Paper Abstracts

Filming the Fringes

Shiqi Lin, University of California, Irvine

“Documenting Blandness: Building Care and Relatedness beyond National Scripts“

Taking Chinese cinema as a cultural reflection of Xi Jinping’s “New Era,” this paper studies a phenomenal documentary, Twenty-Two (2017), as a visual intervention that disrupts national and transnational framings of a colonized past surrounding “comfort women.” Named after the number of “comfort women” survivors in mainland China by January 2014, Twenty-Two is marked by its bland, slow and fragmentary style since it includes no accusation, storyline, background music or theatrical moments. This cinematography of blandness, as I discuss, produces a strong affect of care and sharing that refuses to reproduce sensational narratives of suffering and victimhood. In displaying a radical displacement of trauma into fragmentary shots of daily scenes and abrupt cuts from emotional outbreaks, the film embodies a conscious effort to absorb the pains with the victims without rehearsing a formulaic narrative of consuming trauma.

Furthermore, in reading the nation-state’s active reception of this documentary, I highlight that documenting blandness does not go against nationalist scripts but seeks to reload alternative, non-imperial meanings from within. I argue that the success of Twenty-Two is not contradictory, but complementary to China’s growing militarized nationalism, insofar as this documentary registers a national memory of an unwanted, humiliated and feminized past-to-be-transcended. Within this hyper-politicized dialogical space, the strategy of “blandness” allows Twenty-Two to manifest the ways in which its interviewees and its director are making conscious political choices of recreating connections and lives together beyond the national scripts of domination and suffering.

Xuesong Shao, University of California, Davis

“Between Documenting and Performing: The Drifters in Contemporary Chinese Documentaries”

Since the early 1990s, Chinese documentarians have been experimenting with various forms in representing the ever-shifting social and cultural landscapes of post-socialist China. Among those, Xu Tong徐童 and Zhou Hao周浩 stand out with their prize-winning documentary series that capture the everyday experiences of the marginalized underclass, or “the drifters” 游民, to use Xu Tong’s own term. In particular, this paper examines three works by the two documentarians, including Xu Tong’s Fortune Teller算命 and Shattered老唐头, and Zhou Hao’s Using龙哥. It presents a combined reading of their formalistic innovations as well as realistic representations of the contemporary Chinese drifters, whose rank include fortune tellers, sex workers, laid-off industrial workers and drug dealers. First, both directors challenge the conventional documentary ethic by establishing a conspicuous friendship and personal interactions with those being filmed. With extreme close-ups and directorial interventions, it questions and even reverses the middle-class patronizing gaze upon those marginalized people and thus go beyond simple social exposé. Second, it considers the unlikely deployment of melodramatic audiovisual technique in these documentaries. The plethora of non-diegetic music helps creating a narrative that is nostalgic, non-linear, and represents the texture of life itself. Finally, it takes into consideration the issue of performativity, exploring both the performance of the filmed subjects and the performing camera.

Peng Hai, Harvard University

“Producing Indigeneity:: Impoverished Media and the Natural Fertility of Organic Sounds in Knife in the Clear Water

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously said that “authentic memory of a world before consumerism has been irrevocably erased,” problematizing how consumerism and its ubiquitous presence transmitted through mass media has reduced the diversity of real social-geographical spaces to a diversity of mediatized spectacles to be consumed. This paper examines the ways through which pre-consumerism indigeneity can be produced via the art of film to salvage cultural memory and preserve artifacts of extinct indigenous cultures. Its analysis focuses on Knife in the Clear Water (2016), a recent arthouse film on the Hui Muslims in Northwest China’s Ningxia region. Setting itself apart from an older generation of ethnic minority-themed films that are largely palatable exoticizations, this film responds directly to a more sophisticated era in which such easy baits no longer entice. This paper argues that the film is an exploration of how to reimagine an indigenous identity by delineating indigeneity’s complex relationship with consumerism. Also, by drawing a critical comparison between Knife in the Clear Water and a Tibetan film The Silent Holy Stones (2005), this paper pronounces the importance of media archeology as a new methodological intervention in analyzing the contemporary social changes among Chinese minority nationalities.

Massively Mixed Media

Keita Moore, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Warped Reflections: Postmodern Anxiety in FINAL FANTASY VII

This paper considers the popular videogame FINAL FANTASY VII (1997) in terms of gender, moral, and environmental concerns of the Japanese 1990s. On the one hand, the game’s scopic regime implies a modern masculine gaze—a form of power borne out through the camera’s framing of imagery. On the other hand, a close analysis of FFVII’s narrative demonstrates a deep ambivalence towards this gaze-based form of masculine authority particular to the Japanese “lost decade.” Using psychoanalytic theory, the paper shows how the game posits a form of male subjectivity free from the presence of the symbolic father; that is, distinct from the transcendent knowing subject. This is the main player character, Cloud, whose moral, male subjectivity does not derive from identification with the paternal gaze, but rather from a new environmental symbolic order where the planet itself is the keystone. Cloud, as a precarious product of this posthuman order, throws into stark relief the failure of key human moral and ontological Japanese institutions of modern masculine authority: the nuclear family, scientific progressivism, and environmental domination. The player character, then, uneasily bridges these concerns, the game’s posthuman ending, and the visual regime that aligns the player with the modern masculine gaze and its authority. Consequently, FFVII wavers between suggesting the impossibility of modernist male authority and the uneasy possibility of postmodern and posthuman moral subjectivity—all while formally interpellating the player through the transcendent perspective of the camera.

Shixing Lin, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Ghostly Acquaintance: A Taiwanese Horror Game and the Imagined Terror in Mainland China”

Unlike the ghost fever in both Chinese literature and film in the 1980s, supernatural beings have been largely excluded from the contemporary Chinese visual cultures. It is surprising that “Detention (2017),” a Taiwanese horror PC game that sets in 1960s Taiwan under Martial Law, would survive in Chinese market and gained popularity in mainland China. However, recently, one of its most popular streaming videos was banned and removed from the mainland website, accused of containing overtly bloody scenes, which once again generated controversy on Chinese social media.

This paper explores visual representation of political terror in Detention and its influence in mainland China, aiming to understand how and why contemporary mainland Chinese audience echoed with the ghost of Taiwanese victims in White Terror. Scholars have considered ghost fever in late twentieth-century China a comeback of pre-modern Chinese ghost narrative tradition and a symbol of social chaos, but they might neglect the role of audience and the censorship issue in China nowadays. Therefore, this paper examines not only visual metaphors but also its online discussion, including review articles, comments, and “bullet screen” at Chinese video website. I will argue that the interpretation of horror scenes, frequent self-censored online speech, and thick pop-up comments altogether function as the extension of visual discourse. More importantly, these online voices are spontaneously inventing and diffusing fear and anger among its community, which reflects political sensibility and collective anxiety among people who sensed unpleasant resemblance and difference between Taiwan and mainland China.

Thiam Huat Kam, Rutgers University

“Image Incompatibility, Atmospheric Incompatibility: Media Fans, The Comic Market, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics”

At the conclusion of the Rio Olympics in 2016, the Handover Ceremony to Tokyo, the next host city, deployed icons from manga, anime, and games, with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo appearing as the character Mario. While the ceremony appears to appeal to fans of such media forms, this paper highlights the tenuous relationship between these fans and the images of Japan and Tokyo as “creative” spaces through a reading of the recent developments surrounding the Comic Market, the largest public gathering of fans, as the metropolis prepares for the Olympics in 2020. I argue that even while media forms are increasingly incorporated into the national and metropolitan brands, the actual presence and sight of these media fans have to be contained in order to avoid potential incompatibility with the projected images. This image incompatibility arises from an atmospheric incompatibility: bodies come together at the Comic Market to constitute a particular atmosphere that cannot harmonize with the atmosphere that is contrived for visitors to the Olympics. The Comic Market’s ability to mobilize a massive number of participants also evokes the specter of the unruly “crowd” that could potentially undermine the image of Tokyo as a safe space that can host a mega-event. The “masses” and “prosumers” touted to be the foundation for the success of Japan’s media industries are at the same time objectionable embodiments of the creativity and leisure that both Japan and Tokyo claim to be part of their spatial representation.

Picturing Space

Dingding Wang, Duke University

“Cyberpunk Asia: The Articulation and Representation of Spatiality”

This research project explores the diachronic transformation of urban landscape and its visual representation defining and defined by cyberpunk in East Asia. The paper first traces the trajectory of cyberpunk imagination and representation of urban landscape and socio-economic reality in Tokyo and Hong Kong in Neuromancer, Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, to see how were Asian megapolis represented as the late-capitalist dystopia in the 80s and 90s. Then, to answer the question how and why the center of cyberpunk imagination has shifted to more peripheral cities or regions, the paper introduces the contemporary popular discourse within China of celebrating certain Tier 2 cities, primarily Chongqing, to be the Asian cities most characterized as “with cyberpunk qualities.” The paper observes that Chongqing stands out because of its state of in-betweenness, expressing locality in a transitional phase of globalization. It not only investigates Chongqing’s political-cultural changes since early 20th century, focusing on competing ideological and political forces and the vicissitudes of urban architecture and infrastructure creating a postmodern juxtaposition of temporalities and styles, but also explores the contemporary embodiment and articulation of the city as cyberpunk in popular discourse and various computerized art forms including digital photography and computer-generated imagery (CGI). In a word, the research is interested in the formative force of cyberpunk, mediating urban landscape, digital media and visual arts, beyond a subgenre of speculative fiction.

Wenfei Wang, University of Colorado Boulder

“Staging Observers: Liminal Spaces in the Dianshizhai Pictorial (1884-1898)”

Keywords: liminal spaces, scopic regime, polyscenic composition, voyeurism, sequential viewing

The interaction between Western single-point linear perspective and Chinese multi-point perspective representational system dating back to the late Ming era has been a provocative topic. As Ernest Major, the founder of the Dianshizhai Pictorial (1884-1898) put it, the linear perspective provides an alternative compositional frame that outshines the conventional Chinese visual paradigm which fails to effectively imitate “the real” as it is. However, the images in the Pictorial suggest that the Chinese conventional system is no less capable of grasping the promiscuous experience of an ever-urbanizing world. A close study on the Dianshizhai Pictorial, the earliest influential indigenous Chinese pictorial in which the two representational systems compete with each other, will shed light on the topic.

Based on a group of selected images, I argue that liminal spaces, such as doors, windows, walls, and corridors, grant a scopic regime that disciplines the viewing mode: identifying themselves with the voyeuristic “observers” portrayed in the Pictorial, the readers are inclined to glance at the private spaces in multi-point composition rather than exclusively gaze at one single direction as imposed by linear perspective. In addition, these spaces implicitly frame the diegetic temporality of sequential viewing even before the advent of the moving-image era. As I will also show, the liminal spaces in the Pictorial exemplify the way in which the reinvented visual paradigm captures the ethos of its own time in the glamor and clamor of fin-de-siècle China.

Modern Materialities

Keiko Nishimura, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Country of surplus sociality?Visualizing the Semiotic Surplus in Uniforms for Communication Robots in Japan”

On June 19, 2018, an event titled “Robocolle 2018: Robot Prêt-à-Porter Collection” was held in Shibuya, Tokyo. Showcasing robots in uniform, the event was organized by a start-up company, Robo-Uni, which specializes in manufacturing such uniforms, and dubbed “the world’s first fashion show for robots” (Tokyo Culture Culture, n.d.). Through the story of Robo-Uni and Robocolle, this paper situates uniform-wearing-robots in the discourse of “weird Japan” (Galbraith 2016), namely that of excessive and misplaced sociality and affect, and examines what the branding of these robots and uniforms as uniquely “Japanese” does for the people involved. Uniform-wearing robots can be considered from the distinct but interrelated angles of the visual, material and social. Uniforms are a visualizing tool for technologies and abstract concepts such as artificial intelligence. However, the material origins of these uniforms and robots are not limited to Japan. The purpose of uniforms is not merely functional, but also indicates the semiotic surplus that marks robots as more than robot, which is subsequently incorporated into various discourses about “Japan,” especially the oft-shared vision of a future where humans and robots “coexist” (kyōzon) (Robertson 2018; Sone 2017). Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Tokyo between 2017 and 2018, this paper interrogates how Japan is imagined as a site of semiotic surplus of more-than-robot robots.

Suhyun Choi, University of British Columbia

Chima Jeogori and Its Representations in Japan: Gender/ed Imaginations and Artistic Intervention”

My research project began with a question: how has hanbok (lit: Korean dress) been transformed into chima jeogori (lit: skirt and shirt) in Japan? This gendered relocation of the Korean ethnic dress reveals the entangled history of modern and contemporary East Asia and the intersection of imperialism, nationalism, modernity, and gender. In this project, I investigate how chima jeogori has been deployed by different actors in the history of modern and contemporary Japan for their imaginings of East Asia.

First, I address the ways in which chima jeogori was appropriated by two groups: for the Japanese imperialist visions of East Asia and modernity by Japanese artists; for a nationalist resistance strategy by the Korean diasporic community in Japan. These two seemingly divergent strands inform us how the female body and dress have been utilized as tropes in imperialist and nationalist imaginations of East Asia, while broaching the question of female subjectivity. Second, I explore the use of chima jeogori by contemporary Korean diasporic artists in Japan, with an emphasis on the ambivalence that their works produce: chima jeogori is reconstructed and recontextualized by the artists, while already loaded with the imperialist and nationalist visions and inevitably read as a sign of a specific ethnic and gender identity. Some critics have interpreted their works as forms of resistance and empowerment; however, I argue that this is too simple a reading. Rather, the ambivalence in their works may provide us with a more complicated, but productive, understanding of their diasporic experiences and of their transnational imagination of East Asia.

Yuchen Yan, Harvard University

“Electrifying Ginza: Re-visualizing the Rise of an Urban Place in Interwar Japan”

This presentation examines the appearance of Ginza as the most prominent urban place in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s by re-visualizing the history of electricity. Studies on modernism, gender and consumerism of interwar Japan have illuminated the crucial status of Ginza as a stage of the cultural and materialistic transformation. Omnipresent in magazines and films visualizing modern girl fashion, café culture, and department stores, Ginza as a site and a background of historical happenings has been taken for granted, yet the image and history of Ginza itself—how Ginza became Ginza, remain obliterated. In this light, this presentation adds another dimension to the narrative of Ginza with the approach of a media archaeology. Focusing on the development of electricity in Ginza area and how such history was visualized in photographs, paintings, and posters, it offers a new way of seeing through visual media such cultural and material aspects as cinemas, subway system, dancing halls from the fundamental electrical infrastructure. As such, this essay uncovers hitherto unnoticed continuities and ruptures in the electrification of Ginza during the interwar period, intertwined in the social, intellectual, economic, and political transformations. By narrating the obscured history of Ginza as a mediated object instead of a container of modern life, my project further problematizes the teleological tendency of reading Ginza as the culmination of interwar modernization or prelude to Tokyo’s subsequent urbanization and globalization. Rather, the becoming of Ginza unfolds in a historical contingency that deserves an immediacy of its perceptible presence in visuality.