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Laughter, Emotions, and Political Aesthetics : Chinese Film Comedy from the 1920s to the 1960s

Soutenance de thèse

Mardi 26 sep 2017
Mme Liuying CAO


Mme Liuying CAO

Description générale
The scope of this study stretches from the 1920s to the 1960s, more precisely from 1921, the production year of the earliest existent Chinese film comedy, to 1966 that marks the end of the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic of China and the beginning of another epoch, the ten-year turmoil of Cultural Revolution. Focusing on the film Chinese film comedy produced both in the Republican and the socialist era, this study takes the Chinese film comedy as a cultural product that resonates with the changing political and social atmosphere in 20th-century China and a cinematic domain that continues to be more and more influential in current film industry. Only with the historical and theoretical retracement of this kind of film can we fully appreciate its stylistic prominence as well as its artistic potentiality.
Due to manifold reasons, film comedy, loaded with facetious emotions and images, seldom goes through critical scrutinyy and has therefore been largely overlooked by scholarly discourse. The scholarly literature is also full of simplifications and misreading. Besides the lack of first-hand visual material, one potential reason for these improper interpretations lies in the inherent paradox of comedy – on the one hand, comedy can be vulgar and lowbrow, a symbol of degeneration criticized by different social discourses. On the other hand, it can be innovative and subversive, and thus a potential powerful weapon to carry out social criticism. The indeterminacy of humor lies in its elastic polarity and “depends on contextual circumstances determined by culture(s), language(s), histories, and the social-political situation in which laughter is engendered. Comedy acts both as cultural bigotry in the name of entertainment and as an artistic form of inclusivism. Therefore, laughing or smiling, the actions generated by comedy, can either be a sign of foolishness or a sign of non-conformism behavior, even a sign of wisdom.
It is widely believed that laughter is more than a reaction to absurdity, but also a response to social reality. The unbearable lightness of comic film can cast heavy shadows upon social life, like a distorting mirror reflecting the reality in an emblematic way. With interlocking sequences of jokes and gags, comedy is a subversion of norms. Furthermore, as a kinesthetic practice, cinema’s ability to destroy and manipulate time and space for its own purposes brings a new source of vitality to enrich our understanding of the subversive nature of laugher. It is not a sense of humor that is firstly aroused in such film, but a sense of freedom that offers the comic filmmaker an almost limitless spectrum of possibilities. Such freedom also allows a special or sometimes conspiratorial relationship to be built between creator and viewer, and this relevance further endows film comedy with more dynamic to play against grain.
In the six chapters of the dissertation, I present a detailed analysis of Chinese film comedy through exemplary moments and cases from the 1910s to the mid-1960s. The chapters are arranged chronologically. The year 1949 is used to mark a political divergence, and the two main parts of this study maintain a continuity of content.
When I label this research to be “a rewriting of Chinese film comedy”, I do not only intend to figure out the relation between film comedies, even Chinese comic culture and the generation of laughter, neither a full-blown narrative of every occurrence in film history that might be potentially comic. Instead, this study moves a step forward, asking the questions of what kind of laughter does film comedy generate and how it is used to realize certain purposes by different social groups. It is also observable, behind the discursive construction around film comedy that some emotions are promoted as more appropriate than others. Therefore, this study proposes a new schema to understand “laughter” as a discursive space of the filmmakers, a collective reaction of the audiences and a polemical object of aesthetic and political discourses.
The main task of this dissertation is not to summarize various categories of laughter-trigging situations offered by Chinese film comedy, but to create a connection between the Chinese societies of the 20th century with the film comedy, using “laughter” as an intermedium. This study does not intend to criticize the criticism against film comedy, but instead, tries to understand why certain criticism occurred during a specific historical period. It investigates the emotional structure behind laughter, to put it in a broader social context to see how it was defined, generated, presented, perceived, modified and criticized accordingly as a response to commercial/cultural demand, and to societal reality in general. This emphasis lies in the fact that only through “laughter” can comic art acquire strength to have a cultural impact at different levels. If a certain scene, a certain plot, or even a certain sentence in the film was thought to be comic and aroused people’s laughter with success, I ask, apart from the question of “how”, the question of “why”. I explore the film comedy itself, its structure, narrative, protagonists, as well as its cinematographic characteristics, but also the social discourse around these films. This study tries not to evaluate the aesthetics potential of the comedy with hindsight, but to explain the contemporary receptions and critiques of these films.
Therefore, through the close reading of the existent film comedies produced from the 1920s to the 1960s, this study investigates how the use of mischief gags, visual tricks, and special effects succeeded in generating laughter of the audience, and how this unprecedented visual/audio experience made them recognize cinema as an interpretive and sometimes uncanny art rather than a simple mimic representation of empirical reality. It is precisely by comedy making that the cinematic practitioners finally found a way to deviate cinema from theatricality and differentiate it from other paradigms of visual representations such as photography.
At the same time, by contextualizing Chinese film comedy in a broader sociopolitical atmosphere, this study argues that the visual playfulness embedded in film comedy before and after 1949 was not a subversive of narrative logic in a way similar to what was suggested by the famous notion of “cinema of attractions”. Instead, the on-screen trickality serving as visual shock also shouldered the function of social integration. The long-term cultural tradition of using artistic works to advocate virtues eventually made it obedient. Unlike its anarchist western counterpart, especially the Hollywood slapstick comedy, the transgression of the laws of physics did not represent the sabotage of norms in the case of the Chinese film comedy. On the contrary, the attractions and gags not only belonged to the overarching narrative process, but also foregrounded and rehabilitated social justice. The function of laughter as a social correcting force got even more emphasis in the Maoist era during which film comedy was esteemed as an effective form of art to encourage people to throw themselves into the national construction and the communist course. The Shanghai cinematic legacy vividly reappeared in the film comedies made in the 1950s and the irregular use of sight gags revived in this period to create a utopian thriving of the new China. The subversive nature of film comedy should also be examined in the socialist era after the foundation of People’s Republic of China. It is true that due to political and ideological intervention, the comedy tradition of the Republican era had been altered. But it is too wrong to say that laugher was killed during the Maoist period. Instead, it was precisely the paradoxical nature of comedy to be both entertaining and serious while it made it explore new forms of expression in new China. During the so-called “seventeen-year period” from 1949 to 1966, the historically constructed concept of comedy suffered a huge challenge. The visual pleasure of the comedy film was abandoned, as it tended to arouse more sentimental emotions than politically constructive consciousness. Only by close textual reading of existing films and extensive analysis of discourse both official and popular during these two periods could we achieve a comprehensive understanding of the pre-1949 film industry as a commercial system as well as an educational institution. It will also make a rehabilitation of the downplayed cinema of the Maoist era possible that enables a more neural historicity.

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