The Abject Other and Terrorism in Tsui Hark's Detective Dee Series.
To familiarize the audience with the stories, I shall briefly summarize the plots of the two films. The story of Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame revolves around a series of random assassinations in which victims are burnt to death as the coronation of Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is approaching. Wu releases Detective Dee (Andy Lau) from prison after putting him away for eight years on charge of treason. When Dee discovers that his old friend Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengsheng) is the mastermind behind all those crimes, the 200-feettall Buddha statue collapses and nearly ruins the coronation. As a prequel to Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the film Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon centers on the young Dee (Mark Chao) who starts his career in the Ministry of Justice by solving a case involving a mysterious sea dragon which unexpectedly attacks the Tang navy in the East China Sea. As he tries to save the beautiful courtesan Yinrui Ji (Angelababy) from a gang, a green scaly kappa suddenly kidnaps her and disappears into a pond. Dee's further investigation discovers the plot of a group of foreign insurgents. It turns out that they are responsible for releasing the gargantuan sea creature, transforming the courtesan's boyfriend into the green monster, and spreading parasitic infestation. At the end. Dee successfully foils their plan to paralyze the court and take over the kingdom.
Catastrophes and Terrorism
One eye-catching element that repeats itself among Tsui's most recent films Flame (2010) and Dragon (2013) is the detailed description of catastrophes in terrorist attacks. The intensity and the scale of those catastrophic events are unseen in Tsui's previous films. In Flame, the audience witnesses the toppling of the 60-story Towering Buddha, reminiscent of the tragic event of 9/11 in 2001, while Dragon gives a vivid representation of the relentless attack of a gargantuan sea monster that causes tremendous terror, chaos, and devastation similar to a tsunami. Set in the Great Tang, a golden period in China's history characterized by flows of global traffics, both tragic events are engineered by terrorists who use violence as a means of revenge and resistance to the homogeneous power and the force of integration symbolized by Empress Wu.
Also, some characteristics of the terrorist attacks depicted in Tsui's films, for example, the one concocted by the Dongdoer in Dragon, evidently reflect some ongoing changes in our modern world. One important change that events like 9/11 have brought to the world is the symbolic end of the era of space as Zygmund Bauman argues: "Places no longer protect, however strongly they are armed and fortified. Strength and weakness, threat and security have now become, essentially, extraterritorial (and diffuse) issues that evade territorial (and focused) solution" (Bauman 2002, 88). Borders and gates no longer protect us because in the era of our liquid modern world people come and go as they please. Territories are no longer fixed and there are free flows across borderlines. Tsui's films show that the Others cannot be confined or contained. They enter and leave the country freely and nothing can actually prevent them from moving about. Also, the terrorists can never be easily identified, and any attempt to understand or know them ends up in vain. Biilent Diken and Carsten Bagge Laustsen point out that the truly frightening thing about the 9/11 terrorists lies in their seemingly harmless identities as neighbors and visiting guests in suburban US (Diken and Laustsen 2004, 90). The terrorists in Tsui's films assume the same feature. When they are not in action, they are traders, businessmen, or street peddlers like every other group member of the community. When Dongdoers attack, they are presented as a faceless crowd with no clear identification at all. They not only wear the same purple hair and red robes but also the same masks. They act, walk, and fight in the exactly same way. It is impossible to distinguish them so that they look and act like one person, which greatly adds to the confusion. For instance, in the underworld scene in which they attempt to kidnap the court physician, like magic they suddenly become one person, yet soon that one person multiplies into a group of people with the same physical appearance. The metamorphosis is a visual spectacle that speaks to the analogy that the foreigners are the same: they are one faceless crowd with undistinguishable characteristics.
What's more, accompanying the spectacles of catastrophes, dark and graphic images that take up a large proportion of the visual presentations of the splendor of the Great Tang suggest the film director's incorporation of the abject (body horror). Both Detective Dee films display large amounts of pictures of human bodies being transformed, infiltrated, mutated, deformed, diseased, and disfigured. For instance, both films use bugs to infiltrate human bodies to spread death. A handsome young scholar is turned into a green scaly beast. One character's hand is cut off and his face disfigured. There are also infected bodies bursting into flames, and exotic plants inserting tendrils into human veins for blood. All in all. the cinematic Tang in Tsui's films does not invite joyful celebration for its prosperity and glory, but instead produces dystopian images that invoke feelings of apocalypse, desperation, and powerlessness.
The Global Context
Tsui's interests in complexity of global life can be traced back to films made before the aversion of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Some early films produced or directed by him already witness interactions between different races: Japanese allies in Swordsman II (1992), Spanish conquistadors in Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993), and the threatening foreign boxers in Once Upon a Time in China series. Given the film director's own life background, it is not difficult to understand why he has been interested in depicting topics related to globalization such as exile and diaspora. After all. Tsui was born in China, raised in Vietnam and Hong Kong, received his education of film in the US and matured as a filmmaker in Hong Kong. Pointing out that globalization has long been a large part of Tsui's life. Tan See-Kam summarizes his flexible citizenship and concludes, "Recurrent themes about the desperate search for Utopia, home, and belonging reside at the heart of these stories which simultaneously accentuate the contradictory and conflicting feelings which Tsui Hark the flexible citizen, an entity for whom home is everywhere and yet nowhere, has for the affective matter of homelands, hostlands, compatriotlands, borderlands, and diasporalands" (See-Kam 2011,49). In Detective Dee stories, Tsui Hark revisits some of the themes such as departure, the search for home, and the relationship with homelands. For instance, at the end of Flame. Dee is infected and has to stay in the Black City to avoid contact with sunlight. Being unsure about his fate, he says: "The world won't tolerate me but my home is where peace is." Or at the beginning of Dragon, as Dee enters Luoyang, he claims. "The mighty Tang Dynasty, the motherland whose security is my deepest concern. Luoyang, my soul, my dreams are rooted here."
However, as is so often true with Tsui's other films, his Detective Dee stories are not so much about the past but about the world of today: many central issues such as globalized, viral terror, global network, and the corruption of social institutions can all find a recognizable correlation in Tsui's recent films. By investing in the stories set in a time and a place from the past, Tsui examines attitudes and psyche towards present-day global phenomena. As globalization becomes increasingly dominant in our daily life, the fear of the Other is often amplified, and aggression towards the Other begins to intensify in the interactions between different groups of people. As a result of regional, social, political, and economic conflicts, various man-made catastrophes make most people terrified and adopt more restrictive foreign policies, while at the same time inspiring a few to reconsider conventional concepts such as community, borders, and nationalism. Tsui's films address concerns including symptoms of exclusion, representation of the abject Other, and relationships between terrorism and globalization. His main characters are often the marginal or transitional people such as sojourners, prisoners, diasporas, and avengers. Also, to better comprehend the complexity and the dynamics of today's global life, Tsui refuses to follow traditional dichotomies such as good/bad, victim/victimizer, and self/other. In his stories, the victim often unknowingly becomes the victimizer while the victimizer turns out to be the victim. In his investigation of evil, Jean Baudrillard warns that to fight terrorism a country often becomes terror, "[a country] would have to implement the same level of terrorism; it would have to generalize terror at all levels" (Baudrillard 2008a, 196). As I shall show later in this paper, Tsui's Detective Dee stories start with Empress Wu's declaration on wars on terrorism, but end with her being the biggest terror. In wars on terrorism, by choosing to fight violence with violence, the self from time to time begins by living with terror but ends up becoming terror.
Following this vein, catastrophes in Tsui's films, instead of being disastrous as they are supposed to be, seem to obtain a subversive power as a resistance and a rupture, for they challenge the system's conform-or-die law. According to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a rupture replaces the old relations and gives rise to a new order, "That is why one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy, even in the rudimentary form of the good and the bad. You may make a rupture, draw a line of flight, yet there is still a danger that you will reencounter organizations that restratify everything, formations that restore power to a signifier, attributions that reconstitute a subject" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 9). Functioning as ruptures in the established system, these catastrophes in Tsui's films take on the task of destabilizing the old sets of relations between the subject and the object. the self and the Other. They demand changes in attitudes and policies towards the minority and the marginal.
Imagining and Reimagining Detective Dee
Detective Dee was a real-life official in the Tang Dynasty, and Chinese audiences are quite familiar with the historical figure. Nevertheless, Chinese official writing of history has never described Dee as much a detective as a famous imperial court judge. When the Dutch diplomat Robert Hans Van Gulik came across a copy of the detective novel centering on Dee Goong An from the 18th century in Tokyo, he became inspired to reinvent Di Renjie stories for the Western audience. He therefore wrote the Judge Dee mysteries in a manner similar to those of Sherlock Holmes. From then on. Di Renjie became increasingly popular as a legendary investigator.
Before Tsui's Detective Dee films. Detective Dee stories had been popular on the mass media. For instance, the Chinese "main melody" TV drama Amazing Detective Dee, produced by CCTV in 2004, was the most popular among different adaptations of Dee stories in Chinese mass media. To replace the increasingly outdated direct socialist propaganda, main melody TV drama emerged as a relatively new official genre, promoted by the Chinese government to legitimize its rule and smooth the ideological transition after 1989. Weijun Ma explains, "It emerged in the context of China's most recent social and cultural transformations when the previous socialist TV dramas began to lose viewership. With the government's full support and adoption of a Hollywoodized creative mode, main melody TV drama has become a dominant genre in the market and attracted the attention of hundreds of million viewers"(Ma 2014. 523). Like all other forms of main melody cultural products, main melody TV drama also shares didactic goals to support Party leadership and strengthen its ideological control. As a main melody TV drama series. Amazing Detective Dee unsurprisingly plays into the stereotype portrayals of strong leaders who devote themselves to serve the people and have absolutely no tolerance for any threat to national security. However, what makes the TV series most unforgettable is not so much the content per se, but the Chinese netizens' e'gao ([phrase omitted]) of the show. E'gao is a form of parodic spoofs popular among young Chinese Internet surfers who often play with popular expressions in public speech and apply them to the use of daily life in order to poke fun at the situations. In face of difficult cases. Detective Dee would ask his assistant Yuan Fang for advice. "Yuan Fang, what do you think of it?" Yuan would answer, "Sir, I believe there is much more to it" or. "There must be a huge secret behind this incident." Surprisingly, the dialogue suddenly caught the interest of all lines of walk in China. It seems to fit in almost all situations, and people use it almost everywhere, ranging from unresolved murder cases in small cities to unpaid workers' demanding overdue payments from the indebted employers. In my opinion, the suspense generated from the theatrical conversation alludes to the pretension and incompetence of the official. Such a practice of subverting the serious, and the official into something to be laughed about by the Chinese netizens seems to suggest their dissatisfaction with and even resistance to the didactic nature of the dominant culture. In contrast to the official representation of Dee, which is homogeneous in aligning itself with the political discourse of authority, Tsui Hark's detective stories are more complicated in many ways and strive to be more open to different interpretations in terms of political messages.
The Past and the Present
Tsui's fictional world, to some extent, mirrors today's China, and global interconnectivity is one key characteristic that defines both worlds. Like today's China that is closely connected with the rest of the world, the Great Tang also boasts of frequent exchanges with the outside world. In history, the capital Chang'an was a global city and on a daily basis the city dealt with heavy flows of foreign messengers, traders, scholars, and pilgrims from all sides of borders. It was common to see in the streets foreigners from all over the world, such as Persians and Uighur people. Indeed, S.A.M. Adshead points out that the degree of interconnectivity that the Great Tang enjoyed is very similar to contemporary China. In his book Tang China - The Rise of the East in World History, he aptly notes, "T'ang cosmopolitanism acted as the keystone in the arch because of the preeminence of China in so many fields: political, economic, social and intellectual. This situation, it may be thought, has some analogy with the world order as it currently exists at the beginning of the twenty-first century" (Adshead 2004, xiv). Some establishing shots in Flame accurately capture this aspect of the Great Tang. One long shot shows a busy harbor that is crowded with foreign merchants and caged exotic animals. Another sequence of shots also shows that inside the giant Buddha statue a Chinese engineer is proudly giving a tour to a visiting dignitary who is highly impressed by the complicated and clever design of the immense tower.
Although the phenomenon of globalization can be traced back to ancient times, the latest wave of globalization took place in post-Maoist era of China. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping promoted a few important institutional reforms to end Mao Zedong's closed-door policies and planning economy that had prevailed for decades. Deng's economic reform introduced China to foreign investments and trades that connected China with the outside world and further engaged it in the world economy. The following economic success eventually made China an active member of the global institutions and an observant player in the world economic and political order, thus committing itself to geopolitical stability. However, as globalization continued at an unprecedented fast pace in the past century, it became at the same time a part of the solution as well as the problem. In China, the global interdependence and intereonnectedness has caused serious concerns and problems, including uneven developments across the regions, loss of jobs due to outsourcing, environmental deterioration, an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and fear of losing one's unique culture. Although anxiety over westernization is not new to China and it has witnessed waves of anti-West sentiments throughout its modernity, a new wave of anti-US emotions have surfaced after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
Fast-paced globalization also gives rise to mixed emotions like fear and anxiety over changes on a much larger scale beyond China. While some fear losing jobs, distinctive cultures, and identities, some expect social disorder, economic crises, and global catastrophes such as nuclear terrorism or bioterrorism during such turbulent transitional moments. Aichele observes that there is "widespread belief that things are out of control in the post-Cold War empires of worldwide capitalism, and equally widespread expectations of impending global disaster, whether ecological or socio-political or both" (Aichele 2001. 2). Indeed, with the increases in flows of technologies and information, foreign threats and violence seem to increase accordingly, and geopolitics and security issues again become the central concerns of contemporary societies. Globalization and terrorism seem inseparable from each other. Jean Baudrillard linked terrorism with globalization and famously states, "Today's terrorism is not the product of a traditional history of anarchism, nihilism, or fanaticism. It is instead the contemporary partner of globalization" (Baudrillard 2003). The fear that the alien forces and the enemies from beyond the land would attack and destroy at any moment seems to prevail, and it seriously challenges any traditional sense of stability, certainty, and security.
Constructing the Abject Other
In the discussion of the rising fear of the Other in the context of globalization, it is helpful to introduce Julia Kristeva's notion of abjection. According to Kristeva, the abject means "to cast away" while corpses, urine, vomit, and feces make excellent examples of that. As opposed to the clean and appropriate, the abject blurs the lines and destabilizes the boundaries that produce identities. Kristeva aptly asserts that the abject "disturbs identity, system, order... land] does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous. the composite" (Kristeva 1982,4). Therefore, the abject is not only transitional and elusive but also poses as a threat to the existing boundary, order and rules.
In Tsui's Detective Dee films, notwithstanding the fact that the Great Tang is already a highly globalized place characterized by heterogeneities, the ruler, represented by Empress Wu most of the time, simply refuses to acknowledge the complexity of globalization but holds fast to the illusion of homogeneity, wishfully imagining there is homogenous "us" against the impure other. Again and again in the stories, whenever conflicts arise, the headstrong character Empress Wu shows no hesitation in using hard power in her dealings with the other. Her practices of murdering or punishing the dissenters, dehumanizing the other, and making military moves against any potential threat to create an illusion of a unified Chinese identity, all reflect the deep-seated fear of the other. At one point, she accuses the courtesan Yin Ruiji of being a threat to the national security: "If you remain alive, you will harm Great Tang." Projecting the fear, however unreasonable and groundless it might seem, onto Yin Ruiji, Wu tries to legitimatize the violence she later threatens to inflict upon the dancer. To establish homogeneity of the nation-state, Wu invents and visualizes the other by imagining the sapless Yin Ruiji, already put away for doing nothing wrong, as a severe threat to the nation. In her imagination, the process of the nation-state is all about creating "our" homogeneity and identifying as well as weeding out the other. Analyzing such as relationships between the self and the abject other, Kristeva asserts, "The abject has only one quality of the object and that is being opposed to I" (Kristeva 1982,4). Therefore, Yi Ruiji as the other is opposed to the self and her presence threatens the sense of homogeneity and the identity of the self. Therefore the adversary should be annihilated at all cost.
The abject Others in Detective Dee series can be generally divided into two groups: the ethnic minorities and the foreigners. As a multiethnic country China is constituted of more than fifty ethnic groups, with the Han in the majority. Throughout the history of China, ethnic conflicts have never stopped causing troubles for the rulers. Although maintaining ethnic diversity to achieve stability and national unity has always been the top priority of Chinese leaders, ethnic malcontents in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang have been firm on demanding true autonomy from Chinese government. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, most film directors try their best to avoid related topics. However, Tsui is often found playing with the theme of minorities in films. For instance, the film New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), produced by Tsui himself, adds a new character Diao Buyu to the original story of Dragon Inn (1967) directed by the famous Hong Kong director King Hu. Diao Buyu is a Tartar coming from a major ethnic minority group from North China. He plays a major role in the film, beginning as a skillful chef in charge of chopping up corpses to serve them to the customers. At the closure of the film, he suddenly pops out from underground and surprises the villain and kills him single-handedly when every Han hero has failed the task. Also, in The Swordsman, the strong female lead Lan Fenghuang is from a Miao ethnic group. Her thick accent and unique costume helps construct an interesting character with a strong personality. In Tsui's films, the minorities are not particularly marginalized or depicted as submissive, quiet, or passive. They often fight alongside the male Han character against villains.
However, in Flame, as a minority from a Western Turkish group, the character Shatuo plays the role of a villain. The Chinese name for these Western Turks is Xi Tujue ([phrase omitted]). It is important to note that Shatuo is the surname shared by the group members from this large nomadic tribe that had dominated northern China during the Tang Dynasty. In 657. the Western Turkish Khanate was destroyed by the Tang troops led by General Su Dingfang. This important part of historical background is completely absent from the film, but it makes Shatuo a member of a diaspora, an in-between person, in the film narrative. It also adds a rich layer to the story in addition to the simple and direct motive for personal revenge. Within this context, the film director could have been interpreted as being more ambitious than merely being subtle in his careful usage of political subtext. In stark contrast with Dragon in which the young Shatuo is described as energetic and cheerful. Flame gives a more mature version of the same character who. after all the struggles and ordeals, has become bitter, hateful and calculating. Without giving any specific detail, the film simply state that when charged with treason Dee receives a sentence of eight years' hard labor but. being only accessory to treason, Shatuo suffers from a more severe corporal punishment in addition to the same amount of jail time: his face is disfigured and his hand cut off.
Therefore, Shatuo's mutilated body becomes the embodiment of the triumph of the centralized power and the fear of the Other. Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish pointed out, "But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs" (Foucault 1995. 173). Shatuo's body not only suggests the relationship between the power and the powerless, but also carries out tasks, performs ceremonies, and emits signs. What Shatuo's body communicates to the public is that the state will resort to violence when facing threats coming from the other. The character thus becomes the condemned man marked by his forever-handicapped body that signifies his depleted masculinity and identity. In her discussion of the importance of politics of the body, Elizabeth Grosz also illustrates, "the body historically has been conceived of as 'a vehicle for the expression of an otherwise sealed and self-contained, incommunicable psyche. It is through the body that [people]... can receive, code, and translate the inputs of the 'external' world" (Grosz 1994,9).
Shatuo's identity as a minority and his mutilated body together obtain an important social function that Empress Wu desires to show to all: any transgression by the Other will fail miserably and will be relentlessly punished. Therefore, the mutilated body carries a political message that reinforces already-existing boundary and border.
The usage of unconventional weapons such as bugs is also a metaphorical projection of repulsive feelings as well as fears of the abject Other. In both films, dangerous bugs such as stinging bees, fire beetles, and parasites are used as weapons by the terrorists to kill their enemies and promote as much fear as possible in the targets. Diken and Laustsen argue that terror after 9/11 takes on a new form that is "invisible, off-scene/obscene, and viral" (Diken and Laustsen 2004, 91). This new terror knows no territorial boundaries or limits and it could take place anywhere anytime. Lars Schmeink states. "Globalized, viral terror comes with the unexpected and the incalculable as its inherent traits, giving no indication of any common elements that could be singled out and predicted. Movement, speed, and flexibility are the essential features of this threat" (Schmeink 2016, 211). These foreign bugs are difficult to predict as they tend to appear at the most unexpected places. For instance, in Flame, Shatuo uses fire beetles to set his victims on fire and burn them alive from the inside out. The film director makes spectacles out of those painful and grotesque deaths by letting the victims' bodies fall apart in the process, become ashes, and drift away in the wind piece by piece. In Dragon, the Dongdoers add parasites to the Bird's Tongue, a special tea drunk only by royalty and nobility, to attack the kingdom from inside.
However, as understood by Julia Kristeva, the abject is simultaneously repulsive and seductive. As the male mutilated body, demonstrated by Shatuo, is threatening and terrifying to look at, the female body of the Other is to be desired and gazed upon. Yin Ruiji, a woman originally from the enemy country, is defined by her aberrant sexuality from the beginning of the film Dragon. She is attractive, exotic, entertaining, and especially good at singing and dancing. Yin's body is simultaneously worshipped and hated by Tang people. When Dee first comes to Luoyan to report for duty, through his gaze the audience watches Yin Ruiji dance on the top of a parade float. She is represented as a desirable sexual object for the male viewers, including Dee, since high up on the float she wears nearly nothing but a bra and a split-to-the-hip skirt to captivate the male spectators with her youthfulness. A red masquerade mask covering up part of her face makes her more mysterious and unidentifiable, which suggests that the viewer might not care about her individuality, but only her exotic and erotic female body. While she is dancing, her body is also represented in a rather provocative way through the male gaze as the camera eye aligns with both Dee and other male audience in the streets. However. Dee disagrees with the commoners' practice of using Yin as a human sacrifice for the Sea Dragon and he narrates, "The commoners put their own lives first. They don't care who else lives or dies. To placate the Sea Dragon, they've chosen a young woman for the rites. The streets are thronged with onlookers." When under threat, the life of the abject Other becomes dispensable. What's more, when Empress Wu first hears Yin Ruiji's story, she is filled with disgust and hatred rather than sympathy and she claims. "Absurd! One courtesan causes so much commotion in the city." In the following shot, super imposition places Yin in mini size dancing in the foreground while in close-up Empress Wu stares at Yin from the background. This visual further suggests their power relations as the powerful subject and the powerless abject.
Besides constructing the abject Other through narrative strategies, the spaces that the Other occupies are often the abject spaces, defined by noir aesthetic and labyrinthine mise-en- scene in both films. The Black City in Flame and the Bat Island in Dragon constitute such abject and liminal space on the borderline where the Other can temporarily hide from the control of the authority. The existence of such spaces works against the myth that the kingdom is a sealed and homogenous place in which trespassing is not possible. It instead establishes the fact that the borders are in fact permeable and open.
The Black City in Flame is an off-the-grid space of resistance teeming with the abject other: the criminals, the social rejects, and the anomalous. No imperial officials would ever dream of going there, and as a juridical vacuum it grants freedom from surveillance and control. A visually noir atmosphere arises from the sight of burning candles surrounded by large areas of darkness and long shadows of dancing foreigners in exotic clothing. When asked about the place. Dee explains, "This is where the Fire-worshippers slaughter animals. There are so many foreigners in Luoyang." It is indeed the abject space that involves blood, viscera, and corpses, which all contribute to the feeling of abject horror that reminds the audience of death. Additionally, a few underground tunnels run through the Black City. The dampness and the enclosed space are also reminiscent of a corporeal space. Similarly, in Dragon, the Bat Island as the hiding place for the foreign insurgents is an infernal space burning with fire where thousands of bats make home. As Dongdoers set fire to burn evidence, seen from a bird-view shot the place resembles a human body covered with red burning veins. As the terrorists escape, they go down deeper and deeper into the depth of a cave and it gets darker and darker, so that the pursuers have to use torches to see. The darkness and the shape of a cave are also a reminder of the inner body and maternity, the abject that invokes disgust and horror.
However, the abject do not just passively accept their fates as the marginalized and powerless Other; when deprived of socio-political subjectivity they choose to reclaim agency by returning for retaliation. Revenge, as an important theme in Tsui's wuxia films, has long dominated the wuxia genre. The oppressed and the exploited simply refuse to stay submissive and humiliated: they must seek revenge, right the wrong, and restore law and order. In his book Chinese Martial Arts Cinema, Stephen Teo argues, "Revenge therefore motivates martial arts action and brings about the idea of redemption" (Teo 2015. 7). In the world of wuxia, violence and revenge drive the causality of the narratives and bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion in which the protagonist must right the wrong and justice must prevail again.
In today's world, humiliation leads to the urge for revenge, and revenge often is the main cause for terrorist action. However, the punishment of such actions probably will lead to more vicious cycles of violence and counter-violence. In the article "On the origins of Terrorism," David Lotto argues that "narcissistic injury and the consequent reaction of rage along with the burning desire for vengeance for the purpose of righting a wrong and for seeking justice is the most important cause of terrorism" (Lotto 2017, 12). In Tsui's stories, Shatuo is politically oppressed and Dongdoers become displaced diasporas because of the policy of Empress Wu to use violence to intimidate and silence those who are against her. inside and outside the border. Additionally, in the book Globalization and Terrorism, according to Jamal R. Nassar, when forced to suffer from the decisions made by the rich, the economically exploited will possibly take action and, sometimes, respond with violence. He explains, "Eventually, the poor will pay the price as economic woes of the rich will migrate to the wretched of the earth. They, in turn, will respond not only with despair but perhaps with a new wave of violence that will migrate to the rich" (Nassar 2009, vii). Here the observation about the poor can also be applied to the distressed, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the powerless.
In Tsui's two films, revenge is not an option due to corruption and tyranny: the abject Others have to act on their own behalf for justice and fairness. In Dragon, Dee's plans are often foiled by a mole who works inside the Ministry of Justice. When caught red-handed, the spy explains his motive, "I've been working in the imperial court for many years. But 1 have no prospects here. I come from a poor family. The Dongdoers promised to make me a Duke so I agreed to be their spy in the Da Lisi. It's my only chance of becoming a nobleman." Despite his espionage activity, as a victim of corruption the mole wins immediate sympathy from the audience. Therefore, rather than being submissive to the corrupted power and living passively the life others have designated for him, the character rebels on his own terms against it.
Therefore, in both of Tsui's films, the perpetrators who take on the acts of terrorism are the victims of violence in the first place. In Flume, Shatuo's distressed body signifies the violence that has been inflicted upon him and he identifies himself as the victim of the tyranny of Empress Wu. Before his arrest for treason, he was a physician whose job was to cure, nurse, and help people recover from wounds and traumas. However, the violence that violates his body turns him into the opposite of what he was. When assigned to work as an engineer to build the Buddha statue, Shatuo becomes determined to sabotage and destroy. To explain the radical changes that have taken place in him, he says, "Since eight years ago. my life has had only one mission. I will return what that monster Empress has given me." Although at the end Shatuo fails to avenge himself, his rage is made clear through him as he shouts when burning to the ground, "I will not lose!" However, the toppling of the Buddha statue serves as a critique of the authoritarianism as well as a warning to those who attempt to use violence to fight violence.
In addition to being a victim-turn-perpetrator, the anti-protagonists even push back further and become the transgressors in Dragon. Being robbed of a livelihood because of the war between the Fuyu Kingdom and the Great Tang is an important form of group humiliation for Dongdoers. It also seems that they are not able to defend themselves from such harm, which adds to their humiliation and shame. They are forced into this dilemma, which leads to their acts of retaliation through terrorism. As Dee probes into the mystery and becomes aware of the suffering they have gone through, the leader of the gang confirms his speculation, "Revenge was not my only motive. This Middle Kingdom, your people are getting lazy. If we pander to your desires at the right time, we can take over your empire! I will become the true owner of the empire!"
Becoming the Abject
Ironically, while advocating fighting violence with violence and terror with terror in the hope of securing authority and power. Empress Wu has always been a source of terror from the very beginning of the stories. As the only female ruler in the history of China, Empress Wu is to be feared, and what she is causes terror and shock. She is regarded as the abject in the eyes of her male opponents. It is common knowledge that women in Chinese culture have low social status and they have to be constantly silenced and disciplined. Emily M. Ahern in her article
"The Power and Pollution of Chinese Women" explains how in Chinese culture women are believed to be even unclean and dangerous as a threat to the male order:
According to the male ideal, power should be exercised by male heads of households, managers of lineages, and community leaders. No wonder the ability of women to exercise power of a very different kind, power wielded behind the scenes, unsupported by recognized social position, is seen as a threat to the male order. No matter how well-ensconced men are in the established positions of power, the surreptitious influence of women remains beyond their capacity to control. (Ahern 1978, 201)
The terror she causes in the nation largely comes from her identity as a woman. This also justifies any aggression to question her authority and legitimacy as it gives Detective Dee every right to watch her every move.
Kristeva describes two ways in which women behave when stuck in a patriarchal system: one is to remain excluded from the patriarchal order like the mother; the other is to identify with the father and conform to the patriarchal order. Empress Wu chooses to give up her female identity in order to obtain access to the symbolic order and become part of the patriarchal order that has excluded and marginalized her from the beginning. Also, being perceived as the abject. Empress Wu is constantly associated with death. Determined to rule the nation no matter what, she sets up secret agents to hunt down political dissidents, and she is also alleged to have killed her own children. In Flame, through the holly deer as a disguise, she fakes godly prophets in order to get rid of her opponents, which causes great anxiety in the nation, particularly among men. The only moment she shows any sign of gentleness is when she watches her beloved assistant dying in her arms. Wu tells the girl, "To achieve the great, you have to kill the dearest."
Also, when dealing with international affairs, in the name of protecting the purity of the race to promote nationalism, Wu advocates violence and terrorism. She threatens to kill Ruiji simply because she is from the enemy country. Her association with death is also shown visually. As a female character, she is never seen in any feminine color such as pink. Her costumes are of cold colors in silver, blue, or grey. Her lofty hairdo can be seen as an embodiment of her power or ambition for power.
However, Tsui's critique of the tyranny or centralized power is not limited to Empress Wu, but extends to the elite. The direct reference to the leadership as the abject lies in the uretic homeopathy: using urine as medicine to cure the sick/corrupt. According to Kristeva. typical examples of the abject are human wastes and fluids that make us sick or disgusted. Spectators of the film Dragon are invited to watch every high-ranking official in court drink up their cup of urine unknowingly and have the same experience as in the interaction with the abject. Rina Arya describes. "We are impelled to move away, but then to look back, setting up a cycle of repulsion and attraction, fear and intrigue" (Arya 2014, 2). Near the end of Dragon, as the doctor discovers that virgins' urine could cure the disease, the whole court including the emperor himself drinks urine produced by eunuchs. Dee explains. "It's been tested by court physician Donkey Wang that the dung beetle parasites produce 'hot' poisons, so the antidote is a 'cool' medicinal soup." Such an arrangement is a subtle criticism of the corruption and political tyranny.
To counter balance any excessive power, the emperor gives Dee a mace. If any one is out of line, with the mace Dee is authorized to punish the person. However, throughout the films, the mace is there to contain Empress Wu, who obtains access to the semiotic order. Tsui says, "[the macej's really a symbol of democracy, as a matter of fact, of an individual talking to authority. It's not for killing. It's for controlling and restraining the power of the bad people and so that, you know, the good side of the society can [be] kept" (Luna 2011). Here the bad people refer to Empress Wu because of her authoritarian belief. In another way, the sword is a symbol of phallic power that aims at keeping the women under control. As Tsui explains. "I wanted the Buddha because I wanted iconic things for the Empress Wu" (Velez 2011); the toppling of the statue signifies the failure of her authoritarian ambition.
Finally, through Dee's identity as an in-between mediator. Tsui warns the viewers against the urge for severe punishment and revenge and suggests a relatively restrained attitude towards conflicts. Although to the Chinese audience the setting of the story in the Great Tang might seem an endeavor to strengthen national identity, the protagonist Dee is not there to reinvigorate nationalistic pride. First of all, Tsui does not follow the traditional practice of constructing the protagonist Dee as a national hero, like many macho roles played by Jet Lee or Bruce Lee. For instance, in the past Bruce Lee's topless muscular body was used to empower the Chinese audience, and emphasized Chinese national identity. According to John Wong and Robert E. Rinehart. "Lee's construction of a national identity was no doubt based on the male, Asian (Chinese) body. As he was the driving force behind the promotion of his brand and philosophy of martial arts, it comes as no surprise that all these movies focus on his body" (Wong and Rinehart 2013, 201). Unlike the characters played by Bruce Lee or Jet Lee, Dee is not depicted as a macho who makes a spectacle out of his male body on screen. While theorizing Chinese masculinity, Kam Louie points out the wen-wu framework and he observes, "In practice wen can refer to a whole range of attributes such as literary excellence, civilized behavior, and general education, while wu can refer to just as many different sets of descriptors, including a powerful physique, fearlessness and fighting skills" (Louie 2002, 161). In contrast to wu characters whose strength lies in military leadership, power and martial arts. Dee is a wen person as he is more genteel and scholarly. In the films. Dee can barely defend himself against his adversaries. It is also revealed later on that Dee does not swim, so the authority has to equip him with a special horse to prepare him for the sea battles. Dee's traits and qualities as a wen character are best summarized when the actor Andy Lau tried to come up with an animal to best define him: "He is a monkey. Swift and intelligent" (Tang 2010).
Detective Dee's identity as an in-between person and his perspective as the stories' point of view also challenge the illusion of homogeneous China. He is, in a sense, a diasporic individual who is constantly between places. As a law-enforcement officer, Dee is constantly in and out of jail. At the beginning of the first film. Dee is serving his eight-year labor in prison. In the second film, he is just out of jail. He explains, "1 reported corruption in Bing County. My superior framed me and had me locked up." Also, although he is accepted both in the court and the Black City, he belongs to neither. From time to time he is summoned by the Empress into the palace but that is where corruption and incompetence prevail. What's more, his colleagues are never his allies but his enemies waiting for him to make mistakes. In both films, the officials from the government envy his talents and can't wait to have a chance to annihilate his competition. Nevertheless, the underworld where the abject Others dwell is not his place either, since to fight crimes he can use the power that the authority could give him. His dilemma makes him an outsider to both places, detached, belonging to neither. Additionally, his in-between status is further reinforced at the end of both films. In Flame, because he is infected he has to stay in the Black City for an unknown period of time, a transitional interval that might last forever. In the second film, although he is physically present at the palace receiving rewards from the emperor, his heart follows the couple of Yin Ruiji and Yuanzhen to the boat that takes them abroad. The crosscutting between the two places, the palace and the sea, and two times, the past and the present, creates a stark contrast that makes his seemingly glorious success somehow empty.
In the past decades, China changed its isolationist foreign policy to embrace globalization, which generates great impacts on China's politics, education, culture, and more. However, connection and globalization create opportunities as well as problems, as the rising fear of the Other begins to dominate not only China, but also the rest of the world. As today's world is facing a growing threat of terrorism, many countries have turned to more extreme methods in dealing with the potential threats. However, can fighting fire with fire and terror with terror really be the answer to all these problems? Could it just produce more humiliation and shame which might lead to the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence? It seems that Tsui's most recent Detective Dee films join the discussion of such urgent issues. As a veteran film maker with the sensitivity of a displaced person. Tsui Hark persistently explores in his works the theme of home and the life condition of the marginalized and the powerless. In these two films, he particularly examines, in dealing with the conflicts and anguish arising from the reaction between the self and the Other, how the abject Other is constructed, and how the abject Others regain subjectivity by taking revenge. By using an in-between person like Detective Dee, Tsui also suggests a more strategic policy and argues for the need for restraint.
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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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