When my partner and I were discussing which American film and which Chinese film to select and arrived on the theme of “time travel,” I thought I knew what to expect; people travelling through time, action sequences, impressive technology, the works. I thought it reasonable to expect that the “time travel” of Hollywood was the same thing as the Chinese genre called 穿越 (chuanyue). I was wrong.
Films of Study:
Director: Rian Johnson – American
Writer: Rian Johnson
Synopsis (IMDB.com): In 2074, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to ‘close the loop’ by transporting back Joe’s future self.
Director: 滕华涛 Hua-Tao Teng – Cantonese
Writer: 明锐 (ming rui)
Synopsis (IMDB.com): Wen Tao and Jia Hui start communicating through a radiophone. From their conversations, they discover that they are both studying in the same school, but they eventually finally find out that they exist in two different worlds.
We analyzed the portrayal of “time travel” in these films to see on what fronts the Chinese and American time travel genres are similar and different.
Setting and depiction of American time travel in film
Looper is set in the future year of 2044. As the synopsis above indicates, the premise involves time travel from the year 2074 to the ‘present’ 30 years in the past. This does not rule out other periods of time travel–there is no saying whether or not in the world of Looper people are travelling through time 50, 100, or 500 years in the past or future.
2044 and 2074 both are shown as sort of dystopian eras in which technology is the only governing rule. Crime syndicates have taken over the major cities and there is not clear law enforcement from anyone but these criminals, whose men run the streets. Streets that are filled with people modifying gasoline engines, following who knows what expertise or manual, to make a sort of hyper-efficient version of the machines from our present (2013).
The time travel takes place in an abandoned grainery. The technology of time travel is portrayed as impossibly complex but also surprisingly rudimentary. The average location and unpolished mechanical construction indicates that this machine is perhaps not the only time travel device in existence.
Setting and depiction of Chinese time travel in film
情牵一线 opens in the year 1981 in China. A woman’s college life is depicted through a warm filter. At this time period, during the 文化热 or “culture fever” during post-Cultural Revolution China, it was common to explore new ideas and technologies. In the private space of her dormitory, this woman interests herself in a HAM radio. One night a transmission comes through from a man spouting radio jargon; they discover they’re students at the same university and make a date for the next day so he can pass on to her some radio expertise. The next day they both show up but do not find each other, for, as they soon realize, they exist in two different time periods: 1981 and 2002. The time travel in this film is thus a sort of communicative time travel; one that might not be included in the American idea of “time travel,” however we chose this film precisely because it is classified in China as a 穿越 genre piece.
Technology is also central to the time travel represented in 情牵一线, however in a much different capacity than in Looper. In the Chinese film, radio is the medium of travel, however this is no ordinary radio transmission. The technological forces at play are mystified, as the 2002 student’s radio transmits to the past despite its being unplugged. There is no electrical current powering the radio, yet his words somehow reach the past. This fantastical element makes time travel seem more of a myth, something that one would only see in film. Compare this depiction of time travel with the believable time machine in Looper and you can get a glimpse of the underlying ideologies behind these two representations of time travel.
Potential rationale for the American “time travel” and its forward-looking technology anxiety
In Looper we see an anxiety about the future of technology. Time travel is something that has been on the public psyche since the industrial age, and now in the age of the internet it seems that we are closer than ever to another amazing technological breakthrough. There is much concern around technology, however; both that which we already have and that which has yet to be invented. Many of us have witnessed first hand technology take over our lives in such a short time, so imagining a future where it continues to do so is almost inevitable.
Potential rationale for the Chinese “穿越” and its rearward-looking fantastic nature
According to my partner, the future is something very mysterious for Chinese people: “We cannot imagine what the future will be like and not to mention film it.” It makes sense, then, that 情牵一线 as a piece of the chuanyue genre would be primarily concerned with looking back into the past. This trait is actually characteristic of other chuanyue productions, both in film and television. My partner cites two main reasons for this rearward perspective:
1. “Plagiarism”: not in the negative sense of the word that we in the West tend to think of first, but rather just the idea of copying and remolding what has been done before. This technique effectively updates a plot for the contemporary era, and my partner credits it in part to a lack of creativity in the Chinese film industry.
2. “广电总局 encourages topics of history”: the 广电总局 (guangdian zongju) is the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. This department censors artistic production, and it is important to note that it uses this power to reinforce a rearward perspective. It is no wonder that the Chinese genre of chuanyue is not the same as the American genre.
While the Chinese chuanyue genre is often translated as “time travel,” through looking at these two films my partner and I have identified significant differences between American “time travel” films and Chinese chuanyue films. American time travel films tend to involve some adventure, often into the future, that centers around an anxiety about the very technology that makes time travel possible. Chinese chuanyue films depict a less straightforward time travel, as the ‘travel’ is mysterious or fantastic in nature and it is almost universally a travel into the past.
Why exactly American films travel to the future and Chinese films travel to the past is hard to say. The difference in relative stability and industrialization of the two nations in the past century provides a possible lead; American development has maintained a nearly steady trajectory, while China has developed on a massive scale very quickly. The social instability and change in China may also affect the collective Chinese imagination; nearly every other decade for the past 100 years it seems the Chinese people have faced hardship from a different angle. It’s no wonder, then, that the future would continue to be the great unknown for the Chinese people. It is interesting to point out that this political, social, and economic revelation came purely out of the study of two films under the heading of “time travel.”