Shelly on Film: Between the Cracks of Capitalist China

By Shelly Kraicer

Photo courtesy of TreeHugger.com

Photo courtesy of TreeHugger.com

It’s always an interesting time to be in China, a place seemingly without uninteresting times. To be here now, though, lets you see a singular moment in society floating, unpinned, somewhere in between two bankrupt ruling ideologies. The collapse of official Communism/Maoism/Socialism with Chinese characteristics, as the ruling thinking evolved from pre-Liberation through the Cultural Revolution to post-Mao Dengism, is the keynote for lots of standard accounts of China today.

Traditional Chinese culture was, for a time, obliterated by various more or less radical and institutional versions of leftist ideology. These slowly disappeared in fact, though the rote sloganeering formulas persist, especially around the “liang hui” or annual meeting of the Chinese government’s legislative bodies, that took place in the spring. Following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and the unbridled embrace of wealth-concentration and manifest corruption in the Jiang Zemin era, the new god became capitalism, in its rawest, unregulated forms. Free market ideology imported from its Western exponents has washed over China, pushing some groups and regions ahead, leaving millions in the interior and the countryside, behind. Now that financial market capitalism is having its own profound existential crisis in the West, does China have to think about tossing out its brand new ruling ideology, right on top of the refuse of the old one? It’s enough to cause a case of ideological whiplash.

What happens when an unstable society starts to face the possibility that its hot new set of ideological nostrums might be just as insubstantial as those it has just recently thrown over? It must be a dizzying sort of disorientation for those Chinese who have invested their new identities in the new ways of thinking.

Post-Jiang Zemin China has spawned a brittle, tacky, sometimes grotesque superstructure aping ostentatious luxury. Beijing has thrown up gold, silver, and blue buildings that flaunt Greek, Roman, steel-and-glass, and faux-Qing-bangled facades. Today, more often then not, these monster buildings lurk under stilled, looming construction cranes hiding vast, endless ranks of empty offices in a post-Olympics slump that wasn’t the endless boom people were expecting. Small encampments of workers, who look like migrant labourers now without work, have just cropped up on the streets around my home.

What does this crisis look like in today’s Chinese films? At the top end of the commercial spectrum is Feng Xiaogang, whose Chinese New Year blockbusters have always both directed and crystallized the public mood. You Are The One, released at the end of 2008 is a magical, tragedy-tinted romance among the newly rich. But it registers a profound disquiet with the limits of financial success. Through the film’s obligatory New Year uplift ending, with stock prices magically soaring back to the stratospheres of pre-2009 financial heaven, Feng signals the missing, impossible happy ending required by both the genre and the money-as-happiness mindset China has embraced.

Er Dong (dir. Yang Jin)

Er Dong (dir. Yang Jin)

At the other end of the spectrum are many recent independent films about going nowhere in China’s rural inland backwaters — it’s a veritable Chinese indie genre. Take Yang Jin’s accomplished Er Dong (2008), which tells a story about a young man who drifts out of school and into minor, then really serious trouble. He can’t get any traction in a series of small towns far from the economic action, the kind of places where having nothing means you’re going nowhere, forever. All that’s missing is that other standard ingredient from Chinese indie so-called miserablism circa 2009: the girlfriend turned prostitute by her rapacious exploiter of a boyfriend. See, for example, Wang Yiren’s Tatoo (2009) and Peng Tao’s Floating in Memory (2009)

The rise and fall of the hit TV show Super Girl Singing Contest (China’s answer to American Idol, now called Happy Girls) provides a fascinating model, lightly abstracted, for just what the post-communist fantasy of super-capitalism looks like here. Jian Yi’s documentary Super, Girls! (2007), an account of some contestants attending regional auditions in 2006 for the show’s second year makes this all engagingly clear. The film follows a number of hopeful young female contestants, all wanting to become overnight amateur singing superstars. They are inspired by the sensational success of the 2005 edition of the show that transfixed the country and made new superstars out of winners, like the slightly androgynous Li Yuchun. The show’s ruling ethos, that absolutely anyone can become a superstar, is taken painfully literally by the documentary’s engaging subjects, who have the desire but (for the most part) lack the talent and marketable star-potential to succeed on the show’s terms.

Super, Girls! (dir. Jian Yi)

Super, Girls! (dir. Jian Yi)

That is what’s simultaneously fascinating and sad about the film: we see these young women yearning media-based “superstardom”, a dream manufactured and perpetuated by Chinese media and commercial interests who are obviously looking for exploitable talent. But the young women have so completely bought into the show’s ideology (if one can call it that) that they are totally self-deluding, and inevitably shocked, bewildered, and crushed when they don’t pass the auditions.

It’s hard for me not to think of this model as a perfect analogue for mythical free-market capitalism and its delusional seductions, which pretends that anyone, regardless of environment, birth or advantages, can become a millionaire, a winner in financial capital’s prosperity sweepstakes. What this model masks, both in its Chinese capitalist version, and its Super Girls entertainment guise, is the seductive delusions implicit in its appeal. In a corrupt environment like China’s where closeness to power and pre-existing advantages (often tied together) determine one’s success, unregulated capitalism is a field where pre-determined winners amass more wealth and power, leaving the rest behind. Super, Girls! shows how dreams of ordinary people, consigned to being left behind by the system, are nurtured to support a system built to exploit and abandon them.

The film also reveals, in some cases, these young women’s resilience and determination to exploit whatever opportunities they can squeeze out from between the cracks. As the consensual fantasy girding the now vanishing world financial system also cracks apart, I have little doubt that Chinese dreamers and makers — released yet again into an ideology-free zone that’s both terrifyingly unmoored and saturated with limitless possibility — will find their own spaces to wriggle through and thrive in.

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