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A Study on Two Films to Analyse Unique Features of National Cinema

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Although the term “national cinema” is popularly applied to numerous film theories and critics, there is a lack of recognition to the characteristics of national cinema and to how national cinema is conveyed. I argue that national cinema is reflected by films associated with a specific nation-state, as evidenced through a comparison of two unique national films — Ida from Poland and Chungking Express from Hong Kong. Stylistic choices in the aspect of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound for these two films can demonstrate national cinema in multiple ways. With these four cinematic styles creating characteristics of films, Polish cinema and Hong Kong cinema can be better understood through their history and nostalgia, pursuit of identity and manipulation of techniques. This essay will examine similarities and differences of four styles for the opening scene from Chungking Express (00:45-02:47) and the back-to-convent scene from Ida (56:54-58:04) that resonate unique features of national cinema.

First of all, mise-en-scene has irrefutably important role in conveying national styles. Both Ida and Chungking Express have accomplished a magnificent mise-en-scene. The Ida scene communicates stylization and standardization of Polish film school that features the national character of Poles. It is set inside a cathedral with a massive dome, allowing few artificial interventions to create a relatively raw environment, fitting the reality as much as possible. Props rarely exist inside the convent. This incarnates the minimal realism of Polish cinema. The divine cathedral is period-accurate and community-based, given how closely tangled nationalism and Catholicism are in Poland. Chungking Express scene develops in a relatively artificial environment where aggressive “shoulder-to-shoulder” gestures take place between the people of different races in chaotic and vibrant streets. This echoes Hong Kong cinema, mirroring the hustle and bustle of daily life in Hong Kong and the cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong. Costumes and make-up of Ida and other nuns are unified and stodgy that seems repressed and lacking individuality while costumes and make-up of Brigitte Lin are very powerful and voguish. Brigitte wears blonde wig, raincoat and red-frame black goggles to go with the stereotypical Marilyn Monroe red lipstick in the scene. These elements serve to emphasize her attempts at becoming more western which is symbolic of her confusion regarding her own cultural identity. This is a representative characteristic of Hong Kong time during the Hong Kong handover time to show the confusion surrounding the city’s cultural and ideological identity (Hu 2006). Soft lighting is adopted to make natural light shine the nuns that delivers an aura of the metaphysical and a sense of peace. Harsh lighting is used to amplify cop 223 and Brigitte’s movement through the claustrophobic crowd. Both two sequences use low-key lighting to ensure high contract which contributes to creating dramatic mood and sculpting the character. This suggests that most Hong Kong cinema and Polish cinema attach importance to produce tension and develop plots. Elaboration of colour in Hong Kong cinema and Polish cinema is noticeable. Bright colour especially red, blue and green are emphasized in the opening scene of Chungking Express to provide a profound emotional impact on the screen symbolizing which are loss, desire and strive for comfort. In contrast, Ida is a black-and-white film that links it more to that period in terms of that black and white. This is usual in cinema of Poland to make a film as a reflection of history.

Secondly, cinematography of Ida and Chungking Express is very signature that plays a particular role to convey Polish style and Hong Kong style. Aspect Ratio of Ida is 1.37:1, the standard academy ratio frequently used in Polish cinema. Aspect ratio of Chungking Express is 1.66:1 frame, impressively behaved in Hong Kong cinema to produce widescreen effect. Ida’s everyday life in convent shows out from a straight-on angle with locked-down frames paralleling to horizon. This is calm and meditative approaches without tricky, hand-held camera work. While handheld camera is used in Chungking Express to hurriedly and unsteadily travels through that adds realism by being shaky. Canted framing unbalance cop 223 and the peoples in the background to embody chaos and urban alienation in Hong Kong. As for framing, broad use of long shot and negative space effectively isolate Ida from other components in the sequence that creates uncertainty and confusion. The use of offscreen space shape audience’s experience and call attention to Ida’s movement. This relates the trend of Polish cinema that encourages the role of individual as opposed to collectivity (Bill 2015). The trademark composition of Ida also highlights Polish cinema as it epitomize Polish film school movement by exquisitely manipulate techniques and film-discipline knowledge. In contrast, Chungking Express applies tracking shot, remaining medium, to follow actor’s movement. The opening scene is producing more curiosity within the audience’s mind through correct framing. A highlight of cinematography in Chungking Express is the special effect named step printing. Slow motion and undercranking cooperated to make the scene play at less than 24 frames per second that creates the sensation of jerky movement when cop 223 chasing in the street. The resultant blurriness makes it impossible to define any individual faces and instead stimulates the viewers to see the crowd as a singular entity. It is consequently to exemplify the isolation and insecurity within a large, indistinguishable megacity. Simultaneously, the viewers will feel disoriented, claustrophobic and relate themselves to the characters. This satisfies the objective of Hong Kong cinema to engage exhausted Hong Kong people in the chaotic film world and then comfort them with finding a sense of belonging.

Thirdly, it is mentionable how editing subtly manifests national style in these two films. The shutter is 180 degrees in both two films, underpinning continuity for their stories. Chungking express applies non -linear editing process that is disruptive and fits the “neo” characteristic of Hong Kong cinema. The opening scene is interesting where the director beautifully juxtaposes shots of busy streets with running of two main characters by cross-cutting. A jarring effect is realized that offers audiences little sense of a connection between the characters and events displayed on screen. A kind of distortion and intertwist is successfully conveyed to disorientate the viewer in this sequence, almost a convention that epitomizes Hong Kong New Wave films (Hu 2006). Dissolve is used between multiple single shot of the whole chasing footage, manipulating time and space, which is a trademark hallucinatory editing style in Hong Kong cinema. It interrupts conventional narrative flow to subvert the process of ‘becoming lost”. By contrast, simple but effective editing is exercised in the process of Ida’s one-minute movement which delivers a network narrative. Straight cut is applied to each shot within this sequence that smooths over incoherent discontinuity and creates moment-by-moment flow that naturally unfolds Ida’s inner world through her activities in a day. Temporal relation and spatial relation between shots are vividly displayed. Preference for natural transition according to time and invisible construction of film are obvious peculiarities in Polish feature films, allowing the viewer to focus on the narrative. This can direct the audience with the film’s rhythm and provide enough space for them to take a “meditation” about real life, a classic them in Polish cinema. Polish cinema is aimed to emphasize individualism and encourage people to pursue their instinctive desires rather than being depressed and focusing on humanism.

Fourthly, sound as a distinct sense mode has its particular effect to reflect national styles. It is interesting that there is no non-diegetic sound throughout the Ida sequence. This creative choice eliminates the influence of post-production to make audiences only focus on the sound emanating from within the world of the film. Moreover, all the diegetic sound in these scenes are directly related to the activities the characters are doing. When Ida is having dinner, the only sound the audience can hear is the clinking of the nuns’ spoons at a silent convent. This manifests the minimal realism of Polish cinema that films usually pare away cinematic junk to make viewer’s attention to what remains almost rapt. On the contrary, sound making is tricky in Chungking Express. In the opening scene, diegetic sound of footage, car horns honking and pedestrian’s dialogue entangles in the streets to dynamically show the chaos and flourish of central Hong Kong. It is usual in Hong Kong cinema to depict everyday life in the midst of mundane space. Aural techniques including soundtrack layering and asynchronous sound effects are used in this sequence to keep a distance from characters and the environment that echoes the theme of this film: “being lost” and pursuit of identity in the midst of all the hustle and the bustle of the city. Non-diegetic sound is the monologue with Cop 223 ’s internal voice saying “Every day we brush past a lot of people. People who may become our best friends, or people we may never meet”. The use of internal voiceover further indicates the character’s loneliness and a sense of “being lost”.

To conclude, characteristics of Polish cinema and Hong Kong cinema can be identified through the analysis of two local films, Ida and Chungking Express. They make some similar choices and some different choices for the four cinematic styles, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound to convey particular national cinema. Basic feature of Polish cinema and Hong Kong cinema are found out. Polish cinema is more scandalized while Hong Kong cinema is more disruptive. However, both two cinema are strongly related to historical development that one reflects Poland’s transition from socialism to capitalism and one reflects Hong Kong’s return from UK to China. Besides, the confusion of self-identity is also expressed in these two national cinemas. Last but not least, resourceful adoption of techniques and theories in different aspects are exquisitely used in the two cinemas.


  • Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson and Jeff Smith. Film Art: An Introduction, 11th ed (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017).
  • Falkowska, Janina. ‘Polish National Cinema.” Slavic Review 62, no. 3 (2003): 592-94. doi:10.2307/3185827.
  • Hu, Brian. “The KTV Aesthetic: Popular Music Culture and Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema.’ Screen 47, no. 4 (2006): 407-24.
  • Jones, Kent. “Of Love and the City.’ Film Comment 37, no. 1 (2001): 22-25.
  • Udden, James. ‘The Stubborn Persistence of the Local in Wong Kar-Wai.’ Essays in Film and the Humanities, no. 2 (2006): 67-79.              

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