ANon-realist Aesthetic Thread in Chinese Film before the 1990s

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Chapter Three The Crisis of Memory and Its Reinvention: Unreliable Narrative in In the Heat of the Sun and Suzhou River

Do not believe me, I am lying.  The narrator, Suzhou River A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?  Eubulides (Greece, 4th century BCE)
As China’s reform and opening-up stepped into its second decade in the concluding decade of the twentieth century, the terrain of post-socialist culture not only significantly departed from its early stage of the New Era, but also prefigured its development in the twenty-first century. Under the new circumstances, as I sketched at the outset of this study, the cultural landscape of Chinese cinema has been reshaped by a group of young filmmakers — the Sixth Generation. By representing individual perceptions, especially the urbanite’s subjective experience, in contemporary post-socialist conditions, this new generation broke through the encirclement formed by the tripartite forces of commercial film, main-melody film and the Fifth Generation’s art film. They added new blood to the 1980s newly-established cinematic aesthetics of both jishizhuyi and non-realism in Chinese cinema. While jishizhuyi was used by filmmakers to emphasize film’s function as the faithful record and witness of external or material reality in a fast-changing era, post-realism is distinguished by its cinematic rendition of individual subjective experience. As outlined in the introductory chapter, the radical difference between the non-realism of the 1980s and post-realism of the 1990s and 2000s is that in the 1980s non-realist films, non-realist or non-rational events and elements are usually relegated to dreams or artistic activities. They are contained in an explainable frame of empirical and rational reality, leaving the realist framework of the films unchallenged. In contrast, in the post-realist films of the Sixth Generation, the boundaries between reality and fiction and between art and life become very blurred or are even dissolved. Simultaneously, the apparent transparency of the verisimilitude is repudiated and the presence of artistic mediation and its own construction is increasingly emphasized. Therefore, in order to provide a substantial discussion of the post-realist cinematic representation, in this chapter I will shift my attention to some Sixth-Generation films from the early 1990s to the present.
This chapter focuses on two post-realist films — Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, both of which are characterized by an unreliable narrative. In the narrative of classical realist film, such as Xie Jin’s The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, the character-narrator automatically owns an authentication authority: what he or she says or recollects is beyond doubt. In comparison, the credibility of the narrative in In the Heat of the Sun and in Suzhou River is undermined and these films’ own factitiousness is exposed through the first-person narrators whose trustworthiness has been seriously compromised.
In both In the Heat of the Sun and Suzhou River, the character-narrators confess frankly that they are lying, laying bare the fabrication of their stories and memories. This kind of “true liar” is defined as “unreliable narrator” in narrative theory, a term which Wayne C. Booth first proposed in his 1961 study The Rhetoric of Fiction: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.”1 Although Booth’s definition has recently been challenged, it remains a canonical account of the concept of the unreliable narrator. According to Booth, there is a discrepancy between what really happened and what the character-narrator accounts. Thus, the unreliable narrator, as Volker Ferenz notes, “appear[s] not only a creation of the films but also, first and foremost, their creator.”2
So what is the advantage by using an unreliable narrator in storytelling? From Kathleen Wall’s perspective, to use an unreliable narrator “is to foreground certain elements of the narrator’s psychology…”3 More specifically, Ferenz points out that “because unreliable narratives inevitably create psychologically rich situations — we are spatiotemporally aligned to a character-narrator who gives us access to their thoughts, subjective imagery charges the cinema with an air of intimacy, the revelation of their unreliability brings about a mixed bag of feelings — they usually engage the viewer in a host of largely emotional ways.”4 These statements show evidence that the unreliable narrator is naturally and intimately associated with the subjective realm.
With regard to the two films considered in this chapter, the psychological realm of memory and imagination is what these unreliable character-narrators mainly deal with. Viewers are granted access to the narrators’ inner world and witness the process of the reconstruction of memory in accordance with the narrators’ particular needs in the here-and-now. Both In the Heat of the Sun and Suzhou River share a common concern with the collapse and reconstruction of memories. The unreliable narrator employed in these two films is an indication that our contemporary understanding of memory has significantly changed. Since the late nineteenth century, memory has no longer been considered as a fixed, lifeless, finished project of the past. Many theorists and artists, such as Freud and Proust, demonstrate that memory “is not a transparent reproduction of a past event, but a result of later distortion, rearrangement, selection and other processes often amounting to a complete recasting of the past.”5 In this sense, the alleged authentic memory is quite questionable; instead, all memory is polluted by fantasy and controlled by present desires and needs. As Freud pointed out: “[T]he material present in the form of memory traces [is] being subjected from time to time to a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances.”6 In the following pages, I will address how these unreliable character-narrators re-construct their memories and how in these films the reconstruction of memories reflects the “fresh circumstances” of the post-socialist conditions in China.

Remembering or Fabricating the (Personal/National) Youth: The Crisis of Memory in In the Heat of the Sun

In the Heat of the Sun initiated Jiang Wen’s directorial career in the early 1990s after he had made his name with a number of leading roles in the films of some significant directors such as Xie Jin and Zhang Yimou.7 As a director, Jiang has made four films so far — In the Heat of the Sun, Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi laile, 2000), The Sun Also Rises and Let the Bullets Fly (Rang zidan fei, 2010). The distinctive styles of Jiang’s works differentiate the actor-turned-director from most other Chinese filmmakers, rendering any attempt to identify him as a member of a particular group awkward. Notwithstanding, in this study, I categorize Jiang’s In the Heat of the Sun as a work of the Sixth Generation since the film provides a strong personalized style as well as a personal perspective on history, features which are shared with many other Sixth-Generation filmmakers.
In the Heat of the Sun achieved huge success both critically and commercially.8 It is adapted from Wild Beasts (Dongwu xiongmeng), a novella by Wang Shuo, a popular  Beijing-based writer, who is a representative figure of “hooligan literature” (pizi wenxue).9 The film reminisces about Ma’s passionate teenage in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution through the voice-over of the adult Ma Xiaojun (narrated and played by Jiang Wen himself). Despite the film’s backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Wen dedicates his film to depicting individual growth and the vitality of youth instead of traumatic experience as presented in many other films set in that decade. The film’s protagonist Ma (also known as Monkey Ma, the nickname used by his friends) is a fifteen-year-old high school teenager, the son of a high-ranking military officer. Too young to be sent to the countryside and lacking discipline from parents who are busy with their work, Ma and his buddies wilfully vent their excessive energy and adolescent libido by fighting with other gangs and meeting girls. Ma’s mastery at making skeleton keys helps him to sneak into other people’s homes and brings him a lot of fun. Once, he discovers a colour photo of a girl on the wall of an apartment, and becomes infatuated with her. It seems predestined that Ma should encounter and makes friends with his dream girl, Mi Lan. After spending some wonderful time with her, Ma introduces Mi Lan to his buddies. Soon, Ma’s handsome friend Liu Yiku becomes his rival in love and develops a close relationship with Mi Lan. At the conclusion of the film, disappointed in love, Ma attempts to rape Mi Lan to wreak his revenge. Ma’s outrage isolates himself from his friends. His adolescence ends with the end of the summer. The last part of the film
switches to 1990s Beijing where the adult Ma Xiaojun, with his gang members, rides around in a limousine being nostalgic for their lost youth. Althought the background of In the Heat of the Sun is set in the Cultural Revolution, Jiang’s story of coming-of-age, as film critic Peggy Chiao suggests, is about youth and growth rather than the Cutlural Revolution.10
In the director’s comments, Jiang notes: “All those difficult-to-remember Chinese characters (fangkuai zi) become vivid movie pictures. How then can we not admire the magic of film?”11 In the film, Jiang Wen in one sense elablorately reproduces or reconstructs a world of memory, a youthful age in the revolutionary ambience, by virtue of the film’s nature as a photographic medium. In another sense, by showing the limitations inherent in the film medium and film as fictional construct, Jiang reveals the incapability of memory in restoring the true past. Thus, tensions constantly arise from the dynamics of these two antithetical aspects and are explicitly demonstrated when at times the voice-over of the character-narrator challenges its own faithfulness.
In the opening shot of the film, the vibrant scene of “seeing off Ma’s father,” accompanied by the high-spirited revolutionary song, draws us back to the 1970s when the whole of China was enveloped in a revolutionary atmosphere. However, what Jiang Wen does in this film is far more than just turning characters into photographic images.
Rather, he demonstrates the unique magic, a capability that belongs only to the medium of film. Such magic is preliminarily displayed at the very beginning of the film when, due to camera movements of zoom in and pan down, a solid statue of Chairman Mao seems to wave his huge hand and guide the direction of the revolution.
The most full display of film magic occurs in the climactic point in the film, in the scene of the “birthday party at the Moscow Restaurant,” when the narrator’s memory collapses in an instant. Diallectically, the extreme rendering of film’s distinctive magic at the same time also demonstrates the ontological limitation of film as a time-based medium. The film thoroughly reveals its own fabrication in an astonishing way, even though several clues and reminders in the preceding 100-minutes narrative have already implied that. Having become jealous of the closeness between Liu Yiku and Mi Lan, Ma eventually provokes a fight between his rival and himself at the Beijing’s Moscow Restaurant where the party takes place. Out of extreme anger, Ma breaks a wine bottle and fiercely and repeatedly stabs Liu with it. The most stunning moment of the film then appears: at first, Liu has a painful look because of Ma’s attack. Gradually, after Ma’s five or six stabs, Liu seems to realize something unusual has happened and looks at his stomach in wonder. There is no blood, nor wound. He looks around and is baffled by what is happening. Then he turns to Ma who is still fighting. Finally Ma begins to be aware of something and gazes in the direction of camera as if he is asking the director or the viewers what is happening. Then we hear a familiar voice of “Ha-ha…,” the shot freezes. The mischievous character-narrator explains: “Don’t believe any of it. I never was that brave or heroic. I have kept swearing to tell the story truthfully, but no matter how strong my wish to tell the truth, all kinds of things have gotten in the way, and I sadly realize that I have no way to return to reality.”
The frozen shot not only reveals Ma’s story as cinematic imagination, but also, blurs the line between film and reality by referring to the existence of the camera as well as the possible spectator. The shot is then followed by a highly self-reflexive scene in which the film visualizes the dynamics between remembering and forgetting and simultaneously reveals its own factitiousness as constructs: the film plays backwards in slow motion. Finally, even the broken wine bottle becomes intact. This is an unprecedented sequence in the history of Chinese film. This sequence acknowledges, or rather, stresses the limits of the medium of film and of cinematic mechanism. Thus, it features the self-reflexivity of high modernist film, as Clement Greenberg remarks: “use[ing] of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”12 On the other hand, the rewind breaks the linear narrative, showing a kind of postmodern element as exemplified by the game-like structure of some contemporary films such as Run Lola Run (Lora Rennt, dir. Tom Tykwer, 1998). The innovative device is seamlessly integrated into the cinematic representation of the instability of memory. In this sense, as Paul Grainge notes, “the desire for memory as stable, reassuring, and constant has always been plagued by the fear of its instability and unreliability, and its disposition towards fantasy and forgetting.”13 The intervention of the adult Ma’s sceptical voice-over at this moment of breakdown reveals that memory, just like what happens in this sequence, is unavoidably under reconstruction and being revised in the present. The adult Ma realizes the factiousness of his reminiscence when he admits: “The stronger my desire to tell the truth, the more the interference. I am terribly distressed to be aware that I cannot restore the truth at all. My emotion changed my memories, which have in turn played with me and betrayed me. I started telling the story by wishing to be sincere. But my determined efforts have been futile and become lying.” The segments of memory which do not meet the new demands of the fresh context are filtered, consciously or unconsciously, and what is left is the part that the nostalgic subject needs and wants here and now. After the stunning moment of rewind the voice-over of adult Ma resumes his narration of another happy version of the birthday party in which joy and laughter permeate the air while the violent element totally disappers. As a matter of fact, in the adult Ma’s recollection of his youth, violence is represented in an obscure way. On the one hand, the cruelty of the violence of these teenagers is demonstrated when they ruthlessly beat another teenager. On the other hand, their violence is glamorised in the name of youth, strength, brotherhood and masculinity. In the film, playfully, a possible fight between two gangs is reconciled by a hooligan named “little bastard” (played by the novelist Wang Shuo) and then transformed into a carnival in a restaurant. Obviously, Jiang Wen’s soft representation of the Cultural Revolution contradicts the historical truth of prevalent violence during the ten-years of turmoil. But, as Dai Jinhua notes, the nostalgic representation of the Cultural Revolution “once again regains harmony and continuity in the name of the individual, or consumerism,” although “its own historical narration is also fragmented by the conflictual, disparate authorizing languages and thus is full of blind spots.


Table of Contents
Table of Contents 
List of Illustrations 
Post-realism: The Alternative Aesthetics of Post-socialist Chinese Cinema
Chapter One
Chinese (Cinematic) Realism: AHistorical Review
Chapter Two
ANon-realist Aesthetic Thread in Chinese Film before the 1990s
Chapter Three
The Crisis of Memory and Its Reinvention: Unreliable Narrative
in In the Heat of the Sun and Suzhou River
Chapter Four
The Divided Self of Women: Female-double Characters
in Lunar Eclipse and Green Tea
Chapter Five
The Articulation of Strangeness: Aestheticized Space in Jia Zhangke’s
The World, Still Life and 24 City
Post-realism as an Alternative Aesthetics in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

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