Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 247-249
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The transformations of modern Chinese humanities in North America in the last two decades are well known and far ranging. One of the more interesting of these changes has been the investment of a crucial subfield: Chinese cinema studies. Operating at the intersection of Chinese area studies, cinema studies, cultural studies, historical studies, and an expanded notion of literary studies, this subfield continues to show great potential for revising both methodologies and our overall knowledge of Chinese culture and society. Indeed it has become almost de rigueur for young specialists in modern Chinese humanities, especially literature, to "do film."The increase in research activities in Chinese cinema, of course, goes hand in hand with an increase in teaching, and this in turn has led in recent years to the demand for a greater variety of scholarly publications designed to meet the needs of different teachers, courses, and students. Lightness of Being in China: Adaptation and Discursive Figuration in Cinema and Theater by Harry H. Kuoshu (also known as Xu Haixin) represents a useful contribution to the scholarly literature because of its coverage of canonical themes in Chinese cinema studies, its pragmatic approach to film analysis, and its overall clarity of style.
Kuoshu, who teaches at Northeastern University, takes a simple and historically sensible approach to situating cinema in a social and cultural context—namely, by examining the telling variations produced in the name of adaptation. As he points out in his introduction, adaptation involves both historical and intertextual dimensions, or diachronic and synchronic ones (pp. 10-11). Adaptation itself may be a hoary topic in cinema studies generally, but like translation it is so widespread and fundamental that we need periodic reminders of its importance. Here Kuoshu treats adaptation as a process of negotiating among formal and ideological constraints, primarily on the level of text. [End Page 247]
The book consists of an introduction (Chapter 1) plus five more chapters. Chapters 2 and 3 examine film and stage adaptations of the two stories by Lu Xun that have inspired the largest number of adaptations and other artworks: "The True Story of Ah Q" and "New Year's Sacrifice." Chapter 2 sets the stage for the whole book by exploring the problematic of visualizing AhQ, a problematic that Lu Xun encapsulates so well through his arch-textual figure, the Q. Chapter 3 turns the problematic of visualizing Xianglin Sao into an issue of gender. This approach emphasizes what we might call for better or worse the strategic superficiality of both cinematic images and representations of women. The real question, in other words, has to do with the representation of a subjectivity in depth, the possibility of passions, motives, and intentionality.
Chapter 4 translates this question into one of gendered agency by examining two different ways of positioning women within the socialist order of the Seventeen Years (1949-1966)—the period during which "NewYear's Sacrifice" was famously adapted into the film NewYear's Sacrifice (1956). It is a fertile and challenging period whose reevaluation in the United States is only just beginning. These two models take women as types or mere figures caught in the nexus of class struggle—especially in the pre-1949 past (as in the stage and screen versions of The White-Haired Girl)—and as gendered subjects offering a "socialist feminist" perspective on social and policy dilemmas, especially those that arose after 1949 (as in Li Shuangshuangof 1962). By focusing on the one hand on the female body and on the other hand on the male gaze, this chapter invokes the feminist film studies revision of classical cinema whose own locus classicus is the set of Laura Mulvey's essays on visual pleasure and narrative cinema.
Chapter 5 then uses this structure of body, gaze, pleasure, and otherness as a way to examine the symbolic functions...