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  • The Politics of Remediation:Mise-en-scène and the Subjunctive Body in Chinese Opera Film
  • Weihong Bao (bio)

Chinese opera films, which flourished during the early decades of the People's Republic of China, were by no means a clearly demarcated territory. Nor was the label for the emerging genre fixed. Between 1949 and 1963, filmmakers, dramatists, and critics engaged in heated debates on the conception, form, and techniques for the making of opera films. These debates were highlighted in three major forums (1956, 1959, 1962) jointly held by the Chinese Dramatists Association and the Chinese Film Association along with other parties, stimulating further discussions published in the major film and drama journals such as Chinese Cinema (Zhongguo dianying), Film Art (Dianying yishu), The People's Cinema (Dazhong dianying), and The Drama Monthly (Xiju bao).1

The debates regarding the making of opera films in the 1950s and early 1960s strike me as unparalleled. Few moments in the history of Chinese film criticism have been so intensely focused on questions of form and medium. At first sight, the multiple labels given to opera films—"opera art documentary," "opera art film," and "indigenous musical"—did not so much highlight the instability of opera film as an emerging genre as they reflected the renewed tensions and affinities between cinema and theater: between realistic settings and symbolic performance, between sound and image, between cinematic and theatrical organization of space and time, and between the centrality of the actor's body and the role of the filmmaker and film editor.

Yet these recurrent questions that still haunt film studies today, particularly regarding the ontological status of cinema and the politics of performance vis-à-vis the technological apparatus of cinema, were given a particular twist. At the center of the debate was the "symbolic" status of Chinese opera. Again and again, these debates reified the dichotomy of film and Chinese opera, film being considered intrinsically realistic and opera being expressive (xieyide), symbolic (xiangzhengde), and formulaic (chengshihuade). In a way, these debates reaffirmed what Yan Haiping has described as the distinct theatricality of Chinese opera (music drama), its "suppositionality": "It actualizes itself through acting that is [End Page 256] suppositional in its overall mode of signification and extraordinarily stylized in its specific executions…. Its workings prevent both the performers and audiences from forgetting that what they enact and behold is consciously made."2

Sang Hu, a celebrated filmmaker and opera fan who made the first People's Republic color film and opera film Love Eterne (1953), elaborated suppositionality (jiadingxing) as the combined effect of three key components of Chinese opera: the theatrical conventions of the operatic stage, the audience's habits of reception, and the actors' stylized mimetic movements.3 In other words, suppositional theater is predicated on the mutual recognition between the audience and the actor of the artificiality of theater, a contractual knowledge further corroborated by stage conventions, particularly the actors' highly stylized and self-referential performances. As a product of translingual practice, the historical and conceptual vestiges of suppositionality will be further elaborated in the main body of this essay.

This suppositionality of Chinese theater is then centered upon and concretized by the actor's performing body, which Chinese critics characterize as "subjunctive" (xunide). While suppositionality describes the theatrical convention in general, the subjunctive is more specifically associated with the actor's performance. In Chinese, xunide has been used to translate the English grammatical term "subjunctive mood" (xuni yuqi), wherein the subjunctive designates what is contingent, hypothetical, conjectural, and hence associated with suppositionality in the discourse on Chinese opera.4 At the same time, in addition to its overlap with the suppositional, the term xunide in the debate on Chinese opera film refers more specifically to the stylized mimetic movement that is consciously differentiated from the purely mimetic (monide), hence generating such phrases as "subjunctive movement" (xunide dongzuo) or "subjunctive-mimetic movement" (xunide moni dongzuo). Ironically, despite this effort of differentiation, the kinship between subjunctive and mimetic is evidenced in the linguistic affinity between xunide and monide—both sharing the same root verb ni, meaning measuring, copying, resembling—and their similarity in performance mode. This kinship poses a key problem in the...


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