Lecture Notes

Chinese Cinema Lecture Notes
You are responsible for the content of these notes in quizzes and exams; if you missed a class, you then ought to come here to take a look at the notes for certain films we discussed on that day.
Peacock, directed by Changwei Gu (1957 – ), 2005; 《孔雀》顾长卫导演

  • The story is set in the 1970s in which the director grew up and became an adult; to some extent any or all three main characters reflect how that historical period was like for Gu, who comes to understand his time and himself by creating this story and populating it with people most familiar to him; and in a larger context, such personal reflection is also shaped by the general cultural and intellectual climate in which writers and artists revisit their lived experiences 30 years ago
  • The ending is pregnant with meaning although to some it is not immediately obvious: as all three Gao siblings, now all married and with children, wait for the caged peacocks in a zoo to spread their beautiful tails only to leave disappointed, and one peacock does so only when there is no one there to watch; such dis-synchronization or serendipity happens to be the aesthetic lens through which the director looks at his own childhood, one in which the beauty of individual idiosyncrasies was willfully overlooked or ignored due to the pressure of social conformity; this is how Gu remembers Chinese society in the 1970s and tries to establish a way to communicate with a time receding and vanishing rapidly because of China’s economic transformation in progress for the past three decades;
  • In fact all three siblings or problematic youths possess inner beauty and character that distinguish them as solid individuals, but the society in which they grow up is looking elsewhere for their compliance or faulting them for their individuality; Weihong as the big sister initially strikes the viewer as eccentric, with a propensity that marks her as too imaginative and too impractical; she likes to daydream and fantasizes herself as different from others, be it a military parachutor or an accordion artist, and she disdains jobs such as factory worker or kindergarten nurse; but her quest for individual expression and unrealistic expectations of life attract rather than repel the viewer; likewise, there are also “peacock” moments in Weiguo’s childhood in spite of his mental retardation; because in spite of his retardation he is able to maintain his innocence in ways that actually redeems and dignifies that dark age: although oblivious to the pressures to conform he is most free of hypocrisy and vulnerable to mean spiritedness of moral majority of the Mao era; Weiqiang is an artistically gifted child whose sketches of a nude woman angers his father so much that he disowns him;
  • The poignancy of the three broken lives sets the bleak tone for Gu’s reminiscence of his adolescent years, which is for the most part nostalgic and sentimental, wherein lies a twisted and perverted human psyche inextricably linked to the past devoid of any respect for individuality; such is Gu’s view of his own childhood spent in the Cultural Revolution in which what distinguished people as creative, unique, and beautiful was systematically extinguished by a politically regimented society that would not tolerate individual differences;
  • Such is the torn feeling, the ambivalence, Chinese have today for an intolerant age in which caring and love existed in a perverted form, and in which loving parents were blind to the creativity and talents in their children; it was a time in which one’s character traits and personal attributes were frowned upon rather than encouraged, and one’s artistic and intellectual potentials were wasted rather than given a chance to flourish; as the three siblings grew up and became parents at the end of the story, a cycle is complete when the next generation shows the same impatience and blindness to the beauty possessed by nature’s creatures which they themselves were once before they were programmed into members of a repressive society.
Incense, directed by Hao Ning, 2003; 《香火》宁浩导演

  • Buddhism is one of the three major religious traditions in China (Confucianism 儒教and Taoism 道教) and originally was a foreign religion from India whose influence was felt in China as early as first century A.D. and became wide spread and an indigenous religion by Tang Dynasty (618-907); although Confucianism is said to be the dominant of the three schools of religion, Chinese Buddhism (汉传佛教)remain influential and complementary to the other religions; it has been pointed out that when a Chinese person is successful in life he tends to be a Confucianist believing his success is evident and reflection of his moral conviction, but a Buddhist or Taoist when he is unsuccessful in society, dismissing his misfortune as only disharmony or imbalance of nature or a result of karmic retribution from previous life for which he does not bear too much responsibility; it is through the combination of these three religious traditions that a Chinese person finds peace and spiritual salvation; in the 21st century as China embarked on a new phase of modernization, Buddhism will have to reposition and revamp itself as it has done in the past centuries to stay relevant to many of its practitioners;
  • the film was Hao Ning’s graduate project from Beijing Film Academy where many of Fifth and Sixth Generations film directors received their formal college education; it was done cheaply and with the monk played by one of his friends; typical of a sixth generation director, Hao Ning was truly an independent filmmaker who worked himself up gradually to earn the trust and money of many private sponsors; he by now has two more films out and is nationally well known;
  • the monk’s quest for repair money to fix the Buddha statue is a journey that opens our eyes to the type of spiritual crisis (or poverty) that Hao Ning wants to expose; what happens to the monk is also what is happening to Chinese religion which is being  put to a test and perverted in some sense by capitalist consumerism; although cast in a rather humorous and light-hearted way, the film is full of poignancy and scathing criticism about China’s current economic transformation; when the monk goes to county office for Culture and Historical Relics, an administrative and political organ of the government, the people there are rehearsing a show to be aired, saying “Let’s embrace a new future and leave all your burdens in the garbage dump;” they are also celebrating China’s joining of WTO at the bureau that is a milestone for China’s venture into a free market economy;
  • culture is for sale; the officer Xiao An tells the monk to trade in his temple’s old windows as antique, “the older and more expensive;” culture and religion has become a form of commodity (like antique) or garbage; the monk has to learn to market his faith and convert it into cash in order to save it, which, when successful, changes the nature of his religiosity; his monk friend Yanche in a different temple refuses to loan him money because “Buddha and motorcycle all cost money,” as he wipes to a spotless clean his new motorbike parked in front of the word “Buddha”; outside of this commercial culture, a Buddha statue is as worshipped as a straw scare-craw; his quest for money first becomes a test to his faith, which he certainly fails when he uses it commercially as palm-reading, fortune-telling and when exploited other believers by selling them a joss for ¥3,000 that he bought for ¥15; by the time he comes up with the money to repair the statue, he has a new relation with his religious faith
  • the way the director displays the modern (people’s passion for commercial enjoyments, pleasure, fine clothes, selling cultural effects for a profit, etc.) seems to juxtapose and relativize the opposing terms such as modern and tradition; in other words, Christianity, Buddhism and the entrepreneurial spirit are not necessarily symmetrically opposed to one another but rather different tidal waves pushing and driving people spiritually in different time periods; Ning Hao’s film aesthetics captures the dynamics of social change that the Buddhist has been able to appreciate for centuries;
  • although he refuses to return to secular life, his trial and tribulations have been an education or initiation through which he comes to understand the place of his faith in the modern society in which he lives as a monk, in which we cannot escape a sense of irony when we read the signs that say “Power of Buddha knows no limits; kindness knows no boundaries,” and “all prayers will be answered;” his is a society that seems unable to distinguish saints and sinners when the police lock the monk up with a group of prostitutes, imposing monetary punishment on both; his is also a society in which people need spiritual salvation as much as he needs their monetary donations; it is also ironic that for a religion that puts so much emphasis on cessation of desires and cravings as a way to salvation, the monk is more than a little interested in the material culture: the leather boots, the pocket chanting machine, cigarettes, the motorbike, the loud-speakers; at the very end he is told his temple has been marked for demolition to make room for a highway, a symbolic predicament for Buddhism in modern China.
City of Life and Death, directed by Lu Chuan, 2009

  • To appropriate this gruesome recount of the Rape of Nanjing that took place in 1937, one needs to understand the issues in contemporary China and the intellectual preoccupations with national and cultural identity, which are problems for which Lu Chuan’s film tries to provide answers. Four years in the making from 2006-09, the film is an effort on the part of the director to combine ideology and reality, mythology and history, and entertainment and education; his film aesthetics addresses the issue or problem of Chinese identity by, it seems, the basic beliefs in the discourse of a liberal humanism (as opposed to Leninism and nationalism during Mao Era).
  • Lu Chuan took much courage to tell a human (rather than moral) story of the Rape of Nanjing by exploring the inner wars inside each character rather than just the trauma and anguish of the victim. By his own admission (in a TV interview), the film is about human nature that is represented by everyone in the film: the Japanese soldiers, the Japanese and Chinese comfort women, the Chinese prostitutes that are not so reluctant to sleep with the Japanese, the Chinese interpreters and collaborators, Chinese troops unwilling to fight, and so forth. Without too much exception, all these characters are capable of compassion, kindness, cowardice, and incredible cruelty as well as noble aspirations, which contribute to the evil and good amply elaborated and dramatized. It is a film that asks the viewer to critically reflect on the complexity of human nature with such characters as Kadokawa, the Japanese soldier, as well as Mr. Tang, the Chinese interpreter.
  • By showing how confused and conflicted people are about themselves and others, the director deepens the discussion of national identity and raises it to the level of philosophical reflection on human nature. By reconstructing this particularly painful chapter in modern Chinese history, which has always been understood in such simple terms as good and evil, or China versus Japan, Lu Chuan changes our perspectives on history. Like all good historic films, City of Life and Death allows the audience to see something in history that was not quite there at the time. (That is why Clint Eastwood made Letters from Iwo Jima, 2006, from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers.) City gives the viewer a better and more sophisticated view on human aggression, cruelty, courage, as well as compassion, in ways people can easily relate. No character is easily put into such boxes or categories as good and evil, yet all is responsible for what happened.
  • Similar complexity and ambiguity also exist for his Kekexili (Mountain Patrol, 2004), which offers more (or less) than can be made comprehensible through a straightforward thematic reading of the story. Lu Chuan’s film aesthetics always goes way beyond the narrow confines of morality. In that film the epic struggle between those trying to protect antelope and the poachers is presented in a way that forces the viewer to be conscious of the much larger and more complex relationships between man, animal, and nature. My initial discomfort and frustration with Kekexili and City of Life and Death now have become my connection to Lu Chuan as a film director who deliberately seeks to transcend the conventional ways of seeing. It takes a Lu Chuan to reveal the true extent of the Rape of Nanjing as a tragedy, in which we find all the ingredients of cultural and natural life: lust for women, aspiration for glory, hunger for food, impulse for nobility, human compassion and limitation to love, mass hysteria and the coolest rational reflection, individual acts of self-sacrifice and collective and racial violence, all of which is often present in both the victim and the victimizer to disallow any simplistic and straight forward moral interpretation
  • that the film, although in black and white, resists a black-and-white moral judgment is evident in such small details as the character of Xiao Jiang, the Chinese prostitute in whom evil and goodness coexist. She is selfish at the moment of national crisis, refusing to cut her hair short like other women to resist and prevent rape because she feels her perm is sexy and she can save herself by sleeping with the Japanese soldiers. But this same person, during the crisis of Japanese demand of one hundred comfort women and well after she is brutally raped, Xiao Jiang volunteers herself to go to the Japanese soldiers again so that those remaining behind in the Nanjing International Safety Zone would have coal, food and medicine in exchange for her “service.” The same type of personal transformation or human duality also happens to Mr. Tang, coward in one moment when he betrays the wounded soldiers by telling the Japanese where they are hiding, but truly heroic or noble the next when he offers his chance to life to others.
  • The bewildering complexity of humanity, or the banality of evil, is also revealed in the film The Reader directed by Stephen Daldry (2008), which came out nearly the same time as Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death and which also deals with issues of war crime. The heroine, Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet), is an illiterate German that worked as SS guard as Auschwitz concentration camp. For her part in the holocaust and extermination of the Jews, she appears to be innocent, or even “kind” (?) to the weak and sickly by having them read to her before sending them to the gas chamber. When tried for her war crime in the 1970s, she’d rather take the blame (and heavy penalty of life in prison) for knowingly signing on the order to kill than admit that she could neither read nor write. Daldry’s film thus calls into question a simplistic moral view of the world and history the same way Lu Chuan does with his City of Life and Death. The film is depressing but not without many disturbing details that force the viewer to reflect critically on humanity, no matter how twisted, as represented by EVERY character that is dragged into the war. Both films examine morality not in the vacuum but in real historical situations and in complex circumstances in which people have expressed themselves as humans.
  • It is true that the film shows how resilient and heroic some Chinese are, fighting the invaders to the death and risking their own lives to help others in danger. However, the opposite can also be said about the Chinese; from the very beginning we see confrontations between different Chinese troops: some determined to fight the Japanese while others ready and eager to surrender. There is a scene where the Japanese soldiers are ambushed and nearly annihilated by a pocket of Chinese soldiers, which puts the viewer in the shoes of the invading Japanese troops who have every reason to fear death as much as the Chinese trying to surrender to save their lives. When Kadokawa and his men kill several women hidden in a confession booth in the church, he is smitten with guilt and remorse, and tries to get his first-aid kit out to save the wounded Chinese civilians. There are heroic Chinese soldiers who shout “Long Live China!” as they are shot dead, but there are also cowards too busy with playing mahjong to resist the Japanese; all they care about is themselves, learning how to say in Japanese “friends” or “I’m a civilian” as hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers are hunted down and slaughtered by the Japanese Army. The big picture gets even more complex when Jiang Shuyun, the church schoolteacher, shares a private moment with Kadokawa when he tells her that he used to attend church school in Japan as a boy. The two both speak English and, perhaps because of that, she later on makes a plea to him to perform mercy killing on her as she is being taken away to be tortured and raped. Kadokawa too prefers death when he feels that he can no longer endure the suffering and atrocity. This is where it is almost hard to draw a clear line between the casualties or victims of war and the perpetrators of it, between outward aggression and death wish (when that aggression is turned inward).
  • the film is definitely depressing, not however because of the killings and rape re-staged and reconstructed in this historical film, but because of the banality of evil as amply demonstrated in a situation of moral ambiguity that inhibits any straightforward and simplistic view of history.
Not One Less, 1999 directed by Yimou Zhang (1951 – ); 《一个都不能少》张艺谋

  • There are no professional actors; all in the film are also who they are in real life; the aesthetics of realism is aesthetics nonetheless which gives us an alternative way of looking at reality, other than how life appears to us; to remove the presence of the camera as well as professional actors does not mean unmediated perception; the artistic perspective used to arrange and organize the story is Zhang’s attitude towards the social transformations in China from which “no one should be left out” as indicated by the title, as well as his strong interest in helping the Project Hope (希望工程, 1989) to fund rural children too poor to attend elementary schools;
  • What happens in and to Shui Quan Village (水泉村) amounts to Zhang’s view of rural China where millions of poverty-stricken children were unable to get a basic education in literacy; while there is no real solution to the problem, the film lends expression to Zhang’s insights into the problem of disparity between the rich and poor, between rural and urban, brought about by two decades of social change toward urbanization and free market; the film is not just about one rural teacher not letting go missing one of her students; it is really about China, driven by the blinding light of modernity and no longer recognizing its own children and primitive past;
  • Representative of an agrarian society, Wei Minzhi, with all her backwardness and naivete, embodies the humanity that is rejected by modern man in pursuit of an industrial civilization; the 13-year old replacement teacher is bigger than life; she is the primitive in us all, uncouth, silly, and immature; she is China’s self-representation as a third-world country with a resolve to modernize when she starts going to the city on foot to find her student, a foolish-heroic or heroic-foolish act second only to Don Quixote charging the windmill; she becomes a convenient dumping ground for the negative human emotions of the well “educated” that lecture her on rules and etiquettes; with her firm resolve to let no one go missing from her class, Wei Minzhi embodies a kind of communalism or spirit of the people on a quest for equitable growth and a more egalitarian society; she represents China’s resolve to be strong and to catch up with the rest of the world; she is courageous because she has a community of small people (children) behind her; to the extent she is in charge, they could accomplish things such as move thousands of bricks to make some money for her to buy bus ticket; in other words, within Shui Quan elementary, there is socialism still at work where people share things (like coke) and do things in a collective way; Wei Minzhi’s courage and personal dignity rest on the existence of this community;
  • The urbanites she encounters in the big metropolis represent the “adult” world about which Minzhi and Huike have much to learn as “children”; but these city folks have dubious morals: knowledgeable but uncaring, sophisticated but indifferent, rich but unhappy; the ticket conductor throws Minzhi off the bus for not buying a ticket; the policeman guarding the iron gate of the television station treats her as an abomination or undocumented vagrant without a city residential card; the woman receptionist at the TV station where Wei Minzhi seeks to make a missing person announcement scolds her as if she is a moron for not having a teacher’s I.D., utterly ignorant of the pile of missing-person posters handwritten by Wei that is the ultimate and indisputable proof of her dedication as a teacher;
  • The contrast in this narrative film could be read as showing Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike, not as nuisance or embarrassment, but as hope for the adult world; as kids they are excluded from the adult affairs (the market economy and urbanization) and even ignored, but as kids they represent vitality, tenacity, resources, and resolve that must be included if China’s modernization is to have a successful future; a case is being made that these urchins, far from being the problem of a modernizing nation, are in fact the solution to the problems facing China on a national quest for power and wealth.
  • it’s true that education in many rural areas is almost none existent; in the village where the film was shot during the time of Wei Minzhi as a substitute teacher, education consists of just copying the text, a little addition and multiplication, constantly interrupted by financial difficulties that require the students to work in a kiln. That is China’s problem and that is how many people in the city understand rural problems; however, viewers see a message beyond this as the camera takes us to see the qualities of these peasant kids and of this particular substitute teacher that dignify human existence. This is Zhang Yimou’s political romanticism and film aesthetics that many intellectuals and artists in China found so irresistable, preoccupied with the fate of China as a nation and nation-building. If nothing else, Wei Minzhi, the substitute teacher, represents the revolve and a quiet determination of a nation to change and catch up. That’s why after the film she became an instant star (proving once more the popular belief that women in Zhang Yimou’s movies all become famous stars). As a real person, she was/is well liked rather than despised because of her performance; Chinese people see her as China’s hope; if this is what a substitute teacher can do in the poorest area in China, imagine what Teacher Gao can do, imagine what college professors can do, and imagine what China as a nation can do; and that is the logic for picking a substitute teacher (rather than a more qualified and experienced one) to tell the whole story of rural education;
  • we shouldn’t forget that Zhang Yimou is a great master of Chinese cinema who single-handedly pulled off the design and choreography of the stunning performances at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. With his Not One Less, Zhang was able to help “Hope Project” raise lots of money for rural kids; people generously donated money because of, among other things, the powers of film to move people and convey hope, hope represented by the substitute teacher Wei Minzhi. Would people be willing to throw money at something they believe to be pathetic and hopeless? The math that goes into the calculation of the ticket fare for Wei Minzhi to bring back Zhang Huike is really meant for potential donors who need to see what their money can do for rural kids if they give.
Happy Times, directed by Yimou Zhang, 2000; 《幸福时光》张艺谋导演

  • If you find some comic elements in the film, don’t call it a comedy yet; for they are invariably mixed with and offset by sadness and tragic elements; such is this work telling us the mixed feelings people have about China’s social transformation; in other words; it is meant to be a realist work and social commentary;
  • China’s economic reform is a seismological change in which planned socialist economy is let to compete with a free market economy; private sectors often outdo and outperform the state-owned sectors; when the government decentralizes the economy and when industries become privatized and deregulated, people are left on their own devices to make a living and fend themselves; the earlier socialist values and ideals (of doing everything for the collective good) are quickly vanishing as people realize that they must use any means necessary to survive;
  • The life of everyone is greatly affected by this earth-shattering event in which the planned economy is dwindling while the private sector is growing robust; corrupt officials began trading in their power and authority in exchange for capital and quickly became entrepreneurs and the nouveaux riches (the newly rich) while millions of workers previously on the state payroll become unemployed or under-employed (like Zhao and his fellow workers), trying to make ends meet with their reduced salaries or early retirement pension or severance pay; many feel abandoned in a socialist country that is supposed to protect and provide for everyone;
  • China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said “to be rich is glorious” (发家致富光荣); money is the true lubricant of this social transformation; officials are trying to have more privileges and becoming more corrupt; the nature of these changes manifest itself most directly in many cell phone text messages: “When Chairman Mao waved his hand, I became a sent-down youth; when Deng Xiaoping waved his hand, I became a self-employed entrepreneur; when Jiang Zeming waved his hand, I became an unemployed worker” (毛主席挥手我下乡;邓小平挥手我下海;江泽民挥手我下岗); in the days of socialism, buddy is someone with whom you have shouldered a riffle together and gone south on the Yangtze River together; now buddy is someone with whom you have split the spoils together and been to brothels together” (以前铁哥们儿是“一起扛过枪,一起渡过江”现在是“一起分过赃,一起嫖过娼”)
  • No wonder “happy times” mean different things to different people; the story of Wu Ying and Zhao exposes this process of redefinition; for the blind girl happy times mean a community of caring people like a family; but that is not how the term is used in post-Deng China where happy times signify hedonistic self-enjoyments and pleasure that we see people readily pay money to get into “Happy Times Hut” to have;
  • What is most touching is the extraordinary length Zhao and his fellow workers go to protect the innocence of the blind girl; they don’t want her to know (as the director does not want her to see by making her blind) the brutal reality of capitalism; at the intellectual and philosophical level, this is tantamount to saying that the truth of capitalist practice is so terrible that people such as Wu Ying need to be protected and kept good even by the lies (and ideals) of socialism; it seems that Zhang as an idealist prefers (as does Wu Ying) false and debunked values of a socialist utopia to the naked truths of capitalist competition that validates free will and acknowledges greed; in other words, the film is a process in which the director tries to articulate his ambivalence about the changes in Chinese values and attitudes; and in this case his aesthetics is his politics; the way he casts his story is as follows: the fat woman (and her self-serving and selfish fat son) seem to do better than Zhao even though the latter is morally far superior to the former; the change taking places favors people like the fat woman and Zhao dies at the end, symbolic of what is happening to the values and ideals he represents: self-sacrifice, altruism, loyalty, and kindness;
  • We see the state factory in which Zhao used to work close down, and yet the group of former socialist workers all have a heart of gold and convert the factory plant (socialism) into a make-believe massage parlor where Wu Ying’s innocence can be protected, like a socialist oasis in the vast sea of capitalism; what is the truth that the workers say would kill Wu Ying? That she being blind (here reads: unconscious of the changes taking place) and thin (weak in comparison to her fat evil step-mother and step-brother) is useless, that her father is a gambler who can never recover the money he has lost in the stock market and who has abandoned her, and that her step-mother wants to get rid of her; Zhang does not know any language to describe such human behaviors other than the discourse of socialism that heavily censures individual desires and self-interests, characterizing them as moral evil, just as Zhang’s characterization of the fat woman and her son;
  • The film thus gives the viewer a choice (perhaps a false one) as it aestheticizes the social change as a situation in which progress or social change is made possible at the expense of our humanity (rather than because of it); the more we change, the less we are capable of true happiness based on mutual caring of one another; depicted in this film China is at a crossroad: in one direction, even close relatives become estranged and treat one another as means to an end while in the other direction even strangers can become father and daughter and adopt one another as family; as the film ends Wu Ying’s recorded voice overlaps with Fu’s voice reading out Zhao’s fatherly letter to the blind girl, showing an idealized humanity of universal love and mutual aid; but it is also an obituary of Zhao whose death makes the Chinese audiences nostalgic of the good old days when they worked and lived consciously and collectively for those values and ideals, the happy times that they are unable to bring back with fake money.
World, directed by Zhangke Jia 2004; 《世界》贾章柯导演

    • Clearly a sixth generation Chinese film director, Jia is much less interested in the lofty issues of national history and politics than the varied fates of different individuals; it is not that he is uninterested in “history” or “society” per se; he is, but only insofar as processes through which our fragmented and differing personal experiences come to be viewed and signified as such; his approach to film (aesthetic) is very modern or, more correctly, post-modern in that there is not an “it” that film must depict or represent; there are only multiple and ever-changing conditions under which we perceive life as “it”; such is one of the points he is making in this film, stated in an interview at: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/32/jia_zhangke.html
    • The original title is allegedly “the beautiful inner world” (《美丽心世界》); all the characters are allegedly from the town where he grew up, Fenyang in Shanxi Province (汾阳,山西); they come to Beijing, the capital, to find happiness in what they perceive to be the world reified in a theme park full of replica of the landscape and signature architectures in many cosmopolitan centers (such as the Big Ben and London Bridge, Manhattan World Trade Center towers, the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramid, Pisa Tower, etc.); their experiences working in this theme park reveal several things about contemporary Chinese culture: the relation between the global community and local reality, the degrees of alienation and displacement in big and crowded urban centers, and the anatomy of the cosmopolitan life itself; in other words, the theme park shows the cosmopolitan or global culture as exotic and magnificent as it’s alienating and inauthentic; Jia puts human faces to an abstract reality we call “global culture;”
    • Beneath the glittering lights and opulent structures is a local community of people uprooted and displaced by globalization which is, perhaps more than anything else, a condition of re-imagining one self; to be a part of “the world,” people such as Anna, Xiao Tao, Taisheng, “second girl,” Xiao Niu, Xiao Wei, Liao Xiao Qin, have to leave their hometown, live like fugitives and captives in the park, become cheap labors and construction workers, prostitutes, exotic dancers and performers to keep alive a make-believe world of wonderful and dazzling appearances; they suffer and even risk their lives in order to achieve happiness as defined by the seductive cosmopolitan culture that says, “you give us one day, we’ll give you the world;” by focusing on the dark side of “the world” (Chinese cosmopolitan life), the film helps the viewer reflect on the existential meaning of being-in-the-world, in Beijing, New York, London, Paris, Mumbai, or Ulan Bator, which many often associate with and equate to the kind of happiness that they want to achieve or at least see; part of Slumdog Millionaire also addresses the incongruity between the global and local;
    • “The world” is thus a powerful myth (no less than communism was a myth) brilliantly displayed and exoticized on the stage of the theme park that connects the individual to the rest in the world; but on the other side of the curtain are broken lives of the local people to whom no one pays any attention; the feeling of being in the world is invariably mixed with a deep anxiety and feelings of alienation and despair, which register themselves in many details; when Taisheng asks Xiao Tao where she is exactly (in the park), his girl friend answers riding on a monorail car, “I’m going to India,” which misrepresents her actual location; but such a response gives away her true mental state: always going somewhere where she is not; people are always coming from or going to somewhere like Xiao Liao’s husband who went to France years ago as one of the boat people or illegal immigrants;
    • migrancy changes people’s identity and renders it a fiction; airplanes, cell-phones, and travels between worlds, can bring people closer together but only as strangers having inauthentic relations with others; the world inside everyone’s mind is full of everything except a sense of home now that everyone is rooted in the uprooted.
Ermo, 1994, directed by Xiaowen Zhou; 《二嫫》周晓文

  • If the film is any indication of the director’s view of the changes taking place in China now, then it is perhaps fair to say that he sees these changes as fueled by libido (sexual drive or frustration) and greed; the title character is driven by a desire to buy the biggest TV set that “even the county head is unable to afford;” her motivation originates at least initially in her sexual frustration with her husband who remains impotent no matter how many times he takes the Chinese herbal medicine to cure it;
  • To validate her existence as a woman, she needs to do something that would be viewed as meaningful and significant, just as her husband was respected as the village chief during the collectivization in which villages became communes in that bygone era; his impotence is a proper and scathing political commentary on the failed system of socialism; in the post-Mao and post-Deng era of economic reform, nothing dignifies a personal existence more than money, and that’s why buying the biggest TV set in the county becomes a personal quest for Ermo, even though neither she nor her husband the chief really watch it; in other words, the 29-inch TV set is a status symbol and a political statement; when it arrives, Ermo and the chief welcome it into their own bedroom like it were a god, and the chief says to the crowd gathered in his house to watch TV his usual refrain “Don’t call me ‘chief,’ I’ve not been a chief for years,” but this time sounding like a chief that he was many years ago
  • In traditional China, a woman feels proud if she produces a male child for the family into which she is married; that is why Blindman and his wife next door feel inadequate that they only have a daughter (Xiu); “money is nothing without a son,” says Blindman to Ermo who has a son (Tiger); in this game of keeping up with the Joneses, Ermo and the chief also feel inadequate because they don’t have a truck or a colored TV set as their neighbors; but to the chief who is more traditional minded, a house is a status symbol (“a TV set is an egg; a house is a hen/chicken;”); he disagrees with his wife and insists on rebuilding their house so that it is three layers of bricks higher than that of their neighbor
  • Everything seems to be about desires and ego underlining all human endeavors; like money, sex is a way to equalize the existing disparity; between Ermo and her husband, the usual gender roles are reversed; they all feel the other unlike the usual man or woman; after poisoning her neighbor’s pig, Ermo also sleeps with Blindman to get even with his wife about whom she feels jealous and resentful for owning a colored TV set she does not have; Blindman feels less inadequate after his affair with Ermo whom he views as better than his wife who is unable to produce a son for him; for Ermo who often counts her money at night, with the money box put in between her thighs, the substitution (surrogate) is even better than the real thing: she has proven an abler bread-earner than her husband and is trying even to outdo Blindman by throwing money at him; at home it is the chief that sounds like a woman, “higher; lower; there; that’s the spot” with Ermo on top of him trying to massage his aching back;
  • As the very end of the film, we hear Ermo’s voice again selling her twisted noodles, almost like a mating call, although she is often tired and exhausted, not from having too much sex but from making the noodles at night with her bare-feet (very erotic); so long as there is still a void in her, she’ll continue even after the purchase of the biggest TV set, which can in no way really satisfy her spiritual and sexual desires; the global capitalism to which she is plugged in through her TV could only open her eyes to more and better things that she can acquire (by selling more of her blood and labor), but international weather forecast and Western soap ops cannot satisfy her hunger and fill her spiritually on the most primitive and instinctual level.
Aftershock, a film directed by Feng Xiaogang, 2010

  • Ever since the beginning of the 1980s when China put itself on the path of economic reform, a political thaw ensued and people were able to reflect critically on their past in ways consistently inconsistent with the official version of history and the orthodoxies of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism. Literature and film has been a vehicle instrumental for rethinking the past, offering various interpretations and elaborations of the past that had not been possible before. These works of art lend expression to the needs of the collective unconscious and therefore serve as therapies for readers and viewers who, during the socialist era (1950-1980), had been unable to voice their grievances or even conscious of their psychological scars. The silence is broken and the pain suffered in the past in finally addressed in many historic films produced in the past30 years (1980-2010), such as Xie Jin’s Hibiscus Town (1986), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (1992), Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1993), Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1994), Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000), Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams (2004), Gu Changwei’s Peacock (2005), and Lu Chuan’s recent City of Life and Death (2009). In these film works, the communist/socialist past is reconstructed, elaborated, and reinterpreted in ways that, for the lack of a better word, humanize the national experience that only till lately had been made sense through a set of one-sided conscious attitudes and values. If history with a capital “H” records the seismological magnitudes of the changes brought about by well defined sociopolitical movements, then the historical films tells us the many tremors and aftershocks that the individual has experienced, which is why I find Feng Xiaogang’s recent film Aftershock very interesting and meaningful.
  • Derived from the novella (余震) by Zhang Ling (张翎), Aftershock emerges from the larger social and cultural context of China’s move toward world capitalism and market economy, symbiotic with a growing and expanding liberal humanism. Like the other historical films, it offers an individualistic perspective as represented by the central heroes whose personal sorrow—although caused directly by Tangshan earthquake—are not all that different from the pain that people have suffered in silence during collective struggle, mass movement, or revolution.
  • However, the point that history is constantly made anew in films to shape cultural values and conscious attitudes seems lost to many working in Chinese media, controlled and censored by the government, who often fail to understand Feng Xiaogang’s film as anything other than an imitation or representation of how people suffered because of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. One TV talk-show host even had the director join her and meet the survivors of the quake as judges for how authentic the film depiction of the quake was, which not only embarrassed Feng but also forced him to say that his story was not about the quake per se. During an interview with TV personality Yang Lan, Feng said that the film told a human story (“是一个普通老百姓的故事”)and that the characters all spoke truthfully and honestly (“都说的是人话”). According to the famous director who has never received a formal education from the Film Academy like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, his film was the result of a mere coincidence when someone was asking him to make a film about Tangshan at the time he happened to be reading Zhang Lin’s novella entitled Aftershock. But a comparison of his work Tangshan Da Dizhen (唐山大地震) and the novella by Zhang still leaves much to be answered and explained on the part of the director as to how the story by a Canadian hearing therapist living in Toronto for those suffering from the long-term psychological trauma and wound of personal abandonment and betrayal became the subtext of a blockbuster film showing the triumph of common decency, love and compassion over natural calamity. In other words, the two artists, the novelist and director, have different circumstances in mind as contributing factors to a personal tragedy.
  • In psychoanalysis, healing begins only when the patient is brought back to and made conscious of the moment in which trauma occurred in the past, conscious of the complex in which s/he is pathologically stuck. This is precisely why Zhang Ling the novelist entitles her book “Aftershock”, to introduce a drama that takes the reader back to many hurtful moments that produce psychological paralysis. In both the novella and film, with roughly the same set of characters, the 1976 quake only serves as a crisis that impacts on the individual with devastating consequences. In the novella, the stress is placed over how difficult or even impossible it is for the individual to recover from her trauma long after the disaster that caused it is over, hence the title of the novella. To the author, these psychological wounds seldom get addressed or healed even after the survivor appears to be already normal and functional. In her own words, “My Aftershock is mainly about psychological pain and injury that linger after the natural disaster is over.” (“《余震》是关于疼痛的。一种天灾带来的,却没有随天灾逝去的心灵疼痛。”) Although at the end of the story there is subtle indication that the heroine, Fang Deng, may have overcome her suicidal thoughts and self-loathe, it is truly about the trauma she experienced by her mother’s abandonment and her foster-father’s and boyfriend’s betrayals, growing up with the knowledge that her mother favored her twin brother, Fang Da, to be saved even it meant her death, and with the memory of her foster-father trying to sexually molest her when she is only 13. The novella unfolds in two geographical locations: Toronto Canada and Tangshan China, cross cutting back and forth over 30 years during which time the heroine is always in the grip of fear, unable to embrace or trust anybody. “To her, houses are not the only thing that came tumbling down suddenly on that day; there is also her faith in the world.” (对她来说,在那一天里轰然倒塌的不仅仅是房屋,还有她对整个世界的信任。) In the novella, which alludes to Sigmund Freud by name, the way to heal one’s self, to whatever limited extent, is by self knowledge and psychotherapy. In the film, however, such massive psychological damage done to a 7-year old becomes a rallying point for national solidarity. The film poster has the 7-year old stand in the mud, with only underwear on, for the whole world to see and to own as the pathos or a piece of common humanity on which Feng Xiaogang hopes a new civic society would be built.
  • There is nothing small or trivial about the 7-year old in whom Feng Xiaogang has much to invest if everybody in China is to see a small piece of their own grief and sorrow reflected in and purged through her. The negative Narcissism that she experiences and must overcome serves as a therapy for anyone and therefore for the whole nation plagued by some sense of loss or grief both on the personal and national levels that has not been given adequate attention or recognition that it deserves. In this sense, the quake is truly unimportant and immaterial; the magnitude of destruction in 23 seconds in which over 240,000 lives were lost, cinematically reproduced and reconstructed 15 minutes into the story as a great spectacle that we find in all Hollywood disaster films, is nothing compared to the pain and inner void that the survivors experience while trying to live a normal life as if nothing has happened. Feng Xiaogang devotes the next two hours painstakingly reconstructing and piecing together the private lives of the quake survivors who, like Fang Deng, are scarred for three decades. Hidden beneath the appearances of normalcy are personal and painful memories that must be suppressed if one really wants to survive; which is a point the director tries to make in his film as an attempt to resist national amnesia. He is indebted to the author of the novella who, as a third-person omniscient narrator, states “the way people fall tends to be uniform whereas there is a multiplicity of ways in which people stand up.” (人们倒下去的方式都是大同小异的。可是天灾过去之后每个人站起来的方式却是千姿百态的。) Zhang Ling’s story tells muffled pains suffered on the unconscious level that the individual must manage if she wants to stand up and survive, if at all. In other words, cultural normalcy and social success entail and require certain amount of forgetfulness as a necessary condition. To survive and recover, one sometimes needs to be callous, indifferent, or oblivious to what has hurt her most deeply. Zhang’s insight into human psychological trauma is central to Feng Xiaogang’s film aesthetics for Aftershock, which, among other things, dramatizes our propensities to both forget and remember. It is no surprise that the heroine, Fang Deng, personifies what Freud refers to as the return of the repressed. She is always hurt by what she cannot forget, and yet such remembrance is always without a critical awareness of how it paralyzes her. Where Zhang and Feng differ is the former addresses this issue on the level of psychology that makes people well by having them become conscious of their hurt, whereas the latter treats the issue as a matter of national character (national amnesia keeping China from becoming a true civic society that values human lives, respects human dignity, and upholds a common decency).
  • In both the novella and film, trauma results when Deng hears her mother say to save Da, her brother, to the rescue team that can save only one of the twin siblings. Psychologically and figuratively speaking, this is the aftershock. The decision by her mother (China?) to sacrifice her to save her brother scars, hurts and paralyzes Deng over an extended period long after the quake is over. In the ensuing 32 years, Deng is a walking wounded and hurt by the decision her mother makes on that fateful day. As soon as she wakes up and walks away from a pile of dead bodies, including her father’s, she knows that she is an orphan overnight, made half by circumstance and half by human will or choice. In this earth shattering moment, a family breaks up, with Deng having to survive and deal with the void left by the death of her father and what she at 7 must have viewed as her mother’s emotional abandonment and/or betrayal. In other words, it is after the devastating quake that the film begins to get interesting when the issue of emotional recovery presents itself as the camera cross-cuts into the endeavors of different members of the Fang family to fill the holes left by the quake, trying to find closure to the chapter of Tangshan earthquake. The viewer witnesses and listens to the gratitude and grievances that must be heard if people can have a sense of closure and survive the hurt. In a variety of ways people bounce back and heal; new families and new relations emerge, some even proven stronger than family ties, all because of a collective memory serving as a common thread connecting unrelated individuals together, even nationally and trans-nationally.
  • What is fabulous about the film is the fabrication of a civic society that responds to human suffering quickly or spontaneously, in which people are interconnected by both private and collective memories of the past and willing and ready to lend support to one another in selfless ways. (Feng also directed A World without Thieves in 2005.) To be sure, it is a tough world, visited by natural disasters such as earthquake and demanding people to make hard choices. But it is thanks to the existence of this civic society that the victims of the Tangshan earthquake are able to ultimately find a sense of closure and bounce back. In this civic society is the mosaic of national solidarity and identity because of which people are able to come together in 2008 when, 32 years later, Wenchuan quake hits. Help, sympathy, love, and support steadily flow into the epicenter as if demanded by a collective memory of the victims of Tangshan quake, and as if common decency, respect for and remembrance of human loss and grievance would require nothing less. To remember, as Feng Xiaogang knows well, is to heal, not necessarily because of the magnitude of human suffering (for China has more episodes in which the loss of lives is much greater), nor because of a respect for the dead, but because of the need of the survivors still living to express their humanity as individuals, as a people and as a society. For example, Deng’s inner pain manifests itself when, 15 years later, she is going back on her decision to abort her child. Eager to have her go through the abortion, her selfish boyfriend points out the fact that they have seen so many young girls at the gynecology ward hoping to end their unwanted pregnancy. “Others can but I cannot; I am from Tangshan; you don’t know me at all;” says Fang Deng, rejecting his callous disregard for life as if it is her civic duty to do so, as if this is her way of preserving her memory of the quake and/or honoring the dead.
  • Such is the tone of the film made to elevate the level of humanity by paying attention to the silent pains and neurosis of the individual, by not forgetting those that died as well as the pain of the survivors struggling to stand up from the devastation of a disaster. The whole point of reopening the wound of Tangshan is finding a sense of closure for people to whom the traumatic experience in the past has never gotten the attention or fair settlement that they think it deserves. But to do so requires, as Zhang Ling believes, that we do not hasten to close the book and forget the pain. In the Epilogue of her book, she recalls how she by chance picked up a copy of First-Hand Accounts of Tangshan Earthquake at Beijing International Airport someday in July of 2006. The book enabled her to imagine what happened exactly 30 years ago and, as she read it, brought up scenes of death and devastation as if she had been there. She was wondering what happened to many kids that survived but read only such perfunctory concluding remarks as “ . . . became the mainstay of the company,” “ . . . entered into college by passing the entrance exam with flying colors,” or “ . . . had a happy family.” Disinclined to accept these accounts as true and authentic, Zhang Ling found herself wanting to write the hardship and feeling of hurt of the survivors that has been filtered out by the passage of time, or blocked by well wishes. (我固执地认为一定还有一些东西,一些关于地震之后的‘后来’,在岁月和人们善良的愿望中被过滤了。) In other words her book, and subsequently its film adaptation, is a tear-jerker and a “feel-good” work at the same time, meant to purge the feelings of pain and hurt, suppressed in the unconscious, that often goes unheeded in reality, which is the same as the process of healing and psychotherapy.
  • It is then no wonder that characters in Feng’s film offer apologies and forgiveness constantly to make peace and amend broken relations. Never has the viewer heard people say “I am sorry” (对不起) to one another so readily and freely as in this story, almost reminiscent of a culture in which spiritual existence is mediated or regulated by such rituals and ceremonies as confession, absolution, and redemption, or of a polite society where people conduct themselves according to such civic values as mutual respect and human rights. When Yuanni, the mother, finds Deng’s body next to that of her dead husband, she lifts it and holds it tight, choked by tears saying, “I am sorry, Deng;” (妈对不起你;) almost as if asking for forgiveness for the decision she has made. While Tangshan is still a huge pile of rubble, Yuanni’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law come to pay her a visit. With their true intention made very clear to take Da away, Yuanni apologizes profusely to her in-laws for having survived her husband and daughter, and keeps saying “I am sorry; I’m sorry, Fang Daqiang (husband); I’m sorry, Da.” (son with one arm amputated; “妈,我对不起你;我对不起方登;我对不起大强;我对不起方达。”)When confronted with an angry father frustrated with no news about his daughters, Yang Zhi, Fang Deng’s boyfriend who gets her pregnant before she goes missing, apologizes to her foster-father for being derelict of his duties as a boyfriend, “I’m sorry; I’ll go find her at once.” (对不起;我马上去找她。) After years of living as a single mother with her daughter born out of wedlock, Deng finally returns to see her foster father and offers this apology, “I’m sorry for not coming back to see you sooner.” (爸,对不起,这么多年都没回家看看。) During the 2008 Wehchuan quake, a mother shouts “I’m sorry!” at the top of her lung to her daughter because she, unwilling to let the rescue workers risk their lives on account of her daughter pinned down under a dilapidated building that can come dumpling down any time, gives permission to amputate her leg. (妈对不起你!) In the end, when Deng finally faces Yuanni her mother who has been a widow all these years, she asks her why; “If I had been trying to live it up, I’d feel even worse and sorrier to you;” (我要是过得花红柳绿的就更对不起你了). Able to understand now her mother’s words “save brother” that has hurt her for decades, she finally breaks down and apologizes to Yuanni for not being daughterly all these years, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry. As soon as I saw Da alive in Wehnchuan, I started hating myself. He is my brother and alive! How onderful! Mom, I’m sorry! I tormented you for 32 years for which I cannot forgive myself. Mom, I’m sorry.” (对不起!对不起!从第一眼看见方达,我就开始恨自己。他是我弟弟,他还活着,多好啊。妈,对不起。对不起!我折磨了32年。我没有理由原谅自己。我对不 起你,妈。) The incident that contributes to this moment of reconciliation and healing, carefully engineered by the director, is Wenchuan earthquake when Deng joins a rescue team from Tangshan and sees a mother make the decision to amputate her daughter’s leg, which enables her to understand her own mother’s decision 30 years ago. This means, among other things, that in a public sphere, public interests override a mother’s love for her children and that if she is put in the same situation, she may have to do the same and carry out her duties as a citizen in a civic society.
  • This is no longer a Confucian culture (although filial piety is very much emphasized) that infantilizes people and emphasizes obedience, nor is it the political culture of Maoism that asks people to live and die for the grand ideal of communism. Emerging from the film is a bourgeois civic society where life is lived and valued at the level of individual happiness and where even family members are civil to one another. Film Aftershock is a blueprint of a civic society in which people interact not because of a grand ideal, a political cause or a revolutionary ideology but by observing the tacit rules of common decency, mutual respect and equality for all. Some believe Feng Xiaogang has trivialized the national catastrophe by making a profit out of the pain of earthquake victims, but I think that his reconstruction of history, fabricated for sure, truly honors the dead as well as the memories of the actual victims and survivors by a psychological realism. We do not see, as we did during the Mao era, idealized revolutionary heroes like Lei Feng who would die for the cause of “liberating all the Chinese people.” The characters are all motivated and driven by desires very personal in the sense that the viewer can understand and relate to. They all explain their actions not by referring to a public discourse, but by referring to their muffled pain and grievances suffered in silence as experienced. National amnesia can and often exists in terms of a date and/or in the name of a political objective, but not here. The film ends with a long shot of the Tangshan Memorial Wall on which are carved the names of over 240,000 quake victims. The shot brings to the center of national attention not only the numbers of those who fell victim but also the individual struggles on the part of the individual to stand up. It (as well as the novella) tells a human story to the millions of viewers who make Feng Xiaogang’s film a success at the box office, by showing them how people ought to interact in a civic society worthy of respect, and by showing them how the past needs to be remembered. If China is to live up to its image as a civic society, then more walls are yet to be built in the future to honor those that fell victims during famines, wars and social upheavals that have till this day remained nameless, their personal stories never told, and their faces forgotten. By staging the recovery of one family from disaster, Feng tries to massage the conscience of a nation troubled by many painful memories in the past. This disaster film tells the viewer that it would reflect badly on the humanity of those that survive if they allow the dead to remain nameless or faceless, with their grievances kept untold by a deliberate collective amnesia. As is made evident by the logic of this story, a common humanity is always achieved performatively by mourning the dead and by saying “I am sorry” to the survivors.
  • Therefore, what is at stake is never trivial or just about one individual. As the film pursues the personal stories of a family that become broken up, separated, estranged and reunited by earthquakes over a time span of 32 years, beginning with Tangshan Earthquake in 1976 and ending with the Wenshan Earthquake in 2008, the viewer becomes conscious of his or her own psychological needs as represented by characters such as Fang Deng to be listened to and to become conscious of the complexes that paralyze us if let go unheeded. There are many painful memories in the Chinese psyche that have not been looked at Tangshan earthquake has been in this film. The moment of hurt at Tangshan was never made fully conscious until now because at the time it was eclipsed by another important event in history that Feng Xiaogang also keeps in his time capsule. Soon after the devastating earthquake in Tangshan, the whole nation was mourning the death of Mao. The director embedded a documentary footage of over a million people in mourning at Tiananmen Square, followed by Fang Deng’s foster father also in mourning locally along with other enlisted men in the People’s Liberation Army. This moment in history, also forever etched in Chinese consciousness, gives the ordinary people a chance to mourn the deaths of their loved ones, as the camera produces a close-up of Fang Deng’s foster father, standing in a sea of army uniforms and lost in thoughts of the quake victims he and his army comrades have helped. In the film, Mao’s death is treated in such a way not totally innocent of a bitter and poignant irony: the loss of over 240,000 lives had commanded less national attention than the death of one man. The national memory of these two important historical events, happening back to back in 1976, is reconstructed here, with greater significance given to the sufferings of ordinary people in ways that the average Chinese can relate.
  • While politics is perhaps the last thing on Feng Xiaogang’s mind, the director does not shun away from what is potentially political. In fact it is the film’s potentials as psychotherapy and political healing that attract the viewer, not its representation of the natural disaster. The therapy aspect of the film comes when the viewer is moved to see grievances being acknowledged and listened to. Everyone is able to relate to fear of abandonment or the feeling of loss in one fashion or another and because of this the film is an open invitation to those still gripped by their collective memories of recent national disasters, natural and/or political, and traumatized or wounded to different degrees. It offers a kind of compensatory adjustment to the harsh and bleak moral reality in which people seldom get the apology they have been waiting for. The heroine in the film is such a person who finds no closure for what she has gone through and lost because of the earthquake, so she becomes the most popular and best understood person, seeking love and caring in a world of political expediency in which a person’s life can just as easily turned upside down as during an earthquake because China was not governed by law but by whimsies of political leaders. As observed by film director Chen Kaige in his autobiography 《陈凯歌青春回忆录》, China is anything but a true civic society ruled by law or common decency, which disheartens everyone in China. “Whenever a social or political disaster is over, there are always too many that would stand up from their original kneeling position and say ‘I accuse’ but far too few that would kneel down and say ‘I repent’. And when disaster (of political oppression) recurs, those that would kneel down and say ‘I repent’ always outnumber those that would stand up and say ‘I accuse.’ (无论什么样的社会的或政治的灾难过后,总是有太多原来跪着的人站起来说:我控诉!太少的人跪下去说:我忏悔。当灾难重来时,总是有太多的人跪下去说:我 忏悔。而太少的人站起来说:我控诉!) Such moral cowardice and lack of common decency and/or personal integrity are responsible for a cynicism that drowns out all hopes and makes people callous and indifferent to human sufferings. However, in the fantasy world of Aftershock, all the ingredients of a good drama—sympathy, compassion, fairness, gratitude, penitence, regret, and integrity—are assembled to warm the heart. His is a film that gives the viewer reason to hope for a “harmonious society” (和谐社会).
  • The film ends with a long shot of the Tangshan Memorial Wall on which are carved names of over 240,000 quake victims. The shot brings to the center of national attention and enshrines not an abstract idea, or a cultural ideal, or a social cause or political ideology in the name of which to honor the dead, but the memories of the actual victims. No memory or history is meaningful unless we know who the people were by name that once lived in it, which is how Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. preserves the memories of the dead American soldiers, and which is also why each year New Yorkers honor over 2,000 victims of 9/11 terrorist attack on World Trade Center by reading out their names one by one. Feng Xiaogang understands well that the way a nation honors its dead directly reflects and shapes the morals of the nation, wherein lies a sense of closure his film is made to achieve for the Chinese viewer. To millions of viewers who make Feng Xiaogang a success at the box office, if China is going to be a civil society worthy of respect, then more walls are yet to be built in the future to honor those that fell victims during one social upheaval or another. It would reflect badly on the humanity of those that survive if they allow the dead to remain nameless or faceless, and their grievances kept untold by a deliberate collective amnesia. As is made evident by the logic of this story, a common humanity is always achieved performatively by mourning the dead and by saying “I am sorry”.
Time to Live A Time to Die, directed by Hou Hsiaohsien (1947 – ) 《童年往事》侯孝贤

  • Born in Guangdong Province in Mainland China, Hou came to Taiwan with his father where he, educated at National Taiwan Academy of the Arts, has become a famous film director; given his background, a couple of things need to be immediately registered: his problematic identity as a Taiwanese with family roots in the Mainland (外省人) and his complex with cultural and social displacement through historical change; the title simply means “childhood remembered” and perhaps should be understood as an attempt to work out his own complexes with his own displacement and personal identity, namely, to be one’s self is to remember one’s childhood, the only reliable way to know who he is; this is not just a cinematographic choice Hou makes alone; his film lends expression to the collective needs of all Taiwanese to preserve their own identity, independent of the Japanese influence (over 50 years), of the political rule by the Nationalist Party, and of the history of China written by people on the mainland;
  • Thus it is no surprise that the film is autobiographical and stubbornly self-referential, so much so that the viewers, especially those who are not Taiwanese or Chinese, have difficulty relating to film that is fixated on what appears to be self-obsession; but where Hou alienates the audience with seeming insignificant details of his childhood, he compensates it by (re)producing the true identity and experience of someone growing up in Taiwan; Hou withholds and keeps references to tension and conflicts between mainland China and Taiwan, political and economic reforms in Taiwan to the minimum, screening out any knowledge beyond the grasp of a teenage boy; the narration privileges small fragments of childhood memory such as playing marble balls, picking up metal scraps, whipping the toss, physiological changes in puberty, sexual awakening, skirmishes with gang members, playing truant, cheating in class, etc. which authenticate one’s true and unique existence; Hou’s film aesthetics does not make it easy for the viewer to grasp the meaning of what he sees because the Ah Ha the boy does not understand his life at the time; Hou refuses to sacrifice even the smallest details if they contribute to the general atmosphere with which his childhood is associated;
  • In a larger sense, the national identity of the Taiwanese also rests on this honest, candid, uncompromising and unapologetic treatment of one’s past; in other words, if a collective national identity is to real and meaningful to everyone, it has to be true at the experiential level as each individual experienced and understood it; similar to Chinese experience in Hong Kong as a British colony, Taiwan has also been a colony of Dutch, given to the Japanese by Qing government in 1895, and controlled by the nationalist party retreating to the island; its national consciousness is fragmented, changing, and incomplete at best;
  • Similar aesthetics is also adopted by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) a French modernist who wrote In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), a seven volume novel about his past, filled with details significant only to the author; according to Proust, there is a reality hidden in the way we remember the past no matter how differently we think of it as time goes on; if there is an essence in Taiwan identity, it must have roots in ways Taiwanese experience and remember life and history in Taiwan; the many films by Hou amount to a set of encyclopedia about different aspects of Taiwanese society because his truthfulness to the way life is lived.
Wedding Banquet, directed by Ang Lee, 1993; 《喜宴》李安导演

  • To over-simplify, the film is about cultural or national identity and the challenges that the Chinese face to their self-identity; what is Chinese is represented by Gao Wei-tong’s parents in Taiwan who want, among other things, their son to be married and procreate so that the patrilineal tradition goes on; the challenge from the Other’s culture to this way of life (and set of values) comes in the form of Wei-tong’s sexual orientation which, although well tolerated for centuries in China at the margins of the traditional heterosexual family and marriage, has never been recognized socially and politically as is in modern day NYC where Wei-tong and his partner Simon live; thus Wei-tong the son signifies a threat to the identity of his father (China) who has an issue with homosexuality that defines a person as Chinese as much as the issue of filial piety in the beginning of Eat Drink Man Woman; (When in Columbia University as a quest and asked about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that in his country there were no gays, which only reveals the conditions and problems of cultural identity for gay people in Iran);
  • Mr. and Mrs. Gao’s willingness to accept Wei-tong and, to some extent, Simon only goes so far as he is their son on whom their very identity as Chinese rests; Mr. Gao cheats Death several times when he has strokes but refuses to die before he is able to hold his grandson; to continue his family line (here reads: the survival of Chinese civilization), he has to negotiate with the values of a new generation as represented by Wei-tong (Wei-wei and Simon), an American citizen and gay, who puts the individual before the collective, and personal happiness before family duties; to Confucius and Mencius, the biggest un-filial offense towards one’s parents is the sin of not producing an heir (“不孝有三、无后为大”); the director tries to make this moral conflict as delicate and nuanced as possible between American liberal values and Chinese conservatism; confronted with the issue of homosexuality, the father appears to be resourceful and tactful, even learning from his own experience of growing up; he joined the army not because he hated the Japanese invaders or the communists but because he wanted to run away from a marriage arranged by his father, which enables him to appreciate and understand to some extent his son’s current moral transgression against him
  • Behind the elements of comedy and intrigue, there is a contest of differing values and attitudes; true to his reputation as a former military officer commanding thousands of soldiers, Mr. Gao comes out of this contest unscathed and does not go home empty-handed (although with his hands raised high at the end as if to surrender at JFK airport); Ang Lee in fact shows the triumph of the collective over the individual; we see a “strayed” gay person turned “straight” by the power and pressure of social conformity that brings about this wedding banquet in the first place; events unfold but not quite as the conspirators have staged them to defraud marriage as a joke; the elaborated wedding banquet becomes an exercise of Chinese cultural beliefs and, in a sense, authenticates the union of Wei-tong and Wei-wei in ways more meaningful than the marriage vowel they take haphazardly at Manhattan civic bureau; Mr. Gao wins the battle of wits by letting the odds against him run their own courses or, in Wei-tong’s words, “get out of hand”; the wedding becomes a marriage of contesting values where people have to compromise their interests and keep their differences as secrets like the ones between Mr. Gao and Simon, and between Mother and son; “I come; I see; I learn” says Mr. Gao, a Chinese Julius Caesar in disguise; and learn he does as will China faced with many challenges to come in the future.
Eat Drink Man Woman, directed by Ang Lee, 1994; 《饮食男女》李安

  • The original phrase from which the title goes like this: “desires for food and sex are human nature” (食色性也) credited to both Confucius and Mencius; but rather than affirming the truism which is almost inane, the phrase in the context of the film brings out the cultural particulars of a given society in a given historical moment, which is to say that while human nature remains the same throughout history, the specific ways it becomes manifest change and warrant our attention; the story records interesting cultural and social changes in the ways Chinese desire food and sex in Taiwan at the end of the twentieth century;
  • Food for Mr. Zhu, a widower with three grownup daughters, is a way to communicate feelings and show fatherly love, which is only natural since he is a master chef in a restaurant; but his Sunday dinner at which the filial daughters are obliged to attend and respect is becoming torturous since they feel having less to say and more preoccupied with a future in which they will be married and start their families; as a traditional father Zhu remains celibate for ten years and devoted to bringing up his daughters, which makes it hard for them to talk about their own love life; Jia Zhen, the eldest, is a high school teacher, a pious Christian and a prude whose sexual desire is efficiently repressed by her own conscious attitudes to serve the two important men in her life, Christ and Father; Jia Qian, the second daughter seems least traditional; a successful professional woman in a Taiwan airline, she is buying an apartment and shacking up with her boyfriend, but secretly resentful of father who chased her out of his kitchen in spite of her amazing gift in Chinese culinary art and a strong desire to be a traditional homemaker; Jia Ning, the third and youngest daughter working in a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, is the first one to announce her decision to move in with her boyfriend whom she stole from her fellow worker; pregnant and unmarried, she represents those Chinese whose values and attitudes couldn’t be more different from those of father Zhu for whom food and love take a long time to make;
  • Taiwan is a society where tradition and modernity coexist to define the cultural identity of everyone living on that island; perhaps no one embodies that cultural hybridity, fluidity or continuity better than father Zhu who surprises everyone in his family in the end by doing something quite unconventional; instead of marrying the widow (Mrs. Liang) next door about his age, he secretly seduced her daughter (Jin Rong), a divorcee half his age, by cooking for her daughter; by the time they openly announce their engagement in one of the Sunday dinners, much to the dismay of Mrs. Liang, Jin Rong is already pregnant, showing just how potent father Zhu (Taiwan) is all this time, perfectly capable of cultural and social adaptations people have to do to live in a changing and dynamic society; because of his new lease on life, he has his sense of taste back, able to enjoy the food Jia Qian makes at their old house which he sold and she bought; the unexpected happens at the end when the super woman turns down a promotion to be the branch director in Amsterdam and returns to the family house whereas the father drops the bombshell like a teenager announcing at the last minute he is moving out with the daughter of his neighbor to start a new life together;
  • Among other things, the twists and turns in the film help change the modality of talking about China, which has been to cast changes as fundamentally opposed to the core values of a Confucian society and/or introduce China as a tradition always threatened by and not capable of real change; in this comic story we see Chinese able to adapt to changes without too much problem;
  • In “Breaking the Soy Sauce Jar: Disapora and Displacement in the Films of Ang Lee,” by Wei Ming Dariotis and Eileen Fung (in Transnational Chinese Cinema: Identity, Nationhood, Gender edited by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu; University of Hawaii Press, 1997), the authors discuss the views of such Chinese thinkers as Lu Xun and Po Yang; “Po Yang envisions Chinese cultural traditions as a massive ‘soy sauce jar.’ In Po Yang’s characterization, soy sauce is a body of stinky, stagnant, dead water.” They argue, however, that “This obsession with Chinese tradition as a static symbol of hegemony has been eroded by the increasing ability of people to cross national borders with relative frequency.  . . . but Lee’s understanding of the ‘soy sauce jar’ of Chinese culture largely avoids such reductive commodification. In many ways, Lee, like Po, recognizes the undeniable significance of cultural traditions in everyday political organization, social expectation, and family interactions; yet Lee’s films indicate a much more ambivalent and nuanced interpretation of the significance of Chinese traditions for contemporary population. Unlike Po Yang’s total disillusionment, Lee’s films re-envision tradition in a much more sympathetic light as something that is highly versatile and adaptive. The ‘soy sauce jar’, which both represents and contains Chinese and Taiwanese national and transnational identities, is figuratively speaking ‘broken’ to reveal a new sensibility, but the fluid ‘soy sauce’ within the ‘jar’ is not discarded. Recognizing the unfinished nature of intercultural processes endows individuals with a sense of agency and consequence: the past we reconstruct will shape the future in which we must live.” About the ending of this particular film, the authors see Jia Qian and Mr. Zhu change places; “When she helps him rediscover his sense of taste through her cooking, she is demonstrating the fluidity of the ‘soy sauce’ of Chinese culture. But it is her father’s decision to marry the younf divorcee, rather than the woman’s older mother, that breaks the confining ‘jar’ of traditions. And it is her father’s marriage that leaves Jia Qian able to make a choice that is not based on binary oppositional structures.”
  • Since the title of the film is really “food and sex”, let’s see how the film handles the topic, which is central to a person’s identity and which is how the film begins, with everyone holding off sex because of some moral values as conceived in traditional Chinese culture; Chu thinks that as a Chinese and father, it is important that he cares for his children first, even kicking Jia-chien, the second daughter, out of the kitchen so that she has to attend college and become a successful professional woman in the business world, just like Jia-zhen (a high school chemistry teacher) and Jia-ning (a worker in a fast food restaurant and a student); likewise, the daughters are exercised by the same values Chu represents, dutifully avoiding the unavoidable: dating and marriage which are acceptable forms of self-gratification; Jia-zhen has not dated anyone for 9 years since her alleged abandonment by Kai Li in college. Consciously they try to be as filial daughters as they are expected to be, at the expense of their personal growth or individuation; they cook and eat elaborated meals as well as fast food as a way to communicate their feelings and differences.
  • By the end of the film we see what Sigmund Freud would call the “return of the repressed” when no one (except Jia-chien) can avoid sex anymore; sex as expressed through and sanctified by marriage brings positive changes to everyone; it brings back sense of taste to Chu, and it brings about two marriages for Jia-zhen and Jia-ning. sex gives Chu a chance to reinvent his identity from that of an austere father and professional chef to that of a normal human being just like his daughters. that is why he is able to reconcile with Jia-chien and shares the same kitchen with her in the end; instead of a care-giver, he allows himself to be taken care of by those around him. he is different from before in a positive way.
  • this is a positive and affirmative and entertaining way of writing about change and identity; the topic of food and sex is elaborated on by mainland filmmakers slightly differently; it seems new ways of life (change), as represented in mainland Chinese cinema, often bring out the worst in people. Think of Shower, Not One Less, Pretty Big Feet, Ermo, Happy Times, Getting Home, A World without Thieves, or Together, changes are often feared for because they bring to the fore the dark side of human nature; “society” and “people” become monsters and/or self-destructive when change takes place and erodes the moral foundations of old China. Imagine Yang Zhang (director of Shower and Getting Home) were to direct eat drink man woman, what a different story he would tell!
Vive L’amour, directed by Mingliang Cai (Taiwan), 1994; 《爱情万岁》蔡明亮导演

  • Among other things, the film is an exercise of minimalism that reduces a story to its bare essentials; other than the three “generic” and non-descriptive characters that do not talk to one another much and a weak plot that brings about a series of non-events, there is no music, no meaningful conversation, no climax, beginning or end in the conventional sense of the words; what warrants the aesthetics of minimalism has been, in the West at least, a contempt for and rebellion against the bourgeois society and values on the part of the artist (writers, intellectuals, musicians, sculptors, architects, etc.); minimalism grew out of a larger cultural movement known as modernism that fashioned the conventions of cubism, abstract painting, impressionism, Dadaism, expressionism, primitivism, atonal music, etc.; the common threads connecting these artistic and intellectual movements are strong reactions and responses to industrial civilization and nationalism;
  • This is to say there is a correlation between the aesthetics of minimalism as an art form and the view of capitalism as a pernicious and dehumanizing force; like Hong Kong and Tokyo, Taipei is also one of the cosmopolitan and financial centers in East Asia, but as depicted in this film it is a city devoid of real culture where people have no way of relating to one another other than buying and selling, where express ways look like suicidal lanes for pedestrians, and where people are connected to one another no more than the dead whose ashes are kept in separate spaces in a columbarium; the culture of consumerism in which all three youths struggle to make a living by selling spaces reduces them to a shell of human being of lost souls in a crowded city of alienation; and it effectively extinguishes any spark of love or genuine human affection, hence the title of the film as an irony;
  • Just like the rural beauty is a figure of speech in Postmen in the Mountain, the empty spaces in this film signify alienation of various degrees; May is a real estate agent that never succeeds in selling any apartment; her clients never pay much attention to what she has to say almost as if she does not exist; Xiao Kang experiences no success either in the sales of columbarium space for the dead; the nature of his job and his gay sexual orientation render him suicidal; it is ironic that when in the columbarium we hear the floor manager talk enthusiastically about spaces for dead couples as a loving place in the afterlife world while no one seems to have experienced in this life any love or meaningful relationship here on earth; stealing the key to an empty apartment open for sale, Xiao Kang begins to live there only to be disturbed, while trying to commit suicide, by Ah Jung who goes in there occasionally for a quickie with May; the strange ways in which people share space and their bodies reveals the absurdity of human relations that make sense only in a blind consumer society;
  • Vive L’amour brings to our attention the absence of love and our humanity from the very things we do everyday; it is a critique of capitalism as understood and seen through the director’s artistic lens; through the twisted lives of the three characters we have a glimpse into the backwaters of the human psyche and experience the sheer agony of those plagued by nothingness like May, Xiao Kang and Ah Jung; we are made painfully conscious of our own difficulties and failures to be connected to those around us in meaningful ways; such is the meaning of this meaningless film which won three Golden Horse Awards for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Sound Effects. It also won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
  • As a social commentary or critique of industrial (and commercial) society, Vive L’amour is just one of several Chinese films that depict the dehumanizing and alienating aspects of modern civilization, such as Ermo, where she is driven by the desire to buy the biggest TV set, a consumer product whose content (mostly foreign) she is unable to relate, risking her own health to make money by selling large quantity of her own blood, or Blind Shaft where the two co-men view fellow coal miners only as a means to an end, killing them in order to claim compensation for their relatives, or Happy Times, where the fat woman tries to get rid of her step-daughter like nothing other than a burden or liability; as such she is avoided by all except a group of retired former socialist factory workers, or Getting Home, where we see varying degrees of man’s uprootedness from his moral tradition and spiritual homelessness; love, where decency and compassion still exist, but only in individuals while society as a whole operates through money and consumerism that make people callous and indifferent to the existence of others, or World, where the theme park, that stands for the logic of global capitalism and consumerism (“Give us one day, we’ll give you the world”), successfully changes everybody’s notion of the world so that their experiences with uprootedness, displacement, and alienation are actually understood almost as a fashion statement; behind the exotic cultures presented in the park is the kind of loneliness not very different from what the three Taiwanese in Vive L’amour have felt;
  • Vive L’amour is thus an extention and perhaps extreme of this social critique (or pathological fantasy) of consumerism, showing how this culture of buying and selling gradually but steadily dehumanizes until we all find ourselves held captives in this commercial culture, not knowing how to relate and love one another except through consumer products; the three young people live like dead ghosts. When Ms. Lin cries for the last 6 minutes, she is also crying for Ermo, and the boy whose father is murdered in the coal mine, and the blind girl with nowhere and no one to turn to, and Lao Zhao shunned by an entire society obsessed with making money and going to places; if the rural landscape (or simply Nature) is almost a character in Postmen in the Mountain, then the empty space (or simply Nothingness) is also a character in Vive L’amour whose presence is felt everywhere.
Postmen in the Mountain, 1999 directed by Jianqi Huo (1958 – ); 《那山那人那狗》霍建起

  • Among other films directed by Huo are Nuan and A Time To Love (《暖》2003,《情人结》2005), which are also very nostalgic stories about the past like Postmen; here the word nostalgia signifies feelings for what people know to be no more; this attitude—sentimental approach—to what is gone and no more warrants attention and cannot be appreciated without us finding out what is that which is no more for the director and film audiences; in Postmen we have the answers to this question;
  • Some say it is about father-son relationship or initiation of the son to a life of public service with very little material reward; it is very touching to see the son come to embrace the values and beliefs his father exemplifies and represents, willing to step into and carry on postal delivery from which his father now retires; this is tantamount to a life cycle completed and beginning again; as the film ends, the son and the family dog recede on the same postal rout into the mountains, we become emotionally connected to a way of life (rural, agricultural, and primitive) that is extinct for us as urban viewers and proud owners of computers, email, and telecommunication who enjoy our private individual spaces in the cities;
  • Thus the film explores and lends expression to our nostalgia for a life that is rapidly fading out in urbanization and perhaps our anxiety about modernity or fear of what is to become of us, once uprooted from our pre-modern existence and traditions; Huo painstakingly displays the rural beauty in large painterly scenes which we want to go into rather than run away from; simple and primitive rural existence in the mountains is presented (and perhaps remembered by Huo) as an iconographical idea of a good life; the people living in backwaters and mountains, including the mother, appear free of greed, and referred to by the father as gods or fairies (the Chinese is xian, 仙 a character literally made up of two ideograms, 人 people, and 山 mountain); the idyllic view of the backward rural life is aesthetically rendered symmetrical to a negative view of the urban life and modernity; Wu Po’s son, once settled in the city and heartless, would never come back even for a visit, leaving the postman no choice but begin writing letters to her as though her son; the postman speaks disparagingly about transistor radios, tape recorders, buses, helicopters and satellite dishes as if these technological inventions are unreliable and alienating; as the only contact of those living in the mountains to the outside world, the father postman never feels lonely in his daily postal runs, always preoccupied with the interests of those he serves, which is the difference between him and his son who initially only sees the details of postal delivery but not the people served by it;
  • What we encounter is essentially a classical case of primitivism serving as Huo’s film aesthetic that glorifies the past as superior to and more wholesome than the present; such a sentimental approach to pre-modern culture makes sense if we understand the anxiety and fear modern Chinese have about change driven by a set of one-sided rational values that require some compensatory adjustments that this story offers; in 1990s when China was becoming more decentralized and market driven, some former state employees, now out of job, were indeed nostalgic about a socialist past and remembering Mao’s socialism as a primitive egalitarianism or paradise lost; that paradise of collectivism is regained when the son is introduced to the villagers his father has served for his entire life as a postman, and welcomed into this community of people who represent China’s alterity and hope; the isolation by the mountains preserves the purity and innocence of this last paradise or pureland on earth and it is never depicted as a hurdle to freedom of movements;
  • Also worth mentioning is the end of the film when it is the son who begins to tell or rather educate his father how to behave once he retires to a small town life, who to talk to when in need and whom in particular not to upset. In other words, wisdom flows both ways: while the father teaches the son the respect for a community of simple people, the son also in turn teaches his father something about the town’s life in the flatland. So modern and tradition subsume one another. In the mountains, the minority girl seems quite smart when she covers a bowl over the radio to produce the effect of a stereo sound;
  • Lastly the dog, which is a part of the title and represents loyalty and turnacity, qualities most endearing to those on a sentimental journey into the past to find and rediscover what is no more, a simple life style in the past that perhaps never was; it is a part of the idealized and exulted country life in which man lives in total harmony with nature.

Jungian Primitivism

  • The term ‘primitivism’ is typically used in two distinct but related senses. First of all, it designates a sentimental approach to archaic and pre-industrial cultures. However, this seemingly sympathetic perspective in fact contains not only a weiled contempt for the simple-minded ‘primitive’ but also a demeaning colonialist or neo-colonialist program of subjugation and exploitation: the primitive is a child who requires parental (i.e., colonialist) supervision. Seen from this perspective, the primitive can only be an anachronism, who embodies what ‘advanced’ Western civilization has left behind. As Marx said of the Homeric epics, primitive cultures represent ‘the childhood of humanity.’ However appealing they may seem, they exist at a ‘lower’ stage of development and represent a species of barbarism that the civilizing mission of the West has a duty to raise to a ‘higher’ plane.
    … …
    But if the primitive frequently represents the secretly despised Other for the modern Westerner, there is second version of primitivism which sees that Other as Us, or rather, in Us. In this idealizing version of primitivism the primitive is seen as holding the key to the modern Westerner’s deepest sense of identity: the primitive becomes a symbol of the unconscious psychic core, the primordial self covered over by layers of civilization. The primitive in us is more authentic, more in contact with the wellsprings of life.
    … …
    The modern primitivist fantasy of identification with the primitive runs deep in the modern psyche, where it plays a compensatory role of major proportions. It compensates for the stresses of the industrial and coorporate workplace, for the destruction of the natural world, for the loss of small-scale community life, and for the loss of leisure and the spirit of playfulness. Whether embodied in the Native American warrior, the Stone Age cave dweller, or the African witch doctor, the consoling fantasy of the primitive plays counterpoint to the problems of modern civilization. This idealizing version of primitivism might appear to be some new version of pastoral–with the modern Westerner happily playing at primitive, just as Marie Antoinette once played at shepherdess. But one should be careful not to dismiss it out of hand as pure fantasy, as ‘myth’not ‘reality’, for fantasies and myths contain significant compensatory images that can enlighten and enrich cultural consciousness.
  • These two versions of primitivism–the sentimental and the idealizing–may coexist in the Western mind without arousing any sense of their contradictoriness.
    Steven F. Walker, Jung and Jungians on Myth, p.136.
Zhou Yu’s Train, directed by Zhou Sun, 2002; 〈周渝的火车〉孙周导演

  • Romantic stories differ greatly but their ingredients are often more or less the same; which usually involves certain amount of denial on the part of those in love when they prefer (not) to see some things in life; in Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert, the heroine prefers art to life, and would rather die (by taking rat poison) than live as a wife to a bourgeois medical doctor trying to provide the best life for her that money can buy; like Emma, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy finds the life of Russian aristocracy, especially its rigid morals, suffocating; she would die (by jumping onto an oncoming train) to escape the consequences of her affair rather than stay alive and humiliated in her husband’s high society; our heroine too is faced with a choice to either accept the terms of ordinary life in post-Mao and post-Deng China as people live it, or to reject them and follow (this is where the train comes in both literally and symbolically) her boyfriend the poet in whose poetry she is a goddess;
  • Her choices are as difficult to make as they are typical of most romantic situations; the veteranarian (Qiang Zhang) and poet (Qing Chen) represent the two extremes of life as a continuum from real dirt to fake beauty; the vet who makes a successful living by neutering pigs is a realist and the poet who works as a librarian clerk is an idealist; although they are both attractive men, their values are almost symmetrically opposed; in a way the two men represent conflicting personalities residing inside each of us (rather than living in two different cities as in this story); the vet’s life is defined by what he does, which is almost devoid of aesthetic interest and moral purpose; Chen’s life is understood as that of a struggling poet seeking self-expression in art;
  • The train rides back and forth signify Zhou Yu’s dilemma and ambivalence between two lovers that represent two sets of interests and values; settling down with the successful vet would also mean accepting her social role as a wife and a whole host of duties and responsibilities that come with it, which would be more than likely to extinguish all her interests in art and possibly her freedom to experiment in life; on the other hand, being with the poet definitely gives her a different identity in life and raises her from the plague of nothingness, but at the same time she would also feel lonely in the ivory tower of poetry and cut off from many connections also meaningful to her earthly existence; this is because, as is typical of all (Bohemian) artists, Qing Chen is a socially inept person with no more social skills than shelving books all day and has little time for poetry; his poetry is necessarily a byproduct of his social failure, or the latter an attending condition of the former, allowing him to imagine beautiful places and things where there are none; as a poet he feeds on his own frustration, bitterness, loneliness and self-pity, which is what he does as a creative person;
  • The nature of beauty (in poetry and art) is that it is a subjective thing, all a matter of the mind or certain state of human consciousness; in other words, it is the enclosed world of art that produces what is beautiful or, put it more bluntly, it is the rejection or resistance of social mores on the part of the artist that distinguishes him and defines his art as above social mediocrity; which explains why Qiang Zhang the vet is not a poet; Zhou Yu seems unable to understand that art occupies a unique and often controversial place in society and that it is a form of creation wherein frustrated or repressed energies become redirected and accepted through sublimation (升华); she shows this failure when she insists on finding the actual location of the fairy lake in one of Qing Chen’s poems, and when she tries to arrange a public poetry reading session for Qing Chen to make him a success and to have his poetry published; in other words, she wants to make Qing Chen a successful poet, which is contradictory in terms; she thus represents the halfway point between the worldly success as mediated through money, fame and fortune that Qiang Zhang stands for, and the other world of art and poetry where she enjoys the aesthetic freedoms to think and imagine; the latter is enchanting and intoxicating precisely because of the transformative powers of art and poetry through which one can rise above his or her mundane social existence;
  • Material success and spiritual freedom are seldom compatible (as is true in Revolutionary Road directed by Sam Mendes, 2008); at one time when Qing Chen and Zhou Yu take a walk, the poet casually asks the pottery painter if she loves his poetry or his person (你爱我的诗呢还是爱我这个人?) to which she replies that she loves him as a poet (我爱你这个诗人), meaning to her it is possible to combine poetry and the poet, which Qing Chen thinks impossible; long gone are the days in which the poet was worshipped as a king and respected as a cultural hero; if anything, Zhou Yu (and her dilemma) reveals the nature of female love, that inexplicable and obscure desire for earthly success as defined by power, and an attraction to the aesthetical ideals as expressed in art and poetry, which are represented by two men living in two different cities; we live in an industrial or post-industrial age in which cultural productions are driven but also compromised by the needs of the masses that often drown out personal visions or convictions (which is exactly how opera singers and performing artists in Farewell My Concubine feel as an empty shell of the heroes they portray on stage);
  • The vet and realist knows where his domain ends and where that of the poet and idealist begins; he once says to Zhou Yu, before she mounts the train to see the poet, that love is amorphous and that it is there if you believe in it and not there when you cease to believe in it; after much hesitation she decides to leave him and go see the poet; she chooses to believe in something that is there only because she believes in it; her choice to reject life in favor of art thus makes her an idealist although it also costs her dear life since she dies on her way to visit Qing Chen when her bus plunges off of a cliff into a river; the poet also often times lives in a state of self-denial; when the young woman, (named Xiu) who is fascinated and intrigued by his love poetry entitled Zhou Yu’a Train and who takes the viewer into this convoluted love relation in the first place, tells the poet exiling himself in Tibet as a volunteer that actually Zhou Yu had an affair with someone else (Qiang Zhang), the poet flatly denies it by saying, “you don’t understand Zhou Yu at all; in her life she loved only one person,” which leaves Xiu in an intellectual quandary with real existential consequences that Zhou Yu has faced all her life: did or does the love between Zhou Yu and Qing Chen ever exist?
Farewell My Concubine, directed by Kaige Chen, 1993 《霸王别姬》陈凯歌导演

  • On the personal level, the film is a way for Chen, born in 1952, to come to terms with his past and especially his father who was a film director also; during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Chen joined the Red Guards and publicly denounced his father; this film may be seen as an attempt at self-absolution through which Chen could purge his sense of guilt, reconcile with his father, and live with himself;
  • But on a much large scale, the film lends expression to the needs of millions who have grown up like Chen has in the sociopolitical upheavals to come to terms with modern Chinese history on the level of the individual; the film covers time span of several decades in the twentieth century and shows modern Chinese are still inextricably connected to their past (represented by the fate of Peking Opera) that is brought to the point of extinction;
  • The story of “Farewell My Concubine” is rooted in ancient Chinese history in which Yu Ji, a royal concubine, was not willing to leave the king of Chu even when he was being defeated and abandoned by his own troop; in history she is viewed as heroic and remembered for her loyalty and courage to be with the king to the end when she cut her throat as if Fate would have her die by her king’s side; the film progresses to show, among other things, that this heroic story (of loyalty) is getting more and more difficult to appreciate or emulate in the modern times even as the two opera stars (Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou) play the concubine and king to the best of their ability on stage; off the stage the friendship between the two stars is going through many crises from which they could escape only by mutual betrayal; thus, the discrepancy between their stage personas and their identities in real life brings to the fore and calls into question the relevance of history to China’s new reality;
  • The film also reveals skepticism and ambivalence to modernity, seen as taking place only at the expense of history and tradition in which one’s true cultural identity is rooted; a cultured person is he who recognizes his roles in society as defined by culture, which is represented by the process through which Douzi learns to see himself firstly as Cheng Dieyi and then as the royal concubine to the point where he cannot separate his stage role as a woman and concubine, and his life in modern China as a man and an opera singer; the pain he takes to convince himself that he is a woman and a loyal concubine gives him an identity that he would not have had otherwise as a social zero, abandoned by his mother who is a prostitute; once he becomes fully inflated in his stage persona he is at one with history and cannot go on as anyone else, which explains his suicide at the end: he would rather die as a loyal concubine to the king of Chu than to live as a plain actor playing as someone else; yet it is precisely his total illusion or identification with his role on stage and in history that puts him into the position from which to judge and indict the modern (Maoist) practices during the Cultural Revolution in which people had no human dignity, and even the king of Chu (Duan Xiaolou) is afraid of death like a coward who betrays those close to him in order to save his own skins;
  • Ju Xian, a prostitute who later married Duan Xiaolou, represents a different attitude, one that is characterized by her profession although Duan Xiaolou also adopts such attitude; she prostitutes herself in order to survive the social turmoil of modern times; both Xiaolou and Juxian do not entertain any thoughts of themselves as anything other than individuals trying to stay alive in various upheavals; Juxian trades in her body for security and Xiaolou sells his opera talent for money; both do what is necessary to stay alive, just like everyone else in the story; in one sense, Juxian somewhat resembles Yu Ji in that she tries to stay by Xiaolou’s side (her king) as long as possible, hanging herself only after he publicly denounces her as an ex-prostitute to appease the red guards, which makes her lose her will to live;
  • The problematic relations and social interactions in the story, all more or less characterized by some degree of betrayal, bring to the fore a crisis in Chinese humanity in which people have become cowardly and estranged from their moral beliefs; although the opera of “Farewell My Concubine” is performed repeatedly on the stage and applauded by the masses, its relevance or meaning is increasingly becoming doubtful and obscure; the core values embedded in the story—personal loyalty and self-sacrifice—ennoble modern man only as what they could no longer afford to practice; the viewer is thus brought to the tragic position of the dying king of ancient Chu who sees his own imminent defeat and death as decreed by Fate from which he cannot escape; modern man too cannot escape his fate as has been revealed in the way Chinese achieved social change; the position of Cheng Dieyi enables Chinese viewers to appreciate their dilemma: to die a heroic death or live disgraced; such is the sense of history many Chinese felt in the 1990s, strongly associated with a sense of guilt (about what they had done individually to one another and collectively to their history and traditions) that can only be brought back to an equilibrium by a symbolic death (literal for Cheng Dieyi); his suicide lends expression to the needs of the collective unconscious to become one with ancient history, something impossible to do from a rational perspective in the 1990s in which the economic reform had only begun to pick up speed, revealing an uncertain future in which those moral qualities as exemplified by the king and his concubine would become extinct to give room for a mass culture;
  • that modern civilization is one without heroes and art is an idea talked about by many people, among them Sigmund Freud (1856-1939, Civilization and Its Discontents) and Carl Jung (1875-1961, The Undiscovered Self), the founders of modern psychoanalysis in the West; as far as Jung is concerned modern industrial civilization is one controled and dictated by rationalism or what he called mass-mindedness, with religion being discarded and discredited as archaic, irrational and irrelvant; Dieyi is a primitive and archaic person in that he refuses to change himself and is stuck with a set of values meant for the elite in traditional China; he lives in a mass society and the only place where he can live and act out his fantasies of being Yu Ji and being somebody is the stage; he is stuck in two century B.C.; yet his neurotic personality also happens to be what enables him to judge the mass-mindedness or mass hysteria during the Mao era and during the Cultural Revolution when all individual voices were drowned out; modern film goers and urbanites sympathize or even identify with him precisely because they could no longer be him, an individual self that refuses to be crushed by the tyranny of cultural conformity; Dieyi’s insanity and death thus relate to all modern Chinese who have successfully transformed themselves into Xiaolou, a fake king or fake hero, who arrives at modern stage only a fragment of himself.
Together, directed by Kaige Chen 2002; 《和你在一起》陈凯歌导演

  • This is a tear-jerking story of a 13-year old child music prodigy, Xiaochun, a gifted violinist with a bright and promising future, who decides to terminate his professional music career in Beijing and return to his rural hometown in southern China to be with his father; he chooses friendship and family over success and fame; the choice is a moral one because it involves self sacrifice and a search for authentic values in a degraded world (Beijing) where everything, even human emotion, is bought and sold as commodity and asset, and where things are appreciated for their exchange values;
  • Xiaochun’s music education is thus an initiation into the phony world of vanity and fame, just like the young orphan Pip, a fictional character in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), who goes into London to become an English gentleman only to find true friendship and love in his childhood friends; Xiaochun gives us reasons to resist and reject Beijing where his humble origin is in the way of his success; in his search for success, he learns and comes to appreciate the differences among his three mentors: his adoptive father (Cheng Liu), a country bumpkin and widower with unconditional love for him, his first teacher (Jiang), a true music virtuoso and humanist out of reality with a mass society and its criteria of success, and his second teacher (Yu Shifeng, played by Chen Kaige himself), an academic guru at Beijing Conservatory whose name is well recognized nationwide in the world of music; Xiaochun’s final decision to end Yu’s tutorage in favor of plain existence in the countryside with his father deeply gratifies the needs of the collective unconscious to resist the temptations of the big metropolis: fame, wealth, career, women, and success;
  • People’s attitudes toward music are also part and partial of their attitudes toward other people; driven by a simple desire for his son’s success, Cheng Liu takes Xiaochun into the city where he believes his son will have a chance to succeed, a desire for something that can only be achieved through mediation; in other words, we have a bourgeois society of mimetic rivalry in which success depends on one’s ability to best imitate those that people think represent what they want; the film illustrates and dramatizes this metaphysical desire by way of a degraded search for authentic values in which the characters often confuse what they want with that which mediates their desires, such is the classical idea of the problematic hero in the novel
  • Teacher Jiang represents one end of this search; he has passion and love for music not because music is a mediation through which he can become famous and rich, but because music itself is something he truly enjoys; professor Yu on the other hand teaches music for people to be successful; music for him (as mediator) is what relic is to a saint; that is why Xiaochun’s father quickly decides to change teachers because Yu can bring his son success and fame that Jiang cannot; Yu stands for success musicians can achieve but not music enjoyment itself; such is the pitfall or trap into which Xiaochun finally escapes from falling when he gives up his imitative desire and his dream of success in favor of a life together with his father in the countryside, at a time when peasants flock into the urban centers in the millions to pursue the dream of success; giving up Yu is give up the mediator or mediation such as money, fortune and fame, which professor Yu also wants, but what he desires is no concrete object either; his own success depends on him being perceived by others as a success, which is why he wants to teach music; music for him is a means to conquer the listener, something a musician must possess to succeed whereas for Jiang music is that by which he is possessed; Jiang sees nothing in music other than music itself and that is why he lost the woman who used music as a way to express her affection for him; that is why he is relatively poor, with no women to accompany him except a few strayed cats that he is kind enough to take in; he has no ambition when it comes to his passion for music, so unlike Yu who tells his students that even as a child he knew he has a secret with music; it’s like your first love;
  • The same mediation also controls Lily, a good looking young woman romantically pursued by many successful businessmen (whose phone numbers are all over her mirror) because male success is often defined and mediated by beautiful women as possessions; Xiaochun likes Lily because she resembles the beautiful women he has seen in many fashion ads that he puts in between his music-score sheets, just like Yu is sought after by many because he looks like icon of success when his students win top prizes and awards in music contexts and conserts; Yu collects music prodigies the way Lily collects posters of show girls all over her apartment walls, trying to imitate them in order to look attractive; and Xiaochun buys a ¥27,000 fur coat to express his affection for her because he is imitating other men who show love through the mediation of money and gifts; towards the end Lily, touched by Xiaochun’s affection for her, is able to appreciate authentic human interactions rather than those mediated by wealth.
  • film ends as it cross-cuts between the scenes in the train station 13 years ago in black and white, in which Cheng Liu picks up Xiaochun as an abandoned infant, and the scenes in the train station in the present, in which Xiaochun joins his father on their way back to their rural hometown, a powerful articulation of the unspoken need for a return or homecoming in order to be “together” with the people important to us, in the case of Xiaochun, his father who is a source of inspiration and meaning for his music;
  • when we go to, say, GAP, we are not really there to buy clothes; most of the time, we are there to buy images or fashion statements that would enable us to be whom we want to be, in other words, by way of clothes we imitate our models (mediators) who in our minds represent social success; the same is happening to millions of Chinese migrating into big cities or even other countries; Cheng Liu knows that his son is a music prodigy; their trip to Beijing is not to prove this as much as to convert that raw talent into some form of social success and recognition; thus the trip is necessary in that one’s proximity to city life (both mentally and geographically) is often what many people in third world view as a measurement of success; more and more Chinese model their life on American and Western life styles that they think exemplify success; that’s why people want to visit that World Park full of imitations; and that’s why Ermo wants a big tv set; success is always mediated through these things that occupy our dreams and become the objects of what Rene Girard calls the metaphysical desire (Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 1961; Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, 1978); by focusing on Cheng Liu and Xiaochun’s quest for social success in Beijing, Kaige Chen in this narrative film critically examines the changes in Chinese attitudes and calls into question our dreams of success as mediated through money, wealth and fame; and if we see this interpretation of change from the point of view of the director, it is easy to understand the logic for the quest for fame and fortune (undertaken by Cheng Liu and Xiaochun) to end where it begins, when the two return to their rural hometown where music is appreciated for its own use values and not for its excahnge values;
Suzhou River, directed by Ye Lou, 2000; 《苏州河》娄烨导演

  • Suzhou River is a small tributary of the mighty Yangtzu River winding through the city of Shanghai before it flows into the Pacific Ocean; the name also signifies a seedy precinct with run-down houses and dilapidated buildings as if a site chosen for this romantic story doomed from the beginning; allegorically, Suzhou River is also where base instincts of criminals and genuine human affections of flow together and sediment into the bottom until the current of life stir them up again;
  • The romance, probably inspired by the plot of Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), ends tragically as many love-stories do; the question then is what is presented in this film as a hindrance to love, the expression of perhaps the highest and noblest of all human emotions; in the story, love is but a catalyst between idealism and realism that color the tones of our outlooks; through its twists and turns, the story reveals the alchemy and anatomy of love as two sets of lovers run towards and away from one another to find real affection and undying love; the narrator “I” begins by speaking out as cynic with no wish to romanticize life in any way; the videographer begins with a disclaimer, “I’ll videotape anything you pay me to record; but if you don’t like what you see, don’t blame me cause my camera does not lie;” the remark thus immediately connects with all who are skeptical about romance and love; having made that disclaimer, his camera goes on to do exactly just that; in other words, the “I” narrator wants the viewer to think that this video-taped story is totally unmediated by any intention to romanticize life as he goes on to tell a love story; “I” registers our distrust and disbelief as he narrates this incredibly romantic story, disarming the rational attitude of the viewer to love and romance;
  • The two story lines unfold concurrently: one involving the faceless narrator “I” and his girlfriend Meimei (美美 beauty) who works a bar dressed as a mermaid wearing a blond wig, and the other involving a motorcyclist courier named Mada (马达 motor) and his girlfriend Mudan (牡丹 peony); what is intriguing about these intertwined romantic interests is their opaqueness, like the muddy water in Suzhou River; at no time is the viewer certain that love has actually occurred as the involved parties stated it has, which entices the audience and which is the key ingredient of romance; when love is felt and known in unambiguous ways the romance between two lovers is over; that is why in both sets of romantic relations there are intrigue, betrayal, falling out and crisis that are necessary elements of love;
  • Unloved and neglected by her parents, the teenager girl Mudan falls in love with Mada to whom her drunkard father often entrusts her for a ride when he dates women; but he betrays her affection for him by kidnapping her for ransom money; the betrayal hurts Mudan so that she runs away and jumps into the river never to be seen again, leaving Mada in deep remorse, smitten by guilt as well as love; after he is released from prison, he looks for Mudan everywhere and becomes obsessed with Meimei, the mermaid who looks exactly like Mudan and who finds his romantic tale irresistible and contagious; by now we as viewers are exactly where the director wants us: in the river, running both away from something as well as towards something just like people in life; in other words, Mada’s story runs on psychic energies driving us all in search of love and redemption;
  • Which is perhaps the only truth the film contains, revealing that in today’s bourgeois society love, if not to be taken for granted as other commodities, has to be kept alive in doubt and intrigue; that’s why when “I” confirms Mada’s story to Meimei as she retells it (after the police find the bodies of both Mada and Mudan in Suzhou River drowned in a motorcycle accident), Meimei first feels disheartened by their deaths, because now that such love does exist and she is not experiencing it with her boyfriend the videographer; like her boyfriend, she does not believe in love stories even after “I” tells her that he would go look for her for the rest of his life just like Mada if Meimei leaves him; yet, finally Meimei decides to leave, so that her lover could start looking for her to prove his love, so that she and hopefully her lover could repeat the love and romance as Mada and Mudan are believed to have experienced and lived it; love is just this powerful or empty (and amorphous), depending on where one stands;
  • The director seems to suggest, among other things, that love is a vision of life that asks of life what is probably not there; it is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we all believe because we want to reinvent ourselves through; the two sets of love story and four lovers provide different points of identity for the viewer, whether s/he is as cynical as “I”, as gullible and impressionable as Mudan, as emotionally starved as Meimei, or as energetic but incapable of love as Mada, the motorcycle courier who passes his incredible love story from one person to another.
To Live, directed by Yimou Zhang, 1997 《活着》张艺谋 To Live Beyond Good and Evil

  • For Fugui going through life during the most turmultuous years in the last century in China, day-to-day life is dicey at best; that is perhaps why Yimou Zhang reintroduces Taoism as a more meaningful framework than rationalism within which to understand the chaos (wars and revolutions) of modern Chinese history. Everything that happened happened because of meaningful coincidences, rather than the results of good and evil; it is presented as totally coincidental that Fugui, on that fateful day, carried his son to the school where You-qing is to be killed when Chunsheng’s jeep backs into the wall under which You-qing sleeps; this is what the Taoists called the “Tao”, the Way of the natural universe, which man could never understand fully; to the Taoists, life is mysterious and unknowable; that is why as viewers we are deprived of any revelation or epiphany at the end that would offer some meaning to Fugui’s suffering; for the Buddhists and Taoists, disillusionment (that the viewer experiences) is a necessary condition for true enlightenment in which we see life as authentic, free of the values we invariably project onto it;
  • every twist and turn in Fugui’s life indicates a failure on the part of modern man to understand the world rationally; Long’er never expects that, when Fugui says he would stake his life if they were to continue gambling after he is broke, that they are indeed playing for life; what each of them loses and/or wins (the house) directly or indirectly leads to their life and death;
  • paying debts has special meaning in Buddhism which understands life as ongoing (cyclical 轮回) and transformative because of what is called karmic retribution 报应; those who were possessed and consumed by greed, passion, and desires in one life time would pay for these karmic debts in their next life by becoming inferior beings such as animals; to Buddhists, the cause of human suffering is desire; Fugui’s addiction to gambling, Long’er’s desire for Fugui’s house, Shunsheng’s passion for driving automobiles, village head Niu’s blinding faith in communism, all backfire and exact a price or debt from these individuals who have to pay for their excessive desires (bad karma) in one form or another, some even with their own dear lives;
  • not in the original novel, puppet show in the film is a wonder addition by Yimou Zhang that needs to be understood symbolically and allegorially; in fact all characters are also puppets in a larger story which is modern Chinese history; they play the roles of the rich and poor, communists, nationalists, cadres, activists, capitalists, etc. even though they are never aware of themselves as puppets just like those that Fugui and Chunsheng present, pulling strings as if they have some measure of control in life; the history of twentieth-century China is a platform or screen on which all Chinese were invited to perform and play a role, and play people did, sometimes foolishly as represented in the clips about the Great Leap Forward movement, and in the Cultural Revolution; now as the Chinese are ready to play a different play (of capitalism) and rethink their past as communists, people can’t help feeling like puppets once;
Getting Home, directed by Yang Zhang, 2006; 《落叶归根》张扬导演

  • The title is taken from an idiom (树高千丈,落叶归根), which literally means that leaves fallen from a giant tree thousand feet tall return to their roots; figuratively it signifies that no matter how successful a person becomes in life or how far he has traveled away from home he is always bound to return to his hometown eventually; today as China has become a large factory for the world and when nearly everybody is on the move (and displaced) to make it, the saying is all but fallen on deaf ears; it is a time when roots and origins are generally associated with limitation and provincialism;
  • The journey everybody is on promises some kind of success or reward except the one Old Zhao takes, in his mid 50s and a migrant worker carrying the dead body of his friend and fellow worker to their hometown as they have promised one another; in other words, his is a journey taken to keep his promise as a man of honor to his fellow native; he takes it because human decency and dignity require it and because he owes it to the dead; yet his travel home (to his own humanity) reveals a world that respects him as much as it the dead, a world in which people don’t even keep their promises to the living; in this commercial society where people lie (and are almost expected to) about anything to make a buck, Zhao’s loyalty to his dead friend is truly scandalous rather than heroic or admirable; he is resented in society more than those dishonest businessmen and thieves that rob people;
  • People Zhao comes into contact with are usually problematic individuals that represent the ills and perils of China as revealed in this film where people sink pretty low morally; some ambush public buses and rob the messengers of their valuables, some sell for a profit to blood banks blood of the poor and sick whom they pay very little without any medical screening, and some charge restaurant patrons outrageous fees for plain food they call by exotic names; to hitch a ride, Zhao helps push a stalled car only to be behind after the driver is able to start it, indicative of the moral depravity in this changing society into which we have had a few glimpses in Blind Shaft, Incense, World, and A World without Thieves; more than the dead body on his back, Zhao is weighed down and demoralized by the inhumanity of those around him and is, at one point, quite tempted to kill himself and be buried next to his fellow native;
  • There are of course decent people who love and care about others; but like Zhao they are also drifters of one kind or another moving from place to place to “get home;” after he and the female scavenger are busted in the illegal blood donation scam, they grow attracted to one another and he learns that her son whom she did everything possible to send to college (including selling her blood regularly) now appreciates only her money, avoiding her as if a disease; hitch-hiking, Zhao befriends a truck driver whose one-time girlfriend runs away with a different man and who is cracking up inside by her betrayal and infidelity; while pretending to be one of the mourners in a funeral for free food, Zhao is shocked to meet the old man in person whose death people there are supposed to mourn; he tells Zhao that he fakes his own death and arranges the funeral to see if anyone really cares about him, and that of all the freeloaders at the funeral his grief seems the most sincere; when no one is willing to be near him with a dead body, Zhao is also helped by beautician who takes him in her beauty saloon and works on the stiff so that he looks as alive as possible; at least Zhao does not harass her like those that come to her thinking that her line of work is but a cover up for prostitution; Zhao’s suicide attempt is foiled by a loving couple who are beekeepers traveling all over the country to keep each other company; the wife’s face is terribly disfigured in an accident and to keep her away from depressing suicidal thoughts the husband quits his job to become a beekeeper and be with his veiled wife exclusively, a variation of Zhao’s true humanity; he also runs into a young middle-class backpacker headed to Tibet on his bike, a distance probably less great than that mentally between the two of them;
  • Based on a real story, this high drama makes light of one individual’s terrible plight but there is poignancy in our laughter every time we see this poor man runs into yet another unexpected event that further worsens his situation; his bad luck brings to light a variety of human activities and motivations of those from different social strata that the director wants us to scrutinize which although sprouting from shared roots seem to lack common values and goals; if anything, the film helps the viewer rethink the notion of home; carrying the ashes of his friend (after he cremates him as required by law), Zhao finally returns to their hometown only to find the residence of his friend already demolished, with a note left by his relatives and neighbors that they have been relocated to a placed hundreds of miles away; homecoming in any sense of the word is no longer as easy or simple as one would think, if still possible at all.
Pretty Big Feet (美丽的大脚) directed by Yazhou Yang in 2002

  • Among other things, the film is about the scarcity of water in remote rural areas; but symbolically the severe drought reveals a much more urgent need for education that Xia Yu, the urban volunteer from Beijing, represents; that’s why Zhang Meili, the rural teacher, makes every effort to keep Xia Yu (which in Chinese means “rain”) stay as long as possible, convinced that education is the only way out of this area of severe drought, which is the alchemy of poverty;
  • Such is the impetus behind this therapeutic melodrama of two women driven by the psychodynamics modern man in search of human wholeness; the friendship of the two women, one living the countryside where water is in critical shortage, and the other with easy access to urban amenities taken for granted by the urban moviegoer, is as difficult as it is long-lasting; in a sense, Xia Yu is, in the words of Lucien Goldmann, the typical problematic hero of the novel who represents “the values of the bourgeoisie: individualism, the thirst for power, money, and eroticism, which triumph over the ancient feudal values of altruism, charity, and love,” which Zhang Meili seems to embody;
  • The aesthetic of this film is a dialectic put in place to synthesize or harmonize the polarities of the rural and urban, the primitive and modern, which are interactive and interdependent; the widow of an ex-con executed for stealing, Zhang Meili finds her life as a peasant woman unsuccessful in comparison to the life of Xia Yu who has a college education, a boyfriend, and residency in Beijing; to Zhang, Xia is a mosaic of modernity: her polished speech in impeccable Mandarin, her English with an American accent, her cell phone, healthy diet with daily vitamin supplements, civilized demeanor and dental hygiene (brushing teeth daily), her fashion-awareness (wearing perfume and dry-wash-only imported western clothes), and her pet dog that requires the attention of a vet for its depression; Xia is savvy with computer technology; and her abortion is an exercise of her freewill as a liberated woman intellectually independent from her high-salaried boyfriend; yet, something attracts Xia Yu to the primitive and barren landscape of which Zhang and her students are permanent fixtures: the dry river-bed with no water to wash the mud and dust off one’s self, severe draught, a steady diet of sweat potatoes, ignorance and bad manner (putting fingers in one’s mouth to flip book pages and using corn skins as toilet paper), urchins that pick their noses and amuse themselves by howling like braying asses; and that is the resolve and purpose of Zhang Meili, with pretty big feet;
  • the advantages of the “city people” do not eclipse the dignity and the inner beauty of the primitive; as their team-teaching goes on, the two women gradually come to tolerate, understand, and even appreciate their differences in attitude and value; charming and fascinating as it is, city life offers no real satisfaction to Zhang Meili who declines Xia Yu’s invitation to stay in the capital; she returns to her village and is killed in the end in an accident, followed by the return of Xia Yu, to rain in a place of severe drought, and to assume a new identity; we see identity switch when Xia makes Zhang wear her clothes that the latter has accidentally “ruined” by hand-washing them, and in the last scene in which Xia slides down the dirt slop on which she has seen earlier the urchins slide down so many times for fun, a symbolic act of getting in touch with the primitive side of her personality, rejected and forgotten in her pursuit of a modern identity.
The Story of Qiu Ju, (《 秋菊打官司 》张艺谋)

  • The director seems to have thought long and hard about how social change in China brings rural and urban values to a clash; he enumerates the ways in which people have to rethink their modern existence and change their attitude to things such as social justice; for the director, the meaning of social transformation has to be made comprehensible from the perspective of the primitive figure who, in this case, is an illiterate peasant woman without formal education;
  • many feel unable to appreciate the aesthetics of the film because the story seems to drag on too long, bogged down by meaningless or unimportant details; however if perhaps we do not want to dismiss as irrelevant details that in the finally analysis give us a full picture of the Chinese society in which everyone, not just Qiu Ju alone, is in search of fairness and justice; in fact everyone that is brought into the picture directly and indirectly by Qiu Ju’s quest for justice has a scale on which to balance injustice or unfairness with some forms of compensation; in the city, Mei-zi, Qiu Ju’s sister-in-law, gets lost once when she goes after the taxi-man whom she believes has over-charged them for his service; justice is the negotiated and satisfactory settlement of things as people believe is fair, at least that’s what Qiu Ju, her husband Wan Qinglai, and the chief Wang Shantang believe when they curse someone heirless, kick someone in the groin, throw money on the ground, or ask for mediation from the higher-ups; their personal views of what is right have to do with who has sons (rather than girls), where to kick (groin and phallus as the symbol of male power and authority), and how to apologize, contrast strikingly with the sense of fairness and justice of those in the city like the taxi-man, lawyer Wu, the hotel manager, and the person writing complaint letters for others, who settle everything with money that Qiu Ju pays for her obsession with face and pride;
  • On one level, the films seems to critically scrutinize China’s legal system and bureaucratic apparatuses of the state as this simple-minded peasant woman pursues justice for her husband; but her quest for justice against the village chief brings to sharp focus two systems of value and reveals new notions of justice about which she (the viewer) has yet to know; the lawsuit involving Qiu Ju, the litigant, and Wang Shantang, the accused, reveals much about the modern society which neither understands; both value personal reputation (face, pride and dignity) more than money because, as members of an agrarian community, they are not yet aware of the ways in which money can function just as powerfully and effectively as the political currency in post-Mao era as personal reputation is the political capital in primitive societies;
  • Qiu Ju represents a mode of thinking characteristic of the medieval barter system, where if people want something done they have to trade in their chili or goats; in the rural trading place for farm produce, the buyer carefully weighs Qiu Ju’s goods on a hand-held scale, symbolic of primitive justice or fairness; the scale has to be balanced in order for people to feel fairness; as a product of this rural economy (low tech and low profit), Qiu Ju is unaware of the role and power of money to mediate social justice, which is why we see both the chief and Qiu Ju throw money on the ground as if it was beneath their personal dignity; Qinglai feels, when thinking ill of the chief, it’s only fair that the chief has daughters but not sons; Wang Shantang feels Qinglai deserves a kick in the groin for his malicious remark; and Qiu Ju feels she could accept 200 yuan compensation if it is nicely handed to her rather than deliberately thrown on the ground to humiliate her;
  • there is definitely something that is profoundly human about the philosophy of an eye for an eye; but justice does not begin until man surrenders this human impulse or instinct to deities or higher authorities (“Vengence is mine; saith the Lord”); this is particularly true in modern cities where everything is bought and sold as commodities and appreciated for their exchange value; services such as writing complaint letters, taxi, or legal representations in court, are readily translated into and greatly facilitated by cold cash (rather than a vengeful god), which redefines the meaning of justice; (lawyer Wu says to Qiu Ju, “I’ve taken your money; of course I’ll represent you;” and represent her he did, but only in a way that calls into question not only the notion of social justice but also the very idea of social progress.
  • Once the urban viewer is identified with Qiu Ju on the emotional level, he is put in a position to rethink the project of modernity. What puzzles Qiu Ju, demanding no less than and no substitution for a sincere apology from the village chief who kicked her husband in the groin, is the total lack of direct human input in the way justice is carried out, with the chief being taken to jail after he has more than expiated his wrong-doing by saving her life and pregnancy under life-threatening circumstances. For her, the issue of fairness and justice seizes to exist after that. The punishment of the chief by jail time is the result of an X-ray exam showing that one of the husband’s ribs is broken, of which no one is even aware, let alone demanding reparation. The modern-day legal system, if and when it works, is only a part of the impersonal machine that is the State that punishes or pardons mainly to maintain order and control rather than intervene on behalf of the parties involved. The implication of the story is not how much or how little justice has worked for Qiu Ju but how it operates in spite of the individual. When the chief is taken to jail, he is taken on his way to Qiu Ju’s house as a guest of honor invited to celebrate the birth of her son whom he helped save;
  • this perhaps enables us to see why Zhang Yimou includes many “non-essential” details such as the exchanges at the marriage license bureau within local county PSB where the viewer is allowed to eve drop on questions such as “were you in love when you met? was it love at the first sight?” the personal aspects of human interactions are removed once individual grievances are taken care of by the state whose interest in carrying out justice is none other than showing the effectiveness of its penal process, which “is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity; it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime.” (Michel Foucault) That is why Qiu Ju’s repeated quests for justice, first in the district court and then in the municipal and provincial PSB courts, only result in what can only be viewed as a miscarriage of justice by the functionaries of the state. The twists and turns help register the attitudes of two stages of civilization in between which Qiu Ju has traveled so many times in search of justice, which comes in a form utterly unrecognizable and unacceptable to Qiu Ju; it alienates her from the rest in her village, including her husband and possibly her son whose life is saved by the very person his mother helped put behind bars.
Blind Shaft, directed by Yang Li, 2003  《盲井》李杨导演

  • The film is an adaptation of the novel entitled “Sacred Wood” (《神木》刘庆邦) written by Qingbang Liu; the novelist set his realist story in a rural area where the locals still refer to coal the way their ancestors did, as sacred wood, because it was by chance that they found out that certain substance could burn for a long time, almost like a miracle;
  • This is a bleak depiction of rural reality where money is hard to come by and many peasants have to leave their homes to find work far away; the two coal miners in the film lose their humanity in pulling off a scam to murder fellow workers in order to claim compensation money for relatives which they pretend that they are; such a chilling plot itself helps show the alarming extent of a moral crisis in rural China; the indifference and callousness to human life are revealed in the cold remark made by the manager of the coal mine, “China has a shortage of everything but people;”
  • There is a striking contrast between the two con-men (Jinming Song 宋金明 and Zhaoyang Tang 唐朝阳) on the one hand, and the boy Fengming Yuan 元凤鸣, whom they pick as their “target” for the scam; the drama of good versus evil unfolds in a realistic setting where everything is grey: the two cold-blooded murderers adopted the innocent and unsuspecting boy as their relative; yet the drama of morality begins when Song pretending to be Yuan’s uncle develops a sense of guilt and remorse for his actions as well as some fatherly affection for his “nephew”, much to the dismay of his friend hoping to pull off just another trick as soon as possible;
  • The internal conflict going on in Song gives depth to this otherwise two-dimensional moral play; now there are degrees of evil and moral deprivation; and there is also character development; Song becomes a wild card and a catalyst that could go either way: a cold-blooded killer and a family man; with this turn of events, the moral struggle becomes all the more real, showing the gradual disintegration of traditional morality still lingering in the hearts and minds of many disheartened criminals;
  • Although according to the director, the film is not meant to criticize the current social change, it is nonetheless banned in China for political reasons; when Song and Tang visit a brothel, they put new lyrics to an old revolutionary song, making it a scathing criticism of the CCP; the title of the song is “Socialism Is Great” (社会主义好) and the old lyric goes like this:
    • Socialism is great; socialism is great
    • Socialist nations put people first, with the reactionaries all overthrown and the imperialists all running away with their tails between their legs;
    • All Chinese are liberated and making tidal waves of socialism

But with a clever change of words, the new lyric also goes well with the melody:

    • Socialist nations put people first, with the reactionaries never overthrown and the imperialists all returning with their American dollars;
    • All Chinese are liberated and making sexual climaxes of socialism
  • The film may be innocent of any political sarcasm, but it is hard to avoid such association of ideas in Chinese political culture and the context of socialist cinema; after all it was not so long ago when people saw workers and peasants represented in films a part of the propaganda calling for a communist revolution and the overthrow of the capitalists and landlords; however the poignant point made in this film is about a moral struggle rather than a political one;
  • at the end of the film a reversal or miracle happens when the con-men are killed in the mine whereas Fengming escapes their murderous plot and lives to claim 60k of their compensation money as their relative; it seems that the director, although quite realistic in his aesthetic treatment of the subject matter, wants to suggest that there are perhaps larger forces outside the socioeconomic reality that are also at work to punish the evil (by death) and reward the innocent (with money).
A World without Thieves, directed by Xiaogang Feng, 2004, 《天下无贼》冯小刚

    • To many, the reality of China’s economic reform in the post-Mao and post-Deng era resembles a moral wilderness or Darwinian jungle where only the fittest survive; as the transition from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist free market economy goes on, the rules of the game change, and so are people’s attitudes and values; concerns emerge at least for the artists and intellectuals about the basis for moral beliefs and conducts; socialist ideals such as building an egalitarian society no longer seem to apply to the way society operates any more and changes are mostly profit driven in the wake of a moral crisis;
    • Little wonder that Feng chose Tibetan Buddhism as the backdrop for his story, a belief in karmic retribution almost as popular now as Maoism was during the Cultural Revolution when people embraced the ideals of communism; the director resuscitated and brought back into circulation Buddhism to raise moral questions and to suggest the existence of forces outside the cutthroat socioeconomic reality, represented by the train overrun with thieves, a microcosm of a brutal and unfair redistribution of wealth among the Chinese; this is why, as surreal and unbelievable as two highly skilled pickpockets risking their lives to protect the innocence as well as the hard-earned money of an idiot who does not believe there are thieves in the world, the urban audience nonetheless resonates with the movie lending expressions to their preoccupations with the issues of social justice; one of the intellectual properties of Buddhism is its inability to think about materialism (consumerism, capitalism) in terms other than black and white, rejecting desire (for money) in favor of (primitive) simplicity; the binary opposition in Buddhist thinking suddenly becomes attractive to people as it teaches people to see cravings as the source of human suffering and cessation of desires as a path to true personal happiness or salvation;
    • The story begins with Wang Li, the female outlaw, pregnant by her partner in crime and accomplice, suddenly feels the needs to quit her life of crime and repent in the name of her unborn child, (“我想为孩子积点儿德”); she runs into and befriends Dumbo (sha gen, literally “born stupid”), a divine child trapped in the body of a 21-year old day-laborer taking 60,000 yuan of his hard-earned money home; born and raised in a rural village where people would not touch cow-droppings if one drew a circle around them, Dumbo is a product of this pre-modern communalism or primitive paradise as the Chinese have always imagined, innocent of greed and avarice, untouchable by harms as he even becomes friends with a pack of wolves that hang out near his worksite; Dumbo is saved by his opposite, Wang Bo who, by his own submission, is a ghost passing through, and has lost his life a long time ago; such self-reference as a ghost chasing after money reveals the truth about the conditions of the living: namely, that in the frantic pursuit of money and wealth, many people have become spiritually dead, or reduced to living only as ghosts; they rob one another the way Wang Bo does;
    • The film tells us how the director fantasizes about modern change that has created a crisis in values; an ethical battle between good and evil soon ensues in which, instead of stealing Dumbo’s money, Wang Bo and Wang Li try to protect his money from being stolen by other thieves; the film thus lends expression to our unconscious needs or fantasies of wolves protecting sheep or of innocence triumphant over greed, as this Buddha-like young man, entirely unaware of the dangers of falling prey to a pack of thieves remains unscathed throughout the entire ride; turning himself into a shepherd dog, Wang Bo robs the people who have robbed Dumbo and returns the money to its rightful owner before he dies, performing a Buddhist miracle; the action-packed train ride reintroduces the relevance of Buddhism in contemporary China and suggests it is possible for the strong to engineer their own spiritual salvation by observing the laws of karmic retribution and by stopping preying on the weak and powerless;
    • The story ends with Wang Li returning to the Buddhist temple where she has met Dumbo before, leaving behind her infant to be picked up by two Tibetan women, signifying the beginning of a new life on this holy religious site, free of sins and thieves; the dramatic return to the ancient religion of Buddhism expresses something hidden and totally incompatible with the rational choices people make and their existential meanings regarding money, profit, and material wealth; it releases the contents of the collective unconscious, unspoken desires represented by heroes and monsters waging wars in the darkest corners of the human psyche.
    • the film begins with Wang Li teaching general manager Liu English, so that he knows what to say after she seduces him and blackmails him to get his BMW; English is the language of power behind the social change; but in this case, it is also the language and discourse of deception used to rob people; the talk between Uncle Li and Wang Bo is the language of cynicism; the barren Tibetan landscape (or QingHai Province) is the language of truth;
    • In Mr. Ping Hu’s talk he spoke of the CCP (Chinese communist party) as the biggest robber and thief in modern Chinese history; “that the CCP robbed the rich in the name of revolution and divided the spoils amongst themselves in the name of reform.” Such and similar thoughts are at the back of every Chinese person’s mind who has seen and understood the recent changes as Mr. Hu does. That in part explains why in Feng’s film “A World without Thieves” moral authority does not come from the Law (as laid down by the CCP) but from a religion that itself was almost outlawed decades earlier. The dialogue between Uncle Li and Wang Bo reveals the way people understand the unspoken rules of the game that govern how a person succeeds in society. To many people, Chinese society (or economic reform) is a Darwinian jungle where the powerful prey on the weak; where lambs get devoured by wolves. Thieves and robbers appear in the film Getting Home (落叶归根)also; like the train in this film, Chinese society in many people’s minds is a place overrun by thieves and robbers;
    • The two love birds (Wang Bo and Wang Li) represent a crisis of moral values: should they continue preying on the weak like wolves or turn around to protect the them as shepherd dogs? Buddhism comes in and makes the choice simple and natural: if you want to evolve spiritually to a higher realm of existence, you must renounce earthly possessions and inner cravings, which is what the two lovers do to transcend their this-worldliness. We don’t see Buddhists except Tibetans, snow-capped mountains, the barren landscape, wild wolves, and Buddhist temples, things we associate when we exoticize Tibet. Tibetan culture speaks to us through open and wild landscapes on which the train (Chinese civilization and society) runs back and forth;
    • the uses of the character Dumbo or Roots are clear if and when we look at the story as a fantasy of modern man wanting to return to nature; Dumbo or Roots establishes the point of departure at which the two lovers abandon their aggression and return to their primitive roots; Roots (傻根) represets Nature in its pristine form, uncorrupted by human civilization; by siding with Roots, Wang Bo and Wang Li redeem themselves; their love for each other does not prevent them from stealing but Roots or Dumbo does, who offers them a passage back to innocence; and the two lovers take it; Roots is also a living Buddha because of his innocence, which allows him to be friends with wolves.
Chinese Box, directed by Wayne Wang (Hong Kong), 1997

  • The director (王颖 Wáng Yǐng) was born 1949 in HK, a Chinese American film director who studied film and television at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oaklandand; he made such films as The Joy Luck Club and Smoke
  • The film was released on the year the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to Mainland China ever since it became a British colony in 1842; in the Opium War (1839-42) the Chinese were defeated by the British and the Qing government had to sign the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), Treaty of Beijing (1860), and the Convention for the Expansion of Hong Kong Territory (1898) which leased HK to the British for 99-years; during WWII, Japanese troops also occupied HK from 1941 to 1945;
  • Colonialism in history produced a culture and psychology that exist in the way characters in this film interact with one another as the colonizer and the colonized; Jean’s scared face thus may represent the trauma that HK people suffered who, as the subjugated, have no choice but to adopt the language of the colonizer in order to represent themselves; they had to engage the bias, prejudice and stereotype that the Western Other has of them; to satisfy the stereotypical view of the colonized indigenous people as savages, Jean makes up her horrifying past of rape, incest and violence, because she believes that is what John wants to hear when he pays her $1,400 dollars for “all the nitty-gritty details” that he would expect of the “benighted” and exotic Orient; Vivian too is a walking wounded who tries to imitate a Westerner by watching Hollywood film stars on TV;
  • The formation of colonial identity is complex and the best way to reflect this complexity is through the metaphor of a Chinese box that we see at the beginning that, by definition, has no substance or essence except many empty boxes inside; which is why John Spencer’s investigation of HK social reality frustrates him because he does not seem to realize that, in spite of his good intention toward the wellbeing of the HK people, his presence, along with his patronizing and condescending attitude of a colonizer taking up his white man’s burden, changes what he investigates; when he states his difficulty with finding out what makes Jean tick in front of a screen, his photo journalist friend Rick turns on the video tape of Jean talking, so that John’s and Jean’s faces overlap to suggest the complexity of the identity of the colonial subject; there is brutality involved in subjugating the indigenous of which John is often oblivious when investigating Jean, which is why Rick asks him, “Did you fuck her?” to suggest the violence and trauma in the collective memory of the HK people who reinvent themselves according to the power structure of colonialism John represents that is coming to an end in 1997, and which is perhaps why John is diagnosed as having leukemia and is dying at the end, with himself appearing in the lens of his own camcorder he previously uses to investigate HK natives; his good intention and genuine concern with the freedom and dignity of HK people give him a moment of truth when he and Vivien are finally together;
  • It is funny that in previous films reality is always hidden behind hard surfaces whereas in this one the appearances are the reality so long as we know how to read them; previous studies of colonial experience tend to essentialize China and West; but scholars of post-colonial studies tend to reject such scholarships that do not do justice to the complexity of colonial situations in which cultures, traditions, and values interpenetrated and influence one another; such power structure survives the history of colonialism and continues after the power transfer as mainland Chinese move into HK; a new political reality and language are taking effect to which the people in HK have to adapt; to many mainlanders (Mr. Chang), HK subjugation to the British is an act of cultural betrayal and infidelity no less offensive than prostitution; Mr. Chang’s attitude to Vivian as a prostitute (love her but also despise her) represents the contempt shared by many on the mainland for HK as a people less pure (as someone who has gone to bed with the foreign devils; therefore, another box within the box opens up to reveal another set of relationships as CCP comes to colonize HK, with no end in sight where we could find the essence of Chinese-ness.
Happy Together, directed by Kar-Wai Wong, 1997; 《春光乍泄》王家卫导演 (1958-)

  • The English title is adopted from a 1967 pop song, written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, called “Happy Together” that features prominently in the film; the original Chinese title means a brief and sudden release of youthful energy or brilliance; which shapes our view of the story as something that lasts very briefly, like vitality burned out quickly and brightly;
  • The tortuous and volatile relationship of the gay couple from Hong Kong manifests many characteristics with which we are only too familiar even if we do not consciously identify with Yao-hui Li (Lai Yiu-fai, 黎耀辉) or Bao-Rong He (Ho Po-wing, 何宝荣); central to their relationship is our polarizing and contradictory tendency to be free and to belong, present in He’s relation to Li, in Li’s relation to his father, and also in HK’s relation to Mainland China; such psychological energy both compels the two youths to go as far away from HK as possible to find themselves and holds them (and the Taiwanese youth Xiao Zhang) back like gravitation; that is why the director has been quoted as saying that Li is an “airport” on which He crashes, especially when he has problems; the film begins with Li and He having their passports stamped at Buenos Aires, and ends when the train that Li is on comes to a halt at the platform of a station;
  • Such is also the dynamics of cultural identity; one of the reasons for all three young men to be in Buenos Aires, Argentina in South America is their dissatisfaction at home, whether it is HK or Taiwan, or even their vague and fussy notion of being Chinese; Li is running away from his father after he stole some money from the company owned by his father’s best friend; Xiao Zhang likewise goes to “the end of the world” at the tip of south America because he couldn’t stand his father’s fried tufu food stand in Taipei; whatever their initial reasons for this self-imposed exile, the impetus behind their lives as Chinese (Taiwan/Hong Kong) expatriates in Argentina is their inability to achieve happiness where they are; such inability readily translates or transforms itself into the attraction of a far-away land, such as the Iguzu Falls on the Amazon River; in other words, the tourist attraction/destination compensates the unhappiness of those with problems of identity; like Xiao Zhang says to Li about Ushuala (Argentina) at the tip of south America being the place to dump all one’s emotional problems; it is there that Xiao Zhang is suddenly smitten with a pang of home-sickness;
  • In this context, He’s remark “let’s start over again” is very meaningful; our life’s journey to become someone (identity) is punctuated or truncated by many “starts over” and many taking-offs and returns; passports are the first thing we see in this film, which give us identity but change it at the same time as we travel; that is why Li at one time refuses to give He’s passport (freedom) back to him; he likes much better the days when He is sick and wounded so that he cannot run away and he can take care of him; their exile in a foreign and strange land gives these Chinese expatriates a sense of being different than before or at least being away from the familiar; nothing reminds them of their being away from home more than the tango music at the “Southern Bar”, a distinctive feature of Latin American culture; they have to learn tango dance and a few Spanish words to find work in Buenos Aires, and perhaps to return home with a clearer and renewed sense of their identity as Chinese; on his way home news comes about the death of China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997, just a few months before Hong Kong was also to return home (China), with same amount of apprehension Li has about to face his father who may or may not forgive him.
Comrades, Almost A Love Story, dir. Peter Chan, Hong Kong 1996 《甜蜜蜜》

  • The title of the film is also the title of a song popular mostly because of the famous Taiwanese female singer Teresa Deng (邓丽君, 1953-95) who was very popular in mainland China since the late 1970s; as is, the title has nothing left from the original, which literally means, “sweet, so sweet;” the sentimental lyrics goes like this: “Where have I seen you before; Your smiles so familiar? I cannot recall at the moment. Ah, it’s in my dream that I saw your smile so sweet; It’s you that I saw in my dream;” it’s only proper that we have a déjà vu moment at the end of the film that is a re-run of the beginning clip of the two lovers arriving in HK from mainland on the same train at the same time; their paths crisscross several times as they pursue happiness in their own ways in HK and in the States, unconscious of their shared roots (language, history, memory, values, camaraderie) that would bring them together time and again;
  • The term “comrade” does appear a few times; in the 1980s, it was becoming an obsolete word and lost its original meaning (people of same volition) as the communist ideology was bankrupt and discredited; the term was quickly misused and abused to mean buddies or even homosexuals (people of same sexual orientation); when used in this film between the Li Qiao and Li Xiaojun, it is quite poignant and somewhat ironic because they are anything but revolutionaries who dedicated themselves to the cause of liberating the Chinese people as the term had signified in the 50s and 60s;
  • As soon as they arrive in HK, they go their separate ways in the pursuit of happiness as individuals, with Li Qiao working in a McDonald’s and Li Xiaojun in a Chinese restaurant; Li Qiao views her past on the mainland as a hurdle to her success and speaks mostly English and Cantonese, trying to pass herself off as a native of HK; Xiaojun on the other hand seems unable to hide his old identity and/or reinvent a new self so easily; he speaks only Mandarin and by the time they run into each other in the McDonald’s at opposite side of the counter, they are strangers; yet they are never too far from one another throughout the film, destined by their attraction to Teresa Deng’s songs, by their youth and ambition, and by their loneliness and alienation, that render them more alike than different; at the end of the film the camera reveals what we fail to see at the beginning when the two youths arrive in HK: heads touching yet unaware of their shared fate because they are too tired or preoccupied with the specifics of a precarious future, dragging their few belongings behind them as they step on to the foreign soil in HK, along with tens of thousands from the mainland who took advantage of Deng’s open-door policy and immigrated to HK in the 1980s in search of a better life; “This is Hong Kong; everything is possible here!” says Li Qiao;
  • The film came out in 1996, only one year before HK was to be handed back to mainland China; it conveys a sense of the colonial era coming to an end for the people in HK; when Xiaojun delivers food on a bicycle, the Chinese national anthem is playing at the background; the film offers an encyclopedic treatment of the oversea Chinese experiences; it documents the twists and turns of the immigrant life for which a mainlander is always unprepared, a life rendered complex by the choices and opportunities overseas; after she loses money through stocks, Li Qiao works as a masseuse and later goes off to NYC with her gangster boy friend Pao, a polygamist with wives in different parts of the HK and Taiwan, who is gunned down in NYC in a street crime; Xiaojun’s romantic involvement with Li Qiao while his fiancée is still in the mainland turns out to be a risk that eventually ruins his marriage after Fang Xiao-ting, his fiancée joins him in HK;
  • The lives of Li Qiao and Li Xiaojun also intersect with that of others like Jeremy, an American who teaches Li Qiao’s English, Cabbage, a girl from Thailand and a prostitute who eventually dies of AIDS, and Aunt Rosie, who cannot get over her love for an American movie star William Holden decades after he left the island and who gives her house and money to Xiaojun who then in turn gives them to Xiao Ting, after they break up; like Xiaojun, Xiao Ting is also struggling to make it alone in HK; by the time Li Qiao and Xiaojun runs into each other on the day Teresa Deng died, Li Qiao has become a permanent resident in the U.S. whose mother has died before she is able to see her daughter’s American green card; what happens to these mainlanders is representative of the Chinese diaspora: a dispersion of an originally homogeneous entity, such as a language or culture; any people (ethnic population) forced to leave their traditional homelands, the dispersal of such people, and the ensuing developments in their culture
Shower, 1999, directed by Yang Zhang (1967 – ); 《洗澡》张扬导演

  • To understand a narrative film, it is important to find the tension driving the story; by tension I mean conflicts presiding over relationships that unfold according to the director’s aesthetics; in this drama as in his other drama Getting Home (2006), the characters are driven by the logic of the idea (philosophical position or value) they represent so as to bring forth the view of the director on certain issues;
  • The overriding issue seems to be the human costs of change which, in this instance, is bringing to an end public bathhouse, a cultural institution that is an integral part of the tradition now in the way of urbanization; on the technical level, the individual shower in the new apartment buildings shooting up everywhere in Beijing makes obsolete the public bath, like the one Mr. Liu manages which, in fact, offers many leisurely activities private shower does not offer that are relaxing, enjoyable and even therapeutic: haircut, pedicure, manicure, chess game, cricket-match, full-body massage and hot-cup suction treatments, etc.; symbolically the bathhouse is a human community where the water cleanses, connects, and cures people who may be plagued with stage freight and impotence; it is also a refuge or shelter for the lonely;
  • thus Mr. Liu (here reads: Tradition) disagrees with Da Ming on such matters as money, kinship, meaning of work, and how to bathe; like a primitive tribal shaman, he values his bathhouse as a healing place for those traumatized or wounded by culture; he distains technological advances, wealth, and social success that Da Ming embodies in Shenzhen, China’s special economic zone in the south and one of the most prosperous region for the nation’s free market economy which only too often results in displacement and the loss of small-scale human communities;
  • The bathhouse, scheduled to be torn down soon, thus serves as a platform for debating and negotiating modern change driven by technology and a kind of cultural conservatism grounded in traditional humanism; here we see symmetry and polarity of the film aesthetic that displays modern technology through He Zheng, who seems smart and intelligent, at the beginning in an automated shower cubicle that processes no different than a car-wash; at the other end of this conflict is the dim witted Er Ming who seems to understand the healing power of water and brings Da Ming home in time to be with his dying father; he is a figure of the primitive that Da Ming considers a liability fit for asylum but an invaluable asset to the father; he’s our undeveloped identity and past, intuition, feelings that modernity cannot eradicate nor elevate through education or culture; he looks quite nice when the two brothers swap clothes (identities) and show their common humanity
  • Flashbacks expend the scope of the debate; Er Ming recalls his father’s story about an old Tibetan woman taking her granddaughter on a long-distance pilgrimage to a lake in the Himalayas in order to take a bath in the sacred water that “purifies one’s soul;” another is the father’s memory of how scarce water was in the village where his wife had to trade in grains for it to bathe herself before wedding; such sentimental journeys convey a strong sense of the harmony the primitive people used to enjoy with nature that has been “modernized” out of existence, in which people used much more aware of their spirituality and of the needs to take care of their souls;
  • The need to take care of the young (Er Ming) and weak (Father) is indirectly addressed as the two brothers watch a scientific program on TV about the life cycles of the insects in Africa desert.