Translating Culture

Yingying, Zhenzhen, and Fenfen? China at the Festivals

Dina Iordanova

Evolving Translation

In this chapter I explore how the film festival circuit facilitates the appearance of diverse and educational Chinese themes into the West’s public sphere.1 The proliferating festivals and festival showcases—mainstream and alternative, diasporic and domestic, officially sanctioned and underground— channel multiple narratives: from the budding feminist Qiu Ju, through seditious tongzhi, to the forlorn sisters from Wang Bing’s film.

Why would we care about these three little village girls from Wang Bing’s documentary Three Sisters—Yingying, Zhenzhen, and Fenfen? Why would we want to sit and watch them care for the goats and labor in the pigsty rather than opt for a sleek martial arts film full of slick special effects? Like other Wang Bing films, Three Sisters makes for demanding viewing; it looks more like Italian neorealism than a Shaolin fantasy, more like La Terra Trema than La Dolce Vita. What does the showing and seeing of such films in the context of film festivals do?

These films facilitate the emergence of a more diverse, varied, and complex China in the minds of non-Chinese viewers—an emergence of i ndividual human experiences that anyone can relate to, and which takes

D. Iordanova (*)

University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland © The Author(s) 2017

C. Berry, L. Robinson (eds.), Chinese Film Festivals, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55016-3_11

place through the conduit of festivals. Even if working in an uncoordinated fashion, the circulation of films through the festivals unpacks, complicates, and ultimately “translates” the narrative of a country, gradually dropping the formulaic cliches and limited range of stereotypes, and substituting them with a multitude of characters and a more complex, multi-faceted, and multi-layered understanding.

This process of opening up, surfacing, and translation can have far- reaching consequences. Names of cities beyond Shanghai and Beijing gradually emerge and settle in the minds of the audience. Their image of Chinese people may still gravitate between the straight-faced and black- suited comrades who give speeches in pompous red surroundings on one hand, and busloads of garish female tourists headed to the Burberry outlet in Hackney on the other. Yet a uniform version of China is no longer viable for the multi-centered “post-American” world. The story needs to be augmented if a real dialogue is to occur; the commonplace “rise of the middle-class consumer” needs to be counterbalanced by stories from the “real” China.

The discovery of Chinese cinema certainly takes place through the festival circuit, and so to a large extent does the discovery of China itself. Films and festivals indeed construct, suggest, and sustain certain narratives of countries. It is fascinating to see this process of “translating” and “unfolding” a culture at work. Here, I show how the putative scenarios related to China’s current “breakthrough” define the variety of festivals and other events that facilitate the “translation.” I identify three types of festivals: the cultural diplomacy festival, the corrective festival, and the business card exchange festival. I explore each in its own right, showing how they represent different stakeholder configurations, and in the process further developing my specific approach to the study of film festivals.

This discussion is a concrete extension of some general assertions made in the introduction to my book The Film Festival Reader.2 I build on the premise that to understand the specifics of a festival, one needs to analyze the unique configuration of its stakeholders, which in this case directly reflects varying existing views of the way China will evolve in the near future. Furthermore, one needs to study how the film festival structures and narrates itself, what its components are, what constitutes the play of power between its participants, and how this play is re-enacted in the time and space of the festival and beyond. To employ a technological metaphor in this technological age, such examination focuses on the festival’s “hardware” (venues, hub), its “software” (films, programming, sidebars), as well as the “interface” of its components (the coverage, the party). Once a solid understanding of the stakeholder configuration has been established, I believe it will lead to further studies analyzing how the festival inscribes itself into its local context and insinuates itself into the global galaxy of other festivals.

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