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Book Reviews

CHANG, Jing Jing. 2019. Screening Communities: Negotiating Narratives of Empire, Nation, and the Cold War in Hong Kong Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Tom Cunliffe
p. 59-60

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1Jing Jing Chang’s book focuses on how post-war Hong Kong cinema’s fate and fortunes, circa 1950s-late 1960s, were inextricably bound up with the context of the Cold War. For Chang, Hong Kong cinema of this period simultaneously imagined communities while constructing apolitical images that obscured the volatile political situation in post-war Hong Kong. Rather than a top-down enterprise from colonial authorities to subjects, Chang argues this situation was born out of a complex triangular relationship between colonial state, local filmmakers, and audiences. She posits that what was screened and what was screened out were equally important in the role films played in building Hong Kong’s post-war community. Hence, Chang’s methodological approach of “screening communities” sheds light on how certain strands of Hong Kong cinema operated in the colony, which both elucidates and revises assumptions about the historical development of Hong Kong cinema.

2Chapter One assesses how the colonial government kept the rules and regulations of its censorship system in the 1950s and 1960s shrouded in mystery, so that it could “maintain its façade of apolitical unity during the Cold War” (p. 36) to help stabilise its shaky grasp on power. This chapter contextualises the conditions that restrained filmmakers’ political expression, setting the stage for the proceeding chapters. Particularly useful is Chang’s utilisation of various primary sources, including newspaper articles and archival government documents, to outline the different forces at battle with each other in Hong Kong, including the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the role played by CCP propaganda organs such as the Southern Film Corporation (Nanfang yingye youxian gongsi 南方影業有限公司). Since the colonial government genuinely feared that films with overtly political stances could mobilise audiences and lead to public disturbances (p. 39), their censorship policies aimed to depoliticise culture and create the image of an apolitical community on screen. Chapter Two assesses how the colonial government promoted their own ideological agenda and image both within and outside of Hong Kong through focusing on the government-produced Hong Kong Film Unit series of documentaries (1950s-early 1960s), as well as their attempts to ingratiate themselves with the local populace by exhibiting the films in mobile cinemas in areas with no local cinemas and few televisions. Chang highlights how the Hong Kong government “moved from indifference to recognising the role of film in co-opting audiences as partners in the screening of their own collective post-war identities” (p. 47).

3Chapter Three assesses how Cantonese left-leaning filmmakers at studios such as Union Film Enterprise Ltd. (Zhonglian dianying qiye youxian gongsi 中聯電影企業有限公司) reinterpreted the May Fourth tenets of anti-feudalism and gender equality in the depoliticised arena of Hong Kong. This process inscribed “Hong Kong audiences in the discursive ‘screened’ construction of Chinese nationalism and nation building beyond strictly party-based rhetoric” (p. 101). Several times in Chapter Two Chang mentions that the colonial government sought to use film to educate audiences about civic responsibility (see pp. 51, 52, and 57). This idea of cinema as a pedagogic tool was also key to many left-leaning filmmakers; for instance the Union filmmakers attempted to balance entertainment with a “moral cinematic education” (p. 80). From their “cultural elite status” they sought to educate audiences (p. 82) and they “unanimously regarded cinema as a medium to teach audiences how to be good, morally upright people who would serve society and love culture” (p. 83). This sounds surprisingly similar to the way the colonial government sought to educate audiences about “civic responsibility.” What were the similarities and differences between them, and how did left-leaning filmmakers resist the political ideas in documentaries made by the government? More detailed analysis from both ideological and stylistic perspectives would have provided a better understanding of the overlaps and divergences in how such communities were constructed on-screen by each institution and how each type of film operated in its pedagogic aspects.

4The highlight of the book for this reader is Chapter Four, in which Chang discusses the lunlipian (倫理片). The lunlipian was an important genre in the filmmaking practices of 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong cinema, utilised as a generic marker by contemporary film critics and also as a marketing strategy by studios. Chang discusses the cultural significance of this form within its social history and also clears up the confusing interchangeability between the terms lunlipian and wenyipian (文藝片), and the differing English translations for the former term. This is helpful for all scholarship on Hong Kong cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s, since the term lunlipian is rarely used in English language scholarship, whereas various different English translations such as “social ethics films,” “(family) melodrama,” or “social realist film” are. Chang specifically illustrates how she sees “lunli” as a concept of address, deduced from excellent in-depth analysis of the production companies’ promotional materials and two 1960s genre-blending lunlipian, which function to construct local community based on communal solidarity, family values, and “a renegotiation of what constitutes traditional Chinese culture in post-war Hong Kong” (p. 112). The Cantonese lunlipian’s genre-blending development in the 1960s is often criticised as favouring entertainment over ethical concerns compared to 1950s iterations, but Chang’s argument that this genre-blending is a natural progression for the Cantonese lunlipian in line with stiff competition from Mandarin and foreign films and evolving socio-political conditions is a fruitful one that helps reconsider the generic and thematic connections between 1950s and 1960s Cantonese cinema.

5Chapters Five and Six expand outward, to Southeast Asia (Nanyang 南洋), and forward, to the late 1960s, to assess different strategies and developments in how filmmakers screened, and constructed, communities on-screen in Hong Kong cinema. The latter chapter helps with understanding how the “factory girl” series of films offer narratives articulating female emancipation and a fantasy of factory life, but perhaps more analysis on how these films posit that sacrificing oneself for capitalism is a noble pursuit would help illuminate their ideology in relation to local identity.

6It would also have been interesting to see consideration of Mandarin left-leaning/left-wing films to enrich our understanding of the industrial and creative milieu of the time. Overall, Chang’s book contributes greatly to reassessments of Hong Kong film history and demonstrates the importance of archival research. Her screening communities lens focuses clearly on how different parties with different political affiliations, commercial considerations, and agendas all utilised cinema to take part in the construction of Hong Kong’s post-war communities.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Tom Cunliffe, « CHANG, Jing Jing. 2019. Screening Communities: Negotiating Narratives of Empire, Nation, and the Cold War in Hong Kong Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. », China Perspectives, 2020/4 | 2020, 59-60.

Electronic reference

Tom Cunliffe, « CHANG, Jing Jing. 2019. Screening Communities: Negotiating Narratives of Empire, Nation, and the Cold War in Hong Kong Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. », China Perspectives [Online], 2020/4 | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 11 May 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/11028 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.11028

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About the author

Tom Cunliffe

Tom Cunliffe is a PhD graduate and early career researcher from SOAS. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London, WCH1 0XG, UK.229623@soas.ac.uk

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