Gender Film Theory

Gender Politics in Chinese & Hollywood Films


A review of Transnational Remakes: Gender and Politics in Chinese Cinemas and Hollywood (1990-2009), by Jinhua Li.

Transnational remakes between Chinese cinema and Hollywood are not simply a matter of “lost in translation.” Rather, as each story is transplanted from one social, political, and cultural sphere to another, and a new paradigm of social values and narrational codes is actively constructed. Li Jinhua’s dissertation offers a thoughtful discussion on this matter by examining how the act of cross-cultural adaptation re-inscribes a new mode of femininity into the narrational process.

Throughout her dissertation, Li sees Hollywood cinema as an ideological apparatus that universalizes a Eurocentric worldview and promulgates American sociopolitical values and understanding of subjectivity (Baudry pp. 299-318; Cahiers pp. 5-44). Nevertheless, since the 1990s, Hollywood’s hegemonic position has been challenged by an emerging Chinese film industry that actively seeks to construct a space of negotiation for Chinese-speaking communities. The Chinese film industries (comprising those in the People’s Republic of China [PRC], Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia), with financial support both from the state and from inter-regional corporations, have been successfully producing films to appeal to the specific sensibilities of these Chinese-speaking regions. These films often promote in-group loyalty, solidarity, and shared historical memories, and potentially destabilize the hegemonic position of Hollywood (Rao pp. 495-598; Yang pp. 20-74; Zhao, Xianggang pp. 207-21; Zhao, Zhongguo pp. 447-580). Meanwhile Hollywood, in its attempt to put such threat in containment, has begun to adapt Chinese films and materials. Yet in so doing, Hollywood erases the historical and sociopolitical specificity of the Chinese originals, with the resulting films becoming conveyors of American ideological discourse (pp. 1-22; Grainge pp. 151-72).

What is at stake for Li is that in the process of adaptation, these films “re-inscribe” notions of femininity specific to their host industries and markets. In the case of contemporary China, Li argues, female spectators find themselves at odds with the American notion of feminism and female subjectivity. According to discussions between Lydia Liu and other scholars of Chinese feminism, the revolutionary era (1949-1976) had the effect of de-gendering and de-sexualizing women as comrades and sisters who were supposed to be equal to their male counterparts (Liu pp. 22-44). As a result, post-socialist feminists—or as Li would call, postfeminists—strive to find new ways to define female subjectivity and renegotiate gendered boundaries without compromising women’s rights to perform those roles that Euro-American feminists would likely consider as heteronormative womanhood. As a result, the “New Women” emerged in popular culture, often portrayed as sexually “attractive” and socially passive, yet in fact wielding their sexuality as a form of aggression to claim power and individuality (pp. 22-24).

With this in mind, Li analyzes five sets of films to illustrate this process. In Chapter 3 (pp. 25-52), Li compares two films based on Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig’s 1922 Letter from an Unknown Woman (Brief einer Unbekannten), Xu Jinglei’s 徐静蕾 Yige mosheng nüren de laixin 一个陌生女人的来信 (2004) and its Hollywood predecessor directed by Max Ophüls (1948). In this Chapter, Li adopts the analytical strategy of Laura Mulvey and conducts an insightful analysis of both films (Bacher pp. 132-203; Mulvey pp. 6-18). Li argues that in Ophüls’s version, the female protagonist Lisa (Joan Fontaine) is from the beginning—both by means of her disembodied voiceover, and, later on, the film’s camerawork and editing—posited as the object of desire of male lead Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). In the 2004 remake, however, Xu carefully reconstructs Jiang (Xu Jinglei) / Lisa as the bearer of the gaze and the narrative agent who threatens imaginary masculinity and ontological consistency of the male lead (Jiang Wen).

In Chapter 4 (pp. 53-85), Li compares the Hong Kong production Wujiandao 無間道(Infernal Affairs, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002) and Martin Scorsese’s 2006 adaptation The Departed. Li argues that in the Hong Kong original, Lau and Mak foreground the transient, undetermined, fluid and constantly disappearing Hong Kong identity and sense of belonging (Abbas pp. 16-47). The film negotiates such sociopolitical affects by engaging the spectators in the two male characters’ schizophrenia. In this sense, the female protagonist Lee, who is both the wife of Chan (Andy Lau) and the therapist of Leung (Tony Leung), serves as an active observer in the male characters’ schizophrenic negotiation. Meanwhile, in The Departed, the sociopolitical indeterminacy of Hong Kong is replaced by a strong adherence to Boston’s colonial past and the characters’ “Irish-immigrant” identity. Within this narrative framework, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) offers both Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Sullivan (Matt Damon) opportunities to restore their imaginary subjectival integrity and masculine consistency.

In Chapter 5 (pp. 86-111), Li analyzes the Hong Kong horror film Jian gui 見鬼 (The Eye, Oxide Pang 彭順, 2002) and the 2008 Hollywood adaptation The Eye by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. For Li, Mun (Angelica Lee)––a Hong Kong woman who receives a cornea transplant enabling her to see not only the material world but the world beyond––and Ling (Chutcha Rujinanon)––a Thai woman of Chinese descent who is the donor of Mun’s cornea after killing herself because she could see ghosts—are best seen as a tête-bêche, a pair of stamps in which one is printed upside down. But in Li’s argument, there is no way to tell which is the original and which the misprint. As a tête-bêche, Mun and Ling reconcile the relationship between China and its diaspora and the particular mode of hybrid modernity-premodernity that is Hong Kong with its imaginary other, Thailand. In the Hollywood production, Sydney (the American version of Mun; Jessica Alba) is featured from the beginning as a First-World interlocutor and caretaker of her Mexican other Ana (Fernanda Romero). In the end, the film reinforces the imaginary difference between the First World and the Third Word, re-inscribing the American sense of femininity and subjectivity as the only way for women to attain individuality.

In Chapter 6 (pp. 112-145), Li discusses Ang Lee’s 李安 Yinshi nannü 飲食男女 (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994) and its adaptation Tortilla Soup (Maria Ripoll, 2001). Li argues that Lee’s version addresses a complex identity crisis in Taipei in the 1990s by negotiating the various relationships within a dysfunctional family through a shared sense of nostalgia for the Chinese culinary tradition. In the end, the patriarchal position gives way to modernity and is tactfully replaced by a matriarchy. In Tortilla Soup, however, Mexican cuisine is regarded right from the beginning as incompatible with American multiculturalism. In the end, the patriarchy is never put into question, and the film celebrates a multiculturalized version of SouCal cuisine.

In Chapter 7 (pp. 146-181), Li examines Jingle Ma’s 馬楚成 2009 remake of Disney’s Mulan (1998). For Li, Ma restores the Confucian values of ancient China and re-inscribes a new postfeminist sensibility in the representation of Mulan, as opposed to the Americanized, individualistic and feisty “teenage” image of Mulan in the Disney version. For Li, while the Disney version seems to be more outgoing and individualistic, she ultimately conforms to the patriarchal institution of family and marriage. Meanwhile, Ma’s version of Mulan, being fully acknowledged as a woman throughout the film, fights for her own individuality and equality in women’s own terms (as the way defined by Euro-American feminism).

This dissertation is certainly one of the first that take into account the specific mode of “post-femininity” in the PRC as an analytical framework for contemporary cinema. It is an exciting addition to the growing shelf of studies of the relationship between Chinese cinema and Hollywood in recent years.

Victor Fan
Department of Film Studies
King’s College London

Primary and Secondary Sources

Textual Sources

Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance (1997). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Bacher, Lutz. Max Olphus in the Hollywood Studios. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” (1970). In Screen 28.2 (Winter 1974-75): 39-47.

Cahiers du cinéma. “John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln: A Collective Text by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinéma.” In Screen 13.3 (1972): 5-44.

Grainge, Paul. Brand Hollywood: Selling Entertainment in a Global Media Age (London: Routledge, 2008).

Liu, Lydia. “The Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature: Negotiating Feminisms across East/West Boundaries.” In Genders no. 12 (Winter 1991): 22-24.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

Rao, Shuguang. Zhongguo dianying shichang fazhan shi (History of the Development of the Chinese Film Market) (Beijing: China Film Press, 2009).

Yang, Yuanying. Beijing Xianggang: Dianying hepai shinian huigu (Beijing-Hong Kong: Retrospect of a Decade of Coproduction) (Beijing: China Film Press, 2012).

Zhao, Shi. Zhongguo tese dianying fazhan daolu tansuo (Exploring an Approach to the Development of Film with Chinese Characteristics) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2008).

Zhao, Weifang. Xianggang dianying chanye liubian (The Regionalogical History of Hongkong’s Film Industry) (Beijing: China Film Press, 2008).

Film Sources

The Departed. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Prod. Brady Grey, Graham King and Brad Pitt. Warner Brothers. US, 2006.

The Eye. Dir. David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Prod. Don Granger, Michelle Manning and Paula Wanger. Lionsgate and Paramount Vantage. US, 2008.

Hua Mulan (Mulan: Rise of a Warrior). Dir. Jingle Ma’s 馬楚成. Prod. Jingle Ma, Wang Tian-yun, Jeffrey Chan, Ni Ying and Lili. Stralight International Media, Beijing Galloping Horse, Hunan TV and Media Productions, Shanghai Film Group, PKU Starlight, Beijing Polybona Film. China, 2009.

Jian gui 見鬼 (The Eye). Dir. Oxide Pang 彭順 and Danny Pang 彭日成. Prod. Peter Chan and Lawrence Cheng. Applause Pictures and Mediacorp Raintree Pictures. Hong Kong and Singapore,  2002.

Letter from an Unknown Woman. Dir. Max Ophüls. Prod. John Houseman and William Dozler. Universal. US, 1948.

Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Prod. Pam Coats. Disney. US, 1998.

Tortilla Soup. Dir. Maria Ripoll. Prod. John Bard Manulis and Lulu Zezza. Goldwyn and Starz! Encore Entertainment. US, 2001.

Wujiandao 無間道(Infernal Affairs). Dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Prod. Andrew Lau. Media Asia Films and Basic Pictures. Hong Kong, 2002.

Yige mosheng nüren de laixin 一个陌生女人的来信 (Letter from an Unknown Woman). Dir. Xu Jinglei’s 徐静蕾. Prod. Dong Ping, Ma Paobing, Xu Jinglei, and Zhao Yijun. Asian Union Film and Media. China, 2004.

Yinshi nannü 飲食男女 (Eat Drink Man Woman). Dir. Ang Lee’s 李安. Prod. Hsu Li-kong and Hsu Kong. Ang Lee Productions, Central Motion Pictures and Good Machine. Taiwan and US, 1994.

Dissertation Information

Purdue University. 2011. 222 pp. Primary Advisor: Charles Ross.

Image: Mulan meet-and-greet at Disneyland. Image by mydisneyadventures. Wikimedia Commons.

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