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Chinese Reality #8: The Other Bank

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.

The Other Bank (dir. Jiang Yue)

The Other Bank (dir. Jiang Yue)

Today’s film:

Bi an (The Other Bank)

1994. China. Directed by Jiang Yue.

Young students from across the country are invited to Beijing to perform a play written by future Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian. The film documents their feverishly intense rehearsals, the phenomenal public reception of their performances, and their desperate attempts to sustain their euphoria and pursue artistic careers in Beijing. With its heartbreaking climactic performance, this is a penetrating reflection on the transformative effects of art (both theater and documentary film), and a portrait of a generation’s quest to find fulfillment in 1990s China.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings: 

“Jiang Yue’s work The Other Bank is a watershed moment in the transformation of the positions, perpsectives and methods of the New Documentary Movement.”

– 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.

Fudan University professor Lv Xinyu relates an anecdote that suggests a fascinating shift in concern between the underground documentaries of the early 1990s and those of more recent years. One of the main subjects of Wu Wenguang’s documentary Bumming in Beijing (1990), a theater director named Mou Sen, attracted the attention of another documentarian, Jiang Yue. Mou was staging the experimental play The Other Bank in Beijing and had recruited a group of teenagers from rural areas to serve as his cast; Jiang was recording the proceedings.

After a break in the shooting, Jiang returned to the cast and crew to find a situation that made him deeply uneasy. Mou Sen ran into problems with funding sources for the continuation of the project, and he was having trouble feeding and housing the teenagers in his care. With regard to the predicament of these teenagers, who were enthusiastic, not particularly privileged economically or well-educated, and utterly unfamiliar with Beijing, Mou displayed a callousness that shocked Jiang Yue. Mou allegedly remarked dismissively that the actors did not interest him, since they were incapable of understanding the deconstructionist ideas behind his play, and he suggested to one of the broke teenager girls that she prostitute herself. After these episodes, Jiang Yue decided to move the focus of his documentary away from Mou and the play and toward the young people in its cast instead. The film that resulted, also called The Other Bank, was completed in 1995. Lv opines that this anecdote “reflects a transformation in [Jiang’s] position.” From the perspective of this chapter, it is a telling transformation indeed – a shift in focus, prompted by a sense of moral outrage, from the established professional artist (and not just any professional artist, but one whose voice and image had helped bring to life the Chinese underground documentary movement) to the amateurs over whom he held a not-entirely-benevolent power.

– Valerie Jaffee, “The Ambivalent Cult of Amateur Art in New Chinese Documentaries”. In From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China, Paul Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang, eds. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

In the blurred and heterogeneous grouping of nonfiction film, theorists have tried to draw some divisions and have often separated the avant-garde or experimentalist cinema, which often uses surrealist and abstract images, from the documentary, which relies on a more realistic style. The Other Bank challenges this division by inserting an art video in a documentary production and by using the avant-garde play to comment on the actors’ “real” life, complicating the meaning of reality and its representation even further.

Performance art is by definition an ephemeral art that only exists in the present, and Peggy Phelan argues that performance “cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representation of representations”. What, ultimately, is the film The Other Bank documenting? Berenice Reynaud writes that upon her first viewing of some of the documentaries mentioned above, she had the sensation of watching the documentary form being (re)created before her eyes; in The Other Bank, as well as in films like Dance for Farm Workers, we of course have the sense of the documented – the subject of the film – being created as the film unfolds, to the point where the documentary form and the dance/performance form are inseparable, part of the same creative impulse. This impulse, then, is the very act of ‘performative writing,’ producing a document that does not just explain or describe, but rather acts, or, to paraphrase J.L. Austin, “does something with words” and images.


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