Can cinema help China tackle 4,000 years of history?
If history could be converted into stock options, China would have plenty to cash in: more than 4,000 years’ worth. But the first round of big-budget films since the country’s emergence as a 21st-century power have, mostly, taken the narrow view of those four millennia: unfailingly epic and hoarsely patriotic.
2002’s Hero set the mould – shockingly, as it was directed by the former dissenter Zhang Yimou. Jet Li’s nameless swordsman ultimately decides to abandon the film’s central assassination because he realizes that the king of Qin’s dream to unify the whole of China is more important. It’s not hard to detect the Communist party’s beatific smile behind that plotline. As the noughties wore on, the martial arts in Yimou’s films grew ever more formalised andclaustrophobic, closer to the Olympics ceremony he would eventually direct. Similar monumentalist blockbusters – Warlords, Red Cliff,Confucius – sprang up in formation around his work.
If Hong Kong cinema’s stance towards history used to be that of the over-imaginative student, the Chinese industry’s has been pure class swot, with China Film Group (CFG), the state’s largest distributor, rubber-stamping these epics. But there are promising signs that some graduates are beginning to think independently, and opening up new, less trampled avenues of history. Last week’s release Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on the novel by Chinese-American writer Lisa See, focuses on laotong, a practice in which two women were bonded as “sworn sisters” for life, and nu shu, the secret language they used to communicate their thoughts.
The story of nu shu, and its rediscovery in the 1960s, is fascinating. What’s interesting about Snow Flower, the film, is that it tries to give this piece of heritage a modern bearing. An entirely new present-day story has been added to See’s 19th-century-set tale: Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing, who play Snow Flower and her laotong partner Lily, now double up as their descendants in high-rise Shanghai, who are busy agonising about the meaning of their friendship. Lisa See, who wasn’t involved with the modern part, says the new dimension was “marketing-driven”, to allow it to play to an international audience. She also reckons that director Wayne Wang felt compelled to make a statement with the changes: “He doesn’t like those stereotypes of the subservient, beaten-down Chinese women. The modern Chinese women – at least not in a city like Shanghai – isn’t like that at all.”