- Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas
Song Hwee Lim’s Celluloid Comrades is one of the most outstanding works on queer representation in Chinese cinemas. The title refers to the popular term tongzhi (comrade), which is widely used in academic discourses referring to “queer” and “gay and lesbian.” The work is divided into six chapters; the introduction and the first chapter deal specifically with theoretical questions, while the following five chapters present one or two movies as examples of a particular perspective. In the introduction, Lim first dwells on the difficult question of how to define “Chineseness,” seeming to share Ray Chow’s (2000) view1 that any essential definition should be avoided; an effort should be made, instead, to challenge the picture of a “homogenously unified, univocal China.”
The cinematic representation of homosexuality is understood as part of a deconstruction project; awkward questions can thus be avoided concerning the inclusion of films by Taiwanese directors that are aimed either at the Taiwanese independence market or at a purely international audience. Lim also questions the idea of a “transnational Chinese cinema”2 (Sheldon Hsio-peng Lu 1997, p. 3) and a “Chinese-language cinema”3 (Yueh-yu Yeh 1998), avoiding the issue of “Chineseness” by proposing to examine the function served by each specific configuration, that is, the highlighting of the legitimizing discourse behind various films and their differences (p. 6). Lim, in addition, provides a comprehensive overview of various terms, such as “homosexual,” “queer,” “gay,” and “lesbian” and the Chinese tongzhi (comrades), or tongxianglian, and the difficulties of employing one of these as a generally “objective term” (pp. 7–13). In general, Lim’s work builds on three different academic disciplines: Chinese studies, gender and sexuality studies, and film and cinema studies. He employs critical theory, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies as a theoretical background (pp. 13–34). He is also aware of the “real world” underlying the problem of homosexuality and in an excursus he talks about the problem of same-sex desire in China, where it is subject to “administrative and party disciplinary action” (Li Yinhe 1998);4 this makes open discussion of the topic in films and other media rather difficult (pp. 28–33). Taiwan, on the other hand, is known for its vibrant—commercialized and academic—gay/lesbian/queer movement and representation, and can without doubt be described as the most tolerant of all Chinese (huaren) societies (pp. 33–37). Hong Kong is somewhere in the middle: male homosexuality was decriminalized in Hong Kong a decade after it was decriminalized in Great Britain, but homosexuality was and always has been stigmatized in conservative society (pp. 37–40). [End Page 166]
In chapter 1, “Screening Homosexuality” (pp. 19–40), Lim provides an overview of the representation of homosexuality in movies from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan with the respective societal backgrounds, political changes, and influences, ranging from censorship in the PRC to the state-sponsored production of movies in Taiwan. He draws our attention to the topic of homosexuality in movies such as The Wedding Banquet, Farewell My Concubine, and The River, but also explains the reasons for the great popularity of Chinese cinema on global screens in the 1990s, mentioning a wide range of films, from Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the much more complex adaption of typical Hong Kong movie scenes in the Matrix trilogy by the choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (p. 19). Two very different sources contributed to the success of these films: in the PRC, it was the Fifth Generation directors, such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution whose films led Chinese intellectuals to reflect on their own history. In Taiwan, it was the new Taiwan cinema with Hou Hsiaohsien and Edward Yang, who employed a postcolonial approach to focus on the everyday lives of citizens, thus questioning the long years of authoritarian and elitist rule under the Kuomintang (p. 20). After...