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Chinese Reality #3: Mama

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.

Mama (dir. Zhang Zhen)

Mama (dir. Zhang Yuan)

Today’s film:

Mama 1990. China. Directed by Zhang Yuan.With Qing Yan, Xiaodan Yang.

Often cited as China’s first independent feature film, this low-budget drama, filmed largely in the director’s Beijing apartment, depicts the life of a single mother (a topic considered taboo at the time) caring for her mentally challenged son. Shot with a documentary aesthetic that includes interviews with families of mentally challenged persons, the film helped kick-start the Sixth Generation of filmmakers (including Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke) and their ethos of employing documentary realism to depict the true conditions of contemporary China.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings: 

Zhang isn’t content with showing street-level realities for their own sake; he pushes his material towards expressionism, using the mother’s inevitable mood swings as keys to the tone and texture of the images, a strategy that brings him within breathing distance of film noir by the end. China’s ‘Sixth Generation’ film-makers couldn’t have got off to a stronger start.

– Tony Rayns, Time Out

Looking back, I can say that at that time I was in a fairly depressed state of mind. 1989 was the year I graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, and almost immediately after graduation I shot this film. I felt that my work and everyday life were all shrouded under a big oppressive cloud that just weighed me down.

– Zhang Yuan, interviewed by Michael Berry, in Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers. Columbia University Press.

Zhang Yuan’s first feature film, Mama (1990) – awarded the FIPRESCI prize in Edinburgh – was hailed as “the first genuinely independent movie in China since the communists took power.” Cinephiles were also fascinated by the experimental aspect of its texture, which combines black-and-white 35mm footage for the narrative (the poignant story of the tender yet difficult relationship of a young librarian, Liang Dang, with her mentally handicapped son), video for takling-head interviews (of real mothers in similar situations), and 16mm color films for the documentary footage taken at facilities for handicapped children. For its audiences, the intimate mise-en-scene of the fictional part of the film brought to mind both Italian neorealism and the socially conscious films produced during the “golden age” of the Shanghai studio system. On the other hand, the implied social criticism of China’s lack of policies to help the families of mentally handicapped children, as well as the oppositional mode of production of the film, suggested guerrilla filmmaking at its political best. Critics pointed to “the movie’s keen sense of street level reality” and reading it as the harbinger of a new cinematic movement, identified as the “Sixth Generation.”

– Bérénice Reynaud, “Zhang Yuan’s Imaginary Cities.” In The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Zhang Zhen. Published by Duke University Press, 2007.

Mama demonstrated that it was possible to make a 35mm feature film entirely outside the studio system. Although registered with the Xi’an Studio (which provided no financial support), the film was not widely distributed in China. It was screened at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York and at the Asian American Film Festival in Washington, DC. The film’s exhibition at such politically significant rather than glamorous venues initiated a practice associated with Zhang Yuan in particular, and with the Sixth Generation in general. Without sponsorship and evading the restrictions set by the Chinese government, Zhang Yuan and other independent filmmakers have actively sought to connect with an alternative, international film culture centered around festivals and art-house theatres. Indeed, such conscious connection with this international circuit, together with the promotion, albeit with mixed motives, by foreign critics and cinephiles fascinated with contemporary Chinese cinema, has contributed to the critical success of Sixth Generation cinema abroad.

– Zhang Zhen, “Zhang Yuan.” From Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Edited by Yvonne Tasker. Published by Routledge.


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