Postal modernism in the cinema

Siqin Gaowa, Chow Yun-fat, and Vicki Zhao in The Postmodern Life of My Aunt.

Ann Hui's new movie The Postmodern Life of My Aunt tells a story of love, games, and opera. But what makes it postmodern? Nothing, according to Hu Xudong, a noted columnist, poet, and Peking University professor. In a column for The Beijing News last week, Hu mused on how the term "postmodern" is misunderstood in contemporary society.

Note: those ads for "Postmodern Town" that Hu mentions were captured on Danwei in 2003 and 2004.

The Modern Life of My Step-Aunt

by Hu Xudong

Since it entered China, the word "postmodern" seemed predestined to attract a cloak of vulgar sketches. I remember more than a decade ago when the intellectual world had just begun to import "postmodern" concepts into the country that among the scads of translated theory that Chongqing Publishing House put out, someone actually translated "postmodernism" (后现代主义) into "postal modernism" (邮政现代主义). Before its underlying reasons could be worked out in the minds of intellectuals and literati, the hapless "postmodern" was casually tossed out to the public by advertising and the media. In Beijing a few years back, through successive assaults by real estate advertisements, the public gained a dramatic understanding of the "intellectual geography" of the term "postmodern": what's behind the modern is the postmodern. For at the time, there was a hot-selling development called "Postmodern Town" [aka American Rock] whose spatial situation was right behind a development called "____ Modern Town" [aka SOHO New Town].

More than a decade has passed, and although in the wishful thinking of many intellectuals, "postmodern" is a concept that like Tiger Balm can be applied anywhere, that like China Unicom covers everything, in the plain vocabularies of many common people, the term "postmodern" is an unreadable string of random letters. One of the most striking examples is The Postmodern Life of My Aunt by elder sister Ann Hui On-Wah, who tied her boat to Hong Kong cinema back in the day. I have always kept a respectful distance from such spooky names, but in the great spirit of "no taboos when supporting domestic products," I dialed the information number of a theater in Zhongguancun to pick a suitable showtime.

When the call connected, a lovely voice said, "Showtime information. For Babel, press one, for The Host, press two..." but then something wasn't right. "For The Post [one second pause] Modern Life of My Aunt, press five..." After pressing five, again there was "The Post [one second pause] Modern Life of My Aunt is showing..."

At first, I excitedly went around telling all my friends this story of "The Post, Modern Life of My Aunt," but then I suddenly realized that in China, "postmodern" appeared onstage as a joke clad in the clownish outfit of "postal modernism"; if intellectuals have not fully cleared away the vestigial influences of "postal modernism," then how can we demand that a common cinema employee waste time and effort to polish the delivery of the term "postmodern"? Whether it is read as "the postmodern life of my aunt" or "the post, modern life of my aunt", it will not in any way lessen the confusion of the aunt doing about whether life in Beijing is modern or postmodern. This feeling is even stronger after watching the film. The life of Siqin Gaowa's Aunt, in both narrow-minded Shanghai and the desolate, bitter northeast, never connects to the word "postmodern." If Ms. Hui wanted to show the touching fate of a woman, then why did she choose to link this bitter fate with "postmodern," a term doomed to be a joke?

Like the Zhongguancun cinema hotline, a friend of mine has a hard time saying the awkward title The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, but her mistake is fairly special: she has unconsciously remembered it as "The Modern Life of My Step-Aunt" (后姨妈的现代生活). I personally feel that she has stumbled upon the central problem of the movie: on the mainland, amid complicated psychological journeys and the changes of modern life, even the intrepid Ms. Hui is but a "step-aunt" who's barged in mid-process. The narrative she provides of the life of a mainland woman in changing times is actually just a view through the eyes of a "step-aunt" of a life that can barely be called modern. If this is not the case, then how is it that as she narrates Auntie's bitter life in the northeast, she does not forget to turn a curious camera to something commonplace for mainlanders and greedily snatches shots of ads for counterfeit documents?

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There are currently 2 Comments for Postal modernism in the cinema.

Comments on Postal modernism in the cinema

Most of the ads for this movie have a serious typo and call the movie "the postmodern LIFF of my aunt"...

Postmodernism - in any field other than architecture, where it literally means the style that came after the modern style - is a pile of Western anxiousness. The "end of history" and the fact that language creates a division between the human mind and 'reality' (which is itself an illusion) were already expressed and discussed in ancient Eastern texts, from the book of Genesis to the Daode jing.

Not sure how a pile of Western anxiousness (sounds like a criticism?) relates to certain ideas that were expressed long ago in Eastern texts (and does Genesis refer to the Book of Genesis? Shouldn't that be considered a Western text, since the Bible's most profound influence has primarily been on Western cultures, and would have played a role in the development of Modernist and Post-Modernist thought?)

I can't comment on other forms of art, but Post-Modern lit. has nothing to do with the end of history (you're thinking of Fukuyama, who's a libertarian slash historian) though it does delve into subjectivity quite a lot--in fact the main difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism is how the fragmented subjective self is viewed in relation to its surroundings. Where Modernist writers viewed the conflict as one of torment, Post-Modernists consider the fragmentation to be a conscious act one can analyze, play with, and enjoy. It too is called 'Post-Modern' because it follows Modernism. For this reason, not surprisingly, metafiction tends to be Post-Modern rather than Modern.

Obviously this film is getting the definition of Post-Modernism wrong according to accepted usage, but I think most Post-Modern thinkers would accept what the film is doing (whether intentional or not) to the definition because Post-Modern thought is all about breaking down constructs and rebuilding them into something new; so why not do that with the very term itself?

It's also important to realize that, at least for literature, it's impossible to define exactly what a particular era means until it has passed--we're still in the midst of post-modern writing, or maybe it's starting to change again--but it's hard to see what the box looks like while we're inside it.

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