positions: east asia cultures critique 12.1 (2004) 195-201
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The Sacred, the Profane, and the Domestic in Cui Zi'en's Cinema
Cui Zi'en is a unique force. But I confess I almost passed him by. The first Cui Zi'en film I saw was Men and Women (Nannan Nünü). In 1999 Liu Binjian adapted it from Cui's screenplay. I went grudgingly and only out of a sense of professional duty. The film was billed as the first gay-themed and largely gay-made dramatic feature from mainland China. But somehow that conjured up the wrong connotations for me: I remembered post-Stonewall, earnest talking-heads documentaries and depressing, low-budget, realist dramas. However, although Men and Women was made on a shoestring and looks that way, it is also droll, pointed, and pleasantly perverse.
In a pre-credits scene, Cui himself appears as Gui Gui, host of a radio program called Public Toilet Horizon. The Chinese title, Gongce Shikong, is a parody of China Central Television's famous and groundbreaking 60 Minutes–style news magazine, Oriental Horizon (Dongfang Shikong). In a matronly high and calm voice, Gui Gui reads a sexually explicit gay personal [End Page 195] ad and wishes everyone "smooth shitting" in the New Year. In terms of my own particular viewing history, the cheeky pastiche and perverse appropriations of popular and mainstream culture in Cui's cinema are more like pre-Stonewall underground independents Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith than the earnest post-Stonewall films. China has had no Stonewall-like event forcing the general public to acknowledge even the presence of the gay community there, so perhaps this is not so surprising.
Men and Women won a FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) award at the Locarno International Film Festival and went on to appear at festivals around the world. It was released commercially in France and a few other countries. In the last two years, Cui has turned to writing and directing a series of videos and films, in addition to his previous written publications. These take up elements in Men and Women and introduce a few new items to constitute a continuing set of motifs, interests, and even characters. Some are surprising in a Chinese context. For example, the use of Christian iconography makes sense only if one knows that Cui had the misfortune of encountering the scourge of religion as a young person, brought up as a Christian in Harbin. Others, such as the concern with family that animates so many of the queer films produced in Confucian-derived cultures, are more predictable, although Cui's handling of the theme is both perverse and original. Ang Lee's Wedding Banquet is the most internationally known such work, but Tsai Ming-liang's ongoing series of films featuring the character of Xiao Kang and his dysfunctional Taipei family may be closer in their droll tone and experimental quality to Cui's work. I imagine he is familiar with these works and the other East Asian films that function to make homosexuality visible within the family rather than as a result of "coming out" from the family, but I cannot be certain as those works have not been released in China.1
In what follows, I will briefly introduce Cui's works. Taken as an oeuvre, his work is animated by an unholy trinity of themes: the sacred, the profane, and the domestic. Although I imagine the pious slogan for good German housewives is unknown to Cui, in my mind this operates like a perverse reworking of Kinder, Kirche, Küche (children, church, and kitchen). Cui's interests are also with the domestic sphere and the church—but not the kitchen. Instead, Cui is most drawn to the toilet, and particularly the public [End Page 196] toilet, which he usually translates as "WC" (water closet). I assume this is a deliberate pun—if gay men in the United States construct themselves by coming out of the closet, Cui's Chinese gay...