Where’s China?

The Summer 2008 issue of Film Quarterly is out with several interesting articles, including Leo Braudy on No Country for Old Men and Joshua Clover on Chinese cinema. I’m about to leave for vacation, so I can only point to these articles for now. When I return I want to say something about the "motiveless malignancy" of the Coen Brothers’ film. Clover asks a question about the films of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien: "Where’s China?"

This is a huge question and one worth exploring more if I didn’t have to pack right now. A short, privisional answer: How much does it matter? Outside of the so-called Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Feng Xiaogang, with their nationalist epics, Chinese directors outside the PRC have largely avoided questions of national identity. Edward Wang was famous for his lack of concern about a Taiwanese identity. Even his great theme, the problem of urbanization, rarely explored the impact of Westernization in any direct fashion.

Now that it’s lost its colonial status, Hong Kong has become a kind of national empty space–not quite Chinese, but inextricable from it. Lacking the epic landscapes of mainland China, Hong Kong is a hive of people and praxis. Wong’s and Hou’s films explore new ways of being in the world; national and ethnic identities are just part of the mix, and not terribly important ones at that. An emblematic instance of this tendency is Juliette Binoche’s blong wig in Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon, at once stressing her Western sexuality and rendering it inoperative. When you see a French actress wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig in a Taiwanese director’s film, one is forcing to rethink what kinds of questions one should be asking.



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