As a film reviewer at a press screening of Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker (1994), I met a journalist who felt confident about dashing off a piece. Knowing little about Chinese culture and precious little about Chinese cinema, I did not share his confidence. How do westerners do justice to films from such an exotic tradition?
Aimed at students and readers taken with post-1984 "fifth generation" hits such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Farewell My Concubine (1993), New Chinese Cinema catches the senses in which post-cultural revolution Chinese film-making challenged official lines and the preconceptions of western onlookers. Showing extensive knowledge of politics and film history, the authors are sensitive to Chinese resonances around music, metaphor, art, allegory, even colour, and to the way Confucian patriarchal heritage hangs heavy across women's history.
There is a useful section charting representations of Chinese archetypes in British and Hollywood films. While the fifth generation efflorescence helped erode racist archetypes such as Fu Man Chu and Charlie Chan, less than 1 per cent of British arthouse fare is foreign language - and most of this is French - making it easy to settle for a limited perspective, based on films little shown in China itself. Ranging across Chinese cinema from the "Shanghai decadence" tradition of the 1930s to the disaffected youth of the post-Tiananmen "sixth generation", the authors prompt careful consideration of what constitutes a national cinema.
Monochrome stills can only hint at treats in store. But the integration of socio-historical and textual analysis is just what is needed. The filmography and bibliography are also thorough, and it would be hard to find a better short cut to the subject.
Richard Armstrong is an associate tutor affiliated with the British Film Institute.
New Chinese Cinema: Challenging Representations
Author - Sheila Cornelius and Ian Haydn Smith
ISBN - 1 903364 13 2
Publisher - Wallflower
Price - £11.99
Pages - 133