Absurdity, Art, and Life on Tape: Report from the 2010 Reel China Documentary Biennial

Tape (dir. Li Ning)

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Published as part of Dong Week at dGenerate Films, a series of articles on Jia Zhangke and the art world in China.

Absurdity loomed large at the Reel China Documentary Biennial this year, held at New York University from October 15-17. The two film directors on hand, Huang Weikai and Du Haibin, repeatedly used “absurd” to describe the message that they wanted their films to convey. In Huang’s Disorder and Du’s 1428, this sense of absurdity is manifested acutely in their apocalyptic visions of urban Guangzhou and rural Sichuan province, respectively. It is as if in exchange for economic acceleration, China has traded its citizens’ sanity. No one can deny that in China progress is real, but it is also mindless. To quote Jean Baudrillard in his book The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, progress “picks up speed precisely in proportion to its increasing indifference to its original aims.” We can perhaps say that, though the word is derogatory in meaning, “absurdity” is indicative of China’s final arrival at the dawn of post-modernity.

Perhaps no film exemplified this theme more comprehensively than Tape, contemporary avant-garde dancer Li Ning’s five year chronicle of his personal life, alternating between his struggles with two types of “family”: his oft-neglected wife, son and mother; and his enthusiastic but unstable dance troupe comprised of college students. Made amidst a massive urban renovation project performed on his hometown of Jinan, the film is a postmodernist collage of cinéma vérité-style filming of Li’s interactions with his family, direct cinema-style filming of civic incidents, such as three men holding down a woman as her store is shut down, self-reflexive confessions, scripted voice-over narration, computerized special effects, experimental mise-en-scene, dream sequences, dialectical editing, and so on. The film plays like a fever dream of the artist’s life that gradually descends into nightmare. Li’s wife and mother regularly berate him over his artistic indulgences and lack of income. By his own choice, he lets the camera infiltrate his private life with increasing invasiveness. One particularly distubring shot finds him masturbating in bed next to his sleeping son. The film as a whole plays like a chronicle of creative energy misspent, producing futile rage and self-pity. Initially the exuberant leader of his troupe, Li becomes increasingly nostalgic of the past. Past images of his naked body exercising in a playground bleed into a present image of the playground left empty.

Li Ning

Tape advances along a rough chronology. One of the very first scenes shows the swollen belly of Li’s pregnant wife’s. As the film goes on, the baby is born, and slowly grows from a toddler to a young boy. However, the film does not follow chronology strictly. Certain scenes are referred back to at different points in the film or recycled, at times puncturing the moods of neighboring sequences. For example, there is a close-up shot of Li’s face, painted like a woman, that surfaces a few times in the film. The exact purpose of this shot is open for interpretation. Another example is a shot of a dirigible floating in the sky. Though it could be that there had been several unrelated spottings of the dirigible, the shots all look the same. More likely than not, it is a symbol that Li embeds in the film for some yet-to-be defined purpose.

If Tape has a climax, it would be during a performance that Li performs in a hotel lobby that in interrupted when someone films Li’s performance without his permission. Wearing a futuristic and rather kitschy silver costume, Li comes to blows with the man, despite being outnumbered, and leaves with his head bleeding. The entire act and its aftermath is captured on camera by Li’s assistant, who doesn’t waver, even when he becomes the target of attack. There are humiliating close-ups of a beaten up and dejected Li, which are left uncut. His voice-over censures himself for setting his self-expectations high but falling short of them whenever important moments arise. It’s a complex, compelling sequence that certainly taps into audience’s sympathies, but complicates them with its overt acts of self-representation.But this may not even be the lowest point in Li’s documented life: that honor may be reserved for when he stands in line anonymously with hundreds of other job applicants waiting to be interviewed.

It is not hard to see that after five years of documenting his life and his art, the camera and Li grow into one organic whole. With Tape, Li can be said to be in a league of artists whose lives embody their aesthetics, and vice versa. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits are an example. Kahlo painted her reality with an unflinching eye. She claimed that she was the only subject that she knew best to be put on canvas by herself. Therefore, she painted her marriage, her miscarriage, and her numerous operations. The same is true of Li. With utmost sincerity and honesty, Li peels his life inside and out. Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “A man is not other than a series of undertakings.” We sense Li’s existential crises in the film, but they in turn are transformed by the making of the film into a work of living art.

Li Ning performing dance (photo: Aurillac International Street Theatre Festival)

Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing (1990) putatively started the Chinese documentary movement. Since then, Chinese filmmakers made documentaries about ordinary people, including Jiang Yue’s The Other Bank (1994),which follows stage director Mou Sen and Mou’s students for years after their successful play of the same name. One thing that Bumming in Beijng, The Other Bank, and Tape have in common, besides the fact that they are all independent productions, is the portrayal of the fate of artists at the center of their stories. Wu used artists because he was close to a group of artist friends. Inspired by the Japanese television program Where is My Home?, Wu experimented with this new documenting strategy, which avoided stylistic conventions and rationalist construction. Like Wu, Jiang also did not use pre-scripted voice-over narration in The Other Bank. These techniques – interviews, direct cinema, participatory research – can be schematized and taught to other documentary filmmakers. In other words, films like Bumming in Beijing and The Other Bank can be reproduced endlessly. Tape, on the other hand, is a masterpiece because it is not reproducible at the same level as Wu’s or Jiang’s films. The personal price that one needs to pay to make an imitation of Tape is exorbitant, because it involves a near-total commitment on the part of the artist for spanning years, smashing boundaries of intimacy and decorum.

The Chinese independent documentary tradition informs us of a lineage that goes back to 1980s state-produced documentaries. The very first independent documentaries were made mainly to supplement or to subvert the state rhetoric and mainstream representation of what was going on in Chinese society. The realism in these earlier works, like Luke Robinson argues in his essay “From Public to Private,” was that of social realism (as opposed to the propaganda of socialist realism). However, as Robinson argues, in their embrace of contingency or the unexpected, Chinese documentary filmmakers are slowly breaking away from social realism and shifting to personal realism. In other words, subjective and personalized documentaries are gradually supplanting “objective” documentaries. One may argue that this shift is hardly surprising because it is a byproduct of China’s progress. One thing that happens as a modernized society enters a postmodern phase is the individual’s re-questioning of his or her personal sacrifices made for the nation to make that progress. The impulse to think for oneself inevitably surfaces. As a result, personal films that foreground self-expression become popular. Instead of hearing the nation’s calling, people want to hear their own calling.

For Tape, Li divulges what he knows about himself. He organizes the materials just like the way that he would organize his memories. And by organizing his memories, he can make sense of his life and his existence: he can re-examine his dreams and beliefs; he can re-experience past joy, solidarity with past friends, even pain and humiliation; he can even omit any part of his memory without any of us knowing a thing about it. Only he will know. For Tape, I think most people will admire Li for his veracity. It is true that some of the things that Li generously presents are so personal that they are impenetrable or appalling. But what is not in doubt is the abundance with which Tape offers its uniquely aesthetic experience.

Isabella Tianzi Cai is a regular contributor to the dGenerate blog. She is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.

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