- Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility
After the influential Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema established Rey Chow as one of the most original scholars in cinema studies, her second book on Chinese films, Sentimental Fabulations, provides us with a collection of no less ingenious readings of popular and iconoclastic works by such diverse Chinese directors as Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Mingliang, and Ang Lee. Bringing them together under a discursive umbrella by the name of "the sentimental," Chow examines their culturally specific fantasy structures as well as their engagements with the complexities of globalization.
Although often equated in common usage with affective excess, the sentimental, translated into Chinese as wenqing zhuyi or "warm-sentiment-ism," is redefined by Chow as a mood of endurance and accommodation, "a disposition of making compromises [with] that which is oppressive and unbearable" (18). The Chinese films that dramatize such heart-wrenching situations as poverty, familial conflicts, exile, illness, death, and loneliness, however, tend to affirm and perpetuate "an indomitable collective will" embodied by the patriarchal family, clan, village, or nation. Thus, Chow finds filiality, the "age-old moral apparatus" of subjectivization, to be "at the heart of Chinese sentimentalism" (22).
In her own dense and sophisticated introduction, Chow not only offers a novel explication of the title, but also sheds light on the various ways her book fits into and contributes to the larger discipline of cinema studies that is increasingly entangled with the study of group cultures. The succinct summary of Western film theory, from the hopeful futurism of Walter Benjamin to the feminist critique of Laura Mulvey, eventually focalizes on the paradigm shift from the ontology of the filmic image (Bazin) and cinematic modes of signification (Metz) to the study of narrativity and ideology. Following Mulvey's "repressive hypothesis"—the notion that the cinematic image has repressed something existing beyond it—critics since the 1980s have "complicated the differential between gaze and image" in terms of group cultural identities (9). The resulting "fetishization of identity," however, can still be broken down into two camps: those who equate artificial images with the lives and histories of "real" cultural groups and those, like Chow, who do not insist on such "anthropomorphic realism." In the case of East Asian cinema, Chow proposes to see Asianness itself as a "commodified and reproducible value," sustained by and contributing to the flows of capital, rather than to go on an "iconophobic" search for some authentic, continuous Asianness beyond the cinematic images. "Part of my goal in this study is to argue that Chinese cinema since the 1980s is an inherent part of a contemporary global problematic of becoming visible" (13), defined as "a matter of participating in a discursive politics of (re)configuring the relation between center and margins" (11).
In a sense, Chow's study attempts to put the study of Chinese films (back) in dialogue in—or rather, in the middle of—Western cinema studies, in order to stall the trend of its ghettoization in the history of Chinese culture. Scattered here and there in the book are critiques of what she calls "geographical and chronological compartmentalization exercises" that aim at no greater goals than "information retrieval and canonization" (15, 150). Hence in her readings of two Hong Kong films made around 1997 (Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together and Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story), Chow deliberately steers free of linking the films to Hong Kong's return to the PRC. The organization of the book is similarly free of geopolitical [End Page 59] determinates. The nine chapters—each a close analysis of one or two individual films that can be read independently from the rest—are grouped by theme into three parts: remembrance of things past, experiences of migrancy (especially by women), and films about disenfranchised populations. I shall discuss selected chapters that I have found particularly insightful or provocative.
By way of continuing her tenacious defense of Fifth Generation directors against criticisms of...