Ghost Town: a New Chapter for Chinese Cinema at the New York Film Festival

Ghost Town (photo courtesy of Fanhall Films)

Ghost Town (photo courtesy of Fanhall Films)

Marking a breakthrough for the Chinese digital filmmaking community, director Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town (Fei Cheng, 2008) was selected for the 47th New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11), as the only Chinese entry in the lineup. This low-budget documentary shot on HD has never been shown in any major festival outside China; as of this article it has yet to even appear on IMDb and All Movie Guide. Yet it joins a prestigious NYFF lineup that features new works by renowned directors such as Alain Resnais, Pedro Almodovar, Jacques Rivette, and Lars von Trier. Its inclusion in the NYFF represents a first in the festival’s program: a nod to China’s digital generation of documentary filmmakers.

According to the website of Fanhall Films, a multi-faceted indie film support organization based in Beijing, the three-hour documentary is not about phantoms, but the Lisu and Nu minority villagers in the abandoned halls of a remote former communist county seat in the southwestern province of Yunnan, China. Consisting of three chapters, “Voices,” “Recollections,” and “Innocence,” the film observes and records the mode of existence of the nameless and the forgotten, offering extraordinary insights into such topics as religious faith, relationships, juvenile deviants, generational differences, and lost history.

Dennis Lim, a member of this year’s NYFF jury and a major voice in promoting Chinese independent cinema, shared his reasons for selecting the film with dGenerate Films’ Kevin Lee: “Ghost Town is one of the most surprising and rewarding films I’ve seen all year, one of the most important films to have emerged from the booming (but still underexplored) field of Chinese independent documentaries.” Fellow jury member Scott Foundas also considered the film an exciting discovery, exclaiming: “I didn’t think there was another Jia Zhangke or Wang Bing lurking out there, but it turns out there is!”

“Out there” refers to the ever mysterious but increasingly accessible world of Chinese cinema. As one of the most selective film festivals in the world, NYFF has the reputation of showcasing the best in world cinema, usually handpicked from Cannes and Venice. Films from Greater China have occupied a small but consistent place in the festival for more than a decade. Mainland directors Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang, Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Edward Yang, as well as Hong Kong directors Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To have all made multiple appearances at the event. Yet almost all of them earned the entrance after being embraced by major European film festivals and championed by influential critics like J. Hoberman and Tony Rayns, or popular American directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Their global recognition is in line with NYFF’s taste, which is oriented towards spotlighting the most elite of international auteurs. (This year’s opening and closing directors, Resnais and Almodóvar, are making their tenth and eighth appearances in the event, respectively.)

A distinct breakthrough occurred at NYFF in 2000 with Jia Zhangke, who entered with his independently produced second feature Platform (Zhan Tai, 2000), after he was officially banned from filmmaking in China and virtually unknown to the rest of the world. In the years to follow, Jia would join the rank of the festival’s most beloved alumni, with four features (Platform, Unknown Pleasures [2002], The World [2004], 24 City [2008]) and one documentary (Useless, 2007) showcased in a mere eight years. Last year’s program dubbed him as the “dean of Chinese independent cinema.” As Zhang Zhen, NYU professor in Cinema Studies, has aptly noted in her book The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, Jia Zhangke’s appearance in the late 1990s helped inagurate a new phase in the Chinese indie movement. Jia and his filmmaking collective championed “amateur cinema” (yeyu dianying), or “unofficial cinema” (minjian dianying). They found a following among emerging filmmakers outside of the elite Beijing Film Academy in particular and professional filmmaking in general, joining forces with an incipient DV movement. Zhao Dayong, a director with a background in fine art who works from his private Dayong Film Studio and serves as director, cinematographer, and editor of his own films, belongs to this burgeoning amateur generation, the digital generation.

The NYFF’s choice of Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town takes its embrace of Chinese indie cinema a step further, by bringing much needed attention to documentaries. As distributor of several Chinese indie docs, dGenerate Films has worked extensively with the Chinese independent community; these interactions are depicted in the web series “Digital Underground in the People’s Republic,” which is viewable online. Critics and scholars have taken notice of this scene, such as Chris Berry, one of the first scholars to chart the ascendance of the Fifth Generation directors back in the 1980s. In an interview with Kevin Lee for dGenerate’s CinemaTalk series, Berry said:

For me independent documentary has been the most powerful force in Chinese film for quite a long time now, not only in the documentaries themselves but also in their impact on the style of most interesting fiction feature films. So when you think about someone like Jia Zhangke, who in fact crosses both documentary making and fiction filmmaking, he would be exemplary of what I’m talking about.

In another CinemaTalk inteview, Lu Xinyu, one of the foremost scholars of Chinese independent documentary, gave her account of the significance of these films:

Now we are facing the dramatic transformation of Chinese society, both temporally and spatially. Everyone’s life is inevitably involved in and affected by this process. How should art react to these changes?

By watching independent documentaries, we not only experience the psychological world of the directors, but also get to experience the existence of people at different social levels through the lens of the camera, especially the existence of the underclass and how they struggled through these changes, their pains and their needs. This is extremely important to me.

Based on the description of Ghost Town, all of these factors seem to be in play in the film. In the “Director’s Statement,” Zhao summarized his mixed feelings toward China’s development and economic boom typical of a generation of filmmakers: “I wanted to explore the idea of these lost histories and ravaged cultures, and by extension my own cultural identity, by delving into the lives and spirit of the abandoned city.”

Zhao’s depiction of contemporary China in Ghost Town will provide a stark counterpoint to the Festival’s special showcase: a retrospective of classic Chinese films from 1949-1966 to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. (This is the third major retrospective of Chinese cinema to be showcased by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in the last five years, following the NYFF tribute to the Shaw Brothers Studios in 2004, and the FSLC celebration of Chinese cinema’s centennial in 2005.) Combining cinema from the propagandist past and the documentary present, this year’s New York Film Festival will allow audiences a unique opportunity to see how far China has come, historically, socially, and cinematically.

dGenerate Films is proud to announce the premiere of Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town at the prestigious New York Film Festival. This marks the introduction of a major new talent to western audiences. dGenerate Films will be working with Zhao Dayong and the Ghost Town team on their US distribution and festival run. If you’re interested in screening Ghost Town at your festival or venue, please contact us.

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