Critical Presentism New Chinese Lesbian Cinema

. . .
Critical Presentism
New Chinese Lesbian Cinema
If, as the foregoing chapters have argued, the dominant metaphor shaping
female homoerotic representation in transnational Chinese popular and
entertainment cultures today is a temporal one, then one would expect to
see this temporal preoccupation reflected in the medium of film. This chapter examines a selection of Chinese-language films made in recent years in
the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan to gauge the extent to which the memorial mode informs their depictions of love between
women. A special focus in the latter part of the chapter will be on a recent
wave of films made by a new generation of young, independent women filmmakers in which lesbian relations, openly and unequivocally represented on
screen, form the cornerstone of the story.1 Whereas chapter 5 read “against
the grain” of the relatively mainstream, mass-cultural form of the made-fortelevision schoolgirl romance drama to uncover the latent critical function
of this popular narrative, this chapter turns to the arguably more marginal
form of women’s independent cinema, including Chen Jofei’s Hai jiao tian
ya (Incidental Journey; Taiwan, 2001); Mak Yan Yan’s Hudie (Butterfly; Hong
Kong, 2004); and Li Yu’s Jinnian xiatian (Fish and Elephant; China, 2001). Here
we find a more reflexive and overtly critical reconfiguration of the memorial mode itself. Following a brief survey of the ways in which female homoerotic memorialism has informed Chinese-language cinema more broadly,
the chapter considers how this new crop of independent, lesbian-themed
films both references and complicates this familiar mode of representation.
How do these films’ representations of time—by means of style and technique, as well as narrative—underscore and play off the inherent ideologiDownloaded from
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cal instabilities in the memorial mode of female homoerotic representation?
How do the films’ representations of lesbian relations resist the memorial
mode’s dogged (if never fully successful) attempts to impose a linear temporal structure that forces bygones to be bygones, quarantined from the narrative present by time’s ineluctable forward march? In sum, how do these films
reproduce the temporally fixated representational and ideological structures
that culturally frame women’s same-sex love in these societies while at the
same time critically transforming those familiar structures?
Female Homoerotic Memorialism in Chinese Cinemas
Echoing a similar preoccupation in Western lesbian theory more broadly, a
highly influential approach to analyzing lesbian representation in American and European cinemas takes as central the visual logic particular to the
medium, asking questions about lesbian visibility versus invisibility, on the
one hand, and voyeuristic versus counter-voyeuristic images of lesbians, on
the other.2 Teresa de Lauretis’s path-breaking analyses of Sheila McLaughlin’s film She Must Be Seeing Things (1987) exemplify this post-Mulveyan approach of interrogating the gendering and sexuality of vision itself as a means
of unlocking the inner logic of lesbian representation in Western cinema.
Framing McLaughlin’s film as representative of lesbian resistance to the masculinism and heterosexism of dominant forms of visual representation, de
Lauretis argues that such works strive to “devis[e] strategies of representation which will . . . alter the standard of vision, the frame of reference of
visibility, of what can be seen.”3 In highlighting the problem of visual representation itself, McLaughlin’s film both reflects and critically responds to
Euro-American visual culture’s subjection of women’s sexuality, and therefore lesbian sexuality, to dominant, phallocentric gender ideology. Patricia
White’s UnInvited makes a different use of the post-Mulveyan emphasis on the
politics of visuality in analyzing lesbian representations in cinema. Focusing
on films made during the years of the Production Code, which prohibited any
direct or implied reference to “sex perversion” on screen, White argues that
these films both provided opportunities for lesbian spectatorial pleasure in
decoding their queer subtexts and contributed to the construction of modern
lesbian identity itself.4 As White observes, the Production Code era (from the
mid-1930s until the 1960s) coincides closely with the cultural elaboration of
the lesbian as a social personage; Hollywood cinema, both as filmic texts
and as a set of social practices, was central to defining what the lesbian was
to mean for twentieth-century Western culture. Given this, it is not the case
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Critical Presentism 149
for White that by not representing the lesbian directly, classical Hollywood
cinema failed to represent her or “repressed” lesbian meanings; rather, this
cinema constructed the lesbian as precisely a problem of visualization.5 A significant strand of work on lesbian representation in post-1960s Western film
has analyzed how lesbian and anti-homophobic filmmakers respond to the
visual problematics outlined in different ways by de Lauretis and White. For
example, Andrea Weiss’s chapter on independent lesbian filmmaking in her
book Vampires and Violets is centrally concerned with how lesbian filmmakers
have sought to counter lesbian invisibility by rendering the lesbian visible in
their films.6 On the other hand, Weiss also underscores these filmmakers’
attempts to deflect the voyeuristic gaze on lesbian sex that has characterized
the masculinist European art cinema tradition—an exploitative spectacularization that amounts to the inverse problem to the lesbian’s de-visualization
in classical Hollywood cinema.7 Thus, as a result of the particular histories
of Western dominant, alternative, and resistant filmmaking practices, questions about visuality have seemed particularly urgent to ask of lesbian representation in Western cinema. Have lesbians been rendered visible, invisible,
exploitatively hyper-visible, or paradoxically visible in their very erasure? And
how can lesbian filmmakers, audiences, and critics respond to these conditions of lesbian visualization?
In the Chinese-language cinemas of the People’s Republic of China and
Taiwan, strict government censorship directed mainly at political but also
at “moral” content rendered the onscreen representation of sexual love between women an impossibility from the midcentury until relatively recently;
in Hong Kong film, too, lesbian characters and plots appeared very infrequently prior to the 1990s.8 Superficially these histories might suggest parallels with the situation of American cinema: a long period of lesbian “erasure” followed by a period in which it becomes possible for the first time
to visualize the lesbian on screen.9 Yet despite this superficially comparable
history, I argue in this chapter that the visual logic that has shaped many of
the major discussions of lesbian representation in Western cinemas may not
be the most productive framework to apply to the recent crop of lesbianthemed Chinese-language films, for close attention to the films themselves
reveals that collectively, a question that concerns them at least as much as
the question of visibility is that of temporality. These films seem to ask not
so much “How has the image of the lesbian been structured by her erasure
from dominant representations, and how should lesbian films today respond
to that?” as “How has the image of the same-sex loving woman been structured by her relegation to pastness and memory in dominant representations,
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and how should lesbian films today respond to that?” Indeed, once one becomes alive to the conventions of the modern Chinese memorial mode of
female homoerotic representation, one sees with what startling regularity
it crops up in the films; collectively these films are highly “aware” of this
mode, and it is a structuring presence in almost all of them. Following the
lead of the films themselves, then, this chapter proposes the importance of
asking questions about temporal logic in contemporary Chinese-language
lesbian film. As White argues in relation to lesbian (in)visibility in classical
Hollywood cinema, the pervasive theme of temporality in these recent films
implies a broader significance for cultural understandings of women’s samesex love. Just as the preoccupation with lesbian (in)visibility in Western film
reflects, contributes to, and sometimes challenges the familiar figure of the
“invisible lesbian,” so these films’ preoccupation with temporality simultaneously echoes, reinforces, and complicates the dominant modern Chinese
construction of female same-sex love as a memorial condition.
That the memorial mode of female homoerotic representation has pervaded the medium of film has already been seen in this book’s introduction through the discussion of Alice Wang’s Love Me If You Can.10 The mode
is equally—if differently—apparent in Hong Kong “art film” director Jacob
Cheung Chi Leung’s 1997 film Ji sor/Zi shu (Intimates). This film explores the
cultural history of the practice of “self-combing”—marriage resistance and
sworn sisterhood among women—that was prevalent in southern China in
dynastic through Republican times. The film is structured around a series
of flashbacks, as Wan (Ah Lei Gua/Carina Lau) recalls her younger days as
the eighth wife of a silk factory owner and the loving bond that she formed
with the “self-combed” girl who became her maid and later her intimate
friend and lover, Foon (Yeung Choi Nei). Scenes with the elder Wan set in
present-day Hong Kong and Canton alternate with scenes depicting Wan and
Foon’s young lives in the 1930s and 1940s, until finally in the film’s closing
scene the two women, now both in late middle age, are reunited after their
decades-long separation. Reflecting the paradigmatic mode of modern Chinese female homoerotic representation, the film’s flashback structure effectively renders the story of Wan and Foon’s love as a series of backward glances
into the distant past. Reinforcing this, when the two women are ultimately
reunited in the present, their contemporary clothing magically reverts to the
old Republican-era styles and their now elderly faces and bodies transform
into their youthful forms as they embrace before walking, hand in hand, away
from the camera as though back into their past. Thus even when Wan and
Foon’s relationship is at last permitted entry to the film’s narrative present,
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Critical Presentism 151
it nonetheless remains symbolically condemned to a condition of essential
pastness (figures 34 and 35).11
A similarly memorial logic is notable in Taiwanese director Lin Chengsheng’s 1997 film Meili zai chang ge (Murmur of Youth). The film follows the
growing friendship, which ultimately becomes a sexual relationship, between two young women in contemporary Taipei, both of whom are named
Meili. Lin Meili (Jing Tseng) lives with her impoverished extended family in
a traditional brick house in the mountain suburb of Xizhi, while the middleclass Chen Meili (Rene Liu) lives in her family’s apartment in the city. The
two Meilis are depicted as living parallel lives. The film commences with a
cross-cut sequence that shows both women getting their period on the same
night, and soon the two meet when they both take jobs selling tickets at a city
cinema. Like Intimates, this film is centrally concerned with a historical exploration of social (as well as individual) memory; in this case, the subject matter
is local Taiwanese cultural history.12 Chen Meili uncovers the story of her now
silent, listless father’s youth as a sapphire miner in the remote southeastern
Taitung region of the island, while Lin Meili hears from her father the tale of
her grandmother’s bitter past as a sing-song girl who married an itinerant
laborer. Lin Meili’s grandmother is now an elderly woman and is regularly
visited by the spirit of her dead husband, who she says is calling her to her
In contrast with the memorial narratives of these elder relatives, the relationship between the two Meilis initially seems to operate according to a
presentist logic of coincidence and simultaneity; however, the old memorial logic reasserts itself very powerfully at the film’s conclusion. After the
two Meilis have sex one night in Chen Meili’s bedroom, Chen awakes in the
morning to find Lin gone and a note left beside the bed. She reads the note,
whose contents we are not yet shown, and begins energetically sweeping her
bedroom floor. While she cleans, she listens to a radio broadcast on which a
female announcer informs us of the bright new day that is dawning and goes
on to relate intimately to her audience, “You know, one day I woke up in the
morning and realized: I’m a grown-up now. . . . It’s true, growing up can be
a little painful.” Crying, Chen Meili sits down and rereads the note from Lin,
whose contents we are now shown. The note reads: “I woke up at 4 a.m., and
as I sat gazing at your beautiful naked body, I realized that even when I’m
old I will always remember this young, beautiful you. I thank you for all the
happiness you’ve given me. But it’s enough; I’m afraid that if you gave me
any more, I’d be unable to bear it, and so I’ve gone. I’m going home and I
won’t be coming back to work at the cinema. Goodbye.” The combination of
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34. An elderly Wan and Foon in Intimates (dir. Jacob
Cheung Chi Leung, 1997).
35. Foon and Wan transformed into their youthful selves at
the conclusion of Intimates (dir. Jacob Cheung Chi Leung,
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Critical Presentism 153
the radio monologue on the painful process of growing up and Lin’s note’s
construction of the two women’s hours-old sexual relationship as already a
distant past event, remembered from the perspective of old age, expresses
the familiarly memorial logic that frames same-sex love as a temporary phase
in feminine youth.
But the film goes even further in the scenes that follow. From Chen Meili’s
apartment, we now cut to Lin Meili’s house, where Lin is bathing her grandmother, helping her choose which clothes to wear, dressing her, combing
her hair, and clipping her fingernails; her grandmother explains calmly that
she is preparing for death. We now cut to a shot of Chen traveling on the
same train that we have often watched Lin take home to Xizhi; she must
be coming in search of Lin at home. As Lin and her grandmother sit on the
rooftop balcony, Lin’s grandmother turns her face toward the camera and
gazes, smiling, at something that she seems to see approaching her. Previous
scenes lead us to understand that what she is seeing is the ghost of her dead
husband coming to take her to her grave (figure 36). Fascinatingly, the film
now cuts to a shot of Chen Meili walking toward the camera. Despite the narrative non sequitur, the cut unmistakably prompts us to read this as a pointof-view shot from the grandmother’s perspective. Moreover, Chen is dressed
all in black, and the shot of her walking is accompanied by a rather horrorfilmish sound track of ominous cello and piercing violin—all of which adds
to the strong sense that Chen is being paralleled with the ghost of the dead
husband whom Lin’s grandmother awaits (figure 37). This curious sequence
suggests a parallel between the relationship between Lin’s grandmother and
her dead husband and the relationship between Lin and Chen: Chen is fated
to haunt Lin as her grandfather haunts her grandmother, like the ghost of
the past. As in Intimates and many other Chinese-language films thematizing
women’s same-sex love, in Murmur of Youth the representation of love between
women ultimately remains overdetermined by associations with pastness and
Incidental Journey: The Presence of Landscape
A recent crop of films by young, independent directors across the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong has begun to complicate this familiar representation
of female homoerotic temporality as epitomized by the backward glance of
memory. Lesbian director Chen Jofei’s Incidental Journey (16mm, 60 mins) provides an interesting example of a more recent film that exemplifies yet also
complicates the memorial mode. Made on a tiny budget of NT $880,000 after
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36. Lin Meili’s grandmother watches the arrival of her
dead husband’s ghost in Murmur of Youth (dir, Lin Chengsheng, 1997).
37. In place of the ghost, Lin Meili’s lover, Chen Meili,
approaches in Murmur of Youth (dir. Lin Cheng-sheng,
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Critical Presentism 155
tax (less than U.S. $24,000) provided by a grant from the Government Information Office, Incidental Journey, Chen’s second film, is framed by its director
as a self-consciously lesbian endeavor.14 While she also hopes that the themes
in the film could speak to a broader audience, Chen relates that she particularly wanted to make a film about the older generation of lesbians who came
of age under often difficult circumstances in pre-queer-movement Taiwan.
Chen explains that she hoped to make this generation of women feel loved by
seeing their own image on the screen portrayed in a loving manner.15 Based
on the positive responses of local film festival audiences, Chen judges that
her objective has been realized.
Incidental Journey presents a lyrical exploration of the relations among three
women over several days in the Taiwanese countryside. Ching, fleeing from a
painful breakup with her girlfriend in Taipei, heads to the island’s east coast,
where she picks up Hsiang, a forty-something tomboy hitchhiking to her
own ex-partner’s house near Hualien. Hsiang’s ex-partner, Ji, is now married and living an idyllic rural life in the mountains with her husband, Fu.
The two women stay with the married couple for several days, during which
time they begin to fall in love; however, Ching has not yet recovered from
her recent breakup, and after spending the night together, she and Hsiang
finally part ways, both enriched by their brief relationship. The film’s style
is “soft” and emotional. Chen explains that she sought to reach as broad an
audience as possible and to avoid making an inaccessible “art film” by simply
mimicking the Taiwan New Wave style. Instead of the challenging aesthetics of long takes, static framing, and the withholding of extradiegetic music
that characterize that cinema, Incidental Journey uses a gently mobile camera,
more frequent cutting, lots of facial close-ups and point-of-view shots, and
a sweet, slightly sentimental piano and cello sound track to convey the subjective experience of the three central women characters.
As in the two films discussed above, the memorial mode is a structuring
presence in Chen’s film. In addition to the inherently memorializing framework outlined by the director—the desire to honor the experience of an
older generation of Taiwanese lesbians—the film memorializes the topic of
women’s same-sex love in a very familiar way in its presentation of Ji and Hsiang’s memories of their relationship. As Ji and Ching wander in Ji’s orchard,
to the accompaniment of soft, extradiegetic music, Ji tells Ching, “You know,
Hsiang was in love with a girl, long ago. . . . But the girl got married.” It is
clear to both Ching and the spectator that Ji is talking about her own prior
relationship with Hsiang, and the way in which this relationship is represented here—as the poignant memory of a youthful same-sex love that was
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ultimately terminated by one woman’s marriage—provides an economical
distillation of the dominant mode of modern Chinese female homoerotic
representation as discussed throughout this book. But what distinguishes
Incidental Journey from the other examples discussed thus far is that the memorial narrative of Hsiang and Ji’s previous love is joined now by another story:
that of the new love between Hsiang and Ching in the present.
The sense of time in the scenes in which Hsiang and Ching are alone with
each other is closely connected with the representation of landscape. Chen
reveals that for her, the function of landscape in the film—which, as she
notes, is so central that it might be considered an additional character—
has something in common with the treatment of landscape in traditional
Chinese shanshui (mountain-and-water) watercolor painting. And indeed the
composition of the frequent exterior shots of mountains, rivers, and lakes—
the backdrop to Hsiang and Ching’s growing intimacy—clearly evokes that
aesthetic. Ching removes her top and sits, back to the camera, gazing out
at a misty lake while, unseen by her, Hsiang watches her from behind; the
scene is accompanied by birdsong and punctuated by interposing shots of
the densely wooded mountainside across the lake. In a shot that is repeated
at the end of the film, the two women wander lazily away from the camera
over lush green grass toward a distant, misty view of sky and mountains; the
tableau is framed by the sculptural form of a small tree on the right hand
side of the frame, and when the women shout out over the gorge to hear the
echo of their voices, the camera cuts away to pan across the contours of the
mountains, where fragments of cloud drift unhurriedly over the peaks. Another scene begins with a long pan across the green, rippled surface of a lake;
we then see Ching sketching and watch Hsiang begin to sketch Ching’s form
into the landscape sketch that she herself is making. In this final example,
the analogy between the filmic technique and the tradition of landscape art
is quite unambiguous: just as Hsiang frames the sketching Ching in her own
sketch, so the camera frames both women in its own shanshui-style graphic
On first blush, this filmic evocation of the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting would seem to echo a familiar nostalgic logic; in that reading, the “ancient cultural tradition” of shanshui aesthetics would function as
an analogue for the individual memory of female same-sex love. Yet such
a reading is not quite adequate to the film itself, for the camera’s repeated
cutting away to rippling water, drifting cloud, and distant mountain slopes
evokes not only the backward glance of nostalgia but also a reflective gaze at
the leisurely unfolding of a kind of eternal present in the flows and rhythms
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Critical Presentism 157
of an aestheticized nature. Thus, although it becomes clear at the end of the
film that Hsiang and Ching’s nascent love is indeed fated soon to become
only a memory, in a strong sense, these shanshui-style shots foreground the
sensual, emotional, and even philosophical experience of presentness. To explore further the tantalizing sense of presentness that is interwoven with
the familiarly memorial tone in Journey, I turn now to two other examples of
recent lesbian-themed films in which this presentism is even more marked.
Butterfly: Memory’s Radical Potential
Mak Yan Yan’s feature Butterfly in a sense takes up and extends the project of
both Blue Gate Crossing (discussed in chapter 4) and Incidental Journey. Like those
films, Butterfly both references and complicates the memorialism of modern
female homoerotic representation, but, as we will see, the relationship it figures between past and present is even more suggestively complex.
Butterfly, Mak’s second feature film, was financed jointly by the Hong Kong
Arts Development Company and the Filmko company, though Mak notes that
the film’s lesbian subject matter scared off many potential investors and consequently the film was two years in the making (though only six weeks in the
shooting), as it was delayed by the search for finance. The final budget was HK
$2,000,000 (about U.S. $250,000). As well as exemplifying the practices of independent women’s filmmaking, Butterfly also exemplifies the transnational
turn in Chinese-language film production. Based closely on a 1996 novella by
Taiwanese lesbian author Chen Xue, “Hudie de jihao” (The Mark of the Butterfly), the film is set in Hong Kong and directed by a young, Hong Kong-based
woman director, while one of its stars hails from mainland China (musician
Tian Yuan, who plays Yip, is originally from Wuhan and currently based in
The film’s story centers on thirty-something wife and mother Flavia
(whose Chinese name, Die, means “butterfly”; played by Josie Ho), a high
school teacher who finds herself falling unexpectedly but passionately in
love with a free-spirited musician, Yip, a woman around ten years her junior.
Flavia’s relationship with Yip brings back memories of her childhood sweetheart, Jin (Joman Chiang), with whom she was forced to break up when the
two girls were discovered in bed together by Flavia’s mother; Jin later moved
to Macau and became a Buddhist nun.17 True to the genre of the memorial
schoolgirl romance, Flavia has been continuously haunted in her adult married life by memories of her youthful love for Jin. Ultimately Flavia resolves
to divorce her husband to be with Yip, resigning herself to a custody battle
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for her young daughter, and the film concludes with a beatific scene of Flavia
and Yip together on the balcony of their shared apartment, looking toward a
bright if unknown future, implied in the final fade-to-white.
Stylistically Butterfly is a fascinating hybrid of experimental technique and
slick fashionability. It is an overwhelmingly lush production, both visually
and aurally. The hyperactive camera; multiple, contrasting film stocks; color
filters; opulent sets and costumes; interposing nondiegetic extreme closeups (of an ornament depicting a pair of girls with blue butterfly wings; of
Flavia’s hands under running tap water); shifting focus; and distorted reflections lend the film a certain MTV-ish air. The sound track, which features
among others the music of Tian Yuan’s band, Hopscotch, is equally luscious:
rich electronic instrumentation and other-worldly female vocals produce a
sugary-sweet yet eerie soundscape that complements the sensuous, dreamlike quality of the film’s visual style.
As in Intimates, the memorial mode is established in Butterfly by means
of a flashback structure. The film proceeds contrapuntally, with scenes of a
thirty-something Flavia in the present with Yip alternating with flashback
scenes of a youthful Flavia (Isabel Chan) with Jin around 1989, the year of
the Tian’anmen Square massacre, against which Jin was involved in protesting in Hong Kong.18 This structure is concisely illustrated in the film’s title
sequence. The opening shot with Yip singing as she looks out her apartment
window over Hong Kong is followed by a silent shot of the young Flavia with
Jin, giggling uproariously as they climb the old Portuguese fort in Macau.
This second shot uses a contrasting film stock: the image, produced by digital
manipulation of Super-8 film, is grainy, high-contrast, and dominated by red
and yellow tones.19 The film now cuts to a black screen with the first of the
titles; next, it cuts to an adult Flavia teaching a roomful of uniformed high
school girls; she is teaching mainland writer Yu Qiuyu’s poem “The Weight
of Thirty Years,” in which Yu recalls his own schooldays under Maoism. The
remainder of the title sequence is composed of a series of ten crosscuts, back
and forth between Flavia’s present-day classroom (in the high-definition film
stock representing the present) and the flashbacks to Flavia and Jin’s schooldays (in the grainy, high-contrast Super-8 film representing the past). The
soundscape across the whole sequence is a mix of Flavia’s students’ voices
reciting Yu Qiuyu’s poem and Tian Yuan/Yip’s voice singing.
Evidently, this sequence is organized around two of the key features of
modern Chinese female homoerotic representation: the school setting
(Flavia and Jin in the past; Flavia’s classroom in the present; Yu Qiuyu’s school
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Critical Presentism 159
memories) and the memorial mode (the flashback structure; the memorial
theme of Yu’s poem). One of the most potent signifiers of the film’s pervasive
memorialism is the second shot, with Flavia and Jin in Macau (figure 38).
This image of youthful ecstasy, recalled through memory’s stylizing filter,
functions similarly to an early scene in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, as
analyzed by Rey Chow. Chow proposes that in Wong’s film, the black-andwhite shots of the two male leads having sex function as a constant reference
point: they index the film’s structuring nostalgia in their representation of an
Edenic “remembered but enigmatic other time” to which the characters long,
impossibly, to return.20 Similarly in Butterfly, Flavia and Jin’s visit to the fort
at Macau is a recurring image—a kind of primal scene, in Chow’s terms, of a
remembered moment of bliss that Flavia yearns to revisit.21 The image has a
number of analogues throughout the film, including the repeated interposing shots of the ornament of the two “butterfly girls” and of Flavia and Jin
lying on the grass in their school uniforms (figure 39).
Significantly, however, the memorial mood that is signaled in the title
sequence’s Macau shots by means of the Super-8 film subsequently spreads
to incorporate ostensibly nonmemorial elements of the film’s narrative—
notably scenes depicting Flavia’s new relationship with Yip in the present.
This happens, for example, in the scene where Flavia first encounters Yip and
takes her out for coffee; as Flavia tells Yip about her memories of Jin, suddenly
Flavia’s own image, and then Yip’s, appear in the grainy, high-contrast film
that signifies memory (figure 40). Mak remarks of this spread of the Super-8
film into the present sections of the narrative as follows:
People have asked me about the Super-8 sections, because it’s actually
quite weird: not all of those sections were shot by Jin; some of them happen in the present. The reason I did it like that was because for Flavia, the
sound and the image-feel of the Super-8 film are linked with the time she
was with Jin. Although Jin didn’t shoot all of [the film’s Super-8 sections]
herself, for Flavia, that kind of sound and image are connected with the
most important time of her life, when she was young, so now, when she
meets Tian Yuan (Yip), the same feeling, the same colors, the same sound
come up again.22
This incursion of the memorializing filter of the Super-8 film into the narrative present initially suggests a logic similar to that seen in Intimates and Murmur of Youth. Women’s same-sex relations in the narrative present are represented as if they were a memory, as though the force of the dominant mode of
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38. Flavia and Jin’s lost utopia in Butterfly (dir. Mak Yan
Yan, 2004; in Super-8 film).
39. Analogous shot of Flavia and Jin’s lost utopia in
Butterfly (dir. Mak Yan Yan, 2004; in higher-definition
35-mm film).
40. Yip appears to Flavia as a memorial image in Butterfly
(dir. Mak Yan Yan, 2004; in Super-8 film).
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Critical Presentism 161
female homoerotic representation were strong enough to overpower both
realist temporality and narrative logic in its drive to figure the lesbian as inherently memorial.
Yet closer attention to the formal organization of the film as a whole reveals a more complex structure. For in fact it is not only the case that selected
moments of the narrative present are represented as if they were in the past
through the use of the Super-8 film, but also many of the flashback scenes
are shot using both the Super-8 film and the clear, high-definition 35-mm
film that elsewhere signifies the present. In other words, both the narrative
present and the flashback past alternate between Super-8 and 35-mm film
stock, confusing any neat demarcation between past and present. The film
cuts constantly back and forth between the two types of image, frequently
juxtaposing the same shot in both modes (as with the two contrasting images
of Flavia and the two close-ups of Yip and Flavia, in figures 41–44). If the
device of the Super-8 film stock offers another way of representing memory
in addition to flashbacks, then as a modality of the image, rather than image
content, it arguably enables a more complex representation of the relation
between past and present than the simple narrative alternation enabled by
the flashback structure. Specifically it enables not only a memorializing of
the present—a predictable enough move in a contemporary Chinese lesbianthemed text, as we have seen—but also, and more radically, a “present-ing” of
the past.
In this way, Butterfly underscores the inherent instabilities and contradictions in memorialism as a regulatory discourse. In one way, as we have seen,
the insistent relegation of the female homoerotic topic to the past can be
understood as a symbolic de-realization of present or future lesbian possibility enforced by a hegemonic, hetero-marital sex-gender system. However, such representation cannot actually confine the topic to pastness since
memory and its narration must take place in the present.23 In this sense,
the attempt by the dominant culture of marital heterosexuality to de-realize
women’s same-sex love by memorializing it is doomed to failure; to confine female homoeroticism to the memorial register is at the same time to
ensure its persistent interruption of the present. As was demonstrated in
the preceding chapters on classic late-twentieth-century texts of female
homoerotic memorialism, like Cao Lijuan’s “The Maidens’ Dance” (and its
telemovie adaptation by Tsao Jui-yuan) and Chu T’ien-hsin’s “Waves Scour
the Sands,” these stories already carry within them the radical potential of
female homoerotic memory insofar as they illustrate its disturbingly interruptive effects within the narrative present of “heterosexual” femininity. In
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Butterfly, however, the persistent presentness of female homoerotic memory
is far more vigorously foregrounded; what is implicit in the earlier texts here
becomes explicit as Flavia’s marital present becomes saturated and finally
overwhelmed by the potently revenant memory of her past schoolgirl romance. The film’s restless flashback/flash-forward oscillations, coupled with
the constant cutting between the memorial Super-8 image and the presentism of the 35-mm film stock in both flashback and present scenes finally
frustrate any desire for a clear demarcation between past and present. The
film thus represents through both narrative and technical means memory’s
impingement upon present experience and the way in which memory actually
links and melds, rather than separates, past and present.
The point is underscored in the film’s narrative as well. For Butterfly’s
narrative diverges significantly, both from that of Happy Together (in Chow’s
analysis) and from those of lesbian-themed films discussed so far, in its insistence on the possibility of actually realizing memory’s yearned-for utopia
in the present. In a way like Incidental Journey and Blue Gate Crossing and yet even
more emphatically, Butterfly rehearses the old drama of women’s same-sex
love as an essentially memorial condition only to upstage that familiar scene
with a new narrative that brings lesbian possibility unambiguously into the
here and now. Underscoring this rescripting of the valence of lesbian memory, the butterfly theme in both Chen Xue’s novella and Mak’s film adaptation
solicits interpretation as an intertextual reference to Chu T’ien-hsin’s famous
memorial lesbian love story “A Story of Spring Butterflies” (1992)—indeed,
Chen conceptualizes “The Mark of the Butterfly” explicitly as a response to
Chu’s earlier story.24 Chu’s story, like Chen’s, concerns a married woman
who is haunted by memories of her adolescent love for her female best friend.
However, Chu’s story is written not from the woman’s own perspective but
from that of her husband, who has discovered, much to his disquiet, a love
letter written by his wife to her old friend. It is the husband who refers to the
young same-sex lovers as “spring butterflies,” an image that is meant to convey the girls’ youthful innocence and purity. In repeating both the butterfly
image and the situation of the central character, Chen’s story takes up Chu’s
theme and plot but rescripts both the perspective and the ending significantly
41. Flavia in Super-8 film in Butterfly (dir. Mak Yan Yan, 2004).
42. Flavia in 35-mm film in Butterfly (dir. Mak Yan Yan, 2004).
43. Yip and Flavia in 35-mm film in Butterfly (dir. Mak Yan Yan, 2004).
44. Flavia’s face in Super-8 film in Butterfly (dir. Mak Yan Yan, 2004).
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so that here, unlike in Chu’s story, the married woman who is haunted by
memories of her teenage tomboy sweetheart ultimately chooses a new female
lover over her husband.
In the story of Flavia’s and Jin’s young love, cut short by Flavia’s mother’s
decree and Flavia’s consequent dutiful acquisition of a male fiancé, Butterfly
presents a version of the familiar, memorial narrative in which love between
young women is forcibly terminated by exterior social forces only to recur incessantly as the memory of adult femininity. To this well-worn story, though,
there is now added another: that of Flavia’s relationship with Yip in the narrative present. And the film’s conclusion suggests unambiguously that Flavia’s
new relationship with Yip has a future: as the two women horse around gleefully on their balcony in the film’s last scene before the final fade-to-white,
the film’s theme song swells on the sound track—a Cantonese/English song
by Hong Kong girl band At17 entitled “The Best is Yet to Come.” The film’s
narrative thus echoes and reinforces the implications of its technique, discussed above. Referencing the familiar narrative of love between women as
an inherently memorial condition, it dramatizes the radical potential of that
narrative by literalizing memory’s enactment within, and capacity materially
to transform, present experience.25
Fish and Elephant: Critical Presentism
This Summer clearly represents the simple, present moment—neither the distant
past nor some longed-for tomorrow or future. . . . The story that took place this
summer could only have taken place this summer.—Cui Zi’en
Fish and Elephant (Jinnian xiatian [This Summer], 2001, 16mm) is the first
lesbian-themed feature film to emerge from the People’s Republic of China.
The film contrasts markedly with all of the films discussed thus far insofar
as it eschews the memorial mode completely in favor of a strong focus on
representing the present moment, which it achieves, as I will show, through
both narrative and stylistic means.
The filmmaking debut of young, heterosexual woman director Li Yu, Fish
and Elephant, with a budget of about U.S. $60,000 raised from one private
investor and Li Yu’s private savings was made “underground.”26 This means
that the film, like so many of the recent Chinese films to attract international
critical attention, was made without a permit from the Film Bureau; hence it
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leading. The fact that a director makes a film without the sanction of the Film
Bureau does not preclude its being seen by domestic audiences. Rampant
DVD pirating means that street markets and other audiovisual retail outlets
are regularly and openly awash with copies of the latest “underground” films.
This was certainly the case with Fish and Elephant in late 2003; my own bootleg
copy of the DVD—its cover breathlessly proclaiming the film to be “the first
ever female-female same-sex love story in the history of Chinese cinema”—
was purchased in a major state-run bookstore in Beijing. Li Yu even ironically expresses her gratitude to the DVD pirates for ensuring that her film
found a domestic audience outside of the handful of students who saw it at a
few special college screenings.27 According to Li Yu, to the extent that audience responses are known, the film was highly controversial within China.
Audience response at the campus screenings was quite polarized: older Party
apparatchik types echoed the Film Bureau in decrying the film’s exposure of
the “dark side” of Chinese society in its depiction of lesbian relations, while
college students were more likely to defend the lesbian topic as legitimate
subject matter.
Li Yu’s professional background is as a documentary filmmaker at China
Central Television. However, after making Fish and Elephant, she was pressured either to give up making underground films or to resign from her job
in state media; she chose the latter option, with a view to dedicating herself
full time to filmmaking.28 On being questioned on her motivation for making
a lesbian-themed film, Li frames the film first and foremost in terms of gender, as a “women’s story”: “The documentaries I’ve made before now have
all been about women’s lives and family relations. I think the question of
women’s status in Chinese society is a very interesting one. . . . So I’m very
interested in exploring relations between women, as well as the relations
between women and society. I thought that the most direct way of exploring
these questions was to focus on lesbians since their world is effectively composed entirely of women.”29
As Li’s response suggests, what is most interesting about Fish and Elephant
is the way in which it uses the lesbian topic to probe broader questions surrounding marriage, the family, feminine subjectivity, and women’s relationship with the masculinist state apparatus. One of the film’s lead actresses,
Beijing-based lesbian artist and activist Shi Tou, reveals that some queer audiences in the United States complained that the film wasn’t “lesbian” enough
and included too much social context, which, they felt, obscured the “main
story” of the romance between the two lead characters.30 Against this view,
however, I would argue that the film’s sustained linkage of lesbianism with
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women’s social experience more broadly results not in a blunted but a heightened attention to the specificities of female same-sex love and the available
cultural language for representing it in the particular social and historical
context of early twenty-first-century Beijing.
Stylistically Fish and Elephant is very recognizably a product of its time and
place of production. Like many of the so-called “sixth-generation” Chinese
films of the late 1990s (and in sharp contrast to the unapologetic emotionalism of both Incidental Journey and Butterfly), it uses “art house style”—long
takes, static framing, documentary-style hyper-realism, an unvarnished
sound track, and nonprofessional actors—to present the stories of socially
marginal characters in urban post-Mao China. The film focuses on the experiences of three young women one summer in Beijing. Xiao Qun (Pan Yi), who
works as an elephant keeper at the zoo, is busy fighting off her mother’s concern at her unmarried yet aged state (she is almost thirty). Her mother (Zhang
Jilian), living in distant Sichuan Province, presses the extended family into
service to organize a series of dates for Xiao Qun with prospective spouses.
This is particularly irksome to Xiao Qun since, as she puts it to an appalled
male cousin in an early scene, she “has no feelings for men,” preferring
women. Xiao Ling (Shi Tou) is a clothing designer who sells her wares in
a local market and lives with her boyfriend in a joyless relationship. After
meeting at Xiao Ling’s stall, Xiao Ling and Xiao Qun strike up a flirtatious
friendship that soon progresses to intimacy and sex, and Xiao Ling leaves
her boyfriend to move into Xiao Qun’s small apartment. Then one morning,
Xiao Qun’s ex-girlfriend, Wu Junjun (Zhang Qianqian), turns up at the zoo
asking Xiao Qun for sanctuary. It emerges that she has fatally shot her father,
who had been sexually abusing her since she was a child, and is on the run
from the police. Around the same time, Xiao Qun’s mother arrives in town
to begin in earnest the process of matchmaking for her daughter. On one
of the “dates” that Xiao Qun’s mother organizes, she herself hits it off with
the prospective groom—a widower around her own age—and the two begin
seeing one another in secret. Soon enough, Xiao Ling catches sight of Xiao
Qun with Junjun, believes Xiao Qun is cheating on her, and moves back to
her boyfriend’s place. Meanwhile, Xiao Qun and her mother are having an
emotionally freighted lunch, during which Xiao Qun’s mother reveals her
plan to remarry, at which Xiao Qun expresses her congratulations, and Xiao
Qun reveals her sexual orientation, at which her mother expresses her confusion. Xiao Ling soon returns to the apartment and apologizes to Xiao Qun;
the lovers are reunited, and soon after, Xiao Qun’s mother reconciles with
her daughter by telling her that she supports her choice to be with Xiao Ling.
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Critical Presentism 167
Finally, Junjun is discovered living in Xiao Qun’s quarters at the zoo. She is
surrounded by police in a siege that ends in the death of one officer, shot by
Junjun, and ultimately Junjun’s arrest. Crosscuts reveal Xiao Qun and Xiao
Ling having sex at the same time the siege is taking place. The final scene is at
Xiao Qun’s mother’s wedding, where the bride waits anxiously for Xiao Qun
to arrive, which—ominously—she never does.
Horizontal versus Vertical Time
I observed above that Fish and Elephant stands out from the other films discussed in this chapter for its failure to take up the memorial theme that so
centrally structures the other films; instead, I propose, along with Cui Zi’en,
that the film is concerned with elaborating an image of lesbian presentness.
As with Mak’s Butterfly, Fish and Elephant’s exploration of alternative modes of
female homoerotic temporality happens at the level of film style as well as
narrative. To further this consideration of the role of style in these films’ representations of women’s same-sex love, the film theory of American avantgarde filmmaker Maya Deren proves useful. In her influential analysis of
“poetic film,” which, as several commentators have noted, anticipates Gilles
Deleuze’s theory of movement-image and time-image, Deren distinguished
between two dimensions of the filmic text, which she called the horizontal
and vertical dimensions.31 In Deren’s schema, the horizontal dimension of
a film refers to its narrative trajectory; it encompasses the action of the film,
the unraveling of the story, and drama (similarly to Deleuze’s movementimage). The vertical dimension, by contrast, is the film’s lyrical component;
in the vertical dimension, stasis replaces action, the “depths” of the isolated
moment are emphasized over narrative progression, and poetry dominates
drama (similarly to Deleuze’s time-image).32 Deren explains as follows:
The poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a “vertical”
investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have
poetry concerned . . . not with what is occurring but with what it feels
like or what it means. . . . In other words, it isn’t that one action leads to
another action (this is what I would call a “horizontal” development), but
that they are brought to a center, gathered up, and collected by the fact
that they all refer to a common emotion. . . . Whereas, in what is called a
“horizontal” development, the logic is a logic of actions.33
Deren’s examples of moments when the vertical dominates the horizontal
axis include the opening passages of some films, where location and mood
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are established through montage, and dream sequences, in which, again,
narrative is secondary to mood.34 In Deleuze’s later development of a similar
analytic framework, he observes the dominance of the time-image over the
movement-image in the postwar European and American New Wave cinemas; indeed, the privileging of vertical rather than horizontal dimensions,
in Deren’s terms, is a notable feature of the “art film” style, in distinction to
Hollywood cinema’s emphasis on continuity and narrative development.35
Although she does not dwell on this aspect, Deren’s horizontal/vertical
schema implies a particular structuring of cinematic time; this is a point that
is drawn out more fully in Deleuze’s later, related theory of the “chronosigns”
of postwar art cinema, in which, he proposes, time dominates movement.36
In Deren’s horizontal development, story time moves ineluctably forward; the
narrative trajectory is structured by a cause-and-effect chain of events unfolding in linear time (time as progression, in Deleuze’s terms).37 In Deren’s vertical development, the emphasis is not on narrative but on “the ramifications
of the moment”; isolated from the forward surge of the narrative, the single
moment is plumbed for its poetic or subjective significance, held apart from
the onward flow of the story (time directly presented, in Deleuze’s terms).38
Since in the context of the present study the most interesting aspect of Fish
and Elephant is its representation of temporality, it will be useful to examine
the film with reference to Deren’s schema, especially this distinction between
horizontal and vertical time.
The above précis of the film’s story shows that the action—the film’s horizontal component—is propelled in large part by two parallel narrative trajectories. First, there is the narrative of Xiao Qun’s mother and her quest for
marriage, initially for Xiao Qun and later for herself. Second, there is the
narrative of Junjun’s flight from the police. This, too, is at root a story about
marriage—that of Junjun’s parents, in which, as Junjun relates, her father
regularly raped her while her mother colluded by turning a blind eye, ultimately leading Junjun to murder her father. In a sense, the film is structured
by a dialectical tension between these two narratives concerning marriage
and family life: the light or optimistic story of Xiao Qun’s mother and her
happy midlife remarriage and the dark or pessimistic narrative of the horrific
consequences of Junjun’s parents’ abuse of their daughter. But surely there
is also a third narrative here: the love story between Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling;
moreover, as the film’s American audiences insisted, surely that is really the
film’s central narrative? While not denying the central importance in the film
of the relationship between Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling, in what follows I will
nonetheless argue that this relationship is represented not so much through
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Critical Presentism 169
narrative, but rather precisely through narrative suspension: the interruption of
the forward-hurtling horizontal time of the two marriage stories with their
ineluctable end points (Xiao Qun’s mother’s marriage, Junjun’s arrest) by the
ecstatic stasis, or vertical time, of the women’s same-sex romance.
Lesbian Space, Vertical Time
How does Fish and Elephant represent female homoerotic time? As the epigraph from Beijing-based gay filmmaker, author, and cultural critic Cui Zi’en
suggests, the film is particularly notable for its efforts to situate women’s
same-sex love not in some distant past moment but instead firmly within the
here and now of the present. As much is implied in the film’s Chinese title,
Jinnian xiatian (This Summer), which provides a fortuitous but nonetheless
significant contrast with the Chinese title of the Taiwanese telemovie discussed in chapter 5, Nanian xiatiande langsheng: “The Voice of the Waves That
Summer.” In addition to the film’s title, Cui’s comment refers to the overt
localism and presentism of the film’s mise-en-scène and sound track, which
consistently foreground the unmistakable textures, sounds, and sensory density of everyday life in early-twenty-first-century Beijing. The film is full of
interposed street scenes, with pedestrians, trucks, buses, bicycles, cars, and
delivery carts flowing across the frame, accompanied by a gritty sound track
recording the auditory rush and hum of a Beijing summer: voices, footsteps,
a distant television, cicadas, engines, bicycle bells, construction racket,
birdsong, snatches of music. The first sex scene between Xiao Qun and Xiao
Ling, in particular, underscores the co-presence of the lovers within the local
space and present time of the city. A long take in which the two women draw
together on Xiao Qun’s bed and shyly kiss is followed by an exterior long
shot in which a man, walking on the hot road, finds his shoe sticking to the
bitumen, prizes it free, and continues walking toward the camera. The sound
track here is dominated by loud cicada song, and the light is harsh summer
sunlight. The following shot shows Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling lying together
after sex, the softer cicada song in the background and the sunlight falling
on the two women’s skin indicating continuity with the previous street scene.
While ordinary people go about their everyday business, this sequence seems
to say, hidden from view, lesbian lives are being lived, right here, right now,
in this city (figures 45–47).
Later in the same article from which the epigraph is taken, Cui offers a
more complex formulation of the film’s presentism: “Li Yu has intentionally
distanced [the Pan Yi and Shi Tou characters] from the orthodox narrative
chain. To put it another way, she allows them, to a certain degree, to break
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45. Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s first kiss in Fish and Elephant
(dir. Li Yu, 2005).
46. Interposing street scene in Fish and Elephant (dir. Li Yu,
47. Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling lie together after sex in Fish and
Elephant (dir. Li Yu, 2005).
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Critical Presentism 171
the narrative chain’s completeness, so that the independent, internal space
[that they occupy] may remain uninterrupted by the narrative progression.”39
Although Cui’s metaphor here is spatial rather than temporal, his remarks
resonate interestingly with Deren’s formulation of film’s horizontal versus
vertical dimensions. In suggesting that the independent, internal space that
the lovers occupy ruptures the narrative chain, Cui implies that the representation of the lovers is of an order distinct from—and interruptive of—the
horizontal progression of the story. And indeed, in a sense, the sequence
discussed above could be understood to imply a distinction and separation
between the two spheres of street and bedroom as much as a temporal and
spatial connection between them. The exterior scene with the man and his
stuck shoe takes place “out there,” amid the incessant movement and urgent
busy-ness of the summer streets: the rickshaw driver strains at his pedals; the
bystander with the parasol waits for the arrival of something or someone; bicycles pass in a steady stream; the pedestrian is caught up in his own private
narrative trajectory involving himself, his shoe, and the sticky bitumen. The
interior scene with Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling, meanwhile, takes place “in here,”
in the distinct space of the bedroom. The relative quiet and stillness­­ that distinguish these interior shots imply that the bedroom and the two women’s
relationship occupy a space and a time contiguous with, yet at a certain remove
from, the space and time of the world “out there.” Indeed, the first shot to
visualize Xiao Qun’s and Xiao Ling’s intimacy—cutely enough, a shot from
the perspective of Xiao Qun’s elephant in her barred enclosure—implies precisely this kind of spatial distancing by means of architectural framing: the
women appear in a small square of light, separated from the spectator by the
bars of the elephant’s enclosure (figure 48). And throughout the film, Xiao
Qun and Xiao Ling’s intimate moments take place in spaces that are similarly
demarcated from the exterior spaces of the world “out there.” Like those
discussed above, these scenes are characterized by a certain stillness, quiet,
and lack of narrative momentum; frequently they take place in the softly lit
greenish space of Xiao Qun’s bedroom. The two women’s occupation of this
space is several times paralleled metaphorically with the lazy circling of the
fish in their rectangular tank, which is often either partially visible in shot or
else fills the frame in a visual lead-in to these scenes.
In addition to this spatial demarcation there is also a temporal dimension
to the scenes of Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s intimacy that contributes to the
sense that Cui describes of the two women’s world tending progressively to
drift free of the forward momentum of the two “orthodox” (marital) narratives. In Deren’s terms, in these scenes—as happens similarly in the shanshuiDownloaded from
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style landscape shots in Chen’s Incidental Journey and the lushly subjectivist
visuals in Mak’s Butterfly—vertical development dominates horizontal.40
Rather than the teleological chain of cause-and-effect events associated with
the film’s horizontal movement, the scenes dwell on the subjective and poetic
qualities of the isolated moment, with little action or narrative progression.
Time in these scenes is not linear and horizontal but static and vertical. In
Fish and Elephant, this sense is created by the use of leisurely takes—generally
the shots are of about sixty seconds’ duration, and there is one very long shot
of almost five minutes—static framing, and a general lack of either movement within the frame or narrative progression through dialogue (figures
Of course, this film style with its long takes and static framing—what
Deleuze would call the dominance of the time-image—is common in the
noncommercial cinemas of both the PRC and Taiwan and indeed in noncommercial cinemas throughout the world.42 It might be argued that the use
of this style, with its tendency to emphasize the poetic or vertical over the
narrative or horizontal, results simply from Li’s adherence to the “art film”
formula that has so often characterized the work of women filmmakers concerned with representing lesbian themes.43 Questioned about Fish and Elephant’s style, Li observes:
This is the kind of film style that I personally favor: an objective, cool, detached gaze. But the film’s story is extremely melodramatic. There’s one
girl who refuses to get married, so her mother comes to pressure her into
getting married—but in the end it’s the mother who gets married, not the
48. Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s intimacy occupies “another
space” in this shot of Xiao Ling giving Xiao Qun her phone
number, from Xiao Qun’s elephant’s point of view, in Fish
and Elephant (dir. Li Yu, 2005).
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49–52. Static, vertical time in Fish and Elephant (dir. Li Yu,
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174 Chapter six
girl. Then there’s Junjun, who was raped by her father as a child, and so
she rejects men and has become a lesbian and ends up under siege by the
police; her story is a tragic one. It’s all highly melodramatic. But I used a
documentary style to cut back the melodrama, so the film took on a more
objective, more distant feel. This was intentional; it was the style I felt the
film needed. So although it’s made in a documentary style, it’s actually a
highly stylized film.44
Li’s response echoes Cui’s observation about the film’s dual character. For Li,
the film is marked as stylized by the split between its melodramatic story—
consisting of the two familial/marital narratives outlined above—and its
documentary style, with the detachment implied by an immobile camera,
long takes, and so on. And it is precisely this split between story and style
that marks the particularity of Fish and Elephant’s female homoerotic representation. For it is in the contrast with the forward movement of the familial/
marital narratives (melodrama) that the stasis of the scenes of same-sex intimacy, achieved through camera style (documentary) becomes meaningful. In
other words, if Fish and Elephant appropriates an art film style that is especially
pronounced in the scenes of same-sex intimacy, the appropriation is a hybrid one, mixed as it is with the more conventional narrative structure of the
familial/marital stories that unfold in other scenes.45 Moreover, seen in the
broader context of the conventions of modern Chinese female homoerotic
representation, the film’s stylistic foregrounding of the present moment in
the “vertical” time of Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s intimacy takes on a special
significance that is not simply reducible to Li’s adherence to art film style.
That is, the emphatic presentism of these scenes can be interpreted as a resistant response to the persistent memorialism of modern Chinese female
homoerotic representation.
Cui’s insight about the distancing of Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s world from
the film’s narrative progression makes good sense of the film’s enigmatic
conclusion, in which Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling fail to appear at Xiao Qun’s
mother’s wedding. In the film’s penultimate shot, we see the two women
lying in each other’s arms, shot through Xiao Qun’s bedroom window (figure
53). Thus, when the film cuts to the final shot outside the restaurant where the
wedding celebrations take place (figure 54) and we hear Xiao Qun’s mother
wondering aloud where her daughter could possibly be, in a sense we have
just been shown the answer: instead of attending the wedding she is lying in
cozy intimacy with Xiao Ling. As in the earlier scene shot from the elephant’s
point of view (figure 48), the penultimate shot frames the two women from a
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53. Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s intimacy is again projected
into “another space” in penultimate shot of Fish and
Elephant (dir. Li Yu, 2005).
54. Xiao Qun’s mother and her groom anxiously await
Xiao Qun’s arrival at their wedding in final shot of Fish and
Elephant (dir. Li Yu, 2005).
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176 Chapter six
perspective outside the space that they occupy; their relationship is thus figured once again as taking place “somewhere else.” And in Xiao Qun’s failure
to appear in the wedding scene, it is as though the alternative space and time
of Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s same-sex relationship had finally floated entirely
free of the space and time of the marriage narrative. Xiao Qun’s nonappearance in the final scene—as though she now remains suspended, eternally, in
the two women’s “other” space and static time—literalizes the film’s final
separation of the vertical from the horizontal dimension.
Critique of State Masculinism
Yet while the formal logic of the film prompts this symbolic reading of the
conclusion, Xiao Qun’s failure to show up at the wedding can also be explained
in more literal, narrative terms. Junjun—now a double murderer—has been
arrested at Xiao Qun’s quarters at the zoo; the next step the police will take
will surely be to search out Xiao Qun herself and charge her with harboring
a fugitive. Furthermore, if the police now go to Xiao Qun’s flat, they will find
her in bed with Xiao Ling—which can hardly help her case, especially since
Junjun’s arresting officer was himself one of Xiao Qun’s former arranged
“dates.” Thus, there is a more ominous significance to Xiao Qun’s failure to
appear at the wedding; while at our last sight of her, she was suspended in
the alternative space and time of her intimacy with Xiao Ling, nonetheless,
according to the film’s narrative (rather than formal) logic, we must now
presume her to be locked up in police custody facing an extremely uncertain
future. Interpreted this way, Xiao Qun’s nonappearance at her mother’s wedding bespeaks not the separation of lesbian from marital time, but rather the
final, fatal crossing of the two narratives outlined above: the light narrative
of Xiao Qun’s mother’s wedding project and the dark narrative of Junjun’s
family history and its consequences. Given this, it is worth considering the
significance of Junjun’s role in more detail.
Junjun is presented primarily as a (justified) rebel against the system of
the patriarchal family, patricide being the most extreme expression of a refusal to cleave to this structure’s demand for properly reverent and obedient
daughterly behavior. What is particularly interesting in the film’s representation of Junjun’s violent rebellion against her father is the way in which the
patriarchal family, in which the father abuses his position of authority, is
paralleled with the PRC state. Thus Junjun is framed as a rebel against not
just the patriarchal familial system but also an amalgam of both familial and
state power that we might call state masculinism. In the siege scene, Junjun’s
rage shifts concretely from its earlier target, her abusive father, toward the
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Critical Presentism 177
state system that seems to side with him against her. Upon surrounding her
in her bunker in Xiao Qun’s quarters, the police set up a relentlessly repetitive
call through a loudspeaker: “Wu Junjun, you are surrounded. Give yourself
up within three minutes and the authorities will look generously on your
case; if you refuse, your path can lead only to death. Wu Junjun, you are surrounded. . . .” Et cetera. After several repetitions of this harsh, male-voiced
officialese, Junjun picks off the offending officer with her revolver. The film
then cuts to a shot of the blood-spattered loudspeaker lying in the grass, on
which the camera lingers for a full seventeen seconds while the loudspeaker’s
final feedback wail dies feebly out and a buzzing fly alights to feed on the
spattered blood (figure 55). This emphatic image of the motionless, bloodied
loudspeaker—one is tempted to refer to it as the loudspeaker’s “corpse”—
stands as a potent symbol of the enraged woman’s violent revenge against
masculinist state/familial authority. Similarly, when Junjun holds a second
officer at gunpoint, it is his condescending and highly gendered statement,
“You’re a woman; this conduct is unbecoming,” that prompts her to pull the
trigger—though by now she’s out of ammunition (figure 56).
The projected interruption of Xiao Qun and Xiao Ling’s beatific space-time
at the end of the film by the consequences of Junjun’s life-and-death struggle
with her abusive father and his symbolic representative, the state, implies the
ultimate impossibility of women remaining secure within the film’s imagined alternative, lesbian realm. In Fish and Elephant, then, female same-sex
love is framed as ultimately insupportable by the officially sanctioned sexgender system, which is shown to be far stronger and more ruthless than the
fragile alternative worlds created between women.46
In contrast with the alternative reading of the film’s ending, above, which
was based on the film’s formal rather than its narrative logic, this might seem
a rather negative conclusion. Yet interpreting the ending in this way underscores the film’s potential as a strongly critical commentary on the very impossibility that it dramatizes. In this regard, like Butterfly, Fish and Elephant takes
up and develops an existing tendency in earlier instances of Chinese female
homoerotic representation. Where Butterfly literalizes the radical potential of
lesbian memory as interruptive of hetero-marital femininity, Fish and Elephant
offers a critique of the existing sex-gender system’s limitation of women’s
sexual and affective choices that echoes and amplifies a comparable critique
in earlier narratives of female same-sex love. As we have seen in previous
chapters, in the Republican-era schoolgirl romances by Lu Yin and Ling Shuhua, the target of the implied critique was the arranged marriage system that
tore the young same-sex lovers apart. The critique in Chu T’ien-hsin’s and
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55. The masculinist state’s silenced mouthpiece in Fish and
Elephant (dir. Li Yu, 2005).
56. Police officer lectures Junjun, “You’re a woman; this
conduct is unbecoming,” prompting her to pull the trigger
in Fish and Elephant (dir. Li Yu, 2005).
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Critical Presentism 179
Wong Bikwan’s later works targets the family and the school as agents of
young women’s sexual discipline toward “properly” marital adulthood. Fish
and Elephant continues this tradition of female homoerotic representation
as critique of the social regulation of feminine sexuality, but it does so in
an even stronger voice. Reflecting the context of its production, the target
of its critique is the collusion between the patriarchal family and the postsocialist state in punishing women who fail to conform to their expected
social/­familial roles as obedient daughters and dutiful wives.
I have argued in this chapter that films like Incidental Journey, Butterfly, and
Fish and Elephant (and the list could certainly be extended) can be seen as critical
responses to earlier forms of modern Chinese female homoerotic representation. It makes historical sense that films like these, with their relatively overt
challenges to habitual ways of figuring women’s same-sex relations, should
emerge at a time when organized lesbian movements had been active in Hong
Kong and Taiwan for around a decade and had begun to emerge in mainland
China. Although not all of these films were made by self-identifying lesbians, nevertheless their serious, anti-homophobic treatment of love between
women certainly reflects the impact of globalizing, post-Stonewall lesbian
identity politics. Yet I have also tried to show that while these films respond
to a global sex-cultural environment, the modality of their responses also
bespeaks their linkage to the longer, more localized histories of modern Chinese female homoerotic representation. Just as Euro-American instances of
critical lesbian self-representation, with their preoccupation with rendering
visible the invisible, remain bound to the visual rubric that is also the problem they want to fix, so these Chinese examples remain centrally preoccupied with questions of pastness, presence, and futurity even though—indeed
precisely because—it is the temporal obsession of dominant forms of female
homoerotic representation that they aim to critique. The films thus attest to
the persistent hold of a way of understanding women’s sexuality that, while
everywhere in dialogue with modern Western sexual epistemologies, is not
merely some far-flung echo of these but is instead the expression of a culturally distinct metaphoric fixation.
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