Homecoming: Poetry as Relational
Space in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

By Mei Yang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.1  (Spring 2021), 223-270

This essay focuses on three Chinese films made around the 2010s: Jia Zhangke’s 24 City (2008), Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (2012), and Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (2015). These films attest to the two somewhat variant but at times concomitant methods in which contemporary Chinese films incorporate poetry as a cinematic medium—either through interpolating verses on film images to achieve a hybrid visuality or through scenes in which characters narrate poems under specific circumstances. What connects these films, besides their use of poetry, is a thematic thread showing the tension between displacement and homecoming, with episodes of characters who were formerly displaced or exiled now taking a journey back home. By examining the interrelation between the written language and the visual language of a film, this study not only inquires into filmmakers’ formalistic innovations but also speaks to the overarching issues of history, space, and subjectivity.

In all three films, poetry provides a reflexive commentary on the influence of (national) history on local lives and personal memories. In their contemplation on life in remote regions, Chai Chunya and Bi Gan continue Jia’s reexamination of modernity and exploration of alternative possibilities. But in Chai’s and Bi’s films, poems and the personae of poets play a more essential role as a medium that propels spatial and perspectival transitions indicative of a coeval and relational space. The author argues that in these films made in the new millennium, poetry denotes a connection with an abandoned past and portrays a locality that is multidimensional, inhabitable, and, for that reason, can be returned to. They differ from 1980s films that portray history as elusive and violent while also diverging from 1990s films that depict unofficial stories removed from any grandiose meaning. Instead, to a varying degree, these films reflect on or challenge a linear and progressive view of history through the life of a local space. At their best moments, these films hint at a new way to understand the world, a cosmology that reimagines the other not as a distant past but as a contemporaneous participant.