Spy, Abjection, and Post-Socialist Identity: Chinese Neo-Spy Films since 2009.
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 films avowed rather than disavowed gender, which is contradictory to studies arguing that either gender was erased or that unisex-femininity was subordinated to masculinity in both society and its representations during Mao's period (Honig and Hershatter 1988: 23-31; Yang 1999: 35-37; Evans 1997; Hershatter 2004: 991-1065; Huang 2000:37-100; Honig 2002: 255-269). Gendered identities are heavily coded through gender-discernable dress, behaviors and social identities such as motherhood/fatherhood, manhood/womanhood and brotherhood/sisterhood. Notwithstanding, gender roles were defined by the absolute loyalty to the Party. For example, despite being personified as a revolutionary martyr. Sister Jiang was not portrayed as a loving mother. Sister Jiang left her one-year-old son to work as a spy in reality, and the child was completely absent in the film. As shown in the needlework scene (Figure 3), although traditionally and culturally needlework marks femininity and sisterhood, making a Communist Party flag together with other female prisoners reinforces that the femininity and sisterhood were founded upon their Communist belief. Jiang's gender- based behaviors thereby were both culturally and politically coded.
This compelling paradox continues in Mao's spy films which progressed through the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s toward increasingly gendered but desexualized heroes/heroines, when the combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism proposed by Mao was strictly implemented during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). All films (including spy films) created during 1949-1966 were banned and labelled "poisonous weeds" (Zhang 2004: 217). Instead, film adaptations of Revolutionary Model Operas and a few politically correct films dominated the Chinese cinema. However, spies, either communist secret agents or KMT spies whose conspired to destroy the socialist new China, were ubiquitously present in most films produced in this period and Model Operas. Shajiabang and The Taking of Tiger Mountains are essentially spy dramas. Shajiabang portrayed a female secret agent. Madam AhQing. who is disguised as the owner of a teahouse to collect information for the Communist Party. The famous scene "Intelligent Battle" (which, as I will illustrate later, is parodied and revised in The Message), projects Madam AhQing's eutrapelia when she manipulates two villains to right each other rather than her. The Taking of Tiger Mountains created a fantasized communist hero, Yang Zilong, who disguised himself as a bandit and eventually led a PLA troop to destroy the anti-revolutionary bandits who occupied the Tiger Mountains. Both model dramas and the film adaptations project espionage skills and their absolute loyalty to the CCP However, while the genders of the hero and the heroine were coded by clothing, behavior and social roles, any hint of their sexuality was prohibited.
With a different style but also conveying sacrifice and revolution. The Legend of the Red Lantern and its film adaptations center on a communist spy who recruits his family to protect secret telegraph codes in 1938. The hero has no wife and his adopted daughter Li Tiemei was portrayed as a robust desexualized revolutionary female fighter--known as an "Iron Girl" as promoted in Cultural Revolution propaganda. The Red Detachment describes the story of a suppressed slave girl who became a communist soldier by being enlightened by a communist secret agent. In its ballet version, body contacts such as holding and twisting of the two bodies in Western ballet are completely avoided; the dancers simply chase each other on the stage.
Generally, propaganda films aim to erase people's identity and individuality (Hoffmann 1996: 94). Mao's spy films coalesced both a national and individual identity through the tropes of torturing and desexualizing communist bodies. This unified identity supported the communist moral codes of unselfishness and sacrifice which were articulated in Mao's essay "Serve the People" published in 1944. The filmic de-sexualized heroes/heroines became the sacred, representing signifiers of moral codes and fixed revolutionary identity that people could imitate. As Bauman stated, communist revolution was to invent a new "lasting solidity'" by "melting all the solids" that the Communist Manifesto advocated (Bauman 2000: 3-15). Desexualization became one of the bio-political techniques implemented by Mao's state power to secure and eternalize socialist China. Since 1978, operas and narratives about red heroes propagandized during Mao's period were renamed "Red Classics" and continue to be performed in more spectacular theatres (Chen 2018: 235-286). Also since 2009 state-sponsored propaganda films have re-represented China's revolutionary history by taking inspiration from Hollywood blockbusters (Tang 2016: 175-209). However, sexuality remained taboo when representing communist heroes/heroines. The renaissance of neo-spy films after 2009 subverted Mao's spy film conventions and taboos as the filmic communist spies' political subjectivity interact with their sexual subjectivity, which articulates a new social and political paradigm in post-socialist China.
Part Two: Propagandizing and De-Propagandizing
The Message introduces conflicts and tensions by opening with bloody assassinations. Set in 1941 when the pro-Japanese KMT established a puppet regime with the help of the Japanese military army to counter the Chongqing KMT government and the communist resistance, the film interposes that because the invading Japanese and the puppet KMT regime brutally suppressed the resistance, a communist codenamed Magnum organized a series of bloody assassinations. Recognizing that only an internal breach could have given the Communists the specific whereabouts of those assassinated, Colonel Takeda, the head of Intelligence for Japanese Army, and Wang, the chief of KMT Secret Service Section deliberately released fake information in Morse Code to the counterinsurgency section to trap the internal Communist spy, codenamed Phantom. Then they narrowed the investigation to five officers and locked them in an isolated villa.
After they were locked in the villa, the film shifts from conspiracy and action to a tense hunting game. "Who is the Phantom" created tension, suspicion and self-protection among the five officers. Each individual had secrets which were finally disclosed. Their lives in the villa become a terrifying waking nightmare. Meanwhile, Phantom and Magnum, who are revealed at the end of the movie to be Gu and Wu, two of the five officers in the villa, face another critical question: how to inform their organization within five days to cancel the next assassination because the information that previously was sent was fake and set up a trap. Failure to cancel the assassination would put the organization in grave danger. Gu and Wu eventually deliver the warning message to the organization at the cost of Gu's death.
The red subject matter and red heroes made The Message "a main-melody film", which was coined in 1987 to refer to propaganda films. As propaganda films concern the transmission of ideas and/or values from one person, or group of persons, to another, they, therefore, involve three aspects--the propagandists, the audience and the message intended to be delivered (Taylor 1998:7). I will analyze The Message through these three aspects. Given that The Message was completely funded by Huayi Brothers, which is the largest private film company, and a private film company does not have a compulsive duty to produce propaganda films as the state-sponsored film studios do, filmmakers of The Message can be regarded as unaffiliated, independent propagandists. The Message adapts a 2007 bestseller with the same title written by spy fiction writer Mai Jia (1964-), a retired PLA officer and CCP propagandist. Mai Jia was profoundly influenced by Mao's propagandistic literature and art. Most of Mai Jia's espionage novels contain red heroes, red subject matter, and a writing style similar to Mao's literature. It is no wonder that President Xi Jinping invited Mai Jia to the Forum on Literature and Art in 2014, where Xi complimented Mai Jia as "the Number One writer of communist espionage wars" (Mai Jia 2014). An intended patriotic theme also is embedded in the film by the director, Gao Qunshu (1966-). Gao is a director of commercial TV dramas and films, however, he had admitted to the influence of Mao's films in directing The Message, "our generation grew up watching red films. The red legend has already been permeating into our blood and influenced our identity and personal characters. When we watched these films, we didn't feel they were propagandistic. We believe these revolutionaries had a colorful heroic life" (Gao Qunshu 2009). The Message is therefore partly a product of Mao's red legacy.
Apart from the explicit patriotism, both Mai Jia and Gao Qunshu were proud of the commercial success of their works. The novel engages readers because Mai Jia created an intellectual game of decoding the riddle "who is the spy". While Gao Qunshu and his co- director, Chen Guofu (who is a Taiwanese director of thrillers), kept this riddle in the film adaptation, they projected sexuality and tortures that are absent in the novel. Spy films always offer ample room for political nuance and sophisticated intrigue (Rubenstein 1979:16). As for propagandizing receivers (the audience) and propagating the message, I contend that The Message's intriguing narratives and spectacles divert the audiences' attention from the political message the filmmakers intended to deliver. Particularly, gendered torture and sexualized bodies, in fact, de-propagandizes the propaganda message which the film seemingly conveys.
The Message revitalized the red heroes and traditions of Mao's spy genre on the one hand and fused the mise-en-scene of the spectacular created by new visual technologies using special visual effects on the other, which distinguished Chinese neo-spy films from previous Chinese spy films. Props like exquisite wallpaper shipped from Denmark, a giant antique piano and dancing to jazz music at a foreign-style bar contribute to the surreal and exotic atmosphere that further engage the viewer. Dark lighting and mirrors, which are conventionally employed in Western spy films but rarely used in Mao's spy films, are frequently used to reflect the complexity of individuals' emotions, particularly when the characters make difficult choices that cause moral imbalance. International filmmakers contributed to the film and created dazzling digital effects. The cinematographer of Harry Potter gave the film an exotic look with the tones similar to that of a mythical thriller. The prison-villa Qiuzhuang was built temporarily and specifically for making the film. It is a bleak and imposing, but luxurious space. Located on the edge of a steep cliff by the ocean, it consists of two buildings--the east chamber and the west chamber--connected by a bridge. The east chamber, where the five officers reside, is being surveilled by the west chamber which is decorated with various intimidating guns and torture devices. The special design of Qiuzhuang juxtaposes two uncompromising ideologies, each of which relates to the heroes' choices between betrayal and loyalty: the life and death of themselves and their comrades. It also resembles the Panopticon, a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham but used metaphorically by Foucault to refer to bio-politics. Qiuzhung symbolizes the Japanese-KMT omnipresent bio-power to suppress any repulsive agency that threads the sovereign order and security.
The sensationalized and gendered tortures further convert this panopticonic prison to the spatiality of abjection. The film begins with abhorrent torture when Wang brushes an attractant on a female communist assassin's breasts and legs then released a dog to eat her alive, soon followed by Wang castrating Bai (largely because Bai was gay) and then tortures Wu and Gu using bizarre torture inventions. Takeda is a sexually idiosyncratic individual evidenced when he examines Li's naked body, inch by inch, with cold metal instruments. The two villains, Takeda and Wang, constitute a dual; the former represents an uncanny and masochistic villain; the latter represents a sadist who delights in excelling in his torture contrivances. Finding the Phantom, therefore, became a sexual hunting game for the villains, but also constitutes eroticism for the audience. This dynamic allows the audience to transgress the laws of sexuality, ideology and political parties, repulsively but enjoyably (or being Lacanian jouissance), because, as Kristeva attested, the abject is edged by transgressing the tabooed and cathartically purging individual's impurity to reestablish the narcissistic fantasy (Kristeva 1980: 8-13).
Part Three: The Desecrated and Abjection
The two communist spies, Wu and Gu, are caught in this abject spatiality, moving between the borders of the conventionally immovable. Wu is portrayed as a profane communist, highlighted by his sexual vulgarity in language and violence. The scene wherein Wu rapes Gu is a particular moment in the movie that forces the audience to engage with the obscene fantasies made manifest by the communist hero. It is only at the end of the film that the rape is revealed to have been feigned. The torture of Wu seems more to demonstrate his masculinity than his faith. In another scene, Wu's naked and battered body, the result of a botched acupuncture torture, dominates the frame and coerces the audience into surrendering to the gaze of the torturers. This is scene is dissimilar to Li and Xia's torture scenes, which show their bodies being humiliated but not conquered (Figures 1 and 2). The cinematography in Wu's torture scene focuses the audiences' attention on his masculine body rather than on his revolutionary spirit. Unlike militarized masculinity during Mao's period that aimed to serve the country (Hinsch 2013: 153- 173), Wu's sexualized masculinity serves more as visual pleasure for the audience, which turns him into an inexplicable, masculinized object to be gazed upon and lusted after by the audience.
If Wu's obscenity desecrates the purity of communist heroes, Gu's ambiguity and ambivalence in subjectivity makes her a threat to the order and security of both the sovereignties that she spied on and spied for, and therefore, she is outcast by both. Gu displays an affection beyond sisterhood towards Li, another of the five captive KMT officers. This hint of same-sex attraction is particularly evident when Gu addresses Li as "my beloved" and when she says. "I feel particularly close to you" instead of using sloganistic language. This intimacy is again made subliminally apparent in the dress-repairing scene where Gu takes off Li's Qipao dress and offers to fix it (Figure 7). Repairing Li's Qipao apparently parodies Sister Jiang's needlework scene (Figure 3). Contrasting Sister Jiang's symbolic action of making the Party flag for her communist identity and politicized femininity. Gu repairing Li's dress is. ultimately, an act of love; one she uses to express personal tenderness and hinting at her sexual orientation; Gu momentarily steps outside her political spy identity. Perhaps meant to be even more scandalizing, Gu leaves a coded message to Li, confessing her love to her by sewing the message into the repaired dress. Her coded love confession interjects moral ambiguity. The ambivalence of her political and sexual subjectivity is explored as the film, in the end, includes a lesbian tale involving Gu's burden of tough choices between confessing her love to Li or keeping it secret for the Party and the harrowing consequences that her decisions incur. One may question which message is the one the audience is to take home.
Kristeva asserted that the abject is caused by "the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite" (Kristeva 1982: 4). This ambiguity and ambivalence in sexual and political subjectivity makes Gu abject as she is non subject-object. Gu's abject agency also lies in the disturbing uncertainty caused by her ability to shape-shift rapidly between being a defenseless angel and an evil seductress. Similarly, fighting with two male villains like Madam AhQing in Shajiabang, Gu employs sexual seduction as camouflage to conceal her spy identity. She wears a luxurious dress and garish make up, holds a cigarette, and dances at a bar. all of which signify seduction in Mao's spy films--a sign of danger to communist China at that time. In the episode of a visceral torture. Wang orders that Gu have a rope be forcibly slid against her vagina. The camera work creates a strong sense of abjection, repulsion and waxing physically and emotionally to the torturers and also to the audience. The shot skips the torturing process but fixes its focus on the result--in the high angle mid-long shot, the wounded fragile body wrapped in torn underwear shaking in pain. Comparing the torture of Sister Jiang which consolidates Sister Jiang's certainty and loyalty to communist ideology, the torture of Gu seems to release an agency of abjection, which "disturbs the order, system, and identity" (Kristeva 1982:4). When Gu strategically allures Takeda to approach her, Gu swiftly jumps on him like a demon to bite his ear. The guard fires at her, which, in fact, completes her suicidal plan by sending the message with her body out of the villa. Gu's angel-demon routine generates a dark and abominable power which is far more dangerous than political commitments and moral certainty represented by Sister Jiang and Madam AhQing, and this degraded power turns Gu into one of, what Kristeva calls, abject females "who can wreck the infinite" (Kristeva 1982: 157-173).
The infinite, in Gu's case, is both power of men and bio-power, not only of the sovereignty that she spies on but also the sovereignty of the CCP that she spies for. The Message was the first time we see a film sexualize or homo-sexualize communists' bodies. The puritanical climate set by Mao has been gradually emancipated since the 1990s when China witnessed a dramatic revival in sexuality's prominence as defining Chinese gender categories (Susan 2002: 33). In the first decade of the new century, China underwent a sexual revolution (Pan 2006: 21-42). Enlightened by the sexual emancipation, the homosexual community emerged from underground and became visible. In 1998, the first homosexual community website was established in China. In 2001, the CCP removed homosexuality (which was completely suppressed as a crime and mental disease during Mao's period) from the list of Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-3). Since then, homosexuality is increasingly visible in social media, eventually, in 2011. LGBT groups organized a Pride March in Shanghai, which was positively reported by government-controlled media (Buckley 2016).
Along with this recognition, sexuality and homosexuality became important components in Chinese commercial films and pop culture. However, introducing these components into Chinese communist heroes and propagandistic films was a bridge not yet crossed by Chinese filmmakers. The first transgression occurred in the term "Comrade" (tongzhi). Comrade, literally meaning "to share same ambitions" was translated from Russian into Chinese by Chinese revolutionaries in the early 20th century. It became the most popular term of address during Mao's period. Homosexual individuals adopted it to identify themselves in 1989. Since then "comrade" became an omnipresent label for both lesbian and gay people and all media products such as "comrade films" and "comrade novels." The "comrade" became an ironic pun used to rebel against gender discrimination, fight for sexual rights, and to mock the CCP's ideology which founded the term. In The Message, Gu ambiguously oscillates her "comrade" subjectivity between being a communist revolutionary and asexual or homosexual person and therefore is situated at the border space where two discourses of the history of communist revolution and the history of sexual/homosexual revolution converge. Gu becomes a provocative agency, which may contaminate the purity of the CCP. And Gu's outlier status allows her full capacity of transgression from one side to the other side of the border, which incites excitement and repulsion on the side of the audience.
The film ranked very high on the two most popular Chinese film community websites--8.0 in Douban and 8.2 in M-time, the highest for the domestically made blockbusters since 2002. Despite the sudden touches of faith that brought some audience members into tears (which resembles what Kristeva exemplified as a sublime after the abjection), the audience received the film as a cult film about a revolutionary nightmare and the best commercial film made in 2009. The audience's comments about the film show how repulsed they felt watching the tortures, particularly the torture of Gu. This encounter with abjection consists of a counter-narrative which disarticulated the message that was articulated by the heroine's sacrifice (1). As the haunting memories afflict Wu and Li. who have joined forces by the end of the film, the audience also collaborates in watching, knowingly or unknowingly via the viewing process. Beyond the commercial incentives to sexualize the images and the current freedom to do so, the filmic spies temper the communist ideology with private sexual desires and emotions. This transgression into the previously prohibited reflects current society's desire to depart from, rather than cling to. communist doctrine. Similar to Bauman's explanation of sexual revolution in globalization (Bauman 1997:141-151), sex in current Chinese society is divorced from all bonds and responsibility except to temporality, ready to cut at any short time. Also, as Butler observed for the third world, tolerance to homosexuality is a statement of being modern in developing countries (Butler, 2008: 3-5). Tolerance of communists' homosexuality (even if in an implicit way) in Chinese society similarly expresses Chinese people's statement of being modern and being a global citizen, which indicates a further break from its socialist past to head down a more uncertain modernity.
Part Four: The Agency of Abjection in Other Neo-Spy Films Since 2009
Following in The Message's footsteps, other neo-spy films made prolific discourses and narratives in recounting the history of communist spies, which dissect the CCP's grand narratives and further question socialist and post-socialist identities. A variety of imaginary gendered tortures continue to be invented and cinematically applied to filmic characters. One Step Away posits a female communist sympathizer sexually on the electric chair, putting her under the gaze of both the communist hero in the film and the audience. East Wind Rain hangs the female communist spy; an exhibition of sexual torture. Qiuxi squeezes a naked man in a cage. Betrayal, previously condemned in Mao's spy films, was reexamined with sympathy in these later films. When the communist spies' political commitments would cause the torture and death of their family members, the neo-films let them make a different decision: to protect your family is more important than political commitment. Traitors, who were absolutely purified in Mao's period, are embraced as insiders in the neo-spy films.
Spotlighted in these films are outcast communist spies, who wander desolately between borders of two sovereignties. Danger, repulsion, and lack of belonging permeate these films.
Qiuxi employs a sexual hunting game to link two rivals, each of whom spied on the opposite side. The communist spy, Yan's, sexual orientation is questionable as his abstinence is somehow related to his apparent affection toward Xia. Haunted by flashbacks and memories of tortures and killings conducted by both sides, Yan vomited, impulsively and out of anger, high on opium--all of which are symptoms of abjection. In the same vein. One Step Away projects Fu's fear and resistance to a life that faces danger and death every minute. Exiled by the CCP, he was seemingly included by the KMT but was never seen as a permanent member; he was constantly under the risk of being outcast at any minute if his real identity was exposed. He seems to be Ning's lover, but also Ning's sexual predator. Fu tortured Ning in an implied sexual way, soon after voyeuristically observing her through a telescope. In the film's tango scene, which imitates the tango scene of The Last Tango of Paris. Fu reveals an obscene desire to dominate her.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D. directed by Xu Ke. a Hong Kong director who is famous for directing Kung Fu films, recreated Mao's hero Yang Zilong as a communist James Bond. The film combined elements of Mao's model opera with new filming technologies and inspiration from Hollywood blockbusters. For example, the episode of Yang Zilong killing a tiger replicates the most famous episode in Mao's original model opera but is remade using 3D technology. In addition, partly set in New York where the grandson of Yang Zilong's comrades studied, this film indicates that the younger Chinese generation inherited the red legacy and the red memories even if they lived beyond China's boundary. Also, the film not only adds subplots involving homosexuality among the bandits and sexual seduction by a suggestive woman but also includes Yang Zilong chasing his enemy in an airplane, similar to a James Bond airplane chase scene. This combination of old and new, propagandizing and entertaining, politics and sexuality, and Chinese communist history with Hollywood-type hero turns the film into a melting pot of revolution, new technology of the digital era and globalization.
The aforementioned neo-spy films develop their narratives through a paradoxical discourse of violent revolution and aberrant sexuality. Kriteva shows in her reading of Dostoyevsky, Proust and Joyce, that the erotic and sexual are the mainsprings of abjection (Kristeva 1982: 20). In these films, the communist spies' uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence at the border of the CCP and KMT makes them a double abject: they are running the risk of losing their subjectivities and identities, which turn them into abjection, and they are revolted because they are precarious to both sovereignties. The special structure of the CCP's intelligence organization (which turns them into abjection) makes every secret agent in a permanent precious situation as once their only connection is exposed, they would either be betrayed or became an outcast. Most heroes and heroines in Mao's spy films eventually sacrificed themselves. However, the heroes in these neo-spy films were forced to take other, unknown missions in Taiwan and were exiled permanently. To parody Agamban's famous saying, these communist spies can only be killed, but they cannot be sacrificed. As history attests Taiwan in the 1950s publicly executed around 1,500 the CCP spies (and the CC killed and jailed numerous KMT spies and innocent people who were branded as KMT spies during the Cultural Revolution). The sacredness of life "originally expressed precisely both life's subjection to a power over death and life's irreparable exposure in the relation of abandonment" (Perezalonso 2010: 151). Communist spies can be regarded as the sacredness of life. They are subject to the CCP's powers but are ultimately cast off by the sovereignty that they spied on and eventually abandoned by the CCP. These filmic heroes become relics of Mao's socialist China. These "wasted lives" (to use Bauman's word) from the cold war period, are, therefore, redundant to contemporary China, which has already geared out of the socialism and into global capitalism.
However, these abject wasted lives become intruders, spelling out features and problems of contemporary China, which I shall soon explain.
Part Five: Liquid modernity of China in globalization
The boom of neo-spy films in some way echoes the severity of spy wars in the new century and the changed global political situation. The fifth generation of CCP leaders has warned the Chinese people of the country's security risk of infiltration by spies from other countries. To commemorate a past generation of spies and to honor the communist spies who were prosecuted in Taiwan in the 1950s, a monument, not bearing any names, was established by the CCP in 2013. It was the first time that the CCP publically acknowledged this brutal episode (Zhang 2015). In 2014, the first Counter-espionage Law was implemented and demanded severe legal punishments for spies who leaked economic and military classified information. Shortly thereafter, in 2015. the CCP designated April 15th to be National Security Education Day.
The boom of neo-spy films also appeared at a critical period when China was rapidly embracing economic globalization and emerged as the second largest economic nation. 2009 marked the 60th year anniversary of the founding of the republic in 1949 and 30 years after Deng Xiaoping effectuated the opening up policy in 1979. For the past three decades. China has swiftly transformed from Mao's planned economy to economic marketization and globalization. The swift globalization brought dramatic cultural, political and societal transformation. Bauman perceived globalization as a "great transformation" that would affect all aspects of human society and would leave people rootless, insecure, anxious and fearful (Bauman 2004: 3-8). As a result of globalization, the world moved from a solid modernity period (the modern) to a period of "liquid modernity" (the postmodern), in which the power of state structure became remote, unreachable, and fluid (Bauman 2007: 1-4). Liquid modernity is easily seen in individual identity, which becomes performative, experiential, and multiple but fleeting rather than being stable, durable, and coherent (Bauman 2000).
China has moved from Mao's solid socialist modernity to a post-socialist or, more precisely, "liquid" socialist (to copy Bauman's word) modernity after four decades of developing global capitalism. Orthodox socialism has been challenged by neo-liberalism and individualism imported to China with the development of global capitalism. Despite having been promoted by the state-controlled media, the fundamental ideas during Mao's period, such as socialist ideology, revolutionary identity, and a communist moral system, have been completely shattered. A new moral system, consistent with economical capitalism in China, has never been instituted (Wang 2002: 1-17). The CCP has continued to strengthen and adjust its propaganda apparatus (Brady 2008; Shambaugh 2007). Particularly, since 2009 the CCP has increased its efforts to propagate socialist ideology and morality to reestablish the national identity. The CCP also is exerting greater control over social media and film production. However, the CCP's bio-political relation with the Chinese people has become far more complicated than simply the censor/supervisor - censored/supervised established during Mao's period. This new relation can be observed in the case of communist heroes including communist secret agents. In 2009 the CCP launched a national campaign to promote one hundred heroes in Chinese revolutionary history. However, although the masses welcomed the fantasized spy heroes in neo-spy films, they questioned the authenticity of the CCP's heroic narratives about Lei Feng (1940-1962), Zhang Side (1915-1944). Liu Hulan (1932-1947) and Sister Jiang. These narratives were established during Mao's period and have continued to be retold. The state-controlled media severely criticized people's counter-narratives to the revolutionary heroes, however, the battle between the two continues even today. (2)
This battle shows the CCP's failure to establish a stable national identity for the Chinese people; the state power grows increasingly remote and unreachable to its people. It also shows the Chinese people's subversion of the CCP's bio-power, subversion meaning eluding sovereign capture by refusing the traps of identity and representation (Tyler 2013:11). Moreover, the average Chinese individual struggles to maintain one fixed identity in contemporary China where too many things happen too rapidly. Problems in addition to the struggle for identity punctuate the average day in China. Social inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor are a few of the causes of people's insecurity, fear and uncertainty. As Bauman pointed out, "liquid modernity" makes the cultural, social and sexual identity uncertain. Identities "float in the air" so people find, invent and reinvent identities (Bauman 2004:13-23).
This fluidity and ambivalence perhaps are what entice the communist spies in the neo-spy films among different groups of the Chinese audience. Liquid modernity results in the "ambivalence of identity" - nostalgia for the for the past in accordance with liquid modernity (Bauman 2004:1-8), and ambivalence is essential to subjectivities of the abject. The spies ephemerally attach and soon repulse their subjectivity with the mission, and further connect the audience with nostalgia and repulsion. For the generation who had experienced Mao's period, the red spies may trigger their memories, which may be nostalgic in nature. For the generations who grew up in China's globalized and capitalistic era, the red but sexualized communist spies may constitute fantasized and alternative heroes for them to imagine the revolutionary history that had been interpreted previously exclusively under CCP control. After all, as Bauman points out. in the liquid phase of modernity, communism finds itself a relic of bygone times, with nothing to offer to the generations born and groomed inside the new era and no sensible riposte for their profoundly altered ambitions, expectations and concerns (Bauman 2011: 27-28). What matters for these younger generations perhaps is transient transgression and identification. These modern viewers may also identify with filmic communist spies because they can relate to the feelings of uncertainty, fear and insecurity that they may similarly experience in their daily lives. The specters of the red heroes, being provocative by stepping into a CCP's taboo, become the abject agency to repulse the CCP's establishment and thereby indicate that Chinese identity has moved from Mao's fixed, universal, monolithic revolutionary identity to fluidity, uncertainty, temporality and polarity consistent with the current Chinese society.
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(1) I read through over 10 thousand film comments. The following can be represented: The Message: a Cult Film without the Main Melody Theme" Mtime. Com and "Revolution and Nightmare" at Douban.com. Also numerous film comments published on Southern Newspaper: and Southern Weekend.
(2) State-controlled media such as China's Daily, The Xinhua News and PLA Newspaper published numerous articles to criticize the so-called profaning revolutionary heroes from Oct 10th 2015 to Sept 10th 2017.
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|Title Annotation:||Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency|
|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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