Chinese Reality #2: Bumming in Beijing

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Bumming in Beijing (1990, dir. Wu Wenguang)

Bumming in Beijing (1990, dir. Wu Wenguang)

Liu lang Beijing (Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers)
1990. China. Directed by Wu Wenguang.

MoMA program description:

Shot before and after the Tiananmen Square incident, Wu Wenguang’s portrait of five artists eking out a life in the nation’s capital is considered the birth of the Chinese independent documentary movement. The film’s open, observational structure and handheld camera work are hallmarks of the movement today, as is its self-reflexive awareness of the documentarian’s role, with a sense of intimacy and solidarity between filmmaker and subject.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

“A new chapter of the history of representation was being written in front of my eyes.”

- Bérénice Reynaud, on her first viewing of Bumming in Beijing. From “New Visions/ New Chinas: Video-Art, Documentation, and the Chinese Modernity in Question.” In Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds., Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996; Chris Berry, “Chinese Documentary at Home in the World,”Documentary Box, January 31, 1998; and Chris Berry, “Facing Reality: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism,” in Wu Hung et al.

The five young artists [Wu] profiles—a writer, a photographer, two painters, and a director of avant-garde theater—reject a life tethered to the government yet still hope to modernize the urban cultural scene; their frank ruminations about life, art, and the future are punctuated by groundbreaking verite shots of people doing their chores in squalid back alleys and studio apartments. Wu funded the film himself, using a camcorder to capture his subjects at work and at play, and unlike government propagandists he eschews music and voice-over narration for an intimate naturalism akin to Frederick Wiseman’s. Most revealing is Wu’s portrayal of Zhang Xia Ping, a feisty feminist painter who suffers a mental breakdown; her delirious outburst is the first such episode to be documented in mainland China for a Western audience (Wu especially angered the censors by subtitling his documentary in English). The last third of the video takes place after Tiananmen, when two of the artists have gone abroad and two more are about to leave. The massacre is never mentioned, but Wu documents the artists’ disillusionment and cynicism as unflinchingly as he did their earlier idealism.

- Ted Shen, Chicago Reader

I saw my first Chinese documentary, Wu Wenguang’sBumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing – Zuihou De Mengxiangzhe, 1990), at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1991.A young man was taking a hand-held video camera though the streets, back alleys and run-down apartments of Beijing, probing into the daily lives of marginalised artists… I was particularly fascinated by the moments in which apparently “nothing happened” and nothing was said. As I was analysing it at the time as a throwback to the tropes of Chinese classical painting (in which “the void” plays an essential part), I was happily challenged by Ernest Larsen’s sensitive description of the piece:

Wu is not afraid to show us “nothing” – someone cleaning a flat, for example, or making a painting… It is tempting to see this figure of style as distinctively “Chinese” – but the temptation is worth resisting. Furthermore, Wu’s long takes and emphasis on duration serve as a kind of counterpoint to the suddenness with which Tiananmen was crushed… The prolonged moments of near silence in Bumming in Beijing produce the aesthetic effect of outlasting the remembered roar of government tanks.

On the other hand, at crucial moments, Wu adopts a performative mode that goes beyond the tropes of traditional vérité and brings forward his body and his voice, as if to fill the void. Yet, unlike Marcel Ophuls, who inserts his disruptive questions and confrontational humour to track down his interviewee’s lies and omissions, Wu stages himself within the picture he (re)creates. The void that structures Bumming in Beijing sends the viewer back to the few months between spring and autumn of 1989 during which no image was taken and death was taking its toll. It is a void that threatened to engulf him as well as his subjects, so the relationship he establishes with them, far from being confrontational, is of shared sympathy.

- Bérénice Reynaud,”Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of China’s New Documentary.” In Senses of Cinema, October 2003

Wu later commented that Bumming in Beijing was a failure as an experiment because it still carried the fraudulence of standard mainstream documentary practice: for example, his reliance on “talking head” interviews with its subjects throughout the film. Nonetheless, the film broke new ground in Chinese documentary practice by introducing a personalized and subjective approach to its material. Wu continued developing his stripped-down, cinéma vérité style, which gradually made a profound influence on the narrative films and documentaries of the emerging Sixth Generation, including those of Jia Zhangke.

- Isabella Tianzi Cai, dGenerate Films

The male photographer featured in the film, Gao Bo, comments that “drifting” is a difficult concept in China. At that time, individual rootlessness went against the demands of family and the centrist, bureaucratic state. The Communist Party’s declared initiative was to liberate women from the shackles of the patriarchal Confucian culture, well-illustrated by the practice of foot binding, a crippling attack on female mobility. Yet Gao says that the lone artistic ‘drifter’ still appears stranger in China if she is a woman.

- M. Ly-Eliot, The f word

Tiananmen Square is never mentioned explicitly, yet this event is the central structuring absence of the entire film. In fact, Bumming In Beijing should be understood as an almost metaphorical commentary on the trajectory of the protest movement. The initial blossoming of optimism quickly withers into disillusionment. The tension between idealism and realism is evident in the films early interviews, where Zhang Xiaping saying she would rather sell her body than her paintings is contrasted with Zhang Dali’s argument that he must sell his work to survive. The differences between the artists come to a head as that fateful June approaches. Following a title card which announces the Massacre’s passing and states ‘The remaining drifters in Bejing’, we see, in quick succession: Gao Bo plugging in a light bulb as songs popular among student protestors play on the radio; Mao Sen searching through photographs under his bed; Zhang Xiaping holding a white rabbit as she cries. The film concludes with the climactic reactions of each to the crisis they face. Some crumble, some flee, yet others stay and vow to continue their art…

- Jacob Harbord

However, the warmth is not lost. Mo Sen, a theatre director obsessed with putting on his own version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, finally has his dream come true in a dim-lit space. Wu presents their ritual-like rehearsals throughout the film. The result is genuinely moving as the director restores to these ‘bums’ the sense of dignity they truly deserve.

- Wang Ge, Time Out Beijing

Film description on China Independent Documentary Film Archive