On the Road: Post WTO New Chinese Cinema
By Tianqi Yu
Originally published on ArtinChina issue 3
Chinese version published on Contemporary Art and Investment, 2011 June issue
Republished with permission of the author
The International Conference “New Generation Chinese Cinema: Commodity of exchange” took place at King’s College London on 26th and 27th May 2011. It is regarded as the first international conference that focuses solely on contemporary Chinese cinema in the UK.
The conference focuses on how China’s market forces and new eco-political role on the global stage have impact on Chinese cinema from the year 2000 onwards. It aims to explore a diverse range of films, from commercial Chinese blockbusters to regional films; from popular genre waves to avant-garde art works; from ethnographic documentaries to amateur works that use digital filming techniques, to examine how these films are exchanged as commodities within the global and local film festival circuits and markets.
The conference was initiated by three PhD students researching on Chinese cinema in London: Keith Wagner and Luke Vulpiani from King’s College London, and myself Tianqi Yu, from University of Westminster. For both domestic and international audiences alike, Chinese cinema has played an indispensable and compelling role in understanding the rapid transformation of contemporary Chinese society. For international audiences, their encounter with Chinese cinema has gone through a discursive process. Typically, international audiences first got to know Chinese language films through the Hong Kong martial art films that dominated local video and DVD stores. Recent Chinese blockbuster films, such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero recaptured international attention on Chinese cinema in the new millennium. After the Kung Fu films and the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºFifth Generation’ cinema, the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºSixth Generation’ filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke refreshed the global view on Chinese cinema through international film festivals and art house cinema.
The political economy of film production and exhibition, as well as the film texts reflect the social economic transition brought about under the fundamental reorientation of Chinese economy to a neoliberal model. We believe it is time for a new conceptualization of Chinese cinema, to understand the new film culture. Throughout the conference, the four Chinese cinema experts lead the debates through inspiring and stimulating keynote speeches. These included Professor Chris Berry (Goldsmith College London/ IFK, Vienna), Professor Yomi Braester (University of Washington), Professor Zhang Zhen (New York University), and Professor Julian Stringer (University of Nottingham). Twenty-three scholars and PhD students presented papers in 7 panels. Mostly based in the UK or USA institutions, these scholars are mainly of Chinese, British, American, Italian and Korean nationalities. Two recent independent films, the award-winning fiction Good Cat (2008) by the young promising talent Ying Liang, and the experimental first person documentary Martian Syndrome (2010) by an amateur filmmaker Xue Jianqiang were screened to the delegates and local audiences.
Taking various perspectives, the conference papers examined new Chinese cinema both textually and contextually: some examined new aesthetics, new genres and directors, others explored the political economy of film (co)productions, and exhibitions that have forged new forms of cultural space and networks. As a co-organizer and a participant of this conference, I observed three main themes devolved from the discussions.
1. Approaching cinema as a culture: New studies on Film Festivals, screening space, and film reception
The rise of trans-border Chinese cinema shaped by international film festivals in the PRC
Professor Chris Berry, one of the most well-known Chinese cinema scholars, and one of the first to introduce Chinese cinema studies to the Western academic world, gave a plenary keynote. He examined how international film festivals in the PRC have contributed to the emergence of Chinese trans-border cinema. This opening speech demonstrates one of the key features of recent Chinese film studies (also film studies in general), which is the shift from approaching film texts, to taking cinema as a culture. By positioning this ongoing study in the field of film festival studies, Berry argued that there has been a lack of scholarly publications on Asian film festivals. While most current scholarship developed from the Euro-American context, studies on film festivals in Asia need to examine more carefully the local forces and circumstances that have shaped them.
Berry started the talk by inviting the audience to reflect his recent observation, that this year’s Cannes film festival has no Chinese films nominated in the competition. In fact, this is the first time in almost twenty years. In addition to other possible reasons, he asked: “Could it be that Chinese-language filmmakers are finally beginning to shake their dependency on awards? On the one hand, the growth of the festival circuit and the associated decline and even death of the arthouse circuit means that awards often do not lead to distribution and income anymore. On the other hand, the days when there were no audiences for films in China and ticket prices were ridiculously low are over, and the local industry is growing very rapidly both in terms of box office and financial turnover.” Berry points out that this change may well signify some possible structural transformation in the Chinese language film world.
He analysed the transformation of the current two most important international film festivals in the PRC: the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) and the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), (realising the Beijing International Film Festival that just launched in Spring this year, “may well have the aim of eclipsing both SIFF and HKIFF”). For Berry, these two film festivals have played an important role in transforming Chinese-language filmmaking from “territorially separated cinema systems to a transborder network”. Regionality, as Berry argued, has emerged as a strong force among East Asian film festivals. Berry observed that Both the HKIFF and the SIFF increasingly became market places, where film deals could be made. While HKIFF focuses on more independent Chinese new talents, SIFF focuses more on the mainstream commercial. Berry pointed out that “HKIFF makes the most of its ability to screen the independent Chinese films and the Taiwanese films that could not be screening at SIFF, bringing along the filmmakers and creating opportunities for them to meet each other and international guests. SIFF, on the other hand, has the advantage of a film market that at least appears to offer a way into one of the largest and most rapidly growing film markets in the world, and a venue where international guests can hope to meet all the major players from the Chinese film world. Furthermore, although it cannot screen independent films, it’s “Pitch’n’Catch” sessions can be used to fund new projects by well-known independent filmmakers trying to transition into more mainstream cinema.”
Instead of celebrating this transborder Chinese film production culture, formed by the Chinese international film festivals, Berry raised the question: ‘what new kinds of filmmaking will this lead to?” In the Q&A, Berry points out the challenge facing Chinese language cinema is how to find new formats that work in the international art house, and new formats that work for commercial audiences, whilst catering for the demand of the domestic market.
To further expand it, I see this is not only a challenge facing Chinese cinema but also other cultural and art products. This challenge becomes complicated in an era when the international flows of capital, people and information become more and more intensive, as it is difficult to define the clear cut of an international and a regional market. The Cannes phenomena and the rise of regional international film festivals may also indicate that the forces that have shaped the taste of good film also become more complex.
Responding to Berry’s talk, I observed another phenomena that may indicate the change of Chinese cinema’s âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºinternational relations’. While there was no Chinese language films that had entered the competition in Cannes this year, new festivals have been run by Chinese people outside China, such as the China Image Film Festival in London. This film festival aims at promoting the newly reborn Chinese commercial films as commodities to the international mass audience. Such Chinese-run film festivals are not like European rooted film festivals where symbolic capitals – recognition, reputation and fame, can be gained through competitions determined by the Western tastes. Like their HK and SH counterparts, the London China image film festival works toward a market place where international capitals and people can meet together for transnational coproduction film deal.
The emergence of domestic independent film festival circuts, and other exhibition and distribution network
As an expansion to Berry’s keynote on film festivals, a panel on the 27th May was dedicated to film Festivals and Emerging screening space. Ma Ran (Osaka University), Luke Robinson(University of Nottingham) and Jeesoon Hong(University of Manchester) discussed independent film festivals in China and the emerging âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºScreenSpace’.
Luke Robinson presented his ongoing research in the field of independent Chinese documentary film festivals. He pointed out that independent Chinese documentary filmmakers have always faced the challenge to reach the audience, given the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºalternative’ status of such independent productions. He observed that during the 1990s, there was a high dependence on overseas film festivals and the domestic state televisions, since the late 1990s, there has been more dependence on the minjian âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºfilm clubs’ and the growing domestic film festival circuit that has emerged in less than a decade. Ma Ran’s paper focuses on the growing domestic Minjian independent film festivals. She observed that while these independent film events, named as âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºForums’ and âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºExhibition Week’, have gained some freedom in the programming, they are usually confined to a cultural ghetto, such as Song Zhuang art district in the suburban of Beijing . Hence the difficulty in reaching a wider audience. Nevertheless, Ma Ran argued that such festivals have carved out a new social space for independent cinema in China.
Robinson’s case study on this year’s Yunfest (Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival, one of China’s most established festivals) suggests some possible changes of power dynamics among different agents – the festival, the sponsorship and the public space – that have shaped the festival. This changing power dynamics may suggest some possible future changes of the Chinese independent festival circuit in general. He observed the changes in the sponsorship and exhibition spaces. Robinson stated that the festival had private sponsorship for the first time, from diverse areas: “a Kunming-based construction company (KCC) a Beijing-based media company (Heaven Pictures); a computer company; and the actress Zhao Tao, who’s acknowledged in all the programme materials (credited through Jia Zhangke’s production company, Xi he Xing hui”. Interestingly, he pointed out that a central commercial cinema complex has been used for some screenings. This included the screening of Jia Zhangke’s new documentary YâˆšÃ‰Â¬Âº Lu about China’s high-achieving people, which is “not the kind of film you’d expect to see at YunFest.” Robinson analysed that using the commercial cinema complex may be a way to approach wider audience, especially the bourgeoisie audiences in the neighbourhood, but the screening of Jia Zhangke’s documentary in this venue might be a result of accepting sponsorship from some of the other private entities. If they really are, Robinson stated, it adds another layer to the dynamic of how different agents are at work.
In addition, he argued that the separation of “the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºartistic’ model of documentary”, and “the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºcommunity media’ model of ethnic participatory videos in two different venues (the provincial library and the Yunnan University campus) has to some extent created different regional identities and reflects âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpre-existing intellectual divisions arising from different investments in different kinds of filmmaking”. Robinson argued with great insight that “independent documentary is no longer marginal in the way it was 20 years ago: in some ways, it’s become the mainstream of alternative film production in China… There’s increasingly a festival circuit, round which people and films move, rather than a number of isolated events; and there’s a critical infrastructure to accompany this, with professional curators and arbiters of taste.” However, as a consequence, new tensions have also emerged, such as “those between regional centres of production and their differing investments in documentary”.
In addition to Chinese international and independent film festivals as places where new forms of film cultures are shaped, urban film clubs, cinema space, online âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºcinemaphila’ communities, and pirate DVDs also forge new film cultures and critical space, for public discussion and individual expression. Jeesoon Hong introduced the term âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºScreenSpace’ to examine the experience of cinema-going as commodity for the urban middle class. In terms of film reception, Ralph Parfect (King’s College London) observed the discussion of the online cinemaphila communities such as Duban, on Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Three. He noticed that the urban audiences regard the materialism, sexual infidelity and corruption of postsocialist society as reasons why the idea of âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpurity love’ (ganjing[de]aiqing), promoted in the film could never exist in today’s China. From the perspective of film practice, Gao Dan regarded film piracy as a significant part of cultural reality in post-socialist China. She stated that filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke and Yingliang reference daoban die [pirated DVD] as important factors in the distribution and viewing of their own works. Through examining some independent films and practices, she analysed “how they are either symptomatic of or reveal a genealogical root in piracy culture and the infrastructure that surrounds it”.
2. Catching up for âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe next big thing’, or creating new alternative? – Jia Zhangke as the alternative âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbig thing’
Jia’s alternative response to the discourse of urgency in Chinese film world
Professor Yomi Braester’s keynote speech echoed Berry’s question of new kinds of filmmaking. He pointed out that ever since China’s entry to the WTO, if not even earlier, there has been a discourse of urgency in Chinese cinema. Braester took the term âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe next big thing’ to start a conversation on how filmmakers respond to the ongoing discourse of urgency in Chinese cinema. As he stated, the success of Hollywood production Titanic(1997) in the Chinese market stimulated the domestic producers and critics to hold up the blockbuster model and required filmmakers to catch up to âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe next big thing’ in the beginning of the new century. Recently in 2010, Avatar also re-provoked the mainstream anxiety of catching up. Filmmakers like Feng Xiaogang regard 3D and CGI technology as âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe next big thing’ that they aim to surpass. Professor Julian Stringer’s keynote on the relations between Dolby Consultants and Chinese Film Industry also illustrates this tension and anxiety of catching up.
After reviewing the discourse of urgency in the mainstream film industry, Braester focused on how alternative strategies have been applied by other filmmakers, such as Jia Zhangke, a leading Chinese filmmaker, or one of the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbig things’ in Chinese cinema now. Having achieved success through international film festival circuits and recognition by Chinese officials, Jia plays a different card in the discourse of urgency. Braester quoted Jia’s comments on Avatar that “technology knows no borders, Chinese filmmakers should not undermine its power and show lack of confidence in its own culture”. In Braester’s observation, Jia uses CGI differently to achieve his own cinematic real and cinematic illusions (Later in the Q&A, Braester reinforced that Jia’s cinema is not about reality but about the cinematic real).
Through reading Jia’s new documentary I wish I knew (2010), Braester analysed Jia’s alternative strategy to the discourse of catching up, which is putting history at the centre. When the majority look into the future leaving no time for the past, Jia however, chooses to engage with what already happened and how we remember them. In Braester’s understanding, Jia uses archives from other films that have shaped the collective memory of Shanghai, as well as oral histories given by 18 interviewees that have different kinds of relationships with Shanghai. I wish I knew, in Braester’s reading, becomes a conjunction where memories are met and created, as a kind of history that is made possible through films. Braester stated that Jia injects himself in the mainstream discourse of catching up but he shifts emphasis, rather than simply saying no. His strategy to achieve âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe next big thing’ is through a “cinema of slowness”. I wish I knew, according to Braester, refers to “the return to the historically conscious cinematic discourse”.
Braester’s notion of âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºNext Big Thing’ is however, questioned by professor Zhang Zhen, another keynote speaker at the conference. Zhang responded that âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºnext big thing’ might be too much an umbrella term for describing such paradigms, quantitative practices and institutions. Zhang agreed that Jia has become an alternative institution given his achievement in re-writing the aesthetic of realism, but Jia is different from the industrial based mass audience discourse. Indeed, Jia is not that much âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbig’ as in the film industry. He is more as an alternative.
Interestingly, Zhang Zhen’s keynote also examined Jia’s I wish I knew. Different from Braester’s perspective of positioning this film as Jia’s response to the discourse of urgency, Zhang paid attention to how this official sponsored film re-imagines Shanghai history, through individual memories and oral history. She analyses this film together with Wang Quan’an’s Apart Together, an award-winning melodrama which is also set within the context of the Shanghai World Expo 2010. Zhang analysed these two films’ “disparate uses of the historical legacy of the cosmopolitan city, for reimagining the split between China and Taiwan after 1949 and a tension-ridden prospective âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºreunion’.”
These two keynotes encouraged me to further reflect Jia’s role in Chinese cinema. Perhaps the official acknowledgement of Jia Zhangke as one of China’s leading director may indicate some structural change in the Chinese film world. Jia started his career by making underground film and earned recognitions through A-list international film festivals. Gradually being recognized by Chinese officials and mainstream media, he has now established his position as an important director and representative of the cultural elite in China. Some people argue that Jia has surrendered to the official and the market. Taken differently, as both Yomi Braester and Zhang Zhen analysed in their keynotes, Jia is indeed trying to bring up a new narrative, new aesthetics to the Chinese mainstream cinema. Zhang regarded Jia as an âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºquasi-official, transnational’ filmmaker. In this view, he is trying to break into the field of Chinese film industry that pre-occupied the market driven blockbuster films and commercial genres. Jia’s participation in the Chinese film world is by trying to raise a different voice and bringing something different to the table. To some extent, one can argue that Jia is setting up hope for new generation of independent filmmakers, by making visible an alternative way. His success as a âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbig thing’ is not only in the sense of having access to the mainstream market, but more in the way how he manages different eco-political forces in and outside China, and still maintains relatively high autonomy of his own artistic creation.
The cinema of Jia Zhangke
In another sense, Jia has become âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe mainstream of the alternative’, or the representative of Chinese art cinema. This is not only through his increasing publicity in the mainstream media, but also through the enormous scholarly and critical attention he has captured. In addition to Braester and Zhang’s keynotes on the discussion of Jia’ new film, a panel dedicated to Jia’s cinema. Young scholars Eddie BVertozzi (SOAS), Corey Schultz (Goldsmiths College), and Jinhee Choi (University of Kent/King’s College London) provided different readings on Jia’s cinema. Eddie BVertozzi closely analysed Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006), as representative of Chinese art film produced since 2000. He aimed to explore what realism means in the twentieth first century China. For him, directors such as Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Jiang Wen challenge the notion of jishizhuyi (on-the-spot realism). “By utilising visual elements these works mark a shift in terms of the perception of authenticity, which does not coincide with a documentary approach anymore, but rather with the expression of the director’s individual sensibility”.
Corey Schultz focused on the visual representation of the class and social stratification in Jia’s films. He observed that âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºmuch of the contemporary Chinese public and academic discourse on class and social stratification is marked by an unequivocal acceptance of the market economy with suggestions for welfare reform to assist those most devastated by the economic divide, and an unwillingness to blame the state for the non-socialist reforms that have led to this growing inequality”. On the contrary, “Jia’s films offer the viewer imagery that counters the teleological state discourse of a positive economic trajectory and modernisation path”. In his reading, Jia’s discourse is predominantly based the physical and metaphorical ruin, that is “the ruin of the environment, the community, social relationships, and the physical body”, and his characters are âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºvictims of reform’. He argued that Jia’s films “position these characters as agents who, although not patronised to the extent that they are in the popular melodramatic films, are unthreatening and worthy of assistance”.
Jinhee Choi, on the other hand, paid attention to the architecture represented in Jia’s oeuvre, which she argued, has multiple functions: “from a miniature of the globalised world (The World, 2004), to an allegory of the changing economic policies of the People’s Republic of China (Still Life, 2006), to a visual record of (and contrast to) the persistent memory of factory workers (24 City, 2008)”. In her presentation, she specially focused on Jia’s 24 City, and compares it to a video projection artwork Weimar Villa (2010), by London-based artist Bernd Behr. Through reading these two films on the destruction and reconstruction of a city, she argues that cinema has a constructive role in the remembering the history. She observes that “in 24 City film mediates between the destruction of the physical environment represented in the soon to disappear factory and the memories, both real and fabricated, of the urban subjects. Weimar Villa offers a visual reversal an âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºun-digging’ of a construction site that is already deteriorating.”
3. New directors and new strategies in two parallel film worlds: the independent âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpersonal cinema’ and mainstream commercial cinema.
Despite much scholarly attention paid to the cinema of Jia Zhangke as the alternative âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbig thing’ at the conference, a number of young scholars examined new alternative practices by the emerging young and/or independent documentary filmmakers, as well as new strategies of commercial fiction features taken by established filmmakers and propaganda films.
The independent âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpersonal cinema’
Independent documentary practice captured enormous attention at this conference. Building on the New Documentary Movement that flourished among a small group of filmmakers in the early 1990s, DV-film-making has been encouraging and enabling self-expression across a much larger population since the late 1990s, during a neoliberal period that follows two decades of economic reform. In addition to the papers on the independent documentary film festivals and the influence of piracy culture on the independent filmmakers I discussed earlier in this report, two panels focus on DV documentary practices. Keith Wagner (King’s College London/LSBU), Matthew Johnson and Tianqi Yu (Univeristy of Westminster) examined the role of cinema and camera in China’s modernization process, from different perspectives.
Keith Wagner and Tianqi Yu primarily focused on contemporary amateur documentary practice proliferated in the twenty-first century China. Yu pointed out the amateur filmmaking practice in China is in fact very new. This is different from the long history of amateur filmmaking outside the majority of socialist and former-socialist countries. Cinema and the camera apparatus in China were strictly controlled by the government from the beginning of the socialist era in 1949 till before the 1990s. Undeniably, the mini DV camera plays a significant role in facilitating personal and self-reflexive forms of expression that depart from official state sanctioned productions.
Wagner’s paper focused on how these “unskilled” amateur filmmakers archive what the government regards the dissenting activities, such as juvenile violence. Keith observed that these filmmakers usually take a loose aesthetic approach, while self-reflexively reveal the “regionally-based” realities, including “subjects of criminal activity involving jobless males”. Taking Xue Jianqiang’s short documentary Three Animals (2009) for close reading, Wagner observed that the filmmaker’s choice of filming the “worn and dilapidated spaces” in his remote hometown has set him apart both aesthetically and politically. However, Wagner questions the ethics of this practice, as in this film, Xue recorded his subjects’ delinquent behaviour of beating up and robbing other teenagers. He asked “in China’s neoliberal climate are discourses over responsibility and objectivity being replaced by notions of triviality and films made âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºjust for fun’? ”
Admitting the problematic ethical issues involved in such practices, Yu, however, regarded this action of turning the personal camera on the social space reflects individuals’ growing awareness of public citizens, rather than socialist workers in Mao’s China(1949-1976). In her paper, Yu focused on a small number of amateur filmmakers who turn the camera inwards to film the selves, which she regarded as the first person DV documentary filmmaking. She pointed out that the first few amateur DV documentaries in China were in fact of first person narratives, such as those by Tang Dan Hong, Yang Lina and Wang Fen. In the age of participatory media, more first person narratives documentaries emerged, such as those by Hu Xinyu, Wu Haohao, Li Ning and also the contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, for his activist documentary âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºLaomayihua'(2008). In Yu’s opinion, Chinese first person DV filmmaking is an important individual critical thinking expression and social participation that helps to reconstruct political values and reactivate the political space in China, in what Wang Hui regarded, the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºdepoliticalised’ era. Yu provided a close reading of Hu Xinyu’s âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºFamily Claustrophobia’ (2009), which records the conflicts and transitions of his parental familial space, a 60 square-metre socialist working class flat over a period of seven years. Yu analysed how the first person filmmaker Hu inscribes himself the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºseer’, the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºseen’, the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºspeaker’ and the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºeditor’. In Yu’s reading, Hu Xinyu is playing the role not only as a filmmaker, a family member, but also an individual who expresses his critique to the society through filming the very imitate space of his own family.
Matthew Johnson also studied a kind of first person filmmaking practice which is the ongoing China villager documentary led by filmmaker Wu Wenguang. He analysed how this alternative documentary production model functions as âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºcinema of improvement’. He compared two figures who have worked closely on the documentation of village-level social and political improvement projects: the little known educational cinematographer Sun Mingjing in China’s âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºNanjing decade’ (1927-1937), and the contemporary documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang in post-WTO China (2001 and onwards). He observed that both filmmakers publicised experimental reforms conducted by the Chinese state, with additional links to transnational philanthropic institutions (the Rockefeller Foundation) of the former and international partnerships (the China-European Union Village Administration Training Program) of the latter. Through this comparison, he demonstrated that the relationship between philanthropy, public spending, and documentary representation has created a possible alternative to the dominant “festival – and commercial distributor – centred production models”.
In addition, an invited keynote speaker Lu Xinyu (Fudan University), and three other young scholars, Jia Tan(University of Southern California), Wang Chi (Communication University of China) and Sabrina Qiong Yu (University of Newcastle) also submitted paper abstracts on the discussion of independent documentary practice from diverse perspectives. However, due to personal issues, these four scholars could not attend the conference. Nevertheless, this indicates the increasing scholarly attention to the documentary practice in contemporary China.
In contrast to the amount of attention paid to independent documentary practice, few papers actually discussed the independent fictions films of post Jia Zhangke generation. To some extent, this unbalanced scholarly attention to independent documentary and fiction filmmaking may also indicate the changing structure of the Chinese film world. It seems that there are two parallel film worlds.
The changing film policy in the post-WTO era has made it legal for the individuals and private sectors to produce films without state sector cooperation (though the state-sponsored film production still occupies the majority of the sale). As the state lowers the barriers to film production and exhibition, more and more independently produced films are directly aimed at domestic box office rather than competitions at international film festivals as in the early years of underground filmmaking (late 1980s and 1990s). The directors, including the former Sixth Generation, and younger filmmakers, do not entirely regard themselves as independent, a term that has been usually associated with âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºunofficial’, âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºmarginal’, âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpolitical sensitive’. Instead, they are more willing to submit themselves in the new film industry where films are packaged and exchanged as commodities.
However, this does not mean the early concept of âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºindependent’ auteur film has entirely disappeared. In fact, a group of new generation filmmakers, such as the young uprising talent Ying Liang, maintain a high autonomy for artist creation, and do not take market as the ultimate goal. They regard âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºindependent’ as an attitude and a political gesture. They inherit some features of early âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºunderground’ cinema, such as relations with international film circuits. Different from the early independent cinema, these films have gained some exposure inside China through domestic independent film festival circuits and screening communities, but still cannot be seen in the mainstream cinemas. As a co-organizer in the team, I am also responsible for programming the screenings on the evening of 26th May. I deliberately chose to show two films that demonstrate this independent gesture, Ying Liang’s Good Cat and Xue Jianqiang’s Martian Syndrome. These two experimental and avant-garde films represent âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºthe independent auteur cinema’, or the cinema of one’s own.
While Chris Berry identifies the emerging âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºtransborder Chinese cinema’ that is largely shaped by the domestic international film festivals, I argue that there is also a kind of independent âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpersonal cinema’ emerged in the discursive and conflicting development of Chinese film culture. Both the independent amateurish one-person documentary practice, and the small crew low budget fiction film production are important modes of this âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpersonal cinema’. This is also cinema without a mainstream audience and has limited screening opportunities. People get to see these films mainly through the domestic independent film festivals and film clubs that Luke Robinson and Ma Ran discussed. However, this âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpersonal cinema’ consists of an indispensable important part of new Chinese cinema culture, that not only contributes to the development of new aesthetic cinematic languages, but also contributes to the activation of critical space in contemporary China.
Films with mainstream commercial success
Though few papers discussed the independent avant-garde fiction films, six papers examined films that have passed Chinese government censorship and attained commercial success. These include the commercial art house films made by the established âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºUrban Generation’, and the newly emerged filmmakers such as Ning Hao. How these films represent the radical social differentiation, and the marginal social and geographical identities was the main theme of discussion. In addition, changing strategies of political propoganda (zhu xuanlu) films and new genres have also been studied.
Xiao Liu (University of California at Berkeley) presented an intriguing paper on one of the most eye-catching cultural phenomena in 2010 – Let the Bullets Fly (2010), the latest film by an established art house director Jiang Wen. The film received a huge commercial success with box office sales of 700 million RMB. For Liu, this film’s “ostentatious visualisation of the unabashed fetishism of money poses as the director’ sarcastic gesture to avenge his previous box-office failure (in The Sun Also Rises).” She examines how the narrative of revolution and Eros in The Sun Also Rises is revised by the ubiquitous presence of money in Let the Bullets Fly. She argued that the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºnetizens’ read the film as an allegory of revolution: “the whole film is soaked in the “lightness” and frivolity of performance and role-play… Every name and identity is a mask which anyone can try on.” Liu not only focuses on the film text, but also how its audience responded to this film across media networks. She argued that through the transmedia networks which function as a space for the exchange of both information and capital, “the film became a pastiche of simulacra, a remediation of mediation. The “familiarity” of the film text through remediation keeps the audience engrossed in identifying and reviewing each “familiar” fragment from other media. It also creates a “realist” look of the film, through which social life becomes media events re-circulated into the circular system of consumption and replay.”
Several papers discussed the representations of the social and geographical marginal. Yi Jie Zou (University of Edinburgh) studies two successful comedies Crazy Stone (2006) and Crazy Race (2009) by a new commercial filmmaker Ning Hao. In his reading, the films create indigenous folly, and capture the emotion of the migrant workers, through the humorous expressions and comic body language of the transient labourer characters. Through this, Yi argues that the films illustrate the marginal spaces of China’s changing urban scene, exploring the harsh conditions of the lives of the lower classes. Hence an implicit critique to “the utopian rhetoric promised by policy makers”. Lin Feng focused on how independent films represent zhiqing experiences in post-cultural revolution post socialist China, such as the issue of their identities. Francesca Kaufman (University of Edinburgh) explored the changing attitudes to women’s value in reform era China, through a comparison of Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (2007) with Zhou Xiaowen’s Ermo (1994). Her analysis suggested that since the mid 1990s there emerged a growing awareness of “the potentially regressive impact of economic reform upon women’s opportunities and social identity”. Leung Wing-Fai examines a transborder production The Postmodern Life of My Aunt(2006), by one of the Hong Kong New Wave directors, Ann Hui. Her analysis of how the film production illustrates the transformative relationship between filmmaking in Hong Kong and the mainland reflects what Berry regards the rise of transborder Chinese language cinema.
Lastly, the new productions of the political propagandist films have also been studied. Zheng Ji (University of Edinburgh) discusses the star strategy taken by the mainstream political propaganda films, facing the implementation of market-oriented reforms in the Chinese film industry in the beginning of the 21st century. She explores “how the cultural capital and social recognition of popular stars are exploited in the production and promotion of propaganda films”, and the changing relationship between the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºofficial’ culture and popular culture in China. Zheng stated that the leitmotif films were previously casted by a selection of âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºtypecast actors’, who have close physical resemblance to their roles, such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. In the marketisation of film industry, some recent leitmotif films such as Deng Xiaoping 1928 (2004) and The Founding of a Republic (2009) use pop stars to attract young audience, who constitute the largest group of cinema-goers in China. Her analysis of the new star phenomenon in leitmotif films contributes to a further understanding of political appropriation of commercial strategies and popular culture in the post-socialist era.
Overall, the conference has provided a precious chance for a critical examination of the Chinese cinema and film world in the midst of its radical transition since 2000. In my observation of this conference, the current scholarly attention mainly lies in three main themes: firstly, there is a shifting focus from film texts to the contexts of film production, distribution and exhibition. This is exemplified by the new studies on film festivals, screening space, receptions, and how specific reception channel, such as pirate DVDs have shaped new cinema cultures. In these studies, cinema has been increasingly seen as a culture where different socio-political and economic forces are played out. Secondly, the cinema of Jia Zhangke becomes a central focus of current studies on Chinese cinema. Main discussions lie on how he has created an alternative institution that has gained recognition in China’s film world, and how his cinema creates personal narratives of China’s social transition and a view to the past.
Lastly, many young scholars focus on new independent films and new strategies of commercial films. The post 2000 Independent documentary film practice has attracted more attentions than independent fiction productions. Emphasis has been put on regional amateur practice and first person documentaries as socially and politically conscious practice. In addition, the new commercial art house films and new strategies of propaganda films have also been studied. It seems that there emerged a paralleled film world: the commercial art house and transborder Chinese cinema, such a those of Jia Zhangke, Jiangwen and Ning Hao, and the avant-garde independent âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºpersonal cinema’, as I regard, such as those of Ying Liang and independent documentary film practice. Do these two kinds of cinemas entirely separate from one another, or do they interact with each other in transforming the overall structure of the Chinese film world? If so, what forces are involved in the interaction and how do they at work? These are some of the questions that are left unsolved at this conference, that deserve further investigation.
The conference received grants from both academic institutions and private donation. In addition to funding from the Department of Film studies of King’s College London, King’s China Institute, University of Westminster, the conference also received financial support from the DSL Collection, a private collection of contemporary China arts. DSL starts from a museum approach that enables it to collect a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, installation, video, and photography, with a limited number of 150 pieces. Not oriented on the trends of market, it emphasizes on public accessibility and archiving. Recently, DSL started to show strong interest in contemporary Chinese independent avant-garde film and videos. DSL’s potential involvement in Chinese cinema may suggest a further structural change of the Chinese film world in the new decade. Lastly, despite the intensive valuable debates over one and a half days, no scholar or critics came from inside China to present their thoughts, only scholars that are mostly from the UK or US institutions were present. Nevertheless, I hope this report can provide an opportunity for further conversations between overseas scholars and critics, filmmakers and scholars inside China.