MUBI Notebook on Chinese Indie Cinema; <i>Fortune Teller</i> Named Best of Vancouver Film Fest
Fortune Teller (dir. Xu Tong)
Over at the MUBI Notebook, one of the leading sites for writing on cinema, editor Daniel Kasman offers his report on the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival, in which he names Xu Tong’s independent documentary Fortune Teller “the best film I saw this year at VIFF.” Fortune Teller was a prize-winner at the 2010 Beijing Independent Documentary Festival, but has yet to premiere in the United States, a fact that we are working to rectify within the near future. Read critic and VIFF programmer Shelly Kraicer’s description of the film, expanded from the VIFF Dragons and Tigers program notes.
Kasman’s report opens into an extended meditation on the historical significance of the current Chinese independent cinema, comparing it to the classic Hollywood productions of the 1930s. Most of his reflections on the topic are reproduced below:
“The similarity I see between, say, an American film from the 1930s and a independent Chinese film from 2010, like Fortune Teller, a documentary that was the best film I saw this year at VIFF, is the understanding of filmmakers-producers that one’s country has a significant population, a population whose stories should be told and to whom stories about that population should be told.
American cinema has long since lost the desire as well as the general ability to be about Americans (except tepidly, inherently, generally), but contemporary non-mainstream Chinese cinema seems positively ravenous to rove across its massive countryside to find all manners of people and stories, their spaces, habits, and manners. One of the main differences is address: old American cinema was “about the people” (often cynically and calculatedly so), but this was more often than not because it was for the people: relatable, common stories for a mass, common audience. Current Chinese cinema, though, at least the kind I’m talking about, presumably has an audience primarily of overseas festival goers, and if they’re lucky, a slightly broader address via local distribution inside China as well as outside it. (Who, for example, will see Wang Bing’s films? Or the 6-hour documentary Karamay, which also played at VIFF?)
It’s a limitation of audience, to be sure; but the trade for a smaller audience is a greater freedom of expression. A man and his movie camera can go out and make a three hour treatise on a single person’s livelihood in the countryside, step out the country, and through the projector’s rays throw a light across national borders that has been cast from a common element, yet one also cast with a precision from which emerges insight, poetry, and something both human and social…
Showing a film like Fortune Teller isn’t simply cultural exchange but rather a revelation that this is a time in the history of a national cinema where there is an avid desire to record the work and lives of its people. The motivation may have changed from that of the 1920s in America, but in a way the results are similar: small people doing their own small things from which cinema expresses a dignity, beauty, and realism in its preference for exact social detail and small local observations, material interactions with the world around regular people and the jobs they do, daily struggle and hard-earned smiles. The cinema world has changed – these are no longer fiction, they are no longer coming from a place that they are also addressing as an audience – but it certainly is a relief seeing not just a reference but an honest passion to understand film in 2010 as a popular art form, a popular medium. “Popular” perhaps now meaning something different – related to populace and population rather than popularity – but something still with meaning and still attached to my favorite art of them all.”