By Shelly Kraicer
This year’s Rotterdam Film Festival (IFFR) offered a slice of the best of Chinese indie, experimental, and near-indie cinema. Provocative films as usual, and some very special guests; more on that in a moment. Notable 2010 features like Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation (Hanjia), Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (Xunhuan zuole), and Li Ruijun’s Old Donkey (Lao LâˆšÃ‰Â¬Âºtou) were accompanied by one premiere: Black Blood (Hei xue), by Zhang Miaoyan, a brooding blood-transfusion AIDs drama whose gloomy predictability was vitiated by its strikingly monumentalist-minimalist photography. The Piano in a Factory (Gangde qin) married the quirky independent sensibility of director Zhang Meng with a modulated, elegiac tone that was mild enough for the China Film Bureau to condone. Li Ning brought his challenging hybrid performance piece/doc Tape (Jiaodai) to Europe.
Five stunning short films in IFFR’s Spectrum Shorts section suggest that the centre of creativity of China’s independent filmmakers may be shifting from fiction though documentary to experimental shorts seen in gallery settings as often as film festivals: Gu Tao’s avant garde elegy for the Wenchuan earthquake On the Way to the Sea (Qu dahaide lushang); Central Academy of Fine Arts graduate Tan Tan’s movingly abstract Positive (Yangxing); Zhou Xiaohu’s inspired clay animation Forgotten Column (Yiwang zhu); photographer Hai Bo’s beautifully concentrated examination of rural space Tai Ping Chuan; and the inkbrush drawing-based cosmology of animator Sun Xun’s Beyond-ism (Zhuyi zhiwai).
For me, though, one event stood out. For the screenings of his documentary Fortune Teller (Suan ming), director Xu Tong brought a special guest from a small Hebei town east of Beijing to Rotterdam: one of the characters from the film, Ms Tang Xiaoyan. Xu’s film focuses on a Hebei fortune teller named Li Baicheng, his mentally and physically handicapped wife Pearl, his brother, who’s also in the business, and Li’s clientele, most of whom are sex workers from the neighbourhood. Tang is one of those workers.
Li himself is a sparkling-eyed gnome of a man, who walks around on crutches and practices his craft with both conviction and “tricks” as he calls them. He provides a service local people need, a mixture of consolation, life advice, superstition, name-changing therapy, and entertaining prediction. Reality and simulation form a comfortable mix. Much in the same way, indeed, that the sex workers of the village offer their clients a mix of reality and simulation, to service equally real needs.
One of Xu’s points is that both occupations, on the margins of Chinese society today, are equally persecuted by arbitrary government/police crackdowns. Tang Xiaoyan is Li’s most memorable client. She runs a small business — brothel would suggest something much larger than the reality — that employs three young women. We see her physically chasing off (with a big stick) a drunken and disorderly client/ex-lover; lamenting her tough past and brutal initiation into the business; and aspiring to change her luck by seeking a new name from fortune teller Li. She’s a kind of a natural verité movie star, with fearlessness and openness that positions her as a heroic counterpart to Li’s charismatic and compassionate trickster.
In Rotterdam, audiences were delighted to meet Tang Xiaoyan in person. She radiated a kind of confident glamour, with diamond sparkle nose stud and earrings not at all out of place in the Euro-arty-chic ambience of the Festival. I hosted the post-screening Q & A and asked her how she felt about being in Xu’s film. She replied that she hoped people would fight for their happiness as she had, that struggling through whatever difficulties life threw at you was essential. Her toughness had a bit of mystery around it: an intertitle in Fortune Teller announces that, after Tang’s arrest for prostitution, she spent 14 days in jail and then disappeared. And we don’t see her for the rest of the film. Well, she certainly hasn’t disappeared from Xu Tong’s camera eye: the best news they gave us was that his next film, Shattered, will take up her story and introduce us to her father, Old Tang himself, who has seen more of Chinese history than we can imagine. The film is set to premiere at next month’s Hong Kong International Film Festival.