8 introduction
as either gechang pian, singing films in which the musical spectacle is limited to
vocalization, or gewu pian, song- and- dance films in which dance choreography
plays a greater role. Inscribed in the terminology of film criticism is a funda-
mental distinction between the dancing body and the singing voice, a distinc-
tion that is further entrenched by an asymmetry in which gechang pian vastly
outnumber gewu pian
(as chapter 4 discusses in greater detail).
The question of generic norms and their cross- cultural transposition is not
reducible to a question of influence, and to be sure, the impact of the American
film musical can be discerned throughout the history of both gechang pian and
gewu pian. For instance, in the early sound period, we find productions like
Yinhan shuang xing (Two Stars in the Milky Way, 1931), a Chinese take on the
Metro- Goldwyn- Mayer (mgm) backstage musical Show People (1928);14 Yeban
gesheng (Song at Midnight, 1937), modeled on Universal’s 1925 Phantom of the
Opera; and numerous films inspired by the operetta- style romantic comedies
of Ernst Lubitsch.15 Not only did Shanghai filmmakers in this period often bor-
row from Hollywood musicals, but they also operated in a critical environment
in which the impact of sound technology in the American and Eu ropean film
industries was intensely scrutinized and debated. But Hollywood was far from
the only factor affecting the development of Chinese sound films, and in at
least one notable example, it exerted a negative influence. Discussing Genü
Hong mudan (Songstress Red Peony, 1931), considered to be China’s first sound
production, Zhou Jianyun, manager of the Mingxing Film Company, empha-
sizes the film’s divergences from the spectacular formula of the American
musical picture— which, he writes, fails to “stir the heart with pleasing sounds”
despite its dazzling sets, lavish costumes, and hundreds of dancing girls.16 In
a similar vein, Hong Kong productions of the postwar period frequently “bor-
row and adapt important plot devices and narrative tropes from well- known
Hollywood musicals, comedies, and melodramas,” Gary Needham observes.17
In the high- budget productions of mp&gi and Shaw Brothers, we see attempts
to replicate Hollywood’s elaborate musical spectacles; the English- language
titles assigned by these studios to their productions are sometimes even lifted
directly from pop u lar American films. But as Needham goes on to note, even
if many productions of this period fall within the influential orbit of American
cinema and share in its surface features, deeper structural differences clearly
distinguish these two bodies of work. Chief among these is the Hollywood mu-
sical’s dual- focus structure and reliance on couple formation as a mechanism
of narrative closure. If the musical upholds an ideology of heterosexuality by
smoothing out oppositions in the “harmonious unity” of marriage, as Rick Alt-
man has famously argued, we see in the Chinese films a consistent displace-
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