Perhaps I’ve been spending just a bit too much time watching movies in China? I have this recurring daydream, most often when I’m watching a new Chinese film that some enterprising young director has sent me. I always watch every independent film that I receive. You never know what gems might appear unsolicited in the mail. And, even if the film isn’t so terrific, it will still be a useful index of all sorts of interesting trends: it might reveal what young filmmakers in China are filming, how they are looking at the world around them, or, at least, what they think people like me want to see.
The daydream, or perhaps it’s a fantasy, is this. There exists, down some dusty grey hutong alleyway of Beijing, a Chinese Indie Director’s Discount Emporium. You want to make a film? Step right in and assemble your movie at bargain prices. The shelving on the left is stocked with cast members: long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly. At the back is a set of grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes, ready to be populated by said drifters. To the right, useful equipment. Some tripods, but with a restriction: they must be set up at least 50 metres from the subjects being filmed. Right beside is a very long long shelf, holding 3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes, offered for a steal at family-sized package prices. Alternatively, you could go for deep discount on little DV cams, with the proviso that, held close to the subjects, they be shaken as vigorously as possible. The dialogue shelves in the centre are threadbare: screenplays for rent are all dialogue-light. And, off in a corner, is a shelf labelled “Prostitutes”. It’s over-loaded, with a three-for-the-price-of-one sale.
This may seem a bit mean. But the people I’m making fun of here, in fact, are international film programmers like me (I select Chinese language films for the Vancouver International Film Festival), not the filmmakers themselves. It seems that many of us (my colleagues from other film festivals, and wouldn’t exclude myself) sometimes seem to select films armed with a checklist of “East Asian art film attributes”, the things that populate the shelves of our hutong indie shop. Who can blame a young director from China, who, with little or no chance of gaining any return on his or her investment within his own country, tries to design a film to suit those foreigners who pay the bills, fund post production, and just might offer an overseas distribution deal?