Generating ‘Air’ in film

Siying Duan, Ph. D in Art Theory. | Photo courtesy of Siying Duan

Chinese aesthetics, Daoism and the concept of incorporating ‘air’ in film will be deconstructed in the talk How to Generate Air in a Film: Lessons from Fei Mu’s Chinese Aesthetics by Siying Duan, a Ph.D. in Art Theory.

Generating “air” is a unique concept developed by one of China’s greatest film Directors, Fei Mu, which Duan will summarize and demonstrate by showing scenes from the film Spring in a Small Town. The talk will be held at VIVO Media Arts Centre on June 11, 2019.

From Peking opera to new media

The Western idea of film or film technology was still very new and fresh in China at the time [that Fei Mu (1906–1951) began producing films]. China had its own way of entertainment until then, which was Peking opera,” says Duan.

She emphasizes that Fei Mu, as a director and film theorist, faced the emergent challenge of combining these two ways of entertainment.

“In film, everything is concrete and clearly showcased to make an audience feel it’s real,” says Duan. “ Peking opera just has one or two people on the stage, allowing the audience to imagine a world based on their movement, gestures, and voice. Fei Mu was mostly concerned about how to transfer these older Chinese aesthetics to a new platform.”

Few directors at the time were engaged in that particular process.

While some directors chose to adopt the Western film genre, Fei Mu opted for something different. “Fei Mu, instead, used a more poetic way of expression in his film, opposing dramatic conflict and away from political propaganda intentions,” says Duan.

Duan relays that Fei Mu started his film career in the early stages of Chinese film, directing the very first colour film in China: A Wedding in the Dream in 1948, which featured an infamous Peking opera figure of the time.

“It was a very subtle time for the film industry and a sensitive time politically,” she says. “A Wedding in the Dream was made one year before the founding of the Republic of China, and Fei Mu was criticized for not addressing too many political things – to him, the actual objects of his film were more important.”

Daoism and ‘air’

Fei Mu proposed four methods of how to generate air in film by using shooting style, sound, optics and visual effects, explains Duan. The name for air in Chinese is Kōngqì, and that Qì (chi), is a very important concept in Chinese philosophy, especially in Daoism.

“Daoist monks say that Qì is the thing that generates everything in the cosmos – it’s the principal element of everything,” she says. “Kōngqì– is a specific term that relates back to chi, encompassing all ideas like weather, air, atmosphere, or the nature of a person.”

When directors incorporate chi in film, the characters in the film are connected to the audience, explains Duan.

By showing scenes from Spring in a Small Town, Duan will engage the audience with the visual and emotional effects of incorporating this idea of oneness within film.

“Fei Mu did a great job of showing a combination of what’s real and what’s virtual, between the invisible and visible in this film,” she says, providing an example from the beginning scene where the camera slowly pans in on the main character walking very slowly. “It’s a very typical combination of Chinese Daoism and new film expression. It shows the whole background, highlighting the combination of human and environment. The camera movement unfolds the whole scene like the unfolding of a traditional Chinese painting scroll – slowly and horizontally.” She discusses how even in this brief shot, the positioning portrays the melancholy tone and the story of the protagonist.

Chinese aesthetics

In reference to Hollywood films, Duan notes how the cuts move rapidly. In contrast, Spring in a Small Town is slower paced and simple. “If you don’t see the movement of the camera or how the character is positioned it would seem boring,” says Duan. “All the subtle emotions of the characters are very visible to the audience because of the way it is filmed.”

The concept of chi itself, because it’s so fundamental and ever present in every aspect of Chinese culture is what draws her to Fei Mu’s approach.

“My own interest is in bringing the perspective of Chinese aesthetics to contemporary media art, it’s very important to my research. I am very sensitive to the existence of it in all different types of artworks,” she says.

The talk is an addition to the workshop she recently co-facilitated on “Cross Cultural Roots for Media Practice,” further enabling art creators and scholars to draw on non-Western cultures for inspiration.

For those who do not practice new media but would like to attend the talk, Duan welcomes their interest. “I hope they would be interested in watching a different type of film or will be able to identify a unique aesthetic that they haven’t seen or noticed before,” says Duan.

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