Visible Evidence 2021

After Subjectivity: Affect, Politics, and Contemporary Chinese-language Documentary

Hongwei Bao
Ma Ran
Luke Robinson
Respondent: Kiki Tianqi Yu
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Rehearsal 2), Online
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Trans Affect: Ways of Seeing and Feeling Transgender in Chinese Independent Documentary

This article examines the representation of trans characters in independent documentary produced in the PRC from the 1990s to present. Through textual analysis of some key titles, in tandem with filmmakers’ published interviews, this article interrogates the complex relationship between cis-identified filmmakers and trans-identified characters. Revisiting the ‘male gaze’ theory and the documentary ethics scholarship, this article analyses the complex sets of gaze, feeling, and desire that circulate between the cis male filmmaker and the trans female subject, and between the cinematic space and the real life.

These desires build on heteronormative and patriarchal relations of power but often go beyond them. They signify a mixture of empathy, fascination, enchantment, and attachment that are generative and transformative. Indeed, as they harbour the potential of challenging fixed notion of gender, sexuality, and desire, they also render documentary ethics more contingent and flexible. I call this transformative relationship between the filmmaker and the filmed subject ‘trans affect’. Trans affect describes the intimate and dynamic relationship between cis male filmmakers and trans female characters; it is objectifying and subjectifying, sympathetic and empathetic, fetishistic and alienating at the same time. It also has the potential to transgress fixed boundaries between the subject and the object, and points to the affective and transformative processes of filmmaking and human interaction. The concept of trans affect therefore has significant implications for a nuanced understanding of documentary ethics in representing trans and other marginalised subjects.

Hongwei Bao

Hongwei Bao is Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK, where he also directs the Centre for Contemporary East Asian Cultural Studies. His research primarily focuses on queer media and culture in contemporary China. He is the author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (NIAS Press, 2018), Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism (Routledge, 2020) and Queer Media in China (Routledge, 2021).

“I am Li Xiaomu”: Transnational Affect in Chinese-in-Japan Documentary in the New Millennium

Part of a comprehensive project delineating and historicising the so-called “Chinese-in-Japan” cinema, concerning the practices of producing, curating, exhibiting, viewing, and critiquing film images of the Chinese-in-Japan since the late 1980s, this study highlights several documentaries centering on one common character—Li Xiaomu, a Chinese immigrant who came to Tokyo in 1988 and emerged in the pre-social media age as a celebrity “guide” (annaijin) working at the metropolitan’s most infamous adult entertainment district Kabukicho. Despite that Li’s unextraordinary transborder trajectory has inspired and intersected with quite a sum of transmedia cultural works (e.g., autobiographies, photobooks, and fiction films), this research mainly turns to an independent documentary, I Want to Run for Office (2016) directed by Xing Fei, together with a web documentary series titled I am Lixiaomu (2019), produced by NetEasy News Japan—they have documented and highlighted Li’s self-invention as a Japanese politician since 2015 after his naturalization.

Approaching Chinese-in-Japan identity as an opened-up, fluid assemblage of multiple Sinophone articulations, this article examines Li’s performativity in relation to a temporalized understanding about his translocal male body. Importantly, leveraging the idea of transnational affect, this study not only interrogates the diasporic sentiment apropos Chinese-in-Japan subjects like Li. Also, we turn to Li’s election campaign on screen as a site where various assemblages of the sense of (un)belonging and (dis)connection intermingle, the flows of which have surpassed the officially defined framing about Sino-Japanese relations.

Ma Ran

Ma Ran teaches at the international program of “Japan-in-Asia” Cultural Studies and the program of Cinema Studies (eizogaku), Graduate School of Humanities, Nagoya University, Japan. Her research interests include East Asian independent cinemas and film festival studies, for which topics she has published several journal articles and book chapters, including contributions to Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation (2017) and The Japanese Cinema Book (British Film Institute, 2020). Currently she is working on subjective filmmaking and self-documentary in postwar Japan. Ma is the author of Independent Filmmaking across Borders in Contemporary Asia (Amsterdam University Press, 2019).

Worrying about China with CNEX, Sundance, and Wang Jiuliang

This paper addresses the politics of US involvement in Chinese-language independent documentary production. I focus on the case of the CNEX-Sundance Documentary Institute workshops in China. Initiated in 2011, these collaborations between cross-Strait production company CNEX and the US-based Sundance sought to introduce techniques around pitching and editing to independent documentary filmmakers in the PRC. The idea of storytelling was critical here, underpinning how filmmakers were taught to package both themselves and their work. I argue that this reflects the roots of the workshops as de facto civil society projects, originally sponsored by the Open Society, and the centrality of “story” to the framing of these documentaries as examples of what Pooja Rangan terms “humanitarian intervention”: media that can mitigate the impact of a hostile or absent state by drawing global attention to their subject matter. Using Wang Jiuliang’s Plastic China (2016) as a case study, I explore how “humanitarian intervention” manifested not just in a film that follow character-driven narratives focused on an implicitly universal, rights-bearing individual who seeks to mobilise audience feelings, but also in a filmmaker’s performance of a similar professional narrative through, for example, screening Q&A sessions. The result is a particular affect—“worrying about China”—that elicits a viewer response focused on individual rather than systematic change. I thus argue that the workshops were spaces primed to maximize the interpenetration of neoliberal economics and politics in the films and filmmakers who passed through them, and in the audiences who came to view them.

Luke Robinson

Luke Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Media and Film, University of Sussex, UK. He is the author of Independent Chinese Documentary: From the Studio to the Street (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and the co-editor, with Chris Berry, of Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). His writing on Chinese-language feature film, animation, documentary, and film festivals has appeared in journals including positions: asia cultures critique, Film Studies, Screen, Journal of Children and Media, and Journal of Chinese Cinemas.

Respondent: Kiki Tianqi Yu

Kiki Tianqi Yu is a filmmaker and Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary University of London. Her research focuses on documentary and non-fiction cinema, Chinese and East Asian cinema, Daoism and cinema, and women’s cinema. Her publications include China’s iGeneration: Cinema and Moving Image Culture for 21st Century (2014), ‘My’ Self on Camera: First Person Documentary Practice in an Individualising China (2019), ‘Women’s First Person Documentary in East Asia’ a special issue of Studies in Documentary Film (2020). Her films include Photographing Shenzhen (2006), Memory of Home (2009), China’s van Goghs (2016), and The Two Lives of Li Ermao (2019).