Book Review: New Chinese Cinema – Challenging Representations; Mise-en-Scène

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in the early 2000s]

The two new volumes in Wallflower Press’ Short Cuts series continue the neat presentation and clear design of the preceding volumes. A few typos aside, they’re accessible, accurate and informative, and, as primers, highly recommended. Both Sheila Cornelius, of Morley College, London, and Gibbs, of the London College of Printing, avoid waffle, and, as well as providing good bibliographies, offer pointers to key primary and secondary material throughout their texts.

Sheila Cornelius and Ian Haydn Smith map out their territory by providing a potted history of modern China and Chinese cinema, before discussing the broader concerns of both the Fifth Generation – Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and others – and the edgier Sixth Generation – Wang Xiaoshuai, Jiang Wen and so on. They then moves on to give relatively detailed case studies of individual films, managing to set the films in a wider context. The only gripe would be the inexplicable omission of reference to Jerome Silbergeld’s China into Film (Reaktion 1999), but as an entry-level survey, for students and for the average reader, New Chinese Cinema measures up.

Gibbs’ book is a more difficult proposition – and more of a one-time-only book. Explaining that there is a wealth of good writing about the poorly understood concept of mise-en-scène, Gibbs is admirably frank in admitting the impossibility of covering the subject in adequate depth in such a short survey. He then proceeds to give the reader the best possible shortcuts to that writing, and provides key, exemplary extracts. His brief, but detailed analyses of scenes in Preminger’s Laura (1944), Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Sayles’ Lone Star (1995), and above all, Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1958), increase in complexity alongside the reader’s understanding, but are again necessarily curtailed. As with New Chinese Cinema, Mise-en-Scène is an excellent place to start.

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