Archive for the ‘CinemaTalk: Conversations on Chinese Cinema Studies’ Category

CinemaTalk: Interview with Zhu Rikun, Curator of Jacob Burns “Hidden China” Series, on Ai Weiwei and Chinese Indie Filmmaking

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

This October the Jacob Burns Film Center presents “Hidden China,” a monthlong series of independent documentaries produced in China, selected Zhu Rikun, producer, programmer and founder of Fanhall Studio. Zhu Rikun is a major figure in contemporary Chinese independent film, having produced such acclaimed films as Karamay and Winter Vacation. Earlier in 2012 he served as an advisor on “Hidden Histories,” a series of Chinese independent documentaries co-curated by Gertjan Zuilhof and Gerwin Tamsma for the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The centerpiece of the series was a retrospective of the documentaries of Ai Weiwei. Many of those selections are included in the “Hidden China” series at the Jacob Burns Film Center.

dGenerate Films’ Kevin B. Lee recorded this interview with Zhu Rikun during the Rotterdam series, focusing on the significance of Ai Weiwei as a documentary filmmaker and how they reflect developments in documentary filmmaking, citizen journalism and freedom of information and expression in today’s China.

Interview transcribed by Stephanie Hsu.

Kevin Lee: Looking at Ai Weiwei and his films, it seems he’s made films in two different Chinas. We look at a movie like Fairytale or Ordos 100—these are documentaries about how the Chinese art world is one of unlimited money and prestige. It’s a world the ruling powers approve of, because they think it will help elevate China in the eyes of the world. And so they work with Ai Weiwei as a famous artist to help promote that view. At the same time, he makes these highly socially critical films, like Disturbing the Peace and One Recluse. How do you see the connection between these two different kinds of movies that he makes? Do you think they are all basically the same kind of film or are they very different?


CinemaTalk: Conversation with Huang Ji, director of Egg and Stone

Friday, August 24th, 2012

By Kevin B. Lee

Last weekend the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival opened with the domestic premiere of Egg and Stone, which won a Tiger Award for Best Feature Film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year. The first feature directed by Huang Ji, the film is a loosely autobiographical account of a young girl’s traumatic experience of family sexual abuse in a rural village in Hunan province. The film was actually shot in Huang Ji’s home village.

Unfortunately, the screening of the film was interrupted by a power failure that shut down the venue, which occurred shortly after local officials requested the festival stop its activities, having not received official authorization to screen films. “I had prepared my heart for this possibility,” Huang Ji told me, “but I was still crushed when it happened.” The film was eventually screened in its entirety later that week at a private venue.

The following interview with Huang Ji took place at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January. Interview translated by Heran Hao.


CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Filmmaker Ji Dan

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012
By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

Ji Dan

Originally from Heilongjiang, Ji Dan is a documentary filmmaker who has worked extensively in both China and Japan. Her past works include Spirit Home (2006), Dream of the Empty City (2007), and Spiral Staircase of Harbin (2008), which was awarded prizes at both the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and the China Documentary Film Festival.

Ji Dan’s most recent work, When The Bough Breaks, is a remarkably intimate account of a family of migrant trash scavengers living in Beijing and the bitter struggle of two young girls to send their little brother to school, against all odds and in the wake of their older sister’s disappearance. The day after When The Bough Breaks made its North America premiere at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, I spoke to Ji Dan in New York about the family depicted in When The Bough Breaks, her unique approach to filming and getting involved in the lives of her subjects, her mutual appreciation of theater and documentary, and what it’s like being one of Chinese documentary’s few female directors.


CinemaTalk: Interview with Alison Klayman, director of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

Alison Klayman (

Alison Klayman is a journalist who, while living in China from 2006-2010, produced radio and television for news sources such as NPR’s “All Things Considered,” AP Television, Voice of America, Current TV, and CBC. She is the director of the documentary film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. I spoke with Alison at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah about the film’s trajectory, the role of social media in making bringing this story to life, and her working relationship with China’s most notorious artist and filmmaker. Thanks to Alison and her team for their cooperation.

dGenerate Films: Can you talk a little about the origins of your working relationship with Ai Weiwei and how the project got started?

Alison Klayman: I had been living in Beijing for about two years when my roommate, Stephanie Tung, who was working at Three Shadows [Photography Center, a gallery and cultural center in Caochangdi, Beijing] got me involved in an exhibition they were doing of Ai Weiwei’s photos from New York. The photos are kind of a”greatest hits” series of contemporary cultural figures in China and provided an interesting window into this cross-cultural understanding of New York that I was really drawn to. I was kind of underemployed at the time and Stephanie suggested I make a video to accompany the exhibition. Rong Rong [photographer and Three Shadows director] gave me the okay and I went from Three Shadows to Weiwei’s house with the camera already rolling. It was really natural and organic. I didn’t just show up at Weiwei’s door and say “I’m fascinated by you, I want to film you.” We finished the video and Weiwei liked. I think it showed who he really is – very charismatic and engaging, fun-loving, doesn’t take himself too seriously. And then projects just kept coming up, so I feel compelled to keep filming. That’s kind of the beauty of Beijing – it’s very open and you can easily fall into these kinds of projects unexpectedly.


CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Filmmaker Wu Wenguang on the Memory Project

Friday, December 16th, 2011

By Maya E. Rudolph

After his screening series premiering many works from the Getting the Past Out Loud: Memory Projects at New York University, I spoke with filmmaker and Memory Projects organizer Wu Wenguang about the project, a new generation of filmmakers, and his view on screening works in the US. The event was held at the NYU Center for Religion and Media and co-sponsored by the Department of Cinema Studies, with generous support from China House.

Special thanks to NYU Professors Angela Zito and Zhang Zhen for curating the program and arranging this interview with Wu Wenguang.

Wu Wenguang at NYU

dGF: When and how did the Memory Project begin?

Wu Wenguang: The project started last year. It was last summer that we had the opportunity to start this. It was during this time we first started going to villages to conduct interviews. It had to be summer, this was the ideal season for heading off to these villages. So, everyone headed off to their own villages, their hometowns, for these interviews. When they got back, everyone started to edit, give advice, collaborate. This is how we got started.

dGF: The majority of the people participating in this project as filmmakers are pretty young, born in the 80s or 90s. You’ve said that your generation’s view of cinema differs greatly from that of these young people. What do you feel you have to teach one another – what kind of exchange do you have?

WWG: These kids have a lot of confidence, real self-starters. I don’t know if I really can teach them much. We can simply work together. Sometimes, the people in these villages think I’ve taught them how to shoot and what to shoot. This isn’t the case; they’ve chosen how and what to shoot by themselves. What I have to teach them isn’t important. What is important is their own work and how they choose to conduct it.


CinemaTalk: Interview with Julian Ward and Song Hwee Lim, Editors of The Chinese Cinema Book

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

By Maya E. Rudolph

Song Hwee Lim and Julian Ward are editors of the recently published The Chinese Cinema Book (BFI and Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Song Hwee Lim

Song Hwee Lim
is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas (University of Hawaii Press, 2006), co-editor of Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film (Wallflower Press, 2006), and founding editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas. His next monograph, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, will appear in 2013.

Julian Ward

Julian Ward
is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies attached to the Asian Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. He is Associate Editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas and has written articles on the representation in film in different eras of Communist China of the Sino-Japanese War. He is the author of Xu Xiake (1587–1641): The Art of Travel Writing (2000), a study of China’s foremost travel writer of the imperial period.

The Chinese Cinema Book, published earlier this year, provides a crucial and comprehensive guide to Chinese cinema history, contemporary scholarship, and a range of discussions of Chinese cinema in both national and trans-national contexts. Incorporating contributions from many leading scholars in the field of Chinese cinema studies, as well as writings from editors Lim and Ward, the book is divided into five thematic sections: Territories, Trajectories, Historiographies; Early Cinema to 1949; The Forgotten Period: 1949–80; The New Waves; and Stars, Auteurs and Genres.

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dGF: In the prologue to “The Chinese Cinema Book,” you state that, despite its rather authoritative title, “this book does not pretend to offer a comprehensive coverage of Chinese cinema throughout its long and complicated history and multifarious manifestations,” but rather aims to provide “an overview of the ‘state of the field’.” In selecting works to represent the “state of the field” and assembling this most recent collection of scholarship, what was your approach to comprehensively taking the temperature of today’s climate for Chinese cinema studies?

SL and JW: First of all, we’re fully aware that this is an English-language publication designed to be a useful resource for academics and students, and that it should also appeal to a general readership. This means covering fairly familiar territories while introducing some new areas, and bearing in mind the availability of film materials on DVDs with English subtitles. In our other role as editors of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, we are keenly attuned to the state of the field in terms of established and emerging scholarship, and we therefore attempt to reflect that in this book as well. Overall, we are pleased with the coverage of the book in terms of the range of topics and scholars.


CinemaTalk: Interview with Professor Eugene Wang on Chinese Art and Film

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

By Michael Chenkin

Professor Eugene Wang

Eugene Yuejin Wang is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University. We recently spoke with Professor Wang about his interests in Chinese art and Chinese film, the areas of intersection between these two fields, and his interest in painter Liu Xiaodong, who is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary Dong. Dong will screen Monday 9/26 as the opening film of the 11-film series on Chinese independent film at Doc Films in Chicago. In this conversation Professor Wang reflects at length on the way Liu and other artists work in relation to the idea of nationhood, especially in regards to national disasters such as the 2008 Beichuan earthquake in Sichuan. Wang pays particular attention to Liu’s 2010 work “Getting Out of Beichuan,” which Wang considers “marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene.”

A native of Jiangsu, China, Wang studied at Fudan University in Shanghai (B.A. 1983; M.A. 1986), and subsequently at Harvard University (A.M. 1990; Ph.D. 1997). He was the Ittleson Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in Visual Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1995-96) before joining the art history faculty at the University of Chicago in 1996. His teaching appointment at Harvard University began in 1997, and he became the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art in 2005.

He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and postdoctoral and research grants from the Getty Foundation.

His book, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China (2005) has received the Academic Achievement Award in memory of the late Professor Nichijin Sakamoto, Rissho University, Japan. He is the art history associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (New York, 2004).


dGF: I understand that a lot of your past research focused on Medieval Buddhist art and visual culture. Recently you have been researching Chinese film. Where did these interests arise? In addition, is there any synergy between inquiries into Buddhist art and Chinese film?

Eugene Wang: Before I started researching medieval art, I was deeply engaged in Chinese film. I actually wrote a script and published a few essays. Film has always been one of my side interests. I’m always intrigued by how people screen disparate images together. You have a set of images. They may or may not have a relationship with one another. Somehow you string them together and you have an image flow. In cinematic terms it would be called montage. If these images are on a wall, such as in Buddhist caves and wall paintings, then you have an iconographic program. There is something very interesting about the visual logic underlying this flow of images.

CinemaTalk: Conversation with Edward Wong of the New York Times on Chinese Indie Filmmaking

Monday, August 29th, 2011

In the August 14 edition of the New York Times, Edward Wong profiles Zhao Liang, director of two of the most fearlessly independent social documentaries to come from China, Crime and Punishment and Petition. Zhao has recently transitioned to work with the Chinese government to produce Together, an “official” documentary on Chinese HIV victims. That decision and an earlier one involving involving Zhao’s withdrawal from an Australian film festival in support of a political protest by the Chinese government have drawn the criticism of a few occasional supporters and collaborators, including outspoken artist-activist Ai Weiwei, whose detention by the Chinese government this year drew international attention. The article summarizes its central concern in one paragraph:

Mr. Zhao’s evolution from a filmmaker hounded by the government to one whom it celebrates offers a window into hard choices that face directors as they try to carve out space for self-expression in China’s authoritarian system. Like Mr. Zhao, many seek to balance their independent visions with their desires to live securely and win recognition.

Listen to a podcast interview with Wong from the Sinica podcast on Popup Chinese.

We interviewed Wong about his experience reporting this story and its broader relevance on art and culture in contemporary China.

dGF: What attracted you to report on this story?

Edward Wong: While living in Beijing, I had watched and greatly admired two of Zhao Liang’s films, “Crime and Punishment” and “Petition.” In November 2010, I met him at a dinner in the 798 arts district with Karin Chien, the founder of dGenerate Films. At that time, he was working on “Together,” a documentary that the Health Ministry had commissioned as a public service announcement about people with HIV/AIDS. For the film, he had just recorded a song by Peng Liyuan, the celebrity wife of Xi Jinping, the man who is expected to become the next leader of China. Zhao also told me about how he had used social networking websites to track down interview subjects with HIV/AIDS. This new project sounded interesting. We talked a lot too about the making of “Crime and Punishment,” and about how he had lied to police officers to get access to their station house in northeast China.

I found Zhao to be an engaging person, and I thought that he might make an interesting profile. As I spent time with him, I found he had a lot of interesting things to say not only about making films, but also about the role of artists and intellectuals in China.


CinemaTalk: Chris Berry on Cultural Revolution Cinema

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Interviewed by Michael Chenkin

Chris Berry

Chris Berry is Professor of film and television studies at Goldsmiths University of London, and co-editor of the recent volume The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Most recently he co-curated a special film series “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire: The Cultural Revolution in the Cinemawith Katja Wiederspahn for the Film Archiv Austria, with the cooperation with the Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnological Museum and the Film Archive Austria)in its special exhibition “The Culture of the Cultural Revolution.” We caught up with Professor Berry to learn more about the films and his experience in curating the series.

dGF: Has this exhibition changed your understanding of the Cultural Revolution and film? What were the major obstacles you faced in curating the exhibition at *Film Archiv Austria*?

Chris Berry: I guess my thinking about the Cultural Revolution was already changing along with a lot of other peoples’, and the process of putting together the series became part of that. I was very struck when I read the Tsinghua University professor and leading mainland public intellectual Professor Wang Hui’s comments in “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity,” where he argued that the legitimacy of the entire contemporary Chinese political, social and cultural formation is built on the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution. Along with everyone else, I had taken that repudiation for granted for a long time and not gone much further. If today’s combination of neo-liberal economics and authoritarian politics needs a stereotype of the Cultural Revolution as a disastrous combination of the opposite — a command economy and anarchic politics — maybe that’s too simple. It’s not that I want to embrace the Cultural Revolution! But I think it made me realize that we need to decouple the Cultural Revolution from legitimization of the present to get a more complex understanding of it.


Cinematalk: Interview with Ying Qian of Harvard

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

By Michael Chenkin

Ying Qian

Ying Qian is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Qian’s area of focus involves examining the evolving documentary visions in 20th century China. She is interested in the social processes and “film thinking” that have enabled and shaped the making of documentary images, and the ways in which these images have provided framings, interventions and agencies to historical change.

Recently, Qian co-organized a conference titled “Just Images: Ethics and Chinese Documentary” at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. We spoke with Qian about the highlights of the conference as well as her ongoing research in Chinese documentary.

dGF: Could you give a brief overview of your research? What are your specific interests within the field of documentary film study?

Ying Qian: I’m writing a dissertation on the history of Chinese documentary since the Mao era. I also write about documentary practices in the Republican period in my introduction chapter. My interest in documentary cinema was initiated by encounters with contemporary independent documentary, and I used to make my own documentary films as well.

In my dissertation, I try to move the timeline further back. When talking about contemporary documentary, critics would point out that these films are very different from the official practices and especially from the documentary practices of an earlier era. New documentaries do not usually have a “Voice-of-God” commentary; they also have different approaches to conceptualize reality and deal with contingency in filmmaking. These observations are clearly true; though I think the division between the past and the present is not so binary. When one examines the documentary productions in the Mao-era seriously, one finds some important continuities despite many ruptures. I see documentary of the present as multiple responses to the end of the Mao-era.