A Stellar New Perspective on Modern Chinese Cinema

In his article “Why ‘The Chinese Cinema’?”, film critic Sean Gilman provides a thoughtful explanation for why he uses “cinema” as singular and not plural. For his purposes, it’s a reference to Andrew Sarris’s famous work “The American Cinema” and is not meant as a film critic’s implementation of the One China ideology. Hsiu-Chuang Deppman, a professor of Chinese and cinema studies at Oberlin College, in her 2020 book titled “Close-Ups and Long Shots in Modern Chinese Cinemas,” opts for the pluralization of “Chinese cinemas,” while simultaneously providing a more contemplative reason for grouping them together than Gilman offers in his article: the various Chinese cinemas—mainland, Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc.— in one way or another, wrestle with Confucian aesthetics in a way that unites them as “Chinese.” 

In the grander scheme of cinematic movements, close-ups and long shots have a unique place in the Chinese cinemas. She writes, “From Singapore to China and from Taiwan to overseas Chinese communities, the Confucian revival reflects the embeddedness of Chinese ethics in the cultural education of directors, whose shot selections can be seen as both personal stylistic expressions and ethical choices that respond to established norms.” Deppman persuasively demonstrates the unique Chinese uses of these shot types espouses from the cultural influence of Confucianism and, in the case of the five case studies in her book, contain ethical meaning.  

Part of what’s exciting about Deppman’s newest book is the diversity of the case studies she selects: Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew, and Wei Desheng’s Cape No. 7. The directors listed are all big names in the context of Chinese cinema (and in the case of the first three, global cinema). But combined they represent the Fifth Generation and Sixth Generations of Chinese filmmakers, the Taiwanese New Wave cinema movement and Second New Wave, cross-culturalism, and various reactions to Confucian ethics from the more restrained conformity of Jia to the oppositional voyeurism of Lee. 

Likewise, they analyze rather unique films, particularly her choice of the Jia film. She didn’t select from his canon of untouchables like Still Life or The World, the films that have earned him a place as “the most important filmmaker working in the world today,” in the words of NPR’s John Powers. She chose one of his most obscure films, I Wish I Knew, a pseudo-documentary about daily life in Shanghai. Not that it’s the best measure of popularity, but it’s the least logged of his feature-length films on Letterboxd to put its obscurity into perspective. To my knowledge, Deppman’s chapter is one of just two serious academic grapplings with I Wish I Knew

What elevates Deppman’s work to essential for any person serious about Chinese cinema is her religious-philosophical perspective for categorizing the aesthetics of close-ups and long shots. Most studies of Zhang Yimou or Jia Zhangke, for example, whether academic or not, tend to analyze the two premier mainland directors through a generational perspective that is divided by Maoist influence. As such, Zhang’s films must grapple with the Cultural Revolution but not the younger Jia’s films. English language writers in particular seem to have a fixation on interpreting the works of Chinese directors through the complex socio-political realities of the People’s Republic of China, as witnessed in the valuable work by Paul Clark in “Reinventing China: A Generation and Its Films.” Admittedly, elsewhere I have even fallen for this trap. Deppman’s concerns with Confucianism and Chinese religious ethics provide an essential perspective. 

An example of the illumination possible from this perspective comes in the case study on The Assassin, a 2015 wuxia set in the ninth-century. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), an assassin raised by nuns, is set to murder a corrupt government official in the Tang dynasty but finds herself unable to slay him after witnessing him at play with his child. The film is not a basic wuxia though. It’s quiet and contemplative, with close-ups of characters reflecting on their kills lasting longer than the wire-work action scenes that would normally be the main attraction. Hou Hsiao-hsien uses a recurring shot that Deppman has creatively deemed “close-ups in long shot” because “the characters see each other up close but they are positioned far away from the camera, so the viewer has no access to their conversation and facial expressions… The context and distance often make visible atmospheric foreboding, moral predicament, and perspectival differences.” Hou’s restraint, Deppman argues, finds its roots in Confucian ethics. In the main example she calls attention to, Yinniang has a conversation with a mirror polisher who fancies her. To quote Confucius, “Do not look at what is contrary to propriety; do not listen to what is contrary to propriety; do not speak what is contrary to propriety; do not act on what is contrary to propriety.” She notes, “These moral guidelines, a blueprint to the realization of ren, roughly translate Hou’s aesthetic of restraint: his long shots suppress both the voyeuristic pleasure of the viewer and emotional outburst of the characters.” Putting this back into perspective, Hou’s usage of the “close-up in long shot” is something deeply and uniquely Chinese because of the way it uses Confucian ethics. 

If you’re anything like me, this alone would be worth the price of purchase. The fact that there are four more significant case studies with equally valuable philosophical/ethical conclusions sounds insatiable but it’s true. Not to mention, the Kindle edition of her new book is currently only $9.99, a complete steal for a recently published academic film studies book, let alone one with a fresh perspective.

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