Contested representation: an historical reassessment of the work of art filmmakers in the PRC, 1989-2001
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Young Kaufman, Francesca
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This thesis reconsiders the work of art filmmakers in the People’s Republic of China between 1989 and 2001. These dates bookend the decade of the 1990s, comprising two defining moments in the reform era: the Tiananmen Square political crisis in 1989, and the entry of China into the WTO and the global market economy in 2001. The 1990s is therefore approached in this research as a transitional decade, in which the future direction of China was being decided. The term ‘art film’ is used to identify a distinct mode of film practice, characterised by a peripheral position, a clear directorial voice, and an emphasis on aesthetics. This rubric therefore incorporates films made by a range of auteur directors, rather than solely the ‘independent’ or ‘underground’ works commonly assessed in studies of the decade. By examining the representational modes used by art filmmakers in the 1990s, filmic innovations can be seen to constitute an artistic response to the restrictions placed on representation by the State. This thesis argues that historical reassessment was a key factor in the innovation of cinematic representation in the 1990s. Utilising a cultural history approach, the thesis engages in close textual analysis of seventeen films, identifying and contextualising the representational conventions drawn on by filmmakers. The thesis is structured around five thematic chapters, each dealing with a cluster of films focused on similar content. The first chapter examines filmic reassessments of China’s socialist history, and concludes that the limitations of the official narrative provided opportunities for the assertion of alternative histories. The subsequent chapters develop on the concept of historical reassessment by looking at changing modes of cinematic representation in relation to rural populations, women and gender, urban regeneration, and youth culture. By engaging in a wide-ranging survey of how key themes were represented in art films in the 1990s, the thesis reveals the critical role which historical reassessment played in pushing directors to new levels of artistry and experimentation in their filmmaking. This thesis concludes that by questioning the cinematic forms used historically to represent these issues and social groups, Chinese art filmmakers achieved a new level of artistic independence in their work by the end of the decade.