Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas

By Geng, Song | The China Journal, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas


Geng, Song, The China Journal


Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas, by Song Hwee Lim. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. xviii + 247 pp. US$54.00 (hardcover).

This monograph, which grows out of the author's PhD dissertation, is the first sophisticated analysis of representations of male homosexuality in transnational Chinese cinemas. The author's insightful readings on a selected group of movies are supported by exhaustive scholarship and break new ground. The study, which borrows heavily from queer theory and from other Western theorists such as Michel Foucault, Kaja Silverman, Judith Butler and Roland Barthes exemplifies a comparative and theoretical approach to Chinese cinematic texts.

As the title suggests, the study addresses the issue of male "homosexuality" in "Chinese cinemas". As definitions of both terms are in fact highly disputable, Lim is wise enough to provide at the outset a brief and lucid explanation of the two terms from a constructionist perspective. Chapter 1 then discusses the situations of Chinese cinemas against the context of "a new global cultural economy" and probes the dynamic interplay between cinematic representations and societal changes regarding homosexuality in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The main body of the book consists of five chapters, devoted to critical readings of seven Chinese-language films since the 1990s. Chapter 2 examines the "burden of representation" for Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet as the first "gay film" in contemporary Chinese cinemas. Particularly intriguing is its nuanced political reading of the three characters in the film and the significances of their backgrounds: a Chinese man from Taiwan, a white American gay and a girl student from the mainland. Chapter 3 focuses on two mainland Chinese films, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace. Once again, Lim employs political reading strategies and relates femininity in the two films with "the self-exiled artist-intellectual's relationship to his nation" (p. 88). The discussion also touches upon cross-dressing in Chinese operas and the feminized space for intellectuals/ministers in Confucian tradition. Chapter 4 reads Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together as a political allegory of the subtle and complex relationship between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland against the backdrop of Hong Kong's return to China in 1997. The desire to "start over" and to be "happy together" relates to this context. Lim also offers an analysis that "focuses on the negotiation of travelling sexualities in the gobetween space created as a site of tension between home and away" (p. 108). Chapter 5 deals with Tsai Ming-liang's queer cinema, in particular Rebels of the Neon God and The River. Lim focuses on "a poetics of desire that is deeply confessional" and argues that Tsai problematizes the act of representation itself and challenges an essentialist sexual identity.

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