Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture

by Wendy Larson

Reviews

“Complex and controversial, the director, cinematographer, and actor Zhang Yimou has defined Chinese film more than anyone else since the ‘opening up’ of China in the early 1980s. But do his films best define the real China or define the difficulty of defining ‘China’ and Chinese culture? Globalization is upon us, contending against nationalism and nationalists, and among other things modernizing Chinese cinema but also Hollywoodizing and de-Sinicizing it. Throughout his career, Zhang Yimou has both de-Sinicized and re-nationalized his Chinese cinema. Larson’s learned and entertaining engagement with Zhang’s evolving cinematic representations of Chinese culture looks at him and his films not only as agents of both hybridizing global forces and patriotic Chinese agendas but also as the product of both. Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture engages readers in an insightful reflection on the significance, the potential, and the limitations of film as cultural production in a constantly changing China.” —Jerome Silbergeld, Princeton University

“This is a splendid study of Zhang Yimou. One of the pioneers of Chinese cultural studies, Wendy Larson reveals to us here in a series of theoretically sophisticated and cogently argued readings the entanglement of culture, power, and history in the director’s major works—from Red Sorghum to the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony. By focusing on Zhang’s visual representation, the book offers in effect a deeply engaging reflection on the ambivalent role of post-Mao Chinese culture in a rapidly globalizing world. This exquisite book is a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and culture.” —Fu Poshek, University of Illinois

“Remarkably, Wendy Larson’s much-anticipated new book is the first single-author study of Zhang Yimou to be published in English, and it’s more than worth the wait—not least because this is in no sense a conventional auteur study. Larson sets out from the premise that Zhang is the most divisive figure in Chinese cinema; however, rather than weighing in on either side of the debates, she sees Zhang’s films as vital agents and agitators within our contemporary global culture wars. Moving through Zhang’s work in eleven finely grained and acutely argued chapters, Larson’s study demonstrates that display, duplicity, and coerced performance constitute the shared deep syntax of these films. Extraordinarily varied as it is, Zhang’s filmmaking is all about how—as Larson puts it—the ‘knowledge of being watched changes behavior,’ and Larson’s book masterfully shows that the thrill and pressure of having audiences everywhere ramps up that dynamic. In this sense, Zhang Yimou’s work could only have compelled and repelled audiences the way it does because it takes the cinematic image as its medium, and this superb book gets to the heart of that truth in revelatory ways. Larson’s brilliant insights in Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture prove beyond any doubt that Zhang Yimou’s filmmaking, whatever we may feel about it, constitutes a core mode of knowledge through which to approach both China’s relationship with the world and the inner life of Chinese culture under globalization.” —Margaret Hillenbrand, University of Oxford

“Wendy Larson’s long-anticipated—and ambitious—book on Zhang Yimou provides insightful readings and acute observations of the controversial director’s films. More importantly, Larson’s study situates Zhang’s work within the larger—and invariably slippery—notion of culture to argue for an understanding of the enabling conditions underpinning what Larson has astutely captured as ‘our deep sense of the way we live and thrive.’ Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture is an important contribution to scholarship in Chinese cultural studies.” —Song Hwee Lim, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and author of Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness

“In this masterful study of Zhang Yimou’s entire oeuvre, Wendy Larson provocatively challenges existing scholarly misconceptions about his films. Through brilliant close readings of his major films, she develops a complex account of the imbrication of culture and politics in post-socialist China and its position in contemporary global capitalism. This is an important contribution to world film studies and Chinese studies that should also be of interest to readers curious about the politics of culture on the contemporary world stage.”—Pheng Cheah, University of California, Berkeley

“This is a much-needed study of Zhang Yimou’s films and their reception, both within and outside China—the first book of its kind. Wendy Larson, a leading expert on modern Chinese culture, combines historical context, methodological sophistication, and close reading. Larson resists characterizing Zhang’s work in term of consumerist production and places the films within culture broadly defined. Zhang Yimou has long been a central figure in post-Maoist culture and in world cinema, and Larson’s book is important for any reader interested in how the political sphere and visual culture redefine each other.” —Yomi Braester, University of Washington

 

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