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American Idol as… Underground Cinema?

Jian Yi filming Super, Girls!

Jian Yi behind the scenes of Super, Girls!

Recent d(igital)-generation films are considered “underground” not only due to subject matter. More often than not their production methodology helps define their independence. This is part of a series looking behind the scenes of Digital Underground in the People’s Republic.

It’s true that one standing trope of “underground” Chinese films is a fascination with life on the margins. These are the folks who don’t get any screen time in glossy studio pics – ethnic populations, village life, orphans, petty criminals, drug addicts, homeless migrants, and the list goes on. So it’s more than a little surprising to come across an underground film that takes ten average Chinese female teenagers as its subject. Add to that the inclusion of the wildly popular Chinese version of American Idol, and the choice of subject matter is even more startling.

But this is exactly what Jian Yi, director of the documentary Super, Girls!, did. He figured that the margins weren’t the only populations ignored in mainstream cinema. So Jian Yi picked up his digital camera and, without authorization from the Chinese government or the sponsoring television station for that matter, headed down to the regional auditions for the television contest Super Girl.

The documentary doesn’t get any closer to the closed-room auditions than the waiting room television screen. We also watch the television contest play out on screens across public plazas or from the nosebleed seats in the auditorium. But the real access comes in watching the individual contestants. Owing to a confluence of factors – consumer-sized digital cameras, interview subjects already seeking fame and screen time, and an unassuming filmmaker presence – Jian Yi exposes the modern Chinese female teenage psyche like nothing else that’s come before. Girls talk freely about their boredom, their desires and their realities while performing ballads and hip-hop to Jian Yi’s camera. And the camera takes it all in, allowing us, the viewers, to parse the meaning of the androgynous teens who make the finals and the obsessed fan clubs that organize street campaigns around each finalist.

In the end, Super Girl cause the largest unofficial democratic election in China, ever. Over 800 million text messages were sent in for the season’s finale, watched by 400 million viewers. That’s more people than in the entire U.S. The Chinese government banned the show shortly after it’s 2006 second season, but not before Jian Yi got it all on tape.

Postscript: The Super Girl television show re-emerged in 2009 as Happy Girls.


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