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Chinese Reality #23: Tape

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:

Tape (dir. Li Ning)

Tape (dir. Li Ning)

Jiao dai (Tape)

2010. China. Directed by Li Ning.

Avant-garde dancer Li Ning documents five years of his struggle to balance his career as a choreographer with a dance troupe of committed college students, and his responsibilities as a son, husband, and father. The artist’s life becomes intertwined with the film and with his own obsessions. Tape utilizes a variety of approaches, including first-person documentary, guerilla street video, and even homemade CGI, to produce an uncanny portrait of a private life enacted in public.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

We can perhaps say that, though the word is derogatory in meaning, “absurdity” is indicative of China’s final arrival at the dawn of post-modernity. Perhaps no film exemplified this theme more comprehensively than Tape, contemporary avant-garde dancer Li Ning’s five year chronicle of his personal life, alternating between his struggles with two types of “family”: his oft-neglected wife, son and mother; and his enthusiastic but unstable dance troupe comprised of college students. Made amidst a massive urban renovation project performed on his hometown of Jinan, the film is a postmodernist collage of cinéma vérité-style filming of Li’s interactions with his family, direct cinema-style filming of civic incidents, such as three men holding down a woman as her store is shut down, self-reflexive confessions, scripted voice-over narration, computerized special effects, experimental mise-en-scene, dream sequences, dialectical editing, and so on. The film plays like a fever dream of the artist’s life that gradually descends into nightmare.

Isabella Tianzi Cai, dGenerate Films

Using an often hilarious and always baffling combination of dance, digital video, and computer animation, Li and his troupe enact quasi-Situationist and surely illegal interventions, often in drag or completely naked, in public spaces, in the middle of busy intersections, or amid wreckage and busted concrete. With the persistent use of the texture and sound of tape in all its forms, it’s hard not to think of Jack Smith’s Scotch Tape, but Li’s cracked self-portrait also weaves in fly-on-the-wall documentation of everyday life, burlesques of Chinese bureaucracy, and personal disclosure in its exploration of the body as a site of unconquerable self-possession.

– Cullen Gallagher, Leo Goldsmith, and Rachael Rakes, The Brooklyn Rail

The film invades privacy to the point of being provocative, as if it has given up censoring all the footage caught on the camcorder. Tape is not only a continued personal record of Li Ning; it also contains several incidents that were national issues in China. Li Ning documents the extremely important and violent conflict between the individual and the nation and also transforms them into material for performances. Li Ning took up the camera to observe the birth of a family, but as time passes and the pile of tapes grows, he must confront the numerous standards that try to confine him. This is an edgy documentary that shows both the significance and despair of an artist who is fighting against social suppression and prejudice.

Minyoung Kang, Cinefantasm

In a wonderful paradox, Li Ning has made a film that is truthful to humanity and the human experience, yet his obsession and his focus on his work has made him inept in his human relationships. This is one of the rare films that has touched me in a truly personal way, it has inspired me to just go all out with my own work. If you believe in something strong enough, truly invest yourself in the work. Which is ironic given that the film ends with the ultimate price Li Ning had to pay for his artistry.

Carlo Labrador-Panalangan, dGenerate Films

dGF: At what point did this become a difficulty? At what point did it become a problem between your mother, your wife, and yourself? In the film, sometimes they object being filmed. How did you maintain your shooting even though they were not comfortable?

Li Ning: Yesterday someone asked me something similar; it was about whether I was being harmful to my family. Fiction film directors do not have this problem because they are free to avoid it. Documentary directors cannot. I think of documentary filmmakers as people who put themselves on an altar as if they are to be sacrificed. And when they sacrifice themselves, they also sacrifice those around them like their family and friends. I think that if documentary filmmakers aren’t able to make the sacrifice, then they can’t make documentaries, unless they feel comfortable filming someone drowning while standing offshore with their cameras.

If, however, they want to film something in which they are involved, then they must be prepared to sacrifice themselves. I don’t see this psychological determination as a moral dilemma because otherwise this kind of documentary can’t be made. If someone has a video camera in hand, then it’s obligatory for him or her to show the truth – this is how I see it.

Li Ning, interviewed by Kevin B. Lee for dGenerate Films


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