Video: New Directions in Chinese Cinema

By Kevin B. Lee

Let it be known that 2010 was an exceptional year for Chinese independent cinema.

Most media attention on Chinese cinema in 2010 was directed at its record-breaking domestic box-office receipts, led by blockbusters such as Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock and If You Are the One 2. What hasn’t been reported enough is the abundance of excellent Chinese films to be found outside the mainstream cineplexes. Accessing these films is a challenge, to be sure; most have only been screened one or two times at small-scale independent film festivals in China. A lucky few have made it to international festivals; some have even won awards. Scattered over last year’s festival calendar, their appearances made resounding but isolated impressions – but taking them in all at once, the diversity and quality of these independent visions is staggering.

I originally wanted to write an article spotlighting my favorite Chinese independent films of 2010, but looking at the year’s bounty, it seems that the real story is in how richly differentiated Chinese independent cinema is becoming. Even a lesser film by objective standards of quality may offer an exciting new approach in subject or form. Such efforts to innovate may prove to be more vital to the development of cinema than the so-called masterpieces. In his provocative articles for dGenerate and elsewhere, Shelly Kraicer has repeatedly asked, “What Is Chinese Cinema?” He’s raised this question to challenge both international audiences and Chinese filmmakers on their assumptions and expectations on what Chinese films should be. No more succinctly does he make the point than in an essay from three years ago:

People see what they want to see. Mass media is about giving comfort, reinforcing patterns of thought, policing the boundaries of what we call knowledge. So, instead, why not shake people up? If I had to give the Chinese filmmakers an answer, I’d say: Make and exhibit films that show audiences what they don’t already know. Find images that are fresh, provocative, that destabilize the complex of pre-established, pre-thought concepts that a film audience totes like baggage. Don’t show what’s already been seen; don’t depict what’s already been imagined. Unsettle, surprise and disturb, and you’ve started to point in the right direction.

In that spirit, instead of listing my favorite Chinese indie films of last year, I want to draw attention to films that, each in their own way, broke new ground and offered new possibilities for Chinese cinema. In some ways it makes easier the task of narrowing down a list of exceptional films, which otherwise could include any of the following: Crossing the Mountain (dir. Yang Rui); East Wind Farm Camp (dir. Hu Jie); The High Life (dir. Zhao Dayong); No. 89 Shimen Road (dir. Shu Haolun); The Old Donkey (dir. Li Ruijin); Rivers and My Father (dir. Li Luo); Single Man (dir. Hao Jie); A Song of Love, Maybe (dir. Zhang Zanbo); Spiral Staircase of Harbin (dir. Ji Dan); Triumph of the Will (dir. Mao Chenyu); Winter Vacation (dir. Li Hongqi). There are also many films I haven’t seen, most notably Wang Bing’s The Ditch. I hope that merely mentioning these titles might help lend them some much-needed attention.

Dooman River, dir. Zhang Lu
Zhang Lu has made a career of exploring the ambiguous boundaries that define his Korean-Chinese heritage, perhaps no more explicitly than in this film, situated on the North Korean-Chinese border. Depicting the complex interactions between men escaping the PRK and the ethnic Korean Chinese who reluctantly take them in, it’s Zhang’s most accessible film, offering emotional payoffs while complicating notions of Chinese and Korean identities. Technically it’s a Korean-European production, which may explain why it’s been largely marginalized from discussions of Chinese cinema of the past year; but in no way should its relevance be in doubt.

Fortune Teller, dir. Xu Tong
Xu Tong continues the detailed portraiture of the professional underclass he exhibited in his first documentary Wheat Harvest, expanding it into a 360 degree panorama of a vibrant, sprawling subculture that could never be shown in mainstream Chinese media. Xu ironically employs the chaptering structure of classic Chinese novels to tell the story of a crippled soothsayer, his mentally disabled wife, and a clientele of prostitutes ever anxious about their futures. Xu doesn’t do this to elevate his socially disreputable subjects, but to collapse notions of high and low into a universally moving story of people who bring uncommon dignity to their lives and work.

I Beat Tiger When I Was Young , dir. Xue Jianqiang
Love it or hate it, this breathtakingly abrasive work shakes up the Chinese documentary scene at a point when it is becoming increasingly conventionalized in format and institutionalized in distribution. Young Xue Jianqiang has the balls (or naivete) to criticize several more established filmmakers to their faces while filming them at a Beijing film festival. It’s remarkable that the Chinese documentary movement, hardly 20 years in existence, has reached the point where young turks like Xue (and the equally polarizing Wu Haohao) are taking on the status quo. A landmark, if only because it’s arguably the first filmed work of film criticism in Chinese cinema history.

Karamay, dir. Xu Xin
Xu Xin’s six hour documentary is a radical statement that ties the aesthetics of oral history to its own moral regard for its subjects. Capturing the testimonies of parents whose children were among hundreds who died in a tragic fire at a government event, Xu lets the camera run with minimal direction, rendering his camera in near-total service of his subjects, as if compensating for the years of neglect they’ve suffered in seeking justice following their tragedy. Seemingly spare in design and intention, the effect is immersive, compulsively watchable and undeniably devastating.

Madame, dir. Qiu Jiongjiong
The Chinese documentary movement continues to evolve, reaching new levels of awareness of issues complicating its mission to objectively capture the reality of its society. Among these issues is that of performance in its subjects; this is especially critical given that an increasing number of documentaries are personal portraits that delve into subjective experiences. Perhaps the most memorable instance of the past year is Qiu Jiongjiong’s stark black-and-white series of interviews with transsexual cabaret singer Madame Bi Langda. Madame Bi’s recollections of past experiences explicitly touch on how she performs her way through life, whether interacting with friends, lovers or her audience. More than a document of the increasingly complicated gender identity politics in China, it’s also a poignant testimony of a life dedicated to articulating the aesthetics of living.

Piercing I, dir. Liu Jian
To my knowledge, this is the first animated indie feature produced in China, at least the first worth noting. A graphic novel come to life, its deliberately coarse renderings of Chinese urban landscapes populated by various scheming social types mix scathing caricature with sharply observed detail. With all the makings of a generational statement, this could be a major cult hit in China, if underground distribution networks prevail.

Tape, dir. Li Ning
Dancer and experimental filmmaker Li Ning chronicles five hapless years as a struggling artist and father while his hometown of Jinan undergoes calamitous renewal. Utilizing a variety of approaches and elements (including CGI), this ground-breaking work shatters documentary conventions, whether with moments of nakedness (literal or otherwise) or bolts of dazzling avant garde performance art video (as well as behind the scenes footage of said performances), with the camera assuming multiple roles as witness, accomplice, performer, object. In many ways it’s an update to Jia Zhangke’s Platform for the DV era, capturing the past decade’s hopes and failures of artistic aspiration in provincial China.

The Transition Period, dir. Zhou Hao
Zhou Hao takes the all-seeing mission of China’s DV documentary movement into a realm no one could have imagined possible to infiltrate: the inner workings of Communist Party politics. With an impassive objectivity worthy of Frederick Wiseman, Zhou takes advantage of an outgoing county official’s hubris to quietly record his wheelings and dealings with commercial and political interests en route to his provincial-level promotion. What is revealed may not be surprising to those familiar to CCP corruption – expensive banquets held for private investors, officials trying to outdo each other with their vanity development projects, field visits with state limos plowing heedlessly through crowds of angry citizens whose land is being requisitioned for said developments – but to see it all on video is astounding.

Thomas Mao, dir. Zhu Wen
Unlike the other films on this list, this is technically a state-approved production, having passed the Film Bureau and premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival. But its irreverent, independent spirit is undeniable and unlike any other film that made it to official movie screens (the possible exception being Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly). Using everything from broad comedy involving animal sex to sophisticated CGI, Zhu Wen paints a lively, shape-shifting relationship between Chinese artist Mao Yan and German curator Thomas Rohdewald, who switch roles halfway through. Zhu Wen, a lover of opposites as seen in his past films Seafood and South of the Clouds, does a lot here with thematic face-offs: Chinese vs. foreign, urban vs. rural, educated vs. primitive. Probably the most playful Chinese film of the year, one that keeps you guessing from start to finish.

Wind, Flower, Snow, Moon, dir. Yang Jianjun
This is technically a 2009 film, having premiered at YunFest that year before mostly eluding the festival circuit. Fortunately last year’s Reel China Biennial saw fit to include it, which is how I encountered one of the most quietly beautiful documentaries of recent memory. With a gifted eye, first time director Yang painstakingly details life among his own family, who practice the ancient art of Buddhist geomancy, bringing blessings to others at all stages of life in northwest Sichuan province. To be honest, it’s not so much a ground-breaker as an exceptional film whose unassuming manner of mastery is at risk of being lost in the shuffle. It’s criminal that this film wasn’t pushed or noticed more in the fest circuit. But it just goes to show that there is no end to the discoveries to be found in Chinese independent cinema.

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