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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.2 (2001) 287-329

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Spectral Times:
The Ghost Film As Historical Allegory

Bliss Cua Lim


Ghosts call our calendars into question. The temporality of haunting, through which events and people return from the limits of time and mortality, differs sharply from the modern concept of a linear, progressive, universal time. The hauntings recounted by ghost narratives are not merely instances of the past reasserting itself in a stable present, as is usually assumed; on the contrary, the ghostly return of traumatic events precisely troubles the boundaries of past, present, and future, and cannot be written back to the complacency of a homogeneous, empty time.

The ghost always presents a problem, not merely because it might provoke disbelief, but because it is only admissible insofar as it can be domesticated by a modern concept of time.1 Modern time consciousness can be characterized as disenchanted (the supernatural has no historical agency); empty (a single universal history includes all events, irrespective of cultural disparity); and homogeneous (history transcends the “singularity” of events, because it exists [End Page 287] prior to them). From the standpoint of modern historical consciousness, then, “‘supernatural' forces can claim no agency in our narratives.”2

There is a tension involved in films that use ghost stories as a provocation to historical consciousness. Ghost films that are also historical allegories make incongruous use of the vocabulary of the supernatural to articulate historical injustice, referring to “social reality” by recourse to the undead. Such ghost narratives productively explore the dissonance between modernity's disenchanted time and the spectral temporality of haunting in which the presumed boundaries between past, present, and future are shown to be shockingly permeable.

In Rouge [Yanzhi Kou] (dir. Stanley Kwan, 1987) and Haplos [Caress] (dir. Antonio Jose “Butch” Perez, 1982), ghostly women embody a strong notion of spatiotemporal nonsynchronism—the existence of noncontemporaneous aspects of social life that cannot be fully translated into modernity's disenchanted time. A courtesan from the 1930s walks by a Hong Kong shopping mall; soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II are concealed by the same dense forest foliage in which Filipino revolutionaries of the New People's Army lie hidden. Whether or not we realize it, we are all familiar with a diluted, historicist idea of nonsynchronism, of disparate temporal allegiances coexisting in a fractured “present”: this is what makes it possible for some people to be hip while others are old-fashioned, to decry one man as backward and another as forward-looking, although all these people are considered to exist “at the same time.” This conventional view of nonsynchronism actually preserves diachrony even when it speaks of simultaneity (by striving to hierarchize in chronological ordering social and cultural practices that exist “all at once”), and it is this scarcely visible premise that gives current trends their urgency, the fashionable its edge, and the avant-garde its sense of newness.

Yet the ghost narrative opens the possibility of a radicalized concept of noncontemporaneity; haunting as ghostly return precisely refuses the idea that things are just “left behind,” that the past is inert and the present uniform. Put simply, the ghost forces the point of nonsynchronism. It is this challenge to received ideas of time that makes the specter a particularly provocative figure for the claims of history. [End Page 288]

The ghost narratives in Rouge and Haplos function as an allegorical frame in which an almost-forgotten history becomes newly meaningful as a kind of haunting or ghostly return. These ghost films draw from their respective cultural discourses in order to vivify the “present's” accountability to the concerns of the “past,” and in so doing call into question the ways in which modern homogeneous time conceives of those very temporal categories.

In these ghost films, nostalgia and allegory coalesce, promoting a radicalized historical consciousness that counters the blinkeredness of historicism and modernity's homogenous time. These ghost films' figuration of nonsynchronism must therefore be considered in relation to several mutually entangled issues, all relating to the...