Paris, Armand Colin, 2014, 168 pp.
Review by Luisa Prudentino
This work is dedicated to Shanghai and Hong Kong, two cities that occupy a mythical position in the eyes of the West and in Chinese cinema as, respectively, the birthplace of the industry in China and the place where it developed. Through their dual material and symbolic significance, the two cities continue to contribute to the history of cinema to this day.
The author has divided the book into three sections. The first is given over to the history of Chinese cinema in the two cities, and in particular to the exchanges that took place between the two over the course of the twentieth century. In this section, Christophe Falin reveals the major events that resulted in these exchanges, from the birth of sound film to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, also observing the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Communist victory of 1949. This section also includes an interesting paragraph concerning the mixing of Chinese cinema in the 1950s, resulting from the creation of two flagship companies in Hong Kong, MP&GI and Shaw Brothers, which made this city into one of the most important centres for film production in Asia. Of course, the importance of these two studios in Hong Kong cinema at the time (and even afterwards) is well known, but there is precious little awareness of the strategic role they played in the distribution of film throughout Southeast Asia as a whole. From Malaysia to Singapore, every step in the creation of a film was controlled by these two companies, from the producers and directors through to the scriptwriters, actors, and technicians.
The second section covers the many ways in which Shanghai and Hong Kong have been portrayed in Chinese and Western films since the 1930s. The aim of the author is to show how the urban planning of the two cities has helped create an image of the two that is as real as it is fantastic. The reader is taken on a tour of Shanghai’s 1930s lilong, which were, according to the author’s definition, “aligned rows of two-level houses, built from brick,” thus revealing both the luxurious properties of the foreign concessions and also the extreme poverty of the city’s slums. The chapter covering Hong Kong and its overpopulated and hyperactive neighbourhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, which has provided the backdrop for many Chinese and foreign thrillers, contains even richer descriptions.
Finally, the third section is given over, in particular, to three major directors with close links to their cities: Lou Ye of Shanghai, and Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To of Hong Kong. The author portrays Lou Ye as the natural heir to the generation of Chinese urban film-makers who emerged at the start of the 1990s, following the crackdown on the student movement at Tiananmen Square. Lou Ye’s portrayal of Shanghai, the city of his birth, is lucid, even disillusioned. Wong Kar-wai, meanwhile, has a more intense bond with the city of Hong Kong, capturing “its heartbeat and its beauty.” In Johnnie To’s films, on the other hand, Hong Kong is a more tangible presence, and each feature film provides the film-maker with the opportunity to show several different faces of the territory.
Falin adopts two approaches in his book: the history of cinema in the two cities, and the study of how they are portrayed in film. Although the combination of these two approaches allows the many links between the two cities and their film-making to be approached in an original and complimentary manner, it also gives rise to a number of repetitions, especially in terms of film titles and historical facts, which ultimately weigh down the text. This is felt especially strongly in the first section of the work, in which the task of recounting the intertwined histories of the various film studios has led the author to make so many cross-references between the two cities and their film-making heritages that the pace of the narration is sometimes broken.
The second section, on the other hand, is far more fluid and effective; that said, while it is understandable that the author is not able to delve deeply into the various aspects of how the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong are portrayed in film, it is unfortunate that certain fundamental films are not cited (such as Jacob Cheung’s Cageman) or are only covered fleetingly (for example, I wish I knew, by Jia Zhangke) rather than being the subject of greater reflection and analysis.
The eighth chapter of the third and final section of the work also contains a few repetitions before offering portraits of the three major directors mentioned above (Lou Ye, Wong Kar-wai, and Johnnie To). Falin’s analysis of the impact their film-making has had on the imaginary and social representation of the two cities is astute and pertinent.
An exhaustive and detailed bibliography concludes the work, and will doubtless prove very useful to any readers wishing to make their own contribution to research into relations between cities and film, an area that the author currently considers to be excessively “Eurocentric.”
Translated by Will Thornely.
Luisa Prudentino is professor of Chinese language and civilisation at the University of Salento (Lecce, Italy) and lecturer in the history of Chinese cinema at INALCO (Paris, France), the University of Artois (Arras, France) and the University of Lorraine (Metz, France) (email@example.com).