“World” Travel: Tourism vs Drift
But then no surprise really: the art film as redevised to suit the “Gen-6” concern with or disillusion with the Urban Modern is a logical place to find the inspection of tourism and (foreign) travel center stage. And of course turned inside out: travel as commodity or fetish (hate those words but..) fueled by disillusion with “ferroconcrete dullness” and cultural homogenization, but which in essence is purveyed by the same Machine that has made that same “real” urban life unbearable: the Machine sells the paying wayfarer back his own self-alienation in the form of derivative knick-knacks, something like the peepshow fare that grew out of Worldsfair and Exhibition culture at the turn of the previous century. (dushi fengguang, 1934-5?)
In fact, in art-song “pop” and in coming-of-age fiction, an attraction to the theme of living outside the technobubble that now stands for “modernity” in Chinese government eyes has been around for at least three decades. Dadawa’s excursions into Himalayan culture in the 90s then into South Asia and Mongolia in the 20-‘ought decade are probably the the best worked scripts for this exploration, though perhaps they also expose a certain terror of REAL entry into non-urban and non-Chinese (speaking) terrain. Completely independently, and starting (already) from afar, Sanmao’s Sahara tales and Dinesen-like sketches of living truly “outside” – meaning with the full insecurity of existential freedom – explored the same thematic ground almost as soon as Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 made it clear the days of confinement within passport-mandated space would not be continuing forever, as indeed her “second” (proxy) cenotaph in the Iberians and “Olive Tree” verses later validated.
But Jia’s take on the (would-be) excursion from material entrapment through fictive or packaged art-travel (travel-art?) is pungently and gloomily postmodern and hopeful only if one takes true disillusion with “the world” (of travel) as a necessary precondition for meaningful extradition.
The soul-baring Sahara-crossing authoress or wanderer in the nomadic song-deserts of Rajasthan are not (any longer) credible even or especially within the world that they originated or fed: the wandering minstrel of sound and song who shows up here seems to stammer or joke off when confronting today’s “youth” audiences, not seeking to intoxicate or summon to something higher. Just how tightly shut the gate of neo-Romantic exit has become is made searingly obvious in the (de facto) “themesong” of the movie. “Ulan Bator Night(s)”. But zero in one notch and you can see why: themes ethnic or peregrine, the original feedstock of New Age lyricism, have been totally corrupted by the CCTV Ballroom in a Box, where nothing is not plastic.