Posts Tagged ‘meishi street’

“Alternative Realities:” China’s Digital Documentary Filmmakers

Monday, April 26th, 2010

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

In the newest issue of RealTime Arts Magazine, there is a rousing article by Dan Edwards on the significance of digital independent filmmaking in China. Here’s the opening passage:

While China’s political system remains deeply authoritarian, the country’s overwhelming size and explosive growth have opened cavernous gaps in the government’s control of culture, through which a new generation of DV-wielding documentary filmmakers has climbed.

Edwards profiles films such as Hu Jie’s In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, Ou Ning’s Meishi Street, and Du Haibin’s 1428 (editor: The latter two are distributed by dGenerate Films). He also interviews three notable figures in the contemporary digital filmmaking scene: producer/journalist David Bandurski (Ghost Town), artist/filmmaker Ou Ning and filmmaker/journalist Hu Jie. Here are some choice quotes from each:

Bandurski: “I’ve never heard an independent filmmaker in China ask themselves, ‘Can I do this?… Independent filmmaking is the freest avenue of expression that exists in China today.”

Ou: “Before, history only had one version – by the Chinese Communist Party… Now with digital technology history has different versions.”

Hu: “I knew very little about the history of the 1950s and 60s… While making Lin Zhao I had the sense that I was feeling around in the dark. Then I found the door of history, opened it and walked through. There I found a lot of ridiculous, cruel stories that really shocked me, and that was the motivation to go further.”

Read the complete article at RealTime Arts.

Find out more about Meishi Street, 1428, and Ghost Town.

The Potential (and Perils) of Online Video for the d-Generation

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Super, Girls! (dir. Jian Yi)

This recent article on CNN caught our eye, as it deals with what may be an emerging next wave of the digital filmmaking in China we at dGenerate heartily support. The article cites the explosion of user generated content on Chinese video sites like Youku and Tudou, which one analyst describes as “An unleashing of creativity like the world has never seen.”

Here’s the skinny from the article:

While the bulk of the content on popular Chinese video sites consists of domestic and foreign movies and television programs, a growing share of material is coming from Chinese who are picking up cameras, filming the world around them and sharing it with others for the very first time.

This may not seem extraordinary elsewhere, yet the growth of user-generated content represents a major shift in the way China watches itself and the way the world watches China.

That last line resonates a lot with the mission of China’s dGeneration of filmmakers; thanks to the accessibility of digital video and their own mission to document issues that couldn’t pass through state censorship, these filmmakers brought a radical new element to China’s art and media landscape. However, the ongoing challenge for these filmmakers has been to break out of a small, relatively confined circuit of underground festivals and other distribution channels in China, so that a greater audience can access these films and the important stories they uncover.


Avatar Breaks Chinese Box Office Records — and Inspires Activists

Monday, January 18th, 2010

What do this:


and this:


have in common? Apparently, they are both images of urban gentrification in China.

The top image is from James Cameron’s Avatar, which recently set the opening-day box office record in China with 33 million yuan ($4.85 million US). The film is on track to take over the record for total gross of 460 million yuan ($67 million US) set just months ago by Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which itself had just beaten the 450 million yuan earned by Transformers 2: The Revenge of the Fallen. 2009 was indeed a record year at the Chinese box office, whose 6.2 billion yuan toppled the 2008 take by a staggering 43%. Chinese films got in on the action, with five domestic features placing among the 2008 top ten earning films. (Full list after the break).

It’s somewhat reassuring that some Chinese have taken some political activist inspiration from their mainstream entertainment. British news source The Independent reports that Avatar has been embraced by potential evictees of urban neighborhoods slated for redevelopment (such as new shopping centers that feature state-of-the art cineplexes showing, um, Avatar):

Residents of China’s “nail houses” – so named because they are the last hold-outs in areas flattened for development – have likened their plight to those of the alien Nai’vi race in the blockbuster, as too have villagers in Hong Kong who face eviction to make way for a high-speed railway line.

“I’m touched by how they protect their homeland,” 81-year-old Wong Kam-fook told the South China Morning Post, referring to the war the Na’vi wage in the film against the human invaders.

For a more realistic depiction of this plight, one might look at the source of the second image, Ou Ning‘s documentary Meishi Street, which shows ordinary citizens taking a stand against the planned destruction of their homes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In order to widen traffic routes for the Olympic Games, the Beijing Municipal Government orders the demolition of entire neighborhoods. Given video cameras by the filmmakers, evictees shoot exclusive footage of the eviction process, adding vivid intimacy to their story.

Click here for more information on Meishi Street. Trailer of Meishi Street and the list of top 10 grossing films in China in 2009 after the break.


Meishi Street and San Yuan Li in Portland (OR)

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Anyone in the Portland, Oregon area has the chance to view two dGenerate films at the Portland Art Museum’s NW Film Center in the coming weeks. Ou Ning’s Meishi Street will be screening on Thursday, Nov. 19 at 7 pm and Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s San Yuan Li screens Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 pm. Both of these films are part of the NW Film Center’s Lens on China II series, which they describe thusly:

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, China has undergone a series of profound, ever-accelerating transformations spurred by experiments with a market economy and a more open approach to foreign investment and external cultures. In the last decade the consequences of these changes have dramatically impacted China and its place in the world. Concurrent with the Portland Art Museum’s CHINA DESIGN NOW exhibition, the Northwest Film Center continues to explore the perspectives of Chinese and western filmmakers whose works reflect on the broad currents of contemporary change in Chinese society. As China’s past and future collide, the works by these media artists provide unique insight into the social and aesthetic confusions, obstacles, and opportunities being navigated in the interstices between history, daily reality, and the future’s promises.

Other films screening as part of this series include Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, Ning Ying’s I Love Beijing and Perpetual Motion, and Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes.

More details can be found at the NW Film Center site.

Shelly on Film: What is a Chinese Film?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

By Shelly Kraicer

San Yuan Li

San Yuan Li (dir. Ou Ning, 2003)

What is a Chinese film? Ever since I’ve started living and working in Beijing over six years ago, most serious discussions about Chinese cinema ultimately come down to this elemental question, either in its descriptive mode (what defines a Chinese film?) or in its more urgently prescriptive version (what should a Chinese film be?). Often, it’s filmmakers themselves who seem most anxious about the issue. Behind it lie several subsidiary anxieties: “What do Westerners want from Chinese films?”, “What’s my role in Chinese society?”, “Are films art, or commerce, or politics?”


CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Chris Berry

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Chris Berry

dGenerate Films is pleased to introduce CinemaTalk, an ongoing series of conversations with esteemed scholars of Chinese cinema studies. These conversations will be presented on this site in audio podcast and/or text format. They are intended to help the Chinese cinema studies community keep abreast of the latest work being done in the field, as well as to learn what recent Chinese films are catching the attention of others. This series reflects our mission to bring valuable resources and foster community around the field of Chinese film studies.

For our first CinemaTalk, we spoke with Chris Berry, Professor of Film and Television Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. Some of Chris’ work includes:

  • Author, Cinema and the National: China on Screen (Columbia University Press and Hong Kong University Press, 2006) with Mary Farquhar
  • Author, Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: The Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2004)
  • Editor (with Ying Zhu), TV China (Indiana University Press, 2008)
  • Editor, Chinese Films in Focus II (British Film Institute, 2008)
  • Editor (with Feii Lu), Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005)
  • Editor (with Fran Martin and Audrey Yue), Mobile Cultures: New Media and Queer Asia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003)
  • Translator and Editor, Ni Zhen’s Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Origins of China’s Fifth Generation Filmmakers (Duke University Press, 2002)
  • Author, “Imaging the Globalized City: Rem Koolhaas, U-thèque, and the Pearl River Delta,” in Cinema at the City’s Edge, edited by Yomi Braester and James Tweedie (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, forthcoming), part of a series TransAsia: Screen Cultures, co-edited by Chris Berry and Koichi Iwabuchi

Kevin Lee, dGenerate’s VP of Programming of Education, spoke with Chris about various topics from his current work and areas of focus, to comparisons between contemporary Chinese cinema and the Fifth Generation filmmakers whom he helped to champion in the 1980s and 1990s, to which recent Chinese films that have excited him the most.

Play the Podcast

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Download it here (right-click to download). (File size: 28.7MB)

Full transcript follows after the break.


Shelly on Film: Does China’s Past Have a Future?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

by Shelly Kraicer

The persistence of the past, and the present’s attempts to colonize it, tame it, and re-engineer it, is a remarkable phenomenon of recent Chinese culture, including Chinese cinema. There is no other place I’m familiar with where the past is so constantly present.

Shanghai Film Studio (photo by gumbase)

Shanghai Film Studio, pre-demolition (photo by gumbase)

Fundamentally, the past here in China is both utterly disposable and simultaneously completely re-creatable. This was brought vividly to mind while I read about the recent demolition of the Shanghai Film Studio (SFS). Located in the Xujiahui neighbourhood of downtown Shanghai, the Shanghai Film Studio’s land is apparently far too valuable to continue to house the sprawling and outdated facilities of this fabled centre of Chinese mainstream film production. I was lucky enough to visit twice. The second was an official working visit, when the very helpful staff assisted me in finding prints for the retrospective on the Fourth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers that I presented at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2008. My first visit, though, was somewhat surreptitious. After visiting the neighbouring St. Ignatius Cathedral, I wandered around the Xujiahui neighbourhood just southwest of central Shanghai, a vast area that formerly contained the grounds of the the substantial Jesuit mission to China (the wonderfully restored library, the late 19th century Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei remains, along with part of the former Jesuit school). Just across the street was an ancient-looking stone barn-like structure enmeshed in a wall. The wall was decorated with a flamboyantly kitschy 70s style gate. The gate turned out to be the entrance to the Shanghai Film Studio. The guards seemed too bored to bother to stop me, so I wandered in and strolled around the grounds, where I found some sound stages, a fleet of 1940s style cars marshaled for some period film, perhaps, and a general air of somnolence.

It was thrilling, though, to think of the Shanghai Film Studio’s illustrious past, the amazing movies that were created on this spot, in these buildings. Founded in 1949, the SFS absorbed workers from Shanghai‘s golden age of movies (which was led by Lianhua Film Studio and Mingxing Film Studio’s 1930s productions of modernist melodramas and comedies, featuring great directors like Sun Yu and Yuan Muzhi, and sublime film stars like Ruan Lingyu and Zhao Dan). The SFS was responsible for its own post-golden age of great movies, including Xie Jin’s series of classic films (Women Basketball Player No. 5, The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, Hibiscus Town) and many of the foundational works of the Fourth Generation (Evening Rain, My Memories of Old Beijing).

But that’s merely history, and the buildings were looking shabby in 2006. Today, the SFS is just rubble. Presumably to be replaced by something of real, contemporary value: another shiny glass shopping mall or luxury condo complex reflecting Shanghai’s imagination of what its future should look like. What particularly caught my attention in the account I read of the demolition was the fate of that old building I noticed in the corner of the wall. It was one of Shanghai‘s oldest structures, a Carmelite convent, St. Joseph‘s Convent of Carmel, constructed in 1874. It is also now rubble. But not gone forever, or so the guardians of China‘s physical history would have it. As the invaluable blog Shanghai Scrap describes it, a city bureaucrat explained that “they are knocking it down and rebuilding it on the old foundation. It will be a new version of the old convent. It’s much cheaper this way. Restoring it would take too much time and money.” Instant history! It will be a brand new-old, an “improved” copy of the original, but presumably much less shabby and much more appealing.

That’s the key: it is fake, re-constituted “history”, built right on top of the smashed rubble of the actual past. In China, this is quite common, and from a Chinese perspective, one might ask why Westerners like me fetishize actual relics of the past, with their supposed aura of authenticity. We worship this authenticity, and insist that it gives some kind of mystical, direct, non-mediated access to what we think of as a real, objective past. But is it not also a complicated proposition, that needs critiquing and unpacking too?

The key popular mainstream films of this holiday season are about trundling out, as mass entertainment, official versions of history. Both Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man devolve into Party-approved accounts of patriotic resistance against Japanese invaders (coincidentally, one of the key historic pillars of the Party’s own legitimacy). John Woo’s Red Cliff epic plays it a bit safe: its history is set far back in the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 CE). But it still updates, with state of the art cinema technology, a foundational myth about heroism, Chinese unity, and legitimacy that, on the surface at least, nicely harmonizes with the Party’s current view of things.

Outside of the zone of official discourse, there are independent artists and filmmakers whose works are obsessed with documenting this disappearing past before it succumbs completely to State-defined ideological re-construction. Jia Zhangke’s recent 24 City digs deeply into a moment of transition: the obliteration of a socialist-era factory in Chengdu. Jia insists on animating, through documentation and reconstruction, the lives and social history that are about to be obliterated. Hu Jie’s controversial series of documentaries, offering radical historical re-investigations of the most controversial episodes of China‘s post-1949 history, are one filmmaker’s act of resistance against faked, ideologically massaged history.

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

On a grassroots level, Ou Ning’s documentary Meishi Street addresses the human cost of Beijing city government’s policy of near-total obliteration of its traditional residential quarters. The inhabitants of Meishi Street have a special burden to bear. They are in the way of a “re-creation” of the Qianmen district just south of Tiananmen Square. This vast urban demolition project is the Carmel convent story writ super-large. Beijing has prepared a modern copy of an imaginary late Qing dynasty commercial district , this time ready for visitors to Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games (I wrote a bit about my visit there in my last blog entry). This for the sake of a master plan that sanitizes the city’s real history — this area was a vibrant commercial district of Qing dynasty Beijing, where Manchu courtiers and Chinese subjects could mingle and enjoy the city’s famous brothels, among other things. Today’s Qianmen is a purified zone, a 3-D diorama that tourists can safely consume..Some of the people who actually lived on Meishi Street, as the film shows, were creative enough to mount a form of resistance, but were ultimately powerless against the collusion of government regulation, police power, and property developers’ interests.

Here, in the People’s Republic of China, history still actively determines contemporaneity. In a place with China‘s still heavily contested history, political power’s ultimate responsibility, to safeguard and bolster its own legitimacy, is deeply rooted in its control of that past, or, to be more specific, in its control over the discourse surrounding the past. As long as power can control that discourse, in its essentials, it maintains a lock on what it perceives to be the historical foundations of the legitimacy of its own rule. Copies are more “real”, in an ideological sense, than the “real thing”, or at least more stable, more reliable. Shanghai will have its new-old Carmelite Convent, as part of a newly projected Shanghai Film Centre. And what version of the history of Chinese cinema will that film centre offer? I’m pretty confident that it will be as problem-free, as purged of messy thought-provoking details, as reassuringly consumable as Qianmen today.