Chinese cinema has a history that has stretched beyond a century, yet film scholarship in this field has only begun to flourish in the past two decades. The complexity of “Chinese cinema” is perhaps the foremost reason for this torpid movement in academia. What does being Chinese mean? At various historical and geographical moments, this question carries vastly different interpretation —lingual, racial, national and cultural— each attached to its own unique set of problems. Certainly the complications increase when we try to understand Chinese-ness in a likewise perplexing discipline: cinema. The filmic medium has been an important arena for debates and negotiations of gender, sexuality and embodiment issues, enlightening scholars on how bodies function on screen.
With this in mind, Transnational Chinese Cinema does not aim to provide all the answers to explain what Chinese cinema is or what it is not. Instead it cuts deep into the confounding entanglement, “to begin a conversation around questions of corporeality and desire” and “film production, distribution, exhibition, and reception in a transnational Chinese context” (9). The collection of ten essays puts together the perspectives of scholars at various vantage points in the film studies domain. This article aims to highlight the exceptional efforts in this critical endeavour.
The ethics of failure is a key entry point in the understanding of Transnational Chinese Cinema. In Chapter One, “The Ruined Bodies of Transnational Chinese Cinema”, Brian Bergen-Aurand offers an enlightening and innovative reading of ruins. While ruins are conventionally linked to destruction and decay, the writer reimagines it as a site for rebirth and revival, highlighting the “experience, history, memory, culture, preservation, heritage and inheritance” that comes together with it (47). A vital justification brought forth in this chapter would be the theory of the ruined gaze, which is a way of looking at films by exposing and displacing the gazes of classical apparatus theory. By directing this focus onto films such as In the Mood for Love (2000), Bergen-Aurand offers an opportunity for spectators to “rethink the ethics of neighbours and locality in regard to these films and the spectral bodies they imagine” (47).
Building on this notion of failure, Mary Mazzilli explores the strategy of failure in films of Ruan Lingyu and Lin Dai in Chapter Three, “Female Chinese Stars on Screen: Desiring the Bodies of Ruan Lingyu and Linda Lin Dai”. Mazzilli posits that a close reading of these actresses’ films unveils a resistance against traditional gazes that position women as the fetishist object of the male gaze. The failure of feminine embodiment to align itself to the directorial narrative and cinematic frame activates a spectatorship that refutes the objectification of the feminine other.
Chapter Six, “Thinking the Inutility: Temporality, Affect and Embodiment in Useless and Walker” is another remarkable piece in Transnational Chinese Cinema which follows in the same vein as the previous essays. Hongfei Liao alerts us to the dangers of capitalism throughout his piece and further illustrates how the conception of “inutilizing the inutility” in Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-liang’s documentary films could be a potent force to resist against capitalism’s belligerence. The writer warns that filmic representations of inutility run the risk of being re-appropriated by capitalist logic. Hence it is necessary to rethink a new politics of “inutilizing the inutility” that could transgress this system of consumption, “for the purpose of endlessly relaunching more action and rethinking” (151). Liao thus embraces the embodiment of failure in these films, specifically in its temporality, affect and embodiment, as it activates “the audience to judge the scene”, calling us to “problematize [the] filmic problematization and even our own problematization” (152).
Bergen-Aurand describes the transnational Chinese film model as the ideal cinematic model to address questions about film production, distribution, exhibition and also reception in the introduction essay of Transnational Chinese Cinema. Sim Jiaying explicates this notion most thoroughly in Chapter Two, “Transnational Cinema as a Matter of Address: Considering Eros and Embodiment in Wong Kar-wai’s The Hand”. Sim expounds the manner in which Wong’s short film invokes a transnational cinematic reception through an “affective mode of address” (63). Instead of relying on filmic narrative to create meaning, Sim explains that Wong’s segment in Eros (2004) rely on film style to draw out spectator desire. This is a key component in understanding what transnational cinema can do and how transnational cinema can affect audiences on an international scale, regardless of their locality.
Other remarkable essays in Transnational Chinese Cinema include Hee Wai-Siam’s comprehensive account of famous film auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s body of work in “Coming Out in the Mirror: Rethinking Corporeality and Auteur Theory with Regard to the Films of Tsai Ming-liang” and Andrew Grossman’s insightful cultural study of Hong Kong’s adult rated cinema in “Random Act of Sensible Violence: Horror, Hong Kong Censorship and the Brief Ascent of ‘Category III’”.
Overall, Transnational Chinese Cinema touches the edge of previously unexplored grounds, providing new perspectives on the ways films can be read. By incorporating the sensibilities of scholars adept in film theory, embodiment studies, philosophy and cultural studies, the collection engages insightfully with Chinese cinema, charting the way we encounter transnational Chinese cinema and how we in turn interact with it.
Transnational Chinese Cinema: Corporeality, Desire, and Ethics of Failure. Eds. Brian Bergen-Aurand, Mary Mazzilli, Hee Wai-Siam. Los Angeles: Bridge21 Publications, 2014.
Roy Lee is a film and theatre enthusiast, who is currently teaching in a Singapore secondary school.