‘A scene from a TV series that shows a Chinese man repelling a Japanese soldier with his fist.’ (Source: China Daily)
Dr. Ruth Y.Y. Hung’s presentation on Monday 11 January 2016, entitled “Classic or Farce? Making a Spectacle of the Latest ‘Anti-Japanese Drama'” [abstract], touched upon the concept of the Anti-Japan shenju (神劇) — also known as ‘super serials’ in mainland China — drawing an impressive turnout for the first departmental seminar of the semester, with a significant number of the audience being MALCS students from the mainland. Hung highlighted the changes in both the developing genre since the turn of the millennium and the policies of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).
Looking at counter-examples such as Dwelling Narrowness 《蝸居》(2009), one of the most popular series in recent years despite its overt references to political and social issues, one might consider how the censors at the SARFT have implicitly incited the industry to produce more of these shenju that even state media has criticised as ‘vulgar’ and ‘historically inaccurate’.
The resultant interaction between the official statements of the State and the blatant contradiction of them by its deeds gives rise to the ‘Anti-Japanese drama’ as curious progeny of the genre of historical fiction and action, comedy, romance, fantasy, or even pornography.
In Anti-Fucked Man 《抗日奇俠》(2011), Chinese kungfu defies Japanese artillery, while The Mission 《鐵血使命》(2011) depicts a female soldier downing a Japanese plane using a boulder on a hilltop and using corn bombs — ‘explosive popcorn’ — to attack the Japanese.
During the Q&A session, Dr. Magdalen Ki questioned the reception of these dramas which showcase certain fantasies about Chinese neo-imperialistic power. Some mainland students blushed with ignorance when Hung deferred to them on how the dramas have been received in China. A student remarked that she had only seen the classic ones.
This chimes with the sentiment among commenters that the Chinese state-endorsed agitprops from back in the day are really ‘better’ than the shenju with questionable representations of history, poor script-writing and obvious plot holes. The shenju ripping off Hollywood superhero movies nonetheless won the popular vote. The curious workings of the apparently ‘liberalised’ commercial market within the planned Chinese cultural economy only suggests a higher genius in this sort of planning.
In her talk, quoting Ian Johnson’s article “Studio City” from The New Yorker, Hung highlighted the absurd consequences of the Anti-Japanese drama genre’s development:
Superhuman powers […] figure prominently in Hengdian productions. Such stories defy the Communist Party’s official championing of science, but the censors let them pass, because they reflect a larger Chinese belief in the supernatural and allow filmmakers to demonstrate the superiority of China’s cultural tradition. […] Crude nationalism has long been a feature of Chinese productions. [One] Chinese soldier is to be shown dying for every Japanese who dies. That could prove to be a bonanza for the extras: one estimate suggested that, last year, seven hundred million Japanese died in Chinese films.
This apparently only benefits Japanese actors, who may die up to eight times a day at Hengdian, which should earn them a pretty handsome sum. However, one must also consider that a number of these dramas feature directors and actors from Taiwan and Hong Kong resulting from the greater integration of the Chinese film industry. With little questioning of the Chinese market and Chinese tastes, these commercial decisions may simply be that — commercial. As ridiculous as these dramas may be, what are we really laughing at? The supposedly distasteful audience? The absurd ‘historicity’ of the super-dramas? Or the poor quality of the programmes themselves? My concern is that this removal of the object of ridicule may be delusional, a case of laughing with, or even a form of self-mockery. In either case, these shenju appear to offer a dose of endorphins, ‘to delight’. How we are to be instructed is another matter.
Benjamin Lam is a third-year student at the Department of English, graduating in 2017.