Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Angela Dalle Vacche reviews Fiery Cinema

Weihong Bao. Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915–1945. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 488 pp.

Review by Angela Dalle Vacche

Weihong Bao’s Fiery Cinema offers an account of the cinema as a medium of energy and action, incendiary light and political protest. She pays special attention to propaganda films in response to nationalism, communism, and Japanese colonization between 1915 and 1945. Bao’s method is highly original because she combines the intellectual legacy of the Frankfurt school with Henri Bergson’s action-oriented philosophy, as the latter was translated in China.

In terms of method, Bao’s choices are ambitious. Bergson’s legacy has influenced a lot of recent film scholarship, but this philosopher has been understood in many different ways. Often paired with William James’s pragmatism, compromised by Friedrich Nietzsche‘s “will to power,” and accused of spiritualism, Bergson’s emphasis on inner temporality and free will is hardly compatible with the Frankfurt school. In essays by Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Siegfried Kracauer, mechanical reproduction’s promise of a consumerist culture based on equality and emancipation remains so uncertain that escapism, propaganda, and regimentation haunt the development of the cinema. Cinema is the quintessential medium of the masses, but it is also a source of perceptual distraction and social conformity.

Sensitive to China’s little-known history in the Western classroom, Bao sheds light on how Chinese cinema was dealing with so many dialects and ethnic groups that propaganda might have been a way to unify an immense country and compensate for a challenging geography. For example, she remarks that the advent of sound was especially slow and complicated due to a situation of linguistic heterogeneity.

The most riveting pages come when Bao explains how the Japanese bombings of Shanghai burned the city down but also revitalized a fiery imaginary and an intensity of emotion that were mobilized by propaganda and impassioned filmmaking to spread the flames of revolt. Fiery narratives were already common in post-1915 nationalist films, but the devastating consequences of the Japanese bombings transformed affect itself into a medium of resistance.

Although Bao offers a range of definitions for an affective medium, she never relies on the socio-realist models of Marxist reflection theory. By contrast, she turns to Bergson’s Matter and Mind (1896) to highlight the elastic and porous qualities of cinema and spectatorship alike, as the two faces of a shared medium for perceptions, affections, and actions. This is a new model of mind-and-body relations that runs up against an alternative understanding of the cinema as the medium of perception, cognition, and hallucination.

Through the broadly defined genre of the “fire film,” Bao’s investigation of political modernism in cinema and in the arts is so comprehensive and documented that her insights on Le Corbusier, Sergei Eisenstein, the Bauhaus, Adolf Loos, and Bertolt Brecht will interest all film specialists, regardless of any expertise in Chinese cultural history. Yet she never relies on French art historian and film theorist Élie Faure’s (1873–1937) concept of “cine-plastics.” This is odd because the core of her study is based on the plastic analogy between the moving image and the ever-shifting flames of fire. I respectfully bring up Faure’s work in this review because he is the only international missing link I can find in Bao’s exhaustive book.

Faure’s art historical L’Esprit des formes in five volumes was published between 1921 and 1927. This utopian Socialist became a precursor of Benjamin’s politicization of aesthetics because Faure hoped that the moving images of the cinema would foster a universalist sensibility of class solidarity. Like Benjamin, Faure cultivated a special interest in architecture. Needless to say, Bao fulfills this orientation with her chapter on Shanghai’s glass architecture. Her justification for connecting glass with the “fiery film” is that glass comes out of sand and needs fire to become transparent. Faure associated architecture with the group and painting with the individual. Thus, cinema and architecture became the two art forms most representative of the re-mapping of the senses brought about by the simultaneities of modern life. Bao explains that just as fire thrives on the transparency of its flames, see-through glass surfaces in architecture were aligned with a left-wing culture of affective immediacy and political accountability, in contrast to “enclosure, isolation, and bourgeois pretensions” (p. 197).

Bao’s “A Vibrating Art in the Air” is a fascinating chapter because she moves from Aristotle’s definition of medium diaphane (translucent middle) to a discussion of ether in order to propose an understanding of “medium as an environment.” Used by Isaac Newton to conceptualize gravity and by James Clerk Maxwell in his research on electromagnetism, the word ether lost authority in the Western scientific discourse at the turn of the century, but it persisted longer in China.

More specifically, ether refers to a space-filling and luminous medium with an etymological kinship with air, which is obviously indispensable to fire. The heart of Bao’s book thrives on the insight that cinema is an outward-bound, expansive, and contagious form of energy whose genesis in light gestures towards the cosmos: “Cinema is an art that starts from the earth but moves to the whole universe . . . a vibrating art in the air” (p. 265). Even if Bao has especially focused on “the fire film,” the propagandistic side of cinema does not end with indoctrination. Rather, it belongs to a continuum of affect that cannot be fully controlled. This spectrum of possibilities includes politics as well as art, as the cinema is as volatile as fire, despite its industrial requirements.

Bao’s book suggests that the cinema is bigger than we are; it contains us and moves us in ways so diversified that it can bind us but also divide us. Besides its painstaking attention to technological and archival detail and wealth of international references, the strength of Bao’s book is to mobilize Chinese film theory to the point that it moves beyond itself, its own historical traumas and national boundaries. As my review indicates, the field of film studies has reached the stage of transnational film theory, so that insights from Chinese intellectuals can be set into relief through a dialogue with thinkers from other countries.