Review: Yang Mingming’s Female Directors

December 1st, 2016

By Josh Feola 

Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

This review contains spoilers.

Yang Mingming’s 2012 debut Female Directors, a documentary-style narrative centered on the fractious but durable relationship between two young, underemployed film school graduates in Beijing, lends itself to the kind of one-dimensional feminist reading that reviewers have used to unlock the ostensible themes of Yang’s often tongue-in-cheek mockumentary. A number of reviewers have noted Yang’s use of a handheld digital camera — functionally the film’s third character, as it frequently changes hands between the film’s two protagonists — as a deliberate reversal of the male gaze. This consideration and the fact that there are no male characters in the film, aids the films’ explicit address questions of gender in contemporary Chinese society, both criticizing and reinforcing gender norms.

Rather than assess Female Directors based on the gender identities of its director and lead actresses — Yang performs as “Ah Ming” alongside her collaborator Guo Yue, who acts as “Yueyue” — a broader approach seeks to find the film’s meaning in its technical execution, a spare and brilliant adaptation of cinéma vérité style, exposing truth concealed by artifice, and offering an incisive look into the ritually self-obsessed nature of young Chinese creatives.


Infidelity and duplicity are recurring themes in Female Directors. The plot, insofar as there is one, hinges around the early revelation that Ah Ming and Yueyue, aspiring directors and best friends who’ve seemingly made a pact to film their every moment together with the ultimate goal of creating a documentary, discover that they’ve both been having an affair with the same married man. This wealthy adulterer, an invisible narrative prop from Guangdong, is never seen nor heard, and only ever referred to by the nickname “Short Stuff”. As the story progresses, Ah Ming and Yueyue reveal details about their relationship with Short Stuff, sometimes as barbed lies, others as revelations that evoke sympathy. Yueyue, we discover, has been sleeping with Short Stuff in exchange for the promise of receiving a Beijing hukou — a residence permit that would grant her considerable municipal benefits. Ah Ming, who coldly insinuates that Yueyue is no better than a prostitute, herself accepts a 16,000 RMB (roughly $2,500) “loan” from Short Stuff to make a film.

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China Onscreen Biennale Brings a Diverse Program of Chinese Media Arts to Los Angeles, New York, and DC

October 31st, 2016

by Maya Rudolph

Screen Shot 2016-10-30 at 4.47.50 PMDuring the fall of 2016, the “best of” Chinese cinema and media art is coming to Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC with the China Onscreen Biennale. Now in its third iteration, the COB boasts an energetically interdisciplinary program of new Chinese cinema, restored classics, and a broad range of off-screen events. Without a jury or competition element, the COB presents a creative, independently-curated series that includes premieres of new works by Pema Tseden, Ying Liang, Jia Zhangke, and Zhao Liang; a series of site-specific “sound mandalas”; an artist exchange project rooted in Dunhuang, one of the Silk Road’s most historically significant areas; group meditations; and discussions with filmmakers and scholars designed to encourage open conversation between American and Chinese film communities.

From Gu Changwei's N39º54? 12.56? E116º23? 14.20?

From Gu Changwei’s N39º54? 12.56? E116º23? 14.20?

The COB program is selected by chief curator Cheng-Sim Lim and a committee representing the COB’s Presenting Partners, which also host many of the screenings and include UCLA, The Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Asia Society, and more. Lim, an independent curator, became chief curator of the COB after being approached by Susan Pertel Jain, Executive Director of the UCLA Confucius Institute, with an idea to create a film series with a fresh take on Chinese media and performance. “It was always important that the series be independently curated,” Lim said, “We really feel we have the opportunity to do things differently with this project.” The COB’s Chinese title is a reminder of this commitment to keeping the program active and open; a poetic license that activates the Chinese noun “screen” into a verb. In designing the COB, Lim also considered the cities in the US with nuanced audiences and varying relationships to China, “At first we thought about audiences in LA and DC. LA is the film capital and DC is the political capital, so these are important cities to be in dialogue with China and Chinese films.” Three editions in, the COB has added New York to the lineup, and cultivated a city-specific program that presents work from China and China itself “not as an object,” said Lim, “but as part of a specific exchange, a conversation.”

From Jia Zhangke's "The Hedonists"

From Jia Zhangke’s “The Hedonists”

While the COB’s 2016 film program presents diverse approaches to story, a reach for identity—shaped by geography, family, or a shifting economy—is a key element of many films and reflects what Lim called “a plurality of voices coming from China.” Zhao Liang’s stunning documentary Behemoth crawls deep into the belly of the beast fueling development in Inner Mongolia, while Wang Bing’s Ta’ang, shows life in a refugee camp on the Sino-Myanmar border. In his new short film The Hedonists, Jia Zhangke attempts levity and drone photography in the face of hard times for coal miners in Shanxi Province; and knotty questions of Tibetan identity and family shape Sonthan Gyal’s River and Liu Jie’s De Lan. At the COB’s opening night at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, a series of video works by Gu Changwei was enriched by a conversation with the artist and the West Coast premiere of Pema Tsenden’s Tharlo, a tragicomic story of ID cards, karaoke, and loss in remote Qinghai Province.

The COB’s thoughtful promotion of diversity in art and filmmaking from today’s China creates engaging and often mesmerizing access points for American audiences to connect to China. “From the very beginning, we thought, let’s put this work up [on the screen] without a specific frame on it,” said Lim, “Let’s approach this work as film lovers, with an open mind, and see what happens.”

The COB will run until November 14 in Los Angeles, November 3rd to December 1st in New York, and November 12 to 27th in Washington DC. More info is available on their website at

dGenerate Titles Reviewed by VCinema

October 11th, 2016

Three dGenerate titles were recently reviewed by VCinema, a podcast and blog devoted to Asian film, media, and culture.

Pema Tseden's Tharlo

Pema Tseden’s ‘Tharlo’

Writing for VCinema, Rowena Santos Aquino reviewed Pema Tseden’s Tharlo, the story of a Tibetan shepherd whose isolated routine and sense of identity is irrevocably displaced when he travels to the city in search of an ID card and stumbles into contradictions of “the opposing existential temporalities of bureaucracy/imposed history…and of land/localness…and how this opposition impinges on identity.” Addressing Tseden’s heartbreaking story of misplaced affections and broken assumptions, Aquino writes “The staggering irony about Tharlo’s journey to obtain his I.D. card, a document whose purpose is to disclose and/or confirm one’s identity in image and words, is that in the course of doing so, he loses the identity that he has …this irony is the power of Tseden’s film.”

Wang Bing's 'Three Sisters'

Wang Bing’s ‘Three Sisters’

Aquino’s review of Wang Bing’s documentary Three Sisters offers reflections not only into Wang’s film on “shifting…compositions of family,” but also into the “mosaic” that makes up Wang’s eclectic canon of work. In describing the story of three young sisters who shuffle them between family members’ homes amid stark economic hardship, Aquino praises Wang’s filmic rhythm as “improvisatory and loose” and comments that the low camera angles Wang employs to create spatial congruency with his young subjects serves as “not just a technical decision but also like a tacit gesture of solidarity, or at the very least empathy, in the midst of the sisters’ uncertain everyday and destitute environment.”

John Berra reviewed Yang Mingming’s Female Directors, a mockumentary investigation into the close, albeit fractious, relationship between two young film school grads, their “taboo breaking” antics, and the omnipresent camera they wield like a weapon. Addressing topics that range from the oft-mentioned “Mr. Short” or “Short Stuff”—a lover and benefactor on whom both the women rely—to the true nature of honesty and “relative honesty,” “Female Directors is a candid meta-commentary that deconstructs not only its titular pair’s varied, at times contradictory responses to male-dominated society but the methods used to examine such conditions in the digital age.

Review of Pema Tseden’s Tharlo

September 28th, 2016
Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

by Maya Rudolph 
This review contains spoilers.

Tharlo, Pema Tsenden’s noir-inflected romance, is a story of identity, a journey of the self in black and white. A Tibetan shepherd known by his eponymous “Ponytail” travels from his rural home to a small city in Qinghai Province in reluctant pursuit of an ID card—the documentation all Chinese rely on to designate their residency. His never-used given name is Tharlo and, though he’s easygoing, Ponytail isn’t convinced that he needs an ID. “I know who I am,” he says plainly. “Isn’t that enough?” But it’s not enough—at least not for Tseden to set the stakes for Tharlo’s journey into the miasma of the city. A conversation of the heaviness of life and death plays out in the bureau office of Chief Dorjie, a friendly Tibetan cop who compliments Tharlo’s formidable recitation of Mao’s “Serve the People.” As the men reflect on the line “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai,” Tharlo tells Dorjie he’s confident that his own way of serving the people, tending his flock of sheep, will bring Mount Tai-volume gravity to his death when the time comes.

In the city, Ponytail tries on his urban identity as Tharlo. Accompanied by an orphaned lamb he carries in a satchel, Tharlo waits his turn in a photography studio and watches a couple pose, first against a painted backdrop of Tian’anmen Square and then a boxy, distorted representation of the New York City skyline. Tseden presents the discrete, static spaces of an urban town through reflections and cropped frames that betray Tharlo’s discomfort with the unfamiliar customs of city life. Played with a plainspoken good humor by Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima, Tharlo is a good sport of ineffable age who seems at home in himself, if not in his surroundings.

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2016 Chinese Visual Festival in London, May 11-20

May 5th, 2016

Tharlo (dir. Pema Tseden)

The 2016 Chinese Visual Festival program is one of the strongest yet for this long-running series featuring an exciting range of award-winning films and video art from around the Chinese language speaking world, plus a line-up of fascinating high-profile guests from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. With Q&As, panels, receptions and other events, there’s plenty of chances to meet the filmmakers and artists, and to get involved in learning more about the topics and themes behind the works.

The 2016 C schedule may be accessed here.

Best of Beijing Independent Film Festival Coming to NYC (update: 3 new films, 2 new venues announced)

July 9th, 2015

* July 28 update:

– two additional screening venues have joined the series, adding two additional films to the lineup. Egg and Stone will screen August 17 at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP; and The Last Moose of Aoluguya will screen September 9 at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.

– Additionally, UnionDocs has added a fifth film to their portion of the series: The River of Life will screen September 11.

– Filmmaker Li Luo will now be present at both screenings of his film Emperor Visits the Hell at Anthology Film Archives, August 7 and 10.

CINEMA ON THE EDGE: THE BEST OF THE BEIJING INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL 2012-2014 showcases the best recent Chinese independent cinema at multiple venues in New York City

Kickstarter campaign launches in support of Cinema on the Edge

Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012-2014
August 7 to September 13, 2015
Anthology Film Archives, The Asia Society, Maysles Cinema at the Maysles Documentary Center, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), and UnionDocs

A film series unlike any other, “Cinema on the Edge: Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival” celebrates the daring spirit and creative innovation of independent filmmakers and festival organizers in mainland China. The Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) has been at the forefront of presenting these groundbreaking films in China, but for the last three years the festival has met substantial official resistance. Several of these films will now be brought to the United States for the first time, to be screened in some of the best museums and cinemas in New York City.

This film series features 18 programs of outstanding recent Chinese independent cinema, showcasing the work of such acclaimed filmmakers as Ai Weiwei, Li Luo, Hu Jie, Zou Xueping and Yang Mingming.  The series is organized and curated by three of Chinese independent cinema’s most committed supporters: producer and distributor Karin Chien, critic and curator Shelly Kraicer, and filmmaker and anthropologist J.P. Sniadecki. Six of NYC’s most revered film and cultural institutions will present these works: Anthology Film Archives, Asia Society, Maysles Cinematheque, The Weatherhead East Asian Insitute at Columbia University Museum of Chinese in America, Made in NY Media Center by IFP, and UnionDocs.

The program team is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for guest travel and program printing, enabling the series to foster important dialogue and discussion around these films. []

Click through for the full series description and list of films. A video introducing the campaign can be viewed here:

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New Book on Independent Chinese Documentary

June 17th, 2015

9780748695621.coverWe’re excited to welcome the publication of a new book, Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics, written by Dan Edwards and published by Edinburgh University Press. Dan has contributed several outstanding articles to dGenerate in the past, and his book is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of contemporary Chinese cinema and documentary studies.

Details on the book are as follows:

Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics analyses how independent documentaries are forging a new public sphere in today’s China

Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been an explosion in Chinese independent documentary filmmaking. But how are we to understand this vibrant burst of activity? Are these films brave expressions of dissidence, or do they point to a more complex attempt to expand the terms of public discourse in the People’s Republic?

This timely study is based on detailed interviews with Chinese documentary makers rarely available in English, and insights gained by the author while working as a journalist in Beijing. It considers the relationship between independent documentaries and China’s official film and television sectors, exploring the ways in which independent films probe, question and challenge the dominant ideas and narratives circulating in the state-sanctioned public sphere. Detailed analyses of key contemporary documentaries reveal a sustained attempt to forge an alternative public sphere where the views and experiences of petitioners, AIDS sufferers, dispossessed farmers and the victims of Mao’s repression can be publicly aired for a small, but steadily growing, public.

Key Features:

  • A detailed account of one of the world’s most active, vibrant and challenging contemporary documentary sectors
  • Draws extensively on first-hand interviews with filmmakers
  • Offers in-depth, critical analyses of China’s most challenging contemporary independent documentaries
  • Discusses China’s state-sanctioned film and television sectors to cast new light on how the official public sphere is shaped and guided by the state

Furman University Hosts Chinese Environmental Film Festival This Week

February 23rd, 2015

chinesefilm3The Chinese Environmental Film Festival and Workshop is a collaboration between filmmakers, scholars and experts who are interested in examining the environmental issues facing China. Organized by faculty and staff members at Furman University, the event is being held for the first time.

The festival, which will be held Feb. 26-28, will feature eight films, including the premiere of a documentary produced by two filmmakers from China’s Yunnan Province. The final day of the festival will include a workshop where speakers and experts will have the opportunity to provide critical commentary related to the films.

Supported by a Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment grant, the event is part of Furman’s ongoing effort to encourage innovative interdisciplinary teaching, research and programming on Asia’s environment.

Full schedule follows:

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New Website Profiles History of Chinese Documentary at Sundance

February 16th, 2015
The Chinese Mayor

The Chinese Mayor

This year’s Sundance Film Festival yielded a triumphant moment for Chinese documentary film, when The Chinese Mayor, the latest effort by acclaimed director Zhou Hao and producer Qi Zhao, winning a special jury award. However, of the many independent documentaries that have come from China over the past three decades, this is only the sixth to be featured at Sundance, according to a recent article by Genevieve Carmel. This prompts Carmel to ask “Why don’t Chinese docs go to Sundance?” a question she probes at length in her article, drawing on numerous resources to present her findings.

The article is part of the website Crows & Sparrows, a new initiative “that seeks to create and enhance opportunities for independent media exchange between North American and East/Southeast Asia through regular curation and visiting filmmaker programs.” The current focus of Crows & Sparrows is on connecting film circles in Boston and Beijing. The initiative is founded by three of the most ardent supporters of contemporary Chinese independent cinema: Genevieve Carmel, Benny Shaffer and Zhou Xin. Crows & Sparrows will put its initial efforts to developing screening programs with visiting filmmakers in Boston and sharing news of other related events and international filmmaker opportunities.

Zhou Hao Wins Golden Horse Award; Next Film Chosen for Sundance Competition

December 9th, 2014
Cotton (dir. Zhou Hao)

Cotton (dir. Zhou Hao)

For over a decade, Zhou Hao has been making independent documentaries probing many of China’s most urgent social issues, including migrant labor, drug abuse, law enforcement and political corruption. The former journalist’s fearless and resourceful investigations have won him acclaim at various festivals; dGenerate distributes two of his most well-regarded titles, Using and The Transition Period. His most recent work is achieving even greater levels of recognition.

Last month, the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival awarded its Best Documentary prize to Zhou’s newest film, Cotton. In this feature, Zhou profiles a farmer, a cotton picker and workers in cotton factories, who represent the unseen labor behind China’s cotton industry.

Last week, the Sundance Institute announced that Zhou’s upcoming film The Chinese Mayor will have its world premiere in the Sundance International Film Festival’s World Documentary Competition. In this feature, Zhou closely follows Mayor Geng Yanbo, who is determined to transform the coal-mining center of Datong, in China’s Shanxi province, into a tourism haven showcasing clean energy. In order to achieve that, however, he has to relocate 500,000 residences to make way for the restoration of the ancient city.

Heartiest congratulations to Zhou Hao on his recent and continued success.