Trauma and History in Chinese Film:
Reading The Blue Kite Against Melodrama

By Ban Wang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 11, no. 1, pp.125-156

Do films dealing with the past teach us anything valuable about history? Or do they distract us from a real confrontation with historical experience by their display of emotion and melodrama? The answer would depend on what kind of films you are talking about. In this essay, the author places contemporary Chinese films in a broad context of reconstructing China’s traumatic history. He looks closely at how melodramatic films, such as Xie Jin’s Hibiscus Town (Furong zhen), work to induce emotional relief and satisfaction at the expense of a critical understanding of history. To suggest, on the other hand, that films about historical events can indeed contribute to a critical historical consciousness, I turn to Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (Lan fengzheng). Released in 1993, when the fifth generation had already grown out its historically reflective vein and ideological agenda, Blue Kite pushes further the critical historical consciousness so remarkable in the earlier phase of the generation. By contrasting Xie Jin’s melodramatic films with the trauma-ridden Blue Kite, we will be able to bring to a sharper relief ways Chinese cinema works in reconstructing the past and coming to terms with traumatic memory. Xie Jin’s films, the author argues, obscure and smooth down a traumatic, complex history, whereas Tian Zhuangzhuang’s work engages and questions the received patterns of historical narrative. The author concludes that in Blue Kite we can see the stirring of an emergent critical historical consciousness rarely found in Chinese historical discourse.