It is impossible to overstate the enduring influence of existentialism on art house film. Since disentangling themselves from the mainstream of popular cinema back in the 1960s, art house filmmakers have worked hard to create a set of narrative techniques that perfectly capture what it’s like to feel lost and a little bit sad in a world rippling with beauty and potential. This tension between the world’s extraordinary potential and our own failure to make the most of it is what lies at the heart of all existential thought and most art house film. Indeed, these techniques and the moods associated with them are now so common in European and World cinema that their deployment has started to feel more like a professional rite-of-passage than an expression of manifest truth.
Winner of the Best International Film award at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Chinese director Mao Mao’s first film Here, Then (Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu) is an excellent example of how to launch a directorial career: As technically brilliant and thematically rich as any conventional art house film produced in the last five years, Mao Mao’s debut proves that he can use conventional art house techniques to tell a conventional art house story about alienation, isolation and the yawning chasm at the heart of middle-class life.
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This month’s issue of Videovista has recently gone up and it contains my review of Peter Chan’s The Warlords (2007). It is not a bad film at all and it draws attention to two interesting characteristics about contemporary Chinese cinema.
Firstly, that while Chinese films are lagging behind the West in matters of digital jiggery-pokery, they have acess to material resources such as sets and extras that render a lot of these techniques largely moot. For example, I suspect that had The Warlords‘ battle scenes been shot for an American film, the armies would have been mostly digital and, as a result, much much larger. After all, why have a few dozen ships when you can have thousands? I call this the Troy Effect.
You can also see the impressive material infrastructure of Chinese cinema on display in Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers (2007) ,which I also reviewed for Videovista. The film’s opening scenes are set in the Chinese country-side and instead of a few internal shots and maybe some location work, the film benefits from having been shot on what apears to be the kind of vast back-lot that Hollywood has long since transformed into theme parks.
Secondly, both films are set at times in Chinese history when there was a good deal of foreign involvement in China’s internal affairs. Indeed, Blood Brothers is set in 1930s Shanghai, which hosted a large British ex-pat community including J. G. Ballard. Similarly, The Warlords is set in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the wars between China in Britain that not only netted Britain Hong Kong but which opened China up to foreign trade and cultural influence. However, despite this both films are completely free of British characters and Western faces.
Since the apologetics of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), it has become tempting to see all Chinese cultural exports as exercises in nationalist propaganda and the degree of cultural re-appropriation going on in both films invite us to consider them in this very light. However, this strikes me as a rather egocentric vision of Chinese cinema. Not every film (or song) is about the West or even for Western consumption. As a result, it seems more reasonable to see this kind of historical airbrushing as being an expression not of ideological projection but of yielding to popular tastes. So just as American audiences prefer to think that their country won the Second World War single-handed, I suspect that most the Chinese audience would react badly to films that remind them of their country’s quasi-colonial status.