Experiencing Life with Chen Kaige
Chapter 3 joins Fifth Generation Chinese director Chen Kaige on his pilgrimages to the Chinese heartland in Shaanxi and Yunnan Provinces while shooting on-location for Yellow Earth (1984) and King of the Children (1987), where he wrestled reflexively with his awareness of the neocolonial politics of “experiencing life.” Through archival research and close textual analysis, this chapter reconstructs two parallel journeys to the rural associated with these productions — one diegetic and the other extra-diegetic. Just as the films’ protagonists were “sent-down” to the countryside, Chen Kaige toured Shaanxi and Yunnan with his production crew during the films' pre-production. When read together, these journeys map rural China as a haunted psycho-geography, where both Chen and the films' characters learned to acknowledge their ultimately tenuous connection with the collective unconscious supposedly enshrined in the PRC’s most sacred historical landmarks. More broadly, by reading the films’ journey narratives as allegories of Chen’s own pilgrimages, I show that Chen’s place making not only interrogates the coherence of official frameworks of nation building under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, but also ushers in a new discursive construct of the auteur as an individualistic and semi-autonomous creative subject.
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