or the shot-countershot pattern to “operate by their own rules: by Chinese rules, one might say.” This reference to Hollywood is made elsewhere in the book, yet never have I heard any Fifth Generation director use Hollywood cinema as a positive or negative standard for their work. Rather, their main negative model has always been the Chinese socialist realist model that preceded them, and their main positive models have been the European and Japanese art cinema that they were exposed to during their schooling at the Beijing Film Academy. With a greater awareness of art cinema, Silbergeld might have been able to trace antecedents for the films he looks at not only in painting, but also in films. This would also have complicated the culturalism his book assumes, for citing names like Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni, and Truffaut would have made the idea that all Chinese art (cinematic or otherwise) is an expression of some eternal bundle of Chineseness less plausible and insisted on consideration of the very global interstices that have made these films appealing and meaningful for the non-Chinese audiences this book is aimed at.

Chris Berry