Gary G. Xu. Sinascape – Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. 176pp. ISBN-10: 0742554503 (paperback).

The twenty-first century will be the Chinese century – this widespread global narrative of the rising giant of the East is the opening image of Gary G. Xu’s book: Sinascape – Contemporary Chinese Cinema. In 2005, Newsweek made this topic its cover story illustrating it with three pictures: one of the Great Wall, representing China’s glorious past, one of Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower, representing the prosperous economic present and one of the female actor Zhang Ziyi, a bright star in Asian cinema – representing… yes, what exactly? There is little doubt that China already gets its fair share of attention in terms of international politics and economics, but what about culture? Will Chinese films start to contest Hollywood’s hegemony over hearts and minds? Will we start to cry, laugh and have our ideas of society shaken by Zhang Ziyi and other Chinese actors? Alternatively, will Chinese films simply continue to pander the latest fad in marketable exotica?

In his book Xu embarks upon an open-minded investigation into the nature of the Chinese-language film industry and the role these films play globally. He ends up presenting an interesting challenge to the standard view of the industry.

One of the book’s key points is that there is no hierarchy in viewer position, when it comes to the reception of Chinese film today – there is no privileged audience or theory. The readings of the films are informed by Xu’s own industry contacts, a broad selection of relevant international film critiques on the topic and several Cultural Studies classics including Benjamin and Deleuze. This mixture gives his readings a splendid unpretentiousness and freshness. He manages to focus on the many different production forms, artistic strategies and subjects that characterize the pan-Chinese film industry.

Xu’s readings of such diverse subjects as copyright discussions, nationalism, the representation of social violence and realism are never stable; his intention is not to interpret the movies, but to unravel the myriads of perspectives and positions they maintain both towards the outside world and within it. He thereby demonstrates how the filmmakers create a whole range of life worlds, constructed from their respective artistic strategies, cultural, social and historical horizons, from their production conditions, which are shaped by economic and political circumstances. Most importantly the films are constructed with a clear consciousness of the transnational gaze, which focuses on their representations of the Chinese. Some directors insist on cultural authenticity, but most of the directors discussed question their own cultural practices and position of enunciation. Xu calls this patchwork of different filmic life worlds a Sinascape, the material that our reality is composed of – a media created simulacrum that nevertheless is our reality. Our reality – West or East – is a simulacrum composed of countless representations.

There is a remarkable lack of gender issues in the book – and it is not until the postscript, that Xu explains why. He returns to the debate on the relationship between Hollywood and the rest of the world and China’s place in global filmmaking. He cites and criticises a Hollywood-insider’s view of aesthetics in Asian films as – “exotic, erotic, feminine, seductive and decorative” – as the female ‘other’ of Hollywood. A statement that bares witness to an obvious continuation of an age-old Orientalism, where a society’s normality and core values are intrinsically linked to and formed by the expulsion of certain elements that do not belong to the created national identity. Orientalism nurtures and sustains the idea of essential characteristics in whole nations, e.g. Chinese film as having ‘female’ and American films as having ‘male’ traits. Like those of many other critics, Xu’s analysis makes it clear that this is a generalization that is both racially and sexually discriminating and essentializing. It is far removed from the varied landscape of Asian Cinema presented by Xu – as he says: “Asian cinema is not exclusively feminine.”

Moreover, Xu also applies new critical insights to the generalization. He demonstrates that the consciousness of the transnational gaze has become so important in some Chinese-language films that the directors have already let the Hollywood paradigm of schemes of narration into their work when they are making films for the international market. When it comes to the flourishing remake-industry, some directors consult potential American buyers even before they have finished the original Chinese-language version.

Xu makes a thought-provoking prediction about this current trend in transnational filmmaking. He foresees that Asian films – including Chinese-language films – will play a key role in twenty-first century cinema – because of the move towards offshore production in the American movie industry. It is much cheaper to outsource the extremely costly development of a marketable film formula to Asia, and then finalize the film with a local cultural makeover using stars from the local region. Examples of this already include The Ring, The Ring Two, The Grudge, Shall we Dance and The Departed.

Such developments beg the question as to whether we are witnessing the birth of a transnational film industry which will challenge the Hollywood paradigm with a new creative nexus? Or is it simply the first sign of the final victory of Hollywood’s dominance of the entire cinema world?  The actual role of Zhang Ziyi – as the representation of the Chinese film industry – is thus intriguingly open. What is certain is that Xu’s thoughtful investigation into Non-Hollywood sharpens our critical awareness of the nature of representation and of the new versions of Orientalism produced by the transnational movie industry. 

(Karen Louise Erichsen, editor, Frydenlund Publishing House, Copenhagen)