Paul Pickowicz on a Century of Chinese Film

China on Film coverDistinguished Professor of History and Chinese Studies at the University of California, San Diego Paul G. Pickowicz draws on decades of research in China on Film: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation and Controversy (Rowman & Littlefield 2013). The 376-page study moves chronologically as each chapter explores Chinese films, filmmakers and filmmaking from Shanghai in the 1920s to underground films of today.   I spoke with Pickowicz about his experience studying Chinese cinema since the 1980s, mainland films that made an impact during key political upheavals, as well as his own thoughts on some of the most underrated and overrated films to come out of Mainland China during the past one hundred years.

China Digital TimesYou spent 1982-83 as a “mostly unwelcome” guest at the China Film Archive.  What made you feel unwelcome at that time?  What was the experience of doing archival research like then and how has that experience changed over the last three decades? Have you felt more welcomed over time?

Paul G. Pickowicz: I felt mostly unwelcome in 1982 because there were people at the archive, and all academic units for that matter, who didn’t want foreigners doing serious and critical humanities research on China.  The Cultural Revolution had only recently ended and China was like today’s North Korea in various respects.  Many people in authority in academic units simply assumed foreigners were spies and they didn’t want their political careers jeopardized by appearing soft.  I asked for but was not given some office space and my comings and goings were tightly scheduled and monitored by official minders.  I asked for and was denied access to the archive’s catalog of film holdings and I was not allowed open access to the archive’s holdings of film-related journals and printed material from the pre-1949 period.  Each time I wanted something I had to ask whether they had a certain film and whether they had print materials related to the film.  It’s not that they didn’t help at all, but rather that every step forward felt like a struggle.  My request to spend a year doing research at the archive was granted because I was part of an official US-China exchange program coordinated on the US side by the National Academy of Sciences.  In short, if China wanted to send scientists to the US, then the Chinese side had to receive more American scholars interested in humanities research on modern and contemporary China.  But I want to emphasize that quietly and behind the scenes there were people at the archive, at the Film Bureau, and at the Ministry of Culture who understood what I was trying to accomplish and did many, many things to help me.  What was I trying to accomplish?  Let the academic world know the details of the brilliance of pre-1949 Chinese filmmaking.  Our ignorance of China’s film history was shocking.  The issue was “open” versus “closed.”  The closed people were always suspicious and wanted me to officially request anything I wanted to do, including interviews of retired, elderly film personalities, while the open people said there was no reason I couldn’t live with a Chinese family (a taboo at the time), buy a motorcycle to facilitate transportation, and track down famous film personalities on my own and interview them without official minders present.

Working relations with the archive continued over the years, especially when the political situation opened up a bit in the mid- and late-1980s.  Of course, behind the scenes friends continued to be very helpful, but even officials began to understand that a professional relationship could be beneficial to both sides.  For instance, throughout the 1980s the archive had no convenient way to acquire VHS tapes of classic and current American films.  They asked me if I would help.  I suggested we do it on a one to one basis without any money changing hands.  They would send me a list of 20 tapes they wanted and I would send them a list of 20 pre-1949 films I wanted from them.  On my subsequent trips to China we made a number of such exchanges of tapes.  We did this several times and it’s the reason I now have such a strong personal collection of rare Chinese films.  The archive has also been helpful over the years by providing me with still photos for my articles and books.  As recently as fall 2011 the archive invited me to deliver a series of lectures to its MA students and I continue to be in touch with some of the students.  Of course there are still taboos, especially research on Shanghai filmmaking in 1937-45 during the Japanese occupation of the city, and officials – - even open-minded ones — still have to worry about being perceived as excessively cooperative.

CDT: What was on the minds of the soon-to-be famous Beijing Film Institute graduates you befriended at that time?

PGP: The Fifth Generation young people I met in 1982 had only recently graduated from the Institute.  Many were in the process of discovering and refining their own sense of self — especially their sense of self in relation to officially-defined collectives.  It’s impossible to generalize about the whole group because their backgrounds and personalities were so different.  Relatively few of them became famous following graduation.  The 1978 entrance exams were supposed to be based on talent and objective criteria, but the fact is that many in the fall 1978 entering class were extremely well connected to the pre-Cultural Revolution film world:  Bai Yang’s daughter, Zhao Dan’s son, Chen Huaikai’s son, and so forth.  Some were highly creative and dying to head out in new directions.  Many others manifested ordinary professional competence, but got secure, though routine, jobs in desirable cities and film studios thanks to family influence.  But virtually all of them had a strong desire to learn more about foreign culture, including film culture.  For both personal and professional reasons, many wanted to connect to the outside world, especially the US, Japan and Europe.  Ai Weiwei, a very well-connected young man, dropped out of the institute after only two years to pursue rare opportunities in New York.  Young film artists were vividly aware of the profound cultural isolation of China and themselves.  Some were genuinely interested in my thinking on a range of topics, while others saw me primarily as a potentially useful foreign “contact.”  Some expressed surprisingly unorthodox political and social views; some were very cautious and risk-averse.

CDTWhen discussing the institution of marriage in films set in Shanghai in the 1920s, you emphasize the idea that filmmakers were tying modern love and marriage to economic and class realities.   Has this same notion permeated depictions of marriage throughout twentieth-century Chinese cinema?

PGP: The themes of love, marriage, and family dominated Chinese filmmaking from the 1920s and continue to have a major impact today.  It’s true that in the 1920s many films grappled with the question of the “modern” marriage.  Young, urban, middle class people wanted modern love, marriage, and families, but no one knew exactly what modernity meant in these spheres of life.  Many of the films described the trial and error experiments of young people who were struggling to establish coherent boundaries.  After the revolution in 1949, state sector filmmakers promoted modern “socialist” love, marriage and family life.  In the post-Mao period there was a renewed interest in individual desire when it came to love, marriage, and family.  In all of these phases, global models of various sorts were being considered and emulated.  And during each phase, economic and class realities were important factors.

We also need to keep in mind that Chinese film narratives of the past and present were not necessarily looking at love, marriage, and family as ends in themselves.  Quite often the themes of love, marriage, and family functioned as national allegories.  These films seem to be talking about a family, but the “family” is standing in for the “nation.”  The family functions as a mini-nation, and serious problems related to power hierarchies, class relations, economics, and gender relations within the family are supposed to be read as problems that are nagging the entire nation.  In this sense Chinese films, even light-weight entertainment ones, can be politically charged.

CDT: In the 1960s, you explain that filmmakers were given more artistic freedom under the direction of Vice Minister of Culture Xia Yan but were still limited in their ability to criticize the starvation that plagued China during the Great Leap Forward.  You conclude saying: “Almost none of these films is a great work of art, but together they served to ease the pain of living in China in the hungry days of the early 1960s.” Which of these films, if any, did qualify as a great work of art?

PGP: Let’s face it.  “Greatness” is a highly subjective concept.  “Greatness” is relative and depends on one’s definition of greatness.  Greatness is also very contextual.  Certainly if you look at the films of the early 1960s and compare them to the films produced during the catastrophic Great Leap Forward that came before and the films of the horrific Cultural Revolution that came later, the films of the 1960s stand out.  This doesn’t mean that films made during the Maoist mass mobilization campaigns of the late 1950s and late 1960s are not interesting.  As visual sources, they can tell us a lot about those tumultuous and gut wrenching periods, but many of the films of the early 1960s have more traction and have ongoing appeals that are more universalistic.  Xia Yan was a hopeless Party bureaucrat, but he was also an anti-Maoist who deeply resented the way in which the state run film industry was hijacked by the Great Leap Forward.  He was all for party/state control of the film industry and was adamantly opposed to private sector production, but in his anti-Maoist imagination it should be a state controlled industry that maintains its links to the work he and his friends did in the Shanghai film industry of the 1930s.  Xia Yan continued to hold on to the view that art making and party-directed socialism were not incompatible.  It is in this sense that such films as Third Sister Liu (Liu Sanjie, 1962), Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong lou meng, 1962), Early Spring (Zao chun eryue, 1963), Li Shuangshuang (Li Shuangshuang, 1962), and Fat Li, Young Li, and Old Li (Da Li, Xiao Li he Lao Li, 1962) still feel charming and engaging.  They are not “great” films, but let’s not forget that Hollywood produced mountains of junk then and produces mountains of junk now.  “Great” films are few and far between.  Xia Yan’s imagination was quite limited.  When the Cultural Revolution ended, his sole concern was getting “his” type of state sector movie making up and running again.  He was not among those who believed there should be space for independent, non-state filmmaking in the brave new world of post-Mao China.

CDT: Huang Jianxin, a “politically daring” director of the 1980s addressed contemporary urban problems in works which you say anticipated the “extraordinary turmoil” of the Tiananmen Incident.  Transmigration, a film which you describe as exploring “directionless urban youth” marked the first time the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television opened up to journalists to discuss a film since 1949.  Why did the Ministry open its doors to journalists interested in discussing this particular film, especially if the film blamed China rather than foreign influences for spiritual pollution?

PGP: Huang Jianxin played a very interesting role in the 1980s run up to June 4, 1989.  Unlike Xie Jin, he rejected the highly cathartic though excessively sentimental melodramatic mode of filmmaking and he rejected the tendency the best know Fifth Generation filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, to set their narratives in the pre-revolution past.  Everyone still worked for the party/state, so the political edginess of Huang’s films must be seen in that context.  Black Canon Incident (Hei pao shijian, 1986) was a stunning and bitterly satirical critique of mindless and numbing party/state bureaucracy, the same issue that young people in colleges were talking about with greater frequency in the 1980s.  Dislocation (Cuowei, 1987) offered a profoundly dystopian view of the direction of Chinese society.  Transmigration (Lunhui, 1989), which I watched with Huang at a pre-release screening in Beijing in late 1988, tackled head on the hot button issue of restless urban youth struggling to find their individual identities in the post-Mao era.  I think I was the first person to apply the term “postsocialist” to films, especially Huang Jianxin’s, that came out in the years leading up to June 4.  Huang was all for reform, but his work reminded people that the legacies of the Mao eras continued to haunt the post-Mao era, that many aspects of Chinese life had not been reformed, and that many young people were “lost.”

The reason that some bureaucrats in the state sector allowed Huang’s provocative films to be made and encouraged open discussion of them is that there were deep divisions at all levels of the party/state in the 1980s.  There were cultural bureaucrats who despised the sort of work done by Huang Jianxin, Xie Jin, and Zhang Yimou, but there were many others who thought all these types of filmmaking were healthy and addressed real problems that couldn’t be ignored.  There were people in the bureaucracy who wanted more openness, more diversity of production, and more expressions of cultural confidence in dealing with problems openly.

CDT: Has Huang Jianxin received recognition for addressing social problems of the 1980s in the Chinese film community today?  How did Transmigration connect with the sentiments of the youth at the time?  Does the film resonate with party corruption and youth in China today?

PGP: The trilogy of complex films made by Huang Jianxin in the 1980s does indeed address issues of corruption, bureaucracy, anomie, and restlessness that are endemic in China today.  But his old films, like the old films of Xie Jin and Zhang Yimou, are not widely viewed today. Scholars in China give these filmmakers a lot of credit for their contributions in the 1980s, but the state has no particular reason today to promote their old films.  Anyone who is 24 years old today, was born in 1990.  The 1980s seem a bit like ancient history.  Even though there’s a connection between the problems of the Mao-era, the problems of the 1980s, and the problems of today, the college age students from China whom I have taught in China and in the United States know surprisingly little about PRC history.  They are well aware of the problems that haunt China today, but are less aware of the details of the connections between those problems and the problems of the recent past.

As for Huang Jianxin, I have found his highly forgettable films of the post-1989 period to be far less interesting than his 1980s trilogy.  The film scene is much more complex and competitive today, given the advent of highly commercial films and the rise of independent filmmakers.  People like Huang, Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige paid their dues and made their brilliant contributions under extremely difficult circumstances.  It’s unreasonable to expect them to play the same role indefinitely.  Others, especially in the new independent sector, have come forward to play pioneering roles.

CDT: You write about Chinese films making a “caricature of Western values.”  Have Chinese films displayed a more nuanced understanding of Western values over time?

PGP: The theme of alleged Western “spiritual pollution” comes up time and again in Chinese filmmaking, despite the fact that all cultures, including Chinese culture, have strong and weak points.  It’s part of a politics of scapegoating by leadership elites who want to blame someone else for China’s problems.  These caricatures of the culture of the “Western” other are often crude and simplistic.  Every time one of the campaigns goes away, one is tempted to say, “OK, we won’t see that again.”  But then another campaign is launched.  In fact, there is another push of this sort under way in China right now, despite the extent to which Chinese culture has been globalized.  This strategy always works on some people, but as increasing numbers of Chinese students and tourists go abroad, scapegoating of this sort has become less and less effective.  If Western culture is so spiritually polluted, many in China wonder, why is the daughter of Chinese President Xi Jinping a student at Harvard?  Why is there no university in China good enough for her?  Why is she attending the most bourgeois-liberal university in the US?  Why are thousands upon thousands of Chinese undergraduate students pouring into North American and European universities for their education?  Why are so many thousands of prosperous and well-educated Chinese buying real estate like crazy in North America and Europe?  Why are so many Chinese trying so hard to gain permanent residence or citizenship status in North America and Europe for themselves or their family members?

Keep in mind, however, that the Communist Party didn’t invent these caricatures of Western culture.  Chinese filmmakers have been doing it since the 1920s.  It’s sensational and it sells tickets.  Producers of popular culture in fast-lane places like Shanghai recognized the undeniable allures of modern culture, but warned people to be cautious lest they get lost.  My parents said the same thing to me about beatnik and hippie culture!  Leadership elites have a different kind of concern.  If citizens embark on cultural explorations, leaders fret, they might be more difficult to control and they might embrace various kinds of “countercultures.”

It is fair to say that in recent times, certainly since the late 1980s and early 1990s, that Chinese filmmakers, especially those who work in the new non-state sector, have been less inclined to take up the controversy about foreign spiritual pollution in explicit ways.  Indeed, some of them indirectly challenge stereotypes about the alleged foreign origins of cultural phenomena that are worrisome to state elites.  Zhang Yuan’s wonderful 1996 underground film East Palace, West Palace (Dong gong, xi gong) is a good example.  It was the PRC’s first film on gay life and it focused on sexuality and the quest for love.  It totally rejects the idea that gay culture somehow came to China from overseas.  The film couldn’t be screened publicly in China, but it was well received internationally.  It seemed very fresh and sane.

CDT: Why did you initially deem the wave of underground and independent productions that came out shortly before and after 2000  “self-indulgent” and “trivial” but later change your mind saying “Chinese artists had earned the right to be self-indulgent” because of decades of “Maoist collectivism and asceticism.”  Which films did you find self-indulgent?  Were these films self-indulgent because of Western influence?

PGP: I think some of my initial reactions to underground and independent filmmaking in China were shaped by the fact that I’m primarily a student of Chinese history, society, and politics.  Whether doing research on the 1930s or the present day, I was always looking for cultural artifacts and especially visual sources that analyze big social problems including class tensions, the urban-rural divide, power hierarchies, corruption, gender relations, injustice, ethnic conflict and so forth.  In many ways I’m a product of 1960s American culture.  I’ve researched many Chinese films of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s that take on big, sweeping questions of this sort.  These films were not produced by the government, they were produced in studios that were independent of the state.

More than ten years ago the UC San Diego library began collecting large numbers of underground and independent films made in China.  Soon our collection was the largest in the world.  Today it has more than 2,000 titles.  We held our first Chinese underground film festival in 2003.  When I first began to take a close look at large numbers of these films, documentaries and features alike, I was no doubt hoping for the same sort of independent, critical engagement with broad social issues that we see in the films made before 1949 by independent, non-state sector filmmakers.  I was looking for political critiques and at least some finger pointing.  I was interested in such issues as environmental degradation, recovering lost histories, child trafficking, corruption, and organized crime.  Eventually I found many significant works that treated such topics, films like Peng Tao’s Red Snow (Hongse xue, 2006), Liu Bingjian’s Crying Woman (Kuqi de nuren, 2002), and Ai Xiaoming’s Love and Care (Guan ai zhi jia, 2007).  But initially I looked randomly through our collection and was struck by the large numbers of films that seemed very inwardly directed instead of outwardly directed.  I was looking for critical protest films but was confronted by very large numbers of films, especially documentaries, that screamed, “Look at me!”  They seemed very self-indulgent to me and I quickly tired of their repetitiveness.  But of course I soon realized that these films were highly political in their own ways.  They were, after all, a very logical response to decades of Maoist collectivism when people were supposed to “merge with the masses” and deny “self.”  Once a space suddenly opened up for reflections on self and individual identities, many, many young urbanites took the plunge.  They engaged with passion in what I call “identity searches.”  I feel lost.  Who am I?  Gu Tao’s 2007 film Starkers: The Naked Life of Qin Yongjian (Wo de shenti ni zuo zhu) is a good example of this type of sensational, self-exploration film that falls squarely into the counterculture category.  Zhang Zhanqing’s documentary For Every Minute I Life, I Plan to Enjoy 60 Seconds (Huole yifen zhong, kui huo liushi miao, 2006) is another great example.  It’s both disturbing and revealing.

These “identity search” films are not the result of Western cultural influence.  They are a very logical response to the destructive, collectivist excesses of Maoism.  Naturally, global context and global exposure is part of the picture.  But the main causal dynamics are internal and domestic.  The same thing would happen in North Korea if there was a sudden and dramatic ideological shift.  With the end of self-imposed isolation, young people in North Korea would be exposed to the global culture of South Korea and this would cause confusion and force many to reflect and think in new ways about “self.”  I’m a New Englander, so I’m aware of the extent to which American hippie culture of the 1960s was a conscious departure from collectivist and repressive Puritan culture.

CDTWhat was the first Chinese film you ever watched and which film have you watched the most times since?

PGP: Starting in 1966 it was almost impossible to see mainland Chinese films.  This is because once the Cultural Revolution began virtually all the films made before and after 1949 were denounced and no longer accessible.  I travelled around China in the summer of 1971, half way through the Cultural Revolution, and was able to see a few films, but all of them were filmed versions of Jiang Qing’s model operas and ballets – - not items that originated as movie ideas.

I believe the first time I had a chance to see an old Chinese film was in Hong Kong in 1977 when, by luck, there was a screening of Huang Zuolin’s absolutely delightful and brilliant social comedy Fake Bride, Phony Bridegroom (Jia feng xu huang) made in early 1947 in Shanghai.  The screenplay was written by Sang Hu, and the film starred Li Lihua and Shi Hui.  In the 1980s I was finally able to meet Huang Zuolin, Sang Hu, and Li Lihua and discuss their early work.  The great actor Shi Hui committed suicide during the vicious Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957.  Quite simply, the movie just blew me away.  Many of us who studied modern Chinese literature and culture had heard stories about the splendors of early-era Chinese films, but I was unprepared for the extreme pleasure associated with actually seeing one.  Set in post-war Shanghai, the film offers a savage critique of life in Civil War China without ever mentioning the awful Civil War that was sweeping the land.  It’s about two marginalized young people, an ordinary barber and a single mom, whose survival anxieties cause them to function as crafty con artists.  The fun begins when she posts a notice in the paper saying she is a rich young woman just returned from the USA who will consider marriage applications from appropriately rich and handsome young men, and he responds to the ad by claiming that he is a wealthy graduate returning from Oxford.  The film is one of those national allegories I mentioned before.  The message is that our society is a humongous fake and people are doing what it takes to survive.

No doubt the film I have watched the most times is Wu Yonggang’s 1934 masterpiece The Goddess (Shennu).  It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve seen it at least 50 times.  It stars the legendary silent-screen actress Ruan Lingyu, a world-class performer.  It’s one of those social issue films that functions as a detailed ethnography of a common Shanghai prostitute.  The film is powerful precisely because it assaults the moral sensibilities of comfortable middle-class people.  In fact it subverts mainstream moral categories.  In this film, the “clean” people, including the urban bourgeoisie, businessmen, school teachers and neighborhood moms, are “dirty,” while the “dirty” people, especially street hookers, are “clean,” one might even say angelic — hence the title Goddess.  The great films work every time.  This film is 80 years old, but it still feels current.  I screened this film for my class in Shanghai in 2010 and the local students loved it and were stunned by its contemporary relevance since prostitution is once again a serious problem in China.  And once again, many urban middle class people who present themselves as “clean” are at the very least unattractive and in many senses “dirty.”  This film is quite accessible now, so your readers should have an easy time finding it.

CDT: What is the most underrated and overrated Chinese film made over the past century?  Why? 

PGP: This is the most difficult question you’ve asked in part because judgments like these are so subjective and matters of taste.  Ask ten specialists and you’ll get ten different answers.  The question is also difficult because ever since 1949 there’s been an unrelenting official promotion in China of pre-1949 films that are regarded as canons of the so-called “progressive” or “leftist” tradition of Chinese filmmaking.  Never mind that the whole notion of clear “leftist” and “rightist” traditions is artificial and bogus.  Once a film ended up on the “progressive” list it got promoted at home and abroad as a “classic” and thus was far more accessible than other titles that were hidden away in the archive.  So when I think of “underrated,” I tend to think of works that are not regarded by officialdom as part of that canon and therefore much more difficult to see.  A good example from 1928 is Oceans of Passion, Heavy Kissing (Qing hai zhong wen), a silent-era work directed by Xie Yunqing.  The first two-thirds of this movie are really terrific.  It’s a “Shanghai modern romance” story, but in this particular case the love triangle doesn’t involve a man and two women but a woman and two men, one of whom is her husband!  The first part of the tale unfolds in many surprising ways.  Modernity is desirable, but very disorienting and confusing for the young protagonists, none of whom are evil people.  The film also deals in realistic ways with ongoing pressures to conform to pre-modern patriarchal norms. 

Another similarly underrated film is Pan Jienong’s Streets and Alleys (Jietou xiangwei), released in late 1948 when the Civil War was winding down.  It’s a highly effective and well-acted comedy that treats the subject of downward social mobility in the post-war era and the need for down-and-out urban folks to organize themselves in something like anarchist mutual aid collectives that have nothing to do with familial or blood ties.  Considering that the film was released on the eve of the Communist victory, you would think it qualifies as a “progressive” work.  But it was never placed into the canonical category.  This is because it was made by a director who was a member of the Nationalist Party and it was produced in a Nationalist state-owned film studio.  In short, the film was highly compelling and politically engaged but it contradicted a politically-correct narrative that insisted that any film connected to the Nationalists had to be a “rightist” work.

As I said earlier, Zhang Yimou certainly paid his dues and made immense contributions in the 1980s and 1990s.  But if I think about grossly overrated works, two of his later works, Hero (Yingxiong, 2002) and House of the Flying Daggers (Shimian maifu, 2004), come immediately to mind.  I could never figure out what these films contributed.  But, of course, even these works tell us a lot about the frantic commercialization of state-sponsored Chinese filmmaking after 2000.  Thinking about these overrated films, I feel like I want to put Jiang Wen’s superb independent film Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi laile, 2000) near the top of the list of seriously underrated movies.

CDTWhat’s next for you?

PGP: We held a wonderful workshop at UC San Diego last June on new independent documentary films.  We invited Wu Wenguang, perhaps the most influential independent documentary filmmaker in China, to visit us for eight days of intense viewing and discussion.  He brought 24 films with him.  We devoted most of our time to a couple of major multi-year projects unfolding at his Caochangdi Work Station in Beijing.  One is “The Memory Project” and the other is “The Village Project.”  Most independent filmmakers are solo acts, but Wu is quite different in the sense that he actively recruits young amateurs to come to Caochangdi to get basic training and then he turns them loose to go back to their home villages throughout China to make films about both the past and the present.  Our goal is to produce a book that explores in considerable detail all the exciting things going on in the independent documentary sector in China today.

Paul Pickowicz is also the co-editor, with Perry Link and Richard P. Madsen, of Restless China. See more books by Pickowicz.