Paper Assignments

Before you write, please remember:
  1.  you must have a meaningful working title, not a generic one;
  2. you must develop a sound thesis in the opening paragraph, where you introduce what you want to focus on, name the film works by title and the directors you shall discuss; state very briefly how each work supports the conclusions you have reached. To do all these requires a full paragraph (half a page); the scholarly substance of your paper is all in here; don’t present a weak or non-existent thesis in a couple of sentences that are inane and too general. Without a strong and well articulated thesis, your paper would become fragmented and incoherent.
  3. as you deal with each film, don’t lose sight of two things: the topic assigned to each paper and the director of each film you discuss. Begin each paragraph by stating how the story is relevant to your thesis. Discuss what the director is doing rather than what the fictional characters are doing in the story. If you treat fictional characters as if they were real people and their stories real events, then you entirely miss the point of film criticism, which is to understand the views of the director (author) on certain issues;
  4. try to respect the integrity, richness and complexity of each work and resist the temptation to reduce a film to a couple of ideas; a strong thesis is not a license to reductionism whereby all the subtlety, nuance and ambiguity are discarded; it’s a sign of good scholarship to do textual analysis, to quote from the film as a text, and to always mention the name of the director whose work literally shapes the viewer’s perspectives.

First Paper Assignment 第一篇分析文章讨论题

“Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions—about influence, about blame and judgment, about present actualities and future priorities.” (Edward Said) In each of the five historic films, we see history reconstructed as the director reflected upon contemporary China. In a 3-4 page paper (single-space, 1500 words), discuss how Chinese (at least four of the five directors) redefine and shape identity through cinema. Interpret the meaning of their works by focusing on the way historical events in the twentieth-century are reconstructed. As you examine these films, look for attitudes and response to the changes in modern China in the way past events are represented in film.

  • Are there ways in which the films lend expression to ambivalence about or resistance to social transformations and call into question modern Chinese history by presenting it as a series of crisis on the part of the individual?
  • In what ways are the Chinese united as a people and a nation by their past collective experience as reconstructed in the films?
  • How does history become history, and the past become past in these films? How do we gain the critical distance from the past (historical perspective) in these films?
  • What is the point or epiphany brought to light in the way the director rethinks and reconstructs the past? For what purpose do they look into and explore the nation’s traumatic past in which massive amount of people perished?
  • What purpose or interest is served by the director’s revisiting the past and reopening the psychological wounds people sustained in the past?
  • Is the director trying to show cultural continuity or discontinuity through the way he depicts the collective experience of the past?
  • What ideals and values prove true and meaningful (or false and bankrupt) as the director carefully pieces together the past in stories to which ordinary people can relate?
  • One critic believes that “to read a text is to understand the questions to which it is an answer.” What are some of the current issues and contemporary intellectual preoccupations being addressed by the films in question?
  • In what ways is the director trying to remake a people or a nation by reconstructing the past, making “a people conscious of the path of development taken by its own spirit”? (The Philosophy of History by Hegel)

In his Nation and Narration, critic Homi Bhabha also brings to our attention the collusion between fiction (art) and history, something we need to be mindful about as we analyze narrative films. He argues: “Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye. Such an image of the nation–or narration–might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea in the West. … A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice, and devotion. . . . A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.” I look forward to your discussions of how the soul or spiritual principle of the nation gets defined and redefined in these Chinese narrative films, with each serving as a daily plebiscite in the popular culture to reinvent a people.

As you begin writing the first paper on how historical films shape and reinvent Chinese identity, it is important to keep in mind the word “plebiscite”. To argue that these films are plebiscites is to see the ways in which they call into question, interrogate, and reinvent that which the directors believe is quintessential or core to China as a culture. These historical films reconstruct the past to raise issues about the present in which China is de-centering, decentralizing, privatizing and becoming increasingly individualistic in the course of its modernization. Modernity cannot take hold without restructuring the hierarchy of values and priorities. If and when successful, these films function to cement Chinese identity threatened by the new economic reality that works as a centrifugal force to weaken or even disintegrate China.

As you compose your essay, think of the characters, their experience in life and the lessons they learn (which are the conclusions the directors want the viewer to reach). In Farewell, what would Cheng Dieyi say about his life as an individual living inside modern China in which it is so hard to follow one’s own callings? In To Live, what is Fugui’s epiphany when he finds himself, as he often does, reduced to merely staying alive by war and revolution waged in the name of social progress? In City of Life and Death, what insights can the Chinese viewers gain from Kadokawa into human suffering they have always thought was exclusively their own? In Peacock, what is Wei-qiang’s memory of his adolescence in which he and his siblings were so ashamed of themselves? And in Aftershock, what does Fang Deng realize when she finds the strength to reconcile with her mother who she has always thought disliked her? These characters, shaped and limited by their historical situated-ness, tell us a great deal about China’s future as a society that has begun long ago.

Second paper assignment 第二篇分析文章讨论题
As many of you well know, China has been an agricultural society for a long time. To become “modern” means, among other things, a social transformation from a farming and agrarian society to an industrial and consumer culture, which entails changes in people’s values and attitudes. As the Chinese modernize and urbanize, they change their ideas and views on such things as money, sex, gender identity, justice, family, rural village as a community, individual identity, and so forth.

  • How do film-directors dramatize such a historic and social transformation?
  • How is the traditional family impacted on by social change?
  • How do filmmakers elaborate the processes of making and spending money? What problems are associated with making money, and what solutions, if any, are suggested or made available by the director?
  • Is money (economics) the language for post-Mao China? Can money buy happiness?
  • If their attitude to change is one of ambivalence, then what seems to be that which they hate and love at the same time?
  • Can you compare or contrast the views and attitudes of the directors living in a time in which an agricultural society is vanishing, along with its values?
  • Is agricultural economy backward and archaic, primitive and simple, or spiritually superior and noble?
  • What aspects of the industrial civilization (consumerism and urbanization) particularly concern these film directors? Are there solutions to moral decay suggested by the director?
  • Do they view city life as paradise, or loathe it as a pernicious process in which the Chinese become uprooted and corrupted?

In a 4-page paper (1500 words), discuss the views and attitudes of the Chinese (directors); study four directors whose films we see in this second unit and view them as further articulations of Chinese identity. How are these films expressions of a deep anxiety about modern change? How do directors perceive and represent change? How do they imagine the city and the China’s agrarian past? What are the hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares in these film representations of rural China? What problems or challenges are being brought forth for the Chinese in search of a new cultural identity? 

Here is what you want to avoid at all costs: you have come up with an interesting topic to write about. Say, how various films suggest market economy (consumerism) enables people to think of one another only as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. A valid topic. Then you start talking about how Song and Tang murder people for money in Blind Shaft, the Monk turns religion into a business in Incense, and Blindman and Ermo compromise their own health and family when they try to accumulate wealth. Then you conclude that capitalism is indeed a pernicious force that corrupts the mind and soul of the people and is responsible for the moral degradation in China. Paper is written and done.

Such a paper is a disaster. It bypasses the director and his aesthetics, and treats fictional characters as real people. We live in reality and need to talk about the way fiction changes our perception of reality. The only thing real in this class is the movies made to interest those serious about themselves as a people and society. To ignore the directors in your discussions, you necessarily end up talking about the narrative films as if they were real events that took place in time and space. When we see a realistic painting of a pipe, don’t forget: 

Third paper assignment, due

In this section, we’re watching seven films about the problems (joys and sorrows) in metropolitan centers and about urbanization itself, very much the same way western authors such as Balzac, Dickens, Upton, Gogol and Dostoyevsky critique Western societies undergoing urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism in their novels. As the location of culture shifts, so do the attitudes and values of people trying to adapt to the life in urban centers, relating and interacting with one another in ways very different from before. It is needless to say that urban issues and concerns are different from those elaborated in the films in the rural section. It is therefore important to identify the issues the film directors present and explore when they try to depict the life in the following urban centers.

  • The World, directed by Zhangke Jia, is set in Beijing
  • Happy Times, directed by Yimou Zhang, is set in the city of Dalian in northeastern China
  • Together, directed by Kaige Chen, is set in Beijing
  • Shower, directed by Yang Zhang, is set in Beijing
  • Zhou Yu’s Train, directed by Zhou Sun, is set in a southern city
  • Suzhou River, directed by Ye Lou, is set in Shanghai
  • Getting Home, directed by Yang Zhang, set in a tour through mid-size cities
  • A World without Thieves, directed by Feng Xiaogang, set in a train traveling between cities; Feng says that the train “represents Chinese society”

In a 3-page paper (1500 words), discuss changes in people’s attitudes as represented in at least four of the above urban films. Show, in particular, how different directors call into questions people’s views of and attitudes toward happiness and success as China transforms itself into a capitalist society and becomes a free market economy. What are the messages in these films about the way people try to achieve happiness, love and success through consumerism? What exactly do people run into and find when they seek happiness, success, and love in these films? Is the city itself synonymous with happiness or success? Is the pursuit of happiness always frustrated and proven futile in the end? Why is it difficult if not impossible to find authentic values in a degraded, consumer-oriented, and mass society? What are the directors’ responses to changes accelerated and driven by such things as technology, money, and commodities?

A narrow topic or focus is the issue of mimetic desire as critic Rene Girard understands it. To Girard, our desire is largely mediated through culture rather than exists inherently in us all. What we desire, or our mimetic desire, is shaped by our propensity to imitate one another to get ahead and should not be confused with appetite. We desire things not because we cannot do without them but because people we believe to be successful have them. In other words, desire is triangular in nature and delegated by a model who represents social success. Girard’s mimetic theory could serve as a theoretical framework for understanding what is taking place in China not only on the level of the individual but also that of the nation as a whole trying to imitate the West (to keep up with the Joneses) that represents the idea of modernity. The films in this section as well as in the previous section on rural reform show, among other things, how the Chinese living in urban areas come to desire something and what would happen if such mimetic desire goes unchecked.

If you are familiar and sympathetic with Marx’s critique of capitalism as alienation, then you way want to interpret these films as attempts to debate the merits of what is taking place in China on a theoretical level when institutions of socialism are vanishing to make room for free market economy and private entrepreneur spirit. The directors in this case can be seen as creating scenarios that challenge the legitimacy or rationale of the social transformation in China towards global capitalism.

Fourth paper assignment
Perhaps one of the common threads connecting films produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong is the issue of Chinese identity, which is not very meaningful to mainland Chinese on the individual level. To a significant degree, the level of interaction with the international world is greater in Taiwan and Hong Kong than in the Mainland, due to the colonial experience and the rapid socio-economic developments in these small pockets of Chinese culture to become a part of the global capitalism. Against this historical backdrop, the issue of what it means to be “Chinese” is bound to be problematic at best when there is so much migrancy, diaspora and transnational experience. In a 3-page (1500 words) paper, examine how Taiwanese and Hong Kong film directors (no less than four) reflect on the issue of Chinese identity and shape it at the same time. Be subtle and nuanced when you interpret the meaning and significance of these film works.

Project of a short film (10 minutes) on person and/or cultural identity

In this project you (a team of two or three) make a film about something (an issue, event, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) that defines you as a person or the culture to which you belong. Make it clear how that “something” comes to represent and symbolize who you are or what you believe your culture to be. So you want to demonstrate, through a short narrative film, a process through which something becomes so important. The point of this short film exercise is that it will makes you more critically aware about the formation of (individual, gender, cultural, religious) identity. The topic is big but what the scope of this film exercise should not be.

The criteria for judging your short film include

  • length of 10 minutes
  • plot and movements that could be described as a unified series of scenes serving a common goal of what the character needs to do
  • examples of story boards showing how you would illustrate this story from shot to shot; stick figures are okay;
  • character to whom the viewer needs to have emotional access, through whom you establish narrative tension, and by whom certain information is withheld; (secrets are powerful)
  • simple dialogue (because people don’t speak in complete sentences)
  • dramatic details in the form of a trail of crumbs for the audience to follow