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New Literary History 33.4 (2002) 639-654

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Sentimental Returns:
On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai

Rey Chow

[I]n reality there is no tree—there is, however, the pear tree, and apple tree, the elder tree, the cactus—but there is no tree. Thus cinema will not be able to "reproduce" (write) a tree: it will reproduce a pear tree, an apple tree, an elder tree, a cactus—but not a tree. Exactly as in the primitive cuneiform languages. Therefore, does the language of cinema, which is the product of a technology which has come to determine a human epoch, precisely because it is a technology, perhaps have some points of contact with the empiricism of the primitives?

—Pier Paolo Pasolini 1

The Everyday as a Problematic in Film

The everyday: an open, empty category, one that allows critics to fill it with critical agendas as they please. This is why both its defenders and its detractors can use it to stake their political claims, either as the bedrock of reality, the ground zero of cultural representation, or as a misleading set of appearances concealing ideological exploitation, a collective false consciousness. For these reasons, it is perhaps less interesting simply to unravel the argumentative pros and cons around the everyday as such than to consider specific uses of the everyday in representational practices, which in this essay I shall do with two examples of contemporary Chinese cinema. I have found it productive to approach some of the key questions involved with Pier Paolo Pasolini's theorization of cinematic signification.

In his attempt to distinguish the specificity of cinema from language (and hence from the type of semiotic analysis derived from structural linguistics), Pasolini reminds us that film exists first and foremost on the basis of a system of "visual communication" (HE 168). With a concept such as communication, he emphasizes the communal and social character of film, a character that cannot be simply assimilated to the [End Page 639] Saussurean notion of "differences without positive terms" 2 yet that is not primal nature either. This, I believe, is the juncture at which his definition of film may provide us with a viable notion of the everyday-in-representation. The recipient of film, Pasolini explains, is already accustomed to "reading" reality visually; such a reality, suffused with a vast collectivity of actions, gestures, movements, and habits, constitutes what he calls a "brute" speech, on which cinema then constructs its (secondary) level of signification. He gives elements of this brute speech the name "kinemes," whose presence he describes as infinite and obligatory, and untranslatable (HE 201-2). Filmmaking, then, is a matter of organizing the kinemes into image-signs (or im-signs) without the kinemes' ever completely disappearing. Because of this, the recipient of film is always simultaneously engaged with both of these levels of signification, in a manner that never quite lets go of the kinemes or the system of "visual communication" that exists prior to the im-signs of cinema. Rather, the continual presence of these elements of the brute speech will give the film audience an experience similar to memory and dreams. As Pasolini writes in his well-known essay "The 'Cinema of Poetry'":

[T]he intended audience of the cinematographic product is also accustomed to "read" reality visually, that is, to have an instrumental conversation with the surrounding reality inasmuch as it is the environment of a collectivity, which also expresses itself with the pure and simple optical presence of its actions and habits. A solitary walk in the street, even with stopped up ears, is a continual conversation between us and an environment which expresses itself through the images that compose it: the faces of people who pass by, their gestures, their signs, their actions, their silences, their expressions, their arguments, their collective reactions (groups of people waiting at traffic lights, crowding around a traffic accident or around the fish-woman at Porta Capuana); and...


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