Shelly on Film: Bumping against Boundaries in Chinese Film Culture

Thomas Mao (dir. Zhu Wen)

By Shelly Kraicer

During a recent interview with an independent Chinese journalist, I was somewhat taken aback, but also quite amused by her rather pointed question to me: “In an online discussion of an article you wrote recently, some [anonymous] commenter was skeptical that Westerners could be so interested in debating Chinese movies and ideology, when in fact it has nothing to do with them. What do you think?”

What could I think? I remember reading the original comment the journalist was referring to, and noting at the time that the implied (and oft-heard) background to this attitude was something along the lines of “outsiders [like you] are fundamentally unequipped to comment on (write about / research about / review) our Chinese films (painting / dramas / novels), so just what do you think you are doing, anyway?

At the risk of answering one cultural judgment with another, I find this display of an aggressively protective attitude to Chinese culture to be distinctly Beijing-ese. Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai tend to be much more relaxed about foreigners in their midst, given their cosmopolitan histories. Their urban intellectual cultures more readily admit “other” voices — foreign voices, alternative points of view — with fewer hangups than Beijing’s thriving and otherwise open intellectual culture. Beijing has long been the capital of mainland Chinese independent film and avant-garde culture. No less than half of the dGenerate Films catalog are by Beijing-based filmmakers: Jia Zhangke, Liu Jiayin, and Cui Zi’en, to name a few. And yet, despite its openness to progressive artisitic activity, Beijing has an intensely policed view of the cultural “other” and the potential role of these “others” in its cultural discourse.

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There may be several reasons for this dichotomy. Beijing has been a more homogeneous Chinese city until quite recently (dating to probably the early part of this century, with the internationalization of Beijing’s urban surface, at least, in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics). And Beijing remains (in a certain, conflicted, post-Cultural Revolution way), the incubator, curator, and protector of a certain idea of Chinese culture. This protective attitude leads Beijing’s cultural workers to patrol (though, again, for completely understandable reasons having to do with resistance to various colonialisms and post-colonial hegemonisms) the boundaries of “us” (Chinese) and “them” (foreigners). This attitude often strives to keep “our” (i.e. Chinese-made) cultural works in a safe zone, circumscribed and patrolled by rather regressive definitions of “the Other”. I’m generalizing, obviously, but I hope not uselessly.

There are clear exceptions: many Chinese intellectuals I know joyfully and productively bring Western cultural theoretical concepts into their work, and play, creatively, in the spaces between Western post-theories and the various streams of Chinese historical cultural heritages. Western voices themselves, though, talking about Chinese art and artists, are entertained somewhat problematically. People in Beijing are often curious about what I’m working on (film research, for example), and are curious to hear my opinions, though they often far too quickly take these as somehow representative of a particular template of what “a Westerner thinks about our Chinese movies” (which is rather often far from the case, especially with my willfully idiosyncratic readings of what I’m watching here). But there comes a point in most conversations I have with Chinese colleagues where things sadly grind to a halt, to a refrain something like “there are just certain things you won’t be able to understand, since you’re not Chinese”. You can almost hear the intended effect: the portcullis clangs down, the drawbridge ratchets up, and the castle is secure with you safely outside. What can a “non-Chinese person” say to that? Any attempt to argue the point circles back to demonstrate that you just “can’t know”. It’s a completely self-sealing argument.

Now, this objection is also true, to a point. I’m still learning Chinese, and it’s getting better, but still not good enough. I’m learning more Chinese history, but there is an awful lot I still have to learn. I’ve been living here for seven years trying to immerse myself in various contemporary cultural scenes, but there’s a lot I’m still missing. Beijing is just so huge, and its culture workers are in the midst of an explosion of creativity in so many fields. Yet, these limitations don’t guarantee that one is at some basic level sealed out of the heart of things. Foreigners like me who are in a certain sense committed to learning about China can constantly approach, asymptotically, if you will, an insider’s point of view. We won’t get there (the asymptotic line never actually reaches the axis it’s creeping towards), but we can get closer and closer. And certainly close enough to say interesting things about the art we’re seeing, and the artists we’re meeting.

I hope I’m far from functioning as one of those old-fashioned restrictive “portals” that Western “China hands” used to assume the role of. Those arbiters of what examples of essential “Chineseness” can pass through their filtering critical gaze to be consumed by the outside, non-Chinese world. That period of the “mysterious Orient” is fortunately long gone, although its traces are stubbornly hard to eradicate, both in the West (just look at the kinds of Chinese films that are still attracting distributors’ hard cash in North America and Europe) and in China itself, where distrust of the limits of “China experts” is something I bump into all the time. So much so that I quickly cringe when someone calls me a “Chinese expert” here, given all the baggage, described above, that necessarily comes with that label.

Two films I’ve seen happen to reflect in interesting ways on the issues behind this othering of Outsiders. I hope to be able to discuss them here in more detail later, but for now, I’d at least like to point towards them in this context:

Zhu Wen’s delightfully paradoxical Thomas Mao (Xiao dongxi) is a fictional tale about a Chinese farmer and a German artist; then it flips to a semi-documentary about a Chinese painter and a European curator. Zhu stages various confrontations between the Foreigner and the Chinese in a series of modes (comedy, science fiction, wuxia, documentary) and flips the stakes again and again, until the outside/inside distinction starts to blur and melt away. Also in semi-experimental mode, Yang Rui’s mysteriously beautiful abstract-fictional-poetic-essay Crossing the Mountain (Fan shan) aims its substantial visual gifts and structural puzzles directly at cultural boundaries: the mysterious bombs spiking the plot threaten to blow up the borders that delineate the film’s characters, and a hazy erotic languor somehow insinuates connections that go through or around the violence and horror marking out Difference.

I’d be fortunate indeed if I could cultivate that sort of languor, eroticized or not. But I’m happy to root out paradoxes, and confront limits wherever I can find them. I’ll certainly keep trying to butt my head up against the Difference Police, both here and at home, and demonstrate that the most interesting boundaries are the ones one can work to sneak around, undermine, or blow up.

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