Memory, Subjectivity, and
Independent Chinese Cinema

By Qi Wang

Reviewed by Luke Robinson
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2015)

Qi Wang. Memory, Subjectivity, and Independent Chinese Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 360pp. ISBN: 978-0748692330 (Cloth: $120.00)

Qi Wang. Memory, Subjectivity, and Independent Chinese Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 360pp. ISBN: 978-0748692330 (Cloth: $120.00)

How is Chinese screen media implicated in the construction of a post-Maoist subjectivity and what might such a subjectivity look like? These questions have preoccupied Anglophone scholars of Chinese cinema for well over a decade. Recent writing, however, has taken its cue from the social sciences in specifically addressing the emergence of individual or personal subjectivities at the expense of the collective. Last year’s China’s iGeneration (Matthew D. Johnson, Keith B. Wagner, Tainqi Yu and Luke Vulpiani, eds., Bloomsbury 2014), for example, drew on the work of anthropologist Yunxiang Yan in framing how a new group of media-makers—the “i-Generation,” implicitly understood here as the post-80s generation—use information technology to explore plural expressions of self in their work. But where was such an “I” before the i-phone? Facetious though it might seem, this is also a serious question, and one that Qi Wang addresses in depth in Memory, Subjectivity and Independent Chinese Cinema. Wang argues that while the cinematic exploration of individual subjectivity has its roots in the early 1980s, it is primarily the responsibility of a group she terms “the Forsaken Generation.” Mostly born in the 1960s or early 1970s, this generation came of political consciousness toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. Its members are thus keenly aware of, and yet distanced from, socialist history: while never the latter’s primary actors, the legacy of socialism informed their lives in the years that followed. Such an attenuated, unstable relationship to the past has led these artists and directors both to return repeatedly to history in their films, and to question it. This dialogic process has in turn allowed them to fashion particular personal subjectivities on screen: ones that acknowledge a debt to wider social formations without being subordinate to them. In this book, Wang traces the specific filmmaking practices through which these subjectivities are expressed while analyzing their formal manifestation in a host of case studies ranging from feature film and documentary to experimental video art.

The book’s introduction outlines the conceptual parameters of Wang’s argument. Her main focus is a body of independent screen media works produced in the PRC since the early 1990s. This material addresses questions of memory, history, and individual subjectivity. Wang suggests that it is an example of what Michael Renov terms “personal filmmaking” (3): a media practice that explores the self and its relationship to the social through experimental techniques both formal and narrative. While acknowledging the infrastructural preconditions that allowed for such a film culture to emerge outside the mainstream Chinese media, Wang makes clear that her interests are neither political economy nor technological change. Instead, she is interested in how this transition manifests formally in the case studies that she analyzes. Reflexivity, narrative fragmentation, generic playfulness, a refusal of epistemic closure, an emphasis on embodied and psychological experience; all of these qualities, she suggests, are central to how Forgotten Generation filmmakers and artists generate a critical personal subjectivity in their work that allows for a reassessment of the Maoist past from the vantage of the present day. In effect, as Wang notes, attention to screen media allows us to consider how postsocialist transition registers at the scale of personal experience, rather than at the level of regional culture or national policy.

Part I—“From the Past: Subjectivity, Memory, and Narrative”—is comprised of two chapters that both address the influence of the socialist past on the present. These chapters focus primarily on issues of narrative structure and subject formation. Chapter 1 takes us right back to the question of Maoist aesthetics and subjectivity in the yangbanxi (样板戏), model theater, before considering how films from the 1980s attempt to break with these traditions. As Wang points out, the model dramas constructed an impersonal subject position for the viewer in part by flattening out the spatiality of their aesthetic. This can be understood in terms of screen space—absolute oppositions between good and evil, for example—or more figuratively, in relation to the lack of depth exhibited by key characters. Following Chris Berry and Nick Browne, Wang agrees that films from the 1980s start to explore more dynamic and unstable screen subjectivities as a way of breaking with this tradition. Reworking flattened representational space, however, is one element of this process. Through an analysis of Wu Yigong and Wu Yonggang’s Night Rain in Bashan (巴山夜雨, 1980), Wang then demonstrates how the film’s setting and cinematography generate a heterotopic space that diverges from official socialist narratives. At the same time, the introduction of an orphan child character, the daughter of the primary male protagonist who is also extraneous to the narrative of the film, allows for the exploration of personal memory and the embodied figuration of the Forsaken Generation’s perspective within the film’s narrative. Thus, Wang suggests how the concerns of Night Rain in Bashan prefigure those of 1990s personal filmmaking by over a decade.

Chapter 2 compares Fifth Generation filmmaking to the work of the Forsaken Generation. Here, the focus is on narrative and historical agency. Using Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, 1993) and Zhang Yimou’s To Live (活着, 1994) as examples, Wang argues that the relationship between human subject and history in Fifth Generation cinema is one of powerlessness. In these films, narratives are cyclical or contingently illogical; individuals respond with varying degrees of obedience or resistance, but are invariably punished regardless. Implicitly, this seems to derive from the Fifth Generation’s historical experience as sent-down youth. In contrast, Wang argues that Forsaken Generation artists seek to open up a space for individual agency while still acknowledging the power of social forces. They do so by foregrounding the role of the narrator in the representational text, an active agent in its production rather than a passive object upon which a story acts. Through case studies of Meng Jinghui’s avant-garde play I Love XXX (我爱XXX, 1994) and Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子, 1994), Wang considers how both directors use reflexive and non-linear strategies to explore the dissonances between memory and history. In consequence, as she notes in relation to Guan Hu’s Dirt (头发乱了, 1994), these works generate an active subject position vis-à-vis history, requiring a viewer to critically piece together an understanding of the past from a position in the present, rather than simply passively accepting either that history, or its narration.

The book’s second part is comprised of three chapters that address screen work from the mid-1990s on. The primary focus is on questions of performance and reflexivity, and the scope is widened to include works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Chapter 3 compares the feature films of Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye. Here, Wang’s particular interest is in how both directors play with the cinematic image and its framing to generate a self-conscious viewing subject, who sees him or herself as “a self-reflecting, critical, historical subject . . . implicated in the textual body of the film, as well as invoked in its extra-cinematic references” (95). Wang approaches Jia’s Hometown Trilogy (小武, 1997; Platform 站台, 2000; Unknown Pleasures [任逍遥], 2002) and Still Life (三峡好人, 2006) through the concept of surface, arguing that self-referential inscriptions on surfaces in the director’s key works conflate historical, narrative, and viewing time such that the audience is placed in a critically engaged relationship with both past and present. Although Lou Ye’s films deploy a radically different aesthetic than Jia’s, Wang argues that the former’s handheld camerawork, jump cuts, and subjective narratives are symptoms of a similar interest in the complex relationship between history, representation, and subjectivity.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus exclusively on documentary and experimental video, picking up from the emergence of independent documentary practices in the early 1990s. Here, the focus is specifically on personal documentary, the roots of which Wang seeks to trace back to the early 1990s. An analysis of The Square (广场, 1994, dir. Duan Jinchuan and Zhang Yuan), No.16 Barkhor South Street (八廓南街16号, 1995, dir. Duan Jinchuan), and The Storm (暴风骤雨, 2005, dir. Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue) rehearses some of the issues with the direct cinema-inspired techniques employed by the first independent documentary filmmakers in the early to mid-1990s. Then, in a move that complements her extant writing on Wu Wenguang, Wang turns to Wang Guangli’s I Graduated! (我毕业了!, 1992) and Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (铁西区, 2003), interpreting them in the light of Anglophone writing on the personal documentary. She argues that both directors make their presence felt cinematographically by pointedly returning within the films to sites of memory and loss—Shenyang and Beijing, the dying factory and the streets around Tiananmen still haunted by the deaths of 1989, respectively—bridging past and present while simultaneously performing a highly subjective response to socialist history. Although separated by almost a decade, Wang makes a strong case for understanding these two films as critical landmarks in the emergence of one strand of Chinese personal documentary practice.

Chapter 5 develops this argument further, but from the margins. The material covered here is primarily the experimental documentary and video work of women and queer directors, including Tang Danhong, Cui Zi’en, Shi Tou, Wang Qingsong, and Feng Mengbo. Wang focuses not on the camera work, but on the performance of the filmmaker’s body, or that of the filmed subject, in front of the camera. She traces how the use of the body as an expressive vehicle, whether for traumatic autobiographical reflection in Nightingale, Not the Only Voice (夜莺不是唯一的歌手, dir. Tang Danhong, 2000), to confront broader issues of sexual identity in Shi Tou and Cui Zi’en’s work, or to restage socialist history in that of Wang Qingsong and Feng Mengbo, encourages the collapse of distinctions between self and other while facilitating exploration of the construction, rather than documentation, of identity. Here, this occurs through embodied performance, but also by extension through the act of mediation itself. It is precisely these qualities, Wang argues, that allow us to categorize these works as examples of personal filmmaking in the PRC. Finally, the conclusion reiterates the book’s arguments with references to Derrida, Benjamin, and Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullet’s Fly (让子弹飞, 2010).

Memory, Subjectivity, and Independent Chinese Cinema is rich and complex. To be fully appreciated, I suspect its formal analytical focus requires a degree of familiarity with the cinematic works discussed. Furthermore, Wang’s explicit emphasis on questions of subjectivity and style over material context—whether that be production, exhibition, or reception—may frustrate those for whom Zhang Yimou, Meng Jinghui, and Shi Tou are less points on a continuum than practitioners working in quite distinct spheres. But this approach has two distinct advantages. First, it allows for suggestive connections to be made between films across almost three decades and between media forms, forcing us to reflect on what a genealogy of a contemporary Chinese “I” might look like before and beyond the digital camera. The Forsaken Generation in turn provides a staging post, a way of tracing a more subtle transition in subjectivity than the rather brutal shift often assumed between the post-1980s child and his or her predecessors. Second, the insistence on bringing fiction and non-fiction together within a single study is unusual in Chinese screen studies. Such an approach enables discussion across a generic boundary that increasingly bedevils the field, demonstrating why feature film, documentary, and video work need to be considered in dialogue with one another and with other forms of experimental cultural production. For this reason alone Wang’s book is worth reading.

Luke Robinson
University of Sussex