Chinese Reality #4: Fuck Cinema
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.
Fuck Cinema (dir. Wu Wenguang)
Cao ta ma de dianying (Fuck Cinema)
2005. China. Directed by Wu Wenguang.
This unflinching x-ray of show business, worthy of Billy Wilder, is an odyssey through the dark side of Chinese underground cinema. The film follows a young man from the countryside trying to break into the movies as an actor and screenwriter, a series of young women auditioning for the coveted role of a movie prostitute, and a pirate DVD seller hounded by the police. With this fresh crop of lost dreamers seeking success in the culture industry, Wu offers a pointedly cynical update to his Bumming in Beijing while exposing the exploitive undercurrent of Chinese independent filmmaking—including his own.
Excerpts from select reviews and writings:
A pioneer of Chinese independent documentary, Wu Wenguang follows an impoverished migrant worker who is desperately pitching his amateur screenplay in Beijing. Wu sometimes places himself in front of the camera and is relentless in depicting the film world as more deceiving than alluring. His critical self-reflexivity establishes the film as both documentation and performance, thereby encouraging the view to explore a new ethics of the self vis-à-vis the other.
– Zhang Yingjin, ChinaFile
Wu’s documentary lens provides a cynical reflection on the dissonance between the fantasies and pursuit of pleasure that the Chinese mass media engenders in many of its consumers and the alarming lack of agency that governs many of those consumers’ sense of the everyday. But Wu is equally critical of those who have migrated to the city in hopes of breaking into the industry as he is of the producers of these cinematic confections. In the prostitute casting session, the male voice that orders aspiring actresses to remove their outer layer of clothing remains off-screen, but the camera echoes his lascivious gaze. The framing simultaneously mocks the duped auditioner and the film producer, leaving open for now the question of how Wu’s own posititionality as observer aligns on this axis of power. That question is clarified later when one of his subjects reads aloud for the camera his reflections on his relationship with Wu. “Some people asked: Wu Wenguang is making a documentary about you, you are working as an extra for him, how much does he pay you per day? I pondered this for a moment.”
– Jason Fox, “The Present Generation.” The Brooklyn Rail.
Wu looked pained as he told me that he has always cut himself out of the films he made. But after six months of editing Fuck Cinema this way, he thought, “OK, I have to be honest. The young people who want to be successful in movies, I was one of them. I’m also using these people for my purpose. I can’t take myself out of the movie.” So he began re-editing, this time incorporating the footage of himself. “It was hard for me, something like feeling naked,” he admits. “People can see who is really Wu Wenguang.” Wu says he found the process exciting, and that it allowed him to finish the film. But the experience of being confronted by his subject’s pain at the “lens that Wu points at me like a gun” has radically changed Wu’s approach to filmmaking. To him, after Fuck Cinema, the most important thing has become to help people express themselves. “It was bothering me to take from people, but never give back,” he observes. “More and more I work as an educator,” empowering and training others to make films.
– Lisa Leeman, Documentary.org
In the first version of Fuck Cinema, Wu had edited out not only every utterance of his voice, but also every allusion to his presence. He later changed his mind, and produced a second version. Here, his presence is readily acknowledged by both the main subject of the film, Wang Zhutian, and the people he encounters while being followed by the camera. However, he remains silent, a fact that becomes more and more meaningful as the piece unfolds… Wu’s silences open a gap in the increasingly garrulous continuum of sound and images with which we are saturated. They bore a (sometimes uncomfortable) hole within th cinematic field, splitting the subject from his/her discourse, and the spectator from an uncritical belief in “the Truth” of what is shown. They open a space in which there is room for unaccounted-for voices, as well as for hard questions about the nature of the filmmaking process, and ultimately, our roles speaking subjects.
– Berenice Reynaud, “Translating the Unspeakable.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
It was interesting to learn that Fuck Cinema had a number of earlier working titles–What is Cinema? and What is Film? Wu Wenguang came up with the new title at the Tokyo Film Festival after a bunch of filmmakers were complaining about the awards ceremony at which one lucky person received the top monetary award of $200,000. The entire table of unhappy, rejected international filmmakers were exclaiming, “Fuck the festival,” “Fuck the juries,” “Fuck the director.” And at that moment the final title for Wu’s documentary was conceived.
– Charles Musser, “Wu Wenguang at NYU, December 4 2011”
Having removed myself from the usual orbit of a “bunch of people eating, drinking and working together for the sake of the film,” I have become an individual with a DV camera, filming anything I please that happens to wander into my line of vision, whether or not it has anything to do with the “theme” of the film. I then edit the material however I like, rather than having to follow a careful plan. Finally, when the film is finished, I have a few screenings and discussions in universities, bars, film festivals, libraries, and so on. Because this approach does not cost much money, I do not really care whether or not it turns a profit. Maybe this is what is meant by individual filmmaking.” The result of this way of doing things is that I have moved farther and farther away from “professionalism,” television, film festival competitions and awards. but I have moved closer and closer to myself, my own inner world. As a result I have finally come to understand that “independent filmmaking” and “free cinema” are not just so-called standpoints that can be realized through “manifestos” or “position statements,” or the attitude that you can live off one or two films for the rest of your life. Given the “investigative” and commercial imperatives that filmmakers are surrounded by these days, if I brag emptily about my relationship to documentaries, I can only speak about DV. I should also say that I want to thank DV; it was DV that saved me, that allowed me to maintain kind of personal relationship to documentary making, and made it far more than just an identity.
– Wu Wenguang, “DV: Individual Filmmaking.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.