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CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Chris Berry

Chris Berry

dGenerate Films is pleased to introduce CinemaTalk, an ongoing series of conversations with esteemed scholars of Chinese cinema studies. These conversations will be presented on this site in audio podcast and/or text format. They are intended to help the Chinese cinema studies community keep abreast of the latest work being done in the field, as well as to learn what recent Chinese films are catching the attention of others. This series reflects our mission to bring valuable resources and foster community around the field of Chinese film studies.

For our first CinemaTalk, we spoke with Chris Berry, Professor of Film and Television Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. Some of Chris’ work includes:

  1. Author, Cinema and the National: China on Screen (Columbia University Press and Hong Kong University Press, 2006) with Mary Farquhar

  2. Author, Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: The Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2004)

  3. Editor (with Ying Zhu), TV China (Indiana University Press, 2008)

  4. Editor, Chinese Films in Focus II (British Film Institute, 2008)

  5. Editor (with Feii Lu), Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005)

  6. Editor (with Fran Martin and Audrey Yue), Mobile Cultures: New Media and Queer Asia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003)

  7. Translator and Editor, Ni Zhen’s Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Origins of China’s Fifth Generation Filmmakers (Duke University Press, 2002)

  8. Author, “Imaging the Globalized City: Rem Koolhaas, U-thèque, and the Pearl River Delta,” in Cinema at the City’s Edge, edited by Yomi Braester and James Tweedie (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, forthcoming), part of a series TransAsia: Screen Cultures, co-edited by Chris Berry and Koichi Iwabuchi

Kevin Lee, dGenerate’s VP of Programming of Education, spoke with Chris about various topics from his current work and areas of focus, to comparisons between contemporary Chinese cinema and the Fifth Generation filmmakers whom he helped to champion in the 1980s and 1990s, to which recent Chinese films that have excited him the most.

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Full transcript follows after the break.

dGF: With what sort of activities are you presently involved in terms of your work with Chinese film?

CB: There are two or three projects, one of which is finishing an anthology on independent documentary in China, which I’m co-editing with Lu Xinyu (Fudan University) and Lisa Rofel (UC Santa Cruz). And that’s been in gestation for a long time. I think that it reflects the fact that for me independent documentary has been the most powerful force in Chinese film for quite a long time now, not only in the documentaries themselves but also in their impact on the style of most interesting fiction feature films. So when you think about someone like Jia Zhangke, who in fact crosses both documentary making and fiction filmmaking, he would be exemplary of what I’m talking about.

And then together with Koichi Iwabuchi (Waseda University), we’ve been co-editing a series of books with Hong Kong University Press that tries to emphasize the idea of trans-Asian screen cultures. I think that’s because we’ve been interested to notice how first of all cultures these days often cut across particular media, but they also cut across borders. So there are many Asian regional phenomena that are probably not very well known outside Asia, but form a kind of Asian metropolitan popular cultural circuit that needs more analysis. To be honest we haven’t been doing enough of that, but we’ve been eager to try to create a space with this series for younger scholars to publish. We just have a couple of books out there; there are more on the way. We’ve got a manuscript at the moment on Korean masculinity and how images of Korean masculinity have not only been shaped by the consumption of Korean masculinity outside Korea. So people like Bae Yong Joon and pop star Rain, who are big in the Asian region, and whose images are formed by that kind of regional consumption, as well as Korean local consumption.

dGF: These strike me as two contrasting areas of study, because Chinese documentaries to me are very specifically focused on local phenomena within China. Of course you can infer these global trans-developments or thematic significances from them, but they are still very locally-based. Whereas this other project you are involved in is acknowledging how the Asian identity is this confluence of different regional influences. You had me thinking of transnational film productions like Chen Kaige’s The Promise.

CB: Right. There’s another manuscript on that actually, which is under consideration at the moment. And then there’s another one on the Pusan International Film Festival and its regional focus on Asia. Yes, you are right in a way, but I would say that although these Chinese documentaries seem to be very local, the culture around them is much more international than it might first appear.

The films themselves, and also their subject matter, are in many ways quite local, but I would say that the aesthetics that have become dominant in these films grow out of Chinese directors in the 1990s coming into contact with both American so-called “direct cinema”, which is sort of a fly-on-the-wall observational mode without any voiceover, without any music, and also French cinéma vérité-style documentary, which again is also observational but where the filmmakers themselves are much more part of what’s going on, maybe on screen, maybe talking directly to people and so on. And these two styles, along with the Japanese director Ogawa Shinsuke, who pursues similar kinds of things but very much focused on social issues and social concerns, and he’s the person behind the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival, which is huge in Asia. These three international forces shaped this Chinese documentary culture.

Furthermore, given the situation within China, where it’s quite difficult for these films to be screened, the films very often find an informal audience inside China. But they also circulate quite strongly internationally, and often are made with international documentary film festivals in mind because of the awareness that is one of the main sort of sites that they are going to be shown in. So even though the topics may be very local, the culture itself is quite transnational, I think.

dGF: It seems that there’s more audience definitely abroad, and within China, it’s a very specific, and some would say narrow, audience of enthusiasts of Chinese documentary and any sort of social documentation of what’s going on in China, so you have these clusters of film festivals here and there.

CB: And you’ve got to remember that within China, these films do not go through the censorship process, and therefore cannot be shown on television, and cannot be screened commercially. So what you say there about the audience is correct, but there are some structuring factors that also help to determine narrow availability to audiences.

dGF: It raises the question that has lingered throughout Chinese cinema since the Fifth Generation: who are these movies being made for? There has been skepticism about these films being pitched towards an audience that is inherently looking for critical content about China. Do you see that as a continuation in some thematic ways between what happened in the Fifth Generation and what’s going on today?

CB: Well, I do see there is a continuation in a certain sense. I don’t accept the argument that these films are made for foreigners or people who want to knock China or all the other kinds of things that get trotted out against them of that nature. I do accept the argument that this is part of the process of moving away from a mass audience towards a more diversified set of audiences and a more diversified set of productions. Different people are interested in different things. I think the same kinds of people in China like these films as those overseas. Whether we are talking about Fifth Generation films or whether we talking about independent Chinese documentaries, they are not going to be on in your multiplex, and they are not going to be screening on Time-Warner TV in America. I just think that there is room for a variety of different audiences, and I do think that it is good to have cinematic forms that encourage critical thinking. By critical, I don’t necessarily mean negative, I just mean analytical thought.

dGF: You really were one of the key figures in bringing the Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation to attention. Contextualizing your work within this new generation of filmmaking, when did it really become apparent to you that there is some really significant work being done with independent documentaries?

CB: Well pretty soon after they began in the early 1990s, actually. I think for me, Wu Wenguang’s films were the first ones that really started to come to light outside China. I do remember watching Bumming in Beijing back in the early 1990s at the Hawaii Film Festival. But I also remember seeing Duan Jinchuan’s Tibet Trilogy, and that was the moment when I thought that there’s obviously more going on, not just one person. No. 16 Barkhor South Street was just a remarkably accomplished film, and very very polished as well. So that was the point where it became more exciting. You saw on film a China that you had not seen on film before. And this is quite immediately striking.

There were similar things in some of the feature films coming out the same time, like Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards. And then of course Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan cooperated to make The Square, which I think was in 1994. You saw the situation where the Sixth Generation feature film makers and these documentary film makers often overlapped, and moved back and forth between feature films and documentary. And it became very clear quite quickly that a sort of on-the-spot documentary aesthetic was driving both sets of films. That’s what I meant about the idea that in my opinion this aesthetic has been the most interesting thing that’s been going on for the last 15 years.

dGF: Has it seemed pretty consistent to you over the last 15 years or are you seeing there are mutations?

CB: There are lots of changes and the main thing is diversification. Before 1997 when the DV camera arrived in China, as it did in the rest of the world, most of the people involved in making these films had backgrounds in television or in filmmaking. It would be hard to have access to the equipment without that background and it would be hard to use it without that training. Once the home DV camera arrived, everything changed because it became a lot easier to use, became much affordable to a larger spectrum of people, and you started to see all kinds of people getting involved in documentary. As a result, the strict observational direct cinema aesthetic that was dominant in the early years began to disappear, so that you would see more variety of forms. You would see in some cases a return to more television documentary aesthetics. In other cases you might see more personal or biographical filmmaking. And there was certainly a shift around the end of the decade from looking at social issues towards what in China people talk about as personal filmmaking. But personal doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical. It meant more filmmaking about individual people; whereas that individual person might also embody a social issue, but they might also be much more focused on them as individuals. This has been observed in particular by a scholar who is now in Nottingham University in England, called Luke Robinson, who did his PhD on that particular shift.

Now having said all that, what’s going on right now? I still see a lot of observational filmmaking, but I also I suppose I see also more of an interest again in the kind of ethnographic filmmaking that we maybe not have seen so much of up until recently with people moving off to China’s margins, if you like, and working on various kinds of, not only ethnic minorities, but also unusual cultural phenomena.

dGF: I’ve seen several documentaries about drug addicts, AIDS victims, and homeless migrants.

CB: Right, exactly. Right through from the end of the last decade, there has been a big focus on social margins, and also now more and more focus on subculture around that. The other big change, the other big thing that has been happening in the last 2 or 3 years in documentary, has been oral history, with some people like Hu Jie.

dGF: You’re referring to a film like Though I Am Gone.

CB: Yes. And also someone like Wang Bing’s He Fengming. I think those films are very interesting to me because they are very touchy and they are very sensitive issues. I think the authorities have been quite willing to accept almost any kind of socially marginal group appearing in the film, or social problem or social issues. But Communist Party history somehow has been off-limits, and still probably is in many ways, I think.

dGF: One of dGenerate Films’ titles, San Yuan Li by Ou Ning and Cao Fei, is the subject of an upcoming essay of yours to be published. Can you talk briefly about the essay and your interest in the film San Yuan Li?

CB: San Yuan Li, as well as Ou Ning’s Meishi Street [another dGenerate title], are really interesting examples of the kind of diversification I was just talking about. I wrote about the first film in a book called At the City’s Edge, edited by Yomi Braester and James Tweedie, coming out soon from Hong Kong University Press. Both films are in that on-the-spot documentary mode, but with a difference. That’s probably because of Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s art background.

The first film is very much a montage piece about an area of Guangzhou called Sanyuanli. It’s full of historical significance, because according to legend (or maybe even history!) it was the village that resisted the British during the Opium Wars. Now it’s a “village in the city” in Guangzhou, near the railway station, and a real rabbit warren. In China, it’s notorious for crime, and at first Ou and Cao approach it from a distance. But by the end of the film, scenes with people posing for the camera suggest that they have made some contact with the locals after all! The film is an explicit homage to Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a City, and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. So, the film seems to suggest that Chinese cities are going through another period of tumultuous change and remapping, a bit like German and Russian cities in the early twentieth century.

Meishi Street is about local inhabitants resisting the redevelopment of a neighborhood in Beijing. If San Yuan Li was distanced, it goes in the opposite direction, because they get one of the local inhabitants to help them document what’s going on. It’s very emotional!

dGF: In the last two or three years, what are some films you’ve seen that have excited you the most, or that you are most fascinated by?

CB: Though I Am Gone I think is an incredibly powerful film, and probably to me is Hu Jie’s best film yet. And I think it’s remarkable not only because of what it documents, but also because of the way in which the subject himself went out. I mean how many people who have been phoned and told, “Your wife’s dying in a hospital,” would go and pick up the camera on the way to the hospital? Especially at a time and place when buying and owning a camera was quite a difficult thing. Obviously, he had this urge to document, and so the film becomes a kind of meta-commentary on itself, on the importance of documentation in terms of featuring the issue of justice and all of that. I find that very powerful because it has become not just about a particular case but about the importance of documentary in general.

I think the same of He Fengming, and I like that film again because of the way in which Wang Bing’s decision to just set the camera up and let her talk speaks to the importance of witnessing with old people. And you think of how most oral history films will somehow feel the urge of adding archival footage to go to the place the person is talking about, on the assumption that just sitting there and listening to somebody is not enough, that people can find it boring. I think He Fengming somehow insists that you witness, you bear witness.

Then, I think the other thing that I find exciting is Jia Zhangke’s films and the way in which Jia Zhangke is responding to the need to, on the one hand maintain his aesthetics, and on the other hand do new things. And I’ve been interested in some of his films like Useless, the way in which some things are clearly staged. And then when you look at 24 City, you’ve got this involvement of these stars who perform like the regular workers who have been interviewed. Some people found seeing Joan Chen doing her “Joan Chen” thing, as a supposed worker from Shanghai, irritating. They thought that it trivializes the interviews with the real workers. I thought it works to make us conscious of how the truth is something that is also performed and narrated, a told story.

dGF: One question I have for you when you raise that criticism of Joan Chen is, were those Chinese viewers or non-Chinese viewers who made that point? Because the film raises this issue of multiple spectators, and the very different responses and the knowledge they bring to watch the film, because a lot of people outside of China don’t even recognize any of these actors except for Joan Chen.

CB: That’s right. There’s something very ironic and weird about it because out of the four actors, Joan Chen is the only one who is able to perform her role with the appropriate accent. Lu Liping for example, does her role in standard Beijing Chinese. She’s a very good actress. I think she performs the role very well in many ways, but a number of Chinese people have said to me, that they thought that was odd. She was a little bit vocally too good. And Zhao Tao, somehow a lot of people didn’t feel she was quite believable or something. Whether that was just because they were just too conscious of recognizing her, I don’t know.

So the person who complained to me about the idea that they didn’t like it because they thought it implicitly trivialized the “real people” in the film (Joan Chen is a real person too!), that person was actually somebody who is a westerner but knows quite a lot about Chinese film. But I agree with you. But on the other hand, the Chinese people I spoke to who didn’t like it – some like it and some don’t – they mostly seem to be concerned about the accent. This is interesting because it echoes some of the criticisms that were made for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where it was about the poor Mandarin of some of these actors.

I agree with you that for many international viewers, they, probably apart from Joan Chen, they probably won’t necessarily recognize the other actors. They may just believe that they are totally real people. I think I’m fine with all of these except for Joan Chen, and that is just because I think she is too iconic or something. So it is a mistake to think that she can disappear into the part.

dGF: But is it even Jia Zhangke’s intention to make her disappear?

CB: Good question. I don’t know. Maybe not.

dGF: And the fact that it is Joan Chen, it harkens back to the more conventional forms of the Communist-era film that will glorify the anonymous labor force by casting them as someone like Joan Chen.

CB: Well, she only did a couple of those. She would like me to emphasize that she is not that old! She did one or two roles in the late ’70s when she first started, but then she went to the States. She was very young when she first began. She did this role where she played a deaf telegraph operator, a deaf girl who really wants to learn how to become a telegraph operator in order to overcome her disability, in order to serve the nation, serve the party and so on. But really that was the only role I think she played that was like that.

Of the four actors, she is the one who is a real star, in the sense that she carries the star persona into her films. Whereas Zhao Tao and Lu Liping and Chen Jianbin, they don’t have a sense of persona necessarily that they carry in their films. But she does.

dGF: I think the film in that way is actively asking the question of that mode of cinema, that more conventional mainstream, what role or place it has in this more supposedly more authentic direct cinema mode. It’s a very stimulating clash of the two different modes of filmmaking.

CB: I think he’s been doing this for a long time. I mean if you go back to something like Platform, it not an accident; it’s about a bunch of performers. So this idea of the reality and performance.

dGF: And even Xiao Wu I find fascinating. It’s about someone who’s continuously trying to redefine their role, a social role they perform. The film changes from one genre to another as well.

Since we are talking about narrative films, 24 City, you can say, is a half-narrative film, but are there other narrative films in the last two or three years that have excited you? Because that was really where the action was for many years in Chinese cinema.

CB: Yeah, not so much recently. I mean I’m interested intellectually in the fact that Chinese fiction filmmaking is in a state of revival. In 2002, whenever it was that China entered the WTO, there was a kind of panic, and the sense that the Chinese film industry was doomed. But in fact after the really terrible decade of 1990s, when I believe 70 percent of Chinese movie theaters closed, there’s now an active program of building new cinemas, renovating cinemas, and the number of Chinese films and the percentage of the box office taken by the domestic productions, is going steadily up. So we have a very interesting situation where Chinese cinema is responding to this challenge, if you will, no doubt aided in some ways by government policy. It is in a state of revival.

Now, having said that, a lot of the films that I’m seeing do not excite me. A lot of them seem to me like low budget versions of Hollywood films set in China. There’s clearly a strategy on the part of Chinese filmmakers, where a certain contingent of Chinese filmmakers are saying “What’s the point of getting international awards if there is no longer a market for art-house films in the west, or anywhere in the world? Because as we know, art-house screens are disappearing in the world. We cannot sustain that. We have to take seriously our local market. We have to get back in touch with the audiences. And we have to make commercial cinema that they will enjoy.”

So I think that’s what is going on behind the production of films like The Matrimony, this pseudo-horror film that was quite successful a couple of years ago, and so on. Companies like Hua Yi Brothers and other big private companies, which now really do dominate the market and have taken over completely from the state studios, are pursuing this kind of filmmaking. Personally, I don’t find the films terribly exciting. But that doesn’t mean to say I don’t understand why they are doing it, and I also agree with the importance of having a significant local commercial industry. Otherwise you end up with the situation like Taiwan, where it’s very difficult to keep everything going because basically they don’t have a production base any more. I think that’s a very interesting phenomenon, I just don’t particularly like the films.

On the other hand, in the independent cinema, I suppose I got very tired in the last few years that everything seems to be a Jia Zhangke wanna-be film. This is a very cruel way of putting it. Many of the films are quite good in many ways. But it’s like they are all sub-Jia Zhangke. Now I suppose someone like Ying Liang has come along. There are also various films that are coming more out of the fine art world, and more sort of avant-garde experimental in style. I haven’t been blown away by any of these films yet, personally. But I think it’s good that it’s happening, and I think it’s good to see that kind of diversification. Hopefully that will open up in new directions. Those films are very often completely not influenced by this on-the-spot documentary style. And Ying Liang, I don’t know what you say his mode is. Folk opera-amateur mode? I don’t know.

dGF: That’s an interesting way putting it.

CB: But nonetheless I appreciate the fact that it is something different.

dGF: There is no shortage of these films coming out so one is due to change the landscape. It’s interesting that you said Jia Zhangke has such an influence, which I think is true. But it’s a matter of time before that becomes a convention that a new generation of directors will be working actively against.

CB: Yeah. I think it has reached that point. That’s necessary at this point. Having said that, when I was in Beijing last summer I saw a film set in the Northeast, which was very much in this kind of Jia Zhangke mode. I thought everything about it was good except for that. I remember just feeling like the film was not going to get the attention that it deserves because people would just label it in that way. So it’s a very difficult challenge, I think, for filmmakers to figure out how to do something that they feel is authentic to them, and at the same time it’s not just falling into that mode.


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