The Rhetoric of Local Languages as the Marginal:
Chinese Underground and Independent Films by Jia Zhangke and Others

By Jin Liu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 18, no. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 163-205

This essay sets out to understand an important phenomenon in recent Chinese cinema, namely the use of local languages in underground and independent films. The author explores the rhetorical use of local languages to represent “the marginal and the unassimilated” in Jia Zhangke’s Hometown Trilogy. In Xiao Wu, the author explores the interactions between the two spaces defined by the soundtrack–the relatively quiet, private, intimate space and the heteroglossic, public space. In Platform, the author considers the inauthenticity of Jia’s use of local languages and contends that the protagonists’ hybridized and impure dialects betray Jia’s limitation in forging a linguistic style through a negotiation between descriptive mimesis and interpretive diegesis. In Unknown Pleasures, drawing on gender studies in sociolinguistics, the author examines the implications of the divergence in the male and female protagonists’ language. Finally, the essay explores the feature of silent protagonists and sparse dialogue common to Jia’s work and other underground and independent films in local languages. Drawing on subaltern theory, the author traces the voice of the intellectuals or elites in their re-presentation of the subalterns. This study of films from the perspective of local languages suggests that when China is represented by local dialects, it is revealed as a fragmented and unassimilated country where a unified, mainstream discourse is impossible.