CIFF Roundup: John Berra Reports on Nanjing Festival

CIFF Official Logo

Reporting for the Electric Sheep blog, John Berra delivers a comprehensive account of the sights and sounds of the 8th annual China Independent Film Festival. Commenting on festival highlights, Berra offers an opinion on Shu Haolun‘s No. 89 Shimin Road, a staple of the current festival circuit throughout Asia.

The turbulent political landscape of the late 1980s is filtered through a nostalgic lens in Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (2010), although reference to Tiananmen ensures that this engaging drama will not receive a mainland release. High school student Xiaoli lives with his strict but understanding grandfather in Shanghai following his mother’s relocation to the United States, and becomes romantically involved with two girls who represent opposing social ideologies; next-door neighbour Lanmi becomes an escort for easy money while classmate Lili is more politically motivated. Shu resorts to some coming-of-age clichés, but this is still an evocative snapshot of youthful uncertainty at a time of social instability.

The documentary program, which included Xu Tong (director of Fortune Teller)’s Shattered, “also offered a range of approaches to independent filmmaking, from studies of creative culture to self-portraits and undercover reports.”

Xu Tong’s Shattered (2011) follows Tang Caifeng, a woman with a chequered past (involvement in illegal mining and prostitution) who returns to her north-east home town to reunite with her father, a retired engineer who was educated under Japanese rule; Old Man Tang has kept many artefacts of the occupation, but his ‘living history’ is of greater value than the portraits of Lenin and Mao Zedong that clutter the home.

Reporting in a year that saw both significant struggles and triumphs for Chinese independent film and festivals in particular, Berra’s analysis of Chinese independent film in 2012 and beyond is well worth considering:

Due to the political implications of making films outside the system in China, not to mention the problem of securing exhibition and distribution for productions that lack the ‘dragon seal’ from SARFT, it is still appropriate to group such efforts under the ‘independent’ banner. Yet it should be noted that some films in this year’s CIFF line-up, such as No. 89 Shimen Road and [Jin Rui’s] The Cockfighters, find Chinese independent cinema moving towards an American independent model by locating their social concerns within recognisable commercial genres, not to mention boasting production values that contrast with the ‘hand-made’ qualities of [Song Chuan’s] Huan Huan or [Zhang Ciyu’s] Pear.

On the basis of this year’s CIFF selection, the Chinese independent sector appears to have achieved a balance between artistic exploration and commercial aspirations; these potentially conflicting versions of ‘independent production’ are able to comfortably co-exist, mutually supporting one another due to the difficult circumstances under which both are brought to fruition by their directors. CIFF has also encountered difficulties in terms of accommodating the growing interests of directors and viewers within a limited space and schedule, but like the filmmakers that it supports, the festival has managed to find a measure of freedom within a world of restriction.

 

Leave a Reply