Academic journal article CineAction

Music and Femininity in Zhang Yimou's Family Melodrama

Academic journal article CineAction

Music and Femininity in Zhang Yimou's Family Melodrama

Article excerpt

AS THE "DRAMA WITH MUSIC," MELODRAMA HAS MAINTAINED an intimate and volatile relationship with music. While in the nineteenth century it represented and confirmed bourgeois values, melodrama "takes on new life in the twentieth century with the invention of film and with the development of the classical Hollywood film industry." (1) Although Hollywood melodramas are said to be conventional and formulaic, they may also have revolutionary potential. Thomas Elsaesser, for example, maintains that some melodramas can aspire to serious social and aesthetic achievements. Although many factors are involved in the making of a sophisticated melodrama, Elsaesser demonstrates that music is an integral part of the genre and a key mode of representation.

Elsaesser defines melodrama as "a dramatic narrative in which musical accompaniment marks the emotional effects." (2) As an essential part of melodrama, music has been used and interpreted variously in melodramatic movies. On the one hand, music in classical Hollywood melodrama performs atmospheric and psychological functions. It punctuates the mood of the actions, anchors the visual meaning of the film, and renders the individual an untroubled viewing subject. On the other hand, the unique features of musical representation also provide more radical and artistic means of signification. This paper attempts to explore the potential and the limit of film music's disruptive power by examining the role music plays in the construction of femininity in two of Zhang Yimou's family melodramas: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and Red Sorghum (1987).

In the case of Classical Hollywood Cinema, music traditionally plays an appeasing and harmonizing role reminiscent of that of the mother. Its purpose is not to provide rational or analytic information but rather to affect the spectator in an immediate and direct, if unconscious fashion. This kind of music performs a maternal function resolving tension and transporting spectators to the makebelieve cinematic world. Claudia Gorbman talks about how easylistening music in the supermarket renders the consumer an untroublesome social subject. (3) She suggests a parallel function for classical film music: it lulls the spectator into an untroublesome viewing position. Music in this category proceeds from and follows the image. Meanings are explicated by the image track. As a result, the sound track rarely speaks, only echoes.

According to Gorbman, traditional film music "interprets the image, pinpoints and channels the `correct' meaning of the narrative events depicted" and prevents "the spectator's potential recognition of the technological basis of filmic articulation." (4) The two most important roles of background music are described as "semiotic (as ancrage)" and "psychological (as suture or bonding)." (5) Generally music works as "ancrage" to "anchor the image more firmly in meaning," (6) often at the cost of the complexity of the filmic representation. It also sutures or binds the audience into unmediated spectators. Because of its powerful emotional impact on the spectator, musical codes, especially nondiegetic music, have been exploited to elicit direct and full audience involvement in the story.

Its subservient role and "raw emotionalism" have caused film music to be stereotypically described as "feminine." Many feminists object to the feminine metaphor for its implication that music, like woman, has to rely upon the word of others for articulation in classical films. They choose instead to explore music's potential to open an avenue for expressing women's desires. Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and many other feminists have argued that "music's relatively abstract qualities permit a greater play of signification, a greater flexibility of meaning" and that "the practice of music can unsettle patriarchal symbolic structures and modes of subject formation." (7) In this sense, film music will not only anchor and reinforce the visual meaning of the film, but also offer commentary and critique of its own. …

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