The Chinese Artist’s Life, Then and Now: Wu Wenguang’s <i>Bumming in Beijing</i> and Jia
Dong (dir. Jia Zhangke)
Published as part of Dong Week at dGenerate Films, a series of articles on Jia Zhangke and the art world in China.
By Isabella Tianzi Cai
Among the remarkable films of Jia Zhangke, Dong (2006) is perhaps a less well-known entry. In this hour-long documentary, Jia follows renowned avant-garde realist painter Liu Xiaodong as he works on his famously large canvas works, capturing demolition workers on China’s Three Gorges Dam and sex workers languishing in the urban squalor of Bangkok, Thailand. Jia allows the camera to go in and out of Liu’s life fluidly, framing the artist’s presence within his surroundings, highlighting the relationship the artist has within a given social environment.
Dong is unique among Chinese independent films in how it demystifies the creative process and explores the artist’s role in society. At the same time, it can’t help but evoke another important documentary about artists in China, one that is credited for launching the New Documentary Cinema (aka the New Documentary Movement) of the 1990s. That film is Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990).
Bumming in Beijing (dir. Wu Wenguang) (source: Senses of Cinema)
Bumming in Beijing was undertaken by Wu in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident. He focused on five artist friends, who at the time were all illegal residents living under strained circumstances in Beijing. Wu chose his close friends as subjects because he wanted to capture an authentic, intimate impression of the stark reality of post-Tiananmen Beijing. Wu also wanted to try a new style at shooting documentaries to match his subject. A colleague who recently returned from Japan introduced him to the stripped-down, cinéma vérité style used in the Japanese television serial, Where is My Home?
Wu later commented that Bumming in Beijing was a failure as an experiment because it still carried the fraudulence of standard mainstream documentary practice: for example, his reliance on “talking head” interviews with its subjects throughout the film.* Nonetheless, the film broke new ground in Chinese documentary practice by introducing a personalized and subjective approach to its material. Wu continued developing his stripped-down, cinéma vérité style, which gradually made a profound influence on the narrative films and documentaries of the emerging Sixth Generation, including those of Jia Zhangke. In this sense, Dong can be seen as Jia’s continuation of the documentary legacy started by Wu.
Realism looms large in both Bumming in Beijing and Dong. Bumming in Beijing uses social realism for the particular purpose of providing a perspective absent in the censored mainstream media at the time. From what the artists tell us in all the interviews, we understand the discrepancy they experience between the state rhetoric about how well the country’s economy is doing and their actual daily lives. Their chances of bettering their lives are slim, and they experience a profound tension between aspiration and fulfillment. Since the interviews are often conducted inside or right outside the artists’ apartments, the squalid condition of their living space is always in the background. In Dong, Jia shows Liu Xiaodong interacting with laborers on the Three Gorges Dam and Thai prostitutes, but does not interview any of them, nor does he show the details of their lives in depth. Jia’s eye is mostly trained on Liu’s process of conveying these social milieu onto his canvas. While Liu Xiaodong talks about the struggle inherent in the creative process, he seems quite comfortable with himself in regards to his station in life.
This points out another difference between Dong and Bumming in Beijing. Wu’s subjects talk about the constant stress they experienced about fulfilling their basic needs like food and lodging. Compared to them, Liu Xiaodong has the money and resources to follow his inspiration wherever it leads him. In one scene, he is even portrayed as a philanthropist: when a worker on the Three Gorges tragically dies in a work accident, Liu visits his grieving family to bring gifts and pay his respects. Liu travels abroad to pursue his projects, but the post-Tiananmen artists saw going overseas as an escape from their miserable state in China. One of them described leaving for a western country as “returning to the womb of their mother.” The language used is metaphorical – “the womb” symbolizes rebirth, and along with that, new hopes and new freedom.
Despite the differences between these depictions of the artist’s life, both films convey a sense of being lost or helpless, a vague feeling that something somewhere is wrong. Bumming in Beijing expresses this malaise and insecurity more explicitly. There are many interviews where the artists speak their frustration. In one scene female artist Li Xiaoping experiences a mental breakdown in her studio. She lies on the ground and shouts in pain, “Where is God? Who the hell am I?” Despite the fact that inter-titles are used frequently to indicate who and what we are watching, Wu’s refusal to order images in a rigid narrative structure is quite apparent, and it reflects the zeitgeist of that specific historical moment. The events of Tiananmen left many Beijingers in an agonized state of disillusionment, numb and directionless. Artists, who placed themselves at the vanguard of expressing the hopes and dreams of their compatriots, were affected by these sentiments most acutely.
Dong (dir. Jia Zhangke)
In Dong, a sense of being lost or helpless is also conveyed by moments that drift away from an apparent structure. In one sequence, Liu finishes a painting session in Bangkok with a local sex worker. As the model leaves the studio, the camera follows her, as if curious about what her life may be outside her ostensibly peripheral role in the documentary. The film follows her into a taxi, where she makes a mysterious phone call; then it finds her at a train station, presumably waiting for someone whom we never see. With this bold stroke of counter-narrative, the film brings to the fore the complex social tableaux within which Liu – and Jia – are only passing through.
There is a greater, enveloping sense of contemporary existence as a perpetual state of migration, one that characterizes both the workers in the Three Gorges and the sex workers in Bangkok, as both groups consist of vast numbers of rural migrants. The same can even be said of Jia and Liu as international artists; and while the living conditions of impoverished laborers are worlds away from these elite artists, Jia is somehow able to enclose everyone in the film, including himself, within a vast cinematic portrait of life as a state of perpetual drift. By the same token, he links all of his subjects in repeated moments of inactivity, with many shots of people at rest, sitting, smoking, sleeping. They share the need for these moments as a way of escaping the incessant movement of contemporary life.
Overall, in comparing Bumming in Beijing to Dong, one might draw a trajectory accounting for how the experience of social malaise has evolved over the past two decades in China and beyond. In the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen, it was a relatively small group of social progressives, such as Wu’s circle of artists, who felt most displaced or disenfranchised within their society. 15 years later, Jia’s film depicts this feeling of displacement as a normalized condition that transcends the borders of occupation, class or nationality. And while his film captures lives with a calm, steady lens, the desperation and existential crises that lurk under the surface are no less urgent.
* CCTV, the mainstream media outlet controlled by the Chinese government, eventually did adopt this personalized and subjective approach for its television programs in the 90s. But the grim, dark tone of Bumming in Beijing is something that CCTV refuses to adopt.
Isabella Tianzi Cai is a regular contributor to the dGenerate blog. She is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.