Locality in Chinese-Language Avant-Garde Cinema
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Locality in Chinese-Language Avant-Garde Cinema


As the heir to an ancient civilization that has lasted for over fifty centuries, the Chinese-speaking world continues to show an instinctive concern for its own culture, especially in the realm of art, even in its current stage of significant development. As such, the art from Chinese-speaking cultures conveys a strong sense of locality. Even though local filmmakers create avant-garde works that we would generally consider a dynamic contradiction to tradition, the continuity, reality relevance, and power of Chinese culture is always prominently present in such works. In other words, through the abstract, exaggerated, and even divorced avant-garde elements of Chinese-language avant-garde cinema, audiences can observe the traditional, widely humanistic side of Chinese civilization. To a certain extent, this has differentiated the avant-garde films created in the East from those created in the West (also known as the land and sea civilizations, respectively), making the former unique in avant-garde cinema. Simultaneously, through the integration and innovation of Western avant-garde filmmaking paradigms, Chinese-language avant-garde filmmakers have contributed to a reinterpretation of conventional ideas about Chinese culture, which is in line with the esthetics and values of the modern era. Furthermore, these filmmakers have resolved the obscurity and incomprehensibility of Chinese elements in the impressions of foreigners, enabling the latter to understand Chinese culture more intuitively through the works of local people through avant-garde forms, one of the most common forms of art across the globe.This project notes the unique cultural locality reflected in this seemingly antinomic phenomenon. On the basis of the historical context and the motifs in the selected films, the project presents this locality in two respective threads: classical and modernistic. The “classical” chapter draws on conventionally endemic aspects such as ecological spacing and neoclassic interpretations of history. It demonstrates how Chinese-language avant-garde filmmakers reconstruct intimate yet isolated Chinese collective memories and develop them into a dynamic self-reflection on Chinese culture in the contemporary era and describes the unexpected feasibility of using foreign avant-garde strategies to adapt and rejuvenate local content (images, narrative, philosophy, etc.). On the other hand, the “modernistic” chapter draws on social and psychoanalytical aspects such as homeland complexity, urban anxiety, and socialist nostalgia. It summarizes these syndromes as the performance of a shared trauma facing continuous upheaval, globalization, and modernization in the Chinese-speaking world over the past century. In a slightly different way than audiences see in most Western avant-garde cinema, Chinese-speaking filmmakers show a very realistic humanization of those suffering from the contemporary dilemma of China using avant-garde esthetics. The project then connects the two threads to conclude that Chinese-language avant-garde cinema is considered a subtle yet honest display of Chinese culture and social status quo. With a global audience, it uncovers the cultural landscape, historical vicissitude, and the dilemma of modernity in Chinese civilizations from an avant-garde perspective. The locality of Chinese-language avant-garde cinema is conveyed through three significant aspects. In terms of content, locality is evident in the genres of Chinese-language films (e.g., classical romance, martial arts, Republic adventure, homeland). From classical values to those of modern society, Chinese-language avant-garde cinema has touched upon the Chinese-speaking world’s collective memories. Struggles between kings and nobles, the sacrificing of the small for the greater good, arranged marriages, agricultural production, life on the margins of urban areas, and many other local topics are all depicted in avant-garde cinematic storytelling. In terms of essence, Chinese-language avant-garde cinema is closely related to traditional Chinese culture and the social status quo; indeed, the two interact dynamically. By deconstructing, abstracting, and reinterpreting local culture, Chinese-language avant-garde cinema attempts to artistically present the ups and downs of Chinese civilization and the dilemma of modernity in today’s world. Similar to the avant-garde literature popularized after the reform and opening-up (改革开放, gaige kaifang), Chinese-language avant-garde films are often ironic, critical, and realistic at their core, as shown by the filmmakers’ depictions. In terms of form, while Western avant-garde cinema uses unique filmmaking methodologies and techniques (e.g., surrealism, expressionism, stream of consciousness, high-speed montages) to present physical or psychological heterization, Chinese avant-garde cinema uses similar strategies to focus on Chinese elements (e.g., shots of Chinese landscapes, elements of “red”, depictions of folk customs) in images, scenarios and characters. Thus, the intense attention given to the individual mentality in Western avant-garde cinema is naturally shifted to a focus on locality in Chinese-language avant-garde cinema. This project on locality in Chinese-language avant-garde films has dual value. Research specifically on locality in Chinese-language avant-garde films is still in the beginning stages, but the subject undoubtedly has twofold significance. First, for local creators, this representation of locality reflects a new understanding of Chinese culture and self-identification. Avant-garde cinematography is an art not only of the West but also of modernity. As one of the filmmaking strategies most recently imported into the Chinese-speaking world Chinese avant-garde cinema is coincidentally taking shape at a critical moment when the Chinese-speaking world is going global. In looking at Chinese film history, as the most important avant-garde art medium after literature and fine arts, the locality in Chinese-language avant-garde film reveals how the Chinese-speaking world has been examining and reinterpreting local culture at the turn of the century by absorbing Western avant-garde esthetics since the 1980s. Additionally, the market positioning of and audience feedback on such films are worth noting, as they reflect the acceptance of this new local cultural industry. Second, from the perspective of global avant-garde cinema, Chinese-language avant-garde cinema offers an opportunity to observe the paradigm of Chinese cultural expression. Compared to Western avant-garde cinema, which has been developing for a century and focuses on constructing sensory alienation, fragmentation, and mystification, Chinese avant-garde cinema has intense and concrete localism that appears unique. In the era of globalization, the abstraction and dramatization of the concept of reality in avant-garde films occasionally make the differences between civilizations more obvious. This comparative study helps us see the differences between modern Eastern and Western civilizations in terms of individual, collective, social, emotional, logical, and moral propositions. Overall, this project aims to bring more Chinese cultural concepts and their manifestations in society to the attention of the world through this dual effect.

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