5 Documentaries That Captivate China's Creative Life
This piece is part of a series. As a small means of solidarity with curators, critics and creators, during this extraordinary moment of crisis and confinement, dGenerate Films is opening our doors to those interested in writing and engaging with our collection. Currently unable to mount his Wavelength program at Deptford Cinema in London, Sunil Chauhan turned his curatorial talents to creating a top 5 program of documentaries in the dGenerate Films collection.
by Sunil Chauhan
The documentaries on China that tend to garner most interest in the west tend to be political critiques. That’s not without cause, but it can lead to a narrow idea of a vast, complex place, neglecting the other, no less captivating areas of Chinese life. dGenerate’s catalogue of documentaries includes many politically critical – and excellent – films, but it also has several titles that point a lens at China’s artists: musicians, filmmakers, puppeteers, stage performers, providing an insight into the day-to-day lives of those trying to make a creative living. Naturally, these films are never concerned with matters purely artistic – their subjects are often on the receiving end of orders from officials, police or construction workers - but they suggest that regardless of location, tradition or political particularities, artists’ lives the world over carry as many similarities as not. Here are five particularly worth investigating.
Dir: Li Ning
Shot over five years by avant-garde artist Li Ning before being distilled to a tight two hours, Tape chronicles Li’s struggles to stage performance art in the face of domestic pressures to provide for his wife and young son. It weaves in and out of choreographed street routines that could be from a 1950s sci-fi, astounding stunts where a naked-but-for-shoes Li crawls along the rubble of demolished buildings as bulldozers work in the background and home life with his sympathetic mother. But while the surreal sight of seeing Li’s troupe burst into life on the back of a truck stuck in highway traffic or in the middle of a restaurant is as entertaining as it is with its worries (not all onlookers enjoy impromptu performance art), it’s the thread of Li’s home life that gives the film its heart as well as a sense of compromised ambition, disrupting the myth of the selfish artist. One of its most memorable scenes is Li’s wife reproving him for being more engrossed in filming than earning (to his credit, scenes with his son do suggest him to be a caring father). Foley fans will also relish the myriad ways in which Li utilises the sound of tape being ripped and torn.
Dir: Huang Weikai
More straightforward than his celebrated Disorder, Huang Weikai’s Floating is both a character portrait of Yang, a free-spirited rebel who delights in confrontation with officials who try to stop him playing his guitar and a survey of the obstacles faced by street peddlers operating in a subway in Guangzhou, under the glare of ‘urban management’ workers. Yang’s defiance causes him to be labelled a troublemaker, but there’s little sense of capitulation to authorities, though his defiance against social norms (“I live day by day… I have no ambitions… I have no worries”) is laced with tinges of regret that he doesn’t meet society’s material expectations (“I’m nobody… I don’t own anything”). Tracing events several months back from the present day, Huang uses the reverse-chronological timeline to work his way back to an incident with wider relevance – the need for temporary resident permits, which resulted in the murder of a university graduate at the hands of police in Guangzhou.
Dir: Yang Mingming
Alluringly slippery and sly, the bluntly titled Female Directors centres on Ah-Ming (herself the film’s helmer) and Yueyue, two recent film graduates. With efforts to get their careers moving coming to nothing, it leaves the girls to turn on each other, exploring their romantic rivalry (they compare notes on an affair with the same sugar daddy with mounting tension as they toss the camera back and forth to grill one another) and artistic promise. As their tete-a-tetes become more vicious (“you’re a better actress than director”), it becomes a portrait of both a fractious friendship and a gleefully self-aware expose of hip, urbane, artistic Beijingers of the selfie generation. A documentary that has a lot of fun with ideas of veracity, on independent Chinese film’s wide docu-fiction spectrum, it places favourably on the experimental, mischevious end. You’ll want to watch it more than once.
Dir: Jian Yi
If a little wayward in focus, Super, Girls! will make the uninitiated want to scour YouTube for clips on the show its subjects are desperate to audition for: Super Girls Singing Contest, China’s exclusively female mid-00s equivalent of American Idol, a TV phenomenon, yet cancelled after this was made. Following ten girls out to win, its viewpoint shifts repeatedly, but settles on Wang Yunan, a multi-hyphenate hopeful who manages a message board for fans, runs campaigns to get contestants votes and also wants to compete herself. Super, Girls! has little footage of the show, and little of the girls’ singing, but offers intimate sideways insight into hopefuls’ lives, whether it’s a woman shown waiting for her off-screen daughter to return from a four hour roundtrip to get her ID, bitter, excitable conversations surrounding suspicions of bribery, or the popularity of androgynous contestants.
Dir: Yi Cui
Technically unfussy, Yi Cui’s Of Shadows is the centre of a trilogy bookended by the shorts Late Summer and Through the Looking Glass that look at traditional folk forms. Where Late Summer shoots the rapid get-em-in-get-em-out cycle of a working theatre and TTLG the entertainment in a Tibetan village, Of Shadows follows a shadow theatre troupe in the Huaxian county – the form’s homeland - as they are drafted to appear in a state-organised festival. Alongside these scenes (one lyric goes ‘let’s sing a song to praise development”), Yi captures the troupe’s undeniable, endearing passion for performing in villages. In one scene, they mock groups who go abroad to perform for audiences’ unaware of the tradition they are working in. It would be an exaggeration to say that the troupe are thriving (“good play, good time, life is getting sweeter” they recite at one point before wryly pondering “why is ours getting more bitter?”) but Yi refreshingly resists shaping this into a lament.