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The Rhythm of Chinese Cinema


In just another example of the interesting and unpredictable ways in which Hamilton students choose to spend their time away from the hill, Alex Witonsky ’17 used his summer to conduct research on changes within Chinese cinema and the concept of rhythm. His project, the result of an Emerson Summer Collaborative Research Award, flung Witonsky as far as Beijing and Shanghai, and was conducted under the academic supervision of Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures Zhuoyi Wang.

“I am researching the way in which ‘rhythm’ – a concept everyone claims to understand but which only a few possess – is encoded, reflected, enforced and rebelled against within a contemporary school of Chinese cinema,” Witonsky explained. “The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers trained their cameras on a countryside ravaged by a command economy & the disastrous leadership of Mao. Films by the likes of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were mythic, epic, fantastical and concerned with the common plight and the abuses of communist leadership.”

About Alex Witonsky ’17

Major: Chinese

Hometown: Smithtown, N.Y.

High School: Smithtown High School

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However, he said, following the turn of the century a new breed of filmmakers began to emerge, one distinguished by their focus on urban life and the frequently taboo and disreputable elements of modern society. The implications of this shift were of particular interest to Witonsky, especially in the ways that varying representations of the Chinese urban lifestyle could exert, in his words, political power and “enforce ‘spatial practices.’”

The boundaries of this project being necessarily broad, Witonsky was opened up to possibilities that he had not previously considered, as he noted with humor. “This topic is a bric-a-brac, a farrago, and a complete mish-mosh; primarily, it’s interesting to me because it allows a close look on how space, time and everyday life have changed in a few cities following the influx of global capital and so-called ‘global culture’ there.”

In addition to viewing relevant films and studying their nuances, in Beijing and Shanghai Witonsky was able to conduct interviews, shoot film and address the existing literature surrounding his topic. Through this process, he claimed that some of his preconceived notions surrounding the nature of contemporary Chinese cinema were indeed vindicated, saying that his suspicions were confirmed that “mainland Chinese films operate upon an urban contract: essentially a promise between government planners, film-makers, and residents that cinema’s role is to imagine new spatial practices and an idealized urban community.”

Before graduating from Hamilton next spring, Witonsky said that he is considering continuing the line of inquiry he began this summer by adapting the relevant research for his Chinese thesis-project. He said that in the future he’s interested in analyzing the relationship of rhythm to what he identifies as emergent environmental propaganda in Chinese cinema. “Otherwise,” Witonsky said, “I’m planning on finishing my senior year ‘strong.’”

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