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Semiotics in Cinema and Its Application In Chinese Film: Chunking Express.

2430 words (10 pages) Essay in Film Studies

18/05/20 Film Studies Reference this

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Postmodernism is a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism. It holds that there are infinite explanatory possibilities for a given text, representation and symbol. One strand of postmodern thinking -Semiotics holds that nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign. After the brilliant works of scholars such as Roland Barthes, Semiotics theory spread to a variety of field such as the film industry, transforming people’s conventional perception of film. Barthes’ understanding of Semiotics – how people make meaning through both linguistic and non- linguistic way- helped establish Structuralism;It is argued that Chinese film has transformed under the influence of Semiotics after 1980, taking ‘Chunking Express’ for example, the semiotic significance of this film lies in that it reveals to us the real feelings of the abnormal living conditions of modern people by means of two emotional life symbols of urban people. The following essay is going to discuss Roland Bathes’ work on Semiotics as a whole, Semiotics in cinema and Chunking Express-a representative Chinese film that uses Semiotic.

Semiotics-the study of signs-analyzes how meaning is created, and it has infiltrated every aspect of our life, from entertainment to architecture. Described by its modern pioneer, French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as a ‘science that studies the life of signs within society‘semiotics is not only a theory of signification (meaning-making),but an applied research method thahas been popularized during the past half-century by such public intellectuals as Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Noam Chomsky, and Umberto Eco. The founder of French Semiotics-Roland Barthes- established his own innovative semiotics based on structuralism. In Barthes’ semiotic theory, any sign includes two parts: signans and designatum. Signans refer to the form or pronunciation of a word, referring to the object or meaning expressed by a word. For example, the word “table” as a linguistic symbol is a signan (signifier), and the table as a concrete object is the designatum (signification) of the linguistic symbol “table”. He believes that in the semiotic system, there is a kind of essence that can express its original meaning without the involvement of the function of meaning. Barthes said: “Human society only produces standardized and standardized goods, which will inevitably become a model of”implementation”, a language structure, a meaning form of content. ” It is impossible to find an object without meaning in human society. Assuming that an instrument is not related to any existing model, it does not exist in the real world, because the designing itself is a meaningful existence. Therefore, Barthes holds that the use of objects by human beings is of great importance because it shows that what really exists in culture is indeed understandable. In addition, Barthes points out that once symbols are formed, society can make them function on an advance level. That is to say, when symbols are used, they have exceeded the original functional meaning and are endowed with the second meaning, which needs to be expressed in a second language. Since Roland Barthes’ study on cultural symbols is the application of Saussure’s linguistic theory in cultural studies. It pushes Saussure’s theory into a broader cultural analysis. Therefore, in the exploration of film theory, we can find that many of his semiotic terms have become the favorite terms of ‘film’ experts – signans, signifier, and the overflowing ‘implied meaning’.

Film is not only a form of art, but also a language. Based on this standpoint, along with the rise of French structuralism and structuralist linguistics, Film Semiotics was born in the 1960s. When it comes to film semiotics, there is a scholar that you can never get around a person– Christian Metz. While Barthes’s methods still play an important role in the development of film theory, it was Christian Metz, one of the giants of French film theory, who became best known for the use of semiology as a method to analyze cinema. In Film Language (1968), Metz argued that cinema is structured like a language. Adopting Saussure’s models, Metz made the distinction between “langue, ” a language system, and “language, ” a less clearly defined system of recognizable conventions. Metz contends that film cannot be regarded as comprising a “langue, ” in the sense of having a strict grammar and syntax equivalent to that of the written or spoken word. Unlike the written word, film’s basic unit, which Metz argues is the shot, is neither symbolic nor arbitrary but iconic; therefore, it is laden with specific meaning. Metz suggests that film is a language in which each shot used in a sequence works like a unit in a linguistic statement. In his theoretical model, known as the “grande syntagmatique, ” Metz argues that individual cinematic texts construct their own meaning systems rather than share a unified grammar. The theoretical research of film semiotics is mainly concentrated in France, followed by Italy and Britain, which also have significant theoretical achievements and representative figures. For example, the famous Italian scholar and semiotician, Winberto Ike, put forward in 1967 in the Pizarro Film Festival the “Movie Code Segmentation” article, proposed a more theoretical image of three-level segmentation and ten symbol systems, which permeates the spirit of structuralist linguistics. It is the efforts of these scholars that have brought the film theory from classical to modern. Film semiotics had been in vogue for 20 years and has exerted a profound influence around the world before it declines in the Western Mainstream Academia after 80s. Interestingly, ever since the introduction of Film Semiotics into China in the late 1970s, Film Semiotics has not entered the so-called “dead end”, but in a sense shows the signs of “new life”. Absorbing the ideas of Western Semiotics, the fifth generation of Chinese directors represented by Zhang Yimou created visual shock of images with national characteristics. It has influenced the Sixth Generation Directors in China and later mainland directors’ works. At the end of the 1990s, when the sixth generation of movies were broadcasted, At this time, the popular choice of movies was close to that of Hong Kong movies in the 1970s and 1980s. People preferred lively comedies to movies with the metaphor of urban young people’s life. But at the same time, the traditional comedy Hong Kong films can no longer meet the growing film market. Hong Kong was deeply influenced by Western culture, and it also has a group of directors with unique style who bravely pioneered a new era of Hong Kong film telling stories with semiotics such as Karwai Wong who directed the representative film- ‘Chunking Express’. The unexpected popularity of this style of film reflects the increasingly stable economic background of the Society. At this time, films that can only bring short-term climax were no longer sufficient, what people really looked for was films with unique images and meaningful montage that can be memorized.

‘Chungking express’ is on of the most representative Chinese film using Semiotics. The film narrates two love stories. set in Hong Kong: a romance between a lovelorn policeman and a mysterious female killer and an encounter of a patrolman and a fast-food waitress. The film was directed by Karwai Wong, one of the most authoritative and special directors in Hong Kong hailed by the New York Times. Karwai Wong is best at capturing Hong Kong in the post-modern context and reflecting the living conditions of Hong Kong people. In the film ‘ChungKing express’, he brought post-modern structuralism and semiotics into full play. The significance of consciousness semiotics in ‘ChungKing express’ is that it reveals to us the living conditions and abnormal realistic feelings of modern people by means of two emotional life symbols of urban people. Karwai’s narrative can always generates subtle resonance with our emotions. In his film language, the trivial objects in daily life have become an emotional expression, a forced emotional catharsis and a symbolic emotional identity which interact with the characters. The film uses many props symbols. For example, canned food is the symbol of emotional need. When the lovelorn policeman shouted at the supermarket staff, “You throw it out before it expires. Have you ever thought about the feeling of canned food?” He knows that no one will care about an inanimate can. What he truest hopes is to be cared about though he is as humble and lonely as a can; Sunglasses are symbols of alienation. The female killer never remove the red wide-edged sunglasses because she used sunglasses to defend against the city’s bad intentions. Golden wig, red sunglasse, green windbreaker and white high heels are vivid symbol confirming her vigilance against this chaotic city; Towels are a sign of fragility. The film also combines the actual situation of urban life that many pictures are arranged in the evening, which echoes the emotional tone of the film mentioned earlier, giving a heavy psychological feeling. Through the fragmented stories and vague lines, the audience can experience a subtle emotional resonance.

Under the influence of the profound works of many intellectuals, Semiotics. In the film context has spread all over the world. In Chinese film industry, Semiotics has permeated into every genre of films in terms of expression. Film semiotics is a part of film theory and semiotics, which originates from semiotics and in turn promotes its development. The great significance of Film Semiotics lies in that when we are immersed in a variety of film forms, we can deconstruct and appreciate the huge amount of information in its light, shadow, sound and color, and enjoy a huge artistic feast.


  • José María P. G. (2001)semiotic theories and film semiotics. semiotic narrative y semiotic del cine:semiotica filmica de segunda generacion. Universidade da Coruña. Available at: http://www. scielo. org. ar/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1668-810420000020002&lng=en&nrm=iso

Jonh Philip Heaak, B. A. (1991)Early film semiotics and the cinematic sign, Christian Metz and the Saussurean Sign. McMaster University

Available at:

https://macsphere. mcmaster. ca/bitstream/11375/13642/1/fulltext. pdf

Taubin A. (2008)Chungking express:electric youth

Available at:

https://www. criterion. com/current/posts/766-chungking-express-electric-youth


Robert, S. R. (1992)New Vocabulary in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post Structuralism and Beyond. pp. 10-15.

Metz, C. M. (1990) ‘Film Language: A Semiotics of The Cinema’, Michael Taylor, pp. 20-40.

Buckland, W. B. (2007)The Cognitive Semiotics of Film, pp. 102-135.

Essay plan

TITLE: Analyze the semiotics in cinema and its application in Chinese Film – Chunking Express.


Background Introduction

Thesis statement/aims

Structure of essay

-Semiotics in general context and Barthes’ work.

-Semiotics in film context

Barthes’ understanding of Semiotics – how people make meaning through both linguistic and non- linguistic way- helped establish Structuralism;It is argued that Chinese film has transformed under the influence of Semiotics after 1980, taking Chunking Express for example, the semiotic significance of this film lies in that it reveals to us the real feelings of the abnormal living conditions of modern people by means of two emotional life symbols of urban people.

-Understanding of the concept of Semiotics

-Show the application in films

– Explore the changes Semiotics brought to Chinese film and its far-reaching meaning.

Main Body

Topic Sentence-Main point of  paragraph

Support and explanations/evidence/data-including references(surname year)

Analysis/significance of point made/ link to next paragraph

-Explain what semiotics is (definition, origin, influence);

– Barthest’s theory; 

-Derive the role of Semiotics in film

-Barthes theory

-Christian Metz’s work in Film Semiotics ( Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, Metz, 1990)

-The meaning of Semiotics in the application of films.

– From western to the world: How does it spread to influence the world.

-Semiotics in cinema context

– Metz analysis of film semiotics

– The application of Semiotics in Chinese film industry

The evolvemnt of Semiotics into conema context under the persistent works of Metz. The introduction into Chines film industry; 

example of works: Chungking Express

New Vocabulary in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post Structuralism and Beyond, Stam Robert, 1992

https://macsphere. mcmaster. ca/bitstream/11375/13642/1/fulltext. pdf

http://www. scielo. org. ar/scielo. php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1668-81042001000200020&lng=en&nrm=iso

Analyze why Semiotics have such wide spread influence in Chinese films.

The progress of Semiotics in Chinese film comparing to the western world

A specific representative semiotics chinese film- Chungking Express. Generalize its application of semiotics.

several symbols were used in this film to express the depression and fragility.

https://www. criterion. com/current/posts/766-chungking-express-electric-youth

it’s an succesful example of Semiotics film that conveyed complex meaning through fragmented and obscure images and lines.


Restate aims

Highlight main points

Concluding remarks

Understanding the application of one of postmodern thinking- Semiotics in Chinese film expression

The breakthrough of Chinese film under the influence of Semiotics.

Accompanied with the development of media technology, Chines film will embrace its heyday in the future.

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