Modern China Through Film —”Chinese Families in Transition”

Modern China Through Film —”Chinese Families in Transition”

Wednesday, 6:30 – 8:00 PM
January 11 – February 15
6 sessions (9 lecture hours)
Tuition: $250 member / $290 non-member
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)
*This course will be taught in English.

China’s rapid economic growth, modernization and globalization have spurred astonishing social transformation in its wake. This 6-week film appreciation course explores the changing Chinese family through Chinese fictional cinema focused on the “family” theme depicted during the two decades after the late 1990s. It will focus on features made in Mainland China by the so-called fifth-and-the-sixth generations of filmmakers, and some younger, newly emerging balinghou (post-1980s) directors who came of age in the millennium. The course is arranged chronologically according to the year the films were produced in, and participants will have a chance to watch and engage in a total of five films.

The course will involve a combination of screening and lectures. After an initial introduction during the first week, participants are assigned to watch a film at home each subsequent week (either on YouTube or using a film file provided by the instructor) ahead of a 90-minute Zoom-based lecture every Wednesday evening between 6:30 and 8:00 pm. Zoom lectures will not only include discussions about the screened films–including specific visual and narrative styles, themes and what they say about changes in Chinese society–but also broader insights into China’s film industry, filmmaker strategies to cope with state censorship, as well as the political and societal context of film productions.

There will be five assigned screenings of Chinese language films with English subtitles and six lectures delivered in English, as well as some readings assigned in advance. The planned five films are:

1. Seventeen Years 过年回家 (1999) by Zhang Yuan 张元
When Xiaolan kills her stepsister by accident after a dispute over a mere five yuan, she is taken to jail. Seventeen years later, Xiaolan is allowed a furlough during the New Year holiday, but no one comes to pick her up. A young prison guard offers to help her return home. Soon the two discover that Xiaolan’s home has long since been torn down. Sending Xiaolan home safe becomes the guard’s obsession that New Year’s Eve.

2. Postman in the Mountains 那山那人那狗 (1999) by Huo Jianqi 霍建起
Featuring a father and son in the backdrop of a beautiful mountainous area in Hunan, the film tells the story of an old man who for years served as a postman in rural mountain communities. On retiring, he hands his job over to his son and accompanies him on the first tour. Together, they deliver mail on a 230 li long walking route into the rural heart of China and, in the process, the son learns from those he delivers the mail to a great deal about the father he barely knew.

3. Fly with the Crane 告诉他们我乘白鹤去了 (2012) by Li Ruijun 李睿珺
Ma, a 73 years-old coffin-maker, loses his livelihood after the government makes cremation compulsory. Believing that a person’s soul and spirit can only be preserved after death through burial, he adamantly opposes cremation and claims he has seen a white crane taking his recently deceased best friend to heaven. Ma becomes obsessed with the idea of ending his life by riding to heaven on a white crane. He tells his grandchildren about his wishes, and they help map out an extraordinary plan to finally set him free.

4. Coffin in the Mountain 心迷宫 (2015) by Xin Yunkun 忻钰坤
In a remote village in Henan in central China, the charred remains of a human body turn up in a forest. Was it murder or just an accident? No one is sure. After a series of twists, the body is linked to three separate families, each with its own complexities and untold histories. Divided into three chapters and cleverly told in a scrambled timeline, the film is full of surprises, ultimately unveiling the darkest secrets of the human heart.

5. Love Education 相爱相亲 (2017) by Sylvia Chang 张艾嘉
The film looks at the love stories of three women over three generations from the same family. The story begins with high school teacher Huiying’s plan to relocate her father’s grave beside her mother’s final resting place. The decision upsets the entire extended family, threatening each of the woman’s understanding about love. Over the course of this bittersweet journey, however, the women learn what love looks and feels like, and perhaps how it should have been.

Except for the initial introduction week, attendees are assigned a screening each week. They will be provided with specific questions and reference materials (handouts will be provided) for recommended reading, thinking, and raising questions ahead of the weekly scheduled lecture. During the 90-minute lecture each Wednesday, the instructor will facilitate the discussions arranged thematically.

Reference Books for Recommended Reading

  1. Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema, (Routledge, 2004)
  2. Karen Ma, China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou Indie Filmmakers (Long River Press, 2022)

Karen Ma is the author of the recently released book China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou Indie Filmmakers, which was published in June 2022 by Long River Press. An independent film scholar and movie critic specializing in Chinese cinema, she taught Chinese culture and film courses at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies before relocating to the US in 2017. Ma has a bachelor’s degree from Tokyo’s Sophia University and an M.A. in Chinese literature from the University of Washington, Seattle. She is also the author of Excess Baggage (China Books, 2013), a novel about a Chinese family’s struggle to make its way in Tokyo.

Class Cancelled
6:30 - 8:00 PM
Instructor: Karen Ma