A Tale of Two Emperors: Mimicry and Mimesis in Two "New Year's" Films from China and Hong Kong

Article excerpt

Since at least the mid-1990s, a sense of fin-de-siecle nostalgia has become apparent in many dimensions of Chinese culture, and one of the most iconic symbols of this nostalgia is the current fascination with early twentieth-century "calendar posters." Initially popularized by foreign tobacco companies as a marketing tool for their products, (1) these posters typically featured a richly illustrated image of either a traditional Chinese scene or a female beauty and were often accompanied by a printed calendar together with advertisements for the commodities being promoted. Although these posters are a uniquely modern phenomenon, they are also in dialogue with two traditions in Chinese visual culture. On the one hand, the posters' tendency to feature images of attractive young women (dressed in either traditional or modern garb) borrows on the tradition of "beautiful woman pictures" (meiren tu), which featured idealized images of young women, including variations on legendary beauties from China's past. On the other hand, the theme of the calendar evokes the folk custom of "new year's pictures" (nianhua), which were typically hung in the home to celebrate the Chinese lunar new year. Furthermore, these contemporary calendar posters could be seen as drawing simultaneously on some of the specifically temporal connotations of each of these earlier two visual genres. While the "new year's pictures" explicitly signaled a moment of temporal transition from one year to the next, the "beautiful woman pictures," by contrast, implicitly have the opposite effect of celebrating a kind of timeless female beauty which defied temporal specification. (2) The early twentieth century calendar posters, meanwhile, simultaneously embrace both of these tendencies: their foregrounding of actual calendars serves as a salient reminder of chronological change, (3) while their use of variations on the "beautiful woman" model would appear to suggest a more timeless, ahistorical perspective. (4)

Furthermore, these twin connotations of historical specificity and more atemporal repetitiveness are further reinforced by the fact that the calendar posters were not only explicitly used to advertise specific commodities, but furthermore they themselves have become commodities in their own right. Commodities can be seen as both unique exemplars, as well as displaced copies of other commodities--embedded in a chain of commodity consumption, whereby any single commodity may be seen as a potential replacement of an earlier commodity which has already been consumed, as well as an anticipation of a future commodity which may similarly replace the current one. Indeed, the logic of modern capitalism is arguably premised upon treating each individual commodity not only as a unique exemplar, but also as being simultaneously embedded within a double logic of economic exchange--whereby each commodity represents both a displaced substitute of actual labor processes which produced it, while also implicitly anticipating i ts own impending obsolescence and potential future replacement. (5) Furthermore, in contemporary China this link between the calendar posters and the commodity form has been given another twist, in that the posters have now become commodities in their own right, with a small industry being devoted to reprinting exact copies of a wide range of early-twentieth century posters (artificially aging the paper to make them seem more authentic), and then selling them to tourists and others.

The Emperor's Two Bodies

In the following discussion, I will explore these twin themes of temporal transition and the commoditization of individual identity, not in the calendar posters themselves, but rather in a more modern genre of "new year's pictures:" the block-buster films which have come to be considered conventional fare in Greater China during the lunar new year, or "Spring Festival," holiday season. Known as "hesui pian" (which could also be translated as "new year's pictures"), these films generally feature big-name stars, and adopt a deliberately light-hearted and parodic tone, and part of their popular appeal derives from the way in which they frequently trope on other films as well as on popular culture in general, while at the same time alluding ironically to their own status as cultural commodities. …