There are a few reasons to justify Richard Brody’s claim that Chinese filmmaking was “the crucial story in cinema of the past decade.” The astonishing output from Jia Zhangke, Wang Bing, Li Yang, Ying Liang, and other young Mainland mavericks has not only been the perfect complement to the Western media’s sensationalized narrative of an ancient, exotic civilization’s reemergence onto the world stage, but it has also functioned as an antidote to millennial death-of-cinema anxieties. Here it seemed that a national movement of filmmakers were reclaiming the moral and political commitment that had made movies a central part of American culture in the Sixties and Seventies, and that in the process they were building an aesthetic legitimacy for the digital medium that was rumored to be spelling the end of their art form. Wrap all of this up into the image of a courageous, self-jeopardizing auteur defending his art against an authoritarian regime and delivering news to the outside world about the oppression of his people, and the new Sinophilic cinephilia seems even more of an inevitability.
I don’t mean to sound willfully cynical about high-brow Western spectatorship, or to dismiss the much-praised progress of Chinese cinema as a mere marketing ploy. To my non-Mainlander eyes, the profound achievements of this latest generation of Chinese filmmakers are as fascinating as the iconicity they have acquired. I’ve certainly been complicit in heroizing a Jia or a Wang, and as much as a critic would like to maintain his cold rationality, most recognize that the excitement, sentimentality, and outright fandom that a great artist or promising new wave can inspire are the very essence of cinephilia. In the midst of all the hype, though, it helps to watch as widely as possible and keep a firm grasp on the bigger picture. This has been slightly easier to do in New York in the past year, which has seen a handful of strong film series covering both classic and contemporary PRC cinema.
Thanks to The Film Society of Lincoln Center, audiences have been treated to a small collection of recent work from independent directors like Ying Liang, Yang Jin, and the Korean-Chinese Zhang Lü (in last April’s “On the Edge: New Independent Cinema from China 2009”), as well as an unprecedented retrospective of films from the “Seventeen Years” period between the founding of the PRC and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks sidebar last September). If that didn’t satisfy your appetite, an ardent filmgoer could seek out the occasional screening at China Institute or the Asian CineVisions series at MoMA. This month, though, is a real embarrassment of riches, with MoMA’s Jia Zhangke retrospective launching this Friday (complete with short films, other rarities, and appearances by Jia and actress Zhao Tao), and Asia Society’s program of seven independent Chinese films made between 2005 to 2008.
It’s been noted that programming centered on a single national cinema often flirts with the danger of reducing its selections to merely sociological objects. The value of Asia Society’s series China’s Past Present, Future on Film though, is that it exposes us to a diverse group of lesser-known artists at a time when much of the discussion of contemporary Chinese cinema still revolves around big names like Jia Zhangke. Nevertheless, it’s also probably helpful that the program bluntly acknowledges the cult of that one particular master. Tipping its hat to the heavyweight being honored over on the south side of the park, it even opens with an hour-long documentary that relives the memory of his earliest films. Xiao Jia Going Home, made by French-Algerian Damien Ounouri, captures the kind of homecoming you expected Jia to turn into a cinematic event at some point. It’s a slight but welcome tribute to this great director, but one that presumes a certain degree of familiarity with his work.
The journey back to his hometown of Fenyang in Shanxi province is broken up into three recurrent set-ups: bits of montage that juxtapose various locations with the scenes from Jia’s “hometown trilogy” (Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures) in which they were used; unnecessarily long stretches in which Jia repeats every sound bite about his mission as a filmmaker that he’s delivered in his interviews throughout the years; and, most intriguingly, encounters between him and the locals. As he catches up with old acquaintances, most of whom recognize him and many of whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade, one can’t help but recall the underlying tension of one scene in his short documentary Dong, in which the well-known painter Liu Xiaodong mourns a death in an impoverished family. Like Liu, Jia is now a celebrated member of the intellectual class, and his relationship to Fenyang has clearly changed. The palpable division that socioeconomic difference creates, and Jia’s arguable responsibility to his old friends and neighbors, remain the elephants in the room.
Jia has long been burdened by that age-old dilemma of what it means to be an artist of humble beginnings whose admiring audience is now primarily based among the Western élite. Xiao Jia would certainly have benefitted from a more thoughtful interrogation of these unique circumstances, but when Ounouri poses the question, Jia’s guard goes up. In two other selections Jia’s involvement is behind the scenes. A pair of films produced through his company Xstream Pictures follow the divergent aesthetic paths he has traveled in the past decade. Han Jie’s debut Walking on the Wild Side follows a set of young drifters from Shanxi, capturing the grainy, unbeautiful hues that dominated Jia’s own chronicles of one of China’s poorest regions. But Han’s Jia-like investment in restless, dejected youth is taken to brutal extremes, and all the passionless sex and violence is never anchored in any real curiosity about the film’s characters. Lost in a wash of dark blues and grays, Wild Side inadvertently instructs us through its deficiencies on what makes Jia’s Shanxi trilogy so powerful: his intimate feeling for small-town streets, the people who populate them, and all the lost and wasted time that passes through them. Where Jia leaves you heartbroken and overwhelmed, Han’s misanthropy just makes you uncomfortably numb.
From worst in show, we move to best. Emily Tang’s Jia-produced sophomore feature Perfect Life—one of the finest Chinese films of recent years—is a bifurcated narrative in the tradition of fiction/documentary hybrids like Useless, 24 City, and Ying Liang’s The Other Half. What strikes you first about this latest experiment in fashionably deconstructed realism is that, unlike Jia and Ying’s intentional blurring of the lines between the real and the staged, Tang establishes separate palettes and textures for the film’s two barely intersecting realms. We begin with Yueying, a young woman whose unstable life not only forms the imaginary section of the film but is also carried out as if it were a mere product of her imagination. In an attempt to escape from a family torn apart by a lost father, cruel mother, and delinquent brother, she drifts from one fantasy to the next: auditioning for a performance troupe, sneaking through the rooms of guests at the hotel where she finds work, preparing for a dubious future of marital bliss in Shenzhen. This half of the film is meticulously framed and ominously colored, with a cluttered mise-en-scene evoking a splintered reality. This visual complexity clues us into its fictiveness.
Already deep into Yueying’s story, we switch to the grainier, low-definition DV of Jenny’s world, as this mainland Chinese emigrant in Hong Kong undergoes a painful divorce and desperately seeks employment to feed her two daughters. If Yueying’s section catches our eye with its striking cinematic qualities and the foreboding sense that truth has lost all meaning among China’s emotionally depleted migrant workers, then Jenny’s authentic documentary performance lurches us back into persistent, unignorable reality. Chinese cinema has offered us some of the most compelling “acting” of recent years in the form of real-live talking heads, and Jenny joins figures like Fengming (in Wang Bing’s film of the same name) and the testimonials in 24 City as she alternates between camera-ready stoicism and startling emotional transparency. The link between Yueying and Jenny is an ambiguous one, and the distance between their narratives (and the disparity between their visual representations) is enough to indicate the absence of easy feminist sisterhood.
The fiction/documentary combo holds the special appeal of being both socially significant journalism and aesthetically innovative, auteurist territory. Though this mixed form is already threatening to become a cliché and a crutch of postmodern filmmaking, its intertwining, sometimes conflicting messages remain provocative. Such films can be overly dutiful in pointing out our ill-formed understandings of truth and falsehood. They also seem to say that no matter how purely reportorial or observational a documentary claims to be, it still—by virtue of operating in a moving-image medium with a long history of artistic practice—transforms images from real life into aesthetic objects, ushering them into the imaginary space that all cinema creates. Do films carry within them traces of a person’s life, or do they merely embalm their human subjects? Or is the inclusion of real-life footage an affirmation of fiction’s underappreciated documentary value? Tang escapes the pitfalls of empty formalism by confronting these ambiguities as they relate to the most basic elements of cinema: performance, narrative, visual style. I suspect Perfect Life is strong enough to shoulder these big, loaded questions for years to come. (Be sure to turn to Shelly Kraicer’s excellent piece in Cinema Scope for a closer reading.)
The series’ four non-Jia-related offerings are backed by dGenerate Films, a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema. Due to their efforts, two of the most powerful recent Chinese documentaries have screened in New York in the past year: Zhao Dayong’s unforgettable New York Film Festival entry, Ghost Town; and Du Haibin’s stringently unsentimental record of the Sichuan earthquake’s aftermath, 1428. These two triumphs brim with so much messy, irrepressible life that the artfully restrained vérité of Peng Tao's Little Moth and the gorgeously photographed teenage love stories in Yang Heng's Betelnut feel oddly stiff in comparison--they're admirable naturalistic fictions whose human elements end up being less than convincing.
The second real stand-out here is Robin Weng's Fujian Blue, which resonates with Perfect Life in a number of interesting ways. First of all, it's split down the middle: the opening plot involves a group of young gangsters who try to swindle "remittance widows" whose husbands are living abroad; the second narrative follows a young man's dashed dreams of smuggling away to a better life in England. Like Perfect Life, whose characters look to that interstitial space between Shenzhen and Hong Kong as a land of promise, Fujian Blue explores the aspirations of mainlanders who would rather be anywhere than where they are. The province of the film's title has historically been a launching point for Chinese immigrating to other countries, and Weng's film is equally convincing when it sympathizes with the desire for mobility and critiques the materialism that often instigates it. Though it begins amid seedy settings and bawdy humor, Fujian Blue slowly reveals its emotional sophistication, building toward an unexpectedly devastating ending.
None of the works showcased here break significant aesthetic ground, and while the filmmakers each have their own temperaments, most conform to contemporary trends as laid out in The Urban Generation, an insightful and highly informative anthology of essays edited by Chinese film scholar Zhang Zhen. As Wang Bing has noted, “in China, social changes have come so fast and been so massive, that the opportunities for documentaries are considerable." It is in the fiction films that the "urban" mode--a video-driven aesthetic that dispensed with the melodramatic heroics of the Fifth Generation, liberated filmmakers from studio-based and government-approved projects, and empowered them to apply colloquialisms of language and style--is showing a few signs of fatigue. Still, it's difficult to imagine a film culture more impassioned about cinema's potential to document and even change history, or one in which cinema is more central as the chosen form of artistic and political expression. As superb talents like Jia and Tang discover new nuances and registers within a now-classic vocabulary, they may someday find themselves inventing an entirely new one.