Neoliberal Subjectivities and Cynicism in China:
Feng Xiaogang’s Dream-play Comedies
In China today, comedy is a popular film genre, of which Feng Xiaogang 馮小剛 is a prominent director. This paper argues that cynical humor is a key but under-investigated feature of Feng’s comedies, which amuse their audiences by walking the fine line between reality and illusion. Mainly based on Slavoj Žižek’s account of cynicism, I show how a cynical attitude, marked by self-deceptive and pragmatic reflexivity, is expressed comically in Feng’s The Dream Factory (Jia fang yi fang 甲方乙方, 1997) and Personal Tailor (Si ren ding zhi 私人订制, 2013) as examples. I also show how Feng masters cynical humor cinematically to address neoliberal subjectivity in China, of which cynicism is a key feature, in addition to self-entrepreneurship and consumerism. I use “dream-play” to specify cynical humor in these films, whose protagonists are entrepreneurs designing dream-like experiences for clients. Cynical amusement escalates as the dream-play minimizes (but does not eliminate) the distinction between reality and illusion. I argue that Feng’s cynical humor functions as a safety valve in response to neoliberalization’s impacts in China, while the state retains strict political control.
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