Posts Tagged ‘shelly on film’

Shelly on Film: Fall Festival Report, Part One: Keeping Independence in Beijing

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

By Shelly Kraicer

Just having a party: This year's Beijing International Film Festival had to take a more casual tone. (photo: ArtInfo)

I’m often asked how it is that I keep track of new Chinese independent films. One answer: just be in China for a few weeks in October and November. The film festival season here is packed right now. Two major indie film festivals have just concluded: the 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF, in the Beijing exurb of Songzhuang) and the 8th China Independent Film Festival (in Nanjing). In Beijing itself, we’ve had the 4th First Film Festival (an international festival for films by first-time directors) at various campuses in China including Peking University, and the 6th Chinese Young Generation Film Forum. Coming up is the 5th Chongqing Independent Film and Video Festival (CIFVF).

That’s a lot of films and festivals. Of course there is substantial overlap, especially between the three main indie film festivals (BIFF, CIFF, CIFVF). BIFF and CIFF each had its own issues this year: external and internal conflict that showed just how much pressure independent filmmakers are under in China at the moment. These conflicts, which I’ll describe below, also demonstrated the urgency with which these filmmakers conceive of their practice, their autonomy, their mission, and their very existence.


Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part Two

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

By Shelly Kraicer

This is the conclusion of Shelly Kraicer’s essay “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West).” Click here for the introduction and first half of the essay.


Oxhide 2 (dir. Liu Jiayin)

4. Exemplary Asian independent art cinema. This misreading has something in common with Number 1 (“Exotic, colorful diversion”) , but in a more rarified, sophisticated form. It also contradicts (but exists in a weird sort of symbiosis with) Number 5 below. There is supposed to be something essentially “Asian” (meaning usually East Asian) about the predominant mode of contemporary art cinema now celebrated in festivals worldwide. Films that convey China’s backwardness (see Number 6 below) often employ a Andre Bazin-influenced mise en scène that is post-realist in its effect. Long takes, a demandingly slow pace, opaque storytelling, a distant motionless camera, inexpressive, non-professional actors, lots and lots of visual and narrative blankness, emptiness, stillness. Examples abound, the best recent exponents being Yang Heng (Betelnut, Sun Spots), Yang Rui (Crossing the Mountain), and in her own inimitable way, Liu Jiayin (Oxhide and Oxhide 2).

This analysis reduces an often surprising diversity of film styles into something that is assumed to spring, essentially and almost automatically, from a specific historical and cultural background, with local visual and pictorial traditions transmuted directly into their filmic correlatives. This in a sense over-simplifies and over-particularizes Chinese filmmakers who are utterly fluent (more than most of us) in the world-cinema image market (you can easily find films from everywhere, from every era, in China’s wonderfully eclectic bootleg DVD shops). By insisting on the “Chinese-ness” of these films, a special understanding, a privileged access to the films’ “essences,” may reserved for Sinological experts.

5. International art cinema master(s’) works. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to abuse Chinese cinema as some sort of proof that master directors work in a universal style recognizalbe to experts, critics, professionals, and well-trained festival audiences. In absolute contradistinction to Number 4 above, this attitude says “you don’t need to know anything about China and its specific cultural history to appreciate these films. They are great cinema, full stop”. This can be a branding exercise, like Number 2 (“Commercial entertainment”), but one for a more discriminating audience who needs to be reassured that she or he will be able to enjoy the latest Chinese masterpiece without unduly stressing over its foreignness. This is global art, i.e. It belongs to “Us,” not to its incidentally “Other” creators. Hegemony reasserts itself as art / film criticism, denaturing a film for our appropriation and viewing pleasure (with emphasis on the pleasure). This tendency can be seen in the flattering (for a forty-year-old director) inclusion of the latest Jia Zhangke film I Wish I Knew in the “Masters” section of the Toronto International Film Festival programme.


Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part One

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Opening Ceremony of the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing (photo courtesy of CIFF)

By Shelly Kraicer

While attending the China Independent Film Festival last month in Nanjing (October 2010), I was invited to give a talk the next morning at the International Youth Art Film Summit Forum, a symposium for young directors organized by the Festival and Nanjing University. I couldn’t really decline, especially since I was benefiting from the CIFF’s generous hospitality and its wonderful programming. The problem: “forums” like these in the Chinese film festival context are rather more like formal ceremonies, featuring a series of presiding officials who drone out banal speeches welcoming the scholars and celebrating young Chinese directors’ unbridled creativity.

Various foreign guests are typically invited to give what (is hoped) are equally generic talks outlining their respective institutions and their wholesome and uncomplicated eagerness to cooperate with China, Chinese directors, and Chinese cinema institutions. I was advised to do likewise. I came up with something that I hoped might interest or at least not bore some of these young filmmakers who were supposed to be in the audience. My talk was called “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West)”. Since it was to be an eight minute speech (including translation, I think I went a bit over), I boiled it down to a list of seven abuses.

What follows below is a recreation from memory of the speech I gave, somewhat expanded from the original version. I’ve also added various clarifications (and complications), and the examples not included in the speech itself (as I was advised not to name specific films in front of officials). I’ve set off these extra sections by italicizing them, so what I hope results is something like a text that alternates between more formal discourse and a parallel informal stream of commentary that supplements, qualifies and even challenges my main argument.


I start with a question: why do western film festivals need Chinese cinema? Films from the People’s Republic of China are eagerly sought after by festivals around the world, enjoy a generous portion of festivals’ programming slots, and receive a substantial share of prestigious competition prizes. This doesn’t happen by accident. The international festival system does not privilege films on the basis of “excellence” alone. Complex questions of power, commercial viability, and national self-representation come into play. So, phrased another way, the question becomes: What functions — political, commercial, and cultural — does Chinese cinema serve in the western festival and distribution system? How are these films used, what interests does programming them serve?