Chinese Cinema – High 2.1 Essay 4500 words


Examine the cinematic narration of the past and how it portrays the national

in TWO Chinese films of your choice.




I have chosen to analyse Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007) and 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004). My argument is that both of the films, in different ways, suggest a relation between subjective experience, history and the national, which can undermine the presentation of modernity and the nation state as an unproblematic linear development.  Before looking at the films I will introduce and explain the relevance of the key terms I will use in this essay – ‘narration of history’, ‘cinema and the national’, ‘haunted time’ and ‘historiology’. Here, I draw on theoretical work by Hayden White, Johannes Fabian, Bliss Cua Lim, Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar. I will then to go on to consider how these concepts can be useful in an analysis of my chosen films.  Lust Caution challenges the idea of a unified concept of ‘nation’ by exploring the contradictions and contestations that underlie its narrative formation. Chia Chi’s / Mrs Mak’s body becomes the site of unbearable tensions and passions that exceed simple identifications. 2046 through its use of narrative and cinematic styles, as well as its employment of ‘haunted time’, challenges the linear demarcation of past, present and future, in a specific relation to Hong Kong national identity.


Narratives of history and historiology


Concepts of the national, of narration, and of cinema are all closely linked. It doesn’t make sense to create a simple binary opposition between history and fiction because histories, like fictions, are structured, legitimated and contested in narrative form. As Hayden White has argued in Metahistory for example, the writing of history is based on elements such as selection and exclusion, arranging events in order, and emphasizing certain events over others. The historian uses literary tropes in order to present events in narrative form, “[Tropes] are especially useful for understanding the operations by which the contents of experience which resist description in unambiguous prose representations can be prefiguratively grasped and prepared for conscious apprehension.” (White1973: 34) This challenges the idea of history as a universal, natural and given series of events by emphasizing its constructed nature, and how it is constructed from a particular perspective, for particular reasons at particular times.


Other writers have considered the relevance of this in a post-colonial context. Paul Carter, for example, discusses the difference between a ‘space’ and what happens when this location enters into the narrative of coloniser’s history, is re-named, and becomes a ‘place’. The effect of this is to erase the previous history of the location, and replace it with the coloniser’s calendar and language. (Carter 1987: 6). Such narratives of history bear an important relation to constructions and contestations of the nation. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, as all the people of a nation never actually get together, then the nation operates as a shared ‘imaginary’ construct. It must be produced and maintained through fictions and narratives of its history.  He argues for example that “It is probably fair to say that all organized societies in former times depended (in part) for their cohesion on visions of the past which were not too antagonistic to one another. These visions were transmitted by oral tradition, folk poetry, religious teachings, court chronicles, and so forth” (Anderson 2001). Rather than asking about the accuracy of historical representation then, which suggests a supposed universal measure against which such a claim could be made, I will focus here on ways that specific narrations of history are used to represent the nation in specific ways. Although of course events do or don’t happen, the way they are retold encodes ideologies of the teller as much as what is told.


‘Historiology’ is taken from the writings of Johannes Fabian in a post-colonial African context.


Specifically I have been concerned with ‘forgetting; in the context of several projects of research devoted to documenting and interpreting popular historiology, a term designed to cover both written and oral accounts, narration of history, as well as metahistorical principles that account for the specific shape of shared memory (Fabian, 2003: 1)


‘Forgetting’ here can be interpreted as an active rejection of imposed official narratives of history, and historiology can be understood as the telling of history by ordinary people, against these official narratives. Such narrative forms contrast with the styles of dynastic history. They are seen to be generally more personal, retrospective and less celebratory.


Cinema, as a vital element of the way a culture tells it stories to itself and exports them to a wider audience, plays an important and specific role in such imaginary constructions of nation, narratives of history and historiologies.  Cinema, as Berry and Farquhar have pointed out, is a way of bringing the past to life (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 19), which can be understood as a form of history writing. It is all the more powerful as a social experience based on processes of spectator identification, and all the more dangerous as an institutional tool usually controlled by state or multinational corporations due to the costs involved in large-scale film production. Historiology is an important term for understanding the potential of cinema in retelling narratives of national history


Chinese cinema and the national


Cinema, then, is closely linked to definitions of the national. Cinemas have often been defined in national terms, providing a convenient brand label to export to other countries. The problem with such definitions is that they tend to be stereotypes, and ‘national cinema’, despite having some use as a defence against bland Hollywoodisation of regional film industries, is ultimately a limiting way to define films. As Yoshimoto has argued:


Writing about national cinemas used to be an easy task: film critics believed all they had to do was to construct a linear historical narrative describing a development of a cinema within a particular national boundary whose unity and coherence seemed to be beyond all doubt (Yoshimoto: 338).


The problem with this is it doesn’t allow for contradictions within national cinema over how the nation has been defined, and can lead to films being trapped within fixed definitions of the national. To consider ‘cinema and the national’ instead of ‘national cinema’ is a way to avoid this. This can suggest how films are used to produce, contest and subvert concepts of the nation in a multiplicity of different and competing ways. It can also account for the importance of hybridizations of nationality due to transnational and globalizing processes


In China, as Berry has pointed out, both cinema and the territorial nation state are associated with a form of modernity that was not produced locally but imposed from the West. Modernisation in China was a compulsory shift from Empire to the nation state necessary for survival and recognition from other nations. How this modernization would take place is something constantly contested, leading to a multitude of cinematic representations. “The appropriation of both the cinema and the nation state has been part of the desire to ‘catch up’ and not only become fully modern but also make modernity fully Chinese” (Berry, 2008: 298). In the Chinese context, varying types of narration of history can be read in relation to the shift from a dynasty to the modern nation state. As a concept of linear history comes to replace the cyclical understanding of time in the dynasty model, so types of narrative history form can legitimate, naturalise, contest or undermine these patterns. Modernity and the nation state assume a the linear progression of time, one that is teleological and based on assumptions of moving from something ‘underdeveloped’ to something ‘developed’. Cinematic narration of history can be a key site for the contestation of this pattern by presenting alternative writings of time.


Haunted time, anxiety and melancholy


As an example of this, Berry and Farquhar use the concept of ‘haunted time’:


Haunting is the trope that opens the door to nonmodern time because, by breaking down the barrier between past and present, haunting confounds linear progress and the definition of the modern itself. (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 18)


In other words, haunting is used as a metaphor for suggesting the persistence of another kind of time – nonmodern time – which has been written out of the linear accounts of modern progress. Repressed by such histories, nonmodern time doesn’t go away but returns to haunt and undermine modernity and the imaginary construction of the nation state such histories support. As Bliss Cua Lim has shown, the obvious site for this is the ghost film:


Ghosts call our calendars into question. The temporality of haunting, through which events and people return from the limits of time and mortality, differs sharply from the modern concept of a linear, progressive, universal time.  (Lim 2001: 287)


Although ghost films introduce haunted time, by coding the haunting as supernatural they still maintain the distinction between natural time and its supernatural deviation, so containing the threat as ‘unreal’. Berry and Farquhar extend the argument by using haunting in a more metaphorical sense. In their analysis of In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) for example, they suggest the film is doubly haunted from the past and from the future. It doesn’t have actual supernatural occurrences but is haunted nonetheless, in a way which can be less easily dismissed as fantastical. They go on to describe the film’s main protagonist Chow Mo-Wan (played by Tony Leung) as, “caught between anxiety about the future and melancholic dwelling on what might have been” (Berry and Farquhar, 2006: 19). It is this mixture of anxiety and melancholy, which they see as vital in Hong Kong works of this period. These emotions are important as they become a way of collapsing the past, present and future into a more subjective experience than that provided by the state constructed narration of imposed linearity, “hanging on to that mixture of anxiety and melancholy inscribes the power of memory as resistance to modern progress” (19). If ghosts signify the explosion of linear time by visitations from the past or future, then Berry and Farquhar expand the idea of haunting to describe ‘haunted time’ as “moments when past, present and future collapse into each other” (38).

. I will return to these concepts of melancholy, anxiety, haunting and historiology in the analysis of my chosen films.


Lust, Caution


Lust, Caution, directed by Ang Lee in 2007, provides an interesting way in to thinking about some of these ideas. The film is self-consciously staged as a fist person narration of events in Japanese occupied China and Hong Kong during the Second World War. While being set firmly in this historical context, its mode of narration is deeply personal, engaging with the relation of historical events, memory, and the personal experiences of Wong Chia Chi (played by Tang Wei).  Rather than providing a straight-forward linear evolution of the formation of the nation state, the film explores contradictions, tensions and emotions that underlie formations of nation.


The film’s narrative is constructed retroactively. The action begins in Shanghai in 1942 and then, while Chia Chi sits and reminisces in a café, cuts back to 1938 and the events leading up to the situation she finds herself in now – She has been used as the lure in a plot by the Chinese resistance to assassinate a leading figure of the collaborating government, and is preparing to betray him. The effect of this is to frame the whole story as her perspective, emphasizing the importance of memory and subjective accounts in the formation of history. It shows how she selects events and constructs a narrative of history from fragments, “my memory of the period seems to be empty” (all film quotes in this section are from Lust, Caution, Ang Lee, 2007) she says to the resistance fighter Kuang when she meets him again. What this structure also provides is a specifically female perspective on a history which saw her used as a sexual pawn in games of power and espionage. Her personal historiology challenges conventional masculinist accounts of war history, by focusing not on great men, glory and victory, but on feminine experience and conflicting desires.


As well as focusing on her narrative of history, the film also shows how a new history must be constructed for her as she takes on the role of Mrs Mak. She must learn new ‘memories’ and take part in an active erasure of her past identity, symbolized by the resistance leader’s burning of her letter to her father. While erased from the past, her previous identity is deferred to the future – plans to leave for England after her mission. Of course her previous identity can never be completely erased and she suffers under the tension of this constant negotiation of roles. Her narrative, based on memory and anticipation, is constantly negotiated, providing an image for writing and rewriting of narratives of history, which is echoed by the cyclical structure of the film’s narrative.


One of the major themes of the film is that of theatre and performance. It is Chia Chi’s talent for acting that prepares her for the role of seducing Mr Yee. At the start of the film, the staged propaganda play, “we have to wake them up with our drums and gongs”, is contrasted with the film’s realist style – its use of continuity editing, reminders of war context, or use of date intertitles for example. The play however, has a concrete effect on its audience and gradually, as the film develops, the boundary between performance and reality becomes blurred. Kuang attempts to maintain the distinction, “I’m not talking about theatre…It can’t compare with wrenching out a real traitor” yet continues to use theatrical metaphors, talking about playing roles and learning lines etc.. The effect of this focus on acting and performance is to reveal how national identity and personal identity are performed in a theatrical or imaginary way, yet are still equally real. Conversely, narratives using codes of realism (histories) are equally selected and constructed. Ultimately, at the end of the film, Chia Chi betrays her ideals, her past and her friends because her performance has become reality, she has become Mrs Mak and developed real feelings for Mr Yee who she allows to escape.


Rather than narrating the history of Chinese national identity as a heroic struggle over Japanese oppressors, the film provides a more complex historiology. While the figure of the resistance leader represents the narrative of subjection to the ideal of the nation, “for an agent there is only one thing – loyalty” Chia Chi/ Mrs Mak, torn between duties to the nation or personal feeling, reveals all the tensions and passions that are suppressed by this performance. The film then shows how narratives of history and national liberation are riddled with tension and personal feeling, and must be constantly performed and negotiated. Whether Chia Chi originally joins the resistance because of political idealism or personal attachment to Kuang is unclear, whether her emotions are genuine or acted is ambiguous, but her body becomes the site for all these conflicts.




2046, directed by Wong Kar-wai in 2004, develops these ideas in a different context. It has an intertextual relation to the past by acting as a loose continuation of Wong’s1960’s trilogy – including also Days of Being Wild (1991) and In the Mood for Love (2000). The same actor from In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung (also from Lust, Caution), plays the same character Chow Mo-wan. In the first film he was having a brief intense affair with Su Li-zhen played by Maggie Cheung. In 2046 he plays an out of work journalist living in a cheap hotel, having affairs with women he meets, and writing a science-fiction novel also called 2046. There are resonances and connections between the film and the previous films (the past), as well as between the film and the sci-fi novel (the future) setting up a complex relation between past, present and future.


The film’s title is immediately significant. While referring to the title of Chow Mo-wan’s science fiction novel and the year in which it is set, it is also the room number he wants to stay in the hotel but ends up having to stay next door in 2047. When asked why he wants that room in particular he jokes that it has a special significance for him. It can be read as an allusion to the hotel room he and Su Li-zhen stay in In The Mood for Love, suggesting a poetic connection between the films, the present and the past. It suggests an allusion to conventions of science-fiction – 2001 for example, which challenge reading the film in a ‘realist’ way. Read in a broader context, 2046 can also refer specifically to Hong Kong history. On July 1st 1997, the British handed over sovereignty of Hong Kong to mainland China. Hong Kong now has the status of a self-regulated ‘Special Administrative Region’, which is due to end fifty years from the handover – in 2047. 2046 then is the final moment of self-government, a time of anticipated transition based on past transition and the unique status of Hong Kong. As Stephen Teo has suggested of Hong Kong films of this period, “they characterize the postcolonial postmodernity of Hong Kong – once a colony, now a Special Administrative Region, but never a nation state – as a temporal condition incommensurable with and peculiarly resistant to modernity’s progress” (Teo, 2008: 38). The very situation of Hong Kong challenges linear conceptions of the nation, and 2046 is an interesting film to explore this connection.


This web of references shows the strategies adopted by the film. On one hand, David Bordwell has warned against the dangers of reducing the film to purely historical allegory:


To treat these lovelorn films as abstract allegories of Hong Kong’s historical situation risks losing sight of Wong Kar-wai’s naked appeal to our feelings about young romance, its characteristic dilemmas, moods and moves. (Bordwell, cited in Berry and Farquhar 2006: 42)


While on the other hand, Berry and Farquhar argue for the importance of historicisation:


To abstract these films so resonant with Hong Kong’s condition from their origins risks losing sight of their local meaning (42)


My argument however is that what is important is the relation between these two readings, what relation the ‘dilemmas, moods and moves’ can have to local historical context, the narration of the past, and the portrayal of the nation. As in Lust, Caution, it is the way Wong combines the personal and the historical in his films that makes them so important and powerful in constructions and contestations of time and nation.  This is immediately evident just in the film’s title, which combines emotional memory with events of political significance, suggesting the importance of subjective experience and passion in narratives of the nation. The number may have a special historical significance but as Chow Mo-wan, in narrator mode, states, he “wouldn’t have seen it if he didn’t run into her” (all film quotes in this section taken from 2046, Wong Kar-wai,  2004)


The opening shot of the film sets up a relation to the past with a reference to In the Mood for Love. At the end of this film Chow Mo-wan whispers a secret into the hole of a tree in Cambodia. This motif of whispering a secret returns in various ways in 2046

It can allude to the alienation, lack of communication and disconnection prevalent in the film as well as suggesting the image of history “as a secret hidden in the ruins” (Berry and Farquhar, 2006: 17) that Berry and Farquhar propose. Importantly, it also shows one of the ways that Wong structures the film, not in terms of linear progression but through repeated motifs which loop and return. Not only this, but for example, shots of people alone on the hotel roof, shots of a light in the rain, or shots of Chow looking through the hotel room window, are all repeated. This structure suggests a cyclical  representation of time, undercutting the notion of progress suggested by conventional linear narrative. This cyclic structure is also emphasised through the use of repeated time frames. Christmas eves of different years are introduced by intertitles, emphasizing the cyclic movement of the years according to repeated traditions. Time in the film varies in pace, sometimes agonizingly slow as in when Chow is having difficulty in writing a happy ending to his novel, and sometimes incredibly fast, as in the fast cuts and constant movement employed in the 2046 sequences. One of the effects of this is to represent time in a very subjective way. Past, present and future collapse into the perceptions of characters and this personal relation to time is used to undercut the imposed linearity of a supposed objective time imposed by the political time frame. In this non-linear structure, events are not always connected by the cause and effect logic necessary for narratives of ‘progress’ but repetitions of colour, light and sound become structuring devices, creating an affective mode of narration and creating moods and intensity. As Teo has argued of the film, “[it is] invariably elegiac in tone, overladen with a pervasive sense of sadness, fatalism and resignation” (Teo 2008: 136). It is this mood of the film that, with lingering shots and yearning violin, creates a powerful nostalgia for the 1960s, and also, with fast cuts and speeding movement towards the camera, excitement for the future of 2046. As time flows and stutters, the viewer is thrown between moods, simultaneously anxious and melancholic, past, present and future collapse into the non-linear subjective experience of haunted time.


If on one hand, time is subjective and interior. On the other hand, as in the Hong Kong political context, time is seen as a commodity – people are time fillers, “other people can borrow my time too”. Chow and Bai Ling’s relationship is formalized into a system of renting, sharing and power games, mirroring the leased national identity of Hong Kong. Images of economy and businesslike detachment define their relationship. Bai Ling longs for the continuation of transient moments, ‘I wish it could have lasted longer…Why can’t it be like it was before?’, and this desire for permanence, or control, in a rapidly shifting and changing context is deferred to the future – 2046.  The irony here however is that this leads not to distance between them but to an intensification of desire. If Hong Kong national identity is uncertain and ephemeral, this can also be a time of excitement, a moment of escaping the past with the freedom to create something new.


The past in the film is represented, like the image of Su Lizhen’ gloved hand, as a time of dark secrets that can neither be known nor escaped from, “if you can escape your past come and look for me” Chow says to Su Lizhen, herself a repetitive embodiment of the memory of another Su Lizhen from In The Mood for Love, “but what I said was actually meant for myself”. 2046 is a separate place, where nothing ever changes, but it is also bound up with the past, “to me 2046 was just a room number. I made up the whole thing but some of my experiences found there way into it” It shows how writing of the future or past are bound up with subjective experience of the present, ‘people I came across in everyday life found their way into my stories’ and also how it operates as a fantasy for unconscious desires, “I felt in control in my fantasy world”  In 2046, the character falls for an android with delayed reactions and this has been read as a metaphor for the political situation:


On an allegorical level, the film denotes Hong Kong’s affair with China through Chow’s affairs with mainland women…But Hong Kong having fallen into a state of changeless time for 50 years, has a long period of delayed reaction time. It will be fifty years before the tears flow (Teo, 2008: 149)


As Berry and Farquhar have argued, the film is doubly haunted, by the past and from the future, destabilizing the coherent present, which is the cornerstone of linear time. “In this way it signals the cultural persistence of Hong Kong’s distinct and non-national status even after 1997 as one that resists incorporation into the linear progress of the nation state” (Berry and Fraquhar, 2006: 39)




Both films use the personal and subjective as a way of resisting imposed linear narratives of progress and modernity.  While Lust, Caution suggests a feminist historiology and undermines a coherent narrative of nation, 2046 is doubly haunted by past and future, using elements of cinematic style and structure to engage with complex questions of identity and history. In both films, the ‘naked appeal to feelings’ proposed by Bordwell combined with the specific and local historicisation proposed by Berry and Farquhar, are used to create alternative models of modernity and the nation.


“The music was loud because of trouble with his daughters and because of the economy. Then in September the rioting ended. Life went back to normal” 2046 intercuts brief scenes of documentary footage showing rioting in 1960s Hong Kong. The rioting is never explained but operates as a background to the story, which is all filtered through Chow’s narration. The political context is distant to him as he is locked in his room writing something  “as erotic and enjoyable as possible”, which juxtaposed with the riotous context, suggests writing, story telling or by analogy, cinema, as a mode of escape.  This is emphasised in a comic moment when life ‘goes back to normal’ and the film cuts to a sex scene.  However, his story isn’t an escape, people get trapped in 2046 and Chow can never escape his past.  Far from being an escape, in 2046 and in Lust, Caution, narration is presented as a vital way of coming to terms with, and rewriting, history and national identity.







Lust, Caution (Se, Jie, 2007). Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Wei Tang, Tony Leung. (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA: Focus Features, 2007)


2046 (2004). Directed by Wong Kar-wai. Starring Tony Leung, Li Gong, Faye Wong. (China, France, Germany, Hong Kong: Tartan Films, 2005)


In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000), Directed by Wong Kar-wai. Starring Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung (France, Hong Kong: Tartan Films, 2000)



Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)


Benedict Anderson (2001) ‘Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism: Is There a Difference That Matters?’ New Left Review No.9, May – June 2001.


Chris Berry ‘Cinema: From Foreign Import to Global Brand’, The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture. Ed. Kam Louie (Cambridge Univ. Press, published June 2008)


Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation (Columbia University Press, 2006)


Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History (London,: Faber  & Faber, 1987)


Johannes Fabian, ‘Forgetful Remembering: A Colonial Life in the Congo’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol 73, No 4 (2003),


Bliss Cua Lim, ‘Spectral Times: The Ghost Film as

Historical Allegory’ Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 9, no.2 (2001),

Stephen Teo Wong Kar Wai: Auteur of Time (London: BFI, 2008)


Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.  (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973)


Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto ‘The Difficulty of Being Radical: The Discipline of Film Studies and the Postcolonial World Order’ (Lecture presentation)