Recently China Digital Times interviewed Paul Pickowicz, Distinguished Professor of History and Chinese Studies at the University of California San Diego and author of China on Film: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation and Controversy (Rowan and Littlefield 2013). In a long and far-ranging conversation, Pickowicz reflects on his groundbreaking work at the China Film Archive in the 1980s, forging relationships with Chinese film scholars and filmmakers at a time when the Chinese film industry saw little interaction with the West. He also shares his observations on different eras of Chinese film from the 1920s to the present.Of particular relevance to us at dGenerate is his answer to a question regarding his shifting opinion of the independent films of the past two decades:
CDT: Why did you initially deem the wave of underground and independent productions that came out shortly before and after 2000 “self-indulgent” and “trivial” but later change your mind saying “Chinese artists had earned the right to be self-indulgent” because of decades of “Maoist collectivism and asceticism.”
PGP: When I first began to take a close look at large numbers of these films, documentaries and features alike, I was no doubt hoping for the same sort of independent, critical engagement with broad social issues that we see in the films made before 1949 by independent, non-state sector filmmakers. I was looking for political critiques and at least some finger pointing. I was interested in such issues as environmental degradation, recovering lost histories, child trafficking, corruption, and organized crime. Eventually I found many significant works that treated such topics, films like Peng Tao’s Red Snow (Hongse xue, 2006), Liu Bingjian’s Crying Woman (Kuqi de nuren, 2002), and Ai Xiaoming’s Love and Care (Guan ai zhi jia, 2007). But initially I looked randomly through our collection and struck by the large numbers of films that seemed very inwardly directed instead of outwardly directed. I was looking for critical protest films but was confronted by very large numbers of films, especially documentaries, that screamed, “Look at me!” They seemed very self-indulgent to me and I quickly tired of their repetitiveness. But of course I soon realized that these films were highly political in their own ways. They were, after all, a very logical response to decades of Maoist collectivism when people were supposed to “merge with the masses” and deny “self.” Once a space suddenly opened up for reflections on self and individual identities, many, many young urbanites took the plunge. They engaged with passion in what I call “identity searches.”
The full interview can be read at China Digital Times.