The surge of female-led urban romance films since the new millennium has been a significant phenomenon during the commercial transformation of Chinese cinema. Given that entertainment value for the mass audience has gained increasing importance in film production, established and emerging Chinese filmmakers yearn to explore domestic and international markets, often looking to Hollywood as the role model. The chick flick genre inspires a plethora of Chinese films probably due to its comparative “safety” in terms of censorship and investment. From the U.S.-educated director Jin Yimeng’s Sophie’s Revenge (2009) and One Night Surprise (2012), to the scriptwriter-turned-director Xue Xiaolu’s Finding Mr. Right series (2013, 2016), to the veteran director Gu Changwei’s Love on the Cloud (2014), to the writer-turned-director Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times series (2013, 2014, 2015), to Zhang Mo’s directorial debut Suddenly Seventeen (2016), the cheerful description of women’s pursuit of love and career in the metropolis strikes a cultural chord with Chinese audiences. At a time when the public struggles to make sense of the dramatic historical changes brought by rapid urbanization and global capitalism, the booming genre promotes a consensus that upward mobility and endeavors to materialize individual dreams constitute the core of social values in China. Among miscellaneous cinematic tales of romance comedy, Go Away Mr. Tumor (Han, 2015) is distinguished for merging the mirthful atmosphere of chick flick with the grim subject of terminal disease.
Based on the comic web series of the same name by a late cartoonist Xiang Yao (1982-2012), Go Away Mr. Tumor chronicles the young woman’s (Bai Baihe) crush on Doctor Liang (Daniel Wu) during her battle with a malignant tumor.1 Migrating to Beijing for her career and living with a coterie of close friends, Xiong (Xiang’s penname) keeps a youthful enthusiasm in face of her split with boyfriend, job loss and cancer diagnosis in quick succession. Similar to Harvey Pekar’s autobiographic account of struggling with disease in the graphic novel Our Cancer Year (1994), the film merges the woman’s harrowing treatment for illness with hilarious romantic subplots. The free-spirited Xiong sees the disease as the obstacle of God’s test, and her determination to die without regrets parallels with her indefatigable attempts to seduce Dr. Liang. Despite its lukewarm reception from the English-speaking world, as 327 IMDB users give a weighted average vote of 6.8/10, in China, the small budget film ($6 million) grossed over $80 million and beat the contemporaneous Hollywood blockbuster Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015). As the box office champion on the Chinese Valentine’s Day (20 Aug. 2015), the film received unprecedented official promotion.2 Apart from being shown at the BRICS Summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the China Film Week in New Zealand (An 2016), it was brought by President Xi Jinping upon his state visits to Serbia and the U.S. as a gift of cultural exchange (CNTV 2016). Considering that this diverting romance comedy was selected as China’s entry for the 2015 Oscars, much to the surprise of the young filmmaker and the bewilderment of critics (Gao 2015), the re-invention of Hollywood’s chick flick in Go Away Mr. Tumor arouses critical attention. By the end of 2017, more than 50 articles with “Go Away Mr. Tumor” in the title had been published within China, according to the CNKI China academic journals database.
The production and reception of Go Away Mr. Tumor illuminate the intricate dynamics among film industry, official ideology and public sentiment of global integration. Over the past three decades, Chinese cinema has evolved from a propaganda medium into a commercial enterprise to meet the rising needs of urban consumers, to compete with the influx of Hollywood films and to communicate with the world. The economic boom and loosening of the ideological constraints result in multifarious experiments in Chinese cinema, a tension-filled terrain where “problems and issues are constantly politicized under the guise of entertainment” (Zhong 18). As more and more capital and talents are drawn to the film industry where different ideological positions and cultural legacies coexist and compete with each other, the previous distinction of “official culture,” “popular culture” and “elite culture” in China gives way to the emergence of a new, commercialized mainstream culture endorsed by the government (Lu 353–74). To quite a number of Chinese filmmakers, Hollywood’s chick flick offers an effective vehicle to package local stories. Chick flick, a slang term for female-led films with a romantic or sentimental theme, is often dismissed for offering escapist fantasy to women audiences. Nonetheless, the genre succeeds in incorporating consumerist trends and emotional quandaries to build a communal experience among female audiences (Ferriss and Young 15; Radner 2011). From the description of female obsession with materialism in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Edwards, 1961), to the applause of romance across class hierarchy in Love Story (Hiller, 1970), to the issue of personal alienation in teen romances like Pretty in Pink (Deutch, 1986), to the modern Cinderella tale in Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990), to the recent blossom of neo-liberalist hits featuring strong women during economic recession (Negra and Tasker 2014), the charismatic woman on screen gradually transcends the niche market to appeal to a wide range of audience demographics. Rather than exhausting itself through the ebbs and flows of the past 50 years, the Hollywood genre displays a renewed sense of vigor in accordance with the changing political and social dimensions. The formula of chick flick is utilized in Go Away Mr. Tumor to promote the local context for worldwide audiences. The film addresses to a cluster of common issues—romance, friendship, betrayal and ambition—in a brisk tone, and applauds resilience in the face of adversity with vibrant sequences. The juxtaposition of motifs and genres presents a multifaceted picture of metropolitan life, notwithstanding its fragmented storyline and lack of climax. By situating Go Away Mr. Tumor against the shifting economic and cultural orientations of Chinese cinema, the article argues that this China-made chick flick both shapes and accommodates the public and official imagination of a cosmopolitan future of globalization.
Hollywood and Chinese cinema
The impact of Hollywood upon Chinese cinema can be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Since China’s first film production companies were founded by an American adventurer Benjamin Brodsky (1877-1960) in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1909, Chinese cinema developed out of cross-cultural collaboration when the encounter with the West helped to stimulate urban popular culture in China (Curry 142). Up until the 1930s, most film companies in Shanghai were owned by Westerners, and Hollywood films had dominated Chinese market and nurtured numerous fans.3 Film technicians from the U. S. trained the first-generation Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu; early films such as Yan Ruisheng (Ren, 1921), An Orphan Rescues His Grandpa (Zhang, 1923) and Fishing Song (Cai, 1934) appropriated storyline and choreography of American imports like Way Down East (Griffith, 1920) and It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934) (郑 28). A number of Hollywood’s originals were adapted into the Chinese context: whereas Don’t Change Your Husband (DeMille, 1919) was turned to Kisses Again (Xie, 1928) to examine Chinese tradition and Western modernity, the Chinese version of The Phantom at the Opera (Julian, 1925), Song at Midnight (Ma-Xu, 1937), managed to insinuate national politics into the horror story (Xiao 14-20). In spite of the public ban on Hollywood films in Mainland China during the cold war confrontation, Hollywood’s editing and cinematography has been widely adopted in Hong Kong cinema through 1980s and early 1990s (Bordwell 2011). On the eve of China’s entry into World Trade Organization,4 the insertion of Hollywood’s white-Chinese romance in the revolutionary tales of Red River Valley (Feng, 1996) and A Time to Remember (Ye, 1999) refashioned collective memories of the national past with a layer of internationalism. From the embryonic stage to its booming development, Chinese cinema has been appropriating Hollywood narratives and genres into local context throughout decades.
The trend to adapt American cinematic vernacular has reached a new height at China’s increasing global integration in the 2000s. The new phase of development is marked with a focus on transitioning from export-led manufacturing to a consumer-driven economy, and China has become the world’s second-largest movie market in 2012. As domestic box-office revenue reached US$6.6 billion in 2015 at an annual growth rate of 48.56% (宋 2016), Chinese filmmakers have been seeking to duplicate the worldwide success of Hollywood. New director Xu Zheng’s hilarious box office hit Lost in Thailand (2012) assimilated elements from Hollywood’s road movies; 3-D hit Painted Skin: The Resurrection (Wu, 2012) labeled itself as a “Chinese vampire film” (Tian, 2011); the award-winning 12 Citizens (Xu, 2015) paid homage to Sidney Lumet’s classic jury drama 12 Angry Men in 1957 (Yang 2018); Zhang Yimou, the renowned auteur of the “Fifth Generation” directors, cast Hollywood star Matt Damon as the lead in a monster blockbuster The Great Wall (2016) with the ambition of globalizing Chinese culture (Mcgovern 2016). While a plethora of independent films like Blind Shaft (Li, 2003) and Looking for the Rain (Yang, 2013) documented negative sides of China’s modernization at the risk of censorship, the development of genre films in China exemplifies a paradigm shift towards marketization for filmmakers and studio heads. Wanda Group, China’s entertainment giant, bought a major U.S. cinema chain AMC Entertainment in 2012 and Hollywood producer Legendary Entertainment in 2016 so that American audiences would have more access to Chinese films. Amidst the upsurge of transnational ownership and integrated media system, Chinese cinema learns copiously from Hollywood at various levels of film production, distribution and reception.
Hollywood’s chick flick plays a key role during Chinese cinema’s commercial transformation. Although the genre is often derided for its frivolous characters and utter commercialism, the storyline of smart women pursuing love provides inspiration to filmmakers in China, where women audiences comprise over 60% of cinema goers and college graduates over 84% (蒋2015). While All about Women (Tusi, 2008) claims to be the Chinese version of Sex and the City (King, 2008), My Best Friend’s Wedding (Chen, 2016) is a remake of the 1997 American film of the same name. Whereas the plotlines of Sophie’s Revenge (Jin, 2009) and Color Me Love (Chen, 2010) resemble those of Addicted to Love (Dunne, 1997) and The Devil Wears Prada (Frankel, 2006), Fall in Love Like a Star (Chan, 2015) is a rehash of Bride Wars (Winick, 2009), not to mention that Finding Mr. Right series (Xue, 2013, 2016) allude to Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993) and 84, Charing Cross Road (Jones, 1987) as primary texts of reference. The cinematic construction of the unmarried woman striving for love and career evokes collective empathy as audiences struggle to cope with challenges, uncertainties and opportunities in contemporary China. Since people are bound to perceive an order in the changing society where Western-style freedoms and consumer goods co-exist with unemployment and racing inflation, the uplifting romance tales on screen help alleviate public frustration caused by declining social security. The number of China-made chick flicks has risen so much that, in 2015 alone, female-led romance comedies took up 40.14% of the Chinese film output, far exceeding action movies (21.13%), animations (14.79%) and horror movies (9.15%) (新华娱乐, 2015).
The boom of chick flicks in China witnesses a peculiar twist with the production of Go Away Mr. Tumor. Compared with its contemporaries, which rely on Hollywood’s storyline, character designation and even marketing campaign, Go Away Mr. Tumor transcends genre-specific expectations by drawing on and departing from the conventional trope of chick flick simultaneously. The familiar love tale is redirected to the quasi-romance between a cancer patient and her doctor, and the melodramatic flavor is neutralized somewhat by real-life experiences of Xiang who endured being overworked in Beijing. Upon her diagnosis of lymphoid cancer in 2011, Xiang recorded her hospital treatment on Sina Weibo, the Chinese counterpart of Twitter, and the web cartoon series became a media sensation in China, where 688 million netizens take up about 50.3% of the total population (Xu 2016). Her story inspired thousands of dream-chasing “Beijing drifters” who flock to the capital city and frequently move around its periphery where rents are cheap. On a popular talk show A Date with Luyu shot a few days before her death in November 2012, Xiang made jokes about crippling bouts of chemotherapy, worried about weight gain as a side-effect of steroid medication and laughed at her little crush upon the oncologist doctor. She was involved in the cinematic adaptation of her cartoons and suggested that Bai Baihe, whose star persona of the sprightly yet terminally ill woman is established in the 2013 romantic tearjerkers A Wedding Invitation (Oh) and The Stolen Years (Wong), should be the most appropriate impersonation of herself (彭2015). Such optimistic courage is captured in the film and coheres with the official discourse of promoting “positive energy” in China. Co-produced by several private production companies like Wanda Media and Gosh Film Entertainment which intermediates between the government and the market, the film rejuvenates the saccharine genre with layers of local relevance and political context. As demonstrated by its playful title which defies the fatal tinge of cancer by addressing the disease in a polite expression in Japanese, Go Away Mr. Tumor simultaneously straddles several borders: the geographical boundary between Asia and America, the generic boundary between chick flick, cancer drama and others, and the ideological boundary between mainstream discourse and popular entertainment.
Playing with genres
The merging of multiple filmic genres in Go Away Mr. Tumor proposes a tentative dialogue between Chinese cinema and the world. Genre scholarship in the past has focused predominantly on Hollywood and European cinemas (Schatz 1981; Neale 1999; Altman 1999), and the examination of genre in Chinese cinema remains underexplored largely due to its marginalized status. Since the reduction of administrative interference in state-owned studios and the inclusion of private and foreign capital started in the 1990s, the development of commercial genres in Chinese cinema is a rather recent phenomenon. In Go Away Mr. Tumor, the filmmaker takes advantage of the “repertoire of elements” of Hollywood genres and re-invents them to tell a Chinese story (Gillespie 51). The film sticks to the formulaic pattern of chick flick by featuring an ambitious young woman who defines herself through consumer culture as much as through work and romance. While the audio-visual cues and iconographic setting position it as a chick flick film, the assembly of montage sequences in imitation of science fiction and horror movie suggest otherwise. Cultural critic James Mudge observes that the film is not “much of a romantic comedy” despite its upbeat trailer (2015), whereas the large typographic header “It is not a zombie film” in block letters on one theatrical movie poster plays with audiences’ expectation by denying its intertextual connection with Hollywood’s zombie movies. The maneuvering of Western cinematic vernaculars suggests a flexible stance and creates humor with subversive undertones. In the current mediascape of global flow, the cross-cultural appropriation in Go Away Mr. Tumor enriches the aesthetics of film genres by “associating a new type of material or approach with an existing genre” (Altman 62). The adoption of Western genres in the Chinese film involves a process of dialectic discourse and reflexive interaction through which the boundaries between genres are blurred. The seemingly disparate elements in the tragicomic narrative use repetition and variation to explore new territories in the realm of style, acknowledging conventions and pushing the boundaries of established genres at the same time.
Go Away Mr. Tumor blends a rich array of Western and Eastern popular media texts under the assumption that these citations would make the Chinese story more attractive to domestic audiences and more accessible to global audiences. The typical features of the chick flick genre that appear here range from stock characters to the iconic spectacle of shopping to the story of a romantic crush. The film foregrounds romance through the role of Dr. Liang and inserts a fantasy segment in imitation of the South Korean TV drama You Who Came from the Stars (Jang, 2013-2014) (范 2015). The climactic scene of lovers sharing a heart-felt kiss against snowflakes dancing in the air is reproduced in the film with exact cinematography, music score and Korean dialogue with Chinese subtitles, only to be revealed later as Xiong’s daydream about kissing Dr. Liang on her sickbed. In other whimsical sequences, the slow-motion shot of the athletic Xiong gunning down zombies is a blatant riff on Hollywood’s Resident Evil franchise (Anderson, 2002-2016), whereas Dr. Liang killing the encroaching zombies with a crossbow pays homage to AMC’s The Walking Dead series (Dara bont, 2010-2017). The exploitation of dazzling special effects, graphic design and digital sound results in cartoonish exaggerations, reminding audiences of the original Japanese video games and American comic books which inspire the films and TV dramas respectively. The montage sequence of Xiong being dumped by a Cantonese-speaking Aircraft Captain refers to the Hong Kong TV hit Triumph in the Skies (Leung, 2013), whereas her submission to the assertive patient-roommate is projected in the clichéd scenario of royal harem dramas which have dominated Chinese TV screens for years. The cross-cultural and trans-media allusions function as narrative shorthand or comedic subversion to inject humor to the horror of fighting against illness. According to director Han Yan, a devoted fan of Xiang, the profuse use of whimsical sequences is appropriate to convey the effervescent energy of the cartoonist, endearing her to the audiences as an ordinary figure rather than a legendary cancer-fighter (韩 87). More importantly, the citation of classic sequences comments on the melodramatic excesses and kitschy special effects of the original with a tongue-in-cheek humor, displaying a vigorous spirit to transcend conventional boundaries.
The kaleidoscope of cultural appropriations in Go Away Mr. Tumor is marked by a pastiche which erodes possibilities for “authentic” experience. Compared with the “Fifth Generation” directors’ arthouse films like Yellow Earth (Chen, 1985), Red Sorghum (Zhang, 1987) and The Horse Thief (Tian, 1988) which offended domestic audiences yet impressed the West with the construction of a primitive China (Chow 1995; Dai 2002), Go Away Mr. Tumor aspires for mainstream appeal with its dexterous manipulation of diversified scenarios and languages. The mixture of Mandarin, provincial accents, Korean, Japanese and English, as well as the Cosplay Party in which people dress up as Harry Potter, Caribbean Pirates and Japanese manga figures, solidifies the “transnational capitalist production of postmodern pastiche and hybridity” which is marked by crosscutting loops of citationality (Chan 11). Concurrent to Hollywood’s incorporation of Chinese materials in the Kung Fu Panda series (2008, 2011, 2016), Go Away Mr. Tumor departs from the unidirectional paradigm of cultural imperialism with a process of “reverse hybridity” by assimilating Hollywood elements (Wang and Yeh 180). The vibrant use of pop songs like Avril Lavigne’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (2004) and Closer (2007) from the Scottish band Travis reveals the filmmaker’s intention to manufacture a transnational entertaining product. On the other hand, the slapdash assembly of popular texts borders on the edge of absurdity. The outlandish pastiche and dazzling visual/audio effects lead audiences into the realm of simulacrum. As demonstrated by the pompous ceremony where the groom and bride exchanges vows in front of the priest, the ideal Western wedding is hollowed out of its sacred essence and functions no more than a superficial façade custom made for the rising group of China’s urban consumers. The incorporation of empty images unveils a self-reflexive humor that parodies the texts it imitates. As an active participant of global cinematic experience, Go Away Mr. Tumor proffers a “contact zone” where various cultural formations “meet, clash and grapple with each other” (Pratt 4). Though the iconographic motif of women pursuing love links the film with chick flick, it structures a hybridized narrative to celebrate cultural convergence.
The rather “freestyle” handling of genres and trans-media references in the film purports to downplay cultural differences for a cosmopolitan utopia. Subplots of the U.S.-born Dr. Liang taking a job in Beijing and the hard-working Emmy (Li Yuan) being promoted to the Tokyo headquarter portray a dynamic China which partakes in global economic and demographic flow. In the pre-credit sequence, Xiong’s voice-over narration talks about her upcoming birthday and claims that she would be the next person to change the world at the age of 29. While the carefree voice names the great talents, stills of Alexander Bell, Haruki Murakami, Steven Spielberg and Steve Jobs on the front page of newspapers follow each other in quick succession. The black-and-white photos with authentically worded masthead and headlines set in different styles give the montage sequence a historical poignancy, only to be disrupted by the fantasy vision of a futuristic cityscape of steel and glass skyscrapers. In the giant posters hung on the buildings’ exterior walls, the gorgeous-looking Xiong shows off her sparkling jewelry, designer handbags and expensive cars with a beaming smile. The possession of luxury commodities seems to elevate the young woman to the status of male Western inventors and artists, notwithstanding her quotidian everyday life. In the imagined paradise of material affluence, conspicuous consumption acts as “a post-socialist technology of the self” to enable the aspiring Chinese woman “to transcend the specificities of place and identity and be part of the ‘world’” (Rofel 118). The power to consume becomes a signifier of personal accomplishment and spiritual excellence to “catch up with” the West. Rather than offering an alternative modernity in the reconstruction of world culture, the rising China takes pride in its apparently seamless assimilation into global consumerism. In the fluffy world where life’s woes are settled with a birthday party or a sumptuous buffet, the pursuit of money and status has become the very substance of urban life and the prime motivation for young people.
The upbeat scenario of feminine consumption co-exists with an implicit critique of metropolitan life. In the one-minute-long sequence of a department store shopping spree, the bald chemotherapy patient Xiong and her gang, who shave their heads as a gesture to show support, blow money on premium dresses and stride forward with confidence. The lingering shots of their cool outfits and smiling faces, accentuated by the sprightly lyric of Sunshine Girl sung by a Japanese band Moumoon, assert the pleasure of shopping and trying on clothes (see Figure 1). Reminiscent of those smart women on Hollywood screens like Working Girl (Nichols, 1988) and Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990) whose stories were “told in dress” (Gaines 181), the Chinese women seem to acquire power and agency through “a triumphant shopping binge” (Brunsdon 100). The blissful ambience of consumption not only nurtures a cosmopolitan identity via alignment with the imagined global community, but also defies the specter of impending death. On the other hand, the consumerist rhetoric backfires as the malignant cancer gnaws away the woman’s youthful dreams. Indeed, the impact of terminal disease upon individual life has become a recurrent topic in an assembly of recent Hollywood films. From the combination of cancer with teen romance in The Fault in Our Stars ( Boone, 2014) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Gomez-Rejon, 2015), to the more sophisticated presentation of disease-afflicted couples in PS I Love You (LaGravenese, 2007), Love and Other Drugs (Zwick, 2010) and Me Before You (Sharrock, 2016), to the comic rendering of cancer patient’s transformed life philosophy in The Bucket List (Reiner, 2007) and 50/50 (Levine, 2011), illness seems an inalienable constituent of metropolitan existence. According to Susan Sontag, the city is not only literally understood as a cancer-causing environment, it is “seen as itself a cancer--a place of abnormal, unnatural growth, and extravagant, devouring, armored passions” (74). While Xiong strives for status and success in Beijing, she lives under constant intellectual overexertion, career anxiety, emotional repression and worries about body shape. The ferociously aggressive cancer consumes her body insidiously until the flow of the life energy is stagnated, and the teary-eyed mother warns the bed-ridden Xiong to stay away from such bad habits of sleeping late and eating little. The sub-motif of rejecting the city is made more explicit by the coda scene of Emmy submitting a resignation letter and the statement of Xiong’s best buddy, Hong Fang, a twentyish woman in actual life, dying from cancer on January 28, 2015. Since the unrestricted diffusion of cancer is often associated metaphorically with “affluence” and “excess” of “middle-class life” in the city (Sontag 15), the film might ignite critical reflections upon urbanization despite its embrace of the modern metropolis.
Imagining the global metropolis
The presentation of Beijing as a modern metropolis in Go Away Mr. Tumor contributes to the changing ways in which the city is conceptualized. With a rich history that dates back over 3,000 years, China’s capital city has been captured on screens through decades. From the poetic portrayal of narrow alleys (hutong) and compound courtyard (siheyuan) in My Memories of Old Beijing (Wu, 1983) to the stately Forbidden City symbolic of feudal hierarchy in The Last Emperor (Bertolucci, 1987); from the beautiful paintings and exquisite costumes of Beijing Opera in Farewell My Concubine (Chen, 1993) to the idiosyncratic environment of military family housing in the era of Cultural Revolution in In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang, 1994); from the tranquil courtyard with curved tiled rooftops of Qing Dynasty in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000) to the migrant worker’s slum-like quarters in Beijing Bicycle (Wang, 2001) to the miniature “global village” theme park with scaled-down replicas of the world’s famous landmarks in The World (Jia, 2004), Beijing slides between the real, the symbolic and the imaginary constantly. Often accentuated by the nasal threnody of Beijing opera or the faint whistling sound of homing pigeons in flight, the capital city evokes mixed responses of nostalgic grandeur, oriental exoticism and rising cultural confidence from audiences. According to Yomi Braester, these films help to shape the city as they are “predicated on political, economic and ideological forces that channel cinematic production and predispose the audience,” and their influence derives “not so much from any intrinsic force of the moving image as from mediating among these external sources of power [government, real estate developers and residents]” (5). Being a slippery notion of the empirical and the fabricated, Beijing might be seen as an “imagined environment” which consists of the lived reality and the immaterial representation on screen (Donald 427). In the case of this film, Go Away Mr. Tumor constructs an ultramodern Beijing (see Figure 2). The panoramic vision of the 44-storey skyscraper of China Central Television Headquarters Building and the 88-storey Tower of China World Trade Center, designed by the Rotterdam-based architectural firm OMA and the Chicago-based architectural firm SOM in the 2000s, denotes a modern topography of the avant-garde. The swift cuts and fast editing between shots of corporate buildings, fancy restaurants and shopping malls celebrate everyday urban life. As the young women move briskly around the space of work and leisure, the lively background music from Japan, Korea and Italy enhances the energetic pursuit of career and wealth. Amidst the public and official effort to project a new China of worldwide significance, Beijing makes a perfect metaphorical setting to re-position China’s status in the global community.
The homogenized urban space in the film embodies a historical compression under the impact of globalization. The image of Beijing claims global equivalence with international metropolises of New York, London or Paris. The severe vertical lines of the high rises incorporate people into the global space, whereas the lateral architectures of the courtyard and the crisscrossing alleys are not presented in the film. The absence of these quintessential heritage landmarks deviates from the narratives of 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai Expo which linked China’s rich history and traditional way of life with contemporary economic growth and technological advancement. In so doing, the film manifests a yearning to challenge the clichéd Western association of China with historical stagnation. Given Hollywood’s Shanghai Express (Sternberg, 1932) and The Good Earth (Franklin, 1937) were banned for their “negative” portrayal of a backward China, Go Away Mr. Tumor seems determined to thrill domestic and international audiences with China’s achievement of modernization. To avoid the all-too-real street scenes under daylight as well as the notoriously awful traffic jam and air pollution, the film presents Beijing mostly at night or in the early dawn, and the sparkling light or thin fog gives a fairy-tale tinge to the city buzz. In quite a number of transitional shots, the camera glides and zooms in to a high-rise apartment which overlooks the beautiful nightlife and busy roads. The comfy rooms, equipped with electric appliances and decorated with souvenirs from around the world, record the struggles of the young women whose daily routine mirrors the urban consciousness increasingly devised and relied upon in a global market economy. The gleaming public and private space positions Beijing within a group of global references rather than local connections. By leaving out tourist attractions like Tian’anmen Square and Forbidden City, which are laden with ideological implications, or rundown houses and makeshift shelters which are often associated with problems of social injustice and income disparity, the film excludes these “incongruous” places to highlight the positive side of city life. As forces of globalization transform traditional ways of life in Beijing, the homogenizing tendency is welcomed as the new measure of urbanity. To some extent, the appropriation of the Western architectural symbol of modernity is paradigmatic of larger socioeconomic transformations in contemporary China (King 3-22). The fundamental shift of Beijing from a historical/political space to a global/commercial metropolis can be described as a historical compression, to appropriate Harvey’s time-space compression (1989), in order to imitate and surpass Western modernity. By intervening into the Western discourse that placed China in an inferior position in the hierarchy of progress, Go Away Mr. Tumor offers insight into the public imagination of China’s burgeoning power in the world and legitimizes the developmental model for national modernity.
The ambivalent treatment of gender in Go Away Mr. Tumor manifests a dynamic process of redefining gender ideologies and sexual politics in the metropolitan space. Along with the mechanism of social and political change in China, gender issues are negotiated and reshaped as part of the transformational process. The pleasure-seeking Xiong and her hip coterie of friends embody a new kind of “girly heroine” (Brunsdon 101) that is adequate to the experience of the “post-‘80s generation” who were born after the beginning of China’s opening to the outside world and are growing up in the economic boom. The young professionals constitute a prominent segment of urban demographic who formulate ideas about common social norms. Although the friends are saddled with the stereotypical role of support group in the chick flick genre, these affluent singletons love auto racing and dirty jokes, post cute selfies on the web and banter with each other about emotional failures. While Xiong takes actions to seduce the handsome Dr. Liang and fantasizes about having sex with him, her workaholic roommate Emmy is involved in an extramarital affair. In contrast to the conventional association of femininity with shyness and modesty in Chinese society, Xiong’s indefatigable pursuit of desire is probably matched by Emmy’s minimal sense of guilt in disrupting a marriage. Their acts of gender transgression move away from a rational/moral axis and suggest ambiguous and contradictory notions of contemporary femininity. A mixture of courage, vulnerability, sophistication and innocence defines these women who strive for independence in a rapidly changing world.
The nuanced treatment of female camaraderie is accompanied by the careful negotiation with conventional gender roles. Among Xiong’s friends, the tomboyish web shop owner Lao Zheng (Zhang Zixuan), who enjoys amateur boxing competition, has a “sister bonding” with the effeminate Xiao Xia (Liu Ruilin), a tacitly neutered boy-man and Xiong’s colleague. To take revenge on his friend, Xiao Xia pretends to be gay to humiliate Xiong’s ex-boyfriend at a buffet party in an international five-star hotel with the help of a Western waiter. The sequence of petty sabotage littered with gay jokes is enlivened with swift camera movement, vibrant music, and a warm red hue, unveiling a certain degree of official leniency as gay-themed films like East Palace, West Palace (Zhang, 1991) and Lan Yu (Guan, 2001) did not get release in China. At the same time, the sexual innuendos based on offensive stereotypes unveil a discriminatory attitude and imply a conservative position in terms of sexual and gender identity. In a related dichotomy, the group portrait of assertive women in Go Away Mr. Tumor reconfigures the notion of Chinese femininity, in stark contrast to the mysterious women warriors of the martial arts cinema, the gender-neutral communist women cadres of the Maoist era (Kristeva 1977), or the victimized peasant women of the Fifth Generation cinema. Yet the young women remain conservative at core since their life motto is “to love and be loved.” Indeed, Xiong’s obsession with the fluffy teddy bear, the pink scarf, and the cartoon book defines her more as an innocent girl than a young woman. And as she is subjected to relentless perfectionism and slut-shaming, the potential of sexual promiscuity is subordinated to the girlish fantasy of finding Mr. Right. The scene of the teary Xiong hugging her mother in the hospital ward and repenting for being unable to fulfill her filial duty equally shows a renewed acceptance of traditional notions of femininity. Despite these and other examples of more conventional gender politics, Go Away Mr. Tumor nonetheless extends the repertoire of gender-specific issues to topics of broader social concern like the emergence of youth power and new inter-personal relationships.
Go Away, Mr. Tumor communicates a subtle narrative about the imagination of cosmopolitan globalization during China’s growing engagement with the world. By packaging the local material via the paradigm of Hollywood’s chick flick, the film provides a valuable window to explore the desires, hopes and anxieties of Chinese people. The combination of multicultural resources and the imagination of metropolitan life offers understanding about how the consumerist fantasy is articulated through women’s pursuit of romance. The inspiring tale of love and courage represents a focused effort on building a normative consensus in the modernizing project of China. At a time when China yearns to re-model its image as a responsible global power, popular fantasies of modernity are increasingly assimilated into the official strategy to convert China’s growing economic power into enduring cultural influences. Regardless of their complaints about loneliness, work pressure and rising rents on screen, these women are willing participants in the process of China’s urban transformation that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism. As such, the film’s “calculated rebelliousness” reveals an implicit agreement between the fun-seeking young people and the authority that shows tolerance towards small transgressions (Elegant 2009). Since the dynamics of post-socialist transformation is an open-ended process that entails redefining morality and behavior codes, the film maneuvers effectively between state supervision, popular sentiments and entertainment values. As exemplified by President Xi Jinping’s praise of a young blogger, Zhou Xiaoping, for spreading “positive energy” at the Beijing Forum on Art and Literature in October 2014 (Callahan 2014), or the 16-year-old Wang Yuan of the popular band The Flower Boy representing China and giving a speech at ECOSOC Youth Forum of the United Nations in January 2017, the inter-penetration between the official concern and the popular media is increasing in contemporary China. The symbiosis with the official discourse and the negotiation with the international community in Go Away, Mr. Tumor creates a common ground of identity formation at the historical juncture of China’s emerging role as a global player.
This article is supported by the Key Project of National Social Science Fund (17ZDA272) and Guangdong Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science (GD16XTQ02). The authors wish to thank Andrew Sofer, Yuan Li, Dongqing Wang, Dave Johnson and anonymous reviewers for invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this article.
1 Daniel Wu plays the protagonist, a mighty martial arts warrior in AMC’s TV series Into the Badlands (2015-2017).
2 Go Away Mr. Tumor was nominated for Huabiao Film Awards in 2016 and won awards at Beijing International Film Festival, Beijing College Student Film Festival, China Film Director’s Guild Awards and Golden Angel Award in 11th Chinese American Film Festival. See China Daily 2016.
3 From 1890s to 1930s, about 80-90% Hollywood productions were released in China. Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish and D. W. Griffith were familiar names to local audiences. In 1940 Juan-Juan Chen was promoted to be “China Snow White” as a modified version of Hollywood child star Shirley Temple. For further discussions, see Ting Wang (2007) and David Carter (2010).
4 The entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and later the World Trade Organization (WTO) was seen as “a matter of prestige for an increasingly powerful nation” for the Chinese public. Since Taiwan has taken the seat in GATT after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the PRC re-applied for an official membership since 1986. At China’s entry into WTO on December 11, 2001, the Western world predicted that China would be a huge unfolding marketplace and a powerhouse of manufacturing. For further discussions, see Yongjin Zhang (1993).
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