Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture

by Wendy Larson


"Imaginatively and admirably, Larson combines two seemingly extreme ends of cultural and film studies—the broad, abstract, theoretical exploration of the notion of culture and the specific, detailed, close readings of individual films, turning a single-auteur study into a highly inspiring discussion of cultural production and consumption that can benefit any readers concerned with the topics such as national allegory, cultural identity, performativity, power, and sovereignty. ... This ambitious and exhilarating book demonstrates how a collection of a single director’s films can stimulate cross-referencing discussions about larger concerns such as culture and power. Larson’s fascinating and refreshing readings of individual films add new dimensions to existing Zhang Yimou scholarship, which are most valuable for film classes in a college setting. Moreover, her masterful marshalling of a grand topic through cinematic details makes the book not only comprehensive research on Zhang Yimou, but also an incisive study of Chinese cinema, transnational performance, and global culture that anybody interested in such topics should read."—China Review International

"Wendy Larson's landmark analysis is definitely not a survey of Zhang Yimou as a praised or vilified Chinese film director who often provokes heated debates and discussions domestically and internationally. Rather, Larson delves into nine of Zhang's films, either controversial or understudied, to argue strongly that these films 'center on the significance, potential, and limitations” of the cultural in “postsocialist China' ... her research is sustained by astute textual analysis and invigorated by a deep and comprehensive theoretical knowledge. ... While Larson's study has greatly contributed to the field of cultural studies through its critical analysis of a controversial director's films, it also opens up conversations about studies on gender, the visual, postsocialism, and globalization. Larson adopts a new approach to the study of contemporary China that extends the significance and contribution of this book to a larger scale. Larson's wide-ranging theoretical knowledge and the ambitious articulation of the often slippery idea of culture will attract a large academic readership in cultural studies, Chinese studies, film studies, and history. Her detailed, concrete, and brilliant close readings of the nine films also serve as a rich and useful pedagogical resource for a Chinese film course or a Chinese culture course." —Journal of Asian Studies

"At 420 pages, Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture is a magnum opus. ... Although I have emphasized the themes that run through the book here, each chapter in this book is autonomous, making it possible to assign individual chapters for classroom use. Larson writes lucidly and persuasively ... Taken together, as I hope I have shown, the chapters combine to produce one of the most detailed and sustained analyses of a certain trajectory through much of Zhang’s most powerful work. They make a persuasive case for taking the popular in contemporary Chinese culture seriously, regardless of questions of taste. Larson’s rich and engaging book is a seminal text in Zhang studies. ... Larson’s welcome book reminds us that although the field of Chinese cinema studies has grown and diversified, it is perhaps in the realm of popular film that the most work remains to be done. Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture takes a huge step down that road." —MCLC

"A sophisticated, nuanced assessment of the ways in which Zhang Yimou displays and performs culture and the unexpected ways in which he deliberately undermines expectations. Larson does this through careful analysis of eight of Zhang’s first nine films as a director, from 1987’s stunning Red Sorghum to 2005’s cross-cultural elegy Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.... Larson opens with a masterful discussion of the question of culture in relation to the study of China, Eurocentrism, postcolonial assessments, and the nation. This sets the scene for a discussion of the arc of the treatment of culture in Zhang’s socalled Red Trilogy: Red Sorghum, Judou, and Raise the Red Lantern. This provides Larson with an opportunity to investigate Chinese critics’ debates about authenticity and performance of the nation. She also deftly addresses other issues in these three films, such as women’s agency. ... The movies she discusses include Hero, which many critics and scholars at home and abroad have labeled as fascist in its presentation of culture against a background of the formation of the Chinese state. Contrary to this critique, Larson presents a persuasive argument that Hero fits neatly into the development of Zhang’s directing career. Larson’s analysis of Hero illustrates the subtlety of her argument on culture. Arguing persuasively against the notion of it being a fascist work, she emphasizes the contest in the film between two kinds of power: that of the emperor (associated by critics with fascism) and that of the xia (usually translated as knight-errant, though not in these pages) culture of the would-be assassins of the emperor. ... Less well-known films equally get impressive treatment in these pages. ... English-speaking fans and critics of Zhang’s films have much to contemplate in this richly argued and original book." —The China Journal

“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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