Paper Assignments

First Paper Assignment, paper due September 23rd
In her book Primitive Passions, critic Rey Chow argues that Chinese cinema could be viewed as a form of Chinese self or auto-ethnography. In each of the five historic films, we see Chinese people and their past historical events represented and reconstructed as the director reflected upon them. In a 4 page paper (single-space), discuss how Chinese (at least three of the five directors) communicate their ideas of themselves as a people through cinema. Interpret the meaning of their film works by focusing on the way historical events in the twentieth-century are reconstructed to make a point. As you examine the historical films, look for “Chinese” attitude and response to the changes in modern Chinese history in the way historical events are represented cinematically.

  • 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?
  • 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)
Second paper assignment, due October 15
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 do they frame and shape people’s views on the changes taking place?
  • How are the processes of making and spending money elaborated in these rural films? 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? What can and/or cannot be purchased by money in these films?
  • If their attitude to change is one of ambivalence, then what seems to be that which they hate and love at the same time?
  • Are there comparison and contrast that reveal the director’s nostalgic view on an agricultural society vanishing and fading away?
  • 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 they become uprooted and corrupted?

In a 4-5 page paper, discuss the views and attitudes of the Chinese (directors) by interpreting 3 or 4 rural films which are also elaborations of certain myths and/or variations of certain fantasies about the rural and urban. How are these films expressions of a deep anxiety about modern change? What hopes and/or fears are revealed in these films that are but dreams and nightmares? Technical and methodological issues. You must have a title, interesting, meaningful, and synoptic. If your thesis is vague, too general, and weak (poorly articulated), then the quality of your scholarship goes down; assign yourself something difficult to articulate, otherwise you cheapen your own work by stating the obvious. Respect subtlety, nuance, and complexity that go to make up the integrity of a narrative film; interpretation is imposing a reading on a work of art, but it should not be done at the expense of the richness of the work; instead, your reading ought to bring to light aesthetic, intellectual, cultural, or political concerns responsible for how details are arranged in a given film.

Third paper assignment, due November 18th
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, Gogol and Dostoyevsky critique Western societies undergoing urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism in their novels. As the location of culture is shifted, so are people’s attitudes and values when they 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 quite different from those elaborated in the films in the rural section. It is therefore important to identify the issues Chinese 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 a big city 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

In a 4-5 page paper, 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 find or run into 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 consumer-oriiented and individualistic society? What are the directors’ responses to changes excelerated and driven by such things as technology, money, fame, greed, commodities, and our very mimetic desire to be like others?

Fourth paper assignment, due the last day of class
Perhaps one of the common threads connecting films produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong is the issue of Chinese identity. 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 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 4-5 page 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 by their film productions. Again, you want to be subtle and nuanced when you interpret the meaning and significance of these film works. No black and white issues here. What these films represent, if anything, is probably a number of issues or recurring themes (political, cultural, personal, or even sexual) that go to make up the mosaic of our cultural identity. You need to deal with at least four films and the films must be from BOTH Taiwan and Hong Kong. The paper is due on the last day of class by midnight. Comparisons to Mainland films are encouraged and welcome.