What is the sentimental? How can we understand it by way of the visual and narrative modes of signification specific to cinema and through the manners of social interaction and collective imagining specific to a particular culture in transition? What can the sentimental tell us about the precarious foundations of human coexistence in this age of globalization?
Rey Chow explores these questions through nine contemporary Chinese directors (Chen Kaige, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou, Ann Hui, Peter Chan, Wayne Wang, Ang Lee, Li Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang) whose accomplishments have become historic events in world cinema. Approaching their works from multiple perspectives, including the question of origins, nostalgia, the everyday, feminine "psychic interiority," commodification, biopolitics, migration, education, homosexuality, kinship, and incest, and concluding with an account of the Chinese films' epistemic affinity with the Hollywood blockbuster Brokeback Mountain, Chow proposes that the sentimental is a discursive constellation traversing affect, time, identity, and social mores, a constellation whose contours tends to morph under different historical circumstances and in different genres and media. In contemporary Chinese films, she argues, the sentimental consistently takes the form not of revolution but of compromise, not of radical departure but of moderation, endurance, and accommodation. By naming these films sentimental fabulations& mdash;screen artifacts of cultural becoming with irreducible aesthetic, conceptual, and speculative logics of their own& mdash;Chow presents Chinese cinema first and foremost as an invitation to the pleasures andchallenges of critical thinking.
In her latest study of contemporary Chinese cinema, which encompasses films from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States, Chow (Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema) leaves behind theoretical avant-gardism and political correctness, instead delving into what she characterizes as "moderate sentimentalism." Chow sees moderate sentimentalism as an attitude of acceptance rather than one of explicit determination to reject and expel. Pictures such as Temptress Moonand Happy Togethermanifest the current trend to reflect joy and longing for a utopia existing only in the protagonists' imagination (as opposed to the traditional yearning to return home to family). Even protagonists who would have been disparaged in earlier films-the criminals, the disadvantaged, the handicapped-now receive more humane treatment, as seen in recent releases such as Blind Shaftand Happy Times. Chow's rich knowledge of Chinese films enables her to draw associations among myriad works, revealing details we might otherwise have missed. Because she looks beyond the casual interpretation of cultural phenomena, she captivates us with her challenging and refreshing arguments. Highly recommended for academic film collections.