© Chris Berry

Film criticism and film studies are different things.

Chris Berry

June 2023 - Gan Chongjin

      Chris Berry is now professor of Film Studies at King’s College of London. As an expert of Chinese and East Asian cinema and screen culture, his research interests also involve theories of national and transnational cinema, screen and public space, gender and sexuality study in cinema. He currently teaches Authorship and Creativity in the Cinema, Chinese Cinemas, Cinema and Social Formations, Film Festivals and Film Festival Studies at KCL.

During his continuing academic research and teaching career, he has completed numerous publications and book works :

  • Cape No. 7 (2008): A Taiwan Structure of Feeling (2022), University of Michigan Press
  • What is Transnational Chinese Cinema Today? Or, Welcome to the Sinosphere (2021), in Transnational Screen, 12:3, p. 183-198.
  • The new Chinese documentary film movement: For the public record (2010), University of Hong Kong Press
  • China on Screen: Cinema and nation (2006), Columbia University Press
  • Mobile cultures: New media in queer Asia (2003), Duke University Press

Before this interview, I also had a couple of chance encounters with Chris. The first was when my supervisor invited us to attend a lecture on a Taiwanese comfort women documentary, Wu Xiujing’s The Song of the Reed (2015), during my Master’s degree, and Chris was the guest speaker at that lecture. It was this brief conversation at the cinema that made me intrigued by his role as a Chinese film scholar, which prompted this interview.

Due to Chris’ busy schedule, we had a conversation with him via email. The conversation revolved around some of the new dynamics and changes in the Chinese and international film markets, and at the end of the interview we came back to questions about his role as a film scholar and the relationship between film studies and the industry.

ACCE: Your current main research interests are in East Asian films, especially Chinese films. I would like to know how you decided on your research direction step by step.

Chris: I did my BA in Chinese Studies at Leeds University in the late 1970s. During that time, I was living a few doors down from the Hyde Park Picture House in Headingley, which was and is still a wonderful independent cinema venue. I fell in love with movies. I went on to do an MA and a PhD at UCLA in Film Studies. I ended up combining my two training backgrounds to write my doctoral dissertation on Chinese films.

ACCE: Which cinema do you go to most often in London? What specific elements appeal to you, such as the schedule of films, the location of the cinema, the comfort of the cinema, etc.

Chris: I go to all sorts of different cinemas, from the Odeon to the BFI and the ICA, and often to various campus screenings. The main thing that drives me is the desire to see a certain film. Of course, there are certain cinemas that I like more than others, most because of comfort questions. So I could give you a list of venues I try to avoid because the rows are too narrow I can’t sit comfortably as a tall person, or because they are not raked properly and I worry that as a tall person I’m blocking someone else’s view, or because they are freezing cold. But if it’s a film I want to see, I still go. 

ACCE: The BFI is still showing the 100 greatest films in film history as voted by film critics and directors, would you like to share your top 10.

Chris: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I try to avoid these top 10 lists. I don’t like putting one film I like above or below another. It’s too painful. 

ACCE: I found your email signature is Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, what is so special about this book for you.

Chris: Virginia Woolf is a KCL graduate. A number of years ago, our management tried to force us into shared offices. The “Room of Her Own” slogan was something some of us adopted in our campaign of resistance. Because the college management still raises this issue every now and then, I keep that as part of my email signature.

ACCE: There is a division between the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations of Chinese film directors. Do you think the use of generations to distinguish director groups is still applicable to current Chinese directors?

Chris: No. The idea of different generations originated in the 1980s. At that time, there was only one film school in China, the now famous Beijing Film Academy. It took on a group of students, trained them, graduated them, and then took in the next group. In other words, it did not take on new students every year. So, back then, there was a very clear distinction between, say, the fourth, fifth and sixth generations. Now, there are many places to learn filmmaking in China, and so it doesn’t make so much sense to use the idea of generations.

ACCE: Twenty years have passed since the beginning of the 21st century. Nowadays, both domestic and overseas scholars tend to focus on early Chinese cinema and conduct research on the Chinese cinema of the first half of the 20th century. Despite the rise of the fifth and sixth generations, there have been few systematic studies on contemporary Chinese cinema, particularly after the 2000s. What are your thoughts on the research conducted by scholars at home and abroad on post-2000 Chinese cinema?

Chris: It’s not really possible to conduct systematic research on a phenomenon that is still evolving. So, I’m not surprised that there are few books that attempt to discuss Chinese cinema after 2000 as a whole. But there are numerous journal articles that focus on one or other specific aspect of contemporary Chinese cinema, and numerous books, too. I’m also not sure that early cinema is the main emphasis of research, since there is also plenty of work on cinema of the 1930s, the post-war-era, the so-called “seventeen years” (1949-1966), the Cultural Revolution decade, and the Reform era. 

ACCE: An assertion by director Hou Xiaoxian about the relationship between art films and commercial films said, “Commercial cinema is mainstream and can open up the film industry, and only after the commercial cinema has room to develop can the art cinema develop.” From my perspective, it may be a kind of analysis, a self-justification, or a reminder. What do you think of this relationship between art and commercial cinema?

Chris: Hou is certainly correct that, whether in France or in Taiwan, commercial cinema existed before “art cinema” and that the art cinema develops in response to it. It is a mistake to think the relationship between the two is necessarily one of enmity. Filmmakers move from one type of filmmaking to another, and new ideas and styles get adopted across the link between the two, along with new technologies. Of course, many art film directors define themselves against commercial cinema and vice versa, but even then they need each other, even if only as negative role models!

ACCE: A related question is why there are so few “both artistic and commercial” films in contemporary China, and why it is so difficult to make them. From your observation, have there been such films in the Chinese film market in recent years? What do you think about the rise of “new mainstream (blockbuster) films” at the box office in China in the past few years?

Chris: I think the so-called “new mainstream” is less to do with the combination of art and commerce, and more to do with the combination of entertainment and the Party line. For a long time, there was a tension between films that promoted government policy or government interpretation of history, and films that attracted audiences because they were very entertaining. With titles like The Battle of Lake Changjin (2021) and The Wandering Earth (2019), that tension has been dissolved. Ironically, this has been achieved by borrowing techniques from Hollywood!

ACCE: It seems that every year when the “Palme de Cannes” comes out, there are people who make the assertion that some film doesn’t deserve the award. For example, The Triangle of Sadness (2022) by Ruben Östlund, got some controversial comments from film critics on a professional Mandarin film podcast platform.

Have you watched Triangle of Sadness, what do you think of this film? How do you see these kinds of comments, which are judging the festival’s jury system and criteria? What do you think of the selection rule of “certain films of artistic quality” as determined by the jury? Do you think it is an “artistic privilege”?

Chris: I haven’t seen the film, so I cannot comment on it specifically. But, of course, there is no absolute and fixed rule about what films a jury should select. Indeed, their role is to follow the guidelines laid out by the festival concerned. I don’t believe that Cannes has changed its guidelines. But it will be interesting to see if this year’s award is an exception or the sign of a change in how the guidelines are being interpreted by juries.

My own personal feeling is that the commercial mainstream does not need film festival awards to support it. It uses red carpets and premieres at places like Cannes to get publicity coverage, and that is already enough. I look to film festivals for discoveries and putting the spotlight on new styles and new filmmakers that are not well-known yet or may be overlooked because what they are doing is strange to us and a bit challenging at first. I am not a particularly avant-garde person. I remember the first couple of Hou Hsiao-Hsien films I saw, I really didn’t understand or relate to them. Then, suddenly, I got it and he became one of the world’s great filmmakers for me. It helps “the slow ones at the back” like me if we are encouraged to try new things!

ACCE: What is the significance of film studies criticism for the practice of the film industry? As a professor in the field of film studies, how does the interaction between your own research and the film industry happen?

Chris: Film criticism and film studies are different things. The relationship of films to film critics is like the relationship of restaurants to food critics. Film studies academics are more like the people who research things like the history of food – when did the potato come from Latin America to Europe? – or the intersection of culture and taste – why do the Japanese have a kind of taste, umami, that others don’t have? – and so on. Of course, that kind of knowledge can also be useful to people in the food industry, but in a more indirect way than the work of restaurant critics. I guess the same is true for the kind of work I do.cinemaTheories of National and Transnational Cinemn