by Chris Berry
Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 84-89
EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE (DONGGONG, XIGONG 1996) is the first feature film from mainland China to deal with gay life there today.[open notes in new window] The title is taken from Beijing gay slang, and it refers to the two public toilets either side of the Forbidden Palace on the north edge of Tiananmen Square. Much of the film takes place during the night at a similar location in an inner city park, a typical gay cruising zone in Beijing, and in the park police station. But the film is not slice-of-life realist. Developed originally as a stage play by director Zhang Yuan, it is highly dramatized, reminiscent to a western viewer of Genet perhaps.
The main focus is an exchange between one of the men in the park, A Lan (played by Si Han), and Shi Xiaohua (played by Hu Jun), one of the cops whose job it is to harass them. A Lan forms a masochistic infatuation with the cop and goes all out to get taken in for questioning. Alone with the policeman in the station, A Lan then spends the night revealing his fantasies and his past to the cop, simultaneously trying to provoke him and to seduce him. This is Zhang Yuan's fifth feature, and his most critically acclaimed so far. Given the uneven quality of Zhang Yimou's recent work and Chen Kaige's lapse into the production of chinoiserie that out-Bertoluccis Bertolucci, EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE stakes a serious claim for Zhang Yuan to be the mainland director who has produced the most consistently interesting body of work so far in the 1990s.
Zhang Yuan has many gay friends and is also working on a documentary about China's first transsexual, the modern dancer Jin Xing, who went overnight from being referred to as "he" in the Chinese press to "she" without any explanation at all offered to readers. It is provisionally titled MISS JIN XING (JIN XING XIOJIE). However, Zhang himself is not gay, and indeed he wrote the script of EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE together with his wife Ning Dai. So, when I interviewed him in 1996 soon after completion of the film, one of my first questions was about his interest in the topic. He noted,
In the discussion that followed, Zhang made it clear that as a filmmaker whose work is invisible but not actually illegal in China, he has a certain amount in common with gay men and other marginalized groups. The opening scenes of EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE indicate that although there is no law specifically forbidding homosexuality in China, this does not mean gays are free from police harassment. As the character we later discover is A Lan comes out of the stalls in the park men's room, a policeman washing his hands asks A Lan a series of questions, starting with where he lives and ending with a request to see his ID and even his bike permit. In the next scene, the police round up the men in the park at night, punishing them by forcing them to squat down, beating them, telling them to slap themselves, and threatening to inform their employers.
In Zhang's case, the authorities dislike what he is doing so much that in 1994 they issued a notice forbidding anyone to cooperate any further with him and a number of other filmmakers. When I asked why they had not stopped him completely, he joked,
What kind of love does A Lan have for Shi Xiaohua? A Lan compares himself to a female thief in a Beijing opera. As the policeman naps, A Lan stands over him, saying,
Toward the end of the film, A Lan repeats the same lines to the now conscious Shi Xiaohua, adding,
Indeed, although Zhang Yuan has worked outside the system throughout the 1990s without being stopped, EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE has already provoked the most concrete government action against him yet. No doubt this is at least in part because, of all his five features, this one has received the greatest international attention. The film was invited to take part in Un Certain Regard at the 1997 Cannes International Film Festival. Zhang should have been there in person for this career highlight, but the Chinese authorities seized his passport to prevent him from leaving the country. When the Cannes organizers refused to pull Zhang Yuan's film, they also pressured the producers of Zhang Yimou's new film, KEEP COOL (YOU HUA HAO HAO SHUO) to withdraw from the festival.
Had he been able to attend the opening ceremony, I suspect Zhang Yuan would have enjoyed the little performance Cannes put on to address the Chinese government's actions. By placing an empty chair on the stage to symbolize his absence, they simultaneously made both him and his absence present to the audience. Zhang is equally adept at dealing with the Chinese authorities. And he has also developed a strong interest in this sort of playing with performance and reality in a tension between high drama and high realism that runs through his work.
When I spoke to Zhang a couple of years ago after seeing his observational documentary about Tiananmen Square, THE SQUARE (GUANGCHANG, co-directed with Duan Jinchuan, 1994), he suggested that, to him, the square itself was like a large stage on which all sorts of people performed. I reminded him of this after EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE. He elaborated, saying,
In this article, I would like to look at EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE and China's emergent gay and lesbian culture by examining the connection between Zhang's interest in social marginality (including his own as an independent filmmaker) and his interest in highlighting and bluffing the line between drama and reality. For, paradoxically, although the space of performance on stage or within a feature film is marked off from what we know as "the real world" in a mutually constitutive manner, acting is not so much outside the world as a special sort of doing in the world.
This insight has been central to and indeed constitutive of the focus in cultural studies and queer studies on theories of performance and performativity in recent years. In the introduction to a collection of articles on the topic, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick summarizes Jacques Derrida's deconstruction in "Signature Event Context" of J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words:
Breaking down the distinction between the space of the stage and the space of the real world on the basis of generalized citationality has various effects. First, as discussed most notably in the work of Judith Butler as well as Sedgwick, it suggests that being is based on the kind of doing that acting is. Furthermore, if identities in the real world are also performed and not given, then they can be cited and read "wrongly" but productively in order to construct different identities and undermine seemingly natural givens. As a result, many recent, English-language, studies have focused on the way in which existing social identities are performed or constructed and on particular instances of their perversion, so to speak, in these productive misreadings and miscitations.
In what follows, first I want to identify some of the features of Zhang Yuan's work that also draw attention to the way that being is connecting to the special kind of doing that acting is. However, I then want to go on to draw attention to the some important differences between the kind of emphasis on performance found in Zhang's work and the emphasis on perversion (in the sense cited above) in the work of Butler and others.
I will argue that in Zhang's work, the emphasis is more on access to public discourse, the ability to find a place to stage a public performance at all. I will argue that this problematic is not only one that Zhang shares with gay men and the other Chinese social minorities he represents in his work. Instead, it is generalized across Chinese society today, and it is the product of the contradictions that characterize and constitute the contemporary Chinese post-socialist condition. On one hand, relaxing central control in the economic realm has produced a plural society composed of a wide range of different social groupings. But on the other hand, increasing central control in the ideological realm struggles to maintain strict limits on the ability of those social groupings to establish their identities and win public recognition for them. Perhaps the case of gays and lesbians in China is the most extreme example of this contradiction that Zhang Yuan has dealt with so far. But it is also a contradiction that extends to cover him and his fellow independent filmmakers who have worked outside the state sector to date.
Zhang's first film, MAMA, a drama about a separated woman's struggle to look after her mentally disabled son, places a strong emphasis on the use of real locations as opposed to studio sets and includes some documentary elements. As the film demonstrates, not only do the needs of the disabled receive little attention from the under-resourced state in China, but most ordinary citizens even prefer to ignore them altogether. However, in most other ways, MAMA is a comparatively conventional drama made within the studio system for Xi'an Film Studio.
It is with his next and first independent film that his interest in the permeability of the screen world and real life starts to make itself apparent. In BEIJING BASTARDS, Zhang focuses on Beijing rock'n'roll youth subculture. No doubt he was partly inspired by the music videos (known as "MTV"s in China) that he had been shooting to make a living. But more importantly, the locations were real and many of the actors were non-professionals, drawn from the subculture the film represents. In this way, Zhang was opening up the space of the screen for another social group that had received little recognition or understanding in China to date.
In THE SQUARE, Zhang moves from features to documentaries and from including real life people as performers of roles similar to themselves to showing the performance that is inherent in real life. He made this film directly after the government "document" (wenjian) forbidding him to make more films and other people to cooperate with him. Clearly, the decision to go and shoot in Tiananmen Square, the political heart of China, was politically pointed as well as a demonstration of his sheer ability to go on. However, as already noted, Zhang and co-director Duan Jinchuan not only document daily life in the square but show the square as a kind of stage that people come to from Beijing and around the country to perform on.
THE SQUARE is an observational film in the manner of Fred Wiseman, without voice-over commentary or extra-diegetic music, and so it is open to many interpretations. However, what I see in THE SQUARE is a tension between ordinary people, who come there to exercise, fly kites, throw Frisbees and walk around, and the police, politicians and other official groups who use it to stage their events. When visiting dignitaries arrive, ordinary citizens are cordoned off. When the military police go for their jog, the old men exercising have to stand aside. Once the police have moved through, one of the old men comments, "They're gone now, let's get on." Furthermore, given Tiananmen's history as a site for larger public contestations of this sort, not only in 1989 but also on many other occasions during China's recent history, it is difficult not to think of this larger significance as one watches the film. Here, then, power and social identity are represented as a sort of performance in which the contest for access to public space is key.
Finally, in SONS, Zhang Yuan took the whole intermixing of documentary and feature film making to a new level. He made this film when one of the amateur actors from BEIJING BASTARDS, who lived in the same building as Zhang Yuan did at the time, approached him and suggested he make a film about his family's life. The parents in the family were members of a dance troupe. The father is an alcoholic, both sons are unemployed and heavily into alcohol themselves. Zhang and Ning Dai interviewed the family at length, then had them reenact key scenes from their family history. In this way, a stage family in real life stages its own history on film, again placing into public discourse a variety of social problems and issues that are normally ignored.
Set against this developing problematic of stage and real life in his work, EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE may seem like a step away at first. Although the actor who plays A Lan is not a professional, he was not recruited from the Beijing gay scene but from Zhang's film crew. The rest of the actors in the film are not from the gay scene, either. And although studio sets are not used, the locations are not real life Beijing cruising zones, possibly to avoid provoking crackdowns on those places. Furthermore, the film is highly dramatized. There are fantasies, flashbacks, and a tense dialogue between A Lan and the policeman that is certainly too highly crafted to seem real in any everyday slice-of-life sense.
The camerawork is highly crafted, too, drawing attention to itself as it communicates through circling movements the power-play and surveillance that is the film's general ambiance. For example, when A Lan's story of his humiliation and beating by one of his partners is enacted on the screen, the camera circles 360 degrees around him again and again while his partner and his friend attack A Lan. Similarly, when the policeman arrests A Lan and makes him squat in the little park police station, the cop goes out and circles the building, looking in at A Lan through the windows. But towards the end of the film, when A Lan is turning the tables on the cop and the cop tells him to leave, it is A Lan who circles the building looking in through the windows.
However, I would argue that in the light of Zhang's previous productions, what this highly dramatized quality draws attention to is the immense difficulty at the moment of putting China's real gay subculture into public discourse. Unlike the case with the disabled, the unemployed, alcoholics or rock'n'roll kids, here the risk of reprisals is simply too great. At one point in my interview with him, I pointed out to Zhang Yuan that in his focus on nighttime cruising, toilet sex, masochism, cross-gender identification, and run-ins with the police, EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE was a long way from the cozy coupledom of a film like Ang Lee's WEDDING BANQUET and might be seen as presenting a negative image of homosexuality. Zhang responded,
I would suggest that this circumstance and Zhang's way of dealing with it in EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE highlight the fact that his films are not so much about the way in which identities can be performed differently, which is a major emphasis in the work of Judith Butler and others on performativity, but rather on the whole question of how they can be performed at all. The generalized citationality that Butler and other contemporary theorists of performance and performativity emphasize requires that we also re-think the distinction between the space of the stage and the space of "real life." The citation and iterability traditionally been used to distinguish the stage from "real life" may in fact be everywhere. In this case, however, the stage and stage-like spaces are still differentiated from the other spaces on the basis of their public visibility.
I will not construct a binary distinction between the public and the private here, for I am aware of many degrees of public visibility and privacy. Nor do I wish to enter into debates about the public sphere. Rather, by the idea of public I simply want to suggest that some spaces of performance have a greater social visibility and hence a greater power to disseminate more widely than others. Access to public performance may be limited or facilitated by social power structures. In other words, we need to ground Butler's insights into performativity's potential both socially and historically if we are to understand how it does not simply smuggle the liberal free subject back into the picture but instead inscribes agency as regulated and deployed differentially.
In EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE this focus on performativity in relation to access to public space and public discourse is dramatized in the all night exchange between A Lan and the policeman that takes up most of the film. In fact, A Lan's capacity to re-stage conventional scenarios and behaviors so as to seize agency has been illustrated earlier in the film.
When the police seize the men in the park at the beginning of the film, he is amongst them and is taken back by Shi Xiaohua for questioning. But on the way, instead of behaving as a captured criminal, he seizes the circumstances of walking together to the police station as an opportunity to treat Shi Xiaohua as one of his nighttime partners. When A Lan kisses the cop impulsively, Shi is so shocked he lets A Lan go. A Lan runs off. Furthermore, when Shi takes him in for questioning the second time, clearly he knows A Lan is the man who has sent him the book inscribed, "To my love. A Lan," because he asks, "You're A Lan, aren't you?" So, from the very beginning Shi's motives in taking A Lan in for questioning are blurred, and A Lan knows this as well as the audience does.
However, Shi sets up the circumstances as a conventional police interrogation in which a confession is expected. He makes A Lan squat down and tells the prisoner to speak as he prepares to write it all down. However, the police confession is a public record. A Lan seizes this opportunity as eagerly as the earlier walk back through the park. He uses these rare circumstances in which Chinese gay men achieve a certain public visibility to perform his role differently, perversely. He insists on using the confession not as a space to denigrate or incriminate himself but as a mechanism to tell his story and state his case, insisting that his masochistic gay engagements are love and that the policeman stop calling them disgusting.
At first, he answers Shi's questions straightforwardly. But very quickly, he uses them to move away from the confessional mode. A Lan is married, and when Shi asks to whom, A Lan uses this as an opportunity to speak about his first sexual experience with a man. Although he imagines himself as "the girl" in the encounter and it is by no means a simply positive and affirmative one, A Lan ends the story with an emotional assertion that the next morning "I knew I was alive!" Not surprisingly, the policeman gets angry, telling him to cool down. Later, when the policeman attempts to characterize him as trash, A Lan answers back, provoking the policeman to say,
Indeed he is. By now, confession is moving towards seduction. A Lan tells Shi that his mother used to tell him to be good or the policeman would come to get him but, "I loved to hear that sentence." As an adult, he continues, looking up at Shi,
It would be inappropriate for me to give away the outcome of this contest between seduction and confession. However, what I want to emphasize here is not only the way in which A Lan's performative perversity attempts to reconstruct and resignify his own identity differently, but also how that attempt depends on the ability to seek out and obtain access to public space, public discourse and public record, however unpromising the particular circumstances might seem.
Of course, this question of access to and regulation of public discourse is relevant in any society, and I think it is important for any discussion of performativity that wishes to avoid idealism. But it seems particularly charged in the People's Republic of China, where the actions of the government in relation to this year's Cannes film festival are only the latest in a long series that asserts control over Chinese film and other media not only within its own borders but internationally. In these circumstances where access is difficult, it is not only a question of in what ways identities are cited and miscited, but whether they are allowed to be or able to find ways to make themselves visible at all. As Zhang Yuan points out in relation to his motivation for making EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE,
The problem of visibility is something that affects not only gays in China but also many other social groups. Indeed it is this broad issue that seems to lie behind Zhang Yuan's concern with contemporary Chinese life, particularly the lives of younger city people like himself, and it is something he shares with many other filmmakers of his generation. Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1989. Because the academy is China's only film school and does not take in students every year, Zhang's class was the first to graduate after the so-called Fifth Generation, which included such now internationally-famous names as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Therefore, some people refer to the new generation of young filmmakers as the "sixth generation," but this is an appellation that Zhang and his peers dislike. While they admire their predecessors, they would prefer to be treated separately and individually.
Nonetheless, it is the case that the graduates of 1989 do seem to have used a turn to contemporary life as a way of marking themselves out from the Fifth Generation. The vast majority of the famous Fifth Generation films, from YELLOW EARTH to RED SORGHUM, JU DOU, RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HORSE THIEF, FAREWELL TO MY CONCUBINE, SHANGHAI TRIAD, and RED FIRECRACKER, GREEN FIRECRACKER, have been set in an almost mythical version of the pre-revolutionary past. Although those films have frequently been interpreted as metaphorical commentaries on the present, Zhang Yuan and his peers clearly have had no patience with indirect games, possibly seeing in the resort to these techniques a compromise and effective submission that they wished to eschew in favor of a more direct visibility. Hence, not only all of Zhang Yuan's films, but also Wang Xiaoshuai's THE DAYS and VIETNAM GIRL, Wu Ming's FROZEN, He Jianjun's RED BEADS and THE POSTMAN, and Lu Xuechang's THIS IS HOW STEEL IS MADE, not to mention the works of China's independent documentary video makers, are nearly all set in contemporary urban Chinese milieus readily recognizable to the viewer.
In many cases, these films are also concerned with making visible that which is usually hidden from view or denied a space in public discourse in the People's Republic. THE DAYS, FROZEN, and RED BEADS all focus on alienated young artists and members of the middle classes. Like all of Zhang Yuan's films except MAMA, these three films were made independently without the benefit of state-run studio involvement, which means there is no mechanism to submit them for classification and release in China. VIETNAM GIRL looks at migration from the countryside to the city, often illicit, and prostitution; THIS IS HOW STEEL IS MADE looks at alienated youth, including consideration of drugs, alcohol, sex, and rock'n'roll. Both these films were produced in 1996 by Tian Zhuangzhuang (best known as the director of HORSE THIEF and BLUE KITE) for his company attached to Beijing Film Studio. However, apparently the latter film has had to be radically changed before being passed for release, and VIETNAM GIRL has only been permitted a limited release within China and no export.
THE POSTMAN is also an independent film produced outside the state system, and it is particularly interesting in this context for its shared interest in surveillance, silencing and social marginality. The film follows a young postman who takes over a delivery route when his predecessor is sentenced to labor reform by his employers for opening mail. Soon, the new postman is doing the same thing, and in the process he discovers what goes on behind closed doors in Beijing today, including drug use, prostitution, homosexuality, and various other subplots. He himself has sex in the backroom of the post office one night with a fellow employee, but neither of them ever speaks about it again. Furthermore, he not only opens letters but also begins to interfere in the lives of the people on this route, often with cruel and disastrous results. Just as A Lan's masochistic desires seem to be a perverse and not necessarily affirmative form of resistance, so the unusual performance of his duties by the postman seem to be at once formed by his environment, an act of resistance, and also highly ambivalent and disturbing.
As well as in the filmmaking world, regular Chinese citizens elsewhere are showing a greater interest in speaking openly and without scripting about aspects of their lives that they might well not have wished to air publicly before. This is particularly evident on Chinese television. A decade ago, it was almost impossible to see man-on-the-street interviews. Most documentary and news interviews with ordinary people were carefully controlled. Most citizens, if approached to speak publicly, might well have shied away for fear of saying the wrong thing. This has changed, and many people attribute this to the introduction of a daily ten-minute show on China Central Television in 1992 called DONGFANG SHIKONG (unfortunately usually translated as ORIENTAL MOMENT). Here, ordinary citizens spoke about their lives and feelings in a relatively spontaneous manner. The show was a hit, and a more spontaneous approach prevails across the whole television world today.
Similarly, when a Chinese journalist decided to use a home video camera to make an independent documentary about gay life in 1996, he was able to find six individuals and couples who were willing to go on camera for in-depth interviews about their lives, including one elderly man willing to describe how things were at the height of Maoism. Presumably a video intended for very limited and controlled circulation would be less threatening in this regard than a feature film like EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE. The video, called COMRADES in English, was shown at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival that year. As well as interviews, the video includes footage shot around some of the main sites in Beijing. One particularly moving scene is shot in a public park that is a popular cruising area. Apart from not filming the faces of the people who agree to speak to him in the park, the director's handheld camera work is shaky. The filmmaker told me this was because he was so nervous about what he was doing that he was he could not stop trembling. And of course, this is not a video that is publicly or commercially available in China today.
How are we to understand the contradiction between the government's efforts to control access to public discourse tightly and the evident increased willingness and eagerness of citizens to engage in public discourse? This double phenomenon needs to be understood as simultaneously the product of and constitutive of China's post-socialist condition. Since 1979, the government has decentralized and rolled back control to allow the development of a market economy alongside the state economy and to encourage enterprise and independent initiative. This basic shift certainly underlies the cultural move away from a psychology of waiting for instructions from above, and it has provided the material conditions to produce a socially plural society composed of many different groups. At the same time, the government appears concerned to assert control over this burgeoning culture and still driven by a command economy mentality. Restricting access to the relatively privileged platform of public discourse is clearly one way of keeping control.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that this is an ongoing contest and a difficult one for all concerned. In the film world, the days of independent filmmaking may be over. In July 1996, using the rhetoric of encouraging the rule of law, the government introduced a new Film Law. This law specifically makes it illegal to produce any film outside the studio system, which means that Zhang Yuan is now forced to find a studio to work with for his next production. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, he has found a topic which is also concerned with supposedly generous legal amendments. The film he has been researching over the last few months focuses on prisoners on death row. A recent Chinese law allows model prisoners to return to their families for Chinese New Year. Zhang intends to structure the film around such a home visit, although it is not clear that he will perform this reunion in the warm and loving manner presumably envisaged by the drafters of the law.
The new restrictions instituted in the Film Law can be seen as a direct response to the increased visibility and access to public space and discourse, which the independent filmmakers gained in the 1990s. As they gained greater recognition, so they inspired stronger government response. This highlights the perils of the very visibility that they have sought out. This danger no doubt also applies to other socially marginalized groups. EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE shows that the absence of direct legal proscription is clearly not a sign of social tolerance or support. But the greater visibility that Chinese gays and lesbians are gaining at the moment may well lead to new struggles in the future. It is no accident that both of China's most prominent gay activists, Gary Wu and Wan Yanhai, decided to relocated at least temporarily to the United States in 1996. However, they too are as determined to find a way to continue their work as is Zhang Yuan.
1. I want to acknowledge my discussions with Wan Yanhai in Beijing, Gary Wu by e-mail, Seo Dongjin of the Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival, and Professor Kim So Young of the Korean National University of the Arts, as well as my students at the KNUA and La Trobe University in Melbourne, for helping to form my thoughts in this article, I am also very grateful to Wouter Barendrecht of Fortissimo Film Sales for providing me with a videotape of EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE, and Zhang Yuan for speaking to me so frankly and answering so many questions.
2. For further details on gay life in China, see Paul Richardson, "Subcultural Revolution, Attitude 1:10 (February, 1995), pp. 68-74. Wan Yanhai, "Becoming a Gay Activist in Contemporary China," in Peter Jackson and Gerard Sullivan (eds.), Emerging Lesbian and Gay Identities and Communities in Asia (1998).
3. All dialogues are transcriptions of subtitles rather than retranslations that might give a fuller version of the original Chinese but make it more difficult for non-Chinese speakers to identify the scenes discussed.
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5. Chris Berry, "Zhang Yuan: Thriving in the Face of Adversity," Cinemaya 32 (Spring 1996), pp. 40-43.
6. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Introduction: Performativity and Performance," in Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Performativity and Performance (New York: Routledge. 1995), p.4.
7. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). Butler's more recent books develop the insights established here further.
8. As readers who have seen Zhang Yimou's THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992) will be aware, law and regulation are complex matters in China. A "document" is a government announcement or directive. It is not the same as a law, and indeed its legal status is a little ambiguous. Zhang Yuan maintains that although he heard about this "document" and its publication in the newspapers, it was never actually delivered to him, and so he did not feel himself bound by it.
9. For further discussion of the production circumstances of this film, see the interview with co-director Duan Jinchuan included in Chris Berry, "We Live in a Country of Earthquakes': China's Independent Documentary Film Makers," Metro (Melbourne, 1997).
10. In China, punishments like this can be administered directly by employers without recourse to the court system.
11. I have refrained from naming the filmmaker because, although he has been named in one or two other places, I am not sure that he wishes to be publicly identified.