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What Chinese Independent Cinema Can Tell Us About Confinement as Everyday Social Reality

This piece is the first in a series. As a small means of solidarity with curators, critics and creators, during this extraordinary moment of crisis and confinement, dGenerate Films is opening our doors to those interested in writing and engaging with our collection. Brian Hu is the first person we asked. His response below is an instant classic reflection on Chinese independent cinema.

by Brian Hu

Now that we approach a month into COVID confinement, numerous think pieces are appearing about the interrupted state of filmmaking. For good reason, the chatter treats quarantine as an extraordinary and unprecedented disruption for filmmakers who have had to pause production, or who now have to innovate within the limitations that come with social distancing or sheltering-in-place. This is Not a Film, which Iranian director Jafar Panahi made while under house arrest, is suddenly a must-assign on film school syllabi everywhere.

This is Not a Film is both too perfect (it’s set completely within a home Panahi can’t leave) and too circumstantially extreme (he’s a political dissident who refuses to be silenced), making its comparison with American filmmakers asked to stay home somewhat inappropriate and perhaps only superficially useful. Instead, I’m searching for a different model of restriction, one that treats confinement not as an earth-shattering disruption, but as a lived experience of everyday social reality. As a film festival curator, I’m already bemoaning the inevitable rush of 2021-2022 entries about the frustrations of the Great Quarantine. But is there a more contemplative approach that sees the challenges of 2020 as part of a decades-long shift in how globalization is lived locally or how national policy affects ordinary rhythms? These shifts aren’t just felt in the extraordinary traumas of captivity, but in the subtle recalibrations in the way we see our relationships with the world, with each other, and with our experience of domestic life.

I’m struck by how Chinese independent cinema has for two decades now been doing exactly this. It’s a filmmaking practice that is very much affected by technical, pragmatic, and legal limitations, but that confronts these limitations not as traumatic muzzling to be heroically transcended, but as ordinary problems that are part of the larger field of everyday social and private life to be navigated in China.

In short, it’s so humbling right now to watch films like Yang Heng’s Betelnut, which follows two teens whose entire existence seems confined to an internet café, a karaoke, and the same alleyways and riverbeds in their little town in Hunan province. This too is a kind of imprisonment – reflective of economic and logistical realities – but the view of the nation, and indeed the world, is so much bigger than the limited locations in this riverfront town. The film reflects a roaming, fertile imagination that fuels a narrative of mundane crime and frustrated romance. The lack of freedom isn’t the point. If so, what more is there to say as an independent artist in China? Rather, it’s a prism through which to examine what it’s like to be young, bored, and adventurous in contemporary China. It’s also a luminous and audacious prism, shot on standard-definition consumer digital not as a self-flagellating gesture of poverty, but as a tool to unlock otherwise unexplorable visual wonders.

Independent Chinese directors always emit a collective groan when asked the same question by international audiences: what is it like to deal with the censors? Beyond the question’s inherent othering of an exotic “forbidden” China, it also reduces independent filmmaking to an act of resistance with only one intention: to oppose the government. The best of these films tap into so much more: while cognizant of what they aren’t allowed to say, they imagine possibilities of the self beyond the boundaries of their confinement, they are microscopic inward turns that explore cinematically the pace and textures of an everyday both mundane and strange, and they are playful acts of creativity that remind us that it is possible for ingenuity to storm against physical and psychic limits.

And they, like Betelnut, are available to view in the United States through the dGenerate catalog, a treasure of bold and innovative independent filmmaking from China. Their filmmakers don’t feel sorry for themselves, nor do they take the opportunity to create for granted. For independent Chinese filmmakers like Liu Jiayin or Yang Mingming, interrogating what it means to be stuck at home, or in the same sleepy spaces, isn’t an indie stunt fathomed from a site of privilege, but something they’ve been doing their entire careers and lives, as so many others in China do, regardless of profession.

Don’t know where to start? Here are my ten favorite dGenerate films, limited to one per director.

1. Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)

2. Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, 2010)

3. Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing, 2013)

4. Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009)

5. Tharlo (Pema Tseden, 2016)

6. Girls Always Happy (Yang Mingming, 2018)

7. The Other Half (Ying Liang, 2006)

8. When the Bough Breaks (Ji Dan, 2012)

9. Egg and Stone (Huang Ji, 2012)

10. Betelnut (Yang Heng, 2005)

Brian Hu is...

Assistant Professor in Television, Film, and New Media, San Diego State University


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