- Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture by Wendy Larson
"No concept has enjoyed as triumphant an ascent in the past few years as 'culture.' None may be as ripe for a fall." Martin Jay's statement about culture may find its echo in Wendy Larson's insightful discussion of Zhang Yimou's films on the subject of culture. In this ambitious and exhilarating book, Larson locates "culture" in Zhang's early films and addresses such questions as: what can culture do in a rapidly changing global context? What can film do to represent national culture with the consciousness of being watched and consumed? And how do Zhang Yimou's films probe the concept of "culture" [End Page 317] and its relationship with power and sovereignty? Although Larson (or Zhang Yimou) believes in the validity of the concept of culture, she finds that "over the twenty-odd years during which the films … were produced, culture seemed to offer no answers to deeper questions about the future, and little foundation on which to build" (p. 342).
This pessimism about culture, Larson argues, can be delineated in Zhang Yimou's nine early films from the 1987 Red Sorghum to the 2005 Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, and is accentuated in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Defining culture as "our deep sense of the way we live and thrive" (p. 28), Larson finds in Zhang's films a clear trajectory of gradually losing faith in culture as authentic, self-reliant, and life-enhancing agent, following a more or less chronological order. Imaginatively and admirably, Larson combines two seemingly extreme ends of cultural and film studies—the broad, abstract, theoretical exploration of the notion of culture and the specific, detailed, close readings of individual films, turning a single- auteur study into a highly inspiring discussion of cultural production and consumption that can benefit any readers concerned with the topics such as national allegory, cultural identity, performativity, power, and sovereignty.
Throughout the book, Larson critically engages with scholars both within and outside China, demonstrating impressive breadth in critical scholarship and depth in textual analysis. In the introduction she identifies Zhang Yimou's films as a field of debate in which scholars participate in intense discussions of how Zhang's films represent China while appealing to the global market. A general review of feminist and postcolonial readings of Zhang's films, together with theoretical explorations of national culture and global culture, allows Larson to successfully situate Zhang's films at the center of a broader debate about culture while examining the concepts of cultural essence, agency, authenticity, and autonomy.
The first three chapters deal with Zhang's most celebrated and controversial "Red Trilogy" that establishes his status as an internationally renowned film director. Revolving around notions such as labor, community, performance, and power, Larson finds in Red Sorghum a sense of confidence in culture as an authentic, liberating, and life-fostering agent independent of the state. Voluntary labor creates community and happiness, and invigorating culture is capable of fending off invading forces. However, that confidence dwindles in Judou in which Judou has to resort to calculated performance to elicit response from Tianqing. Culture becomes a life-defying, destructive force in the village that offers no way out. In Raise the Red Lantern, the theme of performance goes one step further. Larson observes that by including a professional performer, the third wife Meishan, who performs jealousy and competition within the household while seeking gratification elsewhere, Zhang Yimou portrays culture as performance-within-performance and artifice-within-artifice. [End Page 318] The lived culture is also the performed culture that is eroding within, unable to create the community and hope that we see in Red Sorghum. Engaging with Fredric Jameson's notion of "national allegory" and postcolonial criticism, Larson argues that, "far from internalizing the imagined perspective of the outside world," these films turn it "into a subject to be probed, tested, and examined" (p. 128).
Larson's brilliant analysis of...