Images of Aging and the Aesthetic of Actuality in Chinese
Film: Reportage, Documentary, and the Art of the Real

By Charles A. Laughlin

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.2  (Fall 2019), pp. 207-248

A cultural symbolism of age was in evidence in early twentieth-century China, when the New Culture Movement of the 1920s institutionalized a fetishization of youth that would accompany revolutionary discourse for decades. Modern China’s revolution would attack the elderly representatives of cultural tradition while glorifying the purity and forward-thinking perspective of youth, who because of the innocence of their age had not yet been contaminated by reactionary thinking. The young were celebrated for their vitality, conceived not only in terms of actual strength and prowess, but their seemingly limitless potential and energy.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the meanings of both youth and old age have undergone a fundamental transformation: youth no longer signifies hope for the nation, but rather beauty, wealth, ambition, and the absence of the memories that validate the nation’s historical struggles. Today’s elders, on the other hand, are the ones who experienced China’s tumultuous twentieth century; in many cases they had been precisely those virile youths who built the nation or witnessed its emergence so long ago, yet as the elderly they are marginalized in the face of capitalist globalization, now largely silent and invisible observers of an ironically unfamiliar and unwelcoming world.

This article examines documentary and narrative films from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past 20 years in which aging and dying are visually foregrounded (even when it is not the theme of these films). This evinces an aesthetic of actuality that has played a role in modern Chinese culture since the emergence of Chinese reportage literature in the 1930s, and which can be said to have been further developed visually in documentary filmmaking since the 1990s, and later had stylistic and thematic impact on narrative film as well. The aesthetic of actuality in all of these forms counteracts the socially anodyne effects of popular culture and mainstream narrative film, giving viewers a “reality check” that undercuts the wish-fulfilling tendencies of popular visual culture, and providing a corrective to mainstream discourses on aging and many related, sensitive issues. At the same time, this study offers the opportunity to contrast the aesthetics of verbal reportage literature from the visual language of film, and how images of aging shed light on these differences.

From the point of view of popular culture, Images of the elderly and infirm represent precisely what commercial entertainment does not want to see or show; they embody authenticity and social reality, forcing the audience to think about pressing problems (including but not limited to the specific predicament of the aging, health care, end of life, etc.), as well as about history, which can only be embodied by those of advanced years. In media and popular culture, the elderly are doubly voiceless because they are relatively invisible in society just by virtue of their advanced age, but also because they have experienced painful and joyful moments in history that younger people have not. If the celebration of youth was paradigmatic in the birth of modern Chinese culture, now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the contemplation of old age has become equally paradigmatic.