By Felicia Chan
On 14 June 2012, I was invited to speak at the annual contemporary directors’ symposium at the University of Sussex. The focus of this year’s symposium was on the later films of the Chinese Sixth Generation director, Jia Zhangke.
The day kicked off with a screening of Jia’s latest film, I Wish I Knew/Haishang chuanqi (China 2010), which has not yet been released in the UK. Commissioned for the Shanghai World Expo 2010, Jia’s film predictably pays homage to the city’s tumultuous history, beginning with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The signing of the treaty was a concession of Shanghai to European powers, but which also established its international cultural and commercial legacies.
Like his earlier film, 24 City/24 chengji (2008), I Wish I Knew relies on a series of interviews as a gesture towards authenticity. In these interviews individuals recount memories of Shanghai including the suffering during the Japanese occupation.
What keeps the film from being a straightforward documentary — and this is where Jia comes into his own as China’s most internationally celebrated arthouse filmmaker today — is that as the interviews progress, the histories and memories of Shanghai increasingly become interspersed with footage of films set or made in Shanghai. The message is unequivocal: we cannot pay homage to Shanghai without also paying homage to it through the history of Chinese cinema.
Film snippets were taken from the range of classics, such as The Goddess/Shennü (Wu Yonggang, China 1934), Spring in a Small Town/Xiaocheng zhichun (Fei Mu, China 1948), Flowers of Shanghai/Shanghai hua (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan 1998), Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild/A Fei Zhengzhuan (Hong Kong 1990), as well as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo — Cina (Italy, 1972). As the focus of the films shifts to the cinema, the interviews also shift to people involved in the films, many of whom are already quite elderly, so the film becomes a historical archive as well. Highlights include conversations with a crew member on Antonioni’s film (who was very disappointed by what the Italian director chose to film), Fei Mu’s daughter (who is also an actress in her own right), and Rebecca Pan (iconic actress and singer of the mid-1960s, who appeared in Days of Being Wild and whose songs have been re-immortalised by Wong Kar-wai’s rendition of the era).
There is much more to be said about the film, and for that reason, I wish my colleague Dr Jeesoon Hong (University of Manchester), who had to withdraw due to unforeseen circumstances, had been there to present her paper on ‘Shanghai Montage: I Wish I Knew and Expo 2010’. I would have liked to hear her take on it.
One absentee notwithstanding, the day’s presentations and discussion provided much food for thought. The papers each addressed in consecutive order Jia’s later films — The World/Shijie (2004), Still Life/Sanxia haoren (2006), and 24 City (2008).
My own paper, ‘Backstage/onstage cosmopolitanism: Jia Zhangke’s The World’ explored the contribution of film studies to debates on cosmopolitanism, mostly concerned with the politics and ethics of border crossings, cultural translations and exchanges. I argued that The World strikes a precarious balance between the staging of the empty cosmopolitanism of Beijing’s World Park, where various nationalities and cultures are yoked together in easy, problem-free, co-existence, and an incisive critique of the price paid by China’s low-waged migrant workers in the country’s relentless drive towards modernisation.
Dr Sabrina Yu (Newcastle University) looked at ‘Local Reality, Translocal Imagination and the Quasi-Orientalist Approach in Still Life’. Although Still Life has been lauded for its realism, Yu argues that another form of orientalisation was going on. Unlike more expressionist forms of orientalism associated with the Fifth Generation films, Yu argued that the process of exoticisation staged in Still Life for foreign eyes was one which rendered invisible the differences between peoples within China. She compared the way the Sanxia (Three Gorges) people were portrayed compared with the Shanxi natives who arrive there (Jia’s regulars, Zhao Tao and Han Sanming), and concluded that there was a clear division between the two peoples, even though these differences may not be discernible to non-local eyes. For Yu, what was missing in Still Life was the nuances and complexities of local realities as these communities coped with their imminent displacement. It made me think of how transnational cinema studies might need to incorporate questions of literacy and cultural knowledge — how may we still account for the ‘international gaze’ in global cinema when we can’t necessarily identify what’s ‘local’?
Dr Thomas Austin (University of Sussex), the very able organiser of the day’s events, delivered a paper on ‘Indexicality and Intertextuality: 24 City’s Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory’. Looking closely at the textuality of 24 City, Austin argued that by relying on the bodies of the interviewees to recall memory (rather than on flashbacks and filmic recreations), 24 City made a powerful intervention into cultural memory, since this reliance on actors bodies gestured towards intertextual knowledge, which is, in turn reliant on cultural memory. He cited the dissonance in the example of Lu Liping, who may be known to Western audiences as a dramatic actress in the Fifth Generation film, The Blue Kite/Lan fengzheng (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China/Hong Kong 1993), but would have been familiar to Chinese audiences as a comedic actress. The figure of Joan Chen playing a woman said to look like Joan Chen, and then named Xiaohua, after the name of the character Joan Chen played, extended this intertextual game further.
The afternoon’s proceedings were succinctly wrapped up by Dr Mark Betz (King’s College London), who acted as respondent to the three papers. He identified several common threads through the papers that could open up the discussion on future occasions, which I paraphrase here from my incomplete notes: (1) the relationship between aesthetics and politics; (2) the dialectics of history; (3) characterisation, and questions of performance and performativity; and (4) the question of audience/s, and how ‘we’ (films, critics) construct them. All enticing indications that it would probably take more than another afternoon to fully explore the intricacies of Jia’s very deft manipulation of the cinematic form.