The Sound of Politics: Cantophone Cinema in 1930s-1960s

Project: Research

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This project traces the formation and development of Cantonese film culture from Chinese cinema’s transition to sound filmmaking during the 1930s to the golden age of Cantonese cinema in the early 1960s. Tracking sound and the Cantonese dialect as salient factors in vernacular Chinese film culture, it studies critically the political and artistic articulations of Cantonese talkies in their negotiations with regional identity and nationhood, entertainment and politics, film art and audience reception. The study coins the notion of ‘Cantophone cinema’ as an alternative to the conventional understanding of Cantonese cinema as narrow, indigenous, and Hong Kong-based. It encourages thinking of Cantophone cultures and identities as plural and dynamic by mapping the changing production and reception contexts of this cinema in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and in the overseas Chinese communities of Southeast Asia and North America. The politics of soundscapes and dialectal variation in film provides a lens with which to explore the production, circulation, and consumption of Cantonese cinema in its Guangdong–South China and Southeast Asian contexts within the multi-dialectal environment of filmmaking in mid-century Hong Kong cinema.The early history of Cantonese film has been little explored. The politics of sound and dialects provide a focus through which to examine its audiovisual dynamics and sociopolitical meanings. First, what does a transregional inquiry into the variant production and reception contexts of Cantonese-language films tell us about the histories and meanings of Cantophone cinema within the diasporic Chinese communities? Second, what is at stake when engaged filmmakers align their commercial cinema with the call for national progress and political idealism? Finally, how did the politics of sound—dialectal utterance, phonic accent, music, and opera singing—create the intergeneric qualities of Cantophone cinema and so its aesthetic appreciation? The PI and Co-I’s will conduct archival research, biographical studies, and textual reading of representative film texts and literature, mining visual and historical materials in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Singapore, and North America to map out the distribution and reception of Cantonese-language films in various reception contexts and communities and to analyze its politics and art over time and across place. The project will culminate in a conference that invites international scholars to study the art and politics of Cantonese cinema in the context of sound filmmaking and in a number of academic articles and an edited conference volume as an outcome of the research and the conference.


Project number9042453
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/11/1617/08/17

    Research areas

  • Cantonese cinema , regional culture , cultural nationalism , politics of sound , film adaptation