‘Soft vs hard cinema’ debate still relevant today

By YANG JIE and ZHAO YUYING / 08-12-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: A screenshot of Raging Waters, the first left-wing film in Chinese cinema

With the rapid development of China’s film industry, filmmaking and theoretical research have produced fruitful results. In retrospect to the 100-year history of Chinese cinema, filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s has been upheld convincingly as the first golden age in Chinese film development. The debate over “soft-cinema” and “hard-cinema” at that time was an intense theoretical battle in the history of Chinese cinema, which is still of practical significance in today’s era.
‘Soft vs hard’ debate
The terms “soft-cinema” (ruanxing dianying) is a film creation concept born under the influence of the aestheticism trend of the 1930s that pursues the genuine artistic form of cinema, whereas “hard-cinema” (yingxing dianying) refers to films which reflect social reality and play an educational role in society. The two camps each took on their ideological stances, filmmaking concepts, and aesthetic preferences, ultimately developing into a vigorous debate in the history of film. 
In the early 1930s, the trend of “popularization of literature and art” gained traction in the film industry. Literary and art workers such as Xia Yan, Zheng Boqi, A Ying, Tang Na, Wang Chenwu, and Lu Si, turned to the film industry and formed a left-wing film group with the dramatists Hong Shen and Shen Xiling to carry out the creation and critique of film scripts.
At that time, members of this left-wing film group published a large number of articles in various newspapers and periodicals, as well as their own magazine Film Art (Dian Yishu) to argue for films to display a strong sense of social mission and ethical commitment to the nation and its people. 
As this left-wing movement unfolded, Huang Tianshi, Wu Yunmeng, Chen Binghong, Huang Jiamo, Zong Weigeng, and Liu Na’ou jointly launched the magazine Modern Cinema (Xiandai Dianying). Upon its publication, Liu Na’ou and Huang Jiamo expressed their discomfort about left-wing cinema in a sarcastic tone. They believed that films should be selective in their reflection of reality and that the core of films was to highlight artistry.
Liu wrote: “Function is only a by-product of art; art is not equivalent to utilitarianism.” Huang famously wrote that “films are ice cream for the eyes and a sofa for the heart.” He further stated that “Western films are soft-cinema, whereas Chinese films are hard-cinema.” These essays elicited strong reactions from left-wing critics. Later, the two camps heatedly debated over the essence, artistry and tendency, content and form, and critique standards of film.
Artistry vs social function
With the life and death crisis posed by the Japanese military invasion and the impotency and extreme corruption of the KMT government in the 1930s, the left-wing filmmakers and critics hoped films could inspire the masses to salvage the nation. However, the soft-cinema camp was doubtful and they believed that the current Chinese society at that time had already had too much of it, so they called for independence from ideological messaging in cinematic art.
The debate first began with the discussion of Chinese cinema. Very soon thereafter, critics shifted to other issues including the role of cinema as an art form and the role of film critics. 
Soft-cinema critics criticized the left-wing filmmakers for their ignorance of the cinematic form, while the hard-cinema camp argued that realism was the leading theoretical principle that reconciled form and content in left-wing cinema. The form (film art) and content (the concerned social reality), it was argued, should reinforce and complement one another and must not be dichotomized. 
On one hand, only through a realist depiction of the world could the artistic function of the medium be fulfilled. On the other hand, the effectiveness of this realistic portrayal was dependent upon the filmmakers’ creativity and ability to command the art form. Only those works that represented reality successfully could be considered artistically triumphant.
Liu Na’ou opposed the excessive emphasis on content and the neglect of form in film creation. He believed that how a problem was portrayed in an art work was more important than the problem itself. Another important soft-cinema critic, Jiang Jianxia, echoed Liu’s argument, advocating that film criticism should prioritize form over content. 
In response, Xia Yan, with the pen name Lo Fu, published several short articles in Morning Daily criticizing the lack of social responsibility in the commercially-oriented soft films. Lu Si posited, from the perspective of materialist philosophy, that it is completely wrong to separate content and form in film criticism because they are as inseparable as consciousness and existence are in philosophy.
At the same time, soft-cinema critics hailed the value of artistic excellence. They argued that in focusing too much on political dimensions, many filmmakers would be discouraged from trying out new creative styles that could enrich the hermeneutic possibilities of the text.
Left-wing filmmakers and critics, however, considered artistic representation valuable to humankind only if it had direct reference to social reality. They argued that the filmmakers’ artistic creativity is ultimately not an end in itself but serves a higher ideological mission. The ultimate significance of their films therefore resided in the active intellectual participation of the spectators. Theoretically, form and content do converge in these films, producing true art.
Ways ahead
In the 1930s, Japanese invaders encroached ever further into Chinese territory. The left-wing filmmakers responded to the historical mission of a turbulent era. They had the courage to act on social responsibility, stand in the position of the proletariat class, and try to make film criticism from the point of view of Marxist literature and art theory. They argued for the enlightening role of films and how cinema should reflect social reality, manifesting profound progressive thinking. 
However, since their birth, films have had a consumption attribute, because the audience’s first purpose when they walk into a theater is to get entertainment. If a film is stuffed with lectures, they risk losing some audiences or reaching a wider crowd, which in turn cannot be conducive to the creation of films nor the survival of the industry. 
In this aspect, soft-cinema supporters who insisted on the pursuit of artistic form and skills of film, though it may appear to be one-sided, spoke directly to the entertainment properties of films. Also, they had a cooling effect on the radical ideas that tended to over-politicize films of that era. 
However, it cannot be denied that the artistic pursuit of soft-cinema and the social environment of a disturbing time were not quite compatible. To some extent, they had failed to accommodate social reality and went against the exigencies of the times.
Nevertheless, the debate over “soft-cinema” and “hard-cinema” offered a way to understand Chinese filmmaking and also fostered a relatively robust and pluralistic film culture, which is beneficial to the development of the Chinese film industry. It not only deepened theoretical research, but also fueled filmmaking practices, giving fame to many classic left-wing works in the history of Chinese cinema. From the perspective of art theory, it is not difficult to find that the arguments from the “soft” and “hard” camps formed the art view of early Chinese films, and the constructed film aesthetics still leave a deep mark on filmmaking in the modern era.
Needless to say, there is a tendency towards excessive entertainment in the current film industry, which erodes the social education function of films, and leads to the one-sided dominance of commercialism. Within such an environment, some filmmakers have to abandon artistry and authenticity to pursue the market value of films. In view of this, the concern and responsibility of the left-wing filmmakers is of great practical significance for their contemporary counterparts.
In summary, the reexamination of the “soft-cinema” and “hard-cinema” debate will help to seek win-win cooperation between art and business, and explore the symbiosis of quality and the box office, so as to jointly promote the high-quality development of the Chinese film industry.
Yang Jie and Zhao Yuying are from the Institute of Art at Communication University of China. 



Edited by YANG XUE