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Shelly on Film: An Independent Film Scene, Thriving Miles from Main Street

Urgency, creativity, relevance, and vitality: four criteria that could sum up the mission of the 3rd annual Beijing Independent Film Festival (23rd to 29th November, 2008), which just wound up in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang. Those concerned over the lack of vital signs in more mainstream Chinese feature filmmaking of late need look no farther than Songzhuang for confirmation that there’s much important, risky, creative work going on in Chinese cinema. However, that work is concentrated in the margins, way outside the system, in independent, low budget DV documentaries, shorts, and features that China’s younger filmmakers are fervently at work on.

BIFF’s home at Songzhuang is quite distinctive: a rather distant suburb within the Beijing city administration, Songzhuang has been home to visual artists for several years now. Land there is still cheap, so internationally renowned, affluent Chinese artists have built villa- or courtyard-style houses. Younger artists who have yet to establish themselves or who work on the margins of the commercial art scene can afford to rent cheap studio and living space out here too. This culturally fertile space, connected to Beijing yet remote enough to be protected by a sense of distance, has managed to balance risk-taking with discretion, and is just the right sort of space to support independent film exhibition now.

Supported by renowned art critic Li Xianting’s Film Fund and by the locally owned Songzhuang Art Center, BIFF this year put together a challenging, provocative, and impressive program of features, documentaries, experimental shorts, and short student works. Under Li Xianting’s artistic direction, BIFF’s main programmer, Zhu Rikun worked with a programming team to produce one of the most consistently interesting lineups of Chinese independent films I’ve yet seen at an event like this in China (there are others, two of the most prominent are Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival, now in its fifth year, and Yunfest, in Kunming, Yunnan, which specializes in documentaries).

There were several standouts among ten recent features films screened at BIFF. Ying Liang’s new film Good Cats (Hao mao) continues the path he set with his Taking Father Home (Bei yazi de nanhai, 2005) and The Other Half (Ling yi ban, 2007), both dGenerate titles. Ying along with his producer/co-screenwriter Peng Shan have a consistent vision of China in post-industrialized urban crisis. Cities amount to moral disaster zones, made up of fragmented social networks pulverized by extreme, uncontrolled commercialization and exploitation and a nexus of Party and business interests whose hegemony seems irresistible. Taking Father Home‘s irrevocably shattered family shows one kind of victimization, in which a tragic quest is played out against a brilliantly decomposed urban landscape; The Other Half‘s witty survey of business and social networks (a lawyer’s eye view of society in the process of dissolution) is equally anchored in a vision of infrastructural disaster. Good Cats sharpens and focuses the satirical vein in Ying and Peng’s work: it’s a dark, funny, withering dissection of the new ruling class.

Two other standouts, both of which demonstrate that visual beauty and social critique are not mutually exclusive, are the second features of two young directors with great futures: Yang Jin’s Er Dong and Zhao Ye’s Jalainur. Er Dong, a narrative tale of a young man with delinquent (or just lazy?) tendencies who makes all the wrong decisions. Although the film looks like simple narrative cinema (it’s virtually all story without being strongly marked by visible stylistic gestures), Yang’s brilliantly cinematic framing and mise en scene push the film beyond unadorned plainness. Jalainur, Zhao Ye’s virtually plotless mood piece, is a visual poem about a retired train engineer and his relentlessly loyal protégé in China’s frigid, post-industrial Northeast. This powerful work creates unforgettably dream-like images of steam, smoke and snow, a lament to the oblivion that China’s past is consigned to irrevocable, unmanaged change.

Many of the documentaries screened at BIFF had an urgency and political force impossible to ignore. The opening film, Pan Jianlin’s provocative Who Killed Our Children (Haizi haizi) challenges the official version of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake with first person testimonies that are devastating in their directness. Documentary historian Hu Jie continues his project to expose China’s undocumented recent past with National East Wind Farm (Guoying dongfang nongchang), a searing account of the fates of so-called “rightists” sent to a labor camp in Yunnan in the late 1950s. Radical director and film and queer theorist Cui Zi’en premiered his newest work, the feature documentary Queer China (Zhi tongzhi), a comprehensive, intellectually provocative survey of the history and present condition of gays and lesbians in China.

Contemporary artist and filmmaker Ou Ning’s Meishi Street (Meishi jie, 2006), another dGenerate title, takes on planned urban destruction: the Beijing government’s controversial project to destroy the historic neighbourhood of hutongs around Qianmen (south of Tiananmen Square) in the name of urban renewal. Ou’s masterstroke here is to give a camera to Zhang Jinli, one of the stalwarts who resists this poorly compensated forced displacement. Filmmaking agency is thus granted to the documentary subject, and Zhang’s involvement in chronicling his (very colourful) resistance to power infuses the film’s form with added meaning.

I happened to visit the “new Qianmen” neighbourhood shortly after I saw Meishi Street. It’s an appallingly Disney-fied, commodified simulacrum: a pastiche of faux-post-Qing Dynasty facades veiling an unfinished shopping strip, the Great Mall of Qianmen. The buildings are there, but still empty of the luxury and souvenir stores that will soon lure tourists herded through its fake streets. The overall effect is of a sterile, ghostly wasteland evoking an idealized past masking a consumerist present. These newly erected monuments to crass commerce acknowledge, in their own perverse way, the irretrievable social and cultural losses that the brave films at BIFF seek to document.

Shelly Kraicer is a Beijing-based writer, critic, and film curator. Born in Toronto, Canada, and educated at Yale University, he has written film criticism in Cinema Scope, Positions, Cineaste, the Village Voice, and Screen International. Since 2007, he has been a programmer of East Asian films for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has consulted for the Venice, Udine, Dubai, and Rotterdam International Film Festivals.


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