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Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films

Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films
    Book Description:

    What is the sentimental? How can we understand it by way of the visual and narrative modes of signification specific to cinema and through the manners of social interaction and collective imagining specific to a particular culture in transition? What can the sentimental tell us about the precarious foundations of human coexistence in this age of globalization?

    Rey Chow explores these questions through nine contemporary Chinese directors (Chen Kaige, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou, Ann Hui, Peter Chan, Wayne Wang, Ang Lee, Li Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang) whose accomplishments have become historic events in world cinema. Approaching their works from multiple perspectives, including the question of origins, nostalgia, the everyday, feminine "psychic interiority," commodification, biopolitics, migration, education, homosexuality, kinship, and incest, and concluding with an account of the Chinese films' epistemic affinity with the Hollywood blockbuster Brokeback Mountain, Chow proposes that the sentimental is a discursive constellation traversing affect, time, identity, and social mores, a constellation whose contours tends to morph under different historical circumstances and in different genres and media. In contemporary Chinese films, she argues, the sentimental consistently takes the form not of revolution but of compromise, not of radical departure but of moderation, endurance, and accommodation. By naming these films sentimental fabulations-screen artifacts of cultural becoming with irreducible aesthetic, conceptual, and speculative logics of their own-Chow presents Chinese cinema first and foremost as an invitation to the pleasures and challenges of critical thinking.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50819-3
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note on Transcription
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    Where is the movie about me?

    In the academic study of cinema, this is one of the most commonly encountered questions in recent years. Versions of it include some of the following: Where in this discipline am I? How come I am not represented? What does it mean for me and my group to be unseen? What does it mean for me and my group to be seen in this manner—what has been left out? These questions of becoming visible pertain, of course, to the prevalence of the politics of identification, to the relation between representational forms and their...


    • 1 The Seductions of Homecoming: Temptress Moon and the Question of Origins
      (pp. 29-45)

      Even though it has been an overwhelmingly successful phenomenon worldwide since the late 1980s, contemporary Chinese cinema is habitually greeted by Chinese-speaking audiences with cynicism if not hostility. It is as if the accomplishments of this cinema have an impossible task in returning home. The simple fact that it has traveled abroad and been gazed at with enthusiasm by foreigners is apparently enough to cause it to lose trustworthiness as wholly and genuinely Chinese. This sentimental relation to what is firmly held as the boundary between the outside and the inside of a community and, with it, the imagined inviolable...

    • 2 Nostalgia of the New Wave: Romance, Domesticity, and the Longing for Oneness in Happy Together
      (pp. 47-63)

      In one of the earliest discussions of poststructuralism to appear in English, “Of Structure as an Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever,” Jacques Lacan put across a notion of structure that would henceforth have significant ramifications on the way identity is theorized across the human sciences. This was during the late 1960s, when structuralism, having been an intellectual trend in Europe for some time, had belatedly crossed the Atlantic and become controversial in select North American academic circles. Lacan, like his younger contemporary Jacques Derrida, was working against the more traditional and widely accepted philosophical assumptions about...

    • 3 The Everyday in The Road Home and In the Mood for Love: From the Legacy of Socialism to the Potency of Yuan
      (pp. 65-82)

      To the extent that contemporary Chinese cinema seems repeatedly concerned with various imagined interiorities such the home, domestic life, romantic oneness, and familial relationships, its sentimentalism is in many respects the sentimentalism of nostalgia or homesickness. Although, as argued in the previous two chapters, nostalgia often tends to border on a kind of intangible transcendental longing (as is clearest perhaps in the images of nature at the end of Happy Together but also detectable in the idealization of children’s gazes at the end of Temptress Moon), it can, as well, attach itself to entirely perceptible daily things. As it does...


    • 4 Autumn Hearts: Filming Feminine “Psychic Interiority” in Song of the Exile
      (pp. 85-103)

      Few preoccupations are as banal or as popular as the exploration of the individual self. If this cultural thematic of the self continues to hold a certain fascination for us, it is probably less because of its theoretical inexhaustibility than because of its associative open-endedness, the fact that it can be inserted into virtually any type of representational situation without any perceived loss of relevance. The self, as such, has often been discussed in modern and contemporary Chinese literature and culture, which in the twentieth century alone have witnessed multifarious examples of autobiography in fictional as well as nonfictional writings....

    • 5 By Way of Mass Commodities: Love in Comrades, Almost a Love Story
      (pp. 105-121)

      Although, with the rapid modernization efforts ongoing since the early 1980s, conditions of life in many parts of the People’s Republic of China have been steadily improving, for many Chinese mainlanders Hong Kong remains a symbol of material plenitude and progress.¹ Director Peter Ho-sun Chan’s film Tian mi mi (Comrades, Almost a Love Story, 1996) is a story about two young mainlanders who arrive in Hong Kong on March 1, 1986, in search of a better life. Like many Chinese men who leave home to seek work abroad, Li Xiaojun, who is from Tianjin, hopes to earn enough money so...

    • 6 All Chinese Families Are Alike: Biopolitics in Eat a Bowl of Tea and The Wedding Banquet
      (pp. 123-144)

      In his classic Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud made what was then a novel but has since become a well-known argument that human sexuality is traceable to infancy and childhood and that it is manifest in the numerous forms of what are considered sexual aberrations: “A disposition to perversions is an original and universal disposition of the human sexual instinct,” he writes.¹ By displacing human sexuality onto the realm of the perverse, Freud’s point was to distinguish it from the straightforward animal instinct of procreation and thus, epistemically, from the telos of a practical end (in this...


    • 7 The Political Economy of Vision in Happy Times and Not One Less; or, A Different Type of Migration
      (pp. 147-165)

      Following the lead of Edward Said and other critics of Western imperialism, some contemporary academic authors, whenever they encounter images of another culture, tend readily to be on the qui vive about stereotyping, exploitation, and deceit and make it their mission to correct the falsehood especially of visual representations. In my previous work on contemporary Chinese cinema, I have attempted to critique such knee-jerk antiorientalist reactions with regard to the early films of Zhang Yimou.¹ From a comparative cultural perspective, what continues to concern me is that a certain predictable attitude tends to dominate the agenda these days whenever works...

    • 8 “Human” in the Age of Disposable People: The Ambiguous Import of Kinship and Education in Blind Shaft
      (pp. 167-179)

      In the essay “Letter on Humanism,” published soon after Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Martin Heidegger referred to the condition of homelessness as “coming to be the destiny of the world.”¹ By homelessness, Heidegger meant something more than not having a roof over one’s head, even though the notions of dwelling and shelter were not at all excluded from his thinking. Heidegger’s assertion of homelessness as the condition of the modern world—not merely for the defeated but also for the victorious—was part of a critique of the status of humanism in the West. From Roman times...

    • 9 The Enigma of Incest and the Staging of Kinship Family Remains in The River
      (pp. 181-196)

      Once in a while, the encounter with a particular scene in a film is so challenging that it preempts one’s relation to the entire film. Such a scene will be my focus of interest in this final chapter. It is from Taiwan director Tsai Ming-liang’s (Cai Mingliang) Heliu/The River (1997), a film in which a father and a son, not recognizing each other in the dark, engage in sex in a gay men’s bathhouse (what in Taiwan is known as a san wennuan, itself a local transliteration of “sauna”). Like much of Tsai’s work, this scene is without musical accompaniment:...

  9. Postscript (Inspired by Brokeback Mountain): “The Juice”; or, “The Great Chinese Theme”
    (pp. 197-200)

    In an interview with the New York Times during the publicity period for his blockbuster film Wohu canglong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), director Ang Lee spoke of the enormous influence on his filmmaking of the Mandarin classic Liang Sanbo yu Zhu Yingtai (Love Eterne, directed by Li Hanxiang, 1963).¹ “I think that for every movie I make, I always try to duplicate that feeling of purity and innocence that I got when I saw this movie. . . . Whatever I bring into my own films, I am forever trying to update and recapture that feeling. I call it...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 201-250)
  11. Index
    (pp. 251-264)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-266)