HIDDEN IN THE HEAT OF THE SUN: MIMESIS, SACRILEGE AND APORIA—READING JIANG WEN’S FILMIC RECREATON OF THE CHINESE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
University of Redlands
Since the late 1980s, the Chinese people have begun to commemorate the Cultural Revolution, the traumatic past in China’s recent history, with warmth, affection and even zeal. Joining in this new trend in China's popular culture and literature, Jiang Wen's 1994 production In the Heat of the Sun fashioned similarly sunny, warm and sweet memories of the Cultural Revolutionary era, provoking from viewers a deeply nostalgic sigh.
This paper will situate this filmic text in the larger "rewriting the Cultural Revolution" phenomenon. Besides arguing against the popular diagnosis of global nostalgia, and uncovering the hidden messages of resistance to the Maoist culture and ideology in the film, it will also discuss the Chinese mentality in dealing with trauma, the new modes of consumption and commercialization of history and memory, the influence of modernity and the global epidemic of nostalgia, and the meanings and problems of all these complications in the remembering and creating of a problematic past.
In China, filmic narratives about the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) memories had always been preoccupied with the presentation of trauma. However this scenery changed in 1994 when Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun1 (hereafter Heat) came out and depicted the Cultural Revolution in rather mellow, sunny, and warm pictures. The film won the Venice International Film Festival’s Best Actor prize as well as the Golden Horse Film Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Not only did it gain international popularity, the film also broke China’s box-office record instantly and won from its Chinese audience a deeply nostalgic sigh.
Why would the Chinese audience so readily embrace Heat? From the famous nine-and-a-half-hour long documentary Shoah, to Schindler’s List, to the recent film The Pianist, the Jews and others who were persecuted by the German Nazis are still making a great effort not to forget their trauma. Even with the more comical film Life is Beautiful, chilling horror and great sadness far override the sweetness in the father and son relationship. How could the Chinese people have so quickly moved beyond the painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, a ten-year traumatic history, and been able to turn around and laugh at it or even savor it with a rather nostalgic sentiment? Are the Chinese more immune to pain and trauma or are they drawn to historical amnesia?
To answer these questions, this study closely examines Heat as a new nostalgic memory of the Cultural Revolution, against the backdrop of a political climate that has never favored free expressions of the Cultural Revolution. Through my study, I argue that even though it looks morally suspect when we first encounter the current nostalgic recreations of the Cultural Revolution memory, given the ongoing repression by the Chinese government of the actual events of the Cultural Revolution and their legacies, Chinese intellectuals are actually taking advantage of the global sentiment of nostalgia to open a discourse about this forbidden topic.
Before discussing Jiang Wen’s Heat, I shall provide a brief review of all previous films that make the Cultural Revolution central to their presentations. These films are mostly the works of the fifth generation directors.2 Significant works from this group include Chen Kaige’s Baiwang bieji (Farewell My Concubine) (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lan fengzheng (The Blue Kite) (1992), Zhang Yimou’s Huozhe (To Live) (1994). Xie Jin, who belongs to the Third Generation, in the 80s, also produced several acclaimed films about the Cultural Revolution. His CR-themed films are Tianyun shan chuanqi (The Tale of Tianyun Mountain) (1980), Muma ren (The Horse Herder) (1982), and Furong zhen (Hibiscus Town) (1986). It is a notable phenomenon that the Fourth Generation directors who actually lived through the whole CR period somehow did not have significant works reflecting the Cultural Revolution.
The difference between Xie Jin’s films and those of the Fifth Generation directors in terms of writing the CR past lies in a quintessential difference in the perception of history. Critic Wang Ban sees that Xie Jin’s films about the Cultural Revolution have a typical pattern. First, the victim falls to sufferings, then he retreats to home/family or a female character’s love as shelter, after the Party realizes its errors and rectifies the wrongs, the victim is thus saved and allowed to resume a happy life.3 Xie Jin’s faith in the progression of history and the Party’s leadership is clearly manifested in these presentations. However, in contrast, while also exposing the CR as an atrocity, in their films the Fifth Generation directors refuse to depict reasons to have faith in history’s progress or the Party’s leadership. Their filmic narratives often express doubt and loss amid trauma, while painstakingly seeking causes behind the CR calamity. They refuse to fabricate happy or redemptive endings; instead, they leave questions unanswered. Despite the different critiques toward the Cultural Revolution, it is correct to state that CR-themed films before 1994 were all based upon the perception of the CR experiences as trauma.
However, since the late 1980s and early 1990s, in both literature and films, memories of the Cultural Revolution began to take on a new look. In literature, Wang Xiaobo’s two stories “Golden Times” and “Love in a Revolutionary Time,”4 Mang Ke’s Wild Things5 have turned their memory of the CR past into carnivals that are filled with romances and wild sex. In films, after Jiang Wen’s Heat, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress created another rosy picture of the Cultural Revolutionary period. Seemingly, in remembering the CR past, romance and longing have replaced exposure and critique; enjoyment and fun have been substituted for pain and trauma. I devote the rest of this paper to examine the nostalgic and somewhat eroticized memory of the CR history in Heat by situating it in the larger trend of romanticizing the CR memory in not only filmic, but also literary, cultural and economic world.
In Chinese and American academic circles, this new romance with the CR past has perplexed many scholars. Among those who studied this issue, Wendy Larson, Dai Jinhua, Yomi Braester, Xu Zidong, and Yang Guobin have contributed the most. Following is a brief review of their analyses.
Wendy Larson contends that sexuality in literature and films from the 1980s is basically a trendy move under the influence of modernity based on the western model, since she believes that sexuality and the issues surround it are historically non-Chinese. In her article “Never This Wild,” Larson provides a lengthy outline of the twentieth-century Western debate on human sexuality; she then gives a full analysis of the sexual representation in Anchee Min’s novel, The Red Azalea. She believes that Min’s work is primarily an attempt to join “the many cultural artifacts that promote the sexualization of representation as something modern—as indeed it is—and therefore desirable.” She also finds that although “some post-Mao writers and filmmakers have tried to recoup direct sexual expression as something appropriately Chinese,” there are traces of a “complicated, many-faceted link between sexual expression and the West in many of the same works.”6 However, I argue that Anchee Min’s residence in the U.S. makes the meaning of her eroticized CR memory writing different from those written in China. Therefore to speak to this Chinese phenomenon, careful reading of local Chinese texts is necessary.
Yomi Braester is concerned about the relationship between history and memory in his study of Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun (hereafter Heat). He argues that, instead of offering testimony for history, the role of Chinese literature as defined by Mao, Heat “refute[s] the correlation between history and memory.”7 Through “weaving together memory and fantasy,”8 Heat is not history-making but rather myth-making. Braester goes so far as to claim that, “(Heat) provides a concise history of PRC cinema and demonstrates the power of films to reconfigure the past.”9
Xu Zidong anchors his study of the fifty novels about the CR in a narratological approach. Borrowing J. Hillis Miller’s concept of structural components in a story and Russian structualist Vladimir Propp’s morphology, Xu typifies four basic components, four narrative models, twenty-nine formulaic plots in these CR narratives. Xu’s narratological study has produced a surprising finding: three out of four of the basic narrative models actually conform to the official attitude and rhetoric about the CR.10 Based on this, Xu challenges the view which sees the “memory boom” about the Cultural Revolution a promising sign for the birth of a collective memory of the CR in China. But Xu spends only a limited space on the discussion of “absurd narratives,” the only model that he credits for having some power of resistance to the official rhetoric on the CR past. My study will engage with CR memories that are not only critical to the CR past but also to the repression on the CR memories.
Aside from literary analysis, Dai Jinhua sensitively captures the many grand and minute cultural phenomena happening in China; she offers us explanations from the perspectives of social ethos and people’s mindset for the rise of nostalgic sentiment in the field of popular culture. Her explanations for the current wave of nostalgia for the Maoist era and Maoist culture include several intertwined factors. Among these factors are a general disappointment over the undelivered promises of modernization; anger and frustration following the many news reports and exposures of official corruption at all levels; the sense of insecurity and instability in society; and the desire to look back at certain aspects of the Maoist era when society felt safer, things were simpler, minds were purer.11
While Dai devotes more attention to finding and presenting the nostalgic sentiments and memory boom in popular culture, and sharing her insights more from the people’s perspective of cultural trends and social ethos, critic Yang Guobin gives more consideration to the “outer” factors, the political, social and economical environment that permitted and preconditioned the proliferation of memory works. Yang offers three hypotheses for the memory boom in contemporary China:
A repressive hypothesis postulates that the mnemonic control in the earlier periods bred its own resistance. A market hypothesis holds that the rise of a culture industry provided a market for memory products, and cultural entrepreneurs seized the opportunity. A social hypothesis posits that while opening up spaces for alternative memories, the booming market paradoxically created social discontents, especially among the zhiqing members of the Cultural Revolution generation. Whether in China or as diaspora, they articulated a nostalgic imaginary of an alternative Chinese modernity in which the reconstruction of morality took central place.12
In his “Market Hypothesis,” Yang asserts three “positive functions” of the capitalist economy and commidification in the way that it has revitalized the memory activities in China since the 1980s. These three positive functions are: 1) a market-based culture industry that is driven by “a thirst both for knowledge and for its material forms—magazines, books, newspapers, and so forth.” “It is part and parcel of China’s capitalist economic development.”13 2) growing economic affluence and the rise of a consumer society in China which provide another necessary condition for the proliferation of memory works in China. 3) the crucial role played by cultural entrepreneurs in manipulating an environment of market competition while at the same time negotiating political control.
Situating my study of Heat against the nostalgic tapestry depicted by these scholars, I shall add to their insights my findings about nostalgia and romance with the CR memory in Heat, so to help portray a more complete picture of the whole “rewriting the Cultural Revolution”14 phenomenon.
Through close reading, this study will demonstrate that behind the veil of a nostalgic misty air are very strong messages of resistance to the Maoist ideology during the Cultural Revolution, a resistance that was never allowed free articulation. It is the power of resistance newly discovered in nostalgic retrospection that makes the longing for a past in its revised form even more irresistible. In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym’s lays out theoretical configuration of nostalgia as either “restorative” or “reflective.”15 Drawn from the case of Heat, I propose the concept of “resistant nostalgia,” to add to Boym’s theory. I also defend nostalgia against the conviction of its selectiveness as one-hearted or unethical.16 I argue that the selectiveness of nostalgia is in tandem with articulating a criticism of the present and a proposal for the future.
As I introduced earlier, Yomi Braester sees in Heat a nostalgia with critical edges. Critic Song Weijie uses the theory of “youth sub-culture” to explain away the film as a coming-of-age story. Inspired by these previous studies, I want to emphasize what has not yet been paid enough attention to and hidden in Heat: mimesis, sacrilege and aporia.
Turning the Cultural Revolution, a grimly serious and stern topic into a big joke, the ten-year social turmoil into a hilarious farce and game, Jiang Wen’s Heat exhibits warm sunshine, tender young love, timid sexual initiation and wild youth in a heavily nostalgic sentiment. What makes Heat especially important is its remembering of the Cultural Revolution from the teenagers’ perspective. This view had never been portrayed before. After all, in terms of grouping, there have been hosts of literary texts about the predicament of the “fathers’” generation, such as Ba Jin’s Suixiang lu (Random Thoughts), Ji Xianlin’s Niupeng zayi (Memoirs of the Cow Shed), Zhang Xianliang’s Nanren de yiban shi nüren (Half of Man is Woman), among many others. “Sent-down Youth” literature embodies the memories of “big brothers and sisters.” Wang Xiaobo’s CR memory, although also concerning the stories of the “Sent-down Youth,” makes a special case in this group due to its lighthearted, wry presentation that is drastically different from the main body of “Sent-down Youth” literature. Fifth generation film director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lan fengzheng (The Blue Kite) offers us an account of the CR memory from the eyes of a young boy, from his birth to around ten years of age. Heat therefore offers the last piece of a puzzle to “complete” (in a literal sense) the Cultural Revolution picture in the literary world, by offering the CR memories of the teenagers who were old enough to have broader social contacts but not yet qualified to participate in any of the political movements, who were simply let loose from schools and their parents’ controls.
As Braester and Song have acknowledged, the uniqueness of Heat’s presentation of the Cultural Revolution lies in its total concealment of trauma and pain, elements which were at the heart of almost all previous CR memories. Another distinctive feature of Heat, as Braester sees, is its bold relinquishing of the responsibility to provide testimony for history.17 Braester writes,
Memory serves, not to recapture the events, but rather to obfuscate them and to silence the past that must be taken up by the storyteller. The narrator looks for objective history, but he must submit to fiction as the only way to retrieve the past. The resulting narrative is revised while being told. It is altered to the point where the viewers, like all readers of fiction, must suspend their disbelief when the alternative plotline resumes.18
Overthrowing the traditional mission reserved for literature, Heat wreaks havoc in the history-making system. In Braester’s terms, Heat is “myth-making”19 instead of history-making.
Also acknowledging Heat as “an astonishing alternative representation of the Cultural Revolution,”20 Song, in deploying a number of Western theories, diagnoses Heat as a representation of the practices and symptoms of youth subculture mainly through its manifestations of transgression, submission and fantasy.
Braester argues that Heat’s value lies in that, by depicting “an adolescence graced by dreamlike beauty,” it “refrains from such pathos” as “bearing witness for history.”21 He agrees with Chen Xiaomei that “survivor accounts published in English have curried favor with American nationalism and converged into a corpus of ‘China bashing memoirs.’”22 Braester further reasons that in China, “memoirs that identify personal experience with the collective upheaval might also end up perpetuating the Maoist discourse that subsumes individual will under the state, the same rhetoric that they set out to repudiate.”23
Braester’s reasoning is meaningful and powerful. In his view, the film’s director, Jiang Wen, well deserves this credit by offering an alternative memory of the Cultural Revolution, which helps to alleviate the burden hinged with the past. Jiang Wen thus provides a means to rescue people from a sense of hopeless repression. Nevertheless, in his article Braester seems more committed to his discussion of Heat’s “myth-making” endeavor than to its resilient power of resistance. His discussion concludes Heat as “presenting simple quotidian events” and making “hooligan history.” I shall offer my discoveries in reading this filmic text to demonstrate Heat’s repudiating and resisting power. I argue that these “simple quotidian events” are far from what they appear on the surface. Hidden in those “simple quotidian events” are messages that are not at all simple or quotidian. As I shall discuss in the following, Heat is brimming with overt messages of resistance, full of mimicry and sacrilege.
Song Weijie offers insightful readings of some of the objects in the film. The father’s talent in defusing bombs during the war time is contrasted to the delinquent son’s tricks unlocking other people’s houses. The telescope as a souvenir of triumph in war is used for probing secrets, chasing erotic objects and feeding the voyeur’s eyes. These materials associated with revolution, war for justice, and heroes are deployed again in a post-revolutionary time, but for a new and twisted purpose. In Song’s terms, “the heroic narrative is …deprived of the holy ‘aura’ of revolution.”24 Indeed, the heroic is confronted by the petty and criminal, the purity of the revolution replaced by the craze for the obscene and erotic.
In fact, such wicked appropriations of revolutionary resources are everywhere in the film. In one scene, these teenagers donned their parents’ army uniforms while ballet-dancing to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Four Little Swans.” Mao Xiaojun’s manner of wearing the uniform open-chested, with a burning cigarette between his fingers and a pair of eyes dreamy and drifting in drunkenness while not failing to trace and gaze at Mi Lan’s plump body, constitutes an image reminiscent not of an upright CCP army officer, but the corrupt and rotten type that is stereotypical only of the KMT military camp. For the contemporary Chinese audience, this reminiscence arises easily as a result of the familiarity with the stereotypical images of the KMT army officer or police portrayed by the new China’s cinema since the 1950s.
As Braester points out, Ma Xiaojun and his friend Da mayi’s reenactment of Vasili’s death (in the movie Lenin in 1918) is not intended to portray heroism, as in the original movie, but rather for the sole purpose of impressing Mi Lan.25 Before they have finished the performance, Mao Xiaojun and Da mayi begin exchanging comments about Mi Lan; their conversation is obscene enough to betray the morality, heroism and loftiness that the Soviet movie conveys.
Revolutionary music and political radio broadcasts are other types of resources that Heat mocks. The way that the parody is created is again through juxtaposition of the incompatible pair, the lofty vs. the petty, and the revolutionary vs. the obscene/criminal. Braester offers a thorough review of the convention in the use of the “Internationale” in new China’s cinema and contrasts it with the “startling” effect of its new application in Heat, where it backgrounds the gang’s violent and bloody street fight.26
Another type of acoustic material is also very familiar to the Chinese audience’s ears—political propaganda on radio broadcasts. In the film, when all the boys are busily preparing before the gang fight, the background sound is a radio broadcast of political propaganda on the Vietnam War. The woman broadcaster’s rather high-pitched voice, inciting and provoking war, matches well the tense and agitated air surrounding Ma Xiaojun and his gang in the prelude of their “war.” Heat successfully achieves its goal by failing to deliver the heroism and patriotism that usually and automatically accompany the song and the propaganda radio broadcasts; instead, it replaces them with fake ones or total opposites.
I agree with Braester and Song that mimicry and parody are a “resistance to the historical law of a state of affairs and its dogmatic legitimations,”27 and as “part of an insidious way to counter Maoist formulations of the past.”28 However, in the case of Song, at the same time that he identifies resistance in the film’s cunning appropriations of the many “objects” with closely-associated revolutionary meaning, he also admits that “the ‘mimesis,’ appropriation, and transgression help Ma Xiaojun understand, or more precisely, construct his own imagination of or longing for the Icons of Revolution, Hero, Great Mission, Situation of World Politics, and other key words with capitals.” In contrast, I see Heat as more iconoclastic than articulating a longing for the icons. The film’s sacrilegious maneuverings of the icons are many. I believe that all instances of its appropriation of icons are deliberately fashioned in the same way for the only purpose of destroying rather than extolling them. Simple “quotidian events,” as Braester notes, are not trivial daily registering of a previously marginalized hooligan group. I depart from the readings of Braester and Song to argue that we should not neglect sacrilege. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao was praised as the God of Chinese people, a direct result of the Mao cult, sponsored and promoted by Lin Biao, Mao’s comrade-in-arms and promised successor. Mao was revered and loved by his people; he was believed to be the benevolent savior, the ultimate “father” and the insightful teacher. However, in the film, Mao’s big picture hanging in the background turns out only to be an indicator of the special time. Although also bright and dazzling in its typical appeal, it is in no way capable of overshadowing the film’s own sunny and brisk colors. On the contrary, Mao’s image is under attack.
In the Moscow Restaurant, for example, where the gang fight finally turns into peacemaking and celebration, gangsters repeatedly throw Xiao huaidan, the local gang leader (played by Wang Shuo) into the air as a way of acknowledging and admiring his greatness and wisdom in guidance. The scene is shot first against the margin of the framed Mao picture, hanging on the background wall. Then following the moving crowd with a continuous throwing motion, which is rather directional, the camera quickly posits xiao huaidan in the center, right against Mao’s picture. In several heaves, xiao huaidan is hurled so high that he totally blocks the Mao image in the picture. The God-like icon of Mao is premeditatedly invaded by this new intruder, who threatens to replace him. Interestingly, both the character Xiao huaidan and Wang Shuo himself are closely associated with hooliganism. This scene functions not so much to worship the hooligan as the new God as disgrace and discredit Mao.
In another scene, Mao’s image is summoned to service--albeit in its total absence. Ma Xiaojun, while spinning himself and at the same time peering through the military telescope, catches sight of a photograph of Mi Lan hanging behind the mosquito net. Shot through the white mosquito net, Mi Lan’s photograph, shrouded in mistiness, is still able to radiate its soft rays of aura. Ma Xiaojun is completely spellbound. The kind of sincerity, solemnity, loyalty and longing shining from his transfixed eyes at the moment is comparable only to that which is invoked by gazing at Mao’s picture during the Cultural Revolutionary period. Only this time, what captivated Ma Xiaojun is not Mao, but a new God to him, the beautiful and glowing face of a young girl. Thus the whole scenario of Ma Xiaojun’s sexual imaginations and desires begins.
Ma Xiaojun’s laborious search for this girl has gotten no results until one day he suddenly realizes that she is passing him by like a soft gush of wind. He calls out to get her attention. Mi Lan turns around. Shot from a lower angle, Mi Lan’s head and torso take up two-thirds of the screen, just like the typical proportion of a Mao picture. And she is also obstructing the sun with her own big head, allowing only the intense rays to come out from behind the back of her head. This is a new God, as admirable as or even more admirable than Mao. A similar effect in Gu Changwei’s cinematography is found in Xiaojun’s first official visit to Mi Lan. Mi Lan is washing her hair when Ma Xiaojun arrives. She is also backed against strong sunlight. Water drips down from her wet hair and a steamy foggy vapor lingers around her, which once again generates the ever-present aura of this character. To Ma Xiaojun, this new God, the longed-for object of his puppy love and sexual desire demands his total submission, just as Mao does to everyone else. Interestingly, the pair of big black sunglasses which totally conceals Mi Lan’s eyes during their first meeting further mystifies this newly crowned God for worship, baffling Ma Xiaojun and also inciting him in his future adventures and experiments in love and sex.
After overthrowing Mao, the god, Heat goes on to sabotage other traditional and stereotypical figures of authority. Fathers and teachers are the next targets. Who is Hu? Hu is the history teacher who appeared in the beginning of the film, who always gets teased and made fun of by a bunch of students including Ma Xiaojun. Thus, even before the main story unfolds, Heat is already divulging the big joke it intends to play on history, the official narrative, or the received truth in a tame, established discipline, not sparing even the people who help make the narrative and disseminate it. The last name of the teacher, “Hu,” is of no random choice. In Chinese, hu is most commonly used in phrases like huyan luanyu, hushuo, hushuobadao (all mean nonsense talk), or huzuo feiwei (to act wildly against the law or public opinion). In Heat, “history” is nothing but nonsense and rubbish.
This surname not only ridicules the subject that the teacher engages in teaching, but also insinuates the questionable quality of the teacher himself. Heat presents teacher Hu as a pure joke through the eyes of a group of wild kids and Ma Xiaojun’s secret-exposing telescope. To these kids, Hu is nothing more than a mouthpiece of what the textbook dictates. He can do funny things such as flirt with his female colleagues or masturbate in the bathroom.29 Masturbation or not, the point is that in the eyes of Ma Xiaojun and these wild kids, teacher Hu, with his nonsense and his silly deeds, is nothing but a total joke.
In Mi Lan, Ma Xiaojun has found himself a suitable candidate to replace the teacher. Mi Lan is introduced to Xiaojun’s father as his teacher when the two of them are caught chatting in Xiaojun’s house. Though they fail to fool the father, Heat does attempt to endorse Mi Lan as a teacher. During Xiaojun’s first official visit to her apartment, Mi Lan inquires about the curriculum at Xiaojun’s school and criticizes its political utilitarianism. She is the only one in the film who has the bravery to warn Xiaojun about the pitfalls of his learning situation at school.
After the teachers are denounced, another authoritarian figure, the father, comes under attack. Ma Xiaojun’s father only shows up occasionally in the film when he has to visit his wife and son. Xiaojun’s mother seems to complain repeatedly about the father’s absence from home. Her endless nagging and uncontainable fury about him find their way to connect his absence from home with the blabber of Xiaojun’s friend about his affair with some army nurse. Although very subtle, the father’s honesty and pride is pending further investigation. In another scene with the gang, someone also comments that Liu Yiku’s father uses the political power in his hands to prey on young women. Heat convicts both main characters’ fathers and sentences them to fall from the authoritarian positions that have empowered them.
Heat does not stop after shattering the image of Mao and those of teachers and fathers. Army generals, war heroes, and the local police head, often the idealized figures of any young boy in imagining his own future, are also smashed into pieces. In one scene, one of the infamous so-called “internal reference” films is shown to a host of military officers headed by an old, short and withered high-ranking official (whom the film implies to have been a war hero in the past). The film screening is interrupted right at the moment when a completely naked woman’s body is about to be exposed, because of the discovery of a group of children sneaking in. The high official appears to be extremely annoyed by the disturbance in the middle of his viewing/feeding. He furiously orders the screening stopped, but thanks to his young, tall and sexy female escort who gives a timely speech on the danger of the film, they continue with their study/feast on this “internal reference” by forcing those children to be taken away. The high official’s anger is therefore eased.
As corrupted as the high-ranking army officials, the local police force has been spoiled by power. In Heat, the policemen’s conduct is extremely willful. They arrest Ma Xiaojun and his friends based on pure impression and their own arbitrary assumptions without any form of investigation. In the police office, they have a difficult time changing their overbearing attitude toward children because they are simply too used to it. Looking at the two policemen’s physical appearance, the way they dress, and especially the foul language they use and the brutality and imperiousness of their behavior, one is reminded not of a police station where law is enforced and justice sought, but of some local hooligan headquarters, or a secret police station that is iconic of the KMT’s white terror.30
Having trampled all the images of different Gods, crushed all the admired icons, and made enough fun of the revolution and the idealistic and heroic in the Maoist discourse, Ma Xiaojun and his gang have finally accomplished their sacrilegious mission to topple the whole old world, the world of their “fathers”.
Thus far the film has shown us the complexity of this special group of individuals’ memories of a turbulent period. We will lose sight of the whole picture if we are concerned only about nostalgia, or a response to history, or a story about growing up. I believe, the concept of resistance in a nostalgic key captures the film’s essence. But after the battle of resistance, the film poses another issue—aporia.31 Song Weijie has demonstrated that, “youth subculture,” as manifested in the life of this group of youth, is that which builds itself with the very property that they borrow and appropriate from “others”, the “fathers”32. Ma Xiaojun and his gang, after smashing all that is revolutionary, lofty and authoritative, suddenly realize that they have severed an indispensable organ from their own bodies. They have abolished the foundation on which their own ideals were built, thus they have cut their own tongues while attempting to speak a new and different language. Symptoms of aporia, an impasse, a loss in language and inquiry, are given away at the end of the film as the aftermath of the war these grown-up youth had once launched against their fathers, which is also, as they realize now, against themselves.
Toward the end of the film, Liu Yiku and the local idiot become two focal characters who convey allegorical meanings. Liu Yiku, who used to be the tallest and most handsome and also the leader of the gang, was also known to be good at talking to girls and wooing them. The fact that he became Mi Lan’s boyfriend later directly led to Mao Xiaojun’s distancing from the gang (out of jealousy). But at the end of the film, Liu, who was the most handsome and apparently the most eloquent in the past is suffering from hearing and speech loss. He has lost all his charisma, looking wretched and timid. Allegorically, that which is the most beautiful in the past has been lost in the present, and that which is the most expressive in their youth is not capable of communicating with the present.
When the adult Ma Xiaojun’s limousine passes by the local idiot, an old acquaintance of the gang, Ma Xiaojun and the others (except for Liu Yiku) enthusiastically call out from their limousine window, trying to exchange the code they used to share with the idiot in the past. But what they get back from him is indifference at first, followed by a hostile response—a curse in the Beijing dialect meaning “idiot.” The past backfires. The gang is left speechless as their limousine rushes off.
Becoming the new heroes in China’s recent economic waves marked by intense competition and consumerism, Ma Xiaojun and others somehow adore their past youth more than the present, as the film casts the past in beautiful colors and the present in black and white. Riding in their comfortable and luxurious limousine, the gang eagerly seeks recognition from the local idiot, only to find their effort totally abortive and idiotic. The past will never be theirs again. They have objected to and smashed that past with vehemence. It is only in the aftermath that they come to realize they have cut off organs that seem to have always sustained their lives. What is left in their empty bodies are only sufferings caused by their aporia.
Although Jiang Wen belongs to the loosely defined sixth generation of film directors, the symptoms of aporia manifested in Jiang Wen’s Heat are similar to Dai Jinhua’s diagnosis of the fifth generation film directors’ collective dilemma between submission and revolt, and between revolt and loss.33 Aporia in Heat tells us that the problem with an established power system and its language does not simply stop at a generation, and that an even more intractable problem is the individual’s unconscious identification with that power system.
To conclude, albeit a memory full of the “‘gorgeous sunshine’ of the romantic life of several wild kids in the 70’s,”34 the messages conveyed by Heat are far from sunny. Hidden “in the heat of the sun” are mimicry, sacrilege, a coup d’état, and its aftermath, aporia.
1 In the Heat of the Sun is a 1994 movie directed by Jiang Wen. It was adapted from Wang Shuo’s novel Wild Beast.
2 The rationale behind the periodization of the Chinese film directors is still not clear. It is commonly accepted that the Fifth Generation is represented by directors such as Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Yimou. (One reasoning believes that this group of directors graduated from the same class
, which is the fifth graduation class after the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy since the Cultural Revolution ended, therefore the name Fifth Generation.) It is after the name of the Fifth Generation came out that, in hindsight, directors before and after them were presumed into a numbered sequence. It is commonly accepted now that the First Generation includes the important directors of silent films, such as Zheng Zhengqiu, Zhang Shichuan and Sunyu; the Second Generation includes directors of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Cai Chusheng, Wu Yonggang, Fei Mu. The Third Generation refers to those directors who were active during the period from 1949 to 1966, such as Xie Tian, Shui Hua, Ling Zifeng, Xie Jin, etc. The Fourth Generation include directors who actively produced after the Cultural Revolution, such as Zhang Nuanxin, Wu Tianming, Huang Jianzhong, Huang Shuqin. The newest generation, the Six Generation is a most loosely defined group, including those active in the 90s, such as Jiang Wen, Lou Ye, Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai.
3 See Wang Ban’s discussion on Xie Jin’s films in Illuminations From the Past: Trauma, Memory
, And History in Modern China
, (Stanford: Stanford University Press
, 2004), p. 144-145.
4 Wang Xiaobo, Huang jin shidai (Golden Times) (Guangzhou: Huacheng chubanshe, 1997).
5 Mang Ke, Ye shi (Wild Things) (Changsha: Hunan wenyi chubanshe, 1994).
6 Wendy Larson, “Never This Wild: Sexing the Cultural Revolution,” Modern China Vol. 25, No. 4 (October 1999), p. 424.
7 Yomi Braester, “Memory at a Standstill: From Maohistory to Hooligan History,” Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-century China (Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 194.
8 Ibid. p. 193.
9 Ibid. p. 192
10 The four narrative models are “zainan gushi (disastrous stories),” “lishi fanxing (historical reflections),” “huangdan jiyi (absurd narratives),” and “wenge jiyi (Cultural Revolution memories).” “Huangdan jiyi (absurd narrative)” is the only model in which Xu sees some degree of resistance to official CR memory.
11 Dai Jinhua, “Redemption and Consumption,” Yinxing shuxie:90 niandai zhongguo wenhua yanjiu (Invisible Writing: a Study of the Chinese Culture in the 90s), (Nanjing: Jiangsu renmin chubanshe, 2004), pp.89-90.
12 Guobin Yang, “Days of Old Are Not Puffs of Smoke: Three Hypotheses on Collective Memories of the Cultural Revolution,” The China Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Fall 2005), p. 13.
13 Yang Guobin, p. 20.
14 I am inspired by Dai Jinhua in choosing this term. Dai uses “rewriting the Red canon” to describe the nostalgic revisiting of revolutionary classics, in the contemporary popular cultural field of China.
16 See Wang Ban’s discussion of the 90s’ nostalgia in China in his Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 119-123.
17 See Braester’s discussion of the May Fourth project of formulating history through grand narratives in Witness Against History, p. 194.
18 Yomi Braester, Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China, (Stanford Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 198-199.
19 Braester, p. 192.
20 Song Weijie
, “Transgression, Submission, and the Fantasy of Youth Subculture: The Nostalgic Symptoms of In the Heat of the Sun
,” in Haili Kong and John A. Lent eds., Centennial Reflections on Chinese Cinema
, forthcoming. (This quote is quoted from Song’s original paper on page 5.)
21 Braester, P. 199.
22 Chen Xiaomei, “Growing Up with Posters in the Maoist Era,” In Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China, ed. Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald, (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), p. 103.
23 Braester, P. 199.
24 Song Weijie, “Transgression, Submission and the Fantasy of Youth Subculture: The Nostalgic Symptoms of In the Heat of the Sun,” in Haili Kong and John A. Lent eds., Centennial Reflections on Chinese Cinema (forthcoming). This quote is from Song’s article manuscript on page 11.
25 Braester, p. 202.
26 Ibid., p. 201.
27 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p, 18, quoted from Song’s article, on page 11.
28 Braester, p.199.
29 According to Jiang Wen, the masturbation scene was excised by censors. See Jiang Wen’s article “Yangguang zhong de jiyi (Memory in the sunlight)” in Dansheng (Birth), (Beijing: Beijing Huayi chubanshe, 1997), p. 71.
30 Again this is almost an automatic association based on contemporary Chinese audience’s familiarity with the negative and typical portraits of KMT and its cohorts in new China’s cinema since the 1950s.
31 The word aporia appears frequently in the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and in the deconstructive school of literary and cultural theory which his work inspired. Originating in the Greek, aporia involves doubt, perplexity and that which is impassable. Here I use aporia to describe the condition of being lost in language and inquiry.
32 Song Weijie, p. 6.
33 Dai Jinhua summarizes the art of the fifth generation film directors as the art of the son’s generation. Their art is always a struggle against the symbolic “father’s” system while conforming to its rules. What usually follows their successful abandonment or revolt is nevertheless a loss in speech, an inability to build a new system of their own. For a full discussion, see Dai’s article “Severed Bridge: The Art of the Sons’ Generation,” in Wang Jing and Tani E. Barlow edited Cinema and Desire:Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua, (New York: Verso, 2002), pp. 13-48.
34 Song Weijie, p. 3.