The Laborer at Play: Laborer’s Love, the Operational Aesthetic, and the Comedy of Inventions

By Xinyu Dong

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 1-39

This essay examines the first extant Chinese film, Laborer’s Love (1922), not from the perspective of its preservation status as the “first” but as a comedy. By situating the film in both the context of the urban entertainment culture of Shanghai and the broad intertextual field of world comedies, such as works of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and G. A. Smith, the author highlights its participation in the playful global film scenes and the transcultural practices of what could be called “repetition-as-difference.” Dong demonstrates that the comic appeal of the inventive laborer-carpenter and his love’s labor attest to a fascination of the industrial age with the way things work: an operational aesthetic.

The author introduces the notion of the “operational aesthetic” to the study of film comedy in particular and of modern Chinese cultural politics in general. Developing Tom Gunning’s discussion of the term with regard to early mischief comedy and an American popular tradition, she draws an analogy between the laborer-carpenter’s delight in mechanical and optical devices and early Chinese filmmakers’ fascination with the film medium and their entrepreneurial operational interest in making the domestic film industry work. As a comedy of inventions and inventiveness, Laborer’s Love celebrates the invention of cinema by supplying cognitive spectatorial pleasures to the viewing public of the new Republic.