Urban Horror:
Neoliberal Post-Socialism and the Limits of Visibility

By Erin Y. Huang

Reviewed by Hongwei Thorn Chen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February, 2022)

Erin Y. Huang, Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-Socialism and the Limits of Visibility Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 288 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-0809-5 (Paperback); ISBN: 978-1-4780-0679-4 (Cloth).

In Baober in Love (恋爱中的宝贝, 2004), Li Shaohong’s 李少红 bizarre adaptation of the French romantic comedy Amelie (2001), the eponymous character is introduced with a surrealist montage. A baby is attacked by a cat in a garbage dump. A child, clad in red, encounters a cat monster as school lets out. In a stylized and CGI-laden scene of demolition, the same child screams in terror as the roof to her Beijing courtyard house is removed, and, in a 360-degree orbital shot, a skyline filled with high rises forces itself onto the horizon. The adult Baober, played by Zhou Xun 周迅, is later shown stalking Liu Zhi 刘志, her teenage crush, in a shopping mall, the consumerist utopia that has emerged out of the urban ruins. Their ensuing relationship, consummated in another shopping mall, is troubled by a quarrel over interior decor, as Liu attempts to fill the couple’s apartment loft—located in a repurposed factory—with designer furniture, which the film shows to reenact the demolition of Baober’s home, and more broadly, the effacement of her embodied historical experience.

Li Shaohong’s feminist psychodrama centered on consumerist interiors is one of the many films discussed in Urban Horror, Erin Y. Huang’s expansive phenomenological study of film and urban space in contemporary greater China. Drawing on contemporary theory and an eclectic array of cinematic texts from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Huang’s book pursues a thrilling and sophisticated analysis—or what she calls a Marxist phenomenology—of horror as a public affect in the postsocialist Sinocentric system. For Huang, “horror” does not name a cinematic or literary genre populated with recognizably monstrous figures; rather, it is a “historical mode of perception arising when the perceived external reality exceeds one’s internal frame of comprehension,” a set of affects and sentiments that accrue in bodies as they are violently restructured by neoliberal postsocialism, the author’s term for the economic rationality of the present (6).

Marxist Phenomenology, the theoretical framework Huang develops in the book, aims to build a means of describing the body’s felt—and not necessarily intelligible—relation to the historical epoch and its strategies of power. The approach is premised on Friedrich Engels’ observation that in nineteenth century Manchester, everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch” (quoted on p. 9). Unlike other strands of materialist critique, which would attempt to find the origins of this horror in a knowable present, Huang’s Marxist Phenomenology dwells in horror as a complex sentiment, one that contains occluded pasts and potential futures that cannot be named. In this sense, the dehistoricized interior of the Beijing factory loft in Baober is, perhaps, paradigmatic of this neoliberal postsocialist horror. The factory, a key topos of the socialist imaginary, was also the site of its suppressed contradictions, of which state feminism’s disavowal of the particularities of gendered embodiment was one. When the factory is transformed into a designer interior, socialism’s unfinished business does not go away, but rather becomes entangled in neoliberalism’s strategies of controlling femininity through consumer culture and domestic space. What does go away, however, are the ideological and cognitive frameworks that make the future that the factory promises legible: the factory loft thus becomes a monstrous space.

Urban Horror is a sprawling, complex, and challenging book, full of acute theoretical insights and detailed close readings of narrative and documentary films. From the perspective of modern Chinese cultural studies, one of the book’s most poignant interventions is its phenomenological and spatial reframing of the term postsocialism, which, like other “posts” (such as postcolonial, postmodern, poststructural, and postcinematic, to name a few), is notoriously slippery, declaring a rupture with the past while referring back to it as an anchor for the present. If some scholars theorize postsocialism as an era in which the unrealized promises of socialism can be crafted anew (Dirlik 1989; Zhang 2008), others point to the proliferation of cultural logics and economic rationalities that suture the formerly socialist world into global neoliberal capitalism (Harvey 2005; McGrath 2008). For Huang, it is precisely this crisis of periodization, the unresolved relationship between the socialist “past” and the neoliberal “present,” that characterizes China’s neoliberal postsocialism as a theoretical impasse. As she suggests, the simplistic bifurcation of past and present cannot hold, as the economic, political, and social dispositifs of both socialism and neoliberalism continue to operate, often in conjunction. Complementing the temporal register of debates about postsocialism, Huang develops a spatial analytic, taking as her main inspiration Henri Lefebvre, who in his 1967 The Production of Space observed the complicity between capitalist and socialist strategies of organizing space or, more accurately, of “rendering space reproducible through abstraction, homogenization, and repetition” (Huang 22). After the collapse of the geopolitical oppositions of the Cold War, these complicities come into view: socialism loses its territorial specificity, and Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to a different degree the Global South and the capitalist West, all become a part of the space-time of Chinese postsocialism.

Urban Horror, however, is not a history of urban space. As phenomenology, it is interested in how space is experienced by embodied subjects and, moreover, how the affects accumulated in bodies are projected into the future. Cinema, for Huang, is the privileged medium for circulating embodied affect and imagining futures. The book’s five chapters hence proceed with theoretically informed close readings of individual films, grouped sometimes thematically and other times by auteur. For the most part, she avoids the films that can generically be categorized as horror, assembling instead a collection of art films, gallery videos, documentaries, and misunderstood (and often failed) commercial blockbusters. Referencing Rey Chow’s (2012) discussion of mediatic capture, Huang argues that film—taken loosely to include video and digital media—does more than record reality; it transforms, partitions, and communicates it, serving as the constitutive infrastructure for contemporary experience and its speculative projections. A “dispersed and contingent network of circulation” for mediating unnamable affects, film registers, reworks, and disseminates urban horror while seeking to work out the relationships between the sensible and intelligible, the affects that are registered on the body and those that can be comprehended by language (26).

This analytical framework is immediately put to the test in chapter 1, which builds Huang’s spatial argument about the indiscernibility between socialist and capitalist spatial logics through the representation of factory spaces in several films spanning the Mao era and the postsocialist present. Citing video artist Harun Farocki’s provocation in Workers Leaving the Factory (1995), an essay film that suggests that labor is rendered invisible throughout cinema history, Huang attends to the motif of the factory gate as the threshold that separates the inside of factories from the broader social world. As part of a spatial machinery that conceals the exploitation of labor in an enclosed interior, the factory is a “a site of tension where human labor as life and as a thing comes into conflict” (34). In socialist films, such as Resplendent Light (Xu Ke 许珂 1949) and Fiery Youth 青春似火 (Dong Kena 董克娜 1976), this tension is disavowed in favor of the heroic figure of the worker. This ideological synthesis is not without its internal inconsistencies: the latter film, made at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, attempts to celebrate both the full automation of factory work and the heroic status of the laboring human. In the market-era films that Huang addresses in the second half of the chapter, the socialist factory becomes one of the “primary cultural sites where the transition from socialism to post-socialism is negotiated and visualized” (60). In Zhang Meng’s 张猛 whimsical drama The Piano in a Factory 钢的琴 (2010), the protagonist recruits laid-off workers to build a piano for his daughter, making use of an abandoned steel factory. This labor of love becomes a way of reliving the rhythms of factory life under socialism, while also effacing the objectification of the laboring body on the assembly line, not to mention the violent restructuring of the labor force in the 1990s. Factory labor, both past and present, defies transparent representation, a fact that is also evident in the other films discussed in the chapter, which include Jia Zhangke’s 贾樟柯 A Touch of Sin 天注定 (2013) and 24 City 二十四城记 (2008), as well as Cao Fei’s 曹斐 gallery video Whose Utopia (2006). The latter, shot on a Siemens art grant that gave Cao access to the company’s Guangzhou light bulb factory, partitions the production process, the workers’ art projects, and portraitures of their faces into disconnected segments that each project a different future without being sutured into an ideological whole. For Huang, such cinematic strategies gesture toward the heterogenous ways in which bodies inhabit the factory space and of inhabiting and sensing the everyday that harbor the “possibilities of collective action to create something radically different” (Lefebvre quoted in Huang, 65).

If chapter 1 attends to the space of the forces of production—the factory—chapter 2 turns to domestic housing as the space of consumption and social reproduction. Here, the neoliberal privatization of urban space—most notably the demolition of socialist era housing systems and massive urban redevelopment—reenacts domesticity as a space for controlling female bodies. Through close readings of the urban films of the Fifth Generation director Li Shaohong, Huang examines how “the legacies of Mao-era state feminism are considered alongside a global media network that circulates and reproduces commodified femininity” (72). In between socialist state feminism and postsocialist consumer fantasies, female subjectivity goes doubly misrecognized, but Li’s films, in their narration of tortured women protagonists, limn the “making of neoliberal post-socialism from below, in the rituals of everyday life, in acts as common as interior decoration where a post-socialist urban future is collectively rehearsed and experienced” (99). The traumatic and objectifying imprints of interior decoration are indeed the key to Baober in Love, which is the centerpiece of the chapter. Released on Valentine’s Day as a CGI-filled romantic blockbuster—misleading marketing that led to bewildered audiences and critics—the film experiments with the degree to which commodifiable genre formulas can encompass postsocialist femininity. They cannot, but in their repeated rehearsals of gender roles and consumerism, they make palpable desires and traumas occluded by both socialism and neoliberal consumer culture, desires that, symptomized by Baober’s phantom pregnancy in the film, gesture toward a “different futurity” (100).  As in her other urban films, including The Door 门and Stolen Life 生死劫, Li works strategically with the essentialized markers of sexual difference—characteristic of market-era feminism’s rediscovery of female sexuality—sketching out the ways women’s bodies harbor a differential experience of the everyday in neoliberal postsocialism.

Chapter 3 takes up directly the role of technological media in constructing the temporal experience of neoliberal post-socialism. Here, the focus turns to independent documentary, a regime of image-making bolstered by digital media, and one that responds to the “desire and demand of seeing post-ness, a task that requires the reorchestration of time” (103). Here, Huang offers what is perhaps her most compelling argument as to why neoliberal postsocialism is experienced as distinctively urban horror. As she argues, the spectacle of urbanization of Chinese cities in and after the 1990s, the demolition of old housing and the development of high-rise apartments and shopping malls, is one of the ways in which the radically uneven transformations of everyday life after socialism become most legibly thematized as linear change—as a socialist past receding before a capitalist present. Also presumed to be working outside and against state power, independent documentary participates in its own regime of hegemonic visibility, sustained by non-profit global media networks and the “demand for visible evidence of China’s post-socialist transformations” (140). Challenging this reductive schema, Huang turns to a set of documentaries that attend to the gaps between periodizing categories and the uneven patterns of the everyday.

The chapter begins with the French filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s L’Est, a film that shows how, despite the fall of the Berlin wall and the proclaimed “end” of socialism, life in East Berlin continued to adhere to everyday rhythms that were not noticeably changed. Akerman’s insights into the relationship between everyday life and historical narrative informs Huang’s magisterial reading of Cong Feng’s 丛峰 Stratum 1: The Visitors 地层1:来客 (2012), a demolition documentary that plays with the temporal experience of urban change. Images of demolition have become the most recognizable face of China’s urban transformation, yet Cong’s approach to urban ruins, as Huang shows, prompt a reflexive contemplation of the act of viewing such images, or “ruin gazing” (115). Split into two parts, the film begins with oral history interviews, with interviewees walking through the ruins of a recent demolition site. Urban ruins here become a site of nostalgic recollection, yet, as the film slowly reveals, the memories recalled become less and less localizable to the space in which their recollection is filmed. In the second half of the film, Cong uses extensive time axis manipulation to picture the process of demolition (and its reversal) from a non-human perspective, with a camera positioning that emphasizes the “nonselective selection” of the impassive recording apparatus (128).

This nonlinear approach to the image of urban ruins, for Huang, reflects on “the ephemerality of remembrance in the expanding digital archive of disappearance,” and the role that digital cinema plays in both recording and extinguishing memory (128). Compared to her complex and appreciative reading of Stratum 1, Huang’s comments on Huang Weikai’s 黄伟凯 celebrated documentary Disorder 现实是过去的未来 (2009) are short and critical. Turning heterogeneous images from for-sale videographic footage into uniform grainy digital black and white, the film, she argues, flattens the temporality of urban life into an “intensive present,” offering a more commodifiable image of contemporary China as (carefully edited) urban chaos (140). The comparison of the two films leads to a sophisticated assessment of independent documentaries and how they orchestrate the visibility of the postsocialist urban landscape. Documentary images are capable of making palpable the “the accumulation of extinguished pasts and irrecoverable gaps of knowledge” that exceed comprehension—hence registering urban horror—but not all documentaries do so (131).

Chapters 4 and 5 turn from Mainland China to Hong Kong and Taiwan, spaces that are not traditionally considered as being part of the matrix of postsocialism. Yet, if postsocialism refers to the undoing of Cold War geopolitical divisions between East and West, the precarious and exceptional status of Hong Kong and Taiwan in the contemporary era are most certainly a product of it. Hong Kong, as Huang argues in chapter 4, was always a borderland, but in postsocialism it is produced as a space of exception, a “nonplace” connected to the nexus of free trade zones that include Shenzhen and Dongguan, designed to facilitate the flow of capital and goods. Here, the felicity of Lefebvre’s spatial analysis reveals itself again. The urbanization of Hong Kong turns it into a replicable “infrastructural” space, in which the totality of the city itself recedes against the horizon of the “spatial software of urbanization” (155).

The films of Fruit Chan 陈果, the texts at the center of this chapter, map the “semi-social experiences, vague dissatisfactions, and speculative feelings” that accrue in the transformation of Hong Kong into a nonplace of circulation (157). Rather than seeing Chan’s films, as is commonplace, as manifestations of anxiety over the loss of Hong Kong identity, Huang reads them, in particular his bizarre apocalypse film The Midnight After 那夜凌晨, 我坐上了旺角开往大埔的红VAN (2014), as speculative fictions about the “not yet nameable” feelings accruing from a city that has become a proliferation of special zones and circulatory networks (167). As the remaining denizens of the city face an unexplained apocalypse, they begin donning makeshift personal protection equipment—goggles, masks—that bear an eerie similarity to the scenes from the Umbrella Movement protests of later that year and the anti-extradition protests in 2019. Images contain futures that they do not yet know. Yet, in making this observation, Huang does not seek to establish a causal link. Instead, The Midnight After is a “rehearsal” for what was to come, the manifestation of a “longer history of affective and sensory accumulations and intensities” (149). Disclosed through Marxist phenomenology, Chan’s films become speculative rehearsals of forms of embodied sensing that can resist reduction to an object circulating in a borderless world.

The book’s final chapter discusses Taiwan, historically a “quintessential in-between space” caught at the intersection of empires and Cold War power blocs, through the oeuvre of the Malaysian Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮. As in Hong Kong, the post-condition in Taiwan involves increasing economic interconnectedness with the Mainland, but Taiwan’s history as a Japanese colony and its Cold War role as a bulwark against communism position it differently. “Rather than referring to a physically tangible space, Taiwan refers to the historical condition of subjection to multiple systems of inclusive exclusions,” as Huang puts it (189). Tsai’s films tarry with the multiple and overlapping systems of “strategic nonrecognition” that define the island nation, but they do so without treating Taiwan as a coherent referent of identity politics (189). Indeed, across Tsai’s films, it is the urban facades of neoliberal development that cause Taiwan to recede into an absent presence, and which also connect Taiwan to other South Pacific nations such as the Philippines and Malaysia. Tsai’s slow cinema, which eschews narrative and dialogue in favor of the “visible-incomprehensible” of everyday rhythms and embodied sensing, offers a channel for seeing precarious life as an accumulation of mundane urban horrors (191). Tsai’s Buddhism-inspired aesthetics occupies an important place in Huang’s analysis of his films. His abstract and empty landscapes and his focus on human bodies in sustained embodied acts—breathing, eating, urinating, sleeping, crying—are, as Huang suggests, efforts to think the relationship between bodies and neoliberal spaces as void, but ones that defy the “capitalist definition of nothingness—a strict division of presence and absence based on assigned values” (216).

The significance of this nothingness becomes clear in The Hole 洞 (1998), where during an epidemic quarantine, a hole in the ceiling, the product of an unfinished plumbing job, connects two apartments and puts two lives in intimate proximity. In Tsai’s oeuvre, Huang points out, interior plumbing (elsewhere thematized by the space of the bathroom) is foundational to the modern distribution of the sensible, dividing cleanliness from filth and what is valuable from what is disposable. The hole is thus “not only the architectural hole between two apartments but also a symbolic fracturing of a claustrophobic architectural segmentation designed to economize space” (207). In Huang’s estimation, the holes between apartments, like the gaps between mute characters and recorded pop music in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone 黑眼圈 (2006), become ways of making visible new distributions of the sensible that inhabit the landscapes of neoliberal postsocialism.

As a whole, the chapters offer a compelling case for how horror can serve as a phenomenological analytic for the experience of China’s postsocialist present, which, as the book’s epilogue reiterates, is not so much about the “now” as it is about the future of a disavowed past. Departing from the prevailing focus on how cultural texts consciously parse monstrosity, Urban Horror offers a novel approach to horror as a technologically mediated affect that crystallizes the overdetermined field of historical forces pushing us into the future. As mentioned above, Huang also demonstrates the power of the Lefebvreian spatial analytic in mapping the production of socialist and postsocialist spaces, complicating the tendency of area studies fields to localize socialism’s legacy in clearly contained national contexts.

The most rewarding parts of Huang’s book are its virtuosic close readings, which offer fresh insights into the more difficult and often misunderstood aspects of the films it considers (its readings of Baober in Love and Stratum 1, in my opinion, stand out in this respect). Huang’s prolific use of theoretical citations offer the reader a glimpse into her multifaceted conceptual inspirations, but it also slows down and sometimes obscures the elaboration and follow-through of its arguments. The book’s negative definition of urban horror—as that which exceeds naming and intelligibility—is also not without its problems. For one, there are a variety of experiences that exceed cognition that are not always horrifying, and for Huang’s characterization of horror to hold, she must always return to the conceptual categories that horror defies. In chapter 5, for example, Huang aligns Tsai Ming-liang’s approach to filming precarious subjects doing “nothing” with the Buddhist aesthetics of the void, differentiating the latter from the void abhorred by capitalism and Western philosophy (the latter described by Leszek Kolakowski as “metaphysical horror”). The “nothing” in Buddhism and in Tsai’s cinema is different from the “horror of not knowing,” but for it to be taken as horror, one must presuppose capitalism’s view of nothingness as lack (198). Such references to residual intellectual frameworks are perhaps part and parcel of the challenge of writing in the era of the post-, where modernist Cold War categories remain operative if no longer nameable as such, but Huang’s book could more clearly elaborate its own position in this impasse. The practice of naming forms of life that are irreducible to the imaginaries of Sinocentric neoliberal postsocialism may indeed be essential to building futures not constrained by it. This difficulty, however, should not take away from what remains a thrilling and illuminating analysis of Chinese postsocialist mediascapes. Erin Y. Huang’s book is a powerful and timely piece of speculative theory and film criticism, a pressing read for scholars of modern and contemporary China, film and media studies, and the study of postsocialist culture.

Hongwei Thorn Chen
Tulane University


Chow, Rey. Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Dirlik, Arif. “Postsocialism? Reflections on ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’.” Critical Asian Studies 21, no. 1 (1989): 33-44.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Blackwell, 1991.

McGrath, Jason. Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Zhang, Xudong. Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.