On-screen neo-liberalism and off-screen state control-filmmaking in contemporary China.

Author:Ho, Wing Shan
 
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Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman identifies a global moral crisis as one in which strangers are seen as threats, attacked, and killed within a "liquid" modernity, a term he coins to describe the economic globalization processes in which the boundaries of society and culture become more and more permeable (2008, 8). In post-socialist China, people also confront moral confusion, as the socio-economic structure has undergone sea changes. As Chinese citizens from all walks of life become more conscious of profits/ benefits (li), the urge to acquire money and the pressure to strive for a viable livelihood might be felt more keenly by the social underclass. Desperate economic desire has generated significant anxiety about the impact of the prevalent money-oriented economic order on subjectivity and morality. A study of China's responses to economic-driven moral ambivalence will offer us an angle from which to understand how the Chinese people address the local moral disarray and how the nation-state responds to these cultural products.

Filmmakers and their productions provide us with a visible text to increase our understanding of the ways in which some Chinese citizens tackle the issue of moral degradation. Independent film products, being part of the response to a global moral crisis, beg for the critical lens of Arif Dirlik's concept of critical localism, for it reminds us of the politics behind local oppression (1996, 28) (1). Instead of merely pointing to the "local" as a site for "alternative public spheres" and "alternative social formations," Dirlik argues that the local is a site of both promise and predicament (2). The local embodies the political and cultural manipulation concerning the issues of power involved. In order to determine the power dynamics between producers of cultural products and the state, this article examines the film Lost in Beijing (Pingguo, dir. Li Yu, 2007) whose screening permit was obtained after five negotiations with the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) but was revoked after nearly a month of screening (3). This case study allows us to unearth the ways in which cultural producers make use of artistic and commercial freedoms in order to insert a critical voice on moral concerns in popular media. It also looks at the ways in which the Chinese state executes its governance and suppresses critical voices by erasing "inappropriate" pictures from public view to maintain its political legitimacy.

Specifically, Lost in Beijing skillfully tackles moral crises and explores economic disparities and social injustice through the intertwined relationships between two migrant couples in contemporary Beijing. The entangled relationships of a rich couple and a poor couple dramatize the moral confusion experienced by members of the lower social class and the economic inequalities between the rich and the poor. Early in the film, a rape sets in motion a transaction in which one male protagonist essentially sells a baby to another. The transaction, dominating the focus and the actual screening time of the film, aligns the moral confusion amongst members of the lower social class with neo-liberal economics, overshadows ordinary people's distrust of the legal system, renders the mother of the baby a mere passive figure, and pushes the depictions of women's social and financial vulnerability to the periphery. This strategic counterplay of dominance and marginalization of the protagonists illustrates the filmmakers' use of self-censorship and attention to the censorship system, demonstrating their effort in blunting and yet preserving socio-economic criticism in order to get their film on screen. However, the presence of two versions of Lost in Beijing and the eventual ban placed on its screening draws our attention to the behind-the-scenes control by the state in filmmaking and exhibition. The international version of the film, preserving core social commentary and artistic expression, demonstrates the filmic result of self-censorship, whereas the mainland version illustrates the capacity of censorship to detect undesirable elements and determine what elements are officially considered indecent. The banning of the film not only shines a light on the limits of the state's tolerance towards economic critiques but also on the conditioning effect of the state's unpredictable and unannounced political agenda on the film market.

The Financially Hungry Individual and China's Uneven Development

Local response to social change and money-oriented attitudes can be found in the independent cinematic productions of various Chinese directors whose work first circulated in international art-houses before occasionally inhabiting movie theatres in their homeland. One such production is Lost in Beijing, directed by the young female filmmaker Li Yu (1973-) who previously directed the first feature film on lesbianism--Fish and Elephant (Jinnian xiatian) (2001)--in mainland China. Li Yu, a former program host on CCTV, entered the filmmaking industry by shooting documentaries in the mid-1990s. Up to now, she has directed five feature films. In addition to Fish and Elephant and Lost in Beijing, there are Dam Street (Hongyan, 2005), Buddha Mountain (Guanyin shan, 2011), and Double Xposure (Er ci puguang, 2012). The first four of these films, sharing a unifying concern for socially marginal groups in contemporary China, won awards at various international film festivals and helped Li achieve worldwide recognition (4). The film Lost in Beijing unveils the urges of downtrodden migrant workers for financial security within a violently changing society that promotes both urbanism and accumulation of wealth. It reveals the underbelly of society in contemporary Chinese cities where economic development results in vast economic disparities. It departs from the story of a sexualized and powerless female migrant worker in order to stress the moral ambiguities, if not degradation, in post-socialist China.

Lost in Beijing might be understood as a serious display of realism in which moral disarray is exaggerated to the point of near absurdity. Critical productions depicting an inhumane profiteer are historically grounded in the bleak reality and social reconfiguration with which mainland China is confusedly wrestling. The economic reforms, opening up space for aspirations of wealth, together with the exacerbated speed of economic development under the state ideology of "joining the global orbit" have shaped a new form of economic subjectivity--one that pursues economic success and perceives becoming rich as glorious (Schell 1984). During the revolutionary era, the honorable class of society was composed of the proletarians; in neo-liberal China, wealth takes the place of a revolutionary career, re-emerging as the premier measurement of social success.

With the private marketing of state enterprises and the curtailment of various kinds of social welfare (such as housing and medical care), the quest for money has infiltrated into the lives of people from all social stratification. Attaining wealth might be the greatest aspiration at the grassroots level. Among the urban poor, migrant workers not only face pressures from poverty but also contend with discrimination by native urban residents. The uneven modernization and economic disparities between the rural and the urban creates a huge, floating population composed of impoverished people who, desperate to extricate themselves from poor living conditions and poverty, find themselves enchanted by urbanism's promise of wealth.

In 2006, migrant workers, individuals from rural households employed outside of their home district, numbered 131 million (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2008). Nearly seventy percent of the floating population possesses an agricultural household registration (Guojia tongjiju renkou he jiu yu tongjisi 2008, 107-109), and almost ninety percent of migrant workers possess an educational level equal to junior secondary school or below (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2008) (5). Their lack of professional qualifications and skills, together with the desire to obtain a higher income, limits them to blue-collar or menial occupations, often in manufacturing or sales sectors (6); some even end up working in the so-called Three D jobs (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) (Gao and Smyth 2011, 163-82). Among Chinese cities, Beijing is one of the most attractive regions to the floating population, hosting about ten percent of all migrant workers. In fact, migrant workers made up more than one fourth of the total Beijing population in 2007 (Guojia tongjiju renkou he jiu yu tongjisi 113-16). The dream of becoming rich keeps these workers in the city. However, what access do they have to future prosperity when they possess no professional knowledge? What are they willing to do or sell in order to acquire money and how does economic desire change their social and familial relations?

Lost in Beijing as Social Critique

Li Yu's Lost in Beijing addresses these issues through a morally ambivalent transaction in which two migrant couples in Beijing trade a child for wealth. The poverty-stricken couple, An Kun and Pingguo, engages in manual labor. While working as a masseuse at the Golden Basin Foot Parlor, an intoxicated Liu Pingguo is raped by her Cantonese boss, Lin Dong. An Kun, working as a window cleaner, witnesses the rape through the glass while he is suspended in the air. He demands compensation for his mental distress from Lin Dong but is denied. As revenge, he later engages in an affair with Lin's wife, Wang Mei. Pingguo then finds that she is pregnant but is uncertain of the baby's parentage. An Kun devises a moneymaking scheme: if the baby's biological father is Lin Dong, An Kun will sell the child to him. Because Lin Dong's wife is infertile, and he longs for offspring, he agrees to the purchase price of RMB 120,000. After Pingguo gives birth,...

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