Dull sex in a messy Square: traumatic boredom in Lou Ye's Summer Palace | Mila Zuo

1989 was like a love affair between students and the government. It wasn’t a good one.
— Lou Ye
Tiananmen is the symbol of the People’s Republic of China. What do we look like if the Square’s a mess?
— Deng Xiaoping (May 13, 1989)

At the heels of the 2016 US. presidential election, a student in my revolutionary cinemas course groused wearily, “Why do we have to talk about politics? We’re so exhausted.” Outrage seems to be an unsustainable model for continual political engagement, and the daily onslaught of unbelievable news leaves many drained and depressed. Aptly, phrases like “trauma fatigue” and “compassion fatigue” address the somatic symptoms of adrenal glands being overworked and overrun by anxiety, stress, and worry. Whereas melancholia, ghosts, and spectrality have become favored concepts in trauma studies, we have been less inclined to consider the ways in which fatigue, exhaustion, and even boredom follow in the wake of grief and mourning.1 Nevertheless, recent critical engagements with “racial battle fatigue,” “burnout society,” and the “ends of sleep” in late capitalism characterize enervation as a biopolitical disease contracted from exposure to capitalist institutions and neo/liberalist apparatuses.2 If formations of proper subjectivities require a compulsory 24/7 availability and energetic up-for-it-ness, can exhaustion and boredom produce useful types of provocation or resistance against such pressures? When my students complain of exhaustion, do they actually mean boredom? If so, what are the aesthetics of (post-)traumatic boredom?

This essay approaches these questions by stepping away from American political burnout and engaging with another failed democracy. The following analyzes a postsocialist Chinese film that waited 17 years to deliver its filmic dehiscence, an aesthetic unsuturing of a traumatic wound. One of only three Chinese narrative films to date that overtly represents the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, colloquially referred to in China as “6/4” (Liusi), the date in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened fire on democratic Tiananmen protestors, Yiheyuan (Summer Palace, 2006) contains the most explicit cinematic portrayal of the Incident. Banning Summer Palace indefinitely, and its director Lou Ye from filmmaking for five years, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (hereafter SARFT) perceived the film and its filmmaker as instruments of moral corruption. Although SARFT’s official reason for the ban cited Lou’s lack of an international exhibition permit when the film premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Summer Palace would not have passed censorship guidelines, not only because of its depiction of 6/4, but also for its graphic sex scenes and full-frontal nudity. In a private interview, film deputy director of SARFT Zhang Jianyong stated that the “20 or so sex scenes” in the version of the film submitted to SARFT contained only sound and no image. In fact, only seven scenes feature actors simulating penetrative intercourse. Nevertheless, Zhang’s recollection of “20 or so” scenes testifies to Summer Palace’s repetitive, fatiguing fixation on sex. Collapsing his own stupefied frustration at Lou’s perceived taunt with the film’s sexual gratuity, Zhang opined that the sex scenes were “excessive and unnecessary.” What is gratuitous about the pornographic nature of Summer Palace extends both to its taboo depictions of sex and to its unpermitted depiction of the June 4th Incident. In the eyes of the state, the intimate sightings of the bodily spectacle inscribed in both the film’s sex and politics show too much skin. Violating Chinese censorship criteria, Summer Palace “divulges state secrets” and “defames the superiority of national culture” through its depiction of state terror against its own people (HDKTC Research 2008). What is perhaps more radical, however, is that Summer Palace cultivates an aesthetic of banality to dramatize the epistemological limits and resultant trauma of 6/4, a historical event subsequently repressed in mainland Chinese media. What do we do with “untimely” historical objects that do not comfortably fit into dominant narratives and epistemological spaces? Relatedly, how should artists respond to traumatic events which have become open secrets, allegedly known by everyone but spoken about by few?

Summer Palace is not the only Chinese film to use sexuality as an optic through which the Tiananmen struggle and its quotidian impacts are examined. Similarly, in Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu (2001) and mainland director Emily Tang’s Conjugation (2001), the trauma of 6/4 refracts in realms of love and romance.3 What distinguishes Summer Palace from these films is that it does not ultimately depict sexuality as a condition or possibility for redemption or resistance. Relentlessly pursuing aimless young bodies that dance together, strike one another, and have sex in chaotic private and public spaces set within as well as outside of China, the film’s diegesis spans nearly two decades. The love affair between students of Beiqing University (Lou’s fictionalized name for Beijing University), Yu Hong (Hei Lao) and Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), is set against the backdrop of intense political drama. The two meet and have a torrid romance until the night of June 4, 1989. That night, both young people get involved with the demonstrations, after which Yu Hong finds out that Zhou Wei has slept with her best friend, Li Ti (Hu Ling). Despite going their separate ways after these events, the lovers remain fixated upon one another in heart and mind. Yu Hong yearns for Zhou Wei (who relocates to Berlin with Li Ti where they continue their affair) in the diary entries to which we are made privy through frequent voiceover musings. The years pass and after a series of love affairs, an abortion, and Li Ti’s suicide, Yu Hong has little to say, and we no longer have access to the protagonist’s interiority. At this point, with a little less than an hour remaining, the disembodied musings of her voiceover flee the film, but the restless and discontented bodies remain. Eventually, when Yu Hong is finally reunited with Zhou Wei on the side of the Beijing-Beidaihe highway, the two find themselves at a loss for words, and once again part ways.

Relevant to those who participated in the defeated pro-democracy movement, Summer Palace asks how resistance takes shape through the body. Unrooted individuals comprise a disjunctive universe in which corporeal agency constitutes the foundation from which democratic idealism proceeds. However, as the promise of democracy dissipates, so do the characters’ sense of purpose and bodily control. Yu Hong continues to pursue sex with strange men as a means of protracting her past, an erotic repetition compulsion that demonstrates Elizabeth Freeman’s observations on the entanglements between melancholia and sexuality: “The scene’s affect and object secret themselves in body and psyche, to be released in the grieving subject’s sudden feeling of carnal desire” (Freeman 2005, 65). The object of loss, the affective source of melancholy, can only be discharged through carnality. Nevertheless, Yu Hong’s manic attempts to preserve a “lost erotic encounter” only leave her insatiate. The three central characters Yu Hong, Zhou Wei, and Li Ti wander aimlessly and discontentedly across various cities (Tumen, Beijing, Berlin, Wuhan, Chongqing), seeking a return to a pre-Tiananmen state of originary passionate attachment while engaging in anticlimactic social interactions and repetitive, unerotic sex scenes. Rather than eliciting mimetic effects on its spectator, the numerous sex numbers in Summer Palace begin to lose their arousing appeal, and the sexual event fails to re-attach the characters to their once-exuberant love, formerly infused by the effervescence of political hope. Gradually losing his/her cinematic appetite, the spectator embarks on a relationship of bored endurance with the two-hour-38-minute film, which finally elicits from its viewer a deep and unsettling feeling of apathy.

An internationally well-known figure of the Chinese “Sixth Generation,” comprised of institutionally-trained filmmakers who attend to the challenges and contradictions in twenty-first century China, Lou has been lauded by film scholars and critics for his experimental approaches to wide-ranging settings including the Second Sino-Japanese War, the early 1990s reform era, and the contemporaneous globalized era. Despite the director’s acclaimed auteur status, Summer Palace is often regarded as Lou’s longest and least pleasurable film to watch. Colleagues who have seen this film report headaches, nausea, and general feelings of frustration and confusion. Corroborating such effects, Village Voice reviewer Julia Wallace commented on the film’s “stretches of inscrutable mediocrity” (Wallace 2008), and Variety’s Derek Elley complained that the film was “at least a half hour too long” (Elley 2006). Such testimonies support film theorist Richard Misek’s observation that “[b]ecause it imposes duration, cinema is a privileged site of boredom” (Misek 2010, 778). Films that feature “too much” sex are not typically susceptible to these kinds of criticisms—nor have Lou’s other works been on the receiving end of such censorious remarks.4 Lou’s overuse of sex, a dull instrument by the film’s end, constitutes Summer Palace’s privileged sight/site of boredom. Sex, rather than constituting the censored obscene act, stands in for something far more offensive. That the onscene sexual spectacle becomes boring and repetitive reveals that the ob/scene—that which cannot be seen—has drained life of its vitality.

A Beijing Film Academy student at the time, Lou participated in the protest but was not present on the evening of 6/4 when martial law police officers opened fire on the protestors. His own seven-minute depiction of 6/4 conflates the personal and political: “The high wave was the demonstrations. You see the vehicles burning behind Yu Hong; it represents her emotions” (Stoffman 2006). Yu Hong embodies Tiananmen Square. Just as her body is the site of many highly-charged love affairs throughout the film, many political gatherings in the name of love of country were staged in Tiananmen.5 Undergoing both pleasure and violation, Yu Hong’s body re-envisages the Square, and in turn, Lou feminizes and abject-ifies the Square, returning it to its protest form—a state of desublimated entropy, constituting the film’s visual aesthetic of traumatic boredom. If boring sex depicts the revolution’s ill-timed grab at democratic jouissance in the film, then Lou’s messy Square aestheticizes its traumatic hold.

6/4 is not only un-representable because of censorship laws; state cover-up prevents its knowability. The facts of the night, including the exact events and the number of those who died, remain unclear. Summer Palace can only thereby approach its subject matter through affective simulation of the arousal of democratic promise and idealism, the unspeakable terror of military crackdown, and the disappointing malaise experienced by university students in the aftermath of the 1989 movement. Through haptic sympathy, if not historical realism or re-creation (Lou likes to state that he is no historian nor is he interested in recreating history), spectators experience the broader affective structures of hope, loss, and defeat that underline the film’s experiential political subject. Thinking alongside Rizvana Bradley (2014), Hentyle Yapp (2014), Laura U. Marks (2000), and other scholars engaging with embodied aesthetics, I contend that Summer Palace’s haptic aesthetics, which Bradley describes as “the viscera that ruptures the apparent surface of any work,” moves spectatorial bodies toward disappointment, prostrating rather than energizing viewers. Summer Palace’s uncontrollable spasms through the characters’ bodied performances, and the film’s disjunctive cinematography and editing produce not only onscreen restlessness, but also spectatorial agitation, dis-ease and fatigue that loiter after the film ends. In contrast with the lingering performance artworks by Zhang Huang and He Chengyao, which Yapp (2014) observes as forms of meditative and resistant (even if indeterminate and confused) forms of endurance, Summer Palace demonstrates the ways in which boredom complicates object-subject relations, as the characters’ ennui becomes a contagion that infects spectators with similar feelings of tedium. Dramatic events take place, and yet, no one, including the spectator, seems to care what happens by the film’s end.

Boredom is a permeating, trespassing force—an intensity not necessarily recognized as such. Relevantly, Sianne Ngai’s concept of “stuplimity” fittingly characterizes the film’s aesthetic experience in which “astonishment is paradoxically united with boredom” (Ngai 2009, 271). Contesting a Kantian account of the sublime, defined by transcendence, transformation, and an emotional disinterestedness on the part of the subject, Ngai argues that the experience of “being aesthetically overwhelmed involves not terror or pain (eventually superseded by tranquility), but something much closer to an ordinary fatigue” (Ngai 2009, 270). Traditional accounts of the sublime fail to account for the unmistakable experience of boredom and its powers of stupefaction in cultural works that obfuscate one’s understanding or connections to historiography, postmodernity, and capitalism. Such works, in other words, aim to “stranger” its reader or beholder. Similarly, Summer Palace simultaneously draws upon sensation and aesthetic fatigue in order to approach excessive post-traumatic feelings towards the Tiananmen Incident. Refusing melodramatic catharsis, the film’s stalling and stupefying effects perform both the amnesiac circumstances surrounding 6/4, as well as the compassion fatigue that followed.

Within a Chinese context, Ban Wang explains that, contrary to Kant’s negation of sensuality in the categorical sublime, the making of the “sublime figure” throughout modern Chinese history has depended on a masquerading of the political as aesthetic experience (Wang 1997, 7). Politics caches within aesthetic sensualities, and the Chinese sublime is both earth-bound and worldly, circulating within the mundane domain of subjectivity. Drawing a parallel between author Can Xue’s “schizophrenic” and “grotesque” novels and artist Barnett Newman’s abstract paintings, Wang writes:

Entering the world of Can Xue’s narratives, one is often struck dumb, suddenly face to face with a desert of thought and a crisis of naming. The bewilderment is well summed up in Lyotard’s question concerning the sublime experience of Barnett Newman’s painting: ‘Is it happening?’ (Wang 1997, 245)

Although Can and Newman’s works are more inscrutably experimental than Summer Palace, Wang’s description of bewilderment suitably describes the film’s spectatorial response. Whereas the operative word “it” in Lyotard’s inquiry refers to the difficulty of reading abstract forms, the same question as it applies to Summer Palace lingers on “happening.” Although everything seems to be happening (sex, breakup, migration, abortion, marriage, suicide), nothing feels consequential. Truly a burden of representation, the film’s traumatic gravitas feels like deadweight, a crisis both in naming and in feeling.

Even Yu Hong’s own name (yu as in “surplus”) gestures to the ways in which Summer Palace generates the affective remainder, the feeling yu (excess), when memorial attachments are denied by official discourse. If, as Sara Ahmed contends, “objects are often read as the cause of emotions in the very process of taking an orientation towards them” (Ahmed 2014, 6) Summer Palace and its weary longings for remembrance perform the conditions of disorientation whereby the erasure of knowledge propagates excessively “un-sticky” emotions. To wit, when the causal object is missing in public discourse, its epistemological lack generates an even greater, even if inarticulable, desire—an elusive jouissance (a painful pleasure that eludes capture). In contrast with the passionate attachments generated by sticky emotions like love and hate, “un-sticky” emotions and minor negative affects propagate exhaustion, irritation, boredom, and ambivalence. Because 6/4 cannot exist in official Chinese history, the traumatic event becomes an object towards which affects and feelings are denied attachment and orientation. Yet, because many Chinese are aware of 6/4, the public secrecy of its knowledge becomes a neurotic disavowal, in the form of a simultaneous denial and recognition. Thus an anxious sense of boredom (restless, fidgety, and lacking an object) becomes a kind of obscenity—that which cannot be represented and which hatches its own indecent gestures in a world wherein disinterest and dispassion represent social failure. Boredom becomes even more obscene by dint of its shameful association with defeat, characterized as something that needs to be conquered within the feeling subject. Summer Palace cinematizes the phenomena of post-traumatic dullness, an injury that persists only through its ambivalent and dispassionate aches, a soreness that cannot be placed. Along with the spectrum of ugly and equivocal feelings that linger in trauma’s wake, apathy can take on a particular charge as passive resistance, becoming an expression of refusal and detached noncompliance. Thus film, as a representational-aesthetic object, can elicit boredom from its spectators as an alternative anti-sensational method by which to represent and elicit political frustration. In contrast with Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s feminist masterwork Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commere, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which instrumentalizes the slow time of domestic labor in order to induce a great shock with its penultimate depiction of feminist ressentiment of murderous rage, Summer Palace features no such release valve for its frustrated female protagonist. Nor does it offer the kinds of contemplative, curious engagements offered by slow cinema in general, which film scholars have praised for its capacity to dilate and make room for intellection via muted aesthetics and the Deleuzian “time-image”: long takes and shots, expressionless characters, static camera, slow cutting rate, thematic foci on stillness, emptiness and desolation.6 Although Summer Palace does not predominantly feature these aesthetics, it does offer another aesthetic cinematic slowness—a listless, languid apathy through the characters’ embodied performances that deliberately prohibits its spectator from fully encountering or comprehending its trauma.

The film’s troubling boredom stems from Lou’s affective portrayal of the failures of China’s unsuccessful democracy movement. Disappointment and its deflations of emotion and affect bring to bear implicitly anti-cinematic affects insofar as film is generally regarded to be a sensational, (hyper)affective medium. As Lou is unable to fully and directly address the Tiananmen Incident due to epistemological limitation and censorship policies, he instead instrumentalizes affective narration to strike ambivalent moods and align spectators with structures of feeling experienced by Tiananmen participants. Furthermore, Lou constructs a cinematic love story between two college students to explore his notion that, “1989 was like a [failed] love-making experience between students and the government” (Martane 2008). Describing the film’s post-Tiananmen melancholic impasse and perpetual aporia in terms of an incoherent fixation on “historical sickness,” “endless pathos,” and a “great sense of despair,” Yiju Huang interprets Summer Palace as Lou’s defiance of the master logic of history and interpolation into stable meaning systems (Huang 2010). However, I read Lou’s defiance of master logics—not through sickness, pathos, and despair—but rather through the more troubling aesthetics of boredom. That is, Lou’s film illustrates the ways in which apathetic boredom produces a kind of agitation and irritation unable to attach to an object, thereby giving the impression that boredom persists indefinitely without a terminal point. The film’s affective disposition begins maniacally with rapidly-edited sequences and musical montages when Yu Hong first arrives to college. However, after its diegetic depictions of 6/4, the film grinds to a desultory and aimless drift. Summer Palace constitutes an affective-aesthetic memorial to the Tiananmen movement, producing a cinematic anchor to decelerate efforts to forget 6/4 and move on. If Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke’s Happy Games (1997) envisions parental grief as a still tableau, as Brinkema (2014) observes, Summer Palace contrastingly envisions political grief as a restless and anxious boredom. Boredom thereby signifies both the aporetic ruptures of Chinese capitalism, which many see as the economic apologia for 6/4, and the only possible response the state’s citizens are permitted in the event’s aftermath. Summer Palace reproduces such fatigue by overtaxing and overloading its aesthetic, demonstrating the ways in which, as Porzak (2017, 577) notes, “boredom seems to derive from excess,” following the French etymological meaning of boredom (bourrer: “to stuff” or “to satiate”). Accordingly, Summer Palace frenetically pivots around an open secret, the historical memory of Tiananmen, as nervous sensation is composed within and without the text. The excessive contours and shapes of the memorial wound in Summer Palace take on the particularly anxious forms of dull sex in a messy Square.

Encircling jouissance and boring sex

Summer Palace’s pathological repetition of sex scenes, at first exciting, begins to rupture the narrative ad nauseum. Like the saccharine 1959 Paul Evans song, “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat,” which plays at the club where Yu Hong and Zhou Wei dance together for the first time, the film repeats sex as if a trite chorus, with each repetition a dreary amplification of futility in satisfying the protagonist’s sexual desire. “Seven Little Girls” is a euphemism for Summer Palace’s own sexual and narrative aimlessness. As both couples (Li Ti and her boyfriend; Yu Hong and Zhou Wei) literally dance around one another in circles, the song also foreshadows Yu Hong and Zhou Wei’s repetitive but unsatisfying coupling. The mid-century American song, lingering inappropriately in the scene, lyricizes about a male driver who repeatedly invites the “seven little girls” sitting in the backseat to come up and sit next to him, all to no avail, because the little girls are too busy “kissin’ and a’huggin” Fred in the backseat. The song beckons transhistorical, transnational comparison between 1980s reform era-China, an effervescent moment referred to as “Cultural Fever,” and the American post-WWII economic boom (during which “Seven Little Girls” was produced). Although such comparisons have their obvious limitations, 1959 and 1989 each represent a hinge year at the end of a decade, at the poignant precipice of great social, cultural, and political tumult and transformation for both nations.

First, a numerical co-incidence. The seven graphic sex scenes resonates with the song’s seven little girls, as the repeated chorus of sex scenes indicates the characters’ growing disillusionments with love. Also resonating with the seven Tiananmen student protestor demands (which included freedom of press, educational reform, transparency of government salaries, and clemency for political prisoners), the numerical seven, sang here in English, meaningfully—even if mordantly—connects the singer’s desire for the “seven little girls” with the Tiananmen protestors’ seven conditions.7 Evans’ song thus imparts a vision of jouissance, an excessive pleasure, with the subject driving forward in perpetuity, unable to “keep [his] snoopy eyes on the road ahead” and fixed upon the desirous-but-always-lacking objet petit a (the unattainable object of desire) just behind and out of reach. Similarly inaccessible are the women’s object of sexual passion (Zhou Wei) and the unarticulated desire for democratic autonomy, the abstracted and backgrounded political object of desire. Analogous with the singer’s voyeuristic gaze at the backseat, “Seven Little Girls” locates jouissance in past-ness, gesturing to the “open wound” of melancholia, and yet, the song’s infantilizing tone combined with the characters’ encircling dance movements feels spurious. Such liquid repetitions of the performing body visualize the psychoanalytic phenomenon of perpetual encirclement around objet petit a and the Real, a shape that reveals the impossibility of direct access and thereby sustains such objects through abiding unattainability. Lacanian theory envisions drive itself as a circular, or elliptical orbit around objet petit a, resonating with Andrea Long Chu’s shapely description of the post-traumatic feeling of blue as that which feels like “be[ing] caught in the gravitational curvature of an imploding event” (Chu 2017, 304). The circle, in other words, is how jouissance and trauma shape up in our psyches, cohering ex-timately here in images of rotating bodies bobbing up and down—dancing as a precursor to horizontal intimacies. Meanwhile, the song’s narrative informs us that the object of desire is always-already the object of loss, producing a surplus of longing, a point reaffirmed by the preceding non-diegetic song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” which neurotically repeats the line: “You’re just too good to be true.” Analogously, the characters in Summer Palace are fixated on the traumatic past and similarly unable to keep their eyes “on the road ahead” because of their fixation on a too-good-to-be-true object.­ The mocking tone of the song illuminates the ways in which sex, another kind of repetitive circling of bodies, anxiously approaches what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the comicality of the sex act—that there is “something irreducibly funny (stupid, excessive) in the sexual act” insofar as it contains the “very discord between the intensity of the act and the indifferent calm of everyday life” (Žižek 1997, 176).

Summer Palace illuminates the “stupid, excessive” quality of the sexual act, honoring the etymological meaning of “stupid” as a state of “be[ing] stunned or benumbed” (Oxford English Dictionary Online) through Yu Hong’s perpetually unsatisfying, compulsive sexual behavior. Meanwhile, the film’s graphic sexuality exposes the state’s superego which both demands and regulates jouissance from its subjects. Invoking in tone the morally righteous rhetoric of the 1930s Hollywood Hays Production Code, SARFT’s censorship criteria dictates that any Chinese film or television show with the following sex acts are cut or altered: “scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia” (HKTDC Research 2008). Summer Palace violates SARFT’s criteria, especially as it exposes the “private body parts” of actors Hao Lei, Guo Xiaodong, and Hu Ling in full-frontal nude scenes. Although their genitalia can only be glimpsed from the peripheries of the film’s frame, Summer Palace’s use of marginalia as the site/sight of ecstasy reveals the strain of jouissance as a perpetual longing towards an object that is always just out-of-frame and out of grasp. Distinguishing the “erotic” from the “pornographic” photograph, Roland Barthes explains that punctum does not appear in pornography and thus, “at most it amuses [him] (and even then, boredom follows quickly),” whereas the erotic “takes the spectator outside its frame” (Barthes 1981, 59). Although the aforementioned shots in Summer Palace reproduce such out-of-frame eroticism through genital dis-location to the frame’s extremity, the film’s repetition of this technique eventually propagates pornographic boredom, even while reterritorializing jouissance elsewhere.

Indeed, the elusiveness of jouissance is held in tension with the film’s desire to capture. The cinematographic treatment of the characters’ naked bodies reveals the ways in which the filmic apparatus, as a tool of surveillance, reproduces both the state’s watchful scrutiny of obscenity and the offensive scene. Before attending university, Yu Hong loses her virginity to her boyfriend Xiao Jun (Cui Lin) in an abandoned field in her hometown, Tumen, a town that borders North Korea. In the film’s first sex scene (eight minutes after the film begins), the young actors urgently and passionately kiss and simulate intercourse, as a stabilized handheld camera hovers and floats around them, framing them in out-of-focus, shallow, and haptic close-ups. Meanwhile, as the sky darkens behind them, a spotlight on their bodies reproduces the raw, low-budget aesthetics of amateur pornography, simultaneously signifying (sexual) authenticity and (mediated) artifice. As the camera shakily captures the actors from a high angle, going in and out of focus, abrupt hard cuts awkwardly join together different perspectives of the actors’ bodies. This spotlight technique is repeated twice more: first, in a post-coital moment between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei wherein the harsh, unflattering light casts a bluish tint upon their naked bodies, and then when we first see Zhou Wei and Li Ti having sex in her dormitory. College administrators interrupt the lovers in flagrante delicto and interrogate them, flashlights radiating their faces. A man demands, “What are you two doing? What department are you in?” before ordering the shamed pair to go with them. Minutes later, Yu Hong finds out that her best friend and boyfriend slept together through a student who informs her that the news “will soon be made public,” a threat that conjures Cultural Revolutionary indictments on the grounds of immoral sexual behavior. In each instance, the unnatural illumination reminds us that we are watching other bodies, “strangering” them, as the technique amplifies scopophilic fascination. Lou’s use of spotlights situates the spectator in a place of mastery, using an apparatus of surveillance and hypervisibility to insist upon spectacularity through optics of suspicion. Spectatorship thus bears the weight of accusation, the spotlight materializing our acute, directional act of looking, as its targeted illumination also produces a dampening, depressing effect that reduces its human subjects to moving props. In conjunction with the repetition of graphic sex scenes, the focused radiance of bodies produces a filmic equivalence to what Ngai describes as “thick language” (Ngai 2009, 256) agglutinative writing that reflects its own lack through accumulation, therein provoking hermeneutic stupor. The accumulated effect of seeing such bodies in this light—a luminous punctuation that turns their bodies into animated corpses—becomes stunningly tiresome, as the sameness of repeated heterosexual intercourse with (meaningless) difference generates a thick tedium and monotonous display of intimacy. Lou thus presents sex as a clumsy athletic exercise, a messy enervation of tumbling bodies attempting to fill the vacated space that remains in the post-political wake of a failed revolution.

Figure 1: Lou's spotlight evokes amateur pornography aesthetics and calls attention to itself as artificial mediation.

Figure 1: Lou's spotlight evokes amateur pornography aesthetics and calls attention to itself as artificial mediation.

Figure 2:  Summer Palace  reproduces the displeasing tints and hues of surveillance lighting.

Figure 2: Summer Palace reproduces the displeasing tints and hues of surveillance lighting.

The post-Tiananmen malaise is a condition of impossibility—beyond tiredness, realization, and acceptance. Beyond the threshold of tired lies exhaustion. Interrogating Samuel Beckett’s linguistic and televisual productions revolving around themes of exhaustion, Deleuze writes, “The tired has only exhausted realization, while the exhausted exhausts all of the possible. The tired can no longer realize, but the exhausted can no longer possibilitate [sic]” (Deleuze 1995, 3). In other words, “You were tired by something, but exhausted by nothing” (Deleuze 1995, 4). The final image of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei’s final meeting envisions such vacuous debilitation: the estranged couple walks together zombie-like at the ocean’s cold edge, bodies barely able to keep upright, let alone able to speak or make love. In this image of defeat, even interior bones and muscles have lost the will to proceed. Whereas the film opens on the border of China and North Korea in Tumen, the film’s final sequence at the Beidaihe ocean-side spatializes the exhaustive geographical threshold between China and the point of oceanic “nothingness.” As Yu Hong’s voice-over flees and the film has “dr[ied] up the flow of voices” (Deleuze 1995, 12) there is simply nothing left to say, nor are there words capable of signifying the state of exhaustive un-possibility and indeterminacy. When the two end up in a depressing motel room performing the gestures of foreplay (Zhou Wei stands behind Yu Hong, wearily grabbing her breasts), they are simply too tired to go further. Each desires that which resides firmly in the past, when the mood in Beijing was suffused with sexual and political arousal. As Lou states, “At that age, I think love and politics are very similar—the impulse, the passion, the emotion and then, after the high waves, the memories” (Stoffman 2006). Relatedly, Jonathan Flatley, in his examination of counter-revolutionary mood, contends that, “Only within a mood or by way of mood can we encounter things in the world as mattering to us” (Flatley 2012, 503). As the prospect of democratic liberation mattered so profoundly to university students in 1989, permeating the overall mood, so too did the epiphenomenon of sexual experimentation (bodily autonomy) intensely matter. However, as Porzak rightly contends, “If waiting for the revolution is boring, then boredom would be perhaps the most fundamentally political affect” (Porzak 2017, 593). In post-Tiananmen, beyond the realm of the democratic possible, the state of suspended waiting hosts feelings of bored exhaustion. Because Chinese democracy has never and may never come, its desiring subjects are suspended in what Porzak describes as a “revolutionary waiting for a different future [that] must not name or figure this future” (Porzak 2017, 593). Waiting, an act saturated in anticipation and fixation on futurity, delivers unto us the fundamentally political affect of boredom. Boredom, however, also constricts action, as it marks the subject’s finitude.

Figure 3: Yu Hong and Zhou Wei, “exhausted by nothing,” are in/underarticulate—in both speech  and  in their listless carriage of skeletal joints and movement.

Figure 3: Yu Hong and Zhou Wei, “exhausted by nothing,” are in/underarticulate—in both speech and in their listless carriage of skeletal joints and movement.

The film is interested in the pursuit of a certain bodily finitude: orgasm. Nevertheless, orgasm does not seem tenable through heterosexual relations in Summer Palace, and only politicized ecstasy and queer desire come closer to achieving the kind of ethical finitudes intimacy promises. Heterosexual penetration is presented repeatedly throughout the film without the onto-revolutionary promise of orgasm, which is, in the words of Enrique Dussel, the “ecstatic paroxysm where subjectivity and the ‘I’ decentralize in order to become totalized in mutual voluptuosity” (Dussel 1985, 81). Whereas in Dussel’s conception, the phenomenological-metaphysical aspects of coitus and orgasm constitute an ethical erotic practice based in mutuality and justice, in Summer Palace neither China nor Yu Hong is liberated. Despite the film’s abundant moans and cries of pleasure, Yu Hong never reaches climax during sex with her male partners. In the film’s longest sex scene between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei, an abrupt edit cuts to the couple on a picturesque boat outing, sublimating orgasm into romantic cliché. If bodies are summoned to exhaust the political through sex, women’s bodies, in their inability to achieve orgasm, demonstrate the ways in which political engagement is gendered as a type of unrewarded feminine labor. Nevertheless, Yu Hong simulates the act of “climaxing” when she is alone, her restless body curling up on the dirty floor of an emptied swimming pool, as her voiceover gives a physiological description of excessive pleasure: “The most frightening thing happened again. I couldn’t sit still or remain calm. I wanted to keep writing. All I could do is lie down and close my eyes. I was in a cold sweat.” Yu Hong writhes at the border between the deep and shallow ends of the pool until her breathing grows weaker and she loses consciousness. In the grips of ecstasy, Yu Hong’s petite mort offers the sensational sight of female pleasure through her restless body as Lou’s camera pans above, revealing her fetal position. Yu Hong’s sensual movement suggests erotic pleasure in the self-reflexive act of writing, her desire politicized given the diegetic context, as freedom of the written word was one of the primary demands of the student movement. By framing Yu Hong’s desire to write as orgasmic, Lou not only eroticizes her political yearning, but also suggests her inability to achieve political liberation via erotic relationality. Nevertheless, the film’s own ecstatic paroxysm frames queer desire as a pre-condition of democratic (im)possibility.

As a form of political foreplay, queer desire becomes sublimated into revolutionary impulse. Prior to her auto-erotic sequence at the pool, Yu Hong teaches her dorm-mate Dong Dong to masturbate. It is the only sexual encounter during which Yu Hong smiles. Standing topless behind Dong Dong, Yu Hong’s hand guides Dong Dong’s hand as she learns to pleasure herself in front of a mirror. Sublimating and/or intensifying their sexual desire for one another, the friends proceed to seduce two male protestors in their shared room. These events precede the Tiananmen protests. As Yu Hong’s voiceover recounts Beijing University students gathering towards Tiananmen Square (this time, Lou refers to the actual university), frenzied shots show Yu Hong and friends climbing aboard and enthusiastically singing on a worker’s truck-bed. A Chinese pop song about love accompanies the sequence, bridging Lou’s re-enactment to an indexical recording of the historical event, a montage of news footage taped and broadcast during the actual seven-week protest, but which has since been kept from public view. Students bearing enthusiastic smiles hold up signs, gather under Mao Zedong’s Tiananmen portrait, and march in the streets. Happy vignettes of protest are captured on video, meanwhile the clean penmanship of the banners advocating democratic principles prick the spectator with the wounding signifiers of the protestors’ self-consciousness and painstaking care. It is the desire for writing, of free expression, that is again fetishized by Lou. The song’s climactic chorus accompanies the visually differentiated, video news footage, both valorizing and authenticating these now-rarely seen, politically sensitive images.8 At this point, the song lyricizes: “Every ray of light will be absorbed by me, all the air will be inhaled by me. Every single thing will be weightless. Our love has been to the end of all roads.” The use of documentary footage set to the expression of a narcissistic individualism through love produces a vision of political ecstasy in the film’s most moving segment, its own re-imagining of coital collectivity and justice through an ecstatic union of hopeful bodies. Drawing out a sensation of wonder through a surge of nostalgia, this effervescent segment asks that we consider how the world has taken shape the way it has.(9) By suturing together Summer Palace’s fiction with historical video, Lou re-animates memory, as well as the very image of duration between traumatic event and mythologized reminiscence. After 6/4, however, life for Yu Hong and her friends brake to a sluggish torpor.

Similar to Dussel’s grounding of liberation in eros, Lou’s equivalence of sex and politics in Summer Palace recognizes that both involve a forcible reckoning with the desires of the Other. However, Yu Hong’s compulsive sexual behavior never manifests into praxis of liberation. Nor does she find a “love [that] has been to the end of all roads,” because as Lou states, “after 1989, people felt like they had lost something, like they had broken up with a lover” (Watts 2006). To borrow terms from Linda Williams’ account of pornography’s temporal fantasy, Summer Palace represents the “on time” revelations, or simultaneous “coming” together during the film’s “climax,” of Yu Hong’s double betrayal in the state’s military violence and in her friend and Zhou Wei’s affair. In Summer Palace, however, rather than pornography’s “utopian fantasy of perfect temporal coincidence” (Williams 1991, 11) during which sex partners attain climactic mutual pleasure, the scene only acts out dystopian fantasies of ill-timed coincidence.

Although they never mention the Tiananmen Incident, the characters’ weary bodies perform the burden of its knowledge. Despite its inarticulability of trauma, the film nevertheless ends on a memorializing text, an attempt to discursively, even if indirectly, mediate traumatic awareness. After the film’s final scene when Zhou Wei drives off, leaving Yu Hong on the side of a highway, a textual epilogue provides a brief description of the characters’ unremarkable lives, placed atop shots from the “Seven Little Girls” scene, before finally ending on Li Ti’s tomb inscription: “Whether there is freedom and love or not, in death everyone is equal. I hope that death is not your end. You adored the light, so you will never fear the darkness.” A memorial to the idealistic youth and lost hopes of the film’s characters, its doubled meaning addresses those who lost their lives during the 1989 movement. Nevertheless, an uneasiness pervades this memorialization, marked by the dubiousness of its opening phrase, “Whether there is freedom and love or not.” A discomforting appendage, the “or not” reminds us of post-traumatic ambivalence and the insipid cynicisms that pervade the boring state of waiting.

The Square is abject: clutter, chaos, collapse

Tiananmen (“gate of heavenly peace”), built and reconstructed in Ming and Qing dynasties, created nested enclosures in Beijing’s center to hide the emperor from public view and protect his power. As Chinese film scholar Yingjin Zhang aptly observes, Tiananmen Square “remains an absolute space, an abstract space, a contradictory space, a differentiated space, a social space, a leisure space, potentially a counterspace, and therefore a utopian space” (Zhang 2009, 56). Like the sublime, the square encompasses everything and nothing (Hung 1991, 85). After the founding of the People’s Republic, walls and towers were leveled to the ground to protest the old order as the Tiananmen gate was expanded into an immense guangchang (square), which as Wu Hung explains through bodily metaphor, became “a legitimate place for people to meet their leaders (or vice versa), an indispensable joint between the high and the low, the brain and its body” (Hung 1991, 90). During the 1989 movement, protestors desired direct, immediate interaction with the Communist Party. Appropriating the sublime as a mode of militant charisma and power, students forcibly took the Square (see Lee 2011) . However, as more than one million people eventually occupied Tiananmen, the state was greatly disturbed by what they perceived to be its sacrilegious, filthy defilement as protestors co-opted its monumental sublimity. The “profane” uses of the symbolic Square resulted in foul squalor after weeks of squatting by democratic protestors (see Hershkovitz 1993, 414). Deng Xiaoping, then Chairman of the Central Military Commission, fretted about Mikhail Gorbachev’s impending visit and finally made the call to forcibly clear the Square: “Tiananmen is the symbol of the People’s Republic of China … .We have to maintain our international image. What do we look like if the Square’s a mess?” (Zhang et al. 2008, 14).

The film’s messy, dirty, and cluttered “square” (in fact a standard 1.85:1 cinematic rectangle) evokes the spatial chaos of Tiananmen during the protest movement. Lou’s reproduction of the “messy” protest Square throughout the film’s mise-en-scène, creates a visual thickness that scatters and deracinates coherence and attention, pointing to the crisis of bearing witness and remembering trauma. Recalling such “a mess,” abjection permeates the spaces of Summer Palace, viscerally sparking nausea, headache, and nervousness. People who are not addressed by name walk in and out of rooms, in and out of frame, giving a sense of the lived over-crowdedness and Beijing’s anonymous density. Inside cramped dorm rooms, clothes hang from above every which way, while desks are covered with glasses, books, and leftovers from earlier meals. Summer Palace invokes embodied displeasure as a result of hypervisualized clutter in the film’s mise-en-scène, and, as well, the vertigo created by the film’s often frenetic editing, handheld tracking shots, and frequent panning. A neurotic gaze, persistently scanning around the frame in the film’s manic sequences of youthful blunder, imbues Summer Palace with paranoid energy. Moreover, diegetic seasonal climates, foregrounding clouds, rain, snow, and fog produces a haze, a textual film within the film, which further contributes to Summer Palace’s visual strain and mise-en-scènic fatigue. In so doing, the nebulous layer destabilizes the coherence of Summer Palace’s exploration of post-trauma, prompting us, as Ngai suggests with “stuplimity,” to “look for new strategies of affective engagement and to extend the circumstances under which engagement becomes possible” (Ngai 2009, 262).9 By emphasizing the inability to see, Lou underscores the difficulties in remembering. The film’s messy mise-en-scène elicits a laborious task—wresting from us a strained gaze in order to make visual coherence. By overloading the image, the film ultimately induces the structural moments of boredom which Heidegger (1995, 59–164) describes as “being left empty” (Leergelassenheit) and “being held in limbo” (Hingehaltenheit).

Figure 4: A messy mise-en-scène evokes the mania of the protest Square, while suggesting encumbered memory.

Figure 4: A messy mise-en-scène evokes the mania of the protest Square, while suggesting encumbered memory.

As such overflowing images leave us unfulfilled, insatiate, and bored, the film’s liminal, gendered constructions of space hold us in limbo. Along similar lines of holding and hostage, when protestors took over Tiananmen Square in 1989, Communist officials not only complained about the detritus and “pollution” left by bodies that began to live in protest, but were particularly offended by the construction of a “Goddess of Democracy,” a monument made from papier mâché and foam by Central Academy of Fine Arts students, inspired by the Statue of Liberty. The Goddess stood facing and returning the gaze of China’s preeminent leader Mao Zedong, whose 15’ by 20’ portrait looms over the Square. The transformation of Tiananmen Square from a phallocentric, monumental space to a feminized, communal space during the protest movement was seen as terrifying development. On June 2, two days before police opened fire, Li Xiannian, former PRC President, referred to the statue when he complained to Party officials that, “Tiananmen Square is now [the] root of our turmoil-disease. Just look at that thing—like neither human nor demon—that they’ve erected there in our beautiful Square!” (Zhang et al. 2008, 32–33). For hardline Party elders, the Square was perceived as diseased, the womanly statue visualizing its most horrific symptom of abjection. The state, fearful of its own castration, preemptively ended the protest by reclaiming the Square from dissident squatters and returning it to its phallocentric symbolism after June 4, with a National Day parade immediately following the Incident.

Li’s descriptive apprehension about the statue (“like neither human nor demon”) evokes Barbara Creed’s interpretation of Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection as that which “works within patriarchal societies as a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject” (Creed 1996, 36). Kristeva describes the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system, order,” and “does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 1982, 4); the sublime is in fact an encounter with the abject, which seeks ascendance (sub-) “above the slime or mud of this world,” to quote Cohn and Miles (1977, 289). Although the Goddess of Democracy, both “thing” and “woman,” doesn’t appear in Lou’s cinematic rendering of the protests, its ontological ambiguity becomes displaced through the increasing abjection of the film’s principal characters who descend to the slime of this world by repeatedly falling, tumbling, and collapsing onto it. In one scene after having sex with Zhou Wei, Yu Hong returns to her dorm to wash her genitalia in a basin. The camera’s rude stare at Yu Hong squatting over the pot while her roommate Dong Dong plays a traditional song on the piba heightens the sense of undifferentiated space. The camera becomes voyeur as Yu Hong’s body collapses into the pan of sexual fluid. Her abject “waste-body” is echoed and amplified in her best friend’s Li Ti’s eventual “corpse-body,” her suicide constituting the film’s second scene of violent terror when she casually falls backward off a Berlin rooftop and kills herself. These falling/fallen body doubles in Summer Palace reveal the limits of memorial exhaustion. Envisioning the glide of the un-sticky affective object, the women’s wet bodies perform the slick limen of the abject.

Figure 5: The camera stares at Yu Hong’s wet abjection, slime of the sublime.

Figure 5: The camera stares at Yu Hong’s wet abjection, slime of the sublime.

Figure 6: Li Ti’s fall to her death is performed as a gesture of boredom—casual, slack, and lacking intention.

Figure 6: Li Ti’s fall to her death is performed as a gesture of boredom—casual, slack, and lacking intention.

The state eventually responded to the Goddess with violent retribution, as one eyewitness recalls,

A tank like a roaring crazy beast ran over the students’ tents. It then drove full speed ahead toward the statue of the Goddess of Democracy. With a loud crash the Goddess fell on the ground into fragments. She was dead, lying together with those murdered youths. (quoted in Hung 1991, 112)

In Summer Palace, this “fall,” signifying the bloody defeat of the democratic movement, is poetically conveyed through Yu Hong’s “fallen woman” storyline and Li Ti’s fatal fall to the ground. Yu Hong’s passions for love and writing steadily disintegrate; Li Ti’s crumpling body loses tension and breezily slumps off the edge of a Berlin rooftop. By reanimating the statue’s demise through a poetics of ataxic collapse, Lou engages in an abstract rehearsal of events after the fact, a memorial facsimile that affectively re-produces the chaotic horror and helplessness of 6/4. Such chaos, paired with an over-embellished visual frame, insists upon the difficult labors of witnessing trauma. Signaling the variations of sight (looking, gazing, staring, glancing), the film reminds us that bearing witness also takes on different postures—including that of total forgetfulness, as exemplified by Deleuze’s exhausted “amnesic witness” who has lost all ability to remember (as opposed to the tired, which can still recollect memory; see Deleuze 1995, 6). Is not the amnesic witness also bored by interrogations about a trauma s/he forgot?

Rather than pursue historical catharsis or political resolve, Lou instead provides a meditation on a trauma rendered unspeakable by the state, suggesting through suspended bodily agency and laborious aesthetics that while an event may be forgotten, equivocating feelings linger. Summer Palace displaces the injustices of the Tiananmen Incident onto uncontrollable spaces that host the volatile communions of public and private life: in dorm-rooms, parties, bars, streets, and rooftops. Meanwhile, it is the movement between public and private that creates life’s arbitrary violence, for instance when Yu Hong rides her bicycle back from her married lover’s home and is suddenly hit head-on by a motor vehicle. Unresolved past injustices return as capricious accidents in the present. In Summer Palace, Yu Hong and the Chinese body politic experience betrayal, disappointment, and defeat—repetitively performed through the sexual and political dramas of the film. However, despite its ambitious decade-long timespan, geographical crossings, and numerous plot twists, the film’s exhausting sensationalism leaves the spectator drained and bewildered. In contrast with Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty, which Paul Stoller conceives as “the solution to social asphyxiation … a space of transformation in which people could be reunited with their life forces” (Stoller 1992, 56), Summer Palace instead saps the spectator’s energetic engagement. Not so much cruel as it is thickly tedious, the excessive and repetitive text finally leaves us speechless and ill-equipped to respond in habituated manner. As Deleuze states, “only the exhausted can exhaust the possible, because he has renounced all need, preference, goal or signification;” in other words, exhaustion is “necessary in order to abolish the real” (Deleuze 1995, 5). If in this case, conditions of selective state memory constitute the social real, then perhaps an aporetic aesthetic can only respond with exhausted stupor and dumbfounded-ness. After all, without a proper burial, how does one resurrect the dead?

Honoring the elliptical gravity of jouissance, we’ll end at the film’s beginning. A lovelorn entry from Yu Hong’s diary opens the film:

There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It takes you off guard, and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow, and it’s impossible to shake. I don’t know what it is, so I only call it love.

A mode of uncertainty and crisis of naming establish Summer Palace’s point of entry. As an inadequate medium to convey Yu Hong’s feeling, the linguistic deixis (“there is something”) attests to heightened instability of memory and knowledge production in the context of political-historical erasure. Lacking the license to remember and the vocabulary of trauma, Yu Hong can only refer to the memorial shadows of 6/4 as love. Analogously, Lou reproduces this shadow feeling through the film’s aesthetics, rendering the crisis of remembering into spectatorial fatigue that is difficult “to shake,” particularly as its cinematic exhaustion feels out of step with, and contrary to, China’s twenty-first century breakneck growth and “progressive” development. Thus, as a drag on the spectacular momentum of Chinese modernity and its concomitant imagery of speed, the film becomes an unauthorized object in Chinese socio-political systems. Along similar velocities of capitalist flight, we find ourselves unable to reckon with the occasional slowness and soreness of a Western democratic state, in which for many, politics have become boring and where democracy is a perceived drag for its relentless production of exhausting defeats and anti-climactic victories. That is, while we can recognize the aesthetics of fatiguing boredom explored in Summer Palace with regard to China, the film also allows us to reflect on how we in the west are uncomfortable admitting our own debilitated present state of democracy, and how in the contemporary USA, the democratic process itself perpetually impedes movement and displaces “truth.” Waiting is part of the game. But, of course, that does not mean we should not engage.

As official Chinese discourses and knowledge productions refuse to acknowledge 6/4, films like Summer Palace cannot name the origin of trauma that has produced such restless bodies, and instead enacts a cinematic memorial of affective drag and sensational exhaustion. In Elizabeth Freeman’s conception of “temporal drag,” we reincarnate disavowed political histories and anachronistic feminist projects to challenge, or queer dominant visions of the future (see Freeman 2010). Likewise, Lou’s film draws upon a temporal drag that bores, or perforates glimpses into a Chinese democracy that could have been. Nevertheless, as Porzak contends in his recuperation of Gertrude Stein’s boring operas, “one way to refuse textual closure is to bore the reader into inattention, so that she may not ever fully or accurately encounter the text” (Porzak 2017, 581). Boredom becomes a mode of elision and elusion, a perpetual deferment of understanding, constituting a passive resistance in waiting that disowns the static present in anticipation of an always-becoming future. Meanwhile taglines for the film like “Don’t break my heart” and “Where did our love go … ” on marketing posters mask Summer Palace’s subterranean animus. Unable to remember 6/4 because of censorship and political-historical hypomnesia, Summer Palace “can only call it love.”


  1. The development of trauma studies beginning in the 1990s is credited to the influence of Sigmund Freud’s theories on trauma, initially proposed in Studies in Hysteria (Freud and Breuer 1895), wherein trauma exceeds representation, language, and fundamentally fractures or damages the psyche. According to such theories, trauma nevertheless remains a haunting or spectral presence in the individual and/or collective or historical consciousness. A “pluralistic” turn in trauma studies, to draw on Balaev (2018), suggests that trauma is accessible and that its psychic disturbances (including melancholia, one of trauma’s primary feelings) can become the source of new productions of knowledge. For a broad and concise overview of trauma studies. For a wide range of approaches to trauma, see, for instance, Baer (2002), Caruth (1995), Cvetkovich (2003), Eng and Kazanjian (2003), Kristeva (1989), and Singleton (2015).

  2. Although these terms (fatigue, burnout, and “ends of sleep”) refer to different and distinct phenomena, it is salient that a constellation of concepts emerging in the past few years orbits around boredom, even if not totally in conjunction with the notion. See, for instance, Crary (2013), Smith (2014), and Han (2015).

  3. In Lan Yu, homosexuality constitutes the oppositional outside to Chinese reproductive futurism, unfolding in a decade-long affair between two men. Swept up in the tumultuous 1989 Tiananmen period, the lovers internalize the state’s willful stupor in regards to Tiananmen, replicating such deliberate forgetfulness within their romance. Congruous with Song Hwee Lim’s contention that representations of male homosexuality in Chinese cinema “pos[e] a challenge to monolithic and essentialized constructions of both ‘Chineseness’ and ‘homosexuality’” (Lim 2006, 2), here, it is the Tiananmen Incident in Lan Yu which troubles Chinese historical memory and homosexual desire. In other words, 6/4 forces re-conceptualizations of memory as well as homosexual love in the wake of profound loss. Similar to Summer Palace, Conjugation explores the ways in which trauma disrupts sexual desire. However, sexual passions conjured during the 1989 protests between Conjugation’s lead heterosexual couple quickly dwindle in its aftermath, and sexual desire becomes reterritorialized and sublimated by the state-market forces of restaurant entrepreneurship and prostitution.

  4. Among Sixth Generation directors, including Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, He Yi, and Ning Ying, Lou and female filmmaker Li Yu notably use graphic sexual encounters to visualize points of contact and collision in modern China. Often depicting sex as the basis of human connection as well as the often unsuccessful means through which individuals confront social systems, an overwhelming sense of aimlessness also permeates Lou’s narratives. Young adults with inflated arrogance and blubbering insecurities literally and figuratively bump into one another, as their restless bodies navigate temporary urban spaces. Meanwhile Lou heightens swampish green and blue hues in his color palettes, imbuing skin with a sickly tinge and an unsavory subtext. Situating Lou and other “urban generation” filmmakers who rose to prominence after the Tiananmen movement within an “era of transformation” (zhuanxing), Zhen Zhang frames their work as an attempt to innovate film language through a mode of bearing witness to rapid and devastating changes in Chinese society, including the “phenomenological excess of the social and the anarchy of the market” (Zhang 2007, 7).

  5. For instance, the protests of the May 4th movement of 1919; the December 9, 1935 march to resist the Japanese invasion; the Red Guard rallies during the Cultural Revolution; the mass mourning of many political leaders; and the 1989 democracy movement.

  6. See especially Nick Salvato’s discussion of Kelly Reichardt’s films (Salvato 2016, 99). Elena Gorfinkel similarly interprets Reichart’s weary film bodies through anti/post-work feminisms and labor enduration (see Gorfinkel 2012). For more on slow cinema, see Lim (2014) and De Luca and Jorge (2015).

  7. According to Zhao (2001), the seven conditions were:

    1. reevaluate Hu Yaobang, especially in relation to his prodemocratic views;

    2. renounce the [1987] Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign and the [1983] Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and rehabilitate all the people prosecuted in these campaigns;

    3. reveal the salaries and other wealth of government leaders and their families;

    4. allow the publication of nonofficial newspapers and stop press censorship;

    5. raise the wages of intellectuals and increase government educational expenditures;

    6. turn down the “Ten Provisional Articles Regulating Public Marches and Demonstrations” promulgated by the Beijing municipal government; and

    7. provide objective news coverage of the student demonstration in official newspapers.

    Although unintentional, the impressive numerological co-incidence of “seven” also appeared when martial law was announced seven days after the start of the protestors’ hunger strike.

  8. This footage also appears in the Western produced documentary, Gate of Heavenly Peace (Gordon and Hinton 1996).

  9. In the passage cited, Ngai is describing how the shocking and the boring prompt new affective engagements, and I would add that difficult and incoherent aesthetics do the same.


The author wishes to thank Feng-Mei Heberer, William Brown, Vivian Sobchack, Ralph Litzinger, and the anonymous reviewers of Women & Performance for their helpful comments, feedback, and assistance.

Notes on Contributor

Mila Zuo is an assistant professor of film in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on cinematic affect, aesthetics, and embodiment, and her current book project centers on contemporary Chinese women film stars. As a filmmaker, Zuo’s work includes Carnal Orient (2016), which premiered at Slamdance Film Festival and was selected at numerous international film festivals.


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