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Chinese Cinema’s Future Faces The Power of the Old School

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

Candidates applying for Beijing Film Academy wait in line to submit their applications (photo: China.org.cn)


In the richly developing Chinese film landscape, from the most popular epics to the most subterranean and political indies, there’s no denying the power of the old school. Since 1950, when Beijing Film Academy (BFA) and Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama (CAD) were founded, the institution of the film academy has created an inescapable framework of production resources and human networks vital to any aspiring Chinese filmmaker. An open portal to the mainstream film industry and the guanxi system that puts Hollywood’s old boy’s network to shame, China’s elite film academies and the pedagogy therein are widely regarded as a mandatory step for any student with ambitions on either side of the camera.

From the early days of BFA and CAD and with the subsequent rise of Chuanmei Daxue (Communications University of Beijing), Chongqing University’s Meishi Film Academy, and even Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) as comparable institutions, filmmaking education has been widely regarded in China as a prescribed course with a desired outcome. At BFA – the crème-de-la-crème of China’s film academies – curriculum includes a comprehensive integration of film history and theory, practical and technical skills, and the guiding hand of state-controlled production and industry standards. BFA’s handbook specifies that graduating Directing majors “have the knowledge and capability in comprehension of literature, art theories and history; good taste in aesthetics and art appreciation; systematic knowledge of the basic rules of film and television directing; [and] video and audio expressive skills…” Beyond presenting a daunting checklist, BFA’s distinct criteria suggest that theirs is a time-tested formula ensuring that a student with these technical skills and this artistic understanding can become a successful director.

And the formula works. The connection between the film academies and China’s film industry, safeguarded by SARFT (State Authority on Radio, Film, and Television) and the guanxi network that links producers, professors, and promising students, is well evidenced by the roster of eminent filmmakers and their shared alma maters. Indeed, so ubiquitous is the Academy system in industry politics that the “generations system” implies not only a contemporary group of working artists with a common aesthetic model, but references the respective years these filmmakers graduated from BFA (i.e. “Fifth-generation” directors Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Li Shaohong, to name a few, are all 1982 BFA grads.). From the mainstream to independent, from Zhang Yimou to Jia Zhangke to Liu Jiayin, rare within the galaxy of contemporary Chinese filmmakers is an artist without some relationship to China’s film and art academy giants. In most literal terms, the film academies control the means of production.

Filmmaker Liu Jiayin, a BFA graduate, now teaches screenwriting at BFA while making independent features.


While a rejection of the numbered “generation” system is increasingly evident today (and informs the ethos of the independent “urban generation” or the “digital Generation” from which dGenerate Films takes its name), the film academy system still shadows the praxis and the resumes of numerous filmmakers working both under and aboveground today. But while film academy ideology remains steadfast amid an increasingly independent spirit, students are reconsidering the role of the film academy and their participation in an established industry. The internet and the ubiquity of foreign bootleg films in China have changed film students’ access to material and desire to emulate foreign directors and production models. Study abroad has never been more accessible to Chinese students of means and, all over China, both established and burgeoning filmmakers are seeking alternative strategies to make and distribute films. Speaking from the vantage point of recent immersion in the film academy system, China’s youngest filmmakers weigh in on familiar methodology, new artistic impulses, film studies in America and Europe, and the weighty question of independent film encouraged by independent thought – does it exist in Chinese film academies, does it have a place in the industry, and can it be taught?

STUDY ABROAD

Independent film is not always a comprehensive term, especially in China. Independent, according to the American or European model, is most often a financial and sometimes an aesthetic classifier, but the nexus of systems governing the Chinese film industry – from film Academies to guaxi to SARFT to state-controlled distribution and censorship – call into sharp question what “independent” truly means in Chinese cinema terms. “To me, independent film is something very powerful and contemporary,” said “Leo” Zhang Litao, a 24 year-old filmmaker and CAFA graduate, “but the industry and teaching methods must change.” Zhang, who is now studying video art and filmmaking in Oslo, hastens to add, “I don’t know yet if I have formed an independent way of thinking.”

In a recent LA Times article, reporter John Horn profiled Chinese students who opted to study film in the US, eschewing the intensely selective admissions process to institutions like BFA, the challenge to secure resources and recognition at Chinese film academies, and the highly controlled atmosphere for artistic production. While entering an American university or film academy still represents a significant academic and financial achievement, the criteria for admission to American or European film institutions can be markedly less merciless. Admission to any Chinese film academy is largely dependent on the same benchmark as any national college or university: a series of rigorous interviews and the outcome of the supremely competitive gaokao, the nightmare standardized exam that looms as the culmination of every Chinese high school career. The gaokao, unlike the SAT, serves a primary determinant of a student’s college admissions, and, often, by extension, their eventual career within a certain industry.

Jinan-based artist Li Ning made "Tape" well outside of the Beijing film system


Zhang’s study abroad represents a popular approach taken by students who gravitate towards independent models of production and distribution. Zhang, who said admires both the experimental documentary work of Li Ning as well as the more mainstream action fare of Jiang Wen, said “movies, especially independent movies, can unfold more powerfully than any other art form in terms of impact and staying power….but the Chinese film education system needs to be diversified, to become more modern and teach us how to make all different kinds of films.” Eventually, Zhang says he’ll return to China to work because “China’s social and artistic situation is so complex, it offers a wealth of creative motivation,” but expressed reservations about China’s “artistic complexity” being a double-edged sword.

It’s not only the absurd competition for admission to a film academy driving some students abroad, but many students shared complains about the grade-grubbing, sub-par work of their peers. Most directing majors are required to produce a short work nearly every semester, projects that are shown in informal film festivals open to peers and friends. “A lot of the student films are really a joke,” said a CAD third-year Screenwriting major who wished to remain unnamed, “Everyone’s film is at least thirty minutes or more…[but] they are not high quality and no one really has strong technical skills, but the length proves to the professor that they worked hard.”

Sean Wang, a 24-year-old Guangzhou-native and graduate of Communications University now studying at Université Paris 8, expressed his concerns with the industry’s more pragmatic problems, “I would like to see concrete and professional unions in the Chinese film industry, where filmmakers’ benefits and rights are protected. I would like to see governmental organizations encouraging filmmakers to make better, freer films. I would like to see a rating system.” Still, however, like Zhang, Wang consents that he will return to China to try and work as a filmmaker, “Making my own film and getting recognized is of course my ultimate goal…it is hard in China, but not impossible. There are a lot of compromises be made in order to get things through.”

CHINA’S YOUNGEST FILMMAKERS AND THE QUESTION OF INDEPENDENCE

At the Li Xianting Film School (photo: Gertjan Zuilhof)


While study abroad offers an intriguing alterative, the question of independent thought and developed pedagogy in Chinese film academies will not be resolved if China’s most conscientious students are simply seeking film education elsewhere. In an effort to create local, independent filmmaking, the Li Xianting Film School in Songzhuang, outside of Beijing, was established in 2008 “to explore the possibilities of filmmaking as a tool for articulating [students’] individual attitudes towards society.” (Benny Shaffer, LEAP magazine) Rarely in any Chinese academic model is the individual addressed, and by offering courses in technical aspects of filmmaking, as well as individual artistic development, the Li Xianting Film School offers a wholly unique portal for independent film education in China. In addition to exploring the local community in and around Songzhuang, Li Xianting students are also encouraged to flex their technical skills by riffing on mainstream culture – one assignment encouraged a wry re-imagining of Jiang Wen’s hugely popular epic Let the Bullets Fly.

The emphasis on filmmaking outside of prestige or industry standards flies in the face of film academy aristocracy and, also according to the aforementioned CAD third-year, the popular fashion of an entitled film school population. Speaking of the fei-zhuliu (anti-mainstream or “alternative” style)-types who have come to populate schools like CAD and BFA, “[School is] just a fashion show for them. They have no true interest in art.”

Still, individuals find their own way to reconcile the academy system. “To me, independent film is simple,” said Wang, “It means that [a film that is] self-written, directed, produced and distributed.” Still another young filmmaker and Beijing native, Wang Ruishu, 18, chose a route of stark self-reliance when she chose to pick up a camera for the first time and make a documentary about the demolition of the hutong where she grew up. “I think going to a film academy is a way to make money and get famous. I don’t value movies for this…I value movies as a means of individual expression, a way to tell your story, not as a work with monetary value,” Wang Ruishu said, “Going to a film academy is also so difficult to achieve…I chose not to pursue this because I don’t share the values of the film academies.”

The question of whether or not “independent” film can or will be taught in Chinese film academies seems almost redundant; film academies are a vital part of the economic and social industry framework and not likely to encourage models divergent from the staus quo. The idea, however, that the existence of independent film – film that differentiates itself from the mainstream in terms of funding, distribution, government ties, and aesthetic ideals – is predicated on independent thought is trickier. The goal of the academy is to prepare students for work in a niche industry and encourage success that is dependent on cooperation, but can truly independent thought be discouraged any more than it can be taught?

Independent film will continue to exist in China with or without the shadow of the film academies and with students using their education both in China and abroad to forge new production strategies. Jia Zhangke is an excellent example of someone who has played within the rules of the system – using the loopholes and resources of a structure to his advantage, contributing to the academy system, and carving out a new definition of what it means to be “independent.” As an industrial term, independent film must essentially remain outside the mainstream, but the borders of independent thought and work are yet unsettled. As one CAFA graduate who also asked not to have his name used commented, “What does independent film really mean? It doesn’t mean anything. I don’t like to limit any definition of film.”

dGenerate Films c/o Icarus Films  |  
(p) (718) 488-8900 | info@dgeneratefilms.com
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