Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender

By Sheldon Hsiao-Peng Lu | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
The Concubine and the Figure of History Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine

Wendy Larson

Yuejin Wang has pointed out an ironic cross-cultural situation: it is precisely the films of the Fifth-Generation directors, films that posit a "cultural identity that the current Chinese public are reluctant to identify, and which they keep at arm's length" that have received acclaim abroad as a "cinematic representation of Chinese culture."1Wang elaborates the cinematic codes that bear cultural specificity to China -- understatement in emotional rhetoric, exploration of emotional subtlety, indulgence in faint sadness, a "distracted" narrative structure, and the evocation of familiar lyrical motives from traditional poetics, as well as other common characteristics such as lyricizing about departure, absence, and memory.2 It is these codes that are broken in some Fifth-Generation films such as Red Sorghum, which through "the bold indulgence in violence with sound and fury" and "the shift from the quiet back alleys of townscape to the dusty and naked land" constructs a radically new cinematic code and national identity.3 Eventually himself sliding into the position of the Fifth-Generation directors, Wang claims that while earlier films "lick the wounds" of the Cultural Revolution, Red Sorghum violently shatters any illusion of an innocent utopia and shows how the "indulgence in emotional delicacy for its own sake" and the traditional virtues of restraint and concealment are in fact historical restraints that limit action and fulfillment.4

Wang is careful to point out that the so-called Chinese cinematic codes are neither absolute nor unchanging but are really a combination of traditional Chinese theatrical consciousness, the "grammatical mold" of classical Hollywood, Chinese didacticism, and Soviet dogmatism.5 Nonetheless, he sides with the Fifth-Generation directors in their implicit critique of the "physiology and the pathology" of the Chinese social psyche and situates this bent against the fact that now cultural identity is only meaningful when it is "posited against the Western Other"6 -- to do something else is an "indulgence" that results in complacence. As Wang implies, entry into the

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