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The Soundtrack of China’s Youth: <i>Super, Girls! </i>

By Siu Hei Lee

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Siu Hei Lee, a PhD student in Critical Musicology at the University of California at San Diego. dGenerate is pleased to support and publish scholarship that illuminates Chinese independent cinema. Recommendations and submissions of articles can be directed to this address: info *at* dgeneratefilms *dot* com.

Super, Girls! (dir. Jian Yi)

Super, Girls! (dir. Jian Yi)

The phenomenal yet short-lived Mainland Chinese singing contest Super Girls (in Chinese, Chao Ji Nu Sheng) provides a point of entry for investigating the lives and thoughts of Chinese youth. Independent filmmaker Jian Yi, visiting fellow at Cambridge, and graduate of the Beijing Broadcasting Institute and University of Notre Dame, captures the stories of six girls and the people around them who engage with the myth of instant success, bureaucracy, and fandom of the competition. On one hand, this documentary is about failure, about the signs of optimism and pessimism surrounding the protagonists before, during, and after their predictable musical failures. On the other hand, it is about the popular music competition as an accessible and temporary place for Chinese youth of different backgrounds and personal goals to pursue (and give up) their multiple and extremely malleable identities. For these reasons, I recommend this documentary for its unique contribution to the anthropological, ethonomusicological, and cultural studies of popular music.

In the manner of American Idol, Super Girls was launched in 2004 and created a craze inside the karaoke-fond country. The number of preliminary round participants, television program viewers, text message voters in the final round, and online videos uploads and views reached astounding numbers. Some participants traveled great distances from their hometowns to join the preliminary round of Super Girl, in which some 50 participants out of over a thousand would be promoted to the second round. In the documentary, we see Beijingers traveling to Shenyang, a trip of about 425 miles that takes from 5 to 15 hours on the train depending on the model of the train and railway traffic. Jian Yi was sensitive enough to seize the opportunity of the 2006 competition for his ethnography, before the Chinese government bogged down the show in 2007 by issuing various unreasonable regulations.

The documentary is divided into three sections, in which the first (60 minutes) is disproportionally longer than the other two (13 minutes combined). It introduces us to six of the girls that participate in Super Girl. It starts at the Beijing train station, where a few of the protagonists are from, and ends at the Shenyang train station where the newly formed friends bid farewell to one another. Scenes from the participants’ hotel rooms, their apartments and their peripheries, train, taxi and auto rides, karaoke boxes, restaurants, boutiques, and the competition venue feature the connection of their lives to the singing contest. They speak extensively about, either for the camera or for another person in the frame, the reasons that bring them to the competition, their worldview, and their opinions and feelings on a wide range of topics, ranging from family affairs to Chinese social conditions.

The second section introduces the Super Girl fandom, in which two people in the first section re-appear as fans of the final 10 competitors. The processes of parading, T-shirt making, and slogan cheering end with tears, as their idol is eventually eliminated. The third section dovetails the documentary provocatively, as two children look at the outdoors projector screen on which the competition is broadcasted live. The beginning of the video features a similar snippet; the introduction of kids in the return to this scene surely embodies symbolic meaning for the viewer.

The filmmaker refrains from any voice commentary, but this has not weakened the themes that he puts forth, including future, family, money, country and gender. For instance, a few participants express that they “don’t know what to do” for their career or “don’t have any idea about the future.” Two girls tell stories about their divorced parents, and almost everyone at some point talk about gay and lesbian relationship or masculine participants of the competition. These themes appear in fragments because of the chronological order of the documentary, but their conspicuous recurrence throughout can also be easily noted by the audience. By merging multiple relevant but discrete segments of a conversation in which the camera is set in the same spot, people’s postures change in a split moment between the segments. Instead of seeing this as a flaw, I contend that Jian Yi is unpretentiously conveying to his audience through the unnatural visual flow that he has selected content that suits his themes and arguments. The audience may develop their argument based on this selection, but it is quite clear that the filmmaker is pointing to the lack of resolution to various social problems in Mainland China.

This critique points to the interesting issue of temporal and spatial proximity in anthropological research. It seems that most researchers in this field either enjoys temporal distance as they can dwell into a relatively long if not well-established history of traditions, or spatial distance, where the informants have little or no relationship with the researcher prior to the project due to the latter’s status as an “outsider.” The documentary Super, Girls! offers none of the aforementioned factors. Due to this proximity, there is probably little incentive for the ethnographer to present a coherent process of the competitors’ preparation, participation and post-contest activities. In the part of the Chinese viewers, there is little curiosity to know the losers’ lives as case studies. In contrast, Jian Yi steers his ethnographic film to the direction of fragmentation through cutting of many short shots, as well as the employment of unnatural visual flow within the same scene. A technical distancing enables this documentary to highlight various social issues that affect the lives of the protagonists.

In terms of cultural theory, the documentary exhibits the Super Girls singing contest as a “Chinese heterotopia.” This review is not an ideal place to verify Foucault’s five principles (1986 [1967]) of heterotopia, but two broad strokes can be useful intellectual shortcuts. Firstly, the refrain of the first section, train stations, is itself a heterotopia for the intense meeting and departing of people within this space. The Super Girl singing contest relies upon the train station so that participants can access the space of the competition; the brevity of the preliminary competitions – spanning across a few days for a preliminary round location, and as little as 30 seconds of singing for most participants – ensures its similar spatial quality with the train station or the airport.  Secondly, the competition is a prescribed zone of failure. The documentary presents the myth for instant success but also the expected (and eventual) failure in the minds of the participants. That is an enactment of Foucault’s words, “a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which [he/she] lives.” The popular music competition as heterotopia, a direction yet to be intellectually developed, shall provide an alternative to the narrative of music as emblem of identity. The process of competition musicking can be seen as a contemporary ritual that resembles a religious pilgrimage.

This video is not optimal for classroom use in a cultural studies class if only parts of the documentary can be played; the fragmentation of critical issues means that the video must be viewed from the beginning to the end. The lack of commentary, however, ensures easy discussion  with students. For an ethnographic film class, techniques of fragmentation can be brought to the fore by playing excerpts.

If Super, Girls! gives the viewer a depressing time, as it did for me, it probably testifies to the viewers emotional affiliation to contemporary Chinese culture as well as the filmmaker’s success in conveying deeply ingrained social problems. With the recent re-launching of Super Girl (2009) and the broadcasting of a new program of a similar nature, The Voice of China (2012), Jian Yi’s documentary will prove extremely relevant and valuable to both researchers and the public.