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Chinese Reality #16: San Yuan Li

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:

San Yuan Li (dirs. Ou Ning, Cao Fei)

San Yuan Li (dirs. Ou Ning, Cao Fei)

San Yuan Li 

2003. China. Directed by Ou Ning, Cao Fei.

China’s rapid modernization literally engulfs the village of San Yuan Li within the surrounding skyscrapers of Guangzhou, a city of 12 million people. The villagers, who move to a different rhythm, thriving on subsistence farming and traditional crafts, resourcefully reinvent their traditional lifestyle by tending rice paddies in empty city lots and raising chickens in makeshift rooftop coops. Led by visual artists Ou Ning and Cao Fei, a dozen videographers, including Huang Weikai, who went on to direct Disorder, collaborated on this highly stylized village-in-a-city symphony, exploring the modern paradox of China’s economic growth and social marginalization.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

[Sanyuanli] differed markedly from what was then the established forms of independent Chinese documentary. Since its emergence at the end of the 1980s, documentary produced outside the official media systems has tended towards one of two forms: either a type of direct cinema heavily indebted to the work of Frederick Wiseman; or, increasingly, a performative and interventionist cinéma vérité mode that is more redolent of the films of Jean Rouch. Despite the stylised distance of its camerawork, Sanyuanli takes its cues from neither of these documentary practices. Instead, its black-and-white aesthetic, speeded-up footage, electronic music score and rapid montage editing suggest, as Ou has acknowledged, the influence of an older tradition: the European modernist “city symphony. Indeed, the film’s first major sequence – an “entry shot” into Guangzhou, filmed from a boat travelling up the Pearl River – clearly echoes the opening of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), in which the camera enters the German capital by train.

Luke Robinson, “Alternative Archives and Individual Subjectivities.” Senses of Cinema, July 2012

If Wu Wenguang launched the New Documentary Movement by documenting avant-garde artists’ lives in Bumming in Beijing, I take Sanyuanli as a continuation from the second phase of the movement. It repeatedly emphasizes the problematic relationship of art, reality and history. It was made by a collective of avant-garde artists rather than by a single filmmaker. Also, it uses some avant-garde techniques in its filmmaking styles. For example, the beginning of the film has music but no people and no voiceover. It starts by filming the water from a boat as it approaches the city, then gradually moves to the city and then to Sanyuanli, all visual images accompanied by avant-garde music.

Lv Xinyu, “Rethinking China’s New Documentary Movement.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

The cinematic quality of San Yuan Li reflects Ou Ning’s specific interests, yet his collaboration with others, particularly the young video artist Cao Fei, adds rich visual dimensions. In her own work, Cao Fei prefers saturated technicolor and takes a tongue-in-check approach, parodying the current aspirations and lifestyles of Guangzhou’s burgeoning white-collar class. The activities of both artists, is an integral part of the creative scene in Guangzhou today where film screenings and festivals regularly attract capacity audiences from all walks of life, without parallel anywhere else in China.

Karen Smith, “The Chinese: Photography and video from China” (catalogue) , Wolfsburg Museum, Germany, 2004. Re-published on Ou Ning’s website Alternative Archive.

In 2003 an important historical event happened. After we made San Yuan Li, Nanfang Dushi Bao [Southern Metropolis Daily, a mainland newspaper famous for its investigative reporting]sponsored our retrospective of Jia Zhangke films in 2004. Then the death of the student Sun Zhigang was reported by the Southern Metropolis Daily [Sun was beaten to death while being arbitrarily detained by police in Guangzhou].

So the after that the Guangdong Government really hated the paper. They also hated the film, San Yuan Li. Actually they never saw the film, but San Yuan Li [an area in Guangzhou] had a reputation as one of the worst areas for drug abuse in China. They were afraid our film would publicise that.

Fifteen police broke into my office studio and took all my documents and DVDs. They were trying to prove U-theque was an illegal organisation – and that the Southern Metropolis Daily had supported an illegal organisation. They also wanted to take my computer but I insisted they could not take it.

Ou Ning, interviewed by Dan Edwards, Screening China, March 7 2011


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