Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Nostalgia for the Future: Home Landscape in the Films of Jia Zhangke

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Nostalgia for the Future: Home Landscape in the Films of Jia Zhangke

Article excerpt

In "Walking Distance," an episode of the Twilight Zone (a 1959 American sci-fi TV series), Martin Sloan, a 36-year-old vice president in charge of media who is tired of his present life, mysteriously walks back to his hometown of twenty-five years ago. He confesses his yearning for the past: "I've been living at a dead run and I was tired and one day I knew I had to come back. I had to come back and get on the merry-go-round, and eat cotton candy, and listen to a band concert. I had to stop and breathe, and close my eyes and smell, and listen." His father affirms his son's nostalgic impulse but directs the nostalgic gaze towards the future:

I guess we all want that. Maybe when you go back, Martin, you'll find
that there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are. Maybe
you haven't been looking in the right place. You've been looking
behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.

The story, perhaps the first example in media that explicitly offers a similar strategy to that which I propose, harnesses nostalgic feelings in such a way as to resolve individual and social issues in today's world. The story also carries a number of nostalgic motifs expressed on screen: home, hometown, family, and childhood which are the same tropes I will focus on in addressing two Chinese eco-films, Jia Zhangke's [phrase omitted] Still Life (Sanxia haoren [phrase omitted], 2006) and Smog Journeys (Ren zai maitu [phrase omitted]). (1) Amidst pressing global environmental issues, the ways in which landscape is represented and the human-nature relation is addressed in literature and media directly affect people's perceptions of environmental degradation. Aldo Leopold declares, "we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in" (251). Although nature can be molded "to fit the medium," in Derek Bouses words, cinema can also accentuate environmental ruin by putting it on display, fostering or retraining audiences' eco-consciousness, and striking a substantial impact upon our vision for a sustainable future (4).

The concept of "planetarity," defined by Gilroy and Spivak, shifts the ethics paradigm of anthropocentrism to ecocentrism in a way that allows us to reconstruct a healthy relation to nature. Through examining the structure of nostalgic feeling in cinema, I want to propose an alternative strategy of therapeutic healing and recovery of planetary existence: "Looking ahead" nostalgically. The feeling of nostalgia has always been residing at the core of human unconsciousness, although the term was coined 300 years ago in the West. Plato's remembrance of Atlantis carries a strong sense of nostalgia. To most contemporary Western critics, by contrast, nostalgia carries pejorative connotations. Raymond Williams believes nostalgia is "universal and persistent" (12). Speaking of contradiction and negation, Williams is, nevertheless, suspicious of both nostalgia (even "retrospective radicalism") and capitalism (35). Nostalgia enjoys a much more dominant position in the history of Chinese cultural discourse than it does in its western counterpart. China has carried this mode of thinking more persistently since Confucius tenaciously and religiously worshipped the ancient. To adapt Svetlana Boym's term "reflective nostalgia" to the particularities of the Chinese context, I want to argue, an anticipatory nostalgia expressed in ecocinema, rather than a passive escapism or naive utopian pursuit, can serve as an effective means to connect nature and humans, to renew cultural identity, and to reconstruct the future planet (49).

Boym introduces two nostalgias in her inspiring book The Future of Nostalgia: "restorative nostalgia" and "reflective nostalgia" (41). The former emphasizes recovery of monuments of the past, while the latter dwells in "longing and loss," "ruins," (41) and "the meditation on history and passage of time" that can project into the future (49). …

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