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

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 www.chinaonscreen.org