Mila Zuo, "Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium" (Duke UP, 2022)

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Yi’s eyes soften as he watches Jiazhi sing a Chinese folk song with subtle, feminine movements in the film, Lust, Caution. The room fills with laughter when Ali Wong unabashedly enacts her vulgar, bodily desires. What is the affect created through these performances? At different localities and temporalities, an actress and a comedian Tang Wei and Ali Wong embody ever-failing meaning of Chineseness, offering themselves for consumption and survival.

In Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium (Duke UP, 2022), Mila Zuo re-evaluates beauty to understand how it creates a feeling Chineseness, engendering a messy world of relationalities that challenge a stable binary of national identity. Using weidao, which escapes meaning in English as flavor and style of a person, object, or environment, Zuo challenges the Cartesian epistemology dividing mind/body and vision/hearing. Through in-depth analysis of films and shows, Zuo asks how five flavors of Chinese medicine, “bitter, salty, pungent, sweet, and sour” become “modalities of vulgar beauty” (33). Vulgar, often tied to the non-western and working-class bodies, becomes a means to complicate the relations between objecthood and subjecthood embodied in Chinese beauty.

This beautifully written and theoretically rich book will be helpful resource for any scholars and public interested in film and media studies, Asian American studies, object studies, and gender studies.

Mila Zuo is an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at UBC. Her first book Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium (Duke University Press, 2022) focuses on the affective racialization of Chinese women film stars, demonstrating the ways which vulgar, flavourful beauty disrupts Western and colonial notions of beauty. In addition to scholarship, Zuo directs and writes narrative films, visual essays, documentaries and music videos. Her short films have screened in international film festivals and universities, including Carnal Orient (2016) which premiered at Slamdance Film Festival, and her short narrative film Kin (2021), which was the recipient of the 2019 Oregon Media Arts Fellowship, and screened at HollyShorts Film Festival.

Da In Ann Choi is a PhD student at UCLA in the Gender Studies department. Her research interests include care labor and migration, reproductive justice, social movement, citizenship theory, and critical empire studies. She can be reached at dainachoi@g.ucla.edu.

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