Perhaps I’ve been spending just a bit too much time watching movies in China? I have this recurring daydream, most often when I’m watching a new Chinese film that some enterprising young director has sent me. I always watch every independent film that I receive. You never know what gems might appear unsolicited in the mail. And, even if the film isn’t so terrific, it will still be a useful index of all sorts of interesting trends: it might reveal what young filmmakers in China are filming, how they are looking at the world around them, or, at least, what they think people like me want to see.
The daydream, or perhaps it’s a fantasy, is this. There exists, down some dusty grey hutong alleyway of Beijing, a Chinese Indie Director’s Discount Emporium. You want to make a film? Step right in and assemble your movie at bargain prices. The shelving on the left is stocked with cast members: long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly. At the back is a set of grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes, ready to be populated by said drifters. To the right, useful equipment. Some tripods, but with a restriction: they must be set up at least 50 metres from the subjects being filmed. Right beside is a very long long shelf, holding 3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes, offered for a steal at family-sized package prices. Alternatively, you could go for deep discount on little DV cams, with the proviso that, held close to the subjects, they be shaken as vigorously as possible. The dialogue shelves in the centre are threadbare: screenplays for rent are all dialogue-light. And, off in a corner, is a shelf labelled “Prostitutes”. It’s over-loaded, with a three-for-the-price-of-one sale.
This may seem a bit mean. But the people I’m making fun of here, in fact, are international film programmers like me (I select Chinese language films for the Vancouver International Film Festival), not the filmmakers themselves. It seems that many of us (my colleagues from other film festivals, and wouldn’t exclude myself) sometimes seem to select films armed with a checklist of “East Asian art film attributes”, the things that populate the shelves of our hutong indie shop. Who can blame a young director from China, who, with little or no chance of gaining any return on his or her investment within his own country, tries to design a film to suit those foreigners who pay the bills, fund post production, and just might offer an overseas distribution deal?
It’s too easy to choose more of what you already know, and it’s too easy to train audiences (I should say, to educate audiences) to expect a certain kind of film experience from a certain brand of national cinema. It’s something that I and my colleagues need constantly to be on guard against. After all, the joy, and if I may say so, the social value of the work I do come from constantly expanding, not restricting, the range of cinema that audiences can see. We should be in the business of opening wider the gates, or even blasting the gates apart altogether. Not honing and strengthening them to exquisite perfection.
Fortunately, the Chinese indie brand is still going quite strong. In fact, each of the items in my indie shop has current exponents who give them fresh power and exciting possibilities.
Peng Tao uses that browny-grey palette to devastatingly expressive effect in Little Moth (Xue chan, 2007). His tightly framed hand-held camera rattles along behind the film’s desperately poor characters, pinning them against the rough, impoverished, desaturated urban environments where they are trapped. The colourless futures we see are all that they can imagine for themselves.
As for that distant tripod, I can think of no better exponent than Yang Heng with his debut Betelnut (Binglang, 2006) and this year’s Sun Spots (Guang ban, 2009). The tension he exposes between solitary youths and the wide spaces of their rural environments comes from classical symmetries, balances Yang designs in his distantly framed images. He shows how expressive and powerful a camera set far back from the action can be.
If you want to see long takes that sing, Liu Jiayin’s brilliant series Oxhide I and Oxhide II (Niupi I and Niupi II) are state of the art examples. She knows how to make time itself the subject, and the director, of each shot: she stretches and repurposes cinema in ways no one else yet has imagined.
The girlfriends-turned-prostitutes by the long-haired drifters trope? Well, perhaps that one is due for a little rest.
What’s really eye-opening, finally, is when I see films that push these conventions into new territory: Wanma Caidan’s The Search, which screened at both the Toronto and Vancouver International Film Festivals, uses a long shots to heartbreaking effect. Even more exciting are films that forego the conventions completely. To take one example, the very young director Wu Haohao has already made a series of documentaries (Kun 1 Action!, Criticizing China, Forbid Silence, all from 2008) that tear up every convention possible, harnessing the boldness and audacity of youth to make movies say new things in wild new ways.