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Why Chinese-language Films Are Ignored by the West

31 August 2012 | Others | by David Zou

Admit it or not,Chinese language films have never been fully valued by the Western audience and critics until this day.Many viewer’s impressions on Chinese films still stay at the level of the superficial Hong Kong Kungfu movies.The critics are not much better,in the latest Sight & Sound poll,only 3 Chinese-language films make it to the top 250,and the best rank they get is #24.

in_the_mood_for_love

Partially because of the “unfair treatment” of the Chinese-language films,the most authoritative Chinese movie website Cinephilia.net organized a similar poll,which invites 135 critics to do the exact same thing.Without surprise,two Chinese-language films makes it into top 10.Here is a comparison of Top 10 Chinese-language films between the two polls(you can view the full list here).

TOP TEN CHINESE LANGUAGE FILMS IN THE SIGHT & SOUND POLL:

1. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai) – 42 votes (#24 overall)
2. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang) – 19 votes (#84 overall)
3. Yi Yi – A One and a Two (Edward Yang) – 17 votes (#93 overall)
4. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 14 votes (#117 overall)
5. Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu) – 13 (#127 overall)
6. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai) – 12 votes (#144 overall)
7. A Touch of Zen (King Hu) – 9 votes (#183 overall)
8. West of the Tracks (Wang Bing) – 8 votes (#202 overall)
9. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 7 votes (#235 overall)
(tie) The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 7 votes

TOP TEN CHINESE LANGUAGE FILMS IN THE CINEPHILIA.NET POLL:

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang) – 29 votes (#3 overall)
2. Spring in a Small Town (Yuan Muzhi) – 19 votes (#10 overall)
3. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 14 votes (#15 overall)
4. Yi Yi – A One and a Two (Edward Yang) – 9 votes (#27 overall)
5. A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 6 votes (#41 overall)
6. The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 5 votes (#50 overall)
7. A Touch of Zen (King Hu) – 4 votes (#63 overall)
8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee) – 3 votes (#86 overall)
(tie) Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke) – 3 votes
(tie) West of the Tracks (Wang Bing) – 3 votes
(tie) Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai) – 3 votes
(tie) Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige) – 3 votes

The difference here is huge,yeah,the Chinese poll of course favors Chinese-language films,but I believe anyone who has seen enough Chinese films would agree with me that Chinese-language films deserve more spots in the top 100 and maybe better rankings too.

a brighter summer day

 

So what has caused this kind of embarrassed position of Chinese Cinema?Maybe we can get some clues from some Chinese movie critics.

The Western Dominance 

Oriental Morning:In our impression,no matter it’s in some rankings or textbooks,it’s always the Western films that take the dominant position,and Chinese-language films are relatively weak.Do you think it’s some kind of culture difference or there are other reasons?

Li(Chief Executive of the Hong Kong International Festival):There are two major reasons:First,the Western films have been a very strong force since the day cinema was invented,and it’s no surprise they took the dominant position.Second,not only Chinese-language films,but all those third world movies,the reason they are in this kind of position in world cinema now,is the distribution is really poor,many great works didn’t even have the chance to be showed in the Western world.

Huang(The former director of Hong Kong Film Archive):It is a fact that Western films have longer history than us,there are also reasons of cultural difference,for instance,the cultural meaning of Spring in a Small Town is tough for Westerners to understand.

Jiao(Taiwan Film Scholar):I don’t think it has anything to do with the cultural difference,the main reason is still the distribution.When we talk about Yang or Hou,we can easily list their top 3 films,but if Western audience can do the same totally depends on the film distribution in the Western world.Even some modern directors couldn’t get the chance,let alone those classic films which are so far away from modern times.

My thoughts on this:I can’t agree more with Li and Jiao here,it’s all about the distribution.If you look at the largest dvd distribution company – Criterion,they have only released 5 Chinese-language films in their 600 plus titles,that’s a very small portion.As far as I know,the Western audiences love those 5 films,if In the Mood for Love did not get the treatment,will it get to #28? I doubt it.

But we need to do our job well first,which is the restoration,the film administration needs to make more effort in this project,instead of focusing on those poor quality films in the cinema.I have seen some progress now,they released 6 Taiwan titles in BD last year,which look amazing,it’s a good start,and I hope they can be consistent and put more money and energy in it.

spring in a small town

The Status of Chinese-language Films in World Cinema

Oriental Morning:What’s the position of Chinese-language films in world cinema?

Huang:Edge position,the history of cinema is written by the Westerners.The concept of Chinese-language films is complex and has evolved a lot,even we Chinese have not sort it out yet.

Jiao:It has been a blank for a long time of the written material of Chinese-language film history,only Cheng wrote one and a Western scholar called Jay Leyda wrote another based on the work of Chen,there are not anything else.But are these two books popular in the Western world? Not really.So Western people never have the concept of Chinese cinema until the New Wave and the rise of the Fifth Generation.We should depend on ourselves to sort out our own history.

My thoughts on this:I have seen some books like David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong and Taiwan New Wave films in bookstore,but those books only talk about a period of Hong Kong or Taiwan cinema.It’s even worse in Mainland,because of the Cultural Revolution,they made all those propaganda films for The Party during 1960s and 1970s,and also the documentation was stopped during that period of time.So we need some scholars to sort our own history instead of doing research on those masters of other countries.

The fall of the Fifth Generation

Oriental Morning:In the Sight & Sound poll,one can barely find the works of the Fifth Generation directors,but in the 1980s-1900s,films from Mainland shared the same reputation of Hong Kong and Taiwan films,why?

Li:I’m not surprised at all by this result.Yang and Hou get more votes than Zhang and Chen,simply because the latter two did not make any good films in the last decade as their early days’ works,so their status have fallen in the Westerners’ eyes.

Huang:The reason the Fifth Generation films broke out in front of the Western audience is because the Chinese history background at that time,also in the 1990s,the Western cinema was in its decay,they were looking for something new.A decade passed,only the real cinema stays.So I’d rather say,it is the time that tests the classics.

Jiao:When you look back at those Fifth Generation films,some of them are still great,but only in the context of Chinese cinema,if you put it in the context of world cinema,it becomes less great. The films like Farewell My Concubine and Blue Kite,they focus more on the history event rather than the cinema esthetics,they were so popular at that time is more because the Western world wanted to know more about Chinese history through their movies.

My thoughts on this: I totally agree with Jiao and Li.The works of the Fifth Generation lack the originality of cinema esthetics,and those directors all lost themselves in big productions in their last several films.I think some of the works of Sixth Generation directors would live long than the Fifth,directors like Xiaowu(Jia),The Spring Fever(Lou),The Devil on the Doorstep(Jiang),West of the Tracks(Wang),because they have their own styles and have developed it very well in their last couple of films.

 

 

 


   

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  • Glad to see you posting again with regularity!
    This post is particularly fascinating to me. It’s interesting that there are 7 titles in common between the two lists but that there is a discrepancy between western and Chinese critics regarding Wong Kar-Wai’s best film.
    I agree with the points that the critics you cite make about distribution being the key. It is hard to see Chinese movies in the U.S. It is therefore no surprise that of the 5 Chinese films distributed by The Criterion Collection, 3 are in the Sight & Sound Top 10 (In the Mood for Love, Yi Yi and Chungking Express). Of the other 7 Chinese films in the SIght & Sound Top 10, only 2 are currently in print on DVD in the U.S.: The Flowers of Shanghai and Spring in a Small Town.
    If you have a multi-region Blu-ray player, things are a little easier. In the past two years I’ve picked up the great Taiwanese Blu-rays of Yang’s The Terrorizers and Hou’s Dust in the WInd, as well as the Hong Kong Blu-ray of Life Without Principle. I notice that Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage (AKA Actress) has been released on Blu in Hong Kong and I look forward to picking that up as well.
    I recently read David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong (cited by one of the Chinese critics above) and it is easily the best book about a regional cinema that I have ever read.
    I really need to see Xiao Wu.

    • Thanks,Michael,finally I’m not that busy and the problem of the blog was solved.
      Chinese LOVE Days of Being Wild,if you look at some directors’ votes in their fave Chinese-language film(another group of listings) ,it’s always this one,and it is currently my No. 3 Wong film.
      Distribution is indeed the key here,too many HOU and YANG and HU films are not on dvd print,such a pity.I have no idea what can arouse Criterion’s interest again,the best dvd company distributing Chinese films are AE and HK Video.
      Yeah,you can get many HK version Blus since you have the multi-region Blu player.
      The Bordwell book is actually cited by ME,and I was wondering if I should get a PDF copy of it,which sells at $15 on his website.
      Xiao Wu is a must see,I remember I posted the video url of that film on my previous post.

  • Interesting question and article, David. I enjoy Asian films directed by Wong Kar-wai, Kim Ki duk or Zhang Yimou, but sometimes it’s tough to relate to the different culture.
    A lot of the best Chinese films you list here are art films? Perhaps that’s a factor. Also a big film festival in China would help? Mainstream Chinese films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are rare, I agree distribution is key factor. China needs more popular films that are not marcial arts, so western audiences are not so prejudiced. Takes time.
    Maybe western audiences like it when a western character travels in Japan or China , I know I do: Lost in Translation (2003) , or The Painted Veil (2006)

    • Thanks Chris,yes,the films listed here are all classic art films,which are considered to be great.The difficulty of distribution of classic films is one thing while the lack of themes and genres is another thing,so I might write another in-depth post discussing this topic.Lost in Translation and The Painted Veil are both good films,and it’s from the Western directors’ POV,if it’s from an Oriental director’s POV,it might not be so attractive.

  • This is something I’ve thought about too, and I think it’s a combination of culture, distribution, and maybe even politics. It’s hard to take a risk on investing in a film that most people can’t relate to. I’m also curious how those films by Yang and Hou were received by the general audience in China.

    • Thanks Bonjour,Chinese general audience do not watch Yang and Hou,or any other Chinese art films,only cinephiles like them a lot.I agree that Western audience sometimes can’t relate to a Chinese film because of the Cultural difference,but great films are universal,like those made by YANG and HOU,China is a very interesting country and has so many stories to tell,but the ability of the current directors is a big problem,also the mass audiences’ acceptance.

  • Pingback: A Brighter Summer Day in Criterion Collection | Taste of Cinema()

  • Edchong

    “When you look back at those Fifth Generation films,some of them are still great,but only in the context of Chinese cinema,if you put it in the context of world cinema,it becomes less great. The films like Farewell My Concubine and Blue Kite,they focus more on the history event rather than the cinema esthetics,they were so popular at that time is more because the Western world wanted to know more about Chinese history through their movies.”

    This is utter nonsense. Yellow Earth is a great film by any standards, international or otherwise. So are Farewell My Concubine and The Blue Kite. None of the Taiwanese films has won the Palme d’Or which is perhaps the most difficult film competition in the world. And looking at Yellow Earth, no one in their right mind can say it is NOT groundbreaking in its aesthetics and the way they tell the story through images and allegory. They are fully the equal of Hou or Yang’s masterpieces.

    The reason why Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine are ranked lower is because Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige are now making second rate commercialised films. Their reputations have suffered. Furthermore the question is how many non-Chinese critics managed to see. say, A Brighter Summer’s Day or A Touch of Zen when they are only recently released on Blu-Ray/DVD?

    Remaster the films in 4K and distribute them, through Blu-Rays. Then like L’Atalante more cinephiles will rediscover them.