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Technology and Blockbusters in China

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Introduction and background

The emergence of digital technology has exhibited a big impact on filmmaking. Darley (2008) observes that the 20th century marked the transformation of blockbusters because computers started generating the desired special effects that most viewers wanted. Through employing Computer Generated Images (CGI), the filmmakers have managed to bring live action film. Bordwell and Thompson (1997) mention this form of technology that has continued evolving in the 21st century has maximized image resolution resulting to high quality pictures. Additionally, unlike in the past when the analogy films would lose signals while being edited, technology has made it easier to edit films. In the 20th century, analog films had problem with sound, since the emergence of technology, the films have exhibited high quality sounds Furthermore, Zhang Yang (2004) observed that the use of camera tricks appeared amateurish and it was not convincing to the viewers. However, the digital technology brought interesting special impacts that look natural and realistic, and experts can easily insert them in the movie using computers. Thompson (2001) contends high concept blockbusters are considered more comprehensible with simplified plots and themes that make them more accessible worldwide.

In addition to that, the interplay between technology and narrative always sparkle the scholars’ interests. On one hand, technologies facilitate the development of film narrative with the addition of sound, digital editing, and computer generated images. It is no exaggeration to say that technologies actually expand the field of film narrative, which is a contention supported by Metz (1974). She suggests technology actually expands the area of what can be said in the film. On the other hand, since the end of the twentieth century, technologies have been so widely used in films, especially the use of Computer Generated Images (CGI), has suppressed narrative construction in films.

By the end of the twentieth century, CGI technology had begun to thrive in Hollywood cinema and films such as Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993), are representative of films that have benefited from CGI technology. Although all of these films were commercially successful, they also incurred criticism in terms of the undermined narrative. As Bordwell and Thompson (2008, p.87) argue:

“New Hollywood cinema follows an extremely simple and high concept premise with weakened storyline by the concentration on high pitch action at the expense of the character psychology.”

Interestingly, these new storytelling characteristics are also apparent in Chinese cinema. The films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2003), directed by Zhang Yimou , both received high praise from western critics but failed to achieve similar domestic acknowledgement. Total box office gross receipts of Hero (2002) were $177,394,432, while House of Flying Daggers (2003) achieved $92,801,097. Hero (2002) won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2003. House of Flying Daggers (2003) was nominated for Academy Awards and a BAFTA Award and both films received positive reviews from western critics with the Washington Post acclaiming Zhang Yimou's use of colour in the film as the best in the world. However, domestic critics and audiences generally hold the belief that these films are visual feasts, with narratives that have jerky plots (Zhao Wang, 2006). It is interesting to note that not only Zhang Yimou’s films, but also many Chinese blockbusters have fallen into the same trap of impressive cinematography with superficial storylines. It is argued that the excessive use of technology actually suppresses the narrative in a film.

This discussion will evaluate the relationship between technology and narrative through the Chinese blockbuster phenomenon. The famous director, Zhang Yimou’s films will be used as examples to facilitate the evaluation. Zhang Yimou’s previous works (prior to Hero and House of Flying Daggers) won wide acclaim because of his excellent storytelling skills and unique insight into Chinese culture (Mo Chen, 1998). The criticism in China of Hero and House of Flying Daggers suggests it was the use of technology that led to the films’ relatively limited success due, it is argued, to its suppression of the narrative in the film.  

This essay will take a close look at both the narrative side and CGI visual spectacles of the two films. By focusing on the narrative elements, such as time, story, and theme, the main objective will be to identify that, although the director has a delicate conception of narrative in both films, the narrative is constantly suppressed by the powerful visual elements. Furthermore, the discussion will also offer an insight into how a blockbuster film embodies the narrative form with reference to the nature of images, film language, and visual digital culture (Darley, 2008; Barthes, 1977; Metz, 1974).

Narrative in Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2003)

The director has delicate narrative conceptions for both films; the interwoven narrative threads of recollection and reality in Hero (2002) use four colours to narrate the story. Each colour has a special meaning with black indicating fierce struggles and depression, red representing jealousy, revenge and deception, blue unveiling the truth, sadness and powerlessness and white implying truth. It is acknowledged that CGI can be employed by filmmakers to pass the intended message through different colours, something that was hard to achieve during the analog era.

“Narrative is a doubly temporal sequence…..there is the time of the thing being told and the time of narrative…one function of narrative is to invent one time scheme in terms of another time scheme.

According to Genette (1973), there is story time (ST), which should be measured by hours, days, months and years, and narrative time (NT), which should be measured by length. When the NT is more than ST, the scene is in slow motion. Hero and House of Flying Daggers both lengthen the narrative time; for example, in the scene in House of Flying Daggers, where Xiao Mei (Ziyi Zhang) is stabbed with a knife, as identified below.

Shot 1: Young girl comes from the depth of the path riding a horse; suddenly the knives fly towards her from the lower right corner of the screen (about 4 seconds)

Shot 2: (cut to close shot) Young girl rushes out from the left of the screen, gasping (about 1 second)

Shot 3: (slow motion) Knives Xiao Mei pulls a sword over her right shoulder, and throws it at the flying knives (1 second)
Shot 5: The sword strikes the knives in the mid air, half of which separate while the other half continue flying (about 6 seconds)

Shot 6: Xiao Mei, is struck by one of the knives, and falls to the ground.

We cannot see a flying knife stab someone in slow motion with our naked eyes in the real world. In this scene, the slow motion illustrates this motion in a way that the viewer is able to see what is happening. However, this kind of motion, which allows the audience to suspend belief, interrupts the story and leads the audience to the pure visual spectacles. The audience will come back to the story only when the girl falls from her horse.

If the scene were changed, shot 1 could show the young girl riding along the path when, suddenly, knives fly to her from the lower right corner of the screen (about 4 seconds). In shot 2, the girl would be stuck by the flying knife and fall down, which could also demonstrate the magic power of the knife-thrower. In this way, it would be possible to tighten the story by cutting the narrative time in order to make the audience focus on the story.  There are similar examples in the film Hero. Firstly, in the weiqi parlour during the duel between Long Sky (Zhen Zidan) and Nameless (Li Lianjie), the audience can see in slow motion dripping raindrops juxtaposed with  the fast movement of the sword (about 13 seconds).  In another scene depicting flying arrows, which lasts for approximately 7 seconds, the movement of the arrows is slower than real-time. 

Both scenes are typical of martial art films that are set in ancient China. It is common for most Chinese blockbusters to have the same plot, thus the viewer already knows what to expect. Some of the common elements that appear similar in Chinese films include the costumes, the spectacles of martial art, and the setting. Considering the fact that viewers expect something new every time, this emphasis has even reached the extreme of cinematic excess, thus filmmakers have to introduce new things every time. According to Thompson (2008), the audience has continued showing interest in Chinese blockbusters because there are always new things, thanks to the new technology.

As earlier mentioned, the scene in House of Flying Daggers, in which Xiao Mei is stabbed with a knife, takes 15 seconds to show how the knife is flying in the air. Meanwhile, in Hero, in a particularly dramatic scene, Flying Snow (Maggie Zhang) and Nameless (Li Lianjie) defend themselves from flying arrows in front of the house while Broken Sword (Tony Leung) calmly practises new moves inside the same house: this lasts for more than 3 minute. The duel between Flying Snow and Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in the forest lasted nearly 4 minutes. During the 4 minutes, we can clearly see a drop of blood dripping and the fallen leaves spinning in slow motion. The scene takes 24 seconds for the colours to change from yellow to red as Moon dies. Audiences are dazzled by which appeared frequently in the film. It seems that these spectacular scenes are created for their own sake rather than supporting a narrative purpose. This device detracts the audience’s attention from the film.

Furthermore, both films are teeming with sumptuous costumes, settings, and locations. The dancing scene with Xiao Mei in House of Flying Daggers impresses the audience by the delicate costumes in a Tang dynasty style, painted instruments and the spectacle of a blind girl dancing expertly to traditional choreography. Meanwhile, in Hero, there is the grand palace of Qin, splendid landscape with wide desert, the marble calm of the lake and the very yellow maple wood. The excessive visual devices invite the audience to linger over the visual side of the film and neglect the narrative. Darley (2008) would support that by stating visual spectacles are the antithesis of narrative in many respects and they exist for their own sake in the high concept blockbusters.

Theme

According to Zhang (2004), Chinese blockbusters have experienced a recession from 20th century, which has lasted to date. Technology has enabled the locally made blockbusters to compete favorably with the imported films. In general, scholars are mostly in favor of Chinese films that reflect more of cultural identities (Zhang, 2004). Owing to this favoritism, experts in the film industry have resulted to restructuring Chinese blockbusters in order to be at par with what the viewers want (Zhang, 2004). Thompson (2001) contends high concept blockbusters are considered more comprehensible with simplified plots and themes that make them more accessible worldwide also explains one reason for their advent and thriving is the fragmented audience, which can also apply to Chinese blockbusters.

Ma Kangming (2011) analyses the narrative in director Zhang Yimou’s recent breakthrough film like Hero and House of flying daggers with reference to the context of Chinese culture and transitions of Chinese film industry. He contends that it is the transitional film industry in China, which is finding their way to worldwide distribution drives the change in narrative.Moveover; he suggests Chinese blockbusters, which generally follow the new Hollywood practice attempt to adopt the traditional culture for the popular taste. It will scrutinize that through the aspect of the theme in the paragraph below.

Chinese blockbusters favor the genre of a martial art film .Inevitably, they tend to display the magnificent landscape, costumes, and settings, and they depict the world of Jiang Hu, namely the world of swordsmen arising from the regime of the empire. It is an ideal world governed by justice and loyalty. In most cases, martial art films are characterised by fights for entertainment purposes in addition to character development and expression. The films of this type are of two categories. According to Zhang (2004), there are those that contain a simple plot and the development of characters is limited to the action, while other films contain complex plots and the character development is evident in every scene. 

Director Zhang Yimou (2008) explains that the theme of Hero is metaphysical, while House of Flying Daggers represents the base human instinct. Particularly, the swordsmen in Hero are willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of humanity and they seek justice. They did not kill the emperor of Qin because they believe he is a symbol of hope that can end a lengthy war and hence, save the population. Conversely, House of Flying Daggers presents individual rebels who crave their own happiness and betray their previous beliefs. They did not kill the King of Qin because they believe he is the hope to end the war; hence, saving the common people. House of Flying Daggers is trying to present the individual rebels who crave their own happiness and betray their previous belief.

Application of technology in Films

Bordwell and Thompson (1997) suggest that it seems self-evident we mean the narrative film when we say ‘going to the movies’. Narrative films are so important that we neglect the non-narrative elements like visual effects, even the trait of films as a medium form. To explain the relationship between narrative and technology, we can trace back to how film embodies the narrative. According to Thompson and Bordwell (1997), film as a medium form could be divided into two interactive parts: the formal system and the stylistic system. Narrative belongs to a formal system, while stylistic system contains film techniques like cinematography, editing, sound, setting, costumes and so on. Technology brings changes in the stylistic system, expanding the area of what can be said in film although; the major component-image has the natural limitation of speech.

Barthes (1973) states messages with code are formed not only from images, which are the reproduction of reality, but also the whole range of analogical reproductions of reality-drawings, paintings, cinema, and theatre. In other words, the entire analogical reproduction media employs substances such as trees to create images in the mind of the viewer.

Therefore, in a broad sense, film has the limitation of speech. Barthes (1977) explains the narration of text from the linguistic perspective. He explains that the most important thing is the message content although the manner in which it is communicated is equally important. Dreyfus (cited by Metz, 1974) agrees the film as a medium itself always attempts to say something beside what is said through the film. It is argued that film as a medium form has the nature of discontinuity.

Vale (cited by Thompson, 1999) asserts that a motion picture is not a continuous entity; instead, it is a conglomeration of blocks, represented by shots and scenes. These blocks have the tendency to fall apart, thereby interrupting the continuity of the story in a decisive manner. This would be supported by Metz (1974) who considers that the visual content of every shot transforms the film from transversal reading into longitudinal reading because of the curiosity about the next scene. It is clear to see in both Hero and House of flying daggers that visual spectacles undoubtedly amplified the force that is dispersing the narrative.

Darley (2008) suggests we constantly consider that visual spectacles should be subordinate to narrative because, in many respects, visual elements should assist the viewer in understanding the narrative. He also suggests, under the environment of virtual reality, high-tech spectacles exist for their own sake. Spectacle cinema is displaying and being displayed rather than serving as a narrative. Spectacle cinema serves its purpose better when it is displayed as opposed to when it is narrative.

As McLuhan (1987) suggests, every medium’s content is another medium, as if the content of print is words. However, what is the content of a film? Maybe, we consider the story is the content for a film and the image is the expression form. Therefore, we think narrative-storytelling should govern the visual side. Metz (1974) suggests that, though the film critics realized technology has been driving the changes in film storytelling, they never believe that visual spectacles can exist for their own sake.

‘The spectatorial demand cannot mould the particular content of each film; it is perfectly capable of determining what one might call the spectacle’s formula. The ninety-minute show with its digression of lesser narrativity is one formula. It will not perhaps endure but, for the moment, it is sufficiently pleasing. The basic formula, which has never changed, is the one that consists in making a large continuous unit that tells a story and calling it a movie’

Morin (1974 cited by Metz) believes the rule of cinema is narrative and the images, which are considered the main constitute of film. However, the narrative is so powerful that the images vanish in front of the plot it has woven. The film experts probably did not anticipate the rapid improvement of computer technology. With montage, digital editing, and computer generated images, a spectacle blockbuster is not simply a film genre, but virtual reality through computer technology. McLuhan (1987) suggests every new medium will not only change what it can do for us but also change the way we perceive the world. 

Moreover, the age of computer technology will lead us to virtual reality. The New world, as Evans (2001) describes it, ‘AI is the brain, and VR is the body in its environment.’ In spectacle cinema, computer games, and cyberspace, this is an immersive world where reality is substituted by virtual images. He also pointed out cinema is intended to create the immersive environment because the setting of a cinema, the darkness, full sight big screen and the stereo system all give the impression of ‘being there’. Blockbusters can free us from the mundane world and bring us to the extreme opposite - bigger; the biggest technology takes us to a new era, which does not value the importance of narrative but visual things. This is especially the case when the analog films are compared with the digital films.

Darley (2008) explains that no one single medium can exist autonomously; conversely, it is defined to some extent by the traditional aesthetics it belongs to. He also considers the so-called blockbuster film is the renewal of spectacle within a twentieth century virtual reality culture. With dense technology usage and special effects, blockbusters have arguably returned to the image and form. However, it should be remembered that many do not understand the difference between analog films and digital films, especially when it comes to the new technology. Some individuals might argue that analog is no longer in existence, but technological advancement does not always result to better films either.

Conclusion

In conclusion, technology has brought new changes in the film industry. From the advent of film to the addition of sound track to film among other new things has made Chinese blockbusters to advance to their present category.  From 20th century, Chinese films have advanced to become very entertaining owing to the new technology. Though director has a dedicated conception of film narrative, excessive use of CGI technology makes the visual effects so powerful that the narrative is overwhelmed throughout the whole film. Technology In order to reach the worldwide audience, filmmakers attempt to make films that share a common meaning throughout the world. This tendency thereby leads to the superficial storyline and great visual effects.

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