Book Review: Cinema Affairs: Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945, by Weihong Bao

Although it is full of potential, research on the cultural history of cinema in China has traditionally been a marginal practice. Weihong Bao’s book (alongside Zhen Zhang”s An Amorous History of the Silver Screen, 2005) stands out as an alternative example which pays exceptional attention to the cultural context of the emergence of Chinese cinema alongside the theorisation of certain concepts. Bao’s interdisciplinary approach distinguishes her book from existing scholarship in the niche field. While Fiery Cinema uses “an affective medium” as a theoretical concept for its academic inquiry and “fire” as a narrative connection, it is different to those “straight” histories of the (aesthetic and industrial) development of Chinese cinema exemplified by scholars such as Laikwan Pang and Paul Pickowicz.1 At the same time, while attempting to inquire into the notion of sentimentality in cinema, Fiery Cinema’s rich use of historical material and primary evidence enable it to share more information with the readers than the work of other scholars. Bao also has her own views on the development of Chinese cinema studies in the English language, which are revealed in an interview conducted by Daniel Fairfax for Senses of Cinema.2 Perhaps what is more interesting about Bao’s book for us to explore is the question of what cinema really meant to the masses in China, and an attempt to understand how cinema, as a new communication medium, contributed to or even transformed people’s everyday lives.

Bao opens the book through narrating an incident that took place in 1940 at the Weiyi Theatre in Chongqing, where the audience reacted aggressively toward a screening of Mulan Cong Jun (Mulan Joins the Army, Bu Wancang, 1939), which led to the film print being set on fire. This incident, in Bao”s view, “cultivated an active spectatorship to such an extent that the myth of realism at the heart of cinema”s institutionalisation.” The author then asks: “Should we consider this cinema’s worst nightmare or its ideal realization?” (p. 2) More specifically, by using this incident as a cue, Bao investigates the “permutations of the affective medium in modern China as a way to rethink cinema as a material, aesthetic and social medium.” Bao argues that cinema, as an “affective medium” for a mass public, is an artificially engineered, sharable social experience through “media technology and their media aesthetic interplay” rather than “something intrinsic to an individual.” (p. 6) Her investigation into cinema as an “affective medium” in modern China is therefore positioned within the wider context of the rise of mass-media culture between the 1910s and 1940s. Across different historical and political periods, this affective medium was organised in different ways as a form of mass communication. The book is concomitantly divided into three main thematic sections.

Part I’s theme is “resonance”. Its first chapter, “Fiery Action: Toward an Aesthetic of New Heroism” looks into the success of fiery films (huoshao pian), a type of subgenre of martial arts films that was emerging in Shanghai between 1928 and 1931. The “affect” that enabled by this type of new action film is due to how the action aesthetic is shaped by relationship of the actor’s body to cinematic technology. Such screen experience also created a new discourse of heroism for the audience. In Bao’s view, fiery films evinced how Bergson’s theory of affect was translated and widely circulated in China during the 1920s. As Bao writes, in closing the chapter: “The new heroist discourse was invested, with heightened nationalist and modernist interests, in the empowerment of the body” (p. 90).

Chapter 2, “A Culture of Resonance: Hypnotism, Wireless Cinema, and the Invention of Intermedial Spectatorship,” continues Bao’s exploration of the figure of fire in Chinese cinema, but from a different aspect. It looks at the wireless nature of cinematic technology and the scientific imagination of the future cinema within public discourse. The purpose of this specific investigation is to connect “the spectator’s body and a field of social experience incarnating the affective medium.” (p. 33) Deploying an analysis of extensive archival materials and the analysis, this chapter wishes to propose a revisioning of martial arts films from the perspective of intermedial spectatorship.

Part II of the book develops the notion of “transparency,” with examples taken from the rise of left-wing films in 1930s Shanghai. In Bao’s view, radical filmmakers actively negotiated transparency in mass communication in order to engage audiences through “sensorial affect as well as politicized perfection at the juncture between silent and sound cinema.” (p. 34) Chapter 3, “Dances of Fire: Mediating Affective Immediacy,” provides more detailed arguments to elaborate the notion of “transparency”. This chapter engages with two famous directors in the period of Chinese leftist filmmaking, Tian Han and Cai Chusheng. Bao argues that the technique of montage was practiced as a new film theory which “provided a novel means to animate the force of images and to mediate affective immediacy” (p. 34), and her argument is bolstered through detailed analysis of films by both Tian and Cai.

Chapter 4, “Transparent Shanghai: Cinema, Architecture, and a Left-Wing Culture of Glass,” continues to engage with the notion of “transparency”, opening with a discussion on the 1933 essay “Glass Architecture” by Feng Zikai (1888-1975). According to Bao’s reading of Feng’s essay, “[g]lass became the prime component because its transparent walls and ceilings eradicate the sense of enclosure, isolation, and bourgeois pretensions” in modernist architecture (p. 197). In the context of Chinese cinema, the relationship between cinema and architecture “was vividly experienced at the rise of sound.” (p. 198) Glass in films, therefore, became essential for the mass dissemination of modernist ideas. This chapter illustrates transparency’s historical association with “glass as a new building material and perceptual medium” (p. 34), as another perspective to make sense of cinema as an “affective medium”.

Part III uses the concept of “agitation” to discuss the “highly instrumentalized affective spectatorship” of Chinese cinema during this period (p. 35). Chapter 5, “‘A Vibrating Art in the Air’: The Infinite Cinema and the Media Ensemble of Propaganda,” captures the migration of the Chinese film industry from Shanghai to Chongqing during the Sino-Japanese War, where cinema became a form of effective propaganda. It investigates how the war impacted on the production, exhibition and theorisation of cinema, which encouraged a radical transformation of Chinese film practice. This resulted, in Bao’s view, in a “reorientation of the cinematic medium as an infrastructure of media ensemble enabling simultaneous dissemination and mobile exhibition.” (p. 35) What function did cinema play for the Chinese masses under this condition as an “affective medium”? The dramatic changes, as evident, are in great contrast to those looked at in the previous chapters.

The final chapter, “Baptism by Fire: Atmospheric War, Agitation, and a Tale of Three Cities” investigates further into the propaganda films produced during the Sino-Japanese war period, by focusing on the phenomenon of “agitational cinema”. In Bao”s view, agitation “is not simply a mode of highly directed spectatorship serving propaganda but also an intense stage of affect that registers the crisis of perception and action in an overwhelming world of war.” (pp. 35-36). This argument is supported by three detailed comparisons of films that were produced in different cities, Chongqing, Shanghai and Hong Kong: Baptism by Fire (1941), Gu Dao Tian Tang (Paradise on Orphan Island, Cai Chusheng, 1939) and Tie Shan Gong Zhu (Princess Iron Fan, Wan Guchan & Wan Laiming, 1941). To Bao, fire returns in these films as “the ubiquitous environment , the frenzy of action, and plastic movement. The unending battle between the perceiving subject [Chinese audience] and the overwhelming environment that undermines their boundary and the very stability and identity of the spectator is, perhaps, that constitute the perpetual attraction of fire and that of cinema as the affective medium.” (p. 373)

Princess Iron Fan (Wan Guchan & Wan Laiming, 1941)

In exploring the emergence of cinema as a popular medium situated in different periods of modern Chinese history, Bao seeks to theorise the term “medium” in an innovative fashion. Rather than its usual understanding as a vehicle of information transmission, “affective medium” is embedded in a “mediated environment”, as demonstrated throughout this book, where the notions of space, the spectatorial body and the entwinement of media with dynamic ecology are all addressed. Fiery Cinema therefore not only contributes to developing a new research model for comprehending Chinese cinema and its history, but it also helps us to rethink of film theory, film history and media affect more generally.

Weihong BaoFiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

Endnotes:

  1. See Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement, 1932-1937 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), and Paul Pickowicz, China on Film: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation, and Controversy, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). 
  2. See Daniel Fairfax, “Transnational Traffic: Interview with Weihong Bao”, Senses of Cinema 83 http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/film-studies/weihong-bao-interview/ 

This article was first published by the Sense of Cinema in October 2018. View the original article here. Hiu Man Chan is a researcher currently affiliated with Birmingham City University. In addition to other contemporary interest, she also writes about history of film criticism and cinema culture.