Theme: perverse sentiments
In Sentimental Fabulations, Rey Chow lays out the cluster of thematic concepts she sees as the affective “mode” of the sentimental. She argues we must see China as existing in transition, with both residual cultural patterns as well as progressive ones overlapping. The present is in dynamic flux. Borrowing Raymond Williams’ term, “structures of feeling,” she examines a group of contemporary films from prestige dramatic directors who essentially work in the area of melodrama (though she disavows that term, saying her concerns cover a different terrain).[open notes in new window]
As in her earlier books on Chinese film, Primitive Passions and Ethics After Idealism Chow concentrates on mainstream “serious,” “well made” (and fairly middle-brow) film that has film festival and art-house circulation in the West.
Chow identifies eleven key situations of “sentimental fabulations.” In Dumplings these situations are completely absent or turned perverse.
(indebtedness to elders, demand for filial piety).
The three central characters have no elders; they abort those who would make them elders; the schoolgirl is betrayed by being raped by her father.
(household arrangements of caring, tending, nursing, etc.).
The Li’s domesticity is purchased, assigned to servants (the masseuse, the maid, the hotel waiters, etc.) framed in elite cosmopolitan consumption. Mr. Li writes checks to substitute for emotional contact. Only when he has a broken leg does his wife tend to him, noting now that he’s helpless, he needs her. Mei provides a commodified domesticity through food preparation, small talk, and with Mr. Li, sex.
(preparation, consumption, sharing/offering; source of intimacy, pathos, and/or sinocentrism).
Mr. Li consumes nearly-hatched eggs; entertaining her female friends, Mrs. Li depends on the hotel to cater it. Mei prepares and serves dumplings, but they are inherently perverse items, not made or received in love; she does know the historical/cultural resonance of dumplings and cuisine in Chinese society.
(deprivation, powerlessness; and valorization of frugality).
The Li’s operate at the top of the privilege pyramid; once made an outlaw, Mei is shown as a survivor, living by her wits on the street.
• Childhood/old age
(worthy because dependent).
Neither is present; the characters are or become childless, even the schoolgirl’s mother. Mei lies about having a child to explain border crossing (that is smuggling) with her lunch pail. Throughout the film, perversely reversing the “natural order” of aging depends on the destruction of prenatal life.
• Physical labor
(represented or known).
All the Li’s needs are met by servants; from the start Mei is shown working: transporting fetuses, making dumplings, serving food, performing an abortion, providing sex, and finally on the run, carrying her means of production on a bamboo yoke. The mistress provides sexual serrvices. The schoolgirl, and later the mistress, undergo a long labor to deliver their fetuses.
• Togetherness and separation
(travel, migration, illness, life’s transience).
The Li’s seem to travel internationally (she to London for a few days to see a nephew; he on “business”) and effortlessly; Mei moved from the PRC to Hong Kong, and also transits back and forth to Shenzhen to acquire her ingredients, and finally escapes there to avoid prosecution in Hong Kong.
• Preference for familial/social harmony
(vs. discord; demands for self-restraint and self-sacrifice).
The Li’s marriage is only formal; their “real” household is under renovation; they consume others. The schoolgirl’s mother stabs her husband. Mei, divorced, has no family, only clients.
• Passing of time
Mei has perversely reversed time, aging, and promises the same for her customers. Her apartment is filled with “old” things, old furniture. The Li’s live in a cosmopolitanized present with no heritage. The periodical re-runs of Mrs. Li’s TV show reminds her of time passage, but provoke anxiety and desperation, not nostalgia.
• Manifestations of nature
(visual metaphors of change, conditions that humans must learn to accept).
The dumplings defy nature, transience, loss. The film is shot entirely within man-made urban space. Only the visit to the mansion indicates any green nature, and it is framed by the mechanical Peak Tram; even at the house, “nature” is animal statues.
• The non-negotiable imperative to reproduce biologically
(responsibility to preserve the family line).
Mrs. Li in both the short and feature versions defies this cultural demand. The schoolgirl is doubly victimized. Mei is the agent of destruction.
Rey Chow concludes her examination of the sentimental mode with the observation,
“As the affect of accommodation, compromise, and settlement, the sentimental — which I myself consider to be the great Chinese theme... — is a form of thinking-cum-living that, to put it forthrightly, is the opposite of nomadism. Hence its potency, paradoxically, to move (us). Accordingly, the scenarios most effectively dramatized in this sentimental mode are often other than those of defiance, rebellion, flight, or absolute departure.” (p. 199)
In sharp contrast, Dumplings changes and challenges the sentimental situations through perversions. The conservative momentum of social stability is perverted under contemporary capitalism to the most vicious dog-eat-dog, or human-eat-fetus frenzy.
The screenplay was adapted from a novella, “The Dumplings of Yue Mei’s Attic.” Well-known Hong Kong novelist and screenwriter Lilian Lee has written over 30 books. She is a popular novelist on the mainland as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora. Numerous films have been made from her novels, such as:
- Rouge (d. Stanley Kwan, 1987),
- The Romance of the Golden Lotus (Clara Law,1989),
- Kawashima Yoshiko (Eddie Ling-Ching Fong, 1990; aka The Last Princess of Manchuria),
- Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993),
- Temptation of a Monk (Clara Law, 1993),
- White Snake, Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993)
- The story for Dumplings.
Throughout her screenplays (and novels) the situation of women in moments of historical transition grounds the narrative. For example, the unfairly neglected Kawashima Yoshiko provided the late Anita Mui her finest role as a Manchurian Princess sent to Japan out of political reasons of statecraft, who then becomes accomplished in martial skills, and who returns to the China mainland of the turbulent 30s and 40s as a military leader. At the end of the Pacific war she is held by the Chinese as a traitor while she defends herself as Japanese and deserving repatriation to Japan. Set against the large historical stage of East Asia in the first half of the 20th century, the film presents the precarious position of a talented, ambitious, skilled woman negotiating treacherous patriarchal power. Similarly, Dumplings presents Mrs. Li, the mistress, and Mei as working their best options within a contemporary patriarchal capitalist system.
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