Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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. 

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