Spy, Abjection, and Post-Socialist Identity: Chinese Neo-Spy Films since 2009.

Author:Yang, Min
Position:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency - Critical essay

Gao Qunshu's 2009 blockbuster. The Message, became a major phenomenon in Chinese cinema and contemporary Chinese culture by synthesizing an intriguing narrative of Communist secret agents' mentalities in a mixed-genre spectacle. In doing so. he subverted the conventions of the Chinese spy film genre that had developed and boomed during Mao's period (1949-1976) but that had thereafter subsided with China's reform and opening-up since 1979. These conventions included the idealism of sacred Communists, sloganistic language, and formulaic plots. Instead, he featured the film with a nuanced plot, character-driven acting, and a stunning combination of brutal and sensationalized tortures and sexualized bodies. The film's exponential commercial and political success, marked by its high Chinese box office record in 2009 and numerous awards in mainland China, catalyzed the revival of Chinese spy films. Qiuxi (2009) centered around a paranoid communist secret agent, Yan, who was torn apart by his revulsion to violence and ambiguous same-sex affection toward the Nationalist Party (KMT) operative, Xia, on whom he spied. In the following years Spy Flowers (2010). East Wind Rain (2010). The Silent War (2012). Great Rescue (2012). Loyalty and Betrayal (2012), No. I Spy (2014), and Who is the Undercover (2014) explored and chronicled the psychological breakdown of communist spies who were ambivalently cast-off but surveilled. 2015 saw One Step Away and The Taking of Tiger Mountains move steps further--the former revealed a communist spy's failure to reconcile his strong revulsion to political missions with his unrestrainable impulsion to sexually torture an innocent woman. The latter re-adapted a legend of heroic espionage created in a Mao's model opera but included sexual torture, seduction and homoerotism. These filmic psyche-gnarled communist spies carry the political message of sacrificing for communist faith, which, as I shall further prove, indicates that the Chinese spy film genre has moved through Mao's period when communist spies appeared on the screen as glossy, unemotional, asexual, sublime and yet stereotyped figures toward highly discernable individuals who are wretched and outcast.

The proliferation of these spy films, representing communist spies as the agency of abjection, suggests that these films' messages were relevant to contemporary Chinese culture, and in a way that transcended China's borders. The abject, originally defined by Kristeva as neither an object nor a subject but rather a dark force aimed at shattering meanings and the individual's subjectivity (Kristeva 1982:1-13), has been extended to consider multiple social exclusions (Tyler 2013: 1-19). These filmic spies, as 1 shall attest, became the abject agency of both the individual and society when they acted out ambivalences of retaining but revolting against their double insider/outsider identities between the two sovereigns that they spied on and spied for; simultaneously being included in but also excluded from the power structure of bio-politics and sexuality. The return to red heroes which already is a trademark of Mao's cinema is inflected by contemporary concerns as the abject communist personalities only appeared in the spy films after 2009. This article examines the continuum between Mao's spy films produced between 1949 and 1979 and, what I call, the Chinese neo-spy films produced after 2009. Despite recuperating Mao's red heroes/heroines and subject matter, neo-spy films situate communist spies in an unsettled psychological state caused by vexing torture, unrestrainable sexual (or/and homosexual) desire, political missions and mise-en-scene of spectacles that marks contemporary Western spy-thrillers. I argue that these provocative filmic heroes interrupt public lives of Chinese people forcing them to reevaluate, imagine and re-imagine history defined by propaganda education on one hand and to articulate the fluidity, ambivalence, and instability of Chinese people's identities that are contingent on the social, economic and political development in the new century on the other.

Part One: Constructing the Sacred: Conventions and Taboos of Mao's Spy Films

Although the first Chinese spy film appeared in 1943 when Japanese Spy was released in Shanghai, the country's spy films developed as a genre and matured during Mao's period. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) instituted its control over mainland China in 1949, it nationalized and developed the film industry based on the Soviet Union model. As a result, Chinese spy films boomed along with other film genres. During the first decade of the CCP's establishment, more than thirty spy films were developed that can be categorized based on the subjects and plots as anti-espionage film as well as films about red secret agents (Dai 2010: 57-63).

All films during Mao's period, regardless of the types and genres, were employed for political propaganda purpose; they were aimed at expressing the idea of a New China, educating new citizens by creating typical events and characters (Zhang 2004:189-224; Tang Xiaobin 2017:103; Clarkl987: 9). The spy films were no exception. Like many Western spy films that flourished during the cold war period, which generally revolved around the themes of patriotism and political relevance (Britton 2005: 1-20), Mao's spy films not only engendered, but were highly charged with a sense of patriotism and political relevance. For instance, anti-espionage films alerted the masses about spies of the Nationalist Party (KMT) who hid around them. As shown in films such as At Ten O'clock on the National Day (1956), The Silent Forest (1957). and The Case of Xu Qiuxing (1956), these anti-communist spies surreptitiously conspired to destroy the newly founded China, but the collaboration of common citizens and communist detectives eventually destroyed their conspiracies. The films of red secret agents, such as Eternal Wave (1958), The Intrepid Heroes (1958). and Living Forever in Burning Flames (1965), provided the masses with visual models of communist heroes by depicting communists' dedication and sacrifice to the revolutionary cause.

In addition to these politically charged messages, the conventions of Mao's spy films are distinguishable when contrasted with the Western cold war spy genre, which developed around the same period. This genre normally has a degree of suspense and adventure, a touch of romance, and the relief of some humor (Rubenstein 1979: 16). Mao's spy films share some of these tropes, such as suspense in The Silent Forest (1957) and adventure in The Intrepid Heroes (1958). However, Mao's spy films develop a motif of absolute certainty about communist ideology and revolutionary identities. In addition to interspersing most dialogues with ideological slogans, majority of the filmic communist spies (heroes and heroines) can find their counterparts in communist revolutionaries as opposed to fantasized heroes such as James Bond. Heroes/heroines are betrayed by traitors, arrested, tortured and sacrificed. Japanese and the KMT. who were portrayed as evil adversaries, executed the conventional tortures such as by whips or by sprinkling hot pepper water on heroes/heroines, regardless of gender differences (which are revised in neo-spy films as I will show in the next part).

The Eternal Wave (1958) and Living Forever in Burning Flames (1965) are two examples that best illustrate these conventions as both films were not only popular and impacted generations during Mao's period, but are also particularly relevant to the neo-spy films after 2009. Both films were set in the early 1940s in territory controlled by the KMT and the Imperial Japanese as are most neo-spy films after 2009. The Eternal Wave portrays a communist spy Li Xia. whose real-life counterpart in communist revolution history is Li Bai (1909-1949). In the film, Li collected intelligence from the KMT army and the Imperial Japanese in Shanghai and then telegraphed the information to the communist party in Yan'an. KMT counter-spy agents found his true identity and arrested him. Although Li was brutally tortured in prison, he refused to betray his party and eventually sacrificed himself by committing suicide. Carrying a similar propagandistic message but in a different plot. Living Forever in Burning Flames rendered Sister Jiang who was a female communist secret agent. Sister Jiang was imprisoned due to a traitor's betrayal. She refused to confess even under brutal torture and her last words were, "Long life to the communist party! Long life to Chairman Mao!" She was then executed. Living Forever in Burning Flames is based on a memoir entitled Red Crag written by two survivors of the KMT's Chungqing concentration camp during the 1940s. Sister Jiang, in the memoir and the film (and many other opera adaptations), finds her real-life counterpart in Jiang Jujun who was jailed in the concentration camp and executed in 1949 at the age of twenty-nine. The film achieved its intended propaganda purpose in that Sister Jiang is now a household name in China and still remains an iconic martyr even in current official propaganda.

More distinguishably, Mao's spy films shared the compelling paradox of absolutely de-sexualizing but heavily gendering the communist spies. As the CCP created a puritanical climate during Mao's period when state pronouncements emphasized the political obligation of all Chinese women and men to contribute (Hershetter 2004: 1013). spy films (also other films) were void of any implication of sex and sexuality such as physical intimacy of the heroes/heroines and all other filmic characters. Heroes'/heroines' relationships with the sidekicks or communist sympathizers did not go beyond pure camaraderie. Conventional seduction tropes, developed in the Western spy films, were lightly employed usually through the KMT female spies who held a cigarette or danced, for example. However, Mao's spy...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP