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Zhang Xianmin on six recent Chinese documentaries

Zhang Xianmin (photo courtesy China Independent Film Festival)

One of our key partners in China is Zhang Xianmin, who is a leading figure of the independent film scene. Film producer, writer, programmer: these are just a few of his credentials. And now, Zhang will be contributing a series of articles for our website, offering his own perspective on Chinese indie cinema.

To kick things off, here are his thoughts on six recent Chinese independent documentaries, offering his own insights into the background on the films and filmmakers. A couple titles happen to be dGenerate titles.


Using directed by Zhou Hao. Zhou Hao always cross-produces several projects at the same time. When this documentary was made, he was also working on other subjects, such as the cotton industry and Olympic youths. The central character is known as Brother Long by other social outcasts. Originally from Northeast China, he makes his living by dealing drugs in Guangzhou, and eventually he is trapped in drug addiction himself. He helps others, but also requests help from others all the time, especially from the filmmaker Zhou Hao. But what Zhou Hao offers cannot save him. The story is astonishing and thrilling.

Survival Song directed by Yu Guangyi Yu Guangyi used to be a painter for several decades. But his documentary-making is close to writing: a personal work, made step by step with integrated narrative and vivid characters. It is not until recently that Mr. Yu switched to digital filmmaking. His daughter helped him edit his first film Last Lumberjacks before she went to university. His works are deep and solid.

Empty City directed by Ji Dan Ji Dan is not an ethnic Han Chinese. She lived in Beijing for almost ten years and developed a close relationship with Feng Yan, Li Ying and Fujioka Asako. After she returned to China, she became good friends with Sha Qing and other documentary makers and made several documentaries about marginalized people in China, such as the Japanese who stayed in China after the Second World War, old people, Tibetans. Her works includes long-term documenting, as well as chance encounters. This film is based on her long-term observation on different people in a nursing center for the elderly and the film focuses on one single character she selected among them.

Utopia directed by Wang Yiren Wang Yiren is a newspaper journalist. He writes social news, as well as prose. This documentary is based on the phenomenon in mainland China that “special” patients are separated from others in the medical system. In the south and northwest, it mainly concerns people who were infected with smallpox thirty or forty years ago; whereas in Wang Yiren’s hometown, disabled people, (especially those with mental disabilities) are kept in a desolate area in the countryside. But this work is not about suffering; on the contrary, these people formed a community where they complement and help each other in the past years. There’s no other word but utopia that can describe this weird, warm, small community that lacks a future. This film reflects the grotesque trend beyond realism in that has emerged in Chinese documentaries over the past two or three years.

Bing Ai directed by Feng Yan Feng Yan spent years following a peasant woman, Bing Ai, who refused to give up her own land in the Three Gorges area. Feng Yan was greatly moved by her uncompromising personality. Feng says, most Chinese people give up their own land too easily. It’s too futile. Meanwhile, the ongoing effort Feng Yan put in this documentary is comparable to Bing Ai’s persistence of the land. In this sense, the filmmaker and her subject are unified in this documentary: Bing Ai is a counterpart of Feng Yan; Feng Yan is a reflection of Bing Ai.

Crime and Punishment directed by Zhao Liang Zhao Liang documents the routine work of a small police station in Northeast China (on the border between China and North Korea). He is a local there, but has lived in Beijing as a conceptual and visual artist for many years. The everyday scenes of work and violence themselves do not provoke spiritual thoughts, as the title indicates. But the omission and extension of certain narratives, the philosophical discussion of different possibilities in human relation are all important issues that face contemporary documentary making.

The forms of these six documentaries are all different from each other. Besides their fundamental realism, some of them question the practical function of documentary; some establish a new relationship between the filmmaker and the subject; some make the most realistic everyday life appear absurd and abstract through skillful editing. They honestly represent the diverse reality in contemporary China, and they are also the pioneers of documentary innovation.


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