Archive for the ‘Shelly Kraicer on Chinese Film’ Category

Shelly on Film: An Inside Tour of The Chinese Independent Film Circuit

Monday, August 10th, 2009
The Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Home of the Chinese Independent Film Archive (Photo courtesy of Iberia Center of Contemporary Art)

The Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Home of the Chinese Independent Film Archive (Photo courtesy of Iberia Center of Contemporary Art)

By Shelly Kraicer

Whenever I am interviewed about Chinese independent cinema, the question that comes up more often than anything else is “Can these kind of films be shown in China?”

The situation is changing, rapidly, and in substantial ways. The answer used to be “Yes, sort of”. Now, it’s “Yes, most definitely”.

Independent films, i.e. films made outside the government censorship system, can’t be shown in regular commercial movie theatres. When I arrived in Beijing back in 2003, one had to do a bit of investigative work to find screenings; at art galleries, a few bars and cafes, and occasionally on university campuses: all low- to zero-profile events. Now, though, there is, if not exactly a profusion, then something like a blossoming of screening opportunities for “unauthorized” Chinese indie films.

One such event, which I attended in early April, provides a handy opportunity to sketch out a provisional, though hopefully not too superficial overview of the Chinese independent film scene.


Shelly on Film: Between the Cracks of Capitalist China

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

By Shelly Kraicer

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

It’s always an interesting time to be in China, a place seemingly without uninteresting times. To be here now, though, lets you see a singular moment in society floating, unpinned, somewhere in between two bankrupt ruling ideologies. The collapse of official Communism/Maoism/Socialism with Chinese characteristics, as the ruling thinking evolved from pre-Liberation through the Cultural Revolution to post-Mao Dengism, is the keynote for lots of standard accounts of China today.

Traditional Chinese culture was, for a time, obliterated by various more or less radical and institutional versions of leftist ideology. These slowly disappeared in fact, though the rote sloganeering formulas persist, especially around the “liang hui” or annual meeting of the Chinese government’s legislative bodies, that took place in the spring. Following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and the unbridled embrace of wealth-concentration and manifest corruption in the Jiang Zemin era, the new god became capitalism, in its rawest, unregulated forms. Free market ideology imported from its Western exponents has washed over China, pushing some groups and regions ahead, leaving millions in the interior and the countryside, behind. Now that financial market capitalism is having its own profound existential crisis in the West, does China have to think about tossing out its brand new ruling ideology, right on top of the refuse of the old one? It’s enough to cause a case of ideological whiplash.

What happens when an unstable society starts to face the possibility that its hot new set of ideological nostrums might be just as insubstantial as those it has just recently thrown over? It must be a dizzying sort of disorientation for those Chinese who have invested their new identities in the new ways of thinking.


Shelly on Film: Does China’s Past Have a Future?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

by Shelly Kraicer

The persistence of the past, and the present’s attempts to colonize it, tame it, and re-engineer it, is a remarkable phenomenon of recent Chinese culture, including Chinese cinema. There is no other place I’m familiar with where the past is so constantly present.

Shanghai Film Studio (photo by gumbase)

Shanghai Film Studio, pre-demolition (photo by gumbase)

Fundamentally, the past here in China is both utterly disposable and simultaneously completely re-creatable. This was brought vividly to mind while I read about the recent demolition of the Shanghai Film Studio (SFS). Located in the Xujiahui neighbourhood of downtown Shanghai, the Shanghai Film Studio’s land is apparently far too valuable to continue to house the sprawling and outdated facilities of this fabled centre of Chinese mainstream film production. I was lucky enough to visit twice. The second was an official working visit, when the very helpful staff assisted me in finding prints for the retrospective on the Fourth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers that I presented at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2008. My first visit, though, was somewhat surreptitious. After visiting the neighbouring St. Ignatius Cathedral, I wandered around the Xujiahui neighbourhood just southwest of central Shanghai, a vast area that formerly contained the grounds of the the substantial Jesuit mission to China (the wonderfully restored library, the late 19th century Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei remains, along with part of the former Jesuit school). Just across the street was an ancient-looking stone barn-like structure enmeshed in a wall. The wall was decorated with a flamboyantly kitschy 70s style gate. The gate turned out to be the entrance to the Shanghai Film Studio. The guards seemed too bored to bother to stop me, so I wandered in and strolled around the grounds, where I found some sound stages, a fleet of 1940s style cars marshaled for some period film, perhaps, and a general air of somnolence.

It was thrilling, though, to think of the Shanghai Film Studio’s illustrious past, the amazing movies that were created on this spot, in these buildings. Founded in 1949, the SFS absorbed workers from Shanghai‘s golden age of movies (which was led by Lianhua Film Studio and Mingxing Film Studio’s 1930s productions of modernist melodramas and comedies, featuring great directors like Sun Yu and Yuan Muzhi, and sublime film stars like Ruan Lingyu and Zhao Dan). The SFS was responsible for its own post-golden age of great movies, including Xie Jin’s series of classic films (Women Basketball Player No. 5, The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, Hibiscus Town) and many of the foundational works of the Fourth Generation (Evening Rain, My Memories of Old Beijing).

But that’s merely history, and the buildings were looking shabby in 2006. Today, the SFS is just rubble. Presumably to be replaced by something of real, contemporary value: another shiny glass shopping mall or luxury condo complex reflecting Shanghai’s imagination of what its future should look like. What particularly caught my attention in the account I read of the demolition was the fate of that old building I noticed in the corner of the wall. It was one of Shanghai‘s oldest structures, a Carmelite convent, St. Joseph‘s Convent of Carmel, constructed in 1874. It is also now rubble. But not gone forever, or so the guardians of China‘s physical history would have it. As the invaluable blog Shanghai Scrap describes it, a city bureaucrat explained that “they are knocking it down and rebuilding it on the old foundation. It will be a new version of the old convent. It’s much cheaper this way. Restoring it would take too much time and money.” Instant history! It will be a brand new-old, an “improved” copy of the original, but presumably much less shabby and much more appealing.

That’s the key: it is fake, re-constituted “history”, built right on top of the smashed rubble of the actual past. In China, this is quite common, and from a Chinese perspective, one might ask why Westerners like me fetishize actual relics of the past, with their supposed aura of authenticity. We worship this authenticity, and insist that it gives some kind of mystical, direct, non-mediated access to what we think of as a real, objective past. But is it not also a complicated proposition, that needs critiquing and unpacking too?

The key popular mainstream films of this holiday season are about trundling out, as mass entertainment, official versions of history. Both Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man devolve into Party-approved accounts of patriotic resistance against Japanese invaders (coincidentally, one of the key historic pillars of the Party’s own legitimacy). John Woo’s Red Cliff epic plays it a bit safe: its history is set far back in the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 CE). But it still updates, with state of the art cinema technology, a foundational myth about heroism, Chinese unity, and legitimacy that, on the surface at least, nicely harmonizes with the Party’s current view of things.

Outside of the zone of official discourse, there are independent artists and filmmakers whose works are obsessed with documenting this disappearing past before it succumbs completely to State-defined ideological re-construction. Jia Zhangke’s recent 24 City digs deeply into a moment of transition: the obliteration of a socialist-era factory in Chengdu. Jia insists on animating, through documentation and reconstruction, the lives and social history that are about to be obliterated. Hu Jie’s controversial series of documentaries, offering radical historical re-investigations of the most controversial episodes of China‘s post-1949 history, are one filmmaker’s act of resistance against faked, ideologically massaged history.

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

On a grassroots level, Ou Ning’s documentary Meishi Street addresses the human cost of Beijing city government’s policy of near-total obliteration of its traditional residential quarters. The inhabitants of Meishi Street have a special burden to bear. They are in the way of a “re-creation” of the Qianmen district just south of Tiananmen Square. This vast urban demolition project is the Carmel convent story writ super-large. Beijing has prepared a modern copy of an imaginary late Qing dynasty commercial district , this time ready for visitors to Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games (I wrote a bit about my visit there in my last blog entry). This for the sake of a master plan that sanitizes the city’s real history — this area was a vibrant commercial district of Qing dynasty Beijing, where Manchu courtiers and Chinese subjects could mingle and enjoy the city’s famous brothels, among other things. Today’s Qianmen is a purified zone, a 3-D diorama that tourists can safely consume..Some of the people who actually lived on Meishi Street, as the film shows, were creative enough to mount a form of resistance, but were ultimately powerless against the collusion of government regulation, police power, and property developers’ interests.

Here, in the People’s Republic of China, history still actively determines contemporaneity. In a place with China‘s still heavily contested history, political power’s ultimate responsibility, to safeguard and bolster its own legitimacy, is deeply rooted in its control of that past, or, to be more specific, in its control over the discourse surrounding the past. As long as power can control that discourse, in its essentials, it maintains a lock on what it perceives to be the historical foundations of the legitimacy of its own rule. Copies are more “real”, in an ideological sense, than the “real thing”, or at least more stable, more reliable. Shanghai will have its new-old Carmelite Convent, as part of a newly projected Shanghai Film Centre. And what version of the history of Chinese cinema will that film centre offer? I’m pretty confident that it will be as problem-free, as purged of messy thought-provoking details, as reassuringly consumable as Qianmen today.

Shelly on Film: An Independent Film Scene, Thriving Miles from Main Street

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Urgency, creativity, relevance, and vitality: four criteria that could sum up the mission of the 3rd annual Beijing Independent Film Festival (23rd to 29th November, 2008), which just wound up in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang. Those concerned over the lack of vital signs in more mainstream Chinese feature filmmaking of late need look no farther than Songzhuang for confirmation that there’s much important, risky, creative work going on in Chinese cinema. However, that work is concentrated in the margins, way outside the system, in independent, low budget DV documentaries, shorts, and features that China’s younger filmmakers are fervently at work on.

BIFF’s home at Songzhuang is quite distinctive: a rather distant suburb within the Beijing city administration, Songzhuang has been home to visual artists for several years now. Land there is still cheap, so internationally renowned, affluent Chinese artists have built villa- or courtyard-style houses. Younger artists who have yet to establish themselves or who work on the margins of the commercial art scene can afford to rent cheap studio and living space out here too. This culturally fertile space, connected to Beijing yet remote enough to be protected by a sense of distance, has managed to balance risk-taking with discretion, and is just the right sort of space to support independent film exhibition now.

Supported by renowned art critic Li Xianting’s Film Fund and by the locally owned Songzhuang Art Center, BIFF this year put together a challenging, provocative, and impressive program of features, documentaries, experimental shorts, and short student works. Under Li Xianting’s artistic direction, BIFF’s main programmer, Zhu Rikun worked with a programming team to produce one of the most consistently interesting lineups of Chinese independent films I’ve yet seen at an event like this in China (there are others, two of the most prominent are Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival, now in its fifth year, and Yunfest, in Kunming, Yunnan, which specializes in documentaries).

There were several standouts among ten recent features films screened at BIFF. Ying Liang’s new film Good Cats (Hao mao) continues the path he set with his Taking Father Home (Bei yazi de nanhai, 2005) and The Other Half (Ling yi ban, 2007), both dGenerate titles. Ying along with his producer/co-screenwriter Peng Shan have a consistent vision of China in post-industrialized urban crisis. Cities amount to moral disaster zones, made up of fragmented social networks pulverized by extreme, uncontrolled commercialization and exploitation and a nexus of Party and business interests whose hegemony seems irresistible. Taking Father Home‘s irrevocably shattered family shows one kind of victimization, in which a tragic quest is played out against a brilliantly decomposed urban landscape; The Other Half‘s witty survey of business and social networks (a lawyer’s eye view of society in the process of dissolution) is equally anchored in a vision of infrastructural disaster. Good Cats sharpens and focuses the satirical vein in Ying and Peng’s work: it’s a dark, funny, withering dissection of the new ruling class.

Two other standouts, both of which demonstrate that visual beauty and social critique are not mutually exclusive, are the second features of two young directors with great futures: Yang Jin’s Er Dong and Zhao Ye’s Jalainur. Er Dong, a narrative tale of a young man with delinquent (or just lazy?) tendencies who makes all the wrong decisions. Although the film looks like simple narrative cinema (it’s virtually all story without being strongly marked by visible stylistic gestures), Yang’s brilliantly cinematic framing and mise en scene push the film beyond unadorned plainness. Jalainur, Zhao Ye’s virtually plotless mood piece, is a visual poem about a retired train engineer and his relentlessly loyal protégé in China’s frigid, post-industrial Northeast. This powerful work creates unforgettably dream-like images of steam, smoke and snow, a lament to the oblivion that China’s past is consigned to irrevocable, unmanaged change.

Many of the documentaries screened at BIFF had an urgency and political force impossible to ignore. The opening film, Pan Jianlin’s provocative Who Killed Our Children (Haizi haizi) challenges the official version of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake with first person testimonies that are devastating in their directness. Documentary historian Hu Jie continues his project to expose China’s undocumented recent past with National East Wind Farm (Guoying dongfang nongchang), a searing account of the fates of so-called “rightists” sent to a labor camp in Yunnan in the late 1950s. Radical director and film and queer theorist Cui Zi’en premiered his newest work, the feature documentary Queer China (Zhi tongzhi), a comprehensive, intellectually provocative survey of the history and present condition of gays and lesbians in China.

Contemporary artist and filmmaker Ou Ning’s Meishi Street (Meishi jie, 2006), another dGenerate title, takes on planned urban destruction: the Beijing government’s controversial project to destroy the historic neighbourhood of hutongs around Qianmen (south of Tiananmen Square) in the name of urban renewal. Ou’s masterstroke here is to give a camera to Zhang Jinli, one of the stalwarts who resists this poorly compensated forced displacement. Filmmaking agency is thus granted to the documentary subject, and Zhang’s involvement in chronicling his (very colourful) resistance to power infuses the film’s form with added meaning.

I happened to visit the “new Qianmen” neighbourhood shortly after I saw Meishi Street. It’s an appallingly Disney-fied, commodified simulacrum: a pastiche of faux-post-Qing Dynasty facades veiling an unfinished shopping strip, the Great Mall of Qianmen. The buildings are there, but still empty of the luxury and souvenir stores that will soon lure tourists herded through its fake streets. The overall effect is of a sterile, ghostly wasteland evoking an idealized past masking a consumerist present. These newly erected monuments to crass commerce acknowledge, in their own perverse way, the irretrievable social and cultural losses that the brave films at BIFF seek to document.

Shelly Kraicer is a Beijing-based writer, critic, and film curator. Born in Toronto, Canada, and educated at Yale University, he has written film criticism in Cinema Scope, Positions, Cineaste, the Village Voice, and Screen International. Since 2007, he has been a programmer of East Asian films for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has consulted for the Venice, Udine, Dubai, and Rotterdam International Film Festivals.