- Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract
Since the 1990s, both the massive urbanization in China and the rapid development of Chinese cinema have drawn much academic attention. Film scholars have quickly grown interested in the so-called urban generation films as reflections of the physical and emotional impact of urban transformation. Few, however, have studied the active and productive role played by films and theatrical performances in shaping the urban landscape. Continuities between the Maoist urban aesthetics and the seemingly new urban concern in recent films have also been largely ignored. Yomi Braester’s Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract neatly fills these two gaps. Based on extensive archival research, wide-ranging interviews, discourse analysis, and close readings of as many as 150 films and stage plays from 1949 to 2008, the book offers, as the author states, “a corrective history of Chinese urban cinema, with emphasis on its historical roots” (p. 8). [End Page 36]
At the center of the book are two key concepts Braester adopts and adapts from other scholars. He borrows the term “urban contract” from Manuel Castells and Jordi Borja but does not use it to prescribe an integral city policy. Instead, he uses the term to draw attention to the power structure in urban transformation, in which filmmakers can mediate among the three major players — the government, the developers, and the residents — by offering “different visions of the city” (p. 6) and contributing to “a discursive framework for urban policies” (p. 5). To “foreground the shifting power relations in the urban contract,” Braester arranges the book around cinematic manifestations of various “chronotopes,” or “the coupling of specific locations and temporal perceptions.” The concept was first used by Mikhail Bakhtin for “the imaginary place and time frames that forge fictional realms.” The cases Braester presents, however, “depict real places, forcing the spectators to interpret the films in the factual and symbolic registers at the same time” (p. 18).
The first chapter examines the urban restructuring in Beijing immediately following the Communist takeover and focuses on how Lao She’s Dragon Whisker Creek (stage play 1951, film 1952) “bridged the material city and its allegorical visualization” and “retooled the audiences’ vision” of the city (p. 27). Braester argues that the play, which had been written and performed before the depicted construction at the Dragon Whisker Creek compound was actually completed, projects onto the present an ideal socialist vision of urbanization and contributes to urban discourse a “prescriptive chronotope” (p. 28).
Compared to Dragon Whisker Creek, a proletarian district, the city of Shanghai and its Nanjing Road received much more ambivalent treatment for having been both the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party and a colonial commercial center. Chapter 2 discusses the constantly changing ideological colors of Shanghai painted by films from 1949 to the 1990s, with a particular focus on Sentinels under the Neon Lights (stage play 1963, film 1964) as the centerpiece of the Good Eighth Company campaign that vilified the city. Braester argues that films culminating in Sentinels under the Neon Lights present Nanjing road as the location of a “recidivist chronotope” and make it “the centerpiece of the urban makeover” (p. 58) that involved both physical and symbolic changes.
Chapter 3 surveys post-Maoist state-sponsored plays concerning the demolition of traditional courtyard houses in Beijing and their former occupants’ subsequent relocation. Braester argues that these plays further develop the prescriptive chronotope in Dragon Whisker Creek into a “chronotope of instantaneity” (p. 97), presenting an “upbeat illusion of an instantly rebuilt and modernized city” (p. 226).
Braester continues discussing urban policy in state propaganda in the first half of chapter 4, focusing on the normative cinematic portrayal of Tiananmen Square “as a space for state parades and spectacles” (p. 154). In the second half of this chapter, he turns to alternative urban visions in films, TV series, and video artworks, challenging...