National Cinema, Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital The Films of Zhang Yimou
Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu
In the burgeoning field of cultural studies in China in the 1990s, Zhang Yimou's film art has been the focal point of much critical discussion.1 The international popularity of Zhang's films conveniently thematizes a set of interrelated main concerns of current cultural debates in China: the fate of Chinese national cinema in the condition of transnational capital, "cultural critique" and "cultural exhibitionism" in Fifth-Generation cinema, Third World cinema and Third World criticism, Orientalism, and postcolonialism in Chinese style.
Zhang's film art poses a central question, a paradox indeed, not only for Chinese critics themselves but for all interested cultural workers, in regard to Third World art in general: How does one re-create the Third World national allegory, through the cinematic apparatus, in the new transnational setting? What are the conditions and strategies for doing so? In the now classic essay, "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism," Fredric Jameson theorized the linkage between Third World literature and national allegory. Yet the phenomena he investigated occurred well before the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the advent of global capitalism in the 1990s. A new mapping of Third World allegory in the changed circumstances of the postnational and transnational era remains to be done.2 To me, New Chinese Cinema, especially Zhang's film art, is paradigmatic of the fate and predicament of Third World culture in our present time.
It seems to me that the reinvention of Chinese national cinema through an indigenous cultural critique of the Chinese nation and the creation of what we may call "transnational Chinese cinema" with the support of transnational capital are the twin main aspects that underlie Zhang's film art. His films have attracted a large international audience precisely because they are regarded as authentically "national," "Chinese," and "Oriental." Thus, an indigenous cultural critique through the medium of national cinema becomes at the same time a cultural sellout of the Chinese nation in the international film market.