Archive for the ‘Shelly Kraicer on Chinese Film’ Category

Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part Two

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

By Shelly Kraicer

This is the conclusion of Shelly Kraicer’s essay “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West).” Click here for the introduction and first half of the essay.

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Oxhide 2 (dir. Liu Jiayin)

4. Exemplary Asian independent art cinema. This misreading has something in common with Number 1 (“Exotic, colorful diversion”) , but in a more rarified, sophisticated form. It also contradicts (but exists in a weird sort of symbiosis with) Number 5 below. There is supposed to be something essentially “Asian” (meaning usually East Asian) about the predominant mode of contemporary art cinema now celebrated in festivals worldwide. Films that convey China’s backwardness (see Number 6 below) often employ a Andre Bazin-influenced mise en scène that is post-realist in its effect. Long takes, a demandingly slow pace, opaque storytelling, a distant motionless camera, inexpressive, non-professional actors, lots and lots of visual and narrative blankness, emptiness, stillness. Examples abound, the best recent exponents being Yang Heng (Betelnut, Sun Spots), Yang Rui (Crossing the Mountain), and in her own inimitable way, Liu Jiayin (Oxhide and Oxhide 2).

This analysis reduces an often surprising diversity of film styles into something that is assumed to spring, essentially and almost automatically, from a specific historical and cultural background, with local visual and pictorial traditions transmuted directly into their filmic correlatives. This in a sense over-simplifies and over-particularizes Chinese filmmakers who are utterly fluent (more than most of us) in the world-cinema image market (you can easily find films from everywhere, from every era, in China’s wonderfully eclectic bootleg DVD shops). By insisting on the “Chinese-ness” of these films, a special understanding, a privileged access to the films’ “essences,” may reserved for Sinological experts.

5. International art cinema master(s’) works. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to abuse Chinese cinema as some sort of proof that master directors work in a universal style recognizalbe to experts, critics, professionals, and well-trained festival audiences. In absolute contradistinction to Number 4 above, this attitude says “you don’t need to know anything about China and its specific cultural history to appreciate these films. They are great cinema, full stop”. This can be a branding exercise, like Number 2 (“Commercial entertainment”), but one for a more discriminating audience who needs to be reassured that she or he will be able to enjoy the latest Chinese masterpiece without unduly stressing over its foreignness. This is global art, i.e. It belongs to “Us,” not to its incidentally “Other” creators. Hegemony reasserts itself as art / film criticism, denaturing a film for our appropriation and viewing pleasure (with emphasis on the pleasure). This tendency can be seen in the flattering (for a forty-year-old director) inclusion of the latest Jia Zhangke film I Wish I Knew in the “Masters” section of the Toronto International Film Festival programme.

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Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part One

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Opening Ceremony of the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing (photo courtesy of CIFF)

By Shelly Kraicer

While attending the China Independent Film Festival last month in Nanjing (October 2010), I was invited to give a talk the next morning at the International Youth Art Film Summit Forum, a symposium for young directors organized by the Festival and Nanjing University. I couldn’t really decline, especially since I was benefiting from the CIFF’s generous hospitality and its wonderful programming. The problem: “forums” like these in the Chinese film festival context are rather more like formal ceremonies, featuring a series of presiding officials who drone out banal speeches welcoming the scholars and celebrating young Chinese directors’ unbridled creativity.

Various foreign guests are typically invited to give what (is hoped) are equally generic talks outlining their respective institutions and their wholesome and uncomplicated eagerness to cooperate with China, Chinese directors, and Chinese cinema institutions. I was advised to do likewise. I came up with something that I hoped might interest or at least not bore some of these young filmmakers who were supposed to be in the audience. My talk was called “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West)”. Since it was to be an eight minute speech (including translation, I think I went a bit over), I boiled it down to a list of seven abuses.

What follows below is a recreation from memory of the speech I gave, somewhat expanded from the original version. I’ve also added various clarifications (and complications), and the examples not included in the speech itself (as I was advised not to name specific films in front of officials). I’ve set off these extra sections by italicizing them, so what I hope results is something like a text that alternates between more formal discourse and a parallel informal stream of commentary that supplements, qualifies and even challenges my main argument.

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I start with a question: why do western film festivals need Chinese cinema? Films from the People’s Republic of China are eagerly sought after by festivals around the world, enjoy a generous portion of festivals’ programming slots, and receive a substantial share of prestigious competition prizes. This doesn’t happen by accident. The international festival system does not privilege films on the basis of “excellence” alone. Complex questions of power, commercial viability, and national self-representation come into play. So, phrased another way, the question becomes: What functions — political, commercial, and cultural — does Chinese cinema serve in the western festival and distribution system? How are these films used, what interests does programming them serve?

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Shelly on Film: Deeper Into Dragons and Tigers

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

By Shelly Kraicer

Rumination (dir. Xu Ruotao)

The 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival (September 30 to October 15) has just concluded. This was my fourth year programming Chinese language films for VIFF’s Dragons and Tigers section for East Asian cinema; this year’s edition featured 43 features and 21 shorts, co-curated by Tony Rayns and myself. I selected 19 features and three shorts: 12 from China, 4 from Hong Kong, 3 from Taiwan, 2 from Malaysia, and one from Singapore. Details of the films from the People’s Republic of China, including comments derived from my catalogue notes for VIFF, can be found below.

Within the D&T section, the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, programmed by Tony Rayns, featured 8 films by young, as yet “undiscovered” directors. The jury, comprised of Jia Zhangke, Bong Joon-ho, and Denis Côté, awarded its prize to the Japanese film Good Morning World!, directed by Hirohara Satoru. Two special mentions were awarded: one to the Chinese film Rumination (Fanchu), by Xu Ruotao, and one to Phan Dang Di’s Vietnamese film Don’t Be Afraid B!

As usual, I chose more films from China than from any other territory. I try each year to balance at least two goals in my programming: I want to give VIFF audiences a sense of the increasing variety of Chinese language filmmaking, both in the independent sector, and in commercial genres. At the same time, it has always been VIFF’s policy and my own personal preference to highlight the work of independent young filmmakers working outside of the system of official censorship and distribution (independent tizhiwai films). Indie documentary filmmaking continues to be particularly strong in China, and I could only choose a few examples: it would have been easy to devote the bulk of my 9 feature length film slots to Chinese independent films this year.

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Shelly on Film: Tremors and Traumas: Notes on Three Chinese Earthquake Movies

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

By Shelly Kraicer

Buried (dir. Wang Libo)

It’s been earthquake movie season in China ever since the terrible Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12th 2008. I’ve seen fourteen of these films since then — documentaries, features, and shorts, including titles like May Day, Don’t Cry Mom, Who Killed Our Children, and Quake de Love — and I’ve by no means done a systematic search. This doesn’t include the films that mention the earthquake in passing: the number would then increase three- or four-fold.

What makes this subject so essential for Chinese filmmakers to grapple with? The Sichuan earthquake is a disaster seared into the consciousness of most people living in China, where national mass media gave saturation coverage to the earthquake and its aftermath. The subject naturally lends itself both to propaganda-style tales of heroic rescure and moral uplift, and equally to outsider critiques of government policies that made the destruction worse. It seems that there is an earthquake for every political colouring, and every possible calibration of mass media coverage (and exploitation).

I’d like to look a bit more closely at a couple of films from what we might call opposite ends of the spectrum, and one right in the middle. On one end is Wang Libo’s Buried (Yanmai), an independent documentary from 2009. Situated at the other end of is Feng Xiaogang’s massive blockbuster Aftershock (Tangshan da dizhen, 2010), the most popular Chinese film in history, measured by the box office. And right in the middle is 1428, Du Haibin’s documentary from 2009.

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Shelly on Film: Bumping against Boundaries in Chinese Film Culture

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Thomas Mao (dir. Zhu Wen)

By Shelly Kraicer

During a recent interview with an independent Chinese journalist, I was somewhat taken aback, but also quite amused by her rather pointed question to me: “In an online discussion of an article you wrote recently, some [anonymous] commenter was skeptical that Westerners could be so interested in debating Chinese movies and ideology, when in fact it has nothing to do with them. What do you think?”

What could I think? I remember reading the original comment the journalist was referring to, and noting at the time that the implied (and oft-heard) background to this attitude was something along the lines of “outsiders [like you] are fundamentally unequipped to comment on (write about / research about / review) our Chinese films (painting / dramas / novels), so just what do you think you are doing, anyway?

At the risk of answering one cultural judgment with another, I find this display of an aggressively protective attitude to Chinese culture to be distinctly Beijing-ese. Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai tend to be much more relaxed about foreigners in their midst, given their cosmopolitan histories. Their urban intellectual cultures more readily admit “other” voices — foreign voices, alternative points of view — with fewer hangups than Beijing’s thriving and otherwise open intellectual culture. Beijing has long been the capital of mainland Chinese independent film and avant-garde culture. No less than half of the dGenerate Films catalog are by Beijing-based filmmakers: Jia Zhangke, Liu Jiayin, and Cui Zi’en, to name a few. And yet, despite its openness to progressive artisitic activity, Beijing has an intensely policed view of the cultural “other” and the potential role of these “others” in its cultural discourse.

(Article continues after the break.)

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Shelly on Film: From Buenos Aires to Beijing

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema

I was able to attend two events last month that showcased the strength, diversity, and vitality of new independent documentaries from China. The first, at BAFICI, the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema, was a section on recent Chinese independent docs that I curated for the festival. Intended as an abbreviated look back at the past 2 years or so of Chinese indies, I selected eight films (but could easily have chosen twenty) that represented different directions in what I called “radical” documentary filmmaking (using “radical” as broadly defined, in form or in content) in China today:

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Shelly on Film: The Twenty Minute Standout of Rotterdam

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

by Shelly Kraicer

Condolences (dir. Ying Liang)

I’ve always enjoyed attending the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), which perks up a dark and sleety Dutch mid-winter with what is quite possibly the world’s most creatively curated large-scale festival of art and experimental cinema. IFFR has always strongly supported Chinese language independent films. And films in Chinese usually do quite well there, having won the top prize, the Tiger Award, quite often in past few years (Flower in the Pocket, Malaysia, 2008; Love Conquers All, Malaysia, 2007; Walking on the Wild Side, 2006, China; The Missing, Taiwan, 2004; Suzhou River, China, 2000).

Even if this year’s lineup of new Chinese films might have been a bit less scintillating than usual (though standouts included Yang Heng’s Sun Spots in competition, Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, Lou Ye’s Spring Fever, and Xu Tong’s documentary Wheat Harvest), one short stood out: Ying Liang’s Condolences (Weiwen). And the IFFR jury recognized this: Condolences won one of three Tiger Awards for Short Film. It’s a particularly well-deserved prize, in my opinion: this 20 minute fiction short of Ying Liang’s is this gifted young Chinese director’s best work so far.

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Finding Ways to Fit: Mainland Chinese films at Toronto and Vancouver

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

Part One: Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-19, 2009)

One looks to comprehensive film festivals, such as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), for an overview of contemporary cinema that offers both breadth and depth. TIFF’s expansiveness, for example, allows one to make some judgments about the relative place of particular kinds of film in the world right now. I would like to try something of the sort with Mainland Chinese cinema in the context of TIFF, in particular how several new films might be situated in the world-cinematic scene.

Although Jia Zhangke seems in the process of retooling his cinema to head in new directions (though his public reaction, uncomfortably aligned with the Chinese government’s, to the Melbourne Film Festival Affair gives one pause), Jia-ist cinema, through its profound effect on most younger independent Chinese directors, seems lately more restrictive than liberating in its influence. Film language in “mainstream” indie Chinese films (both docs and features) seems to have temporarily congealed into something like formulaic liturgies: fetishization of the long take, the distant camera, the objective tone, the unedited minutiae of daily life.

At the same time, commercial Chinese film has adopted its own pathologies, giving us a series of big budget bloated historical epics cautiously tucked away, far from the sensitivities of the Film Bureau, into genres that are safely protected from any possible overt contemporary relevance. Several of these latter works found their way into TIFF, which has frequently, in the past ten years, extended a generous welcome to foreign fare that might attract the attentions of North American distribution. Since sword-wielding costumed Chinese actors sold in the past (thanks, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and your progeny), they have gained a marketable sheen that TIFF is one of the key agents in promoting.

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Shelly on Film: Pushing Beyond Indie Conventions

Monday, October 12th, 2009
by Shelly Kraicer
Betelnut  (dir. Yang Heng)

Betelnut (dir. Yang Heng)

Perhaps I’ve been spending just a bit too much time watching movies in China? I have this recurring daydream, most often when I’m watching a new Chinese film that some enterprising young director has sent me. I always watch every independent film that I receive. You never know what gems might appear unsolicited in the mail. And, even if the film isn’t so terrific, it will still be a useful index of all sorts of interesting trends: it might reveal what young filmmakers in China are filming, how they are looking at the world around them, or, at least, what they think people like me want to see.

The daydream, or perhaps it’s a fantasy, is this. There exists, down some dusty grey hutong alleyway of Beijing, a Chinese Indie Director’s Discount Emporium. You want to make a film? Step right in and assemble your movie at bargain prices. The shelving on the left is stocked with cast members: long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly. At the back is a set of grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes, ready to be populated by said drifters. To the right, useful equipment. Some tripods, but with a restriction: they must be set up at least 50 metres from the subjects being filmed. Right beside is a very long long shelf, holding 3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes, offered for a steal at family-sized package prices. Alternatively, you could go for deep discount on little DV cams, with the proviso that, held close to the subjects, they be shaken as vigorously as possible. The dialogue shelves in the centre are threadbare: screenplays for rent are all dialogue-light. And, off in a corner, is a shelf labelled “Prostitutes”. It’s over-loaded, with a three-for-the-price-of-one sale.

This may seem a bit mean. But the people I’m making fun of here, in fact, are international film programmers like me (I select Chinese language films for the Vancouver International Film Festival), not the filmmakers themselves. It seems that many of us (my colleagues from other film festivals, and wouldn’t exclude myself) sometimes seem to select films armed with a checklist of “East Asian art film attributes”, the things that populate the shelves of our hutong indie shop. Who can blame a young director from China, who, with little or no chance of gaining any return on his or her investment within his own country, tries to design a film to suit those foreigners who pay the bills, fund post production, and just might offer an overseas distribution deal?

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Shelly on Film: What is a Chinese Film?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

By Shelly Kraicer

San Yuan Li

San Yuan Li (dir. Ou Ning, 2003)

What is a Chinese film? Ever since I’ve started living and working in Beijing over six years ago, most serious discussions about Chinese cinema ultimately come down to this elemental question, either in its descriptive mode (what defines a Chinese film?) or in its more urgently prescriptive version (what should a Chinese film be?). Often, it’s filmmakers themselves who seem most anxious about the issue. Behind it lie several subsidiary anxieties: “What do Westerners want from Chinese films?”, “What’s my role in Chinese society?”, “Are films art, or commerce, or politics?”

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