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Self-Portrait in a DV Mirror: a Review of Li Ning’s <i>Tape</i>

By Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan

Li Ning accepts the Silver Award at YunFest for his film “Tape”

Tape, directed by Li Ning, will screen this Thursday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the series Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries.” Here is a review by filmmaker Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan, who watched the film when it screened at MoMA Documentary Fortnight in February.


In the past ten years, only a handful of films made me re-evaluate what I considered to be cinema, providing me with a new way of looking at things. Three of those films emerged from the independent filmmaking movement in China: Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Liu Jiayin’s first Oxhide film, and Li Ning’s Tape.

Li Ning could be considered a “late arrival” to the scene, emerging after many of the other digital filmmakers from China have already established themselves and are already working on their second or third projects. What an arrival, though. Li Ning has basically taken what people have become familiar with in Chinese independent cinema a step further. Actually, he’s opened another dimension.

This is a true self-portrait of a multidisciplinary artist (dancer, sculptor, filmmaker, even sound designer) and how he lives and copes in a world that doesn’t really care much about art when they have much more “practical” things to think and worry about. What Li Ning shows is that life doesn’t hold the creative spirit down, it actually nurtures it, in its own funny, roundabout way. As much as it is a struggle to get through life as an artist, life also is what supports and encourages you, and can be the source of inspiration for creative projects.

What truly distinguishes Li Ning, not just from other Chinese filmmakers, but from filmmakers around the world, is how he channels his experience through his art. This is about as personal as it can get when it comes portraying one’s life on screen, and he goes to places I think even Caveh Zahedi wouldn’t go.

This film resists any easy categorization, as Li Ning the individual would be tough to group as well. It’s a personal documentary, it’s a musical, it’s a social advocacy film, and much more. The musical dance numbers give the film an unusual edge. I have to also mention I loved Li Ning’s dancing group’s style, which, at my poor attempt to even try to describe it, is inspired by how public transportation jerks us, or how bodies get stuck to a landscape.

It’s a perfectly edited film, clearly refined from tapes upon tapes of footage; if one can chronicle the span of five years in two and half hours, I think that’s quite an achievement. The film’s musical numbers were filled with staccato cuts that actually made it move a lot faster than any other Chinese independent film I’ve seen. Li Ning also knows when to slow things down and allow us to really occupy a moment in time.

In a wonderful paradox, Li Ning has made a film that is truthful to humanity and the human experience, yet his obsession and his focus on his work has made him inept in his human relationships.

This is one of the rare films that has touched me in a truly personal way, it has inspired me to just go all out with my own work. If you believe in something strong enough, truly invest yourself in the work. Which is ironic given that the film ends with the ultimate price Li Ning had to pay for his artistry.

Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan is a filmmaker from the Philippines who is currently based in New York.

Tape (dir. Li Ning)


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