Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas

picture: Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas
12 April 2005


I know what you are thinking - What the heck has Japan got to do with Shanghai and Hong Kong? Why write about a book on Chinese film history on a Japanese movie website? Well, two very good questions, so read on and all will become clear...

The link between the various film cultures around this part of the world is rather a grey area in Western writing. Historically books written in English have been more concerned with analysing the cinema of foreign countries either in how they relate or deviate from the Hollywood norm (what Noel Burch describes as the 'Institutional Mode of Representation', or IMR), or in explaining to Westerners what these films are actually trying to say.

But there's not so much on offer in the English language to challenge this standard Eurocentric viewpoint and deliver some insight into how these non-Western local industries, be they in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, are historically related to those of their neighbouring countries.

With this scholarly look at how China's two major film-producing cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong, were brought closer together following the Japanese invasion of 1937, Poshek Fu of the University of Illinois, author of Passivity, Resistance, and Collaboration (1993) and co-editor of The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts and Identity (2000), provides a vigorous and enlightening look at Japan's influence, for a brief period, on the popular culture of this area.

We've hit the point where mainstream Western audiences are just beginning to wake up to the charms of cinematic works from farther flung corners of the world than they are used to. The animations of Hayao Miyazaki scoop up international awards left, right, and centre. Hero and House of Flying Daggers now occupy their own special place in provincial multiplexes. The latest horror hits from Japan and Korea have their remake rights snapped up before they are even released in their home countries. And the brain drain of directing talent from Hong Kong to Hollywood has been in effect for over a decade.

Yet even as this new wave from the Far East gains an ever-increasing appreciation from audiences across the West, mainstream commentators on the phenomenon still tend to stick to the catch-all term of "Asian Cinema" to lump together everything from Thailand to Tokyo, ignoring the fact that all of these countries have very different histories and cultures of film production.

It is misleading to talk of Asian Cinema in the same way as you might talk about European Cinema. Over the past hundred or so years, the continent has never seen the same freedom of movement or cultural flow between the individual countries that lie within its geographical boundaries.

To take but one example, Korea, two divided countries wedged between the giants of China and Japan throughout its history, has fostered its own incredibly strong sense of culture and national identity. From the Second World War, up until quite recently, Japanese cultural products such as film were banned in South Korea. Meanwhile, countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma have been too racked with internal political turmoil for them to even think of pushing their films towards international markets, even neighbouring ones.

But most importantly, from the Pacific War onwards, there was never very much spirit of artistic collaboration between the industries whose works are now most readily accessibly for Western audiences. Trying to come up with parallels in Asia between Roman Polanski's career progression from Poland to Paris to London to Hollywood, or Luis Bunuel's work in Spain and France, to name but two, pretty much draws a blank.

(There's a notable exception in the case of a number of Japanese directors who ended up making films for the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong during the 1960s, including Umetsugu Inoue - often mistranslated as Umeji Inoue - and Akinori Matsuo. The case of Inoue in particular highlights one of the shortcomings of focusing studies on individual countries rather than a more holistic look at the local region. While directing popular matinee hits back at home, such as the 1957 showcase for the iconic Yujiro Ishihara, A Man Called Storm, and the first screen adaptation of Yukio Mishima's stage play of Edogawa Rampo's Black Lizard, starring Machiko Kyo (released by Daiei in 1962), before downgrading to the relative ignominy of the Ultraman TV series, during the late-60s he also took a couple of months out of every year to work on a series of flamboyant musicals that included Hong Kong Nocturne and Young Lover. Scholars of Hong Kong cinema look at Inoue as "that director from Japan", whereas Japanese movie buffs label him as "that director who went to Hong Kong", ignoring the links between his works in both countries, or questions such as how or why he went there in the first place.)

Things get tricky when you get to the case of China, a country encompassing a vast geographic terrain, and a multitude of different cultures and languages. One of the crucial points that comes across in Fu's book is that when looking back to the early days of the industry, it is difficult to even talk about a national film industry in China, with production spread between Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, cosmopolitan Shanghai - then known as "the Hollywood of the East" - and various production bases in the country's interior, such as that in the wartime Nationalist capital of Chongqinq, where during The Chinese War of Resistance against the Japanese (1937-45), two studios were established to make films promoting "resistance and national construction".

The war and the years running up to it is the focus of Fu's book, a time long before the advent of TV, when cinema was instrumental, especially among the illiterate masses, in cementing national identity and promoting the image of a homogeneous national self.

China's two top film-producing cities at this time, Hong Kong and Shanghai, can hardly be said to be typical of the nation. Both were major ports with a strong foreign presence - one a British colony, the other also featuring a large international community. In neither could it be said that the locals co-existed with the foreign interlopers on an equal level.

Yet as far as their cinematic product went, both cities were linked with the rest of the world in similar, yet significantly different ways. Both cities produced their first films around 1909, and in both cities, film production and exhibition was originally controlled by Western businessmen, though this soon passed into local hands.

During the 1930s, Shanghai was the cultural and financial capital of Republican China, a thriving cosmopolitan mixture of eastern and western cultures, and as with the rest of the world, Hollywood movies predominated on the nation's screens, tapping into and further propagating an "international middle-class culture" in a similar way as it did in Japan. The Japanese 'moga' (modern girl) and 'mobo' (modern boy) - cocktail sipping, jazz-loving, youngsters wearing dapper western style suits and flapper dresses - had their equivalents in the Chinese 'modeng nannu', a term used for both sexes. Showy appreciation of these new foreign entertainments in favour of more traditional forms was tantamount to shouting out one's identity as a member of a new sophisticated metropolitan bourgeoisie.

In the productions of the major studios Mingxing (Star), Lianhua (United China) and later Xinhua (New China), Shanghai cinema assimilated these global trends in an equivalent way to the so-called modernist films of the 1920s and early 30s of Shochiku's Kamata studios, located near the not-dissimilar melting pot of Japan's port city of Yokohama, gateway to the rest of the world. Through a widespread distribution network these films reached audiences across China, to cities as far as Shenyang and Dalian in the northeast, and to overseas Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaya, and San Francisco's Chinatown: "Its cinema became an emblem of modernity to the Chinese public, a popular index of the advent of modern life in China."

Rather than a conduit linking China with the rest of the world, by contrast Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong was very much considered on the fringes to dominant Mandarin culture ("beyond the pale of civilisation"), a disdainful view that has persisted with Chinese mainland intellectuals ever since, something that Fu refers to as "Central Plains syndrome". This was due to a number of factors such as the vernacular nature of its traditional culture of local opera and literature, its status as a British colony, and its geographical situation to the far south of the nation. Even now, Fu writes, "Hong Kong cinema has been largely ignored by Chinese scholars", the local industry's product long regarded as "box-office driven, frivolous and vulgar".

But Hong Kong's cultural base in the local language was to prove its biggest strength, and the city became the seat of "dialect cinema", exporting its product not only to Cantonese-speaking communities in the mainland, but also the Chinese diaspora spread across South East Asia and North America. Interestingly, because language was so central to Hong Kong film, it made the transition to sound far earlier and more smoothly than Shanghai. By 1934 practically all films in the colony had sound, whereas in Shanghai, the process took over five years, and the switchover was not completed until 1936 (similar to Japan).

Regardless of cultural differences, both industries were primarily motivated by money, and though they appealed to different audiences in different territories, their markets overlapped to some extent. Fu points to a definite link between the two cities in figures such as Zhang Shankun, and also Li Minwei (Lai Man-wei), who crossed the border frequently during the 1930s to coordinate his business activities between the two cultural centres. Lianhua Productions was founded with financial assistance through a powerful group of Hong Kong backers, maintaining facilities in both Shanghai and Hong Kong making movies in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

It is interesting to conjecture how the separate industries might have pursued their similar goals within different markets were it not for major changes in the industry forced from outside, with the battle of the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing on July 7th 1937 initiating a full-blown war between China and Japan that lasted until Japan's defeat by the Allied forces in 1945. Shanghai fell to the Japanese on November 12th, and the city became a semi-occupied "solitary island" (gudao), with tens of thousands of refugees from the mainland cramming into the ten-square miles of foreign concessions that were effectively left to run as normal despite their occupier's continuous military presence.

Though studios and production facilities were destroyed, and there was a mass exodus of Shanghai's filmmakers and major stars to Hong Kong - something depicted in the first part of the recent cross-generational saga starring Zhang Ziyi, Jasmine Women (Mo Li Hua Kai, 2004) directed by Yong Hou - the Shanghai film industry continued, against all odds, and between 1938 and 1941 made a grand total of 230 features. But the industry was decimated, with the occupation of the Southeast seaboard effectively blocking off local markets, while overseas Chinese colonies were also rendered inaccessible due to the war. Under the occupation, the price of film stock and equipment, previously imported from America and Germany, rose drastically, and production costs with them.

With Chinese resistance film production relocating inland to Chongqing, Shanghai was rocked with terrorist attacks by nationalists who saw those that chose to remain in the city as collaborators of the Japanese. Ironically, similar to the situation Japanese cinema found itself in during the US Occupation after the war, the Shanghai municipal governments banned any reference or discussion of this political violence and the Japanese invasion within the public sphere, including the movies.

After Pearl Harbour, Japanese troops declared war on all Western imperialist foreign elements in the city, packing off non-Axis western citizens to concentration camps and calling for the rebuilding of a "new Shanghai" within their planned Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Hollywood movies were also banned.

During the occupation, the Japanese had hoped for the collaboration of Shanghai filmmakers in order to assist turning out propagandist works glorifying the Japanese Empire, but due to fear of terrorist reprisals, local filmmakers were loathe to get involved.

The Japanese had already established the Manchurian Movie Association (Manchu Eiga Kyokai), or Man'ei, in Manchuria, which produced propagandist newsreels and shorts. But this area had long been a cultural stronghold for the occupiers, populated by the Japanese since their victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, and a puppet state since 1931. To replicate this success across the whole of China required local cooperation and resources far beyond those available.

In time, however, a feature-length Sino-Japanese co-production was eventually realised, under the aegis of Dai Nippon Eiga Kaisha (Great Japan Productions), in the form of the film Remorse in Shanghai (Chunjiang Yihen / Roka wa Shanghai ni Agaru), co-directed by Hu Xinling and Hiroshi Inagaki. Taking 6 months to shoot, this "watershed" in Greater East Asia cinema was not a rousing success in Shanghai upon its release in 1944. But by this time, Japan's defeat was not far away.

But this book is a tale of two cities, and Fu gives equal weight to what was happening in Hong Kong during this time, at first a haven for Chinese intellectuals, and in turn itself falling to the Japanese military.

The influence of the Japanese during the war on film industries in countries like Burma and Thailand has been described in some ways as beneficial, in that it was in the occupier's interests to build up a means of disseminating propaganda concerned with promoting a feeling of pan-Asian unity in face of the area's previous Western colonialists. In terms of providing training and equipment, Japan's legacy on the industries of Southeast Asia remained long after their troops had departed.

In the case of China, however, it appears that the country was just too large and fragmented, the industry already too established, and those that worked in it too resilient to cave in to their occupier's demands, and it took years before either of the industries were able to rebuild their production levels to the same level they enjoyed beforehand.

Few pre-war or wartime-produced Chinese works are likely to be familiar to Westerners, something that may deter potential readers of this book. But though graced with some intriguing stills from the films in question, Fu's fascinating study is less concerned with the works themselves than the history surrounding their production. It sheds new light on an era the complexities and ramifications of which are still not really understood in their entirety, and the results are just as pertinent to the study of Japanese film as they are to the entire field of Asian studies. A revelation.


Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas

picture: cover of 'Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas'

Stanford University Press