Archive for the ‘Icarus Films’ Category

Interview with Yang Mingming, director of Female Directors

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

By Josh Feola 

Yang Mingming, a self-described “hutong kid” born in 1988 and raised in central Beijing, fell into filmmaking in college. She majored in film and television directing at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, gravitating to the camera after pursuing an early passion for dance and theater. Female Directors, Yang’s first film after graduation, tells the story of two close friends and aspiring directors in Beijing — Ah Ming, portrayed by Yang, and Yueyue, portrayed by Yang’s close friend and former classmate, Guo Yue. The film plays with the format and content of the documentary so convincingly that I sincerely failed to register it as fiction the first time I saw it. Repeated viewings reveal Yang’s subtle play with the narrative structure and aesthetic form of the film, an alacrity that belies the director’s rigid technical planning and rehearsals.

After re-watching Female Directors, I asked Yang a few questions about some of the technical aspects of making the film, as well as the social and gender critiques that it aims to level against China’s swiftly modernizing society.

Yang (L) on the set of Female Directors

Yang (L) on the set of Female Directors

dGenerate Films: How did you get into filmmaking initially? Is it something you were interested in since you were young, or did it develop later?

Yang Mingming: 15 years ago I wanted to be a dancer, and after that I became interested in theater. But I didn’t pass the stage director’s exam, and due to a random combination of factors, I ended up studying film. Film isn’t like painting, or any kind of art that one person can do on their own. Because of this, early on, my interest in film manifested as an interest in the film’s audience. Even though now I’ve made Female Directors and a few other short films, when I’m shooting, I’m never completely happy. I think this is the normal state of affairs: when a director is shooting, she shouldn’t be happy, because there’s no time, and there’s the responsibilities of directing are so heavy. When I finish a movie, I totally lose interest in my film–I can only maintain interest in other people’s films. This is my main interest in filmmaking anyway—seeing other people’s films.

dGF: What about Guo Yue? Is she a university friend of yours in real life, or someone you met in the process of making this film?

YMM: Guo Ye and I went to the same school. She was two years below me, she’s my shimei (“little sister”). We’d collaborated before I started Female Directors when she acted in a film I made as my graduation project. Outside of working together, we’re also really good friends, and we really trust one another. We’re the kind of friends that can casually kiss, but we’re not lesbians.


Review: Yang Mingming’s Female Directors

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

By Josh Feola 

Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

This review contains spoilers.

Yang Mingming’s 2012 debut Female Directors, a documentary-style narrative centered on the fractious but durable relationship between two young, underemployed film school graduates in Beijing, lends itself to the kind of one-dimensional feminist reading that reviewers have used to unlock the ostensible themes of Yang’s often tongue-in-cheek mockumentary. A number of reviewers have noted Yang’s use of a handheld digital camera — functionally the film’s third character, as it frequently changes hands between the film’s two protagonists — as a deliberate reversal of the male gaze. This consideration and the fact that there are no male characters in the film, aids the films’ explicit address questions of gender in contemporary Chinese society, both criticizing and reinforcing gender norms.

Rather than assess Female Directors based on the gender identities of its director and lead actresses — Yang performs as “Ah Ming” alongside her collaborator Guo Yue, who acts as “Yueyue” — a broader approach seeks to find the film’s meaning in its technical execution, a spare and brilliant adaptation of cinéma vérité style, exposing truth concealed by artifice, and offering an incisive look into the ritually self-obsessed nature of young Chinese creatives.


Infidelity and duplicity are recurring themes in Female Directors. The plot, insofar as there is one, hinges around the early revelation that Ah Ming and Yueyue, aspiring directors and best friends who’ve seemingly made a pact to film their every moment together with the ultimate goal of creating a documentary, discover that they’ve both been having an affair with the same married man. This wealthy adulterer, an invisible narrative prop from Guangdong, is never seen nor heard, and only ever referred to by the nickname “Short Stuff”. As the story progresses, Ah Ming and Yueyue reveal details about their relationship with Short Stuff, sometimes as barbed lies, others as revelations that evoke sympathy. Yueyue, we discover, has been sleeping with Short Stuff in exchange for the promise of receiving a Beijing hukou — a residence permit that would grant her considerable municipal benefits. Ah Ming, who coldly insinuates that Yueyue is no better than a prostitute, herself accepts a 16,000 RMB (roughly $2,500) “loan” from Short Stuff to make a film.


Review of Pema Tseden’s Tharlo

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

by Maya Rudolph 
This review contains spoilers.

Tharlo, Pema Tsenden’s noir-inflected romance, is a story of identity, a journey of the self in black and white. A Tibetan shepherd known by his eponymous “Ponytail” travels from his rural home to a small city in Qinghai Province in reluctant pursuit of an ID card—the documentation all Chinese rely on to designate their residency. His never-used given name is Tharlo and, though he’s easygoing, Ponytail isn’t convinced that he needs an ID. “I know who I am,” he says plainly. “Isn’t that enough?” But it’s not enough—at least not for Tseden to set the stakes for Tharlo’s journey into the miasma of the city. A conversation of the heaviness of life and death plays out in the bureau office of Chief Dorjie, a friendly Tibetan cop who compliments Tharlo’s formidable recitation of Mao’s “Serve the People.” As the men reflect on the line “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai,” Tharlo tells Dorjie he’s confident that his own way of serving the people, tending his flock of sheep, will bring Mount Tai-volume gravity to his death when the time comes.

In the city, Ponytail tries on his urban identity as Tharlo. Accompanied by an orphaned lamb he carries in a satchel, Tharlo waits his turn in a photography studio and watches a couple pose, first against a painted backdrop of Tian’anmen Square and then a boxy, distorted representation of the New York City skyline. Tseden presents the discrete, static spaces of an urban town through reflections and cropped frames that betray Tharlo’s discomfort with the unfamiliar customs of city life. Played with a plainspoken good humor by Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima, Tharlo is a good sport of ineffable age who seems at home in himself, if not in his surroundings.

But when it’s Tharlo’s turn to have his likeness captured, the photographer finds his hygiene wanting, and so he gamely heads across the street to have his hair washed and tidied. It’s in a dingy barbershop that Tharlo meets a very pretty hairdresser whose direct, modern style makes a deep impression. She flirts with him, massages his head with shampoo, and compliments his “cute ponytail.” If naive, mild-mannered Tharlo is a classic noir archetype of the hapless stranger, the hairdresser’s sideways smile marks her as Tibetan cinema’s foremost femme fatale. She invites Tharlo to join her for a night of karaoke, where Tharlo stumbles through the ultimate urban paradox of good and evil: a first date. The private karaoke room, all laser disco lights and tinny pop songs, is claustrophobic and disorienting for Tharlo. They spend the night in the barbershop and it’s only the next morning when we see her body lean in for a goodbye kiss, or to whisper something, that we learn her name: Yangtso.

Tharlo returns home to his isolated mountain home and Tseden’s camera opens up to the grand sweep of a lonely figure beneath staggering peaks and endless sky. Tharlo tells Dorjie that he thinks he’s met a bad person in the city, but it’s clear that Yangtso weighs on his thoughts even while the familiar evils of the steppe make trouble for Tharlo and his sheep. At home, he drinks and smokes himself to uncontrollable coughing fits, sets off fireworks to break the stillness of the night, and teaches himself to sing folk love songs. Eventually, he capitulates to temptation, or curiosity, and returns to the city with a stack of cash. Tharlo and Yangtso decide to run away together—to really see Beijing, or even New York City—but not before Yangtso divests Ponytail of his namesake in favor of a more anonymous look.

While assured black and white photography and the contrasting scale of urban and rural geography create a compelling visual language, the truth of Pema Tseden’s narrative is heard rather than seen. The sleepy world of the steppe, punctuated by bleating sheep, is delineated from the city’s static of cheesy music and diesel engines by the puttering of Tharlo’s motorbike, the sounds fully realized even at long distance. In the city, where every image is reframed and refracted in windows and the literal smoke and mirrors of the barbershop, only sound emerges trustworthy. Tharlo’s identity is made and unmade in exterior sounds: the cry of his little orphan sheep; his hacking cough; the ugly sonic bleed of the karaoke bar; the loud hum of electric razor Yangtso uses to shave Tharlo’s head. When Tharlo wakes up the morning after his haircut to find Yangtso and his fortune gone, he barely appears in our mirrored view of the empty barbershop. It is the sound of him opening and closing drawers, a shuffling of objects grown increasingly frantic that confirms the betrayal.

Returning to Chief Dorjie’s bureau, a traumatized Tharlo learns that his ID card has finally arrived. His head shaved by the woman who destroyed him, our hero finds that his identity is null—he no longer resembles the man on the ID card. He’ll have to go back to the photographer and start all over again. “I’m afraid now my death will be lighter than a feather,” Tharlo despairs, now a stranger to himself.


Tharlo is a story of crushing themes and bald questions of identity, a cautionary tale with an iron spine of rightness gone wrong, but Tseden manages to guide this adaptation of his own novella with an even hand. Heaviness and lightness are juggled in the measured pacing, the story of a man’s undoing told simply, but not without irony or an appreciation for the exquisite awkwardness of courtship. In his initial appraisal of Tharlo as a good man, Chief Dorjie claims to possess a policeman’s intuition for assessing a person as good or bad on sight, a ludicrous claim that nonetheless tortures Tharlo as his own image changes, molded by the perceptions of others and reduced to ambiguity.

Certainly, questions of Tibetan identity in a Chinese infrastructure cement the story’s context, but the influence of politics and modernity is inexorable from Tharlo and Yangtso’s graceless love story. Brazen Yangtso is an impalpable figure and Tharlo’s attraction to and repulsion by her are the least of her contradictions. She is a Tibetan woman liberated from (or deprived of) her traditional long braids, a Tibetan women who smokes and sings pop songs and flirts easily, a modern Tibetan woman in a Western Chinese city. While the ID card is an obvious metaphor for Tharlo’s fractured identity, the truth of his crisis is manifest in Yangtso. As a Tibetan woman, her physical being is familiar, but Tharlo comes undone when her behavior takes a wrecking ball to his binary convictions, his sense of the world and ability to know himself.

In the moments after Yangtso shaves Tharlo’s head, she sits beside him in a barber chair, each captured in separate, adjacent mirrors. Her posture is casual, sizing up this man. Tharlo’s troubles may originate in the dangerous act of classification—making physical ones identity in the form of a state-issued card—but romance is another kind of identity crisis. Infatuation is a black hole. And love can dismantle a person, no matter who they think they are.

New Contact Information for dGenerate Films

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Following the announcement of dGenerate’s new partnership with Icarus Films, here is dGenerate’s new office and contact information:

dGenerate Films
c/o Icarus Films
32 Court Street, 21st Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Tel 1.718.488.8900
Fax 1.718.488.8642

As always, you can keep track of the latest dGenerate news by following our Facebook page, Twitter feed and our website.

dGenerate Films Announces Exciting Partnership with Icarus Films

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Hello all!

Big news here on the dGenerate front that we wanted to share with you. We’ve entered into a distribution partnership with Icarus Films, who have been releasing documentary and art films for nearly 30 years, and will be the exclusive distributor of dGenerate films moving forward. Karin, Kevin, Dan and myself are very excited for this opportunity for us to expand on our mission to expose as many people out there to the invaluable films and groundbreaking filmmakers we have the honor of distributing. Icarus will establish the dGenerate Films Collection, which will live within their catalog of 1000+ films and next to makers such as Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker, Patricio Guzman and many more. It’s quite an honor to be included in such fine company.

From here on out, Icarus will be taking over much of our operational responsibilities, including sales fulfillment and marketing. We are in the progress of migrating all of this to Icarus, so some of the ways you’ve engaged with us prior will be changing (and evolving!). We’ll make sure to keep you updated as we go via our blog. And lest you worry, we’ll still be on the hunt to acquire more of the films that put that put Chinese independent cinema on the radar screen of tastemakers like Icarus and yourselves.

Feel free to contact us with any questions, you should notice nothing but positive change as we’re able to tap into the expertise of Jonathan Miller and his team at Icarus. On behalf of all of the dGenerate team, present and past, thanks for helping dGenerate Films get here.

Much Gratitude,

Brent, Karin, Kevin and the dGenerate Films team

P.S. Read on for the press release on this announcement.