Public interest in China is stronger than usual these days because of changes in the nation's leadership and the impending return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control. Interest in Chinese film has also been high; and this month sees the American debut April 2 of "A Mongolian Tale" and the April 18 release of "Temptress Moon," a richly produced historical drama by Chen Kaige, director of such popular movies as "Life on a String" and "Farewell My Concubine."
One result is a growing market for books on Chinese film. Two available from the internationally minded Cambridge University Press are lively and informative enough to reward cover-to-cover readings by people seeking background on one of the world's most unusual motion-picture industries.
"Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics Since 1949," by Paul Clark, traces film in China from its beginnings in 1896 - when movies were shown in a variety show at a Shanghai teahouse - through the triumph of the Fifth Generation group, which revitalized film after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution period.
Focusing mainly on production during Mao Zedong's rule, the book organizes much of its account around a continual but ever-shifting conflict in modern China between two visions of cinema's purpose: one suggesting that proper communist movies must speak of political subjects in the language of common people, the other seeking a more artistic approach that treats more varied topics for a more cosmopolitan audience.
"New Chinese Cinema: Forms, Identities, Politics" is a collection of essays on film in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as China itself. Generally speaking, it reflects the idea that mainland Chinese movies are shaped most strongly by communist ideology, Taiwanese movies by the interplay of Chinese tradition and capitalist development, and Hong Kong movies by the experience of colonialism and strong Western influence.
Articles deal with widely seen productions such as Xie Fei's sensitive "Girl From Hunan" and Ann Hui's poignant "Boat People" along with lesser-known works with diverse agendas. The anthology was edited by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau.