Transnational Chinese Cinema with a French Twist: Emily Tang Xiaobai’s
Conjugation and Jia Zhangke’s The World as Sinofrench Films

By Michelle Bloom

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 198-245

Contemporary cultural and aesthetic interactions between France and China occur not only in the realm of the visual arts and architecture, but also in literature, cinema, fashion, and cuisine. Due to the vast scope of Franco-Chinese interactions across these various domains, I focus here on one realm: cinema. I coin the term “sinofrench cinema” to refer to films in which “France” and “China” interact, be it through coproduction, financing, language, setting, or intertextuality. I consider “France” and “China” as complex and multiple in terms of geography, nation, language and culture, with the “sinofrench” encompassing metropolitan France and the Francophone world, and the sinophone world, including the mainland.

Jia Zhangke’s The World (Shijie, 2004) and Emily Tang Xiaobai’s Conjugation (Dongci bianwei, 2001), the two films I focus on here, are primarily mainland Chinese films with French connections. Both of these films are set in the mainland and depict a society that is trying to reach outward beyond its national borders, specifically, albeit not exclusively, toward France. What makes Conjugation and The World sinofrench is their representation of the French language and of French icons.

Conjugation and The World reflect each director’s commitment to portraying the Mainland and its political and socioeconomic issues in their films at the same time that they themselves and their films circulate at film festivals and arthouse venues in various parts of the world. Given the role of Hong Kong and Japan in the production of Conjugation and The World, respectively; the films’ references to France, as well as the United States and Italy; and the transnational mobility of the directors and the distribution of their films, Tang’s and Jia’s films invite us to consider the connections between China and France but also to start looking at sinofrench cinemas in a more complicated, less binary fashion than dictated by the longstanding, commonly accepted East/West dichotomy.