Arts Reviews and Cultural Critique

Kicking the tyres of the culture

Books, films, TV, theatre, exhibitions and events arts reviews

Anna Chen reviews the arts: film, theatre, books, TV

Arts Reviews List of Contents

Anna Chen dives under the hood to check that the engine’s working

Before the cultural superstructure completely collapses back into the economic base, Anna Chen explores how its artefacts tie in to power and politics. Are we gripped by revolutionary invention? Or stodged-out on mediocre blah? Robust assessments in this selection of arts reviews deliver surprising perspectives and intriguing insights.

Film and TV

Terminator Genisys review: a tragic thing to do to an old friend. After a promising start with Arnie doing a decent job reprising his original role as a craggily Johnny Cashesque aging Terminator, the movie ultimately proves itself a truly godawful stinker. 8 November 2015 READ MORE >>>

Day of the Locust film review: An outstanding intelligent movie about the madness of crowds and the nightmarisation of the American Dream, which increasingly resembles a documentary about today’s collective id. 15 February 2014READ MORE >>>

Doctor Who “Deep Breath” review: all hail Peter Capaldi, shame about the script. Why is Peter Capaldi flashing his red bits like a lady baboon, and other questions. “In the name of the British Empire,” cries Madame Vastra as her gang perform their rescue. Drip, drip, drip. Doctor Who is the hard-wiring of young minds into the values of the Establishment, not those of our real British society. 23 August 2013 READ MORE >>>

Sherlock Episode 2: The Blind Banker, BBC. Wily Orientals and China dolls galore. An embarrassment of riches when it comes to pressing home the stereotypes for the 21st century. 1 August 2010READ MORE >>>

Working for the Clampdown: Niall Ferguson’s testosterone theory of history. Review of the Channel 4 series, Civilization: Is the West History? 10 March 2011READ MORE >>>

Alice In Wonderland review: Disney and the Opium Wars. Tim Burton hints at a dirtier British Empire when Alice (Mia Wasikowska), straight from hanging out with a stoned caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and victory over the Jabberwock, directs her family to the fortune to be made in China. 26 March 2010READ MORE >>>

The Good Earth film review: Once caucasian actor Paul Muni was cast as the male lead in MGM’s 1937 blockbuster movie, The Good Earth, set in China and based on Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, there was no way Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s biggest Chinese movie star, stood a chance of playing his wife, O-lan. 30 December 2008READ MORE >>>

55 Days at Peking – film review: Set in 1900, 55 Days purports to tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, when indigenous Chinese made a last effort to rid their country of rapacious foreign powers. Eleven imperialist nations occupied major chunks of China with 13 out of 18 Chinese provinces under foreign control. 3 February 2008READ MORE >>>

How to read a film: No Country For Old Men – film criticism 16 March 2008. We know what imperialism is capable of abroad, but now even its own relatively pampered western civilians are coming under the boot as the benign mask of the system is ripped off. And even loveable heroes of the conventional story may not survive this onslaught. This, the Coen Bros are saying, is the cold bleak reality of the world we now inhabit. – READ MORE >>>

Sergei Eisenstein and early development of film art: An overview and analysis of the director and first major film theorist by Anna Chen, 1998.  What power was unleashed in The Battleship Potemkin which led UK authorities to ban it until 1954? Why do mainstream Hollywood directors pay him homage through direct reference, pastiche and even parody?  … Eisenstein was building a cinematic art with a painter’s eye and the method of an engineer. In him, music, literature, painting and science all converged. – READ MORE >>>

YELLOWFACE: How do you excise an entire race from the culture? … Empire wants its conquered victims kept unknown and mysterious, or cowed, submissive and hated when breaking cover, especially if it’s going for another bite at the cherry. They are certainly not to be identified with and respected as being ‘like us’, however much the model minority might try to ingratiate itself with the top table. – READ MORE >>>


Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, theatre review, South China Morning Post, 9 June 2013: An eruption of British East Asian talent on stage this summer is finally putting paid to the notion that Pacific Rimmers can play only one-dimensional, buck-toothed, orientalist monsters. Read more about David Henry Hwang – SCMP 9 June 2013 READ MORE >>>

Yellow Face triumph for David Henry Hwang launches London’s new Park Theatre: Morning Star review. This smart and savvy comedy delivers a knock-out blow to any still-entrenched belief in certain crepuscular crannies of theatre land that east Asians can’t produce culture. Morning Star, 28 May 2013 READ MORE >>>

In the Ai of the beholder: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei review for the Morning Star. Howard Brenton’s play is part meditation on the power of art, and part deification of Ai Weiwei the artist. Brenton’s Weiwei is simply too saintly for someone who wittily runs rings around the authorities with all the confidence his exalted class confers. He’s a mischievous hedonist, but no such humanising flaw manifests in this Christ-like Weiwei. Morning Star, 10 May 2013 READ MORE >>>

The Book of Mormon review, Morning Star: South Park creators’ gentle mayhem in London. The Book of Mormon may not represent the much-heralded death of satire but, with full-page ads taken out in the show programme by lampooned subjects The Lion King and the Mormon church itself, this effervescent musical inches us ever closer to the abyss. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are equal opportunity offenders, transferring their gleeful lack of respect for everyone and everything to Broadway and the west end with the help of co-writer Robert Lopez. Morning Star, 25 April 2013 READ MORE >>>

Medea at the ENO opera review: misogyny, “other” & “a devilish disturbance in the cosmic balance”. An ENO version of Medea ignores its subversive possibilities as a vision of imperial plunder and betrayal. Morning Star 12 March 2013arts reviews READ MORE >>>

Black T-shirt Collection by Inua Ellams: theatre review. A 75-minute monologue. Far from Chinese workers’ struggle being a source of inspiration, increasingly, China stands for a horror location in the mental landscape where western guilt can be assuaged. It’s another form of imperialism where the Chinese are the extras in western writers’ stories. Morning Star Thursday, 19 April 2012 arts reviewsREAD MORE >>>

The Orphan of Zhao theatre review in the Morning Star. Only three out of 17 actors are east Asians, but none in leading roles, thereby missing a golden chance to rectify invisibility with something imaginatively groundbreaking. 15 November 2012READ MORE >>>

The Orphan of Zhao: South China Morning Post magazine: Now is the winter of our discontent. When the hallowed Royal Shakespeare Company cast east Asian actors in a miserly three roles out of 17 in the Chinese classic, The Orphan of Zhao, (AKA,”the Chinese Hamlet”), they sparked an uprising of British east Asians that was to gather support from as far afield as the Americas and Australia. 16 December 2012READ MORE >>>

Militarised Hamlet at the National Theatre: theatre review. A fighter plane roars overhead. Lights come up on a bleak black-and-white Elsinore Castle. Soldiers in camouflage strike the familiar high-shouldered automatic rifle-toting power-pose so beloved of army recruitment ads, sorry, TV & movies. Who needs a bare bodkin when a Bullpup SA80 can do the job? 27 January 2011READ MORE >>>

Hungry Ghosts: China from the outside 17 November 2010READ MORE >>>

Chinese serial killer tamed: Turandot first night review – 9 October 2009
The West divides Asian women into dangerous Dragon Ladies and passive Lotus Blossoms, the deep, collective psychological template for a feminised China, and codifies it across the culture, in this instance in opera.
Giacomo Puccini creates the submissive, tragic, Cho Cho San in his 1904 opera of David Belasco’s 1900 play about Americans in Japan, Madame Butterfly.
The play and opera are written for western audiences shortly after the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-5) makes Japan the dominant power in the region, so perhaps it’s wishful thinking. China is at its weakest due to a decaying Qing dynasty and foreign forces feasting on the wounded nation. Japan has learnt from China’s Opium Wars defeat and put on military muscle.
Turandot is premiered in 1926, 14 years after the Republic of China is founded and civil war looms. China and Japan are gaining strength, each in their own way. Eastern defiance of the West is embodied in the nightmare vision of the killer princess (see also Anna May Wong as evil daughter of Fu Manchu). Culture shapes western perceptions of Asians that will last for generations.
Puccini gives us the other half of his Orientalist pairing in the opera Turandot, first performed in 1926. … continues …

Yellowface back from the grave: the state of UK theatre – More Light: Here we are, rendered invisible yet again in a story about, ha!, get this, the burial of Chinese women. 22 May 2009READ MORE >>>


The Opium War by Julia Lovell: book review. Smoke and mirrors. Western academia prepares for a 21st century carve-up of China and absolves the narco-capitalists’ guilt by blaming the victim, revealing a moral vacuum at the centre of the imploding West. (17 May 2012) – READ MORE >>>

Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong by Katie Gee Salisbury. Book review by Anna Chen, 11 April 2024READ MORE >>>

Exhibitions and Events

FAREWELL David Bowie from a longtime Bowie fan: RIP Monday, 11 January 2016
So THAT’S what Blackstar was about. David Bowie, who died yesterday aged 69 after a long illness, said farewell in the most eloquent, meaningful and stylish way possible with his last album released only days ago. …

David Bowie Is V&A launch party review: music event of the year Saturday, 23 March 2013
This extensive selection from the Bowie archive has everything a fan could wish for, barring the presence of the great man himself. From his earliest artistic influences (Warhol, Burroughs), his first appearance in the public eye as spokesperson for The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men, the space race (Space Oddity, Starman): welcome to Bowie World.

Extraordinary opium exhibition deserves a visit – arts reviews: South China Morning Post column 8 July 2013READ MORE >>>


Opium pipe exhibition reviewed by Anna Chen
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