2010 Chinese Cinema Yearbook: Films, Reflections

Winter Vacation (dir. Li Hongqi)

Last year, dGenerate Films conducted the Best Chinese Films of the Decade poll, with the participation of 50 Chinese filmmakers and film experts. The poll results are the most popular feature on our website, recommending many exceptional films to people interested in Chinese cinema. This year, we invited colleagues to participate in the 2010 Chinese Cinema Yearbook, a collection of reflections, memories and favorite films related to Chinese-language cinema this year.

We thank all of our colleagues in the Chinese film community for their support throughout a busy and successful 2010 at dGenerate Films. We look forward to promoting more outstanding works by Chinese filmmakers in 2011.

Click through to access the 2010 Chinese Cinema Yearbook.

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MICHAEL BERRY
University of California Santa Barbara; Author, Jia Zhangke’s Hometown Trilogy

When Love Comes (dir. Chang Tso-Chi)

Films
When Love Comes, Chang Tso-chi
The Fourth Portrait, Chung Mong-hong
Tears, Cheng Wen-tang
Let the Wind Carry Me, Chiang Hsiu-Chiung and Kwan Pun-Leung
Judge, Liu Jie
1428, Du Haibin
Let the Bullets Fly, Jiang Wen
I Wish I Knew, Jia Zhangke
Spring Fever, Lou Ye
Zheteng, Wang Wo
Fortune Teller, Xu Tong
Petition, Zhao Liang
Disorder, Huang Weikai

ISABELLA TIANZI CAI
dGenerate Films

Films
Let the Bullets Fly, Jiang Wen
If You Are the One 2, Feng Xiaogang
Echoes of the Rainbow, Alex Law,
Deep in the Clouds, Liu Jie and Cai Ni,
Lost on Journey, Raymond Yip Wai-Man,
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tsui Hark,
Love in a Puff, Pang Ho-Cheung,
Tape, Li Ning,
Disorder, Huang Weikai.

Memory
I saw Tape during the Reel China Biennial at NYU. I was ready to leave the theater after the first one hour, thinking the artist’s private life had nothing whatsoever to do with me. I fidgeted in my seat and signaled my disinterest to the spectators nearby. But their complete disregard of my restlessness made me unsure my attitude as my prejudice. I gave the film another shot. Towards the end of the second hour, something unexpected happened. I felt that I was bonding with the artist at an incredible speed, on every level, and across space and time. If I had walked into the theater feeling completely cynical and filled to the brim with youthful ingratitude, by the end of the film I must have been transformed. I experienced a brief but truly sublime moment in the dark. It was intense; it was pure; it was also very rare.

Reflections
2010 is a landmark year for Chinese cinema because for the first time in history China’s box office takings exceeded $1.5 billion, up nearly 60% of the previous year. More multiplexes are being built in China; last year alone, some 1,500 screens were added. However, take a moment and ask ourselves, what does China need most? My answer is film schools, new media schools, schools that can supply the talent and manpower for the future. Right now China has so few.

KARIN CHIEN
dGenerate Films

Highlights
1. Bringing Chinese films back to sold-out audiences Chinatown, New York. Thanks to Alice Mong and Beatrice Chen at the Museum of Chinese in America, we’ve been screening and creating dialogue around the most interesting, independent, and groundbreaking contemporary films from the Chinese diaspora.

2. Acquiring over a dozen new independent films from mainland China. The work, especially in documentary, only gets stronger each year. The hardest part is narrowing down the number of acquisitions to a manageable amount. There are just too many daring, inspiring, and important films being made within and outside the system in China.

Martian Syndrome (dir. Xue Jianqiang)

SAMANTHA CULP
New Territories

Favorites
The accidental nouveau-slacker trilogy of:
Martian Syndrome, Xue Jianqiang
Piercing I, Liu Jian
Winter Vacation, Li Hongqi

Memories
Working on “Short Stays,” the short film project I produced for The Opposite House hotel in Beijing. I felt so lucky to get to work with three of my favorite young Chinese filmmakers (Zhao Ye, Liu Jiayin, and Peng Lei), and the incredible champion of Chinese indie cinema, Zhang Xianmin.

Reflections
In 2011, I’m looking forward to more collaborations between filmmakers in China and other non-Western regions (as was explored in 2010 by the Rotterdam IFF/Li Xianting School’s “Raiding Africa”), as well as new developments in animation (ie Piercing director Liu Jian), and new possibilities for online and alternative distribution and funding.

AURELIA DUBOULOZ
Freelance Critic and Programmer

Reflections
While recalling the year 2010, what comes to mind is the picture of a kind of web: links happening here and there; various ties developing and getting stronger. Be it Rotterdam Film Festival bringing film-makers from Africa to Beijing, or Chinese directors touring the USA as dGenerate increasingly helps to organize, or Swiss documentary makers invited to independent film festivals in Beijing, or Taiwanese and Mainland film-makers working together, or myself having the pleasure to welcome Chinese movie makers in Paris and having good laugh with them. These phenomena are not new, but what might be changing is their strength and their steadiness. I’m looking forward to the continuation, be it in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Mainland!

DAN EDWARDS
Critic and Journalist, The Beijinger; Real Time Arts; Screening China

The High Life (dir. Zhao Dayong)

Reflections
2010 left a stream of images seared on my mind, from the bloodied body parts of a petitioner mowed down by a train in Zhao Liang’s Petition, to the melancholic countenance of the poetry writing cop in Zhao Dayong’s The High Life, to the parade of aging Shanghai faces in Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew. Some of these images entertained. Many horrified. But whatever their nature, they all served to expand our understanding of that thrilling, maddening and sometimes frightening space that is contemporary China.

For me the aforementioned titles represented the year’s viewing highlights. Butas any student of Chinese cinema knows, the real struggle for local filmmakers since the late 1970s has not been so much getting films made as getting work screened. Despite the ongoing inanities of China’s censorship regime, 2010 was arelatively good year in Beijing in terms of the visibility of more challenging filmic content.

After opening in late 2009, Beijing’s Broadway Cinematheque MOMA kicked off 2010 with a comprehensive retrospective of Third Generation director Xie Jin, and maintained a strong program all year. Despite grappling with the same restrictions faced by every “official” cinema in China, it’s a testament to the workof programmer Wu Jing that BC MOMA has consistently pulled large crowds toan eclectic roster that has included everything from rarely seen classics like Xie Fei’s Black Snow, to unsettling contemporary works like Liu Jie’s Judge and Yang Rui’s experimental feature Crossing the Mountain.
2010 was also the year that saw the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), in Beijing’s 798 art zone, establish itself as a serious screening venue,hosting controversial works like Zhao Hou’s Using, Xu Tong’s Fortune Teller and Zhao Dayong’s The High Life. Put simply, UCCA made works available to localaudiences that are very difficult to access elsewhere in Beijing – and often pulled near capacity crowds in the process.

Personally, though, the real highlights of 2010 for me came in a series of face-to-face interviews I was able to conduct with some of the Chinese directors I admire most. Early in the year I was able to chat with Nanjing filmmaker Hu Jie (In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, Though I Am Gone) by phone – only to have our call interrupted by police monitoring his line. Mid-year I was privileged to spend an afternoon observing Hu Jie’s friend, the activist academic and documentary maker Ai Xiaoming, as she interviewed painter Yan Zhengxue about the three years he hadrecently spent in jail as a result of his advocacy work with local farmers. The year ended with an extended interview with Zhao Liang in his studio on the outskirts of the capital, reflecting on his 10 years of innovative documentary making amongst some of China’s most marginalised groups.

The quiet determination of these men and women to tell their stories, despite severely restricted domestic screening opportunities, constant hassles andoccasional personal dangers, left a profound impression. For me, their films do what cinema does best – open our eyes to new worlds that would otherwise remain invisible. More importantly, these directors are key players in the ongoing struggle to make China a more open, reflexive and creative place,working for little to no personal gain and frequently enduring restrictions ontheir own lives to make the films they believe in. Veteran Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan summed up the attitude of much of China’s filmmaking community before a full house at BC MOMA in December: “I don’t know when we will see change, but our voice cannot be beaten.”

BRIAN HU
Editor, Asia Pacific Arts Magazine

I Wish I Knew (dir. Jia Zhangke)

Films
1. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke)
2. Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi)
3. Last Train Home (Lixin Fan)
4. Aftershock (Feng Xiaogang)
5. Spring Fever (Lou Ye)
6. Red Dragonflies (Liao Jiekai)
7. Woman on Fire Looks for Water (Woo Ming Jin)
8. Rumination (Xu Ruotao)
9. The 4th Portrait (Chung Mong-hong)
10. Au Revoir Taipei (Arvin Chen)
11. Wo Ai Ni Mommy (Stephanie Wang-Breal)
12. Echoes of the Rainbow (Alex Law)

HU JIE
Director, East Wind State Farm

Film
The Ditch, Wang Bing.

Comments
Entertainment-ization, distortion of history, general decay.

HUANG WEIKAI
Director, Disorder

Film
Simple, Wang Yiren

HUANG WENHAI
Director, Reconstructing Faith; Crust

Film
The Ditch by Mainland Chinese director Wang Bing should be considered as the most important Chinese language film in 2010. It’s a Chinese film with dignity. I was lucky enough to attend its international premier at the Venice Film Festival. After the screening, the audience gave a stand ovation to the director and the crew of this film with dignity.

ROBERT KOEHLER
Critic, Variety; Cinema-Scope

Karamay (dir. Xu Xin)

Films
1. Karamay, Xu Xin
2. Winter Vacation, Li Hongqi
3. I Wish I Knew, Jia Zhang-ke
4. Rumination, Xu Ruotao
5. Accident, Cheang Pou-soi
6. Wheat Harvest, Xu Tong
7. 1428, Du Haibin
8. The 800 Heroes, Ying Yunwei
9. Red Dragonflies, Liao Jiekai
10. I Went To the Zoo the Other Day, Li Luo
11. Thomas Mao, Zhu Wen
12. Seven Days in Heaven, Wang Yu-lin/Essay Liu
13. Dooman River, Zhang Lu
14. The Transition Period, Zhou Hao
15. Last Train Home, Fan Lixin

The first four films on this list ranks extremely high among all films seen in 2010, never mind Chinese-language films. Karamay certainly rates as one of the politically bravest non-fiction films of recent years; Winter Vacation is the year’s best comedy, and a breakthrough for Li Hongqi; Jia’s personal history of Shanghai represents a major shift for his filmmaking; Rumination radically re-imagines the Cultural Revolution as an anarchic free-for-all, a Gang of Ten instead of a Gang of Four. Is any country producing more interesting cinema right now than China? No.

SHELLY KRAICER
Programmer and Critic

Film
Winter Vacation, Li Hongqi
Crossing the Mountain, Yang Rui
I Wish I Knew, Jia Zhangke
Karamay, Xu Xin
The Fourth Portrait, Chung Mong-hong
Gallants, Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok

(extracted from Shelly’s list of top ten films from around the world)

RYAN KRIVOSHEY
The Cinema Guild

Film
One of the most memorable documentaries I saw in 2010 was Zhao Liang’s Petition. The film tells the story of Chinese citizens who as a last resort come to Beijing after being wronged by corrupt government officials or courts back home, only to find themselves waiting months, even years, for a hearing. I remember watching the film and constantly questioning the veracity of the events unfolding before me. The willingness of the ‘petitioners’ to postpone their lives, and in some cases the lives of their children, while enduring innumerable delays, obstructions and threats, for an outcome that in all likelihood will never happen seemed too Kafka-esque, too reminiscent of the hopeless situation depicted in “The Castle” to be real. It’s to Zhao’s credit that this amazing documentary achieves this elusive balance, this sense that what you’re watching can’t be real, while knowing that it very much is. The makeshift village where the petitioners lived has since been torn down, just prior to the opening of the 2008 Beijing games; no one wants to see that on their TV screens. So perhaps, it wasn’t real after all.

LI HONGYU
Critic, Journalist, Southern Weekly

Madame (dir. Qiu Jiongjiong)

Films
Madame, Qiu Jiongjiong
Cop Shop, Zhou Hao
Addicted to Love, Liu Hao
Single Man, Hao Jie
On the Road, Yang Yishu
Oxhide 2, Liu Jiayin
Karamay, Xu Xin

Memories
China International Film Festival in Nanjing, China Documentary Film Festival in Beijing Songzhuang

Reflections
“Variety” is the most direct impression, when I tried to recollect all those Chinese independent films I’ve watched in 2010. I watched only 20-30 titles this year, missed some I think, like Wang Bing’s fiction debut [The Ditch], or Yang Heng’s new piece [Sun Spots]. To me indie fiction films are normally not so exciting, but the Single Man is definitely a surprise, I never expected I could have seen such a film. Of course it’s not new at all in terms of film language, what really matters is the “sexual-reality” of a Chinese remote rural life, as well as the incredible performances of those real villagers. The filmmaker is so young I even wonder whether he has his reflection on the topic or he’s just seeking novelty. But I appreciate this sort of attempt, since there were already too many gloomy, bleak, distressed stories. I’m not denying those films, it’s true that the social reality is not delightful, and the circumstances of indie filmmaking here didn’t get much better, but I do hope indie filmmakers get more approaches, more wit to deal with their lives. Another example is the indie animation feature Piercing I [dir. Liu Jian]; despite that the Guy Ritchie plot machine was again recruited, it’s still a respectable endeavor.

Documentaries: I don’t often encounter films like Madame or A Song of Love, Maybe. I can’t say I like Martian Syndrome (dir. Xue Jianqiang), but I support the “unbridled”, sometimes even irritating attitude of the young author, I hope he could retain it in rest of his (working) life.

I don’t have any thing to say about mainstream cinema in 2010.

EDWIN MAK
Film Critic

Disorder (dir. Huang Weikai)

Film
For simplicity’s sake I’ve decided to nominate a single entry this year: Huang Weikai’s outstanding documentary on contemporary China, Disorder, whose Chinese title literally and more playfully means “the present is the future of the past.” As its titles suggest, this granular hour-long video favors a disruptive and disjunctive form––over the more patient, observationally extended style threatening to become synonymous with Chinese indies and docs––while its content acts in tandem. Although its rapid, found image and sound assault of unconnected urban pandemonium (a policeman mediating a restaurant dispute after a cockroach is found; a man earnestly casting his fishing net into a filthy watercourse; another dancing shirtless between the lanes of a dual carriage-way…) occasionally verges close to non sequitur, it consistently demonstrates an absorbing sense of the absurd––one as farcical as it is sometimes disconcerting. Disorder as a documentary knows that the experience of reality in the PRC is stranger than that of fiction; and needs only a little acceleration to prove this.

ABE MARK NORNES
University of Michigan

Memory
My favorite memory regarding Chinese cinema last year came from Hara Kazuo’s visit to CCD Workstation for their May Festival. One morning, I served as interpreter for Hara and Wu Wenguang. The latter wanted to “distribute” the former’s films on DVD. I put “distribute” in quotes because basically what Wu wanted to do was circulate high quality DVDs of Hara’s work for pocket change. The point was mainly to agitate the Chinese film community, not produce profit per se. It took well over an hour of circular conversation, back and forth and back again, as Hara couldn’t figure out what Wu was thinking and vice versa. Maybe it was my poor interpretation. But I think it was actually about two very different conceptions of documentary and the role and life of the filmmaker.

PETER RIST
Concordia University

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

Reflections
2010 wasn’t a particularly good year for my watching Chinese language films, because we got to see so few titles in Montreal – only Zhang Yimou’s Blood Simple remake got a theatrical release! – and I only visited one fully international festival of “new” films outside of Montreal: the Buenos Aires “Independent” film festival, BAFICI. However, Shelly Kraicer helped make this one memorable by curating a series of Chinese digital documentaries. Thus, I was able to see for the first time Huang Weikai’s remarkable “found footage” exposé Xianshi shi guoqude weilai (Disorder, 2009) and a fine example of the Chinese observational style, Zhao Dayong’s Fei cheng (Ghost Town, 2008), which also looked to be beautiful (had it been graced with HD projection). In another series, BAFICI showed the equally strong Petition (2009), directed by Zhao Liang, although Shelly pointed out to me that I was missing a lot by only seeing a 124 minute version. I was also denied seeing the full-length version of Jia Zhangke’s Hai shang chuan qi (I Wish I Knew) in November, when it was sold out at the Montreal international documentary festival – it won the audience award – but, I managed to view a downloaded, cut version. Even without the censored material, I found it to be very impressive, with Jia’s very careful staging and composing of interviews providing a visual commentary on the subject matter.

The World Film Festival at the end of August is always interesting because films are shown that don’t appear in any other North American festival. I saw all of the mainland entries, including actor Liu Yunglong’s first feature, the convoluted political/historical Shanghai, 1941 epic, Dong feng yu (East Wind, Rain), which I admired as much for its excesses rather than despite them, Zhuo Gehe’s conventional, but crowd-pleasing Mongolian tale, Blue Knight, and, for me the nicest surprise, Yong sheng yang (The Eternal Lamb), another grassland tale, but made in the Kazakh region of China, and in the Kazakh language. Hopefully this rare example of an authentic Chinese minority film, a first fiction feature to be directed by veteran TV documentarian, Gao Feng, gets wider exposure.

As for the FanTasia summer, genre festival, I thought that the Hong Kong selections were better than usual. I am a big Johnnie To fan, so, I was disappointed that his Johnny Halliday vehicle, Vengeance wasn’t included (I’ve since been able to admire it on Blue-ray, at home), but I found the film that he produced, Soi Cheang’s Yi ngoi (Accident, 2009) to be the most satisfying of the Chinese-language films. It was good to see some Hong Kong “legends” such as Bruce Leung, Chen Kuan Tai and Teddy Robin in Gallants (directed by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng), but I found this film to be far too predictable and, ultimately lacking in excitement. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 2 began very promisingly but was fatally flawed by the ridiculous climactic “boxing” match, whereas Teddy Chen’s Shi yue wei cheng (Bodyguards and Assassins, 2009) sustained its action thrills till the end. Both films were graced with superb, apparently historically authentic art direction, and Bodyguards was surely helped in this department by being a Chinese/HK co-production. Indeed after suffering through years of ineffective co-production deals between the former colony and the PRC, we can now find other good examples of combined resources, including Jackie Chan’s epic Da bing xiao jiang (Little Big Soldier), which makes particularly good use of mainland locations to enhance an occasional, spectacular beauty, and an often “down and dirty” appearance.

Finally, I must note that the “best of Chinese film” in Montreal, 2010 occurred during the Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC) in October. I saw a really amazing experimental short, Qu da hai de lu shang (On the Way to the Sea), poetically reflecting on the earthquake in his hometown of Wenchuan, directed by a former student of Concordia University, Gu Tao. This film was chosen to be one of the 10-best Canadian short films of 2010, by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) group. Hopefully it will be seen elsewhere, especially in China. Even more notably, Wang Bing was an invited guest of FNC, and all of his work was shown, including a first fiction feature, Jiabiangou (The Ditch), projected in real HD, and the really interesting character study, The Man Without a Name (2009). Unfortunately, Wang’s installation, Cayou riji (Crude Oil, 2009), was shown in two parts, as a film, projected digitally (and not too well) in a small, dark theatre of the Cinémathèque Québécoise. I’m afraid that, under these conditions, I couldn’t maintain my attendance beyond a couple of hours! I met Wang Bing briefly, but a couple of our Chinese MFA film students at Concordia University are currently in China on location with the director, shooting a documentary on him!

MICHAEL SICINSKI
University of Houston

Crossing the Mountain (dir. Yang Rui)

Film
A good friend was kind enough to lend me a copy of Yang Rui’s beautiful, mind-scrambling film Crossing the Mountain, which was not only the finest 2010 Chinese film I’ve seen (so far) from Mainland China, but one of the very best films I’ve seen from 2010 overall. Yang’s semi-ethnographic montage is confounding at first, and continually confounding, because it insists on operating quite intentionally in incompatible registers. Documentary observation sits uneasily alongside Apichatpong-style sylvan mysticism, Jia-esque 6th-Gen modernism, and a wit lodged somewhere between Borges and Yang Fudong. No one seems able to discuss Crossing the Mountain’s North American premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival without commenting on the numerous audience walkouts. But doesn’t this place Yang in some of cinema history’s most august company?

ARIELLA TAI
dGenerate Films

Memory
The audience during the sold-out first screening of the Chinese Cinema Club at MoCA was really inspiring to me. It was striking to see an audience that was made up not of cinephiles, academics and students, but of people from the Asian American community who connected to the film, Fujian Blue, on a personal level ahead of an intellectual one. It was powerful to me to see what the availability of these titles could mean for the United States outside of an academic context, in terms of exposing American audiences of all backgrounds to different forms of storytelling and a broader conception of international independent film.

QI WANG
Georgia Institute of Technology

Reflections
My most memorable experience of Chinese cinema in 2010 was the 7th China Documentary Film Festival (May 1-7, 2010, Songzhuang). In several years or longer, this festival might turn out to be an important point within a longer transitional period for independent Chinese documentary. On the one hand, at the festival we continued to see the kind of observational verité combined with social commentary (voiced or implied) that helped make the reputation of indie/new documentaries (e.g. Ji Dan, Huang Mei, Yang Yishu, many, etc.). On the other hand, as represented by Tape, Martian Syndrome, the new works of Wu Wenguang as well as Back to Daxian (which travels between observational and participatory) and even the Hara Kazuo screenings (and Wu’s screening events at Caochangdi), a more performative mode of documentary seems to be of increasing interest to the filmmakers. I see this pronounced presence of the performative as more than just a fancy artsy genre in documentary (while it certainly has a lot to contribute to the diversity of documentary form). Apart from being an important remedy of overtrusted objectivity in the observational mode, such more performative documentary is carrying out the potential of DV-making to its fullest as a new, individualized form of history writing for this unfolding chapter of Chinese history. As delightfully uncovered in Wu Wenguang’s Bare Your Stuff that subjects Wu’s own authority as director to criticism and even resistance from the villager filmmakers, no one can speak for the experience of another. Ideally more and more stories and documentaries will be told and presented by the subjects themselves as DV filmmakers, and all versions of reality and history could be juxtaposed as comparative databases of truth and history.

Tape (dir. Li Ning)

Overall it feels like the indie camera is getting closer and closer to the individual identities in the anonymous crowd and to the meeting points between individuals and society/state. A number of the “character study” documentaries we see here are always related back to the larger social landscape in which they exist, connecting the personal to the collective and social. Ji Dan’s piece is certainly one of the best examples, so is A Song of Love and even Tape. I loved Tape’s juxtaposition of performance and reality, personal and social levels, poetry and prose. Rather than finding it solipsistic as quite a few audiences seemed to feel, I heartily appreciate its constant reference to the real locations, realities and non-performers against which the filmmaker/artist Li Ning appears more vulnerable than in cool directorial control. While being a diary film, the vast network of social relations embodied in this piece renders it beyond the private realm. Martian Syndrome certainly pushes things into an exhilarating and troubling extreme, but I appreciate its almost hurting relentlessness as when its target includes itself, it could also be a form of honesty under extreme, depressing circumstances. I look forward to the next couple of years and see what newer documentaries and documentary forms new and young filmmakers might bring forth. It might take several more major “blender” occasions like the 7th China Documentary Film Festival for us to distinguish a more definite new direction.

XU TONG
Director, Fortune Teller

Films
Piercing I, Liu Jian
Let the Bullets Fly, Jiang Wen

Piercing I (dir. Liu Jian)

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