The Aesthetic of Late-Capitalism: Changes in Chinese Cinema

Updated: Feb 6

Original artwork by Saira Sujanani

This is the second article in a two-part series analysing how the epochal shift to late-capitalism has influenced contemporary cinema. In the previous article, I highlighted how contemporary American films no longer imagine political alternatives to the societal issues apparent in capitalist modernity (Jameson, 1991). Similary, the last decade showed the unconscious abandonment for societal resolution incontemporary Chinese cinema. Since the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the prior generations of Chinese directors have held, to various extents, a desire for political alternatives. The state-supported melodramas of the 50s and 60s most explicitly expressed this revolutionary desire due to their propagandic endorsement of the communist regime. The immediate aftermath following the Cultural Revolution resulted in a series of ‘scar dramas’ which examined the consequential trauma of Mao’s reign (BFI, 2014). These narrative subjects continued into the ‘fifth generation’ of Chinese filmmakers. These directors attempted to resolve this national trauma with their modernist aestheticism (Zhang, 1997). Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1991) and Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (1993), aesthetically reproduced the Cultural Revolution as historical melodrama. There is good reason for this. Only their decidedly human subjects of romance, artistry, sexuality and familial bonds could heal the inhumanity of the Cultural Revolution’s violence. Their theatrical sensibilities of vivid colour and exaggerated acting offer an alternative memory to the grim reality of Mao’s rule. Whether consciously or not, these films presented a hopeful desire for transcending such trauma. Something has happened to Chinese cinema since. The end of the 90s brought the ‘sixth generation’ of filmmakers, whose works were characterised by a documentary-style, aesthetic minimalism (BFI, 2014). This was most represented in Jia Zhangke's Platform (2000), The World (2004) and Still Life (2006). They each feature low-budget production values to complement their narrative subject: a working class grappling with the new social reality of globalisation. Scenes are marked with uncomfortably long-takes, dull colour schemes and lack of music to convey the seemingly endless monotony of late-capitalism’s labour. The aesthetic form has no intention of disguising the inconceivability of an alternative society. As the Chinese economy increasingly embraced market capitalism’s normativity, Chinese film depicted it.

The stylistic trademarks of the sixth generation were brought to their logical extreme in the 2010s. Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013) presented four, episodic stories of violence spanning across contemporary China. Beginning in the rural province of Shanxi and spanning to the urban metropolis Guangzhou, each narrative segment constructs a despairing allegory for Chinese capitalism. The film’s narratives are loosely based upon real, recent crimes that occurred in China. Within these dramatizations, the film’s protagonists are all pushed to violent acts due to capitalist circumstances. Dahai, a rural miner, unleashes his anger at his labour-exploitation by undergoing a violent rampage. Tao, a receptionist, stabs a man in retaliation for attempting to coerce her into prostitution. Finally, economic pressures push a number of young industrial workers to suicide. In each segment, the film’s narrative highlights how contemporary China’s societal hierarchy has dehumanised its citizens. To quote Zhangke’s critical remarks; ‘The expansion in China has been so fast, there’s been no room for the system to catch up with any kind of humanity’ (2013).

What is significant is that these depicted Chinese societal hierarchies are no longer consequences of an explicit political ideology or the remnants of Confucianist philosophy. They are merely symptoms, as Marx wrote, of the reproductive nature of capital’s domination: ‘The more the worker produces capital, the more capital enslaves and alienates the worker’ (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). As A Touch of Sin illustrates, China’s idiosyncratic economic model still produces the same global, violent consequences of late-capitalism. Zhangke’s grim portrayals of Chinese late-capitalism received an aesthetic continuation in Hu Bo’s slow-cinema epic An Elephant Sitting Still (2018). Complimented by a mammoth run time of four hours, Elephant draws on Andrei Tarkovsky’s aesthetic philosophy: to utilise long-takes to express the physical weight of passing time (Tarkovsky, 1986). In doing so, Bo’s film fully expresses the monotonous sensory experience of China’s industrial North. Colours are drained, scenes are accompanied by haunting synthesiser drones and the camera moves at a hypnotizingly slow pace. By employing these aesthetic techniques, the film lulls the viewer into the same repetitive rhythm experienced under Chinese late-capitalism. The result is that Elephant aesthetically replicates the ‘cognitive mapping’ of China’s alienated population. Cognitive mapping refers to the process in which an individually mentally replicates their everyday physical, spatial environment. The individual creates this cognitive map with their own information and perceptions. Consequently, the individual should be able to use their cognitive map to position themselves within the totality of their physical environment (Lynch, 1960). Yet, as experienced under capitalist modernity, individuals are alienated from their surroundings and are unable to cognitively relate themselves to their space: ‘the alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves’ (Jameson, 1991). The cognitive mapping of Chinese capitalist alienation is equally expressed in Elephant’s narrative. As a piece of hyperlink cinema, the film uses the narrative technique of presenting multiple, seemingly separate character arcs that eventually intertwine (Quart, 2005). Each of these characters experience various misfortunes as a consequence of their economic conditions. Yet whereas previous generations of Chinese film would have presented a desire for societal resolution, Elephant’s protagonists are condemned. Their narratives cannot experience alternative circumstances just as it is seemingly impossible for China to follow an alternative to global capitalism. The film thereby reflects China’s contemporary capitalist-realism: the inability to imagine an economic system outside of capitalism (Fisher, 2009). The only hint the film provides of an unconscious, societal desire is that of escapism. The four protagonists meet narratively due to a shared desire to travel to the near city of Manzhouli. There, they hope to witness an Elephant who sits in ignorance of the world: ‘There is an elephant in Manzhouli. It sits there all day long. Perhaps some people keep stabbing it with forks. Or maybe it just enjoys sitting there. I don't know’ is recounted to us in the film’s early moments. Their one desire is not societal resolution or alterative, since these are no longer imaginable under late-capitalism. All the individual can wish for is escape.

Late-capitalist aesthetics are equally apparent within the cinema of many other countries. Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) presents the cognitive mapping of Sweden’s urban alienation in a series of exaggerated vignettes. Just as with China’s sixth-generation, Andersson uses uncomfortable cinematography and the absence of melodrama to evoke this alienation. Similarly, Michael Haneke’s Cache (2005) documentary-esque minimalism and absence of melodrama aesthetically replicates the tension of contemporary French societal division. Though markedly different in their aesthetic sensibilities, both Burning (2018) and Parasite (2019) push South Korean class division to the forefront of their thriller-narrative structure. What these aesthetic changes convey is that our national politics are mere consequences of a broader, global development of late-capitalism. Certainly, films may still engage with local political circumstances but it is no longer possible to separate them from their globalised context. Instead, we should understand these films as national expressions of a global, shared response to contemporary capitalism.

Films Discussed Andersson, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) Bong, Parasite (2019) Kaige, Farewell, My Concubine (1993) Haneke, Caché (2005) Yimou, To Live (1991) Zhangke, Platform (2000), The World (2004), Still Life (2006) and A Touch of Sin (2013) Bibliography British Film Institute. (2014). A Century of Chinese Cinema: An Introduction. [online] Available at: Fisher, M. 2009. Capitalist Realism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso. Lynch, K. (1960). Image of the City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. Marx, K. (2000). ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’. In: D. McLellan, ed., Karl Marx, Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Tarkovsky, A. (1986). Sculpting in Time. London: Bodley Head. Quart, A. (2005). Networked: Don Roos and ‘Happy Endings’. [online] Film Comment. Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020]. Zhang, X. (1997). Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms. Durham: Duke University Press.

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