Phantom Sisters, and the Identity of an Emergent Art Cinema

urban dreamscape,
Phantom Sisters, and the Identity
of an Emergent Art Cinema
zhang zhen
t the Shanghai Film Festival in October 1999, Lunar Eclipse (Yueshi),
Wang Quan’an’s directorial debut and an independently produced art
film, made quite a splash at the otherwise lukewarm event. Chinese
critics were impressed by the film’s sophisticated camera work and
editing, in addition to the nonlinear story that, despite its contemporary
urban setting, has an otherworldly dimension inhabited by a pair of phantom
or ‘‘virtual’’ twin sisters who live in two parallel universes situated within the
city of Beijing. It was indeed unusual for an art film, let alone a debut, to
receive such enthusiastic acclaim in a country where experimental or art
cinema has always been regarded with suspicion, if not conspicuously repressed by the o≈cial film apparatus for its potential subversive power. In
2000, Wang took the film to the Moscow International Festival, where it
received the fipresci prize. That same year, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (Suzhou
he), another noir-type film featuring a female double, this time set in contemporary Shanghai, emerged on the international art film circuit. The many
festival awards bestowed on the film include the Tiger award from Rotterdam
and the Best Film award from the Paris International Film Festival (which also
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quently shown in the New Directors series at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York and selected as one of the ten best films of 2000 by Time magazine.
Suzhou River, produced by an independent German company, now has a U.S.-
based art cinema distributor (Strand). It has been exhibited and received
favorably in a number of art houses in the United States, Europe, and Japan,
yet it remains out of the purview of the Chinese audience except in a vcd
format released in Hong Kong.∞
Besides the figure of the female double as a central narrative device, Lunar
Eclipse and Suzhou River share a film language rarely seen in previous Chinese cinema—that of fission, nonlinear narrative, jostling camera movement,
jump cuts, discontinuous editing, and noir-style lighting and mise-en-scène.
The latter in particular stresses the rough streets and a sinisterly nocturnal
ambience enhanced by rain and mist. The two young directors, both born in
the mid-1960s, seem to be at pains to cultivate an individual style modeled after
the by-now canonized international art cinema (ranging from the French New
Wave to Bergman, Mizoguchi, some of Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Kieslowski,
and more recently, and closer to home, Wong Kar-wai and Iwaii Shunji). At the
same time, these directors try to put a personal touch to their China-based
stories. It is thus not surprising that the two films, along with those by their
peers (Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke, for instance), were readily welcomed
by the international art cinema circuit, which had been eagerly anticipating a
younger and more energetic cinema after Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s epicscale art cinema that thrived on cultural allegory and glossy exoticism.
The new generation of filmmakers, unburdened by the baggage of the
Cultural Revolution and the mission to create a distinctive national cinema
marked by a ‘‘timeless’’ Chineseness in order to stand out on the international
stage, is more readily cosmopolitan in their professional conduct as well as
cinematic expression. They consciously align their practices with the international art film and independent tradition. At the same time, their engagement with the contemporary transformation of Chinese cities and daily life
therein, as seen in the documentary proclivity of their works as a whole,
foregrounds the localizing vernacular that is a critical component of their
cosmopolitan vision.
Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River appeared within the span of one year on the
threshold of a new century. Why did these two young filmmakers choose to
work with the same motif and a similar storytelling mode at nearly the same
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time? Why are both so fascinated with the intertwining of the real and the
fantastic, the mundane surface of everyday life and its violent and uncanny
undercurrents? As each film is set in a Chinese metropolis and deals with
urban physiognomy as much as with its psyche, what then is the meaning of
the phantom sister in today’s rapidly transforming Chinese city? On the
formal level, how can we explain their eclectic yet innovative film styles, in
which with great ease elements are blended from, on one hand, conventional
genres such as melodrama and ghost films that have a long tradition in China,
and from a wide spectrum of international art cinema, on the other?
Clearly both Wang and Lou are exploring new domains of film form in
conjunction with forms of moral and a√ective economy and the possibility of
sensory revivification (hence the figure of the double and haunting) in an era
of radical social dislocation and perceptual upheaval. More visibly than other
Urban Generation films, Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River explicitly materialize
what Gilles Deleuze has described as the ‘‘time-image’’ and a tactile ‘‘cinema of
the body,’’ not least because time is key to these films that center on vanished bodies and resuscitated memories and senses. In a film culture dominated by o≈cial propaganda films and commercial fast-food productions, the
avowedly ‘‘personal filmmaking’’ (geren dianying) practice echoes that of the
international auteurs of the 1960s whom Deleuze celebrated as the harbingers
of a ‘‘modern cinema’’ in the postwar period. The preoccupation with the
social and epistemological status of the body; the fractured narrative, or
‘‘dispersive’’ time (in which ‘‘chance becomes the sole guiding thread’’);≤
‘‘glorification’’ of marginal people;≥
the ubiquity of mimetic machines; the
noir-tinged discourse of the uncanny (city); and above all the palpability of
social unevenness and its repression mark Wang’s and Lou’s films as noteworthy e√orts in the making of an alternative cinema that is locally grounded
yet globally engaged.
The absence of a strong art film tradition in China, however, does not
preempt the existence of art film spectators who have come into contact with
various kinds of international art cinema through multiple channels, particularly since the early 1990s.∂
At the festival in Shanghai, even Wang Quan’an
himself was surprised by the warm reception of Lunar Eclipse, noting that
‘‘[Chinese] audiences actually understood the film, and may in fact be more
prepared to accept a wider range of film grammar.’’∑
The question, then,
is why the space allotted for art cinema in China should be so limited given
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the ready audience. With the structural changes taking place in the Chinese
film industry, including the weakening since 1993 of the China Film Corporation (the central film distribution and exhibition monopoly) and the fragmentation of the o≈cial studio system, are there possibilities for the emergence of a more multifaceted film culture that will include independent or
semi-independent art cinema?
In this essay I present a preliminary e√ort to tackle this question, although
my primary concern is with how the films’ theme of the female double articulates a particular urban experience and cinematic vision. To address this issue
I employ the method of motif analysis inspired by Kracauer’s study of Weimar
cinema, and delve into both the context of production and the textual as well
as intertexual space of both Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River.∏
This e√ort entails
an invocation of an early Chinese sound film, Sister Flowers (Zimeihua, 1933),
which also is centered around two look-alike sisters, in order to tease out some
key issues related to the social and aesthetic status and historical significance
of an emergent Chinese art cinema. The overwhelming presence of photography and videography in both contemporary films can in this regard be seen as
evidence of the filmmakers’ self-projections about the identity of an alternative film practice within a politically as well as commercially volatile film
structure in China at the turn of the century. The uncertainty of this identity,
socially and cinematically, is suggested by the ambiguous figure of the female
double as well as by the male photographer or videographer. The invocation
and diegetic deployment of both pre-cinematic and post-cinematic representational technologies, however, paradoxically revivifies cinema’s capacity for
remembrance and collective innervation. This is achieved above all by each
filmmaker’s cultivation of an a√ective regime and a tactile aesthetic. Despite
their settings in two di√erent cities, both films obsessively dwell on the question of urban youth’s place in a changing society as much as on the epistemological status and cultural function of the photographic image in the age of
paradigm shifts in film and media culture.
the shadowy business of making art films
In the early 1990s, the so-called Sixth Generation filmmakers began to emerge
from the shadows of the political turmoil of the late 1980s as well as from the
‘‘anxiety of influence’’ of their Fifth Generation predecessors.π
Wang Quan’an
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and Lou Ye are both graduates of the Beijing Film Academy, the artistic cradle
for towering figures like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuanzhuan.
Lou was assigned to the Shanghai Television Station in 1990, while the Xian’an
Studio employed Wang after he graduated from the acting department at the
academy in 1991.∫
Lacking the kind of opportunities and the initial enthusiasm that greeted the Fifth Generation directors, who were taken under the
secure wings of provincial studios, the new generation found themselves
having to learn their trade in a circuitous way and to be resourceful on their
own. Many of them took up mtv, tv, and commercial production, which also
pushed them into the expanding realm of popular culture and its expressive
Lou Ye, like his classmate Zhang Yuan, the maverick figurehead of the
young generation, worked on mtv and other media productions when he was
not working on film. His first feature, Weekend Lovers (Zhoumuo qingren,
1993; released in 1996), about a group of disillusioned Shanghai youth, is a
kindred spirit of Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (Beijing zazhong, 1992) and
Guan Hu’s Dirt (Toufa luanle, 1994)—two early Sixth Generation manifestolike works. Unlike Zhang’s entirely independent production, both Dirt and
Weekend Lovers, bearing at least the label of an o≈cial studio, were eventually
allowed for public release after heavy cuts. Unable to make films that interested him within the studio after his experience with Weekend Lovers and
another feature, The Girl in Danger (Weiqing shaonü, 1995), Lou ventured
into independent projects, taking advantage of the flexibility and mobility
created by the economic and institutional reforms.
The production history behind Suzhou River is instructive. It testifies to
how artistically innovative Chinese films are made across borders today, often
through a combination of local and transnational guerrilla tactics. The film is
technically a China-Germany joint production, released by Essential Films
and Dream Factory. It was in fact started as part of an (unfinished) television
series called Super City (Chaoji chengshi) produced by Lou Ye and sponsored
by the Shanghai Studio.Ω
Initially consisting of two thirty-seven-minute episodes shot on 16mm, the version for tv was reedited and polished after the
Berlin-based producer Philippe Bober joined the project and made it possible
to turn the footage into a unified feature to convert to 35mm. The hand-held
cameras (by the first-time cinematographer Wang Yu) and the jigsaw-like
style (features typically associated with an art film) in part are a result of a
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shoestring budget and a tight schedule for location shoots.∞≠ Although overseas financial backing is not uncommon for the Fifth and Sixth Generation
films alike (albeit with the Fifth Generation’s epics often getting the big figures
from business giants), it was a novelty that an unassuming project for Chinese
tv inadvertently turned into a cosmopolitan art product. However, because of
its label as a China-German production, Suzhou River has yet to be distributed
in China.
What Suzhou River’s production history suggests is that while it is possible
to get art films made in China in the absence of structural support, there are
formidable challenges in trying to give a film a life after it leaves the editing
table or the censor’s screening room. The directors, increasingly left to their
own devices to shoulder virtually all financial and political responsibilities,
find themselves forced to undergo a self-taught crash course in professionalization and reconceptualization of what it means to be a director, especially an
independent one. Previously, the system included only o≈cial studios employing o≈cially appointed directors who received a monthly salary no matter how much or how little they accomplished. Despite the stringent financial rewards, the directors belonged to the cultural elite and benefited from
a nepotistic genealogy.∞∞ The studios held exclusive rights to the films and
also took responsibility for their distribution. With the dissipation of such a
tightly controlled yet secure system along with the proliferation of international coproductions and tv productions, virtually anyone can become a
director as long as he or she has a script and a producer.∞≤
Wang Quan’an is one of these self-made directors. No longer interested in
working as an actor,∞≥ Wang devoted himself to writing scripts as a way
of embarking upon a director’s career. In moving back to Beijing in the
mid-1990s, he practically had to invent that career on his own. For Lunar
Eclipse he was fortunate in raising five million yuan (about US$520,000),
which came from an (unrevealed) source of ‘‘social funds’’ (shehui zijin).
Despite its 100 percent uno≈cial investment, Wang was able to secure a
release label from the Beijing Studio, which would significantly increase its
chance to be seen in China. Having passed the censors, he became in fact
‘‘free’’ to find a distributor himself, a di≈cult task, however, in a chaotic
market. This freedom is a mixed blessing because the studio, relinquishing all
of its financial responsibilities on a film, also frees itself from the responsibility to market it.
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In most instances, independent features are art films because of their propensity for innovation in film language and their audacious treatment of
sensitive materials, such that their filmmaking is habitually called ‘‘exploration cinema’’ (tansuopian), a term first applied to some Fourth Generation
and early Fifth Generation works in the 1980s that departed from the o≈cially
sanctioned socialist realism. The narrow space allotted to these emerging,
often self-appointed, directors and their experimental films has ironically
spurred a strong desire to explore new resources and dimensions both inside
and outside of China. At the same time, they are not losing sight of the
possibility of cultivating a domestic art film audience (if not market, quite
yet). Wang Quan’an, who spent a good deal of time in France observing its
healthy art house industry, and was encouraged by the warm reception of
Lunar Eclipse in Shanghai, is particularly enthusiastic about connecting with
an emerging art house enterprise in China.∞∂ Two years after its completion,
during which Lunar Eclipse was screened at several festivals or in special
programs in Asia, Europe, and the United States, Wang’s film finally found a
place in China’s emerging art film market. In 2002 the film reportedly became
the first feature booked by the newly founded a-g (short for avant-garde)
distribution company (a subsidiary of the Zijingcheng Company) specializing
in art cinema. It was shown at the Dahua Cinema in the Dongdan area in
Beijing, which served as a location for a key reflexive scene about cinema in
the film (discussed further below).∞∑
These sketches of the production history behind Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou
River are not meant to present the whole picture of the Urban Generation
filmmakers, but rather should be seen as indicators for mapping out the
shifting contours of an emergent independent art cinema. In its resistance to
the ‘‘leitmotif’’ cinema but in dialogue with popular cinema, this ‘‘minor’’
cinema, in a Deleuzian sense, is conscious of its constant deterritorialization
and possible reterritorialization in relation to both the domestic film industry
and the international art film circuit. This instability generates anxiety as
well as energy among the young filmmakers who have to play hide-and-seek
games with both the authorities and the market forces, while also negotiating
between artistic aspirations and social engagement. This situation has produced a breed of self-su≈cient independent filmmakers who are ‘‘nomadic’’
in straddling di√erent media, administrative units, and underground and
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above-ground operations. Rather than acting with a tragic aura as doomed
self-exiles from the center, they are deft performers and dealers in producing
and marketing an alternative cinema.
phantom sisters in the urban dreamscape
After seeing Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River, it is hard not to think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or of the more recent work by Kieslowski titled La double vie de
Veronique (1991)—a ‘‘metaphysical thriller’’ about the related fate of two lookalike women in the shadowy aftermath of the cold war.∞∏ A typo in the
publicity slogan that Wang coined for his film—‘‘Two stories, one woman, or,
two woman, one story’’ [English original]—is revealing about the filmmaker’s
conscious or unconscious desire to emulate and transform either the Hollywood classic or an art film by two European masters. Some Chinese critics
have hastily dismissed these recent films as mere copies of Hitchcock, Kieslowski, or Iwaii Shunji (Love Letter, 1995), and hence without any merits of
originality. What interests me here is not so much the degree of ‘‘originality’’
of these films about doubles or copies but rather how they perform this
transnational ‘‘double take’’ and, in the process of metamorphosis and synthesis, create a culturally and historically conditioned film experience.
In his erudite work on the ‘‘culture of the copy,’’ Hillel Schwartz outlines a
taxonomy of the copy and proceeds toward a new understanding of the
prevalence of twins, doppelgangers, and replications in the modern age. Notwithstanding the biotechnological and psychological findings about the ‘‘innate’’ twinhood at the root of each human life, Schwartz argues that the
vanishing (or disappeared) twin in the industrializing society serves as ‘‘mute
testimony to vanishing kin’’ in an epoch of massive social dislocation and
‘‘fading networks of blood relations.’’ At the same time, the (vanishing) twin
rekindles in us the belief in magic powers such as telepathy and miracle
making in an age shot through with mechanical power.∞π Or perhaps both
kinds of powers reinforce each other rather than cancel out each other, just as
cinema, for example, has also served as the premier medium for modern
magic by possessing a power for enchantment, healing, and spiritual contact
between nature and culture.∞∫ It is thus not surprising that modern commercial aids are replete with twin images; they are not paraded as counterfeits but
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Wang Quan’an (center),
writer and director of
Lunar Eclipse, with the
author and Jia Zhijie
(right), co-organizers of
the Urban Generation film
Poster for Lunar Eclipse:
‘‘Two stories, One woman /
Two woman, One story’’
(English original). The
image is that of Jia Niang,
the bar girl adrift among
the denizens of Beijing.
(Courtesy of Wang
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as proofs of authenticity and scientific e≈cacy (when used as a control group)
and of the doubling of ‘‘exponential powers’’ of modern technology and
commodity, along with their sex appeal.∞Ω
On the fundamental level of epistemology and subjectivity, twins or multiples induce our fascination as well as uneasiness with the boundaries of
perception, knowledge, and identity. They challenge our ability of discernment while giving us the comforting image of likeness or familiarity. They
provide us with metaphors of self-reflection and intersubjectivity, while also
haunting us with the very idea of an unreasonable facsimile and its spectral
embodiment. On the one hand, the ubiquitous trope of the vanishing twin
and dubious double is symptomatic of uprootedness and fragmentation, and
occasionally split personality or multiple personality disorders that often beset the modern individual.≤≠ On the other hand, the same trope invokes in us a
longing for sorority, fraternity, and companionship. On these multiple, ambivalent registers, doubleness or double consciousness has become the hallmark of modernity, if not its very definition.
Modernity, however, is also profoundly historical. Films like La double vie
de Veronique, Lunar Eclipse, and Suzhou River were conceived in the post–cold
war period and thus o√er a cinematic update of modernity’s genealogy of the
mass-mediated production of artificial life and the destruction of real life. If
they share the broad post–cold war representational space, especially as in
some way or other they concern the former socialist bloc that included both
Poland and China, they di√er in the particular location and articulation of the
diverse postsocialist experience after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the suppression of the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Veronique and Veronika Although Kieslowski’s film is not my chief concern
here, a quick summary of its plot may help us achieve a more nuanced
understanding of the two Chinese films given the basic narrative device that
they share. Veronika (played by Irene Jacob) lives in Poland with her widowed
father. A talented young singer, she participates in a competition singing a
haunting piece by Van Den Budenmayer. During her song, however, she
su√ers from a sudden heart attack and dies. Veronique, her uncanny French
double (also played by Irene Jacob), lives in a small town. Also a singer, she
too su√ers from a heart problem. Drawn by a call from an unknown man and
mystified by a package containing a cassette of Van Den Budenmayer’s music,
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among other things, she goes to Paris to find the caller and source of the
package. The man she finds, who is a marionette artist, becomes her lover. At
one point he tells her of his new play in progress, about the parallel life of
two women born in 1966.≤∞ Among their many shared traits and physical
resemblance, Veronika and Veronique are connected above all by a sort of
telepathy and two common ‘‘gifts’’: the congenital heart problem and music
(each girl’s heart beats to the same ‘‘rhythm’’). While Veronika dies from
singing, Veronique gives up singing and carries on her life as a music teacher.
Yet Kieslowski’s artfully arranged audiovisual cues (especially in the beginning
and ending) indicate that they are not exactly twins living in two di√erent
countries, they are more like phantom sisters in largely parallel, vaguely successive, universes that intersect only at fatal or redemptive moments.
While Kieslowski’s ‘‘metaphysical’’ parable meditates obliquely on the fate
of a ‘‘unified’’ Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River are primarily concerned with the fragmentation of the social fabric
of post-1989 Chinese society—or the emergence in it of separate, disjointed
spheres, particularly in the cities. Their phantom sister tales are clearly staged
against the background of the accelerated transformation of a socialist state to
a market-driven capitalist economy, which has created vast social unevenness,
sensory and psychological overload, and above all a shift in cultural paradigms. However, neither Wang nor Lou is in a strict sense a documentarist.≤≤
Even less are they inclined to contain what they see and want to express in
reified realist conventions—that is, transparent representation in a concealed
illusionary world, which is largely the domain of the leitmotif and mainstream commercial cinema. Instead, their sharp observation and subtle social
critique are conveyed through an evocative and provocative visual style that
pushes into disarray the divide between form and content, the material and
the immaterial, surface and depth. The phantom sisters and the parallel or
intersecting worlds in which they inhabit indicate on one hand the suspension
of a normative or taken-for-granted perception of time and space, experience
and identity, and the exploration of other possible worlds in life and film art,
on the other.
As is the case in La double vie, despite being the semblance of twins the two
women, played by the same actress in both Wang’s film and in Lou’s, are not
biological twins but are at best ‘‘virtual’’ twins as they operate on crisscrossing
planes of reality. However, in what is di√erent from La double vie, the Chinese
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doubles do not appear as same-aged twins but more like older and younger
sisters (if in real time), or each one’s ghostly other (seen supernaturally), or
even mutual incarnations (in a religious sense). They hardly meet in a strictly
diegetic space (except for one moment in Suzhou River when one sees the
dead body of the other on a sidewalk by the river). This departs from the
‘‘metaphysical’’ ending of La double vie, where in an extraordinary long shot
we see, through two juxtaposing window frames (and worlds), two pairs of
di√erent daughters and fathers embracing each other. Both of the Chinese
films are about urban youth’s di≈culty in knowing who they are and what
they want. Other than the figure of the double and some other similar elements, such as the issue of a heart problem in Lunar Eclipse, Wang’s and Lou’s
meditations on transpersonal selfhood and virtual sisterhood are more earthbound than metaphysical; indeed, they are directly aimed at the relentless
social world and a moral universe not governed by celestial bodies or divine
grace but by worldly desire and disenchantment.
Ya Nan and Jia Niang In Lunar Eclipse two girls with a striking resemblance,
Ya Nan and Jia Niang (both played by Yu Nan), have mysterious interactions
even though each lives a separate life in Beijing. Their disparate stories but
shared destiny unfold in a complex spatial and temporal web. In a manner
reminiscent of Knife in the Water by Roman Polanski, Lunar Eclipse (which
even has a knife as a love token) opens with the newlywed Ya Nan and her
husband out for a drive in their bright-red sports car, an incongruous sight in
the rural landscape outside Beijing with its topography characteristic of a
poor developing country. They meet Hu Xiaobin, an unkempt young photographer who says he knew a girl who looked exactly like Ya Nan. Ya Nan is
drawn to the photographer, whose real job turns out to be a cab driver, and
through him she enters the story of Jia Niang, her younger look-alike. Meanwhile, her marriage begins to show signs of trouble.
If La double vie’s metaphysical power pivots around the likeness of the two
women in a (formerly) divided Europe, Lunar Eclipse quickly departs from
the realm of sameness in order to reveal the radical di√erence in ‘‘one woman,
two stories.’’ The comforting metaphysical horizon is ironed out to pave way
for a fable of social hierarchy and division. Ya Nan, who has given up acting
due to her heart ailment, is a sophisticated urban woman living with her wellto-do (or nouveau riche) husband in an elegant apartment, whereas the
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younger Jia Niang drifts in the lower strata of the city, dreaming of a career as
a film actress. Both su√er from a congenital disease: Ya Nan’s heart problem is
from her father’s side, while Jia Niang is plagued by latent schizophrenia
inherited from her institutionalized mother. Both have trouble with their
right eye—one of the many references to the problem of vision in the film.
The two do not meet until a moment at the end of the film, when Ya Nan
rushes away from her unfaithful husband only to ‘‘witness’’ a violent car
accident. In a nightmarish scene at a key intersection in downtown Beijing
(the street sign says ‘‘Xisi,’’ a major intersection in the old city west), Ya Nan
comes face to face with the blood-drenched Jia Niang who has just been hit by
a truck.
The ending consists not as a climax but rather a recurrence, thereby underscoring the circuitous or spiraling structure of the narrative. The film began
with an accident in which Ya Nan is seen lying unconscious in a street with
heavy tra≈c. She has been hit by a car, ‘‘as if in a dream.’’ After the accident she
is taken to the hospital, where her heart condition is detected. As a result, Ya
Nan decides to give up her acting career to prepare for marriage. The mystery
surrounding the identity of the double seems to come to a full circle at the
final moment of recognition when the shocked Ya Nan and the dying Jia
Niang see the (approximate) mirror image of each other. Instead of using
superimposition or other techniques to place the two in the same frame, the
uncanniness of their encounter is rendered in a shot and reverse shot structure, which then is followed by a pan that reveals that they do not actually
occupy the same life space. At the crossroads of their lives as well as the film
narrative, the hitherto diverse planes of existence have collided or wedged into
each other momentarily, but the film as a whole does not try to achieve a
‘‘reunion’’ with this coincidence.
The power of the last scene in Lunar Eclipse comes not so much from the
impact of the accident and the fateful encounter as it does from the intersecting (hence the crossroad) of disparate dimensions of experience and consciousness. The mirror image is only approximate because the cues from the
women’s dress, hairstyle, and manners indicate that they cannot be more
di√erent. One is a stylish, educated woman in her late twenties or early
thirties—she is a ‘‘new human being’’ (xin renlei) who chooses to be a housewife (a class index for the nouveau riche).≤≥ The other, somewhat younger and
with a head of intractable dreadlocks and navel-exposing pants, stands for the
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Lunar Eclipse: Ya Nan, the actress, as an alienated middle-class woman.
(Courtesy of Wang Quan’an)
Lunar Eclipse: The problem of vision and telepathic pain.
(Courtesy of Wang Quan’an)
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358 ∞ zhang zhen
so-called ‘‘new-new human being’’ (xinxin renlei), whose favorite pastime is
dancing into a trance at discos.≤∂ They embody visibly di√erent social standings and lifestyles, and thus divergent destinies, yet both seem to have arrived
at the same crossroads in their life after fleeing from the abuse, physical or
emotional, of men. The crossroads where their final, purportedly ‘‘accidental,’’ encounter takes place underscores the contemporaneous nonsynchronicity of the women’s lives. Jia Niang’s violent death paradoxically reveals the
vacuity and artificiality in the life of Ya Nan, who, however, through her
‘‘telepathic’’ witness gains a new understanding of her own life. In this ‘‘transfinite universe,’’ the endings and beginnings of both of their lives and stories
converge and diverge, rupture and resume.≤∑
A fleeting allusion to twinhood early in the film foretells the women’s
shared fate as phantom sisters. As an avid amateur videographer, Ya Nan
enjoys shooting randomly on the street. One of her takes includes a pair of
twin sisters; but at that early point neither Ya Nan nor the viewer heeds their
significance. If her initial attraction to the amateur photographer and her
curiosity about a girl who resembles herself stems from her desire for finding
her true self, a self repressed by the boredom of her middle-class life, then her
search for the other girl increasingly takes on the urgency of finding a vanished kin, a phantom sister.≤∏ This ‘‘virtual’’ sisterhood is reinforced by the
fact that each woman seems to be rootless and left on her own. Ya Nan has a
sick father we never see; Jia Niang has a mother locked up in a faraway mental
hospital. That sense of compounded alterity and a≈nity leads Ya Nan to enter
the world in which Jia Niang lives or once lived, while the compression of the
temporal distance between them propels each toward the final scene of the
fatal accident, one that encapsulates the series of ‘‘accidents’’ that structure an
erratic narrative of chance encounters and impossible rescues. Such a deliberately convoluted temporal arc is distinctly noir-influenced, as it is more inclined to show ‘‘how’’ rather than ‘‘what’’ in a social world beyond the control
of the characters themselves.≤π
The figure of the phantom sister and the underlying ‘‘surreality’’ of social
relations a√ords a poignant exposure of the pain of countless separated siblings, humiliated women, and torn families in a society undergoing drastic
and often violent transformations. Indeed, references in the films to physical
and emotional pain are legion. This cruel story of youth, as the Chinese film
critic Dai Jinghua concludes, is thus also about the ‘‘cruelty of existence and
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society.’’≤∫ There is nothing more compelling than for the unstable physical
and psychological identity of a young woman on the edge of the society,
exposed to visible or invisible dangers, to stand for the shifting form of a
relentlessly changing society and the urgency of intervention on the brink of
Meimei and Mudan How does Lou Ye’s Suzhou River assemble its version of a
cruel story of two look-alike young women? Released only a few months after
Lunar Eclipse (though initial footage was shot in 1996), at the outset Lou Ye’s
film seems an uncanny double of Lunar Eclipse, a resemblance that underscores the contemporaneity and historical valence of their shared narrative
motif and noir style. As the film’s title indicates (Suzhou River is the city’s
‘‘maternal river,’’ or muqinhe), the film is conspicuously set in Shanghai.
Mudan (which means peony) and Meimei (both played by Zhou Xun), like
their counterparts in Lunar Eclipse, are not real twins but virtual incarnates, or
phantom sisters. Mudan, a teen daughter of a businessman involved in smuggling an Eastern European brand of Vodka,≤Ω is the love interest of a young
drifter, Mada, one of numerous motorbike messengers seen in the busy streets
of Shanghai. Mada is hired to escort Mudan out of the house when her father
takes prostitutes home. After Mada takes part in kidnapping her for ransom,
Mudan runs away and, in a slow-motion shot, jumps from the picturesque
Waibaidu (‘‘Garden’’) Bridge into the mouth of the Suzhou River near the
Bund, where she vanishes without a trace. The attentive viewer will, however,
notice her clutching a blond mermaid doll—a birthday gift to her from Mada.
After this point, boat passengers and passersby occasionally spot a beautiful
mermaid on the banks of the river, her shining image and supernatural presence highly incongruous with the notoriously smelly and polluted river.
This tale of a√ection, betrayal, and loss crisscrosses with, or rather is framed
by, another tale of attraction and distance between a videographer and the
character Meimei. Meimei works as a performer in a huge fish tank, swimming in a blond wig and mermaid costume to entertain the customers of a
seafood restaurant located on the riverbank. The vanished Mudan seems to
have returned, as if the mermaid doll in her hand becomes animated and
incarnated into Meimei. The ‘‘maternal river’’ has perhaps given a new life to
her. When after an unspecified amount of time has passed Mada returns from
a prison term to the city, he finds in Meimei his lost Mudan.≥≠ The latter in turn
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comes to identify herself with Mudan through Mada’s storytelling (in a manner similar to what happens in Lunar Eclipse between Ya Nan and the photographer). Mada finally locates the real Mudan as a cashier in a convenience
store, only to die with her in a violent motorcycle accident soon thereafter.
When the videographer returns to Meimei’s boathouse, she is nowhere to be
found. Throughout the film, the trope of the double is enshrouded in the
ambience of a ghost story, which is evidenced by the fake peony tattoo on the
left thigh of both Mudan and Meimei. A Chinese viewer is likely to associate
this motif with Tang Xianzu’s classical play from the sixteenth century, The
Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting)—perhaps the most famous ghost romance in
Chinese literary and theatrical canons.≥∞ And the image of the mermaid as a
hybrid figure, as the art historian Jerome Silbergeld keenly observes, can also
be projected back into Chinese cultural tradition, wherein the lore of beautiful
women committing suicide by drowning and returning as spirits is legion.≥≤
Yet here these classical allusions serve as a reminder of the ‘‘spectral’’ nature of
the present. As Harry Harootunian suggests, the figure of the revenant arrives,
constantly, in the form of the ‘‘ghosts of what had been past and the premodern culture of reference that had not yet died, returning from a place out
of time to haunt and disturb the historical present.’’≥≥
Ultimately, it matters little whether or not Mudan and Meimei are the same
girl—either one could be among the countless young women in Shanghai
today who experience the loss of innocence more rapidly than in any previous
generation but who also are more adept at performing multiple identities and
quick changes. Lou Ye has confessed that because the film was derived from
two made-for-tv projects, and as such resolving the mistaken identity was not
his chief concern, it took him some time to decide whether to have one actress
playing two parts or two actresses playing the same part. Meimei’s job performing as an enticing half-human half-fish creature is hardly shocking to
customers who are used to seeing young women eating their ‘‘rice-bowl of
youth’’ in various capacities or disguises, mostly in the service and entertainment industry.≥∂ In an age when eating expensive fresh seafood is a status
symbol for the nouveau riche, who themselves have often ‘‘plunged into the
ocean’’ (meaning into the risky business world as opposed to the low-paying,
stagnant state sectors), there is little di√erence between a live exotic fish and a
body to be bought and consumed.≥∑ A large number of Shanghai’s seafood
restaurants are concentrated on two famous food streets, Huanghe Road on
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Suzhou River: After Mudan’s disappearance, a ‘‘mermaid’’ surfaces at a seafood joint
by the river.
Suzhou River: The peony tattoo—marker of authentic identity?
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362 ∞ zhang zhen
the south side of Suzhou River and Zhapu Road on the north side. A mermaid
in a fish tank also invokes the prevalent image of the ‘‘caged golden sparrow,’’
which refers to the young female gold diggers who trade youth and sex for
luxury, often in the confines of a modern apartment or villa. Within this
context the aquatic reference is hardly arbitrary. In this regard, Mudan’s
plunging into the river mouth—which not only is the most photogenic spot in
Shanghai’s iconography but also an emblem of a backward China connecting
with the global trends at the end of the twentieth century—captures the
troubled spirit of China’s globalization. As the daughter of a businessman
engaged in illegal transnational trade, and as the barter for a ransom in an
underworld rivalry, Mudan falls prey to the multiple forces of globalization
that have been eroding the metropolis in the 1990s. This globalizing ambition,
while contributing to a large-scale facelift for cities like Beijing and Shanghai,
is also shattering countless ordinary lives and youthful dreams.
These social subtexts, sedimented under a vertiginous narrative surface,
give Suzhou River an added poignancy. While most of the Urban Generation
films are set in China’s political and cultural capital of Beijing, Lou Ye’s film
o√ers a rare and penetrating look at Shanghai’s urban geography and social
ecology that has seen the rise, decline, and revival of a Chinese metropolis.
Instead of Huangpu River, which boasts the window-dressing Bund lined with
its colonial bank buildings on one side and the soaring skyscrapers in Pudong
on the other, Lou Ye chose to portray the smelly waterway that has served as a
vital link between the city and the surrounding rural areas and thus has been
the central artery of the expanding metropolis since the beginning of the
twentieth century. For most of the past century, the Suzhou River, which used
to be called Wusongjiang,≥∏ has been the transient home of countless boatmen
who carried in migrants as well as vegetables, soy sauces, rice wines, and silks
and cottons, and then freighted out the city’s sewage and trash. The river, with
its winding course and multiple heavily used bridges, is also a vital connection
between the northern and southern part of the city. Historically, the river has
served as a major divide separating the foreign concessions on the southwest
side and the Chinese domains in large parts of the northeast, and thus also is a
divide between di√erent social classes and cultural communities. On multiple
levels, the Suzhou River, far more than the Huangpu, is the artery of the city
and the reservoir of its memories.
Suzhou River’s quality as a ‘‘dreamy documentary’’ of Shanghai is displayed
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Suzhou River as the ‘‘maternal river’’ and reservoir of urban memory.
in the opening of the film before the title appears. In fact, Lou began working
on the film as a ‘‘documentary’’ before the story took salient shape. For a
month he wandered along the river and shot footage with a super-8 video
camera; in so doing he gradually entered the space of the narrative in which
the border between reality and fiction is never clearly demarcated.≥π The
invisible narrator holds his camera and drifts down the river on a boat, from
which he surveys the people and the surrounding urban landscape. In the film
we see the turbid water, then the embankments lined with decrepit buildings
—many in the process of being demolished. We wonder what happened to the
people who used to live or work there. Shots of buildings are intercut jaggedly
with boats, boatmen loading or unloading cargos, people cooking or eating,
and city people standing on the bridges—many of them looking straight into
the camera. The swish pans and the erratic editing are characteristic of amateur videography yet are also lyrical and candid. The videographer’s voiceover glides into this urban dreamscape of ruins and memory: ‘‘I often go out
to shoot the Suzhou River with my camera, floating down the river from West
to East and cutting across all of Shanghai. The river is a century’s worth of
legends, stories, memories and all that rubbish, all of which makes it the
filthiest river. But there are still many people here, making a living on the river.
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If you look long and hard, the river will let you see everything . . . people,
lonely people . . . I have seen the birth of a baby, a girl jumping into the river,
the corpses of a pair of lovers being lifted out of the water by the police . . . As
for romance, I have seen a mermaid who was combing her blond hair . . . But
don’t believe me, I’m making all this up.’’
Lou Ye’s urban legend of the mermaid is in fact a disguised city symphony
of which the river—and by extension, Shanghai—is its true protagonist. As the
film critic J. Hoberman aptly notes: ‘‘Lou has transformed Shanghai into
a personal phantom zone. Named for an urban stream of consciousness,
Suzhou River is a ghost story that’s shot as though it were a documentary—
and a documentary that feels like a dream.’’≥∫ Lou’s dreamy documentary has
quickly become a part of the city’s archive. By the time of the film’s release, the
river had been cleaned up through a large infusion of money from the World
Bank. Expensive condominiums and o≈ce complexes are rapidly taking root
along the riverbanks, where the half-torn buildings seen in the film once
stood. The boathouses have been forced out, and the sewage pits on the
embankments, at least those near the river mouth and the Bund, have been
replaced by strips of green promenades. The urban lore today has it that even
edible fish have begun to return to the river after decades of absence.
Suzhou River might be seen as an unwitting sequel to Lunar Eclipse in the
itinerary of their phantom sisters in the national urban geography. In fact, the
two films make up one tale of two cities. Jia Niang repeatedly states her desire
to ‘‘go south’’ (nanfang; referring to the coastal cities like Shenzhen or Shanghai, areas known for their Special Economic Zones and hence opportunities)
to both flee from her misery in Beijing and seek her luck in the milder and
more prosperous south.≥Ω Before her disappearance from the story, Jia Niang
is seen spending a good deal of time losing herself in a place called the Beijing
Oriental Imperial City of Entertainment, which features, among other things,
a tawdry karaoke bar with plush patterned sofas and a neon-colored cocktail
called ‘‘Pink Lady.’’ In Lou Ye’s Shanghai, Mudan’s look-alike resurfaces in the
sleazy, neon-decorated ‘‘Happy Tavern’’ bar-cum-seafood restaurant, a place
where Jia Niang could have landed if she indeed had fled the harsh north. If
the ‘‘south’’ in Lunar Eclipse still carried an aura, a destination for worldly
success and self-realization, then Suzhou River, with its unflinchingly gritty
portrayal of a rusting metropolis as an industrial wasteland (the river has also
been the primary site of heavy industry) and its unhappy souls, shatters the
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Suzhou River: ‘‘Happy Tavern’’ (Shiji kaixin Bar, literally Century Happy Bar).
myth of the ‘‘south’’ to its core. Jia Niang and Meimei are thus the transient
inhabitants of Beijing and Shanghai. Like those tender-aged female migrant
workers (dagongmei) swarming into the cities, these women are relegated to
the margins but also proliferate as their adopted cities grow and decay, and
grow again. Their fast-changing shapes and fluid identities render them the
very flesh and blood, figuratively and literally, of the tantalizing urban dream.
Dabao and Erbao (an Interlude from the Past) Suzhou River’s meditation on
the city’s unconscious and woman’s fate in modernity’s labyrinth takes us back
to where Chinese cinema’s early ‘‘golden age’’ began in the 1930s. While a
contemporary art film lover would instantly draw a synchronic parallel between Lou’s and Wang’s films with those of Kieslowski or Wong Kar-wai, a historian of Chinese cinema would not resist the temptation to make a diachronic
connection between Lou’s and Wang’s tales of phantom sisters with Zheng
Zhengqiu’s classic Sister Flowers (Zimeihua, 1933), so as to ponder the relevance of the trope of female twins for both urban memory and film history. In
both its narrative and cinematic registers Sister Flowers exemplifies the problem of the vanishing kin, of di√erence and a≈nity, and of heredity versus
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Sister Flowers: A tale of twin sisters and contrasting fates in 1930s Shanghai.
(Courtesy of the China Film Archive)
ible and visceral by double exposure and other cinematic devices, forges a
powerful commentary on the experience of modernity and its representability.
A culminating success in Zheng’s career before his death in 1935, Sister
Flowers portrays the divergent fates of a pair of twin sisters. Unlike Lou’s and
Wang’s films, Sister Flowers is ostensibly a family melodrama, a genre that
served as a chief winning formula for the Mingxing Company, which was
founded in 1922. Based on a three-act ‘‘Civilized Play’’ by Zheng,∂≠ the film
features the popular Hu Die, who plays both sisters, or, as the title suggests,
‘‘two flowers of the same stem.’’ The twins, Dabao and Erbao, were born to a
poor family in the country. The good-for-nothing father, a gun smuggler by
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trade, deserts the family for the city, taking with him the better-looking Erbao
who subsequently becomes a high o≈cial’s concubine. Years later, Dabao is
married and gives birth to a son. The distressful conditions in the country
during the warlord period force the rest of the family to move to the city,
where Dabao becomes, unwittingly, a wet nurse for Erbao’s newborn baby.
She is chosen for the reason that she has the same blood type as Erbao and
produces good milk. Desperate to save her husband who has been injured in a
factory, Dabao attempts to steal the baby’s silver charm necklace but is caught
in the act. The mother of the sisters finds their father, who is now a high
o≈cial, and begs him to help release Dabao. The family is finally reunited at
the end of the film when the twins’ identity is revealed to each of them.
Sister Flowers premiered at the first-run Xinguang Grand Theater in Shanghai in summer 1933 and ran consecutively for two months to enormous
popular and critical acclaim—a record for a Chinese production in a time
when Hollywood imports dominated the market. In a fashion not entirely
di√erent from Lunar Eclipse’s and Suzhou River’s forays into international art
houses where the work is transported by the filmmakers or actors themselves,
Sister Flowers was taken by Hu Die to the Moscow International Film Festival
in 1935 (a previous incarnation of that attended by Wang Quan’an), where it
was one of only a few Chinese films from that period exhibited in Europe.∂∞
The film appealed to the Chinese audiences, especially members of the lower
and lower-middle classes. Its melodramatic mode served as an e≈cient vehicle
for processing and understanding the social contradictions and alienation
that beset a modernizing society.∂≤
Another reason for the success of Sister Flowers is that the film served as a
star vehicle for Hu Die, yet this time with an added dimension.∂≥ Her star
power is literally doubled by the plot (as was the movie ticket cost), which in
her roles as two diametrically di√erent sisters provided a showcase for her
acting skill. For the audience, however, that power was not just about seeing
two Hu Die films in one. Because the film was one of the first in China to have
sound, for the audience it was a way to experience once more the magic power
of film technology and its impact on the modern perception of corporeality
and selfhood. It is important to stress that the attraction of the film owes
much to the (more or less) successful ‘‘union’’ between image and sound; the
previously popular melodrama of the silent period is now injected with the
‘‘life’’ of human voice and other sounds.
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While Wang’s and Lou’s contemporary noirish art house tales of phantom
sisters are obviously not modeled on Zheng’s socio-biological drama of twinhood, the a≈nity of the films may be located in the way each generation
discerns the connection between women’s fate and the lure of the metropolis
in periods of accelerated modernization. Wang Quan’an told a Boston audience that his writing of the script was motivated by his sympathy for Chinese women’s hardship today, ‘‘because, regardless of who they are and what
they do, many of them are sad and unhappy.’’∂∂ On another occasion he
confessed, in a possible allusion to melodrama, ‘‘Actually the basic structure
of the film is very simple and traditional.’’∂∑ However, it is family, the hallmark
of Zheng’s melodrama, that is conspicuously missing or broken beyond repair
in Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River. The sultry, precocious ‘‘new-new human
being’’ generation of girls in dreadlocks, tattoos, and blond wigs are perhaps
Dabao’s grandchildren in age, but they do bear resemblance to Erbao in that
they share with her the desire for material comfort, on one hand, and a
compassionate heart on the other. The migrant young female workers in the
1990s may not work as wet nurses, but there is an army of maids who clean
and cook for the urban middle or upper class as well as care for their old and
young. Erbao’s role as a concubine is thus familiar again, filled in by all-toomany willing ‘‘golden sparrows.’’ It would be hardly surprising today to find
one of the daughters from a rural family working as a maid while a prettier
and more ambitious one becomes a rich man’s extramarital love object (or
xiaomi, ‘‘little mistress,’’ like the secretary of Ya Nan’s husband).∂∏
The end of the twentieth century was also the age when the making of twins
and multiples became no longer the exclusive domain of nature but part of
the enterprise of biogenetic engineering. In Lunar Eclipse, for example, there
are passing references to plastic surgery and sex change or identity change.∂π
In China, after long periods of relative social stasis imposed from above, the
post–cold war period has witnessed tremendous upheavals in family structure and in ethics, with the rigid enforcement of the one-child policy on the
one hand and the rising rate of ‘‘illegal’’ births by migrant and rural populations on the other. At the same time, those in the emerging urban white-collar
class, especially the young and ambitious, are less inclined to have children.
With the dissolution of the extended family, the rising divorce rates in the
cities, and the massive migration and dislocation in the society as a whole,
there is an increased anxiety about the breakdown of generational continuity,
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loss of innocence, and lack of human connection. I think it is the simultaneous apprehension of this identity crisis and the desire to connect with real
or imagined kin and stranger alike that informs the moral and social concerns
of these recent films about missing bodies and phantom sisters.
If during the transition to sound Sister Flowers harnessed the technology of
sight and sound to realize a hyperbolic melodrama about social inequity,
Wang’s and Lou’s innovative, albeit at times jarring, narration and visual style
foreground the insu≈ciency or instability of either the homegrown melodrama or the imported noir form in giving expression to the complex social
experience and psychological baggage of the new generations. In watching
Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River the viewer hesitates to determine which story
in the ‘‘either/or’’ structure is more reliable, because beneath the surface
symmetry there is structural asymmetry and inequity. And the closure of a
happy ending is out of the question in either film—each is possessed by a deep
sense of fatefulness, a distinctive noir feature that strangely dovetails with the
Chinese Buddhist–influenced perspective on desire, life, and death. A faint
sense of consolation comes from elsewhere, where it is conveyed, as Rey Chow
states, by ‘‘an alternative temporality of community,’’ however ‘‘mythic’’ it
may be.∂∫ These films are not about two equally divided selves but about
forms of succession and extension; not about reunion but about an open,
almost superstitious belief in afterlife; and not about reconciliation but about
transmigration and transformation. In the absence of a happy ending, both
films suggest something more—in the form of eternal returns, discontinuous
continuity, and life after death—while accomplishing a cinematic anatomic
operation of the fin-de-siècle Chinese urban life.
photography, videography, and a tactile cinema
Despite their social and historical resonance, Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River
are not copies of Sister Flowers for the chief reason that the two contemporary
filmmakers consciously engage the act of cinematic narration by inserting the
figure of the photographer/videographer in tandem with the figure of the
phantom sister.∂Ω Considering the extent to which the end of the twentieth
century was an age in which new information and audiovisual technologies,
after several decades of near stagnation, began to inundate and penetrate
everyday life in China on an unprecedented scale, the reemergence of twins
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and doubles on the screen is all the more thought provoking. Unlike the use of
double exposures and mise-en-scène elements such as makeup and props to
conceal the double identity of Hu Die in Sister Flowers, the presence of cameras in both Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River does not simply serve diegetic
functions. Rather, on a metanarrative level such presence mediates or triggers
the magical transformation of virtual twinhood. This metanarrative quality
illustrates Deleuze’s notion of ‘‘fabulation’’ (récits; a form of storytelling that is
‘‘performative in the philosophical as well as the theatrical sense’’), which is
central to a ‘‘minor cinema.’’ It is ‘‘an act of telling inseparable from the
time of enunciation,’’ which ‘‘gravitates’’ between the documentary and the
The self-reflexive impulse in these two films distinguishes itself from the
kind of ‘‘documentary impulse’’ detected by Yomi Braester in several mainstream commercial films about the demolition of cities, the destruction of
communities, and the ‘‘real-time nostalgia’’ produced by the diegetic cameras,
such as is found in Stand Up, Don’t Stoop and Shower.
∑∞ While the ‘‘documentary impulse’’ in these commercial urban films is by and large contained
within the realist conventions and melodramatic formula (albeit sometimes
with a touch of parody for constructing a more or less illusory world) and
couched in ideological security, Wang’s and Lou’s experimental films are part
of an e√ort to create an alternative cinema with an avant-garde spirit. Their
visual style, liberally blending art cinema and pop idioms (from mtv, karaoke, and computer games), is made up largely by a synergic use of noirish
lighting (particularly emphasizing shadows and neon-lit night streets), jostling camera movement, jump-cuts, close-ups and extreme-close framing,
long takes, direct address to the camera (and audience), discontinuous editing, shifting color schemes, and a contrapuntal and pastiche soundtrack. All
of these elements create a plasmatic and tactile surface and a roller coaster–
like viewing experience. Such a film form exemplifies what Deleuze sees as the
‘‘direct time-image’’ that seeks to restore time, and thought, to cinema. Because thought here is no longer the domain of abstraction but rather a philosophical sensorium, a machine or body ‘‘without organs,’’ it is capable of
a√ectivity and transformation. In this regard the visual style of these films can
be understood as a transposition of the sense of loss and doubt permeating
the society onto ‘‘mannerism and style’’ through noir-inflected idioms,∑≤
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thereby exposing and commenting on the prevalent epistemological and
moral uncertainty that has overwhelmed a postsocialist consumerist China.
There is a perceivable skepticism toward the truth value of the technologically reproduced image that informs and structures both films, yet each is
permeated with a paradoxical scopophila and delight in capturing, photographically or videographically, the strange beauty of the ‘‘flow of life,’’∑≥ be it
the smelly Suzhou River or a container of developing agent (in a bathtub full
of floating pictures in the photo studio in Lunar Eclipse). Lunar Eclipse is in
particular a story about light and shadow, the essential material of photography and cinematography. In addition to the amateur photographer Hu Xiaobin, Ya Nan is also an avid picture taker whose video camera functions as her
prosthetic arm and eye, whether in public or private realms. Walking on the
streets she tapes couples dancing the tango (a form of mass self-enjoyment
and the quotidianization of Western culture). At home, she documents her
husband’s sleepwalking and obsessive shoe polishing (a sign of domestic neurosis). After finding the photographer snapping her image during their excursion to the country, she captures him and returns her gaze through her video
camera. Throughout the film, there is a sustained competition between multiple photographers and their di√erent technologies.
Photography serves as the crucial medium of communication or miscommunication across the perceived class divide in Lunar Eclipse. Ya Nan visits the
photo shop, called The Origin of Beauty Creative Studio, where Hu Xiaobin
works directing and shooting wedding albums—a trendy and profitable business in urban China today (which the film parodies on several occasions,
including Ya Nan’s own wedding). Hu shows her the darkroom—and the
magic of photochemistry—where she later will encounter Jia Niang’s blownup image, her phantom other. The photographer serves as the medium in
bringing Ya Nan face to face with her look-alike but then vanishes from
Beijing altogether. But is Jia Niang’s larger-than-life image believable? In the
same room Hu and his boss have doctored the funeral picture of Hu’s father
who died the moment his only picture has been taken by his son (as if
photography triggered the death). In the remainder of the film Ya Nan is
stalked by a stranger, who follows her in sinister dark alleys and takes her
photograph. The flashes from this unidentified photographer’s camera become a kind of optical rape, parallel to or echoing the violence done to Jia
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Niang. The title of the film, Lunar Eclipse, intimates a state of mind as well as a
cosmic phenomenon, a process of change that resembles the photochemical
procedure and creates a penumbra zone between light and darkness, the
visible and the invisible, the material and the immaterial. It is also an allegory for women’s fate; the feminine (ying) radiance and ‘‘negative’’ energy
symbolized by the moon in Chinese cosmology are here transmitted to the
cinematic universe, illuminating the ‘‘eclipse’’ of women’s place in the social
As a whole, the photographical images in the film, mobilized for either
proleptical or retroactive narration, carry a certain ambiguity and a sense of
the uncanny, never telling their entire stories and at times simply reversing
our expectations of their meaning (as with the father’s deadly photographic
session and the gallant images of Hu’s wretched coworkers). As capable of
‘‘betrayal’’ as much as ‘‘fidelity’’ the photo images lay bare the gray zone
between reality and its representation, the image and its absent referent. They
seem to be hovering in the borderland of stasis and movement (the film is full
of sudden freeze-up images), truth and lie, and life and mortality, exposing
the ontological ambiguity of photography as a medium of mechanically reproducible images and artificial memory. In its direct association with Jia
Niang and the father’s death, photography here accentuates the medium’s
nature as a form of ‘‘farewell’’ to the living and a ‘‘mode of bereavement,’’ and
as such it ‘‘acknowledges what takes place in any photograph—the return of
the departed.’’∑∂ These photographs of one’s beloved on the threshold of life
and death, unlike staged wedding pictures, create a kind of time capsule and
memory bank.
What does videography, the postmodern hybridization of photography
and cinema, stand for in these two films? In Lunar Eclipse we find video
footage on Ya Nan’s home video equipment as well as on the multiple screens
in public space, including the disco where Ya Nan finds the stimuli lacking in
her married life. (The images on the screen there show the explosion or
demolition of city buildings.) The photographs in the film capture many
auratic or memorable moments (Ya Nan’s joyful dancing on a sheet of ice; the
father’s serene dying in a decaying hutong courthouse; and even the past
romance of Ya Nan’s unfaithful husband) in a life of boredom or disappointment. The video footage, however, shows either the atrophy of the everyday
or violence or disaster as sensation. The class inflection attached to each
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medium—Hu Xiaobin with photography (especially his old camera) and Ya
Nan with video—seems further to underscore the ‘‘decline of photography’’
(or loss of aura) in the face of ever ‘‘perfected’’ representational technologies.∑∑ Yet Ya Nan’s penchant for videography seems also connected to her
extraordinary sensory capacities, which not only aligns her with Hu Xiaobin
but also makes her a competing narrator in the film.
The deployment of video in Suzhou River is more integrated into the narrative and at the service of a gender orientation that invokes classical film noir.
The disjointed story is told through a male videographer (‘‘I’’) who remains
invisible (except for his hands) throughout the film. Despite the combination
of footage shot for two tv-films, the edited feature, in using a consistent male
voice-over, implicated yet detached, gives the film a more salient noir inflection. The copresence of a messenger’s and a videoman’s love for the ‘‘same’’
woman molds together while also deconstructs two kinds of American male
noir protagonists in the postwar period: the ‘‘cool’’ criminal in the ‘‘criminaladventure thriller’’ and the ‘‘tough’’ investigator in the ‘‘investigative thriller,’’
respectively. Frank Krutnik, in his study on noir and masculinity, defines the
‘‘criminal’’ hero as ‘‘a male overachiever who seeks through his defiance of the
law to set him above it, and to set himself in its place, as omnipotent.’’ ‘‘His
daring gamble against the delimitations of his place within culture, under the
law, represents a transgressive fantasy which is marked, in multiple ways, by
the inevitability of its failure.’’∑∏ The investigative hero, on the other hand, is
embodied as the ‘‘private eye’’ who ‘‘occupies a mediating point between the
worlds of crime and legitimate society. He proves himself by his ability to
withstand any challenges to his integrity—and to his very status as the active
hero (i.e., to his masculine professionalism, or his professional masculinity).’’∑π Suzhou River departs, however, from either of these classical noir
subgenres precisely in selectively scrambling two strands together while injecting a free dose of the ghost story genre ingrained in Chinese narrative and
dramatic tradition.
The videographer is not only an illegitimate investigator (due to his amateur status—that is, he was hired to make a promotion, not an investigation),
he is also an absent hero. Despite his disembodied voice-over, elements such as
the unsteady, intrusive video filming and the visibility of his hands foreground
him as en embodiment of the video camera. His obsessive (paid or unpaid)
filming wherever he is present creates an impression that the world itself has
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taken on a ‘‘videographic face’’ (to play on Kracauer’s famous comment on
photography).∑∫ Video services such as his are in urban China today as common as Lunar Eclipse’s The Origin of Beauty Creative Studio; amateur videographers are routinely hired to shoot weddings, funerals, and birthday parties, and to make advertisements. But here, the videographer’s matter-of-fact
business assignment quickly turns into a subjective exploration of the enigma
surrounding Meimei, the mermaid girl. As the line between her identity and
that of Mudan begins to blur, the distinction between the videographer and
Mada (which literally means a motor or engine) begins to dissolve as well. If
Meimei is a ghost from the past, and her only purchase on the present is the
fake peony tattoo on her left thigh (as on Mudan’s—a tactile yet disposable
inscription on the body), how real and alive then is the videographer who
intermittently slips in and out of Mada’s body and mind? As many point-ofview shots are taken from the camera mounted on Mada’s motorcycle, the two
‘‘machines’’ do share one body, or a ‘‘body without organs,’’ as it were. We
cannot help but wonder if Mada has reinvented himself as the videographer
just as Mudan seems incarnated in the mermaid girl. The identities of the two
pairs of doubles, female or male, do not refer to literal persons with fixed social
profiles, but rather are immanent bodies in the process of becoming-other or
transformation. Each is the simulation, not copy, of the other, and whose
identity as a ‘‘body without organs’’ consists of a ‘‘bundle of virtual a√ects’’
and constant ‘‘flights’’ or movement between I and the Other.∑Ω
Lou Ye is not interested in solving the enigma about the two women as
would a typical noir investigative hero. Ultimately his intent is to compose a
love poem, a Baudelairesque ‘‘fleur du mal,’’ about a river, a city, and the
impossible task of giving both a total representation. If Wang Quan’an allows
the cab driver to dream of becoming a cinematographer and even to act
heroically on behalf of Jia Niang, Lou Ye’s darker urban vision makes Mada a
betrayer and the videographer an unreliable witness and lackadaisical lover
who even lacks Mada’s intensity. Lou, however, makes a point by framing the
voyeuristic film as a whole through a videographer’s viewfinder in order to
show a trace of sympathy if not intervention. This absent hero unwittingly
helps Mada to find Mudan, although he himself lacks the commitment to
search for Meimei when she vanishes in the end. Yet his business assignment
has turned into an epistemological adventure all the same. ‘‘Voyeurism and
hiding behind a camera are not the same thing,’’ emphasizes Lou. ‘‘When
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you’re making a movie, you’re impacting the world that you’re filming, which
in turn impacts you. It can be a dangerous position.’’ Yet this danger is not
entirely futile because it is invested with a possibility for creating connection,
as manifested in the fleeting romances in the film. Lou concedes that using
romantic elements in a film can ‘‘evoke real emotion.’’ ‘‘In real life there is little
romance of any real quality—you need to evoke it, just like when you’re
watching or making a film.’’∏≠
Obviously, despite their noirish vision and a touch of nihilism, both Wang
and Lou share a conviction in cinema’s capacity to create a new order of
reality—a dimension of evoked memory and felt a√ect and connectivity. Photography and videography in the films may at times carry with them a sense of
reification as surveillance apparatus or instruments of alienation. However,
the ubiquity of photographers and videographers is not so much a cynical
record of the rampant industry of mass images that has changed China beyond recognition as it is a meditation on the pervasive impact, destructive as
well as transformative, of these imaging technologies on the human mimetic
faculty. The films are hardly suggestive of a nostalgic return to some prereform era, technologically impoverished state, but rather are hard at work to
mobilize these old and new media, through their encounter with the lives of
phantom sisters, for the revivification of cinema and its power to restore
sensory a√ect and mimetic faculty. In the films the men and women with a
camera move in various (narrative or literal) vehicles on the ‘‘two-way street’’
of a mimetic race,∏∞ alternately being the subject or object of photography and
videography—that is, as passive witnesses or intervening agents in ‘‘accidents’’
that seem beyond their control yet always are fatefully rewarding in the form
of doubles and returns. This explains in part both films’ genre-bending
qualities that blur the boundaries between the representational and the reflexive, as well as the qualities of intermittent humor and warmth, especially
when the diegetic photographers and videographers try to get closer to their
object of love or observation (often literally through zoom-in and extreme
More important, a cinema that holds the potential to not just provide
solace but also to restore a√ect to a bruised humanity is a sensuous cinema
that touches and moves the spectator, teaching people to ‘‘cry again.’’∏≤ It is a
cinema of the body instead of abstraction or illusion.∏≥ The tactile quality is
often literalized through the films’ emphasis on touching and embracing.
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While the problem with Ya Nan’s marriage can be glimpsed through her
husband’s shoe polishing (an alienated, or fetishist, form of touch or being
out of touch), the amateur photographer connects with Ya Nan during their
first encounter by touching her shoulder in the car while asking, ‘‘Are you
cold?’’ As revealed later, a similar gesture has also been made toward Ya Niang.
When vision alone cannot prove the materiality and certitude of life, touching
is believing.
Tactility is the conduit of a√ect in Suzhou River as well. The videographer,
as mentioned above, is perceived as a body without organs—a machine with a
pair of hands. The hands are inseparable from his work (and by extension the
work of the filmmaker behind him); their omnipresence evidences the filmmaker’s insistence on exposing the materiality and labor of cinema. These
hands do the work of posting a video services sign, receiving a paged call, and
by shooting a job at the ‘‘Happy Tavern,’’ but they quickly move on to engage
in the courting of Meimei. They clap her hands, a popular game among
children; they stroke her hair while lovingly watching/shooting her sensuous
face. The images are so close and vivid that they seem on the verge of spilling
out of the screen. We as viewers feel pulled toward her and the screen by these
bodyless hands as though they have become our own prosthetics. The mtvstyle footage of the ‘‘hair stroking’’ scene evolves into a visual, acoustic, and
tactile refrain throughout the film and endows an otherwise disenchanting
urban legend with a measure of warmth and a√ect.
The redemptive power of a tactile cinema is encapsulated in a key scene in
Lunar Eclipse, when the line between cinema and reality is dissolved. After Jia
Niang and Hu Xiaobin exit a movie theater—the site where they had met the
first time and where they have now just seen Titanic—they enter a conversation about cinema that solidifies their connection. Earlier in the theater the
flood of Titanic’s melodramatic images has pushed the young couple together;
in the midst of the bombarding sound of the broken iceberg and the sinking
of the ship, Hu extends his arm to hold the crying Jia Niang. The two underdogs thus find each other on the brink of a Hollywood manufactured virtual
catastrophe as well as on another real one in store for them in the streets of
Beijing.∏∂ Sitting inside his cab parked outside the theater, Hu Xiaobin a≈rms
Jia Niang’s ambition of becoming a movie actress and Jia Niang reciprocates
with encouraging him to be a cinematographer. While they are excited by
their ten-year plan to realize this dream, a flickering flame slowly rises on the
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Suzhou River: Tactile contact.
front car window caressing the dreamy faces of the young couple. The flame
turns out to be the reflection of the neon lights from the theater and street.∏∑
In this heartwarming moment, the artificial flame fueled by the city and
the celluloid world not only rekindles hope and love in the wounded and
numbed, it also seems to melt the glass and the car. Conversely, it could also be
the intensification of the emotion and the warmth of two bodies in touch with
each other that reconnect them with the elements of the phenomenal world.
Indeed, Hu Xiaobin’s cab, the China-made yellow miandi (now obsolete),
which used to be driven by his father, magically turns into a furnace of love, in
obvious contrast to the luxurious but ever so cold red sports car owned by Ya
Nan’s husband. (Its convertible cover has been stuck when the three meet on
that freezing cold day.)
The ‘‘flow of life’’ is in this moment given back its concrete form of ceaseless
motion and metamorphosis. The commingling of the couple’s cinephilia and
the ‘‘process of materialization,’’ figuratively rendered in this scene, would
exemplify for Kracauer (and in the words of Miriam Hansen) the ‘‘aesthetic
possibilities of film to stage, in a sensory and imaginative form, a fundamental
experience of the twentieth century—an experience that has been variously
described in terms of reification and alienation, fragmentation and loss, but
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Lunar Eclipse: Hu Xiaobin inside his miandi cab. (Courtesy of Wang Quan’an)
that . . . no less held a significant share of exhilarating and liberatory impulses.’’∏∏ The artificial flame exteriorizes the psychic states of the lovers,
linking their private reverie with the larger social and material world that
surrounds and transforms them. We watch these cinephiles, through the car
window, as if watching a budding but doomed romance of this young couple
in a film. ‘‘If the world has become a bad movie,’’ like the circumstances that
have been preying on them, ‘‘a true cinema can contribute to giving us back
reasons to believe in the world and in vanished bodies.’’∏π
This ‘‘reflexive’’ scene, despite the absence of a diegetic camera, crystallizes
the emergence of a hyperreal dimension in these recent art films. The disappointment in the here and now is swept by a passion for a reimagined or
transformed reality (as embodied in the glow that turns a shabby cab into a
love boat) that defeats the atrophy of the present. It is a utopian moment
lodged within yet revising the present. Cinema serves as a crucial mediating
agent in creating a new plane of perception on which the limitations of the
lived social reality, as well as the distance between it and the world of narrating
and overcoming that reality, is exposed and challenged simultaneously. This
re-enchanted dimension is enabled by an attempt to both reveal the alienated
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form of the social present and find its antidote, hence the conscious, almost
frantic, formal experimentation for achieving a new (or renewed) level of
sensory experience. On this heightened perceptual and experiential plane, the
phantom sister is at once a real social actor and a poignant allegory for the era
of ‘‘transformation.’’
The arsenal of filmic vocabularies and narrative vehicles mobilized by these
recent experimental films to restore the body and senses to the inchoate
experiences of the underdogs or victims of the era of reform and globalization
distinguishes itself from the kind deployed in some of the innovative Fifth
Generation films set in an illusory narrative world, be it a remote mountain
village or a mythical past. If stasis and contemplation constitute the keynote in
the Fifth Generation’s canon, the experimental cinema of the Urban Generation is marked by motion and a heightened awareness of the ephemeral
temporality of contemporary urban life. The radical contemporaneity of both
Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River lies in their insistence on introducing a different politics and poetics of phenomenology. In choosing the phantom sister
as a compounded figure of the present and the past, both incomplete and
overlapping, they are registering the unevenness of development and the
casualties inflicted by the ideology of progress while rea≈rming the tenacity
of social memory, aided and processed by various sensory prostheses. From a
broader perspective in world film history, these films contribute to what
Deleuze called the ‘‘direct time-image.’’ The phantom sister is thus a kindred
spirit to and embodiment of such an alternative film image: ‘‘The phantom
which has always haunted the cinema, but it took modern cinema to give a
body to this phantom.’’∏∫ Undoubtedly, their visual style and narrative technique (including the figure of the double) are by no means original homegrown recipes. Their originality comes rather from their identification, emulation, and, more important, transformation of contemporary art cinema
within a global spectrum, heralded by people with di√erent cultural origins
and personal styles, particularly those such as Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Hou
Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, and Kiarostami who come from the former
Socialist bloc or non-Western countries.
The cosmopolitan outlook of these and other Urban Generation films,
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however, should not obscure our recognition of their local conditions of
conception, production, and reception. These filmmakers may now be traveling more freely and have almost unlimited exposure to world cinema—
notably through the inexpensive but legally dubious vcd technology (hinted
by Mada’s obsessive watching of pirated vcds in Suzhou River). It remains,
however, their primary preoccupation to portray contemporary Chinese society. Their cosmopolitan film language is intimately bound to the social
experience that has modeled them and shaped their cinematic vision. Wang
Quan’an, for instance, cites in his autobiographic sketch a turning point in his
life that has made him the filmmaker he is today. In the early 1980s, after a visit
to France where he fell in love with cinema, he applied to the Lyon Film
Institute and was accepted there. But upon departure he realized that although he might learn how to make a film at the institute, he would never be
able to make a ‘‘real French film,’’ and later would probably not be able to
make a Chinese film, either. As a result, he opted not to go. While studying at
the Beijing Film Academy, he also came to the realization that many of the socalled great Chinese films were replete with ‘‘dead and false emotions’’: ‘‘These
films are neither about my life nor about those around me. They have very
little to do with us and our perception of contemporary life, even less with our
need for the pleasure of the cinematic aesthetic [experience].’’ He thus decided
to make his own films—ones that would give expression to a kind of ‘‘truth’’
about China yet also about humanity at large and about film as art.∏Ω In the
Chinese critic Chen Xiaoming’s view, Lunar Eclipse’s subjective lens and firm
grasp of the ‘‘material sense’’ (zhigan) accomplishes a higher degree of ‘‘contemporaneity’’ (dangdaixing) and ‘‘nativeness’’ (bentuxing) than those Fifth
Generation films heavily coded with literal idioms of ‘‘tradition’’ and ‘‘nativism.’’ ‘‘The true nativeness is really contemporaneity, revealing the living present in a changing, complex discursive environment.’’π≠
The creatively recycled international art film language and postmodern pop
idioms provide the occasion or a filter to reactivate, albeit unconsciously,
melodramatic elements that can be traced to films such as Sister Flowers or
classical canons of tales of the strange. While these Urban Generation filmmakers are writing a new chapter in Chinese film history, the cultural legacy
of the past also finds them and asks to be reprocessed and renewed. On the
other hand, as suggested by the scene in Lunar Eclipse after the lovers watch
Titanic, these innovative filmmakers do not necessarily reject in total the
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imported mass images and storytelling formulas represented by Hollywood,
but rather actively engage and transform them in order to tell stories about
their generation in their own language. Along these parallel and at times
intersecting trajectories, Lunar Eclipse and Suzhou River stand as a pair of
remarkable signposts in the transformation of Chinese cinema at the turn of a
new century.
Many people contributed to the conception and development of this essay. Above
all I thank Wang Quan’an and Lou Ye for our conversations, which first spurred
my interest in writing this piece. I benefited greatly from my engaging discussions
with Miriam Hansen, Tom Gunning, Josh Yumibe, and others at the Mass Culture
Workshop at the University of Chicago on February 16, 2002. I also thank Magnus
Fiskesjö and Charley Leary for their comments on an earlier version of this essay.
1. The vcd version of Suzhou River that I own is produced by the Hong Kong–
based Winson Entertainment Distribution Ltd. vcd is notorious for its untrustworthy quality, especially the pirated versions that are routinely sold in black
markets both inside and outside of China.
2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert
Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 206.
3. Ibid., 195–96.
4. A number of retrospectives or selections of European, Japanese, and other
international art films took place in Beijing and Shanghai in the 1980s. The Beijing
Film Academy and other film-related cultural institutions have more regular access to classical or contemporary world cinema as a whole. In the 1990s, cheap vcd
technology further popularized (or ‘‘copied’’) the archives of international art
cinema as well as the Hollywood blockbusters.
5. Interview with Wang Guan’an, June 13, 2000, Beijing.
6. Siegfried Kracauer, From Dr. Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the
German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947). See especially the
section (pp. 28–31) concerning the doppelganger figure in films such as A Student
of Prague (1913).
7. The term used above is borrowed from Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence:
A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1975]). The anxiety is
caused by a simultaneous desire to emulate predecessors and to surpass them.
8. It has been a common practice to assign graduates jobs in their hometowns or
native provinces. Since Lou is from Shanghai and Wang is originally from Yan’an
in Shanxi Province, it was only ‘‘natural’’ for them to go back to where they came
9. Filmed-for-tv is a new trend in contemporary Chinese ‘‘film’’ culture that gives
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young filmmakers a chance to work in a medium with less political and financial
pressure. Guan Hu’s unreleased Yexingren (A walker by night), also a noirish tale
of a deranged young man set in Shanghai, is part of the aborted Super City series.
10. Dennis Lim, ‘‘Voyeur Eyes Only: Lou Ye’s Generation Next,’’ Village Voice,
November 4, 2000, 140. At the question and answer session after the screening of
Suzhou River at MoMA, Lou Ye mentioned that on-location shooting was also in
part constrained by the di≈culty of obtaining permissions from local authorities;
the use of a handheld 16mm camera and video camera considerably eased the
shooting in the always-bustling area of central Shanghai.
11. For example, Chen Kaige’s father is the famous director Chen Huaikai, and
Tian Zhuangzhuang’s mother, Yu Lan, is a well-known actress and the head of the
Children’s Film Studio.
12. In December 1997, the Film Bureau promulgated the document on regulations
on ‘‘granting permission for single feature film production,’’ making it possible for
provincial and municipal tv stations as well as film studios or related entities with
equivalent statue and capacity to submit scripts to the bureau for production
13. Wang Quan’an’s brief acting career includes a leading role in Zhang Nuanxin’s
Good Morning, Beijing (1990), presumably during his student years at the Beijing
Film Academy where Zhang Nuanxin also taught until her death in 1995.
14. Conversation with Wang Quan’an, June 2001.
15. See Kai Yan, ‘‘Zhengjin yu ruili de ‘Yueshi’ ’’ [The shocking and uncompromising Lunar Eclipse], posted in November 2001 in the ‘‘movie’’ section at http://
16. The film’s producer, Leonardo de la Fuente, is allegedly the author of this
‘‘genre’’ label. See Annette Insdorf’s Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of
Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Hyperion, 1999), 123. For a detailed, compelling
reading of Suzhou River in light of Hitchcock’s influence, see Jerome Silbergeld,
Hitchcock with a Chinese Face: Cinematic Doubles, Oedipal Triangles, and China’s
Moral Voice (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), chapter 1.
17. Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likeness, Unreasonable Facsimiles (New York: Zone Books, 1996), 24.
18. Walter Benjamin, ‘‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’’
in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn
(New York: Schocken, 1969), 217–52; especially parts 2 and 3. For a brilliant reading of Benjamin’s idea of the cinematic ‘‘innervation’’ of senses in modernity, see
Miriam Hansen, ‘‘Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,’’ Critical Inquiry
25, no. 2 (winter 1999): 306–43. For an insightful investigation into the early
conceptualization of cinema as modern magic, see Rachel Moore, Savage Theory:
Cinema as Modern Magic (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000).
19. Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy, 38.
20. This resonates with the identification of the schizoid, in particular, and the
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somatic modality of the body in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus:
Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).
21. This synopsis is partly adopted from Annette Insdorf’s Double Lives, Second
Chances, 126–28.
22. For an overview and assessment of the documentary movement, which also
emerged in the 1990s, see my introduction to this volume as well as Chris Berry’s
23. Under the aegis of state feminism, all Chinese women were supposed to work.
Over time, the freedom to work was eclipsed by the imperative to work for
subsistence, and women had to work both outside and inside the home. It thus
became fashionable in the 1990s for certain women to choose to stay at home if
their husbands made more than enough to maintain a comfortable standard of
living. For a sociological study of the social and ethical characteristics of the
emerging middle class in urban China of 1990s, see Duan Yiping, Gaojihui: Zhongguo chengshi zhongchan jieceng xiezhen [High-grade grey: A portrayal of the Chinese urban middle class] (Beijing: Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe, 1999).
24. The head-shaking dancing seen at the discos could be a covert reference to the
young drug users called yaotouzu, or the ‘‘tribe of head-shakers.’’
25. The term is from J. Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies (London: Pluto Press, 1990),
26. Her need for sisterhood is also expressed through her numerous visits to a
girlfriend trapped in domestic woes. Over the course of the film, we witness how
Ya Nan drifts away from the friend who has become bitter and nonchalant after
her own divorce.
27. Paul Schrader, ‘‘Notes on Film Noir,’’ in Film Genre Reader II, ed. Barry Keith
Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 221.
28. Huang Shixian et al., ‘‘ ‘Yueshi’: Chufa Zhongguo dianying jianrui huatide
xinrui zhi zuo’’ [Lunar Eclipse: A dashing work of a young director which has
sparked a new topic of Chinese cinema] Beijing Dianying xuebao [Journal of the
Beijing Film Academy], no. 2 (2000): 32.
29. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the turn to capitalism in the former Eastern
bloc attracted a large number of illegal migrants and traders from China who took
advantage of the trans-Siberian railroad.
30. Or, to use Linda Lai’s term from her essay in this volume, Mada returns from
31. The basic story in Tang Xianzu’s play Mudanting huanhunji [The peony pavilion, or the souls’s return] from 1589 surrounds the romance between a maiden
and a scholar she meets in a dream; eventually, she dies out of unrequited love for
him. The scholar later learns about her love for him and falls in love with the
image of her in a self-portrait. He visits her grave and confesses his love for her.
Moved, she returns from the nether world and reunites with him. Peony Pavilion
is the site where this human-ghost love takes place. See Cyril Birch, trans., The
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Peony Pavilion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980). Judith Zeitlin treats
the female revenants, or the returned spirit of the dead, as a particular type
of amorous ghosts. See her ‘‘Embodying the Disembodied: Representations of
Ghosts and the Feminine,’’ in Writing Women in Late Imperial China, ed. Ellen
Widmer and Kang-I Sun Chang (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997),
242–63. The ‘‘virtual’’ incarnation of a vanished woman in both Lunar Eclipse and
Suzhou River adds to and renews, in my view, the repertoire of female revenants in
Chinese cultural and women’s history. The fascination with this tale seems ageless
and boundless. The play was staged, in a fusion of Chinese Kunqu opera and
postmodern scenography, at Lincoln Center in New York in 1997.
32. Silbergeld, Hitchcock with a Chinese Face, 25–29.
33. Harry Harootunian, History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the
Question of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 17.
34. On this widespread phenomenon and its social and gender implications, see
my ‘‘Mediating Time: The ‘Rice Bowl of Youth’ in fin de siècle Urban China,’’
Public Culture 12, no. 1 (2000): 93–113.
35. This metaphor is exploited to its fullest in Zhu Wen’s dv feature Seafood (2001).
36. The colonial administration in the concessions changed this name to Soo
Chou Creek because it connects the ports in Shanghai to the Suzhou region, which
is rich with silk, tea, porcelain, and other popular export goods. According to
urban geographical studies, Wusongjiang used to be larger than today’s Huangpu
and was directly channeled into the ocean. See Li Tiangang, Wenhua Shanghai
[Cultural Shanghai] (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1998), 252–59.
37. See, ‘‘Lou Ye: Zai yingxiang de heliu shang’’ [Lou Ye: On the river of filmic
images], in Wo de sheyingji bu sahuang [My camera doesn’t lie], ed. Cheng Qingsong and Huang Ou (Beijing: Zhongguo youyi chuban gongsi, 2002), 258.
38. J. Hoberman, ‘‘Vertigo-a-go-go and More Déjà Viewing: Eternal Return,’’
Village Voice, November 14, 2000, 131.
39. For a brief yet pointed analysis of the cultural meaning of ‘‘south’’ in Chinese
literary and cultural production of the 1990s, see Dai Jinghua, ‘‘Imagined Nostalgia,’’ in Postmodernism and China, ed. Arif Dirlik and Xudong Zhang (Durham,
N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), 205–21, especially the section ‘‘Emergence of
the South.’’
40. On the ‘‘Civilized Play’’ and its influence on early Chinese cinema, see Zhong
Dafeng, Zhang Zhen, and Yingjin Zhang. ‘‘From Wenmingxi (Civilized Play) to
Yingxi (Shadow Play): The Foundation of Shanghai Film Industry in the 1920s,’’
Asian Cinema 9, no. 1 (fall 1997): 46–64.
41. In all, eight films representing di√erent companies from China participated in
the festival. Among them, Cai Chusheng’s Boatmen’s Song (1934) became the first
Chinese film to get an international award. See Hu Die, Yinghou shengya: Hu Die
huiyi lu [The career of the queen of cinema: Hu Die’s memoir] (Hangzhou:
Zhejiang renmin chubanshe, 1986), 142–45; 163–69. Other parts of the memoir
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Urban Dreamscape, Phantom Sisters ∞ 385
describe also the occasional exhibitions of Sister Flowers and another Mingxing
film in several European cities.
42. In the early 1930s, while Zheng Zhengqiu and many other veteran filmmakers
began to make films with progressive and patriotic messages, there also emerged a
left-wing cinema that more explicitly tackled the social and political issues of the
day. Class and gender inequality are the primary ingredients in this radical cinema, which relied heavily on the representational techniques of contrast and
conflict derived from a combination of Soviet, European, and Hollywood cinema.
See, among other writings, Paul Pickowicz, ‘‘Melodramatic Representation and
the ‘May Fourth’ Tradition of Chinese Cinema,’’ in From May Fourth to June
Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China, ed. Ellen Widmer and David
Der-wei Wang (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 295–326; and
Ma Ning, ‘‘The Textual and Critical Di√erence of Being Radical: Reconstructing
Chinese Leftist Films of the 1930s,’’ Wide Angle 11, no. 2 (1989): 22–31. Notably, a
recurring motif in this urban cinema is the arrival of rural migrants at the docks
along the Suzhou River.
43. On the interplay between star power and the fate of tragic female characters in
Chinese silent cinema of the 1930s, see Miriam Hansen, ‘‘Fallen Women, Rising
Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film as Vernacular Modernism,’’ Film Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2000): 10–22.
44. The screening was part of ‘‘The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema in Transformation,’’ a program organized by Jia Zhijie and myself. Wang’s remarks were reported in Wei Xin’s essay, ‘‘Zhongguo dianying xunhuizhan zai Hafuo’’ [A touring
exhibition of Chinese cinema at Harvard],’’ Dajiyuan shibao [The epoch times],
March 5–11, 2001, 2.
45. Stated in a presentation at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center of Performing Arts, New York, March 1, 2001.
46. See the essay in this volume by Xueping Zhong on the phenomenon of extramarital a√airs in contemporary Chinese society and its representation in cinema
and literature.
47. Wang’s Story of Er Mei (Jing Zhe, 2003) revolves around a girl’s attempt to
regain her virginity through plastic surgery.
48. Indeed, Rey Chow’s nuanced reading of Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, also a postmodern film about a female revenant or ‘‘amorous ghost,’’ is germane to my interpretation here. See Rey Chow, ‘‘A Souvenir of Love,’’ Modern Chinese Literature 7 (1993):
49. In a roundtable discussion about the film organized by Popular Cinema, Film
Art, and the Beijing Film Studio, Hao Jian makes a similar observation on the
emphasis on the act of narration. See Huang Shixian et al., ‘‘ ‘Yueshi,’ ’’ 30.
50. D. N. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 156–57.
51. See Braester’s essay in this volume.
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386 ∞ zhang zhen
52. Schrader, ‘‘Notes on Film Noir,’’ 221.
53. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton University Press, 1997 [1960]), 71–72.
54. Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 11, 13. On the ‘‘make-believe’’ use of
photography by the ‘‘spiritualists’’ in late-nineteenth-century America, see Tom
Gunning, ‘‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography,
Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny,’’ in Fugitive Images:
From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1995), 42–71.
55. Walter Benjamin, ‘‘A Short History of Photography’’ (1931), Screen 13 (spring
1993): 5–26.
56. Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (London:
Routledge, 1991), 138.
57. Ibid., 93.
58. Siegfried Kracauer, ‘‘Photography’’ (1927), trans. Thomas Levin, Critical Inquiry 19 (spring 1993), 433.
59. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine, 154–55.
60. Lim, ‘‘Voyeur Eyes Only,’’ 140.
61. The term ‘‘two-way street’’ is derived from Miriam Hansen, ‘‘Benjamin and
Cinema,’’ 306–43.
62. Walter Benjamin, ‘‘One Way Street,’’ in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol.
1, 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1996), 476. On tactility as a recipe for innovation, see
also Benjamin’s art work essay, especially where he discusses Dada.
63. On a general discussion on the tactile ‘‘body’’ of cinema, see Steve Shaviro, The
Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
64. Titanic’s phenomenal box o≈ce record in China in 1998 spelled disaster for
Chinese cinema the year that Wang made Lunar Eclipse. Titanic took in 0.3 billion
yuan out of the total Chinese market of 1.44 billion yuan (which is lower than any
previous year in the decade). The rest was shared by more than eighty domestic
films and several dozens of other imported films. As quoted in Ying Hong, ‘‘Shiji
zhijiao: 90 niandai Zhongguo dianying beiwanglu’’ [At the turn of the century: A
memorandum for Chinese cinema of the 90s], Dangdai dianying, no. 1 (2000): 32.
65. This scene is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in which Robert de
Niro’s character, who has an ambivalent relationship to both the child prostitute
and the well-to-do woman, is framed in his cab whose windshield reflects the
lights of the streets. My thanks to Charley Leary for pointing out this connection
to me.
66. Miriam Hansen, introduction to Kracauer, Theory of Film, xvii.
67. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 201.
68. Ibid., 40.
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Urban Dreamscape, Phantom Sisters ∞ 387
69. Wang Quan’an, ‘‘Wo de dianying youguande lüli’’ [My film-related resume],
70. Chen Xiaoming, ‘‘Fenglie de liliang: Cong ‘Yueshi’ kan xindianying de biaoyi
celue’’ [The Power of fission: A look at the ideographic tactics of new films from
Lunar Eclipse], Beijing dianying xuebao [Journal of Beijing Film Academy], no. 37
(April 2000): 40.
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