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A native of Taiwan, Prof Emilie Yeh of the Department of Visual Studies brings a critical eye to the study of film in Asia.


You may have noticed a trend in some of the Hollywood blockbusters coming out recently—a film set partially in China, co-financed by China or featuring Chinese characters. From Mulan and The Martian to The Great Wall, it might seem that China is taking over yet another US industry.


But is this a marriage made in celluloid heaven or another case of the odd couple?


As someone who is skeptical about this trend, Prof Emilie Yeh says, “I think the focus has been somewhat misplaced. The Chinese film industry (at least since 1949) has never been designed to make films for audiences outside China ... It will take some time and a lot of hard work for Chinese film to be accepted outside the mainland.”


This is not just the opinion of an industry bystander but that of a major voice in today’s Asian film world. An academic who has written extensively on filmmaking in Asia and who has participated extensively in industry events, she has been appointed as Lingnan’s new Chair Professor of Visual Studies and is set to assume the position as Head of the Department of Visual Studies in August 2017.


Bridging the world of film and academia


Prof Yeh has an interest in film that traces back to the age of six, when her mother took her on regular visits to watch the latest Korean tearjerkers. From this early passion, she went on to acquire a PhD in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California Film School.


Today, she is well recognised as a specialist in Chinese and Asian cinema studies, having held academic positions at Harvard University, Tsinghua University (Taiwan), Academia Sinica and National Taiwan University, and a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Carsey-Wolf Center of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has also published widely in journals and books, and attended or officiated at numerous film conferences.


Although she has strong academic credentials, she also feels a connection with the commercial side of the film industry. “I identify with the world of film production (directors, scriptwriters, producers, major creative personnel and critical reception) and aim to entertain and critically engage with audiences of distinct cultural and linguistic backgrounds,” says Prof Yeh. “I see filmmakers as problem solvers and don’t see the polarity of academia and commerce.”


Faith in the future of Hong Kong film


As part of her focus on East Asian film, Prof Yeh has a keen interest in Hong Kong cinema. “Many people say that Hong Kong cinema is dying or disappearing, but I hold a different view. Thanks to industry leaders Johnnie To, Winnie Tsang, Nansun Shi, Ann Hui, Derek Yee, Herman Yau and, most of all, Hong Kong young people’s energy and passion for motion pictures, we have been seeing some exciting works made on shoestring budgets by first-time directors.


“Hong Kong will remain a major capital of moviemaking in the region. I don’t think we need to feel too pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong cinema, not yet.”


A passion for film


Despite her full schedule, Prof Yeh still has several projects in the pipeline, one of the most challenging being the continuation of an Early Chinese Film Database.


“This project is similar to those brilliant young directors’ works I mentioned—it’s a production on a shoestring, a labour of love for Hong Kong.” However, because the database does not count as a publication, the General Research Fund has been reluctant to provide support. “But that’s okay,” she says. “I am fortunate enough to have a devoted team of research assistants and student helpers to work with me, including two talented, hard-working Lingnan undergraduates.”


Beyond the database project and her new duties as Head of the Visual Studies Department, she is also taking up the directorship of Lingnan’s Centre for Cinema Studies in the summer of 2017. “I hope to revisit and revise the Centre’s objectives, aims and impact, in line with University’s policy of research development.”


In the meantime, students who share her passion for Asian cinema can look forward to Prof Yeh’s insights on the film industry, its history and future direction.


Scholar of the Silver Screen