JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Red Sorghum was Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut.

Gong Li as the title character in Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou, a “gory, cruel, and charming” story that allegorizes the June crackdown in Tian'anmen Square.

Although it was not one of Chen Kaige’s critical successes, Dai Jinhua devotes serious attention to this fable about deferred hopes.

In this enormously successful film, Chen Kaige chronicles the history of China from the Republican era through the Cultural Revolution, against the backdrop of the opera stage.

This less successful of Chen Kaige’s works depicts the saga of the first emperor to unite China. Implicitly the plot comments on current power politics in the People’s Republic.

Female director Huang Shuqin’s Woman, Human, Demon uses Chinese opera to explore issues of gender identity and sexual politics in the People’s Republic.

In the first essay collected in Cinema and Desire, “Severed Bridge: The Art of the Sons’ Generation,” Dai uses psychoanalytic theory inflected by Jacques Lacan to examine the early films from the Fifth Generation in relation to the filmmakers’ political and aesthetic coming of age during and after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. She refers to their films as “the art of the Sons.”(14)

She looks at One and Eight, Horse Thief, Yellow Earth, The King of Children, Red Sorghum, among other films, in terms of their contradictory interplay of searching for the roots of Chinese culture and identity in the post-Mao era while critiquing both traditional Chinese values and Maoist political doctrine. In her analysis of Red Sorghum, she notes the dialectical tension in that film between the creation of a new “national myth” (36) and the “onslaught of Western/Other culture” (33) in 1987. In the film, this tension is played out around female sexuality and the use of the female body as a sacrificial totem that

symbolically assuages the collective anxiety and shock of the present-day Chinese, again faced with an onslaught from alien cultures.(44)

Reading this essay, I was struck by the similarities between Dai and Slavoj Zizek —both committed to Lacanian psychoanalysis and a Marxist critique in post-socialist societies. After 1989 (a year that had a cataclysmic, but very different impact on China and Eastern Europe), both chose to maintain a base in the East while lecturing and publishing extensively in the West. Both center their research on cinema and popular culture. Dai and Zizek seem to fulfill a need within cultural studies to reconfigure the Left academy in the West in relation to the East, to take stock of Freud, Lacan, Marx, and feminism after the end of the Cold War. Both also allow scholars in the West to look at their own cultural “symptoms” as commodity capitalism emerges out of the ruins of post-socialist societies.

Making this comparison, I am again struck by the lack of intellectual context provided by Cinema and Desire. Postmodernism becomes a passing reference to Fredric Jameson, cultural studies a chance remark about Raymond Williams’ Keywords, and postcolonialism drifts as a concept without any reference to Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad, Arjun Appadurai, or Trinh T. Minh-ha.

However, even without this theoretical context, Dai makes some very astute observations in her essay, “Postcolonialism and Chinese Cinema of the Nineties,” which examines the post-1989 films of the Fifth Generation. The essay includes detailed analyses of Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and Life on a String as postmodern products that put on “display the spectacle of an imagined preindustrial China”(51) for the Western audience. Dai observes that these banned films have an allegorical significance. Referring to Ju Dou, for example, she notes:

In a certain way, it relates the heavy and painful emotions associated with the Tiananmen Square crackdown to the China of the nineties. (56)

However, Dai does not elaborate on this point, but, instead, moves quickly on to discuss Raise the Red Lantern as “representing history as discourse and facade for the Western gaze.”(57) The in-between space of the banned political allegory and global commodity remains obscure. The ways these films have been read by Chinese viewers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and throughout the diaspora get no mention. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (best known for the controversial City of Sadness), for example, likely became involved with producing Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern for reasons other than its obvious appeal to Orientalist fantasies and fetishism of the Asian female body. Hou, like Zhang, has an investment in political allegories involving Chinese politics. His support for Zhang who was working across the Taiwanese straits on the same critical endeavor likely complemented any interest he may have had in the financial returns on a project appealing to the Orientalist voyeurism of the European or American viewer.

“A Scene in the Fog: Reading the Sixth Generation Films” looks at the sea change that took place as a younger generation of filmmakers began to emerge on the film scene in the nineties, including Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Wu Wenguang. Unlike the “Fifth Generation” that refers to a specific graduating class from the Beijing Film Academy, the “Sixth Generation” label covers filmmakers from various backgrounds. These include younger self-financed or foreign-financed filmmakers, graduates of the Academy after 1989 who may or may not work in “official” film channels, documentary filmmakers associated with various politically dissident or avant-garde art movements, and others falling under the category of “underground” filmmakers who work in amateur formats and who may have no formal production training. Dai rightly notes that these filmmakers work in a social, political, and economic climate dramatically different from the previous decade:

Complex as eighties Chinese culture is, it is still subject to integration into ‘modernity,’ on the basis of a common desire for progress, social democracy, and national prosperity, and by virtue of its resistance to historical inertia and the stronghold of mainstream ideology. In the nineties, however, the following elements feed a different sociocultural situation: the ambiguous ideology of the post-Cold War era; the implosion and diffusion of mainstream ideology; global capitalism’s tidal force and the resistance of nationalisms and nativisms; the penetration and impact of global capital on local cultural industries; cultures’ increasing commercialization in global and local culture markets; and the active role local intellectuals, besieged by postmodern and postcolonial discourse, have undertaken in their writing. (71-2)

The Sixth Generation has been associated with very different themes from the Fifth Generation. The younger filmmakers are concerned with the immediacy of the street, with contemporary city life (particularly in Beijing), with youth culture, rock music, and a punk inspired counter-cultural “anti-aesthetic,” along with a critical, sometimes self-absorbed or nihilistic view of Chinese culture and society. Moving away from Lacanian analysis, Dai becomes more descriptive in this essay, focusing on the distinctive qualities of the films of the Sixth Generation and their relationship to their Western patrons as well as China’s booming “underground” scene.

The next two essays focus on women in Chinese film, women filmmakers, and feminist readings of Chinese cinema. “Gender and Narration: Women in Contemporary Chinese Film” provides a sweeping overview of women in Chinese history, depictions of women in pre- and post-1949 cinema. It has a special emphasis on the long career of the melodramatist Xie Jin, and concludes with a discussion of the work of women filmmakers in China. Edited from a longer manuscript, this chapter tends to drift off on tangents out of line with its apparent focus on the depiction of women in Chinese film. While some readers may not be familiar with the legendary Hua Mulan, the Chinese “new woman” of the May Fourth movement (embodied by the actress Ruan Ling-yu), the “White Haired Girl” or the “Women’s Red Army Detachment” (a.k.a. “Red Detachment of Women”) of Mao’s “revolutionary romanticism” (both made into films on more than one occasion), this scattered background information does not always support the chapter’s exploration of women in Chinese film. Dai’s discussion of Xie Jin and the changing dynamics of women in relation to class structure and the political vicissitudes of post-1949 China marks a high point in this chapter. However, more detailed analyses of films by women filmmakers like Zhang Nuanxin, Li Shaohong, Hu Mei, and Ning Ying in relation to contemporary political and economic changes in China would have been welcome.

Dai does, indeed, look closely at Huang Shuqin’s Human, Woman, Demon (1987)[11] in the following chapter. Here, Dai’s allegorical reading of the film in relation to Chinese opera adds to an appreciation of this critically neglected film as a key work within the genre of opera film allegories so important to Chinese film history. Unfortunately, however, Dai does not connect this film to others within this tradition, such as Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters (1965) or Chen Kaige’s more recent Farewell My Concubine (1993). Unlike other films in this tradition, Human, Woman, Demon focuses more on the performance of gender roles, the continuing burden of male privilege, and the particularity of the woman’s voice in the narrative to a degree that overshadows the broader political allegory. While Dai notes the film’s feminist perspective, she does not tease out what makes this film distinct within the genre by comparing it to similar films.

The last three essays, arguably the best, deal with television, consumerism, and the rise of commodity culture in China in the 1990s. “Redemption and Consumption: Depicting Culture in the 1990s” astutely dissects the transposition of the image culture associated with politics into the visual spectacle of consumer capitalism. Her case study consists of looking at the vogue for Mao Zedong memorabilia. Dai associates this sort of nostalgia with the drive toward “redemptive memory” (174) for former Red Guards and the “educated youth” sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution to recuperate their past by turning traces of their experiences into commodities.

Ironically, some of these popular materials like the song, “Xiaofang,” have been received differently by the displaced peasants. These people now find themselves on the bottom rung of China’s urban economy. For them, feelings of lost love and the simplicity of country living resonate quite differently than for the upwardly mobile “returned” youth generation who find themselves entering China’s new “middle classes,” putting their “radical” pasts behind.

Continued