- Directory of World Cinema ed. by Gary Bettinson
As an “overview” of Chinese cinema aiming to “play a part in moving intelligent, scholarly criticism beyond the academy,” the Directory of World Cinema: China has done justice to the subject in question. Although it relies for its analytical rigor on “a disciplined theoretical base” (back cover), it is, nonetheless, conducted in a highly accessible manner. It is a compilation of short introductory essays, which are grounded in scholarly research and written by experts specializing in film studies in the English-speaking world. Benefiting from the expertise of those contributors, this book is marked by its comprehensive scope, disparate perspectives, comparative approach, and, not least, by the lucidity of the writing, a virtue by no mean to be taken for granted these days.
In the introduction, the editor, Gary Bettinson, aptly discusses the tripartite (that is, the distinctive cinemas of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) yet increasingly transborder features of Chinese “national” cinema. This tripartite feature, which gives the volume its basic structure, is determined by historical, social, political, and cultural differences of the three regions. Yet, as Bettinson remarks, “the rise in pan-Chinese coproduction raises prospects for a unitary national cinema, a borderless conglomerate whose historical divisions and dissensions are supplanted by strategic, commerce-driven unification” (p. 8). This “commerce-driven unification,” however, while having rejuvenated the film industries of Hong Kong and Taiwan, nonetheless poses challenges to the filmmaking in these two regions. Mainland imperialism, among other things, is singled out as a main threat to the creative freedom and local cultures of Hong Kong and Taiwan. To counter this threat, some local filmmakers forfeit the mainland market by sticking to localism, while others turn to international sponsorship and marketing, as Bettinson notes. While this dichotomous structure (mainland China vs. Hong Kong and Taiwan) may somehow be able to conveniently describe the overall condition in the field of cinematic productions in Greater China, it does, however, seem to imply an unduly simple homogeneity in the work of each party involved. The real complexities, fortunately, are addressed in the essays that follow, which examine a variety of issues, and review films in a broad range of disparate genres and styles.
The body of the book consists of three sections: essays discussing specific topics in Chinese cinema, those elucidating the careers of key figures, and, finally, an extensive set of reviews of representative films from each of the three territories.
In the first section, Marisa C. Hayers’s essay, “Chinese Opera and Cinema,” examines the dynamic relationship between opera and cinema. Indeed, as Hayers demonstrates, opera has a large presence in the cinemas of all of the three territories and across most historical periods. It has shaped many productions in terms [End Page 572] of narrative strategy, generic distinction, rhythm of action, camera movement, musical selection, and so on. In addition, in my view, the author may also want to mention the yingxi (shadow play) theory, which so uniquely characterizes Chinese people’s perception of the movie in relation to traditional Chinese culture.
In “Taiwanese Documentary,” Ming-Yeh Rawnsley pinpoints the year 1985 as a watershed in documentary production in Taiwan. As Rawnsley convincingly demonstrates, documentaries made prior to 1985 are mostly officially sanctioned newsreels, which “tend to be conservative and institutionalized in terms of subject matter, content, viewpoint and aesthetic style” (p. 17), whereas those produced after 1985 are much more adventurous, nuanced, and critical, reflecting the liberalization and democratization of Taiwanese society around that time.
Gary Needham’s essay, “Hong Kong Action Cinema,” which concludes the first section, surveys the development of this genre—if it is so called—in Hong Kong. Martial arts, as Needham writes, is “often more than a genre; it is a master template of action cinema that informs other genres, and its influence can be seen throughout Hong Kong cinema and beyond” (p. 23). In what follows, Needham provides a comprehensive examination of wuxia and kung fu films, two major subcategories, and many...