History, Silence, and Homelessness in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

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Asian Studies Review March 2010, Vol. 34, pp. 3–18

History, Silence and Homelessness in Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams RICHARD LETTERI*
Furman University

Abstract: Set a few years after China’s opening to the various forces of globalisation, the film Shanghai Dreams (2005) tells the story of the conflict between Qinghong, a 17 year-old schoolgirl who wishes to remain in her hometown of Guiyang, and her father, Lao Wu, whose dream of returning to his hometown of Shanghai is stirred by reports of the better life others have obtained as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic modernisation. Analysing their familial conflict in terms of a ‘‘political melodrama’’, the paper contextualises both the dramatic ideological shift from patriarchal state Communism to free market capitalism and the massive internal migration from China’s interior to its eastern coast to argue that Qinghong’s eventual psychological breakdown represents not merely a personal, sentimental feeling of homelessness but the more philosophical form of estrangement characteristic of modernity examined by Martin Heidegger. The paper then explores how one of the film’s most important scenes, Qinghong’s rape, links Heidegger’s notion of homelessness to Sigmund Freud’s understanding of the uncanny. The paper concludes with a brief examination of how Qinghong’s catatonic silence represents the less-discussed consequence of the schizophrenic freedoms engendered by late capitalism as defined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Keywords: Chinese cinema, homelessness, economic modernisation, melodrama, silence, the uncanny, Heidegger, Freud

Introduction Although most Chinese film scholars express unease over categorising directors along generational lines, there is much about the early films of Wang Xiaoshuai that places him squarely within the Sixth Generation.1 Indeed, the gritty realism of films *Correspondence Address: Communication Studies, Furman University, Greenville, SC 29613, USA. Email: richard.letteri@furman.edu ISSN 1035-7823 print/ISSN 1467-8403 online/10/010003-16 Ó 2010 Asian Studies Association of Australia DOI: 10.1080/10357820903565066

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Richard Letteri

such as The Days (1993) and Frozen (1995) and their exploration of social alienation offer clear justification for defining Wang as one of its founding and preeminent members. Yet, with Shanghai Dreams (2005), Wang breaks open the fault lines of this classification schema. First, while many Sixth Generation films are set in large urban centres such as Shanghai or Beijing, Shanghai Dreams takes place in Guiyang, an industrial city that, in the 1960s, the Communist government designated as part of the nation’s ‘‘third line of defence’’ against foreign attack from both reactionary Russians and the imperialist West.2 Second, by setting his story in the early 1980s, Wang reverses the trend of many directors, including not only most of the Sixth Generation but also members of the Fourth and Fifth, whose ‘‘creative engagement with the shared historical moment’’ of the present, according to Zhang Zhen, identifies them in terms of a more encompassing ‘‘Urban Generation’’ (Zhang, 2007, p. 8). By returning to the early 1980s, Wang captures a critical moment that, for the most part, is defined by the socioeconomic changes resulting from Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic modernisation.3 Deng’s policy radically overhauled China’s state economic system by replacing central planning with market incentives, downsizing, restructuring and selling off many state-controlled industries, and opening China to free trade and foreign investment in what were called ‘‘free enterprise zones’’ along China’s southeastern seaboard (Schoppa, 2002, pp. 362–63). Yet, as much as Wang’s look back into history defies the Sixth (and Urban) Generation’s focus on present conditions in China, it can be said that Shanghai Dreams goes ‘‘back to the future’’ to investigate the historical origins of those...
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