Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Portrait of A Successful Artist

Portrait of A Successful Artist

as a student,
 all the efforts in the wrong places
daughter of my family, blindly loved
as a musician,
 meddling with feelings and paintings
possibly of middling talent
as a friend, sweet but cold hearted
a hometown play mate
as a lover, 
do not keep my gaze fixed for very long
as a “female”
good looking on borrowed time
as sometimes woman
 song poem letter drink
occasional semi-divine entity
 maybe a crocodile
I may own
little intellect
perhaps what carries me
is all living

My film music memories

The only cassette tape I still own today is the Harry Potter OST. It also happens to be the first
tape I ever bought, at the very first time that I went to a music store. I was about 10 years old.
After watching the Harry Potter movie for the fifth time, I wanted to stay in the magic world
even longer by emerging myself in its music: I put it on in my living room when I was cleaning
up the house and imagine I was flying with a broomstick. I played it on my iPod at school
thinking that I actually went to hogwarts and studies magic potions in my chemistry class. I fell
asleep with it dreaming about getting letters from snowy owls the next morning. I was listening
to it all the time that at one point, I could quite precisely match specific music with their
corresponding scenes. I was getting familiar with how melody, harmony and rhythm could
somehow represent mood and tone, and I even developed an early understanding of the
orchestra, such as how different combinations of strings, brass and percussions could create
various textures. my repeated listening, was not only due to my enthusiasm for Harry Potter the
movie, but also due to the fact that a sole audio experience triggered all my senses and allowed
me to run with it using my own imagination, in other words, day dreaming.
At the beginning I was especially fond of films in the genre of fantasy and adventure, such as
Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pan's Labyrinth, and Tim Burton and Steven
Spielberg films. Films in this particular genre are quite often character-oriented and thematically
complex;the plots often involve a a hero of humble origins and a clear distinction between good
and evil. The according music compositions are oriented similarly as well. Each character has
his/her own unique music theme, which I could recognize right away and remember. I enjoyed
how music can enhance and embody narratives and characters and I admired the beautiful
creativity the composers have. However, as I grew up watching more HollywoodS films, I
realized the predicability and limitations of Hollywood films as well as their music. I opened
myself up to alternative cinematic modes, such as early Japanese cinema, contemporary video
art, with a focus on the unique soundscapes and music involved.
Later as I studied more about sound design and composition from Michael Chion's Audio Vision
book, especially after I have put what learned into practice by editing/designing sound in my
own film, I started to hear/perceive film soundtrack in actual different "tracks", or layers,
comprised of dialogues, sound effects, diegetic sounds, atmospheric ambience, cues, and film
music scores. When I watch a film, unfortunately, I sometimes get distracted when I
subconsciously recognize certain sound techniques, say a cool musicalized sound effects, or a
good transitioning from a diegetic sound source to a non-diegetic one. The good thing is though,
this doesn't necessarily take away my whole "day dreaming" experience while I just listen to the
film music track alone. Every once a while, I still take out my Harry Potter tape and put it on in
my car and simply enjoy the John William style music cherishing the magic of film music.

A Subtle Social Critique: A Comparative Analysis of Suzhou River and The World

Although Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye have their own distinctive styles of cinematic expression and storytelling approach in making The world and Suzhou River, they both seek to portray the lives of non-heroic characters, that are influenced by the larger social vortex of precipitous reforms and pursuing happiness by all means. By expressing their own ideals and attitudes in the films, the filmmakers convey a sense of nostalgia for the past and an inconspicuous critique of capitalist influenced society in China.
The main characters in both films are city-dwellers who lead monotonous lives working to make money. In The World, Zhao Xiao Tao, the heroine, is a folk dance performer at the Beijing World Park. Hoping for a better life, she left from home in Shaanxi to this isolated theme park outside of Beijing. Her boyfriend, Chen Taisheng, patrols on the miniature Eiffel Tower in the world park as a security guard.  Similarly, in Suzhou River, the main characters are not well-to-do either.  The unseen main character and narrator, a videographer for hire, wanders along the chaotically built-up riverside factories, abandoned warehouses and fishing boats; he captures the shabby landscape of Shanghai’s dark side with imageries of poverty, social underdogs and 1990s’ urban reality. Through the camera lens, viewers can see his brief romance with Meimei, a night club dancer who lives on a houseboat and performs in an aquarium dressed as a mermaid. The other main character, Mardar, is a motorcycle courier, who is hired to drive a teenager girl Moudan across the town each day to her aunt. Unlike those allegorical and epic style films made by their predecessors, these films tend to focus on the lives and fates of  men and women in the lower social class, as a quietly rebellious and courageous gesture against advocates of heroic figures in Chinese main melody films. Furthermore, the filmmakers not only depict mundane everyday life but also delve into a wide spectrum of social experiences and issues such as criminal activities, alcoholism, bohemian lifestyle, prostitution, migrant workers and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Examples include Mardar’s abduction of Moudan, the unseen videographer’s drinking problem, Anna, the Russian performer’s secret prostitution at a Karaoke club, and Meimei’s nontraditional inhabitance in a boat.
These characters in both Jia and Lou’s films are deeply influenced by the larger social context in three dimensions. First of all, the worship of money and status in the society has a dominating effect on people’s judgment and behaviors. Mardar and his smuggler friends kidnap Moudan for RMB400, 000. For a share of this ransom, Mardar betrays his lover driving her to suicide and Lao B embraces his partner Xiao Hong with a knife.  When Xiao Tao’s ex-boyfriend visits, it is revealed during three way conversation at the small restaurant that Taisheng is jealous of his former counterparts’ success and insecure about his own trivial status as a security guard in a park. He dreams about going abroad but he could never go. After the incident, his suspicion of Xiao Tao’s loyalty rose, which lead to his attempt to rape her in order to prove their love relationship.   His uncertainty and self-doubt, in fact, derive from his belief that money and status is everything; without money, his girlfriend will leave him.  
Secondly, the values of morals and ethics deteriorate as China turns into a money-oriented world. Money plays the primordial role in the genesis and subsistence of capitalism.  As capital reforms take place on every layer of Chinese social and cultural structure, love relationships are being commoditized and women are objectified. As portrayed in the films, Meimei, is used as an ornament in a bar, dressed up as a mermaid, swimming around an aquarium half naked, to attract men’s sexual interests as well as their wallets. Similarly, Anna put herself to prostitution in desperation for money. A fat middle aged tourist approached Xiao Tao offering money and jewelries in exchange for sex. He seems confident of himself and thinks it is a good bargain for Xiao Tao. The moral and ethical qualities endorsed in the socialist China no longer exist at present in the post-socialist China. 
Ultimately, with the fast flow of money transactions and commodity exchange, the characters, stuck between their idealistic dreams and the harsh reality. They need to constantly deal with their sense of loss, anxiety and frustration in the face of China’s quickly changing cityscape, just like how the videographer tumbles around the baffling relationship with Meimei who keeps him at an arm’s lengths and plays hide and seek. In the other film, tourists come to the World Park to visit fake versions of famous sites from all over the world. As Jia described in his interview with Valerie Jaffee, “To me, it makes for a very sorrowful scene…This is what Chinese reality is like…We are living in a globalized age, in a world saturated by mass media, in an international city, but despite all that, the problems we’re facing are our own problems.” 
The problems Jia talks about refer to the danger of marginalization and social alienation in China’s increasingly fast growing and globalized post-socialist condition. 
Despite the situation in which they find themselves, the characters in Jia and Lou’s films remain full of hope and seek happiness in numerous ways. Perhaps the night club in Suzhou River, “Happy Tavern”, is a metaphor for the chaotic, flashy, yet sometimes tasty world they live in, where they deal with problems in their own ways. The videographer finds relaxation in observing the city on a boat, drifting along the river while drinking vodka. Meimei discovers her ideal of love, from the story of Moudan from Mardar; she eventually leaves to pursue her dream of “Find me if you love me.” Mardar attends his quest of looking for Moudan and finds her at last. Mardar and Moudan’s deaths together in the Suzhou River after drinking their favorite vodka can also be interpreted as a happy ending.
 Both Jia and Lou in their films expressed their empathy for the inescapable life and fate for their characters and concerns for the capitalist influenced, post socialist China, where these marginalized people struggle to survive. However, neither of them shows their opinions very strongly; they use their camera, locations settings, characters and cinematic techniques as a medium for send their messages, in conspicuous ways.  Their specific approaches are drastically different, yet collide in creating a highly illusional cinematic realism. As Jia himself has acknowledged, “…it simply is an attitude and an unattainable ideal of the filmmaker.”
 In spite of their similar goal of achieving a high level of realism by adopting characteristics from documentary filmmaking, their cinematic styles and storytelling methods are completely different.     
Jia has a strong propensity for long shots, static long takes and, straight-on camera angles. During some scenes in The World, we can't see the characters’ faces clearly nor can we hear what they are speaking. Instead, we only see them walk. The camera remains static throughout. No dramatic build-up is linked to the shot afterwards. The shot exists as if just to show us the characters’ existence on the street and their situation at that moment. At other times in the film, in terms of the plot, a shot can be “useless" because it doesn't contribute to any dramatic aspect of the film. Rather than inducing the spectator to identify with the characters by forcing him into the role of investigator through more frequent use of close-ups and editing, many scenes are just staged in long shots, thus making the spectator feel more like an observer watching from a distance. 
This technique gives audiences a strong on-location feeling; they work even more effectively when a blend of authenticity is added.  In Jia’s other film Xiaowu, the story ends with Xiaowu being caught and handcuffed to a steel cable on the sidewalk. While audiences still sit comfortably in their observing role and watches Xiaowu, all of a sudden, the camera swings away from him and points at passersby who are looking at Xiaowu simultaneously as we are. We, as viewers, suddenly become part of the film as well; we are in the same space with Xiaowu. 
 Lou’s approaches are exactly the opposite. The Suzhou River is shot with a jostling, nervous video camera, with fast showy jump cuts and layered close-ups flowing like streams of consciousness. The pace is aggressive and the color scheme is tawdry neon with pink and green, which are suggestive of Wong Kar-wai.  The thriller like narrative plot, on the other hand, alludes to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window. His cinematography style showing influence from Hong Kong commercial cinema and Hollywood cinema is completely different from Jia’s western art house cinema influenced mode of expression. Lou does exactly what Jia refuses to do; he adds in his own subjective melancholy and philosophy to the film using the videographer’s narration, such as the part After Meimei breaks up with the camera and the” Happy Tavern” shuts down: “Suddenly it was as if none of this had happened,” following Meimei’s disappearance, “I will be just staying here, waiting for my next love story.” Lou’s choice of inserting an overlaying voice narrator also echoes with his editing designs. In the last scene, the videographer is drinking while looking at a bridge. The shot of the bridge is superimposed on top of the first person view of a hand holding a vodka bottle. The camouflage of shots tilts back and forth to match his state of drunkenness. This type of editing induces the spectators to identify with the character; it is similar to the way how the voice over captivates the audiences and shortens the “fourth wall”. 
Despite cinematography styles, their casting choices are different as well. Lou Ye casts professional actors and actresses while Lou prefers to choose non-professionals.  The decision behind has to do with plots. The world has a slow paced and subtle storyline while Suzhou River has a dense, dramatic and thriller like plot. In Lou’s film, Zhou Xun’s acting is significant in bringing the double character to life. Only a good actress can capture the essence of Meimei’s uninhibited personality and Moudan’s innocence at the same time. 
Jia, on the other hand, even name his characters after his actors and actresses. His stories are often derived from his own life experience and real people around him. According to Jaffee’s interview with him
, his previous films, Xiaowu, Platform and Unknown Pleasure are all shot in Shaaxi, his home town. He decides to make The World to reflect his impressions of urban life in Beijing after living there for a decade. Many of his films are concerned with performance, dancers and Karaoke, which allude to his past experience of performing with a dance troupe. It is choosing subject matters formed with his own experience and placing actors and actresses in their familiar habitat that allows him to achieve an exceptionally natural, almost authentic feel in his films.
Regardless of their different styles, nostalgia and critique of the present society are two features shared by both films. The lament for the passage of time, which is never directly depicted, is yet reflected in the ephemeral faces and stories in the endlessly flowing Suzhou River, and is measured by the distance between the Beijing World Park and Xiao Tao’s home. This subtlety in social critique is carried though in the same way; the characters in the film are not aware of their social surroundings, which has deeply influenced them and driven them to a marginalized and alienated state of being. By putting their unconsciousness against their pursuit for happiness, the directors have indeed brought out the social irony to the maximum.

  1. Suzhou River, 83 min, released in 7 September 2000 in Hong Kong, Mandrin, directed by Lou Ye, produced by Coproduction Office, Essential Filmproducktion
  2. The World, 140min, released in 18 March 2005, Mandrin, Directed by Jia Zhangke, produced by Office Kitano, Lumen films and X Stream Pictures
  3. An Interview with Jia Zhangke, by Valerie Jaffee, Feature Articles, Issue 32, Sense of Cinema
  4. The Independent cinema of Jia Zhangke: from Post socialist Realism to a Transnational Aethetics, by Jason McGrath

From passive to active: Hybridity in Chinese Cinema and Society

The contrast between “New Woman”(1935) and “New Year’s Sacrifice”(1956) in terms of narrative content, mode of expression, and political discourses illustrates the two different forms of hybridity existing in two time periods. The previous, made by Leftist after the May Fourth Movement, criticizes the hybridized society infiltrated with western imperialism, capitalism and feudalism, yet fails to exert any changes without social and economical support.  With a similar purpose, the latter, however is more successful, for its support by the socialist government, in a new form of hybridized society, that is, a Chinese adaptation of the Marxist Socialist society, or a sinicized socialist society. Chinese cinema, has not changed in its nature as a hybrid of Chinese and western traditions of art, culture and representations, but has shifted from passively accepting western economical and cultural domination to active adapting a western ideology.

Chinese cinema in 1930s, is a mixture of western and Chinese traditions, due to western imperialism since the late Qing Dynasty, China’s semi-colonial state and modernization.  In “New Woman”, through the lens of Cai Chusheng, we are able to look into Shanghai in 1930s, a prosperous yet exploited city. Shanghai was one of the five open ports established after the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Some areas of Shanghai were formed into concessions by England, France and America since 1845. In early 20th century, the old fisherman village has turned into a modern city with a massive transformation of public transportation system; dirt roads turned into asphalt roads and manpower carts turned into electric-powered trams. The portrayal of Shanghai’s westernized city scape with western architecture, streets and motorized vehicles at the very beginning of the film marks the significant western influence in every aspects of peoples’ life in Shanghai at the time. Similar portrayals occur throughout the film such as in Wei Ming's apartment interior( pianos, telephone and european style furnitures), the foreign performances in the dance club, the new western school system and even in Wei Ming’s death at a western Bo Ai  Hospital due to her swallowing allopathic sleeping pills. The traditional Chinese aesthetics and infrastructures, however are still prominent in the film from the cheongsam dresses women wear to the letter writing style. Although the film in the most part depicts the upper class people who tend to have a more westernized life style, it also shows the images of lower class people who tend to stick onto a traditional Chinese lifestyle(such as the pimp woman). 

The hybridized society reflected in the film is a mixture of western imperialism, capitalism, bureaucratism  and Chinese feudalism. The death of Wei Ming results from the society that promotes female freedom and free love adopted from western enlightenment ideologies yet is still infatuated with deep-rooted Confucianist values and feudal ethical codes, that encourages woman to work and be financially independent yet still treats women as love object that can be bought with money.  

The film criticizes the society it portrayed throughout its storyline,  Cai Chusheng, the filmmaker expressed his anti-capitalist and anti-confucianism feelings throughout the narrative: Doctor Wang buys his wife’s silence with money and tries to buy Wei Ming’s marriage with a diamond ring. The headmaster, for the economic well-being of the school, forces Wei Ming to quit. The publisher decides to promote Wei Ming’s book because her beautiful looks will sell. Wei Ming refuses Doctor Wang’s proposal and has to prostitute for her sick daughter. In a way, she sacrifices her chastity for her free will. She attempts suicide and dies, however, for the shame and anger of the news gossips and the crowds’ opinions. For her entire life, she could not escape her fate as a woman living in a society deeply influenced by capitalism, bureaucratism and feudalism ideologies. 

On the other hand, through the character or Li A Ying, the director create a female image to represent a new force in the society. This force can be seen as a prelude of the socialist movement. Unlike Wei Ming, she is a strong, independent woman worker, not bothered with womanly issues such as love and marriage and devoted to revolution and progressive ideologies.  Comparing Wei Ming and Li A Ying, the previous is a forfeited  Romantic bourgeois who are idealistic and capitalist-oriented often depicted in May Fourth literatures,  while the latter is a foreshadowed figure of the rising proletarian Leftists in the May Fourth Movement. Cai Chusheng, by advocating the latter, hints a way of changing the society by uniting proletarians as a collective as opposed to individualism accented by May Fourth Literature.

When it comes to cinematic languages, “New Woman” falls into the category of “May Fourth Melodrama”, “which was characterized by moral polarization, excessive emotionalism, exaggerated expression, unusual human suffering, and extreme suspense”.  Although the term “Melodrama” is originated from Greek, this mode of expression can be frequently identified in Chinese literatures, performing arts and films, especially during the May Fourth period. As Zhang Yinjing points out, “rather than opposing itself to realism and romanticism favored by may Fourth literature, melodrama combined elements from both and provided leftists and the non-leftists alike with an effective form in which to address social problems while articulating versions of idealism, be they Marxist or conservative in nature”.  “New Woman” for instance is able to send out its social and political message by elements of Romanticism and Realism. Romanticism is depicted through Wei Ming’s artsy/modern life and her love relationships while realism is portrayed through her tragedy. The film also subtly communicate ideas through occasionally breaking out of the Hollywood influenced “Cinema of narration” structure.  For example, on her ride to the dance hall, Wei Ming engages in a deep thought with various emotions on her face while a picture frame of flashbacks appears next to her. This scene can be understood as an example of the alienating effect, which is a performing arts concept coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht “which prevents the audience from losing passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer. In this film, creating a picture frame next to the character not only instantly pulls the audience out of the immersive narrative as described in Brecht’s theory, but also imposes opinions on audiences  by matching  the stories depicted in the flashback with the character’s facial expressions.

Although Cai Chusheng along with the other left wing filmmakers aspires to provoke the audience into changing the society, they fail to do so. “Mingxing incurred a loss of 85,687.39 yuan in 1933 proves that leftist film productions did not help the company get out of the red.”(69) Film, as a product of a capitalist industry, cannot survive without box office income. “In 1934, under increasing KMT pressure, Mingxing terminated Xia Yan and other prominent leftists’ appointments...” which points to the fact that film cannot survive without political support either. It is an irony that left-wing cinema has to maintain itself in the society which it tries so hard defying at the same time. 

“New Year Sacrifice” as the first color feature produced by Beijing Film Studio  in the People’s Republic of China, becomes highly acclaimed and widely shown in China. This film is made in 1956, a very different time period than the 1930s when “New Woman” is made. After the second sino-Japanese war and Chinese civil war, the Communist Party is in control of mainland China and carries out campaigns including socialization of economy, land reform, nationalization of private industry and various social reforms(such as the marriage law of 1950). Alongside these political and social campaigns, there are also important cultural reforms in response to the Yan An legacy: culture to serve politics. As described by Zhang Yinjing, “more than any other period in film history, cinema was under complete control of the Party...”, CCP is able to control the entire film industry by nationalizing the studios, expanding government sponsored film distribution and exhibition and establishing new administrative institutions and censorship. As a result, the film industry during this time is no longer tied to the economic market.  “Shanghai theaters began to suspend all screenings of US films in November 1950, and within a short time a nationwide boycott had terminated the long-time Hollywood domination in china.”  A suspension of Hollywood film further enhances the supremacy of socialism. Around the same time in the world, American films started to decline especially after the breakout of the Korean War(1950-53), while the Soviet film started to rise with its model of socialist realism. 

“New Year’s Sacrifice, a film adapted from May Fourth texts, fits right into this socialist realism model, with a goal to serve CCP’s political, social and cultural campaigns. Among the characteristics of the social realism mode is the strong class consciousness. In the film, the Lu Family, who Xianglin’s Wife works for is depicted as a rich feudal family. They are indifferent to Xianglin’s Wife’s misery and think she is born to be inferior. For example, in a conversation between Lu Si and his wife: “Xianglin’s Wife works so much, but she has gained weight.” “She’s born to be a laborer. Working is her fate.” Xianglin’s Wife is depicted as a proletarian peasant/worker. She never has any possessions or money because she belonged to her mother-in-law according to feudal ethical codes. Even her salaries were taken by her mother-in-law. The contrasts between Xianglin’s Wife’s misery and the Lu family’s wealth is accented in the film many times expressed through dialogues and visuals. In “New Woman”, there is also depiction of class struggles, such as Li A Ying as a proletarian and Wei Ming as a middle class “petit-bourgeois”. The difference between them however is not so polarized and accentuated. A Ying and Wei Ming, with their different lifestyles, even became friends in the end. The concern on class struggle in “New Year’s Sacrifice” echos with the socialist ideology at the time. Just as what the script says at the beginning of the film ” We should be pure, smart and intrepid, should remove those hypocritical facial make-ups, should remove those vicious stupefaction and violence. When we mourn for the deaths we also need vow: we should eliminate those pains meaningless to life, should eliminate those stupefaction and violence that produce pains and play with them. We also need vow that human beings should all enjoy justifiable happiness. -Lu Xun” This quotation of Lu Xun, best express the message the film sents, that is, we need to eliminate the feudalism(or any other forms of exploitation, such as capitalism and imperialism) from the root up in order to live a happy life. 

“New Year’s Sacrifice”, different from “New Woman”, is no longer controlled under capitalism, and no longer influenced by western imperialism, bureaucratism and feudalism. However it is still a product, or epitome of the concurrent society, in this case, a Chinese adaptation of the Marxist Socialist society, or a sinicized socialist society. Chinese films in this time period, all tend to reflect the sinicized socialist ideologies. 

As a conclusion, both “New Woman” and “New Year’s Sacrifice” were used as agents for expressing anti-capitalism, anti-bureaucratism and anti-feudalism feelings and socialist ideologies, however they receive different results due to their different social periods. The left-wing cinema criticizes yet relies on the Western cultural imperialism and capitalism, while the socialist cinema banishes them, and preaches a sinicized socialism. Chinese cinema, has not changed in its nature as a hybrid of Chinese and western traditions of art, culture and representations, but has shifted its status from a passive result of western domination to an active adaptation of a western ideology.