Spicy, Fresh and Artsy: Zhang Xianmin on Recent Chinese Films

By Zhang Xianmin

Zhang Xianmin

Following his recent critique on the state of Chinese cinema “Daytime Booze Nighttime Party,” Chinese film producer / critic / programmer / professor Zhang Xianmin offers further thoughts on current trends in the independent film scene. He also constructs an alternative history of modern China through several documentaries, including three films by pioneering investigative filmmaker Hu Jie, In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, Though I Am Gone and East Wind Farm Camp (all available through dGenerate)

I have tried to translate Zhang Xianmin’s essay as close to the original as possible; however, there were instances where I had to abandon the Chinese expressions in the essay for more appropriate English terms.

- Isabella Tianzi Cai

Activities and Works Produced

We had many film-related activities last year. Traditional ones are ploughing on. By “traditional,” I mean activities that have been held for at least five times; they took place in Beijing, Nanjing, Paris, and so on; and they only screened independent Chinese films. New activities are mushrooming. People who have needs spend time making their needs known by others. These needs continue to exist because fulfilling them is a difficult task. Needs linger on in people’s minds, causing people to suffer conflicting thoughts and feelings, depression, anxiety, as well as anger, along with loneliness.


Film festival organizers for independent Chinese cinema are slowly consolidating into distinguishable communities. This phenomenon is similar to what happened around 2005. At that time, many independent productions came out, and they did not take place in major cities; instead, many celebrated local cultures. However, up till now, these festivals have yet to develop into unique brand names, indicative of their unique local cultures. For example, Ou Ning’s U-theque Organization helped organize film screenings in the Pearl River Delta and also held the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival. For another example, some people from Fujian Province organized a cross-strait film festival, resembling the work by the Taiwan Film and Culture Association. Yang Jin also wanted to organize a film festival showing films that reflected authentic local Shanxi culture; unfortunately, it did not happen as he wished. I think there will more such activities in the future.

There is much room for idealizing film-related activities in China, just like there is much room for so-called media expansion, commercialization, and civil rights movement right now. I think they resemble the rarefied air in high-altitude places. Chinese independent cinema lacks oxygen, therefore, we can idealize it.

This essay focuses on particular films.

There are many, but none too good.

The Spicy

Single Man (dir. Hao Jie)

The spicy films refers to the extremely violent and sexual films; in other words, they are the films that must show either blood or flesh. These traits seem contrary to the rapid growth of art films in the past two to three years. Most art films can be thought of as being “fresh”; by that, I mean they are more or less the same as a nun who falls in love but curbs her love, or a boy who is gay but never comes out of the closet. The violent and sexual films usually deal with the blue-collar cohort. I doubt if anyone can predict how much longer they are going to stay in vogue to survive till the next video gallery age.

Typical spicy films are getting more spicy nowadays. In most cases, they are not accepted by film festivals in China, which I find to be quite sad. I like to imagine: ten years down the road, will we hold a film festival for B-movies of this type? In my opinion, international co-productions Spring Fever and She, a Chinese are somewhat spiced. The Cockfighters by Jin Rui and Single Man by Hao Jie are both spicy. Of course we can treat their spiciness as a joke because of their stories. After all, their messages are proper.

As for the other ones produced in 2011, I do not think very highly of them. Put in a nice way, they started a cult film culture. Put it in a neutral way, they were reflective of the changes in society. However, put it in a bad way, they were not as innocent as we would like them to be. I am against today’s film censorship program. I do not want to comment on every single film. I think most people have not had the chance to watch the films that I have, so it is not a good idea to discuss them here. The circulation of independent films in China has shrunk in the past decade. The available platforms are not sufficient at all. You, my reader, will be the proof of my argument. You will see how many of the following films you have seen. The typical spicy fiction films include Wang Liang’s Ideal by Gao Xiongjie and Muona Summer by Wang Lulu. The typical spiced documentaries include All About Gay Sex by Zhou Ming. We cannot judge a film by how spicy it is. Personally I liked All About Gay Sex most of all. Wang Liang’s Ideal did all it needed to do for a fiction film, but it was short of something. The acting in Muona Summer is bad, especially that of the actors. The acting shifts from the spicy to the fresh many times, and it made spectators schizophrenic. The best sequence of Muona Summer is the end credits.

These films are not famous compared to those that have received international recognition. Interviews dominate All About Gay Sex, and they span several topics such as love and relationship, first love, and extramarital relationship. Every subject tries to hide nothing from the camera; they openly discuss their sexual intercourse, their sexual partners, their feelings, etc. There are not insert shots showing anyone in action; everything is based on words. These are my personal feelings, and I will not be surprised if others find the film boring. Besides this film, the documentaries by Li Ning, Wu Haohao, and Xie Jianqiang are also spicy in my opinion.

Fresh and Artsy

The films that I have mentioned above are all art films. However, most art films are graceful, subtle, and restrained (in contemporary literature, being graceful, subtle, and restrained is outdated; it may be better to group them as the humming or muttering films and the dainty films, as opposed to the roaring films and the sleazy films).

One example is Rivers and My Father by Li Luo, which was not accepted by any international film festivals but was screened at the Chinese Independent Film Festival. It is the story of a man who tries to erase and reconstruct his memories. Empty Iron Mountain by Gao Zipeng, sponsored by the 1st China independent Film Fund, is an art film for the middle aged. It is the story of an intellectual who disappears and dies on purpose (this film is supposed to be completed in 2011).

Most fresh and artsy films present intellectuals’ and the bourgeois class’s stories. However, they have a blue-collar tendency too because going to the factory workers and farmers used to be a fresh endeavor in revolutionary times. Moreover, Jia Zhangke is also a big influence in the most recent decade. Sun Spots by Yang Heng (a feature-length fiction film) and Male Cousin (a short fiction film, author unknown) are examples of films about junior delinquents in 2010.

Male Cousin is what I mentioned earlier about fresh and artsy films. The story is about a boy who falls in love with another boy but never makes it known to the other. A college art student returns home during his school vacation. He wants badly to meet his fictive cousin, who has gone to national service. They finally meet each other. The college boy gets to see his fictive cousin’s bare shoulders in some photos, and they take the same bus before leaving each other for good. This film was made by two college students in Xuancheng, Anhui, which I suppose was their hometown. It is a good film. Many scenes are rendered appropriately, the plot and the acts are precise, the violence in the film stops just in time, sex never takes place. It is artsy, cool, sexy, close to life, and not at all contrived, just like this piece of dialog, a comment about A Better Tomorrow by John Woo, in the film: “See how constrained gay movies were back then!”

Reconstructing The History of the People’s Republic of China’s

Hu Jie, director of In Search of Lin Zhao's Soul, East Wind Farm Camp and Though I Am Gone

Thanks to the work by independent filmmakers, up till now, we have accumulated a body of works that could be used for New China’s history, outside the official rhetoric. I made a chronological list below, and it should cover all the important historical periods. Although some of the films below were made much earlier, this list is completed in 2010.

This list contains many sensitive words. If any reader finds it incomplete in some way, please note that it is not because I did not include it, it is because my editor tries to keep me safe. If you can spot a missing item, it shows that you are very good. Anyone can try to add what they think is missing.

Bao Feng Zhou Yu [Tempest], Xie Tieli, 1961 – land reform
Storm under the Sun, Peng Xiaolian & S. Louisa Wei, 2009 – court case of Hu Feng
In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, Hu Jie, 2005 – anti-rightist movement
Chronicle of a Chinese Woman, Wang Bing, 2007 – the great famine
East Wind Farm Camp, Hu Jie, 2008 – the great famine
San Li Dong, Lin Xin, 2006 – 17-year coal mining business
Though I am Gone, Hu Jie, 2006 – earlier years of the cultural revolution
Buried, Wang Libo, 2009 – Tangshan Earthquake and the latter years of the cultural revolution
Tong Xue [Classmates], Lin Xin, 2009 – economic reform
60, Zhang Ming,2009 – economic reform
Petition, Zhao Liang, 2008 – contemporary

I want to conclude by quoting documentary filmmaker Mao Chenyu: “Where I am now, let it be history.” If you deny that history is that of the third-person, be it micro or macro, then you own it too. “Where you are now, let it be history.”

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