Academic journal article CineAction

To Live and Dye in China: The Personal and the Political in Zhang Yimou's Judou

Academic journal article CineAction

To Live and Dye in China: The Personal and the Political in Zhang Yimou's Judou

Article excerpt

"You should have plugged it up."

Tianqing to Judou (in Judou)

The allegorical content in many of Zhang Yimou's films has frequently been acknowledged: gruesome past standing in for repressive present; feudal-era subjugation of women mirroring oppression not only of their Communist-era counterparts but of Chinese citizens in general in the post-Maoist People's Republic. (1) What has largely been overlooked is how metaphor in a major work such as Judou (1989) can be extended to Zhang's own life experiences, particularly his controversial romantic liaison with the film's star, Gong Li, and his contentious political relations with the Mainland Chinese regime. (2) Judou, from this perspective, can be regarded as an intensely personal text. This is not to deny the film's symptomatic or historically contingent meanings or to favor a "self"-indulgent, narrowly auteurist reading. It is, however, to acknowledge that the biographical and the ideological intersect in Judou to an inordinate degree. The tale of doomed lovers who meet in a dye mill, a setting uncannily evocative of a film studio/processing lab, is redolent of the circumstances surrounding Zhang's own struggles with the Communist regime, struggles that are readily transcribable onto those of the Chinese people as a whole.

The dye mill, where the lovers' carnal passions are aroused and where they meet their tragic fate, is the key trope in the film. By folding this symbol of the cinematic apparatus back into the biographically informed narrative, and by imbricating its technological sense of "cinematic machine" with its psychoanalytic inflection of "mental machine," this essay will examine the ways in which cinema generally, and specifically in relation to the life and work of Zhang Yimou, can been seen as enabling yet also frustrating desire on both the personal and political levels.

Any attempt to link the "self" of the filmmaker with the political ramifications of his work demands, almost by definition, some form of auteurist approach. I am fully aware of the pitfalls, from a poststructuralist standpoint, of such an approach: the tendency to isolate and overestimate individual elements in a collaborative medium; the privileging of artist's intention over social and political forces. (3) To minimize these limitations, I will employ a nuanced auteurism drawn from a notion of Jenny Kwok Wah Lau's (derived from Paul Ricoeur), of the text as a "double world." Text, in this sense, is perceived not as ahistorical or autonomous but as the function of a dialectic between autonomous text and discourse; between the semiotic sphere, which explains what is said, and the semantic sphere, which points toward and appropriates a world projected by the text. (4) Embedded in this "projected world," no less than the historical reader, is the text's biographical author. With this adjustment, a methodology e merges that neither buries the author nor canonizes her/him, yet that provides a hermeneutical space within which s/he can "operate." (5)

Auteurism, Chinese Style

In the historical period known as the New Chinese Cinema (1983-present), Zhang Yimou remains inseparably linked with the so-called "Fifth Generation" filmmakers. The term "Fifth Generation" was first used by Chinese film critics in 1984 to describe a group of zhiqing ("young urban intellectual") directors engaged in bold explorations of content and style. (6) The term allegedly referred to the group's status as the fifth graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy, which was founded in 1955. However, such a tabulation fails to work out mathematically. A broader chronological explanation places the Fifth Generation in the framework of Chinese cinema history: First Generation (1905-1937), from the silent era through the beginning of the War of Resistance against Japan; Second Generation (1937-1949), from the war with Japan through the Civil War; Third Generation (1949-1978), from the Communist takeover of Mainland China through the death of Mao and the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy, which had been clos ed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); Fourth Generation (1978-1983), from the reopening of the film academy through the graduation of its first post-reopening class; Fifth Generation (1983-1989), from the first film by a member of this graduating class, Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight, through the Tiananmen Square Massacre. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.