Talking Movies in China
The first time I saw China on screen was in The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping account of the life of Pu Yi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). As a 10-year-old, it was impossible for me to comprehend the history on display, but the scenes of a lonely boy riding his bike around the grounds of the Forbidden City certainly left an impression.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, and I was studying film at postgraduate level. Although my research was focused on U.S. cinema, I couldn’t ignore the increasing number of titles from China arriving in the UK such as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Beijing Bicycle, Hero and Unknown Pleasures. These varied films presented fascinating images of China’s past and present while also sometimes speculating on its future.
I first visited China in 2005 and, after a few more trips, relocated in 2010 to teach film studies at Nanjing University. I only visited the cinema a few times while there, perhaps because the main multiplex was a dingy void located near Walmart. However, contacts and friendships were made not only through film-related activities at the university but also through hanging around New Wave, a DVD shop near the campus run by a cheerful cinephile known as “Little Mao.” Our interactions constituted a cultural exchange of sorts: he would recommend back catalog titles by notable Chinese directors, and I would answer his questions about British action star Jason Statham. Movies make for great small talk.
In 2013, I moved to Beijing. It’s a truly cinematic city. Whether being dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Chaoyang District, navigating a labyrinthine subway station or wandering down a hutong (narrow lane), it’s a widescreen metropolis to be experienced with suitable in-ear musical accompaniment. It also now has hundreds of cinemas, mostly found in interchangeable shopping malls. Although it took a while to find a regular haunt, the well-designed Jackie Chan Cinema at Wukesong has become my favorite multiplex. Coincidentally, it was Jackie Chan who marked the start of my current sideline as a freelance correspondent for the industry publication Screen Daily as the first title I reviewed for the outlet was The Foreigner, which cast the affable star in an atypically serious role.
In an academic capacity, I’ve found opportunities to write analytical or historical pieces about Chinese cinema for books and journals. I also co-edit the enthusiast website VCinema which covers movies from all over Asia. However, film criticism as a profession has always represented a road not taken. It’s often described as a dying art and occasionally seems redundant in the social media era when everyone has a hot take. Yet having access to the latest releases in a booming local market through being based in Beijing enables one to carve out a niche. Since 2017, I’ve professionally reviewed crime thrillers such as A Better Tomorrow 2018, historical extravaganzas including Legend of the Demon Cat and socially conscious true stories like Dying to Survive.
China’s popular cinema evidences a hectic turnover of trends while its output often receives criticism for its variable quality. Still, it’s refreshing to live in a country where Marvel doesn’t dominate, and the new Star Wars entries are greeted with a collective shrug. Even when you visit the cinema by yourself, it’s a communal experience. Over the 2018 Lunar New Year period, I sat with a crowd in Anshan, Liaoning Province, which lapped up the family values of Monster Hunt 2. That evening, I sat in the middle of a group of spectators that cheered throughout Dante Lam’s patriotic action spectacle Operation Red Sea. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to keep a clear critical head. When watching the sci-fi comedy Crazy Alien, I was torn between the nagging sense that it didn’t really have a third act and an awareness that the audience didn’t remotely care because the jokes were right on target.
Articles concerning Chinese cinema frequently make comparisons with Hollywood blockbusters and fail to recognize China’s unique movie-going culture. Commercial filmmakers are becoming increasingly savvy with their use of genre narratives to illustrate a range of experiences in accessible fashion. Much like other aspects of contemporary China, just when you think you have its cinematic sensibility pegged, everything changes.
Foreigners often complain about the lack of cinema-going etiquette in China but I’ve come to grudgingly accept distractions that occur in the multiplex, which many talkative audience members see as an extension of their living room. Throughout a showing of the unabashedly sentimental romance Us & Them, I was admittedly annoyed by the glow from the cellphone of a woman down the row, but maybe she was dealing with a heartbreak of her own via WeChat. Life in China can be hectic and busy citizens rarely have the luxury of tuning the world out completely, even for a couple of hours.
When not reviewing the latest local releases, I like to visit Camera Stylo, located in Dongcheng District, Beijing. Offering an eclectic line-up of new titles and cult favorites, it’s a truly communal movie house. After moving to Beijing, I was disappointed to find the film club scene once found among various research studies fading away, but Camera Stylo has proven to be an enduring fixture. Q&A sessions with filmmakers often follow screenings, and the bar boasts a well-stocked selection that gets open-minded discussions flowing.
As much as they stimulate conversation, cinemas inform our experiences of places. When I had the pleasure of hosting a distinguished film professor from the United States during his first trip to Beijing, I suggested a tour of the Forbidden City. Wandering around the magnificent grounds, we discussed a variety of topics but, inevitably, kept coming back to movies. As usual, the sprawling imperial palace was packed with tourists yet twinges of the painful loneliness so exquisitely conveyed in The Last Emperor cut right through the throng as a sense of awe was imbued with poignant cinematic memory.
The author is a lecturer in film and language studies at Renmin University of China. He is a co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He is also attributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014).