Chinese independent cinema has long been associated with the term ‘underground cinema’ since its emergence in the 1990s. Due to its non-compliance to censorship, it has existed in the grey space between the authoritarian state’s force and the commercial market. However, since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, the realm of the Chinese independent film scene has seen a significant contraction. This is marked by the successive clampdowns on three major domestic independent film festivals and the enactment of the 2017 Film Industry Promotion Law, which further cemented the illicit status of independent production, distribution and exhibition in China. ‘Is independent cinema in China dead?’ This question, posed by Chris Berry, had been lingering in the minds of many individuals involved in Chinese independent cinema.1 In response to the pressing need to preserve the vanishing Chinese independent film culture under Xi Jinping’s regime, the Chinese Independent Film Archive (CIFA), officially launched in 2023 at Newcastle University, has embarked on a mission to collect independent films, footage, photography, publications, and conducted oral history interviews, becoming the world’s largest archival collection dedicated to Chinese independent film culture.2 From 25 September to 6 October, CIFA organised an independent film series presenting 19 classic and new independent films, screened in the UK for the first time, alongside multi-media exhibitions and roundtable discussions to mark its launch. In the post-independent era, CIFA nurtured a potent sense of nostalgia for the time when independent cinema was at its peak while also attempting to pave the way for us to contemplate its future. 

Despite the depressing environment, the Chinese independent cinema community has not vanished. More than 50 filmmakers, curators, and scholars from around the world, most of whom have played pivotal roles in Chinese independent cinema, participated in the event. During the heyday of Chinese independent cinema, domestic festivals like China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) and Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) cultivated distinctive traditions, values, and a strong sense of collective identity within the community. The crackdown of the festivals and the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, which isolated individuals in China not only from the rest of the world but also from each other, served as destructive bombs for the independent film scene. The independent cinema community then transformed into an imagined utopia, sustained by duli jingshen (indie spirit) and a nostalgia for the relatively fewer constraints on civil society in the past. What exactly is the independent spirit that the community longed for? CIFA’s programme provides some answers. 

The label of independent cinema often connotes a strong political sense in the Chinese context. One key theme in the film series is exploring the truth hidden from the official narrative. Xunzhao Lin Zhao de Linghun (In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, Hu Jie, 2004) and Peiwu Zhe (Dancer, Wang Yunlong, 2021) unveil the unspoken histories of the Cultural Revolution. Both documentaries take a conventional approach, incorporating archival materials and the filmmakers’ narrations to denounce political violence inflicted upon their female subjects. When In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul was released in 2004, it was ground-breaking, as it introduced Lin Zhao to many individuals as a poet and a warrior against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political campaign and socialist ideology. Dancer exposes the grim reality of socialist China, where women were exploited as sexual victims for the higher leadership. Because of this film, Wang faced numerous interrogations from the national security police. 

Certainly, deconstructing the official discourse involves not only reinterpreting history but also re-evaluating contemporary social issues stemming from the authoritarian regime. For instance, Tian Jiang (Falling from the Sky, Zhang Zanbo, 2009) sheds light on how satellite launches disrupt and harm the lives of local villagers within the broader framework of the Chinese Dream. Dui Hua (Dialogue, Wang Wo, 2014) delves into China’s ethnic policies, while Qiu (Inmates, Ma Li, 2017) explores the lives of patients in a psychiatric hospital in Northeast China. Those documentaries aim their cameras at what is conspicuously absent from the glorified narrative shaped by the CCP: the suffering of ordinary people, more precisely, the subaltern and the oppressed.

In the face of the perpetrators still in power, striving for independence from the official discourse when it comes to recounting history and addressing contemporary social issues is undeniably valuable. For individuals well-versed in Chinese independent cinema, they would have previously watched some of the above films on different occasions. Whist CIFA provides us an opportunity for retrospecting the ‘classic’ independent films today, it also compels us to reconsider and reflect on the common but often unspoken problems: the violence inherent in the act of filming and the act of watching the subaltern and the oppressed as a spectacle. I found myself constantly pondering whether such documentaries themselves offer a voyeuristic or pornographic gaze on passive victims. Do the documentary subjects have any agency in gazing? Or are they just silent objects? Who is speaking? Who is watching? Can we think of some alternative form of conceiving of ‘otherness’? 

In CIFA’s program, younger generation filmmakers offer unique insights. Wang Bo’s short film Jiulongdong Wangshi (An Asian Ghost Story, 2023) lets the Hong Kong ‘ghost’ speak. The film delves into Hong Kong’s hair export in the Cold War context. Narrated through a female voiceover, the history and memory of the ghost is being recounted. In this narrative, the ghost, existing somewhere between the dead and the living, not only symbolises Hong Kong as a region situated between East and West, affected by both UK imperialism and Asian geo-politics, but also reflects the diasporic experience of Hong Kong. Another film by Wang, The Revolution will Not Be Air-conditioned (2022), referencing the iconic poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Black activist Gil Scott-Heron, reshapes the act of watching through a ‘mobilised gaze’, wandering in the postmodern public sphere of the shopping mall.3 It explores the shopping mall as an architectural and social analogue to the historical evolution of Hong Kong, from a former British Empire colony to a space shaped by consumerism and political control. As the screen split into two different angles on the malls, the inherent violence of the camera is reconstructed through spatial and temporal mobility. 

An Asian Ghost Story

Like Wang, other younger generation filmmakers also add a diasporic take on the independent film scene. An Afternoon with Berti (Tawfiq Nizamidin, 2023) explores the complexity of the Uyghur diasporic experience. In this black and white fiction, the image of Uyghur female activist Mihriay is portrayed through the memories of her Uyghur and French friends after her disappearance. As the Uyghurs are displaced from their homeland, the disparity between the Uyghur and French perceptions of Mihriay as a human being highlights that the Uyghur displacement narrative continues to be a point of contention between the Uyghur community and the West.

Renowned for his queer documentaries and activism within the Beijing Queer Film Festival (the sole surviving independent film festival in China), Berlin-based filmmaker Popo Fan presented his comedies Beer! Beer! (2019), Wegen Hegel (2022), and a performance titled Anti-Romantism. Whilst still maintaining his distinctive signature of queer experience, Popo Fan challenges the stereotypical portrayal of ‘sad young man’ in Chinese (and global) queer cinema.4 In a light-hearted and somewhat awkward vibe, Chinese gay men, in Popo Fan’s lens, take the initiative to rebel against the social challenges of racism and loneliness in the Western context.

Wegen Hegel

Of course, gender remains a persistent and often unaddressed issue in Chinese independent cinema. Over the past 30 years, we have become familiar with canonical filmmakers such as Hu Jie, Wang Bing, and Wu Wenguang through various international and domestic independent film festivals. However, when it comes to women and queer filmmakers, how many can we readily name? Unfortunately, too few of these filmmakers receive the spotlight in media coverage, curatorial programs, and academic writing. In this regard, the CIFA film series includes works from Popo Fan and seven women filmmakers – Feng Yan, Ji Dan, Jia Kai, Ma Li, Tang Danhong, and Zang Honghua – offering a platform for their gendered voices in the male-dominated world of independent cinema.

Fu Yongju (To Live, 2023) is Feng Yan’s third film of the ‘Women alongside the Yangtze River’ project. Like her other films Dreams of the Yangtze River (1997) and Bing’ai (2007) in the series, To Live continues to depict the lives of Three Gorges female migrant workers. The film revolves around Fu Yongju’s life after the death of her husband. As Feng from time to time interacts with Fu and her daughter behind the camera, her intimate camera shows care and humanity at the core of the filmmaker-subject relationship, rather than merely being the observer and the observed.

Also centring on a female subject, Baya (Ji Dan, 2023) presents filmmaking as a process of exploring the subject’s life while intricately entwining the filmmaker’s journey of self-discovery. Ji Dan opens the film by posing two questions while undergoing a mental breakdown herself: ‘How much pain can one person endure? How much pain can a woman endure?’ Ji explores the answers by living with Baya, an 82-year-old Zhuang ethnic woman with 26 offspring. In this case, the connection between Baya and Ji transcends the typical filmmaker-subject relationship, evolving into a deep female kinship devoid of any blood bond. The film concludes with the poignant cry of Baya’s great-granddaughter, underscoring that the pain endured by a woman is not exclusive to Ji or Baya but extends through generations in perpetual time.

Tang Danhong expresses women’s pain and sensitivity by turning the camera towards herself, her friends, and, most importantly, her family. Her essay film Yeying Bushi Weiyi de Gehou (Nightingale, Not the Only Voice, 2000), one of the earliest personal documentaries in China, explores her own childhood trauma, stemming from abuse by her parents, who were labelled as rightists during the Cultural Revolution. Tang confronted her parents, their indifference exemplifying how public political violence can transform into gender-based violence and personal trauma for women. 

Nightingale, Not the Only Voice

Questions of gender were also posed in various settings during the CIFA launch event. Debates on feminism and the persistent issue of gender within Chinese independent cinema continued in an impromptu discussion led by Tang Danhong and Tammy Cheung. There, Ma Li shared her experiences as a female filmmaker and as an editor of Dianying Zuozhe (Film Auteur), a journal established by a group of independent filmmakers in 2012 to foster communication among filmmakers. Being the sole woman on the editorial board, Ma Li intended to introduce a different perspective and posed three questions for male filmmakers to answer. These questions included whether they had seen any works by female filmmakers and their thoughts on the current status of women filmmakers in independent cinema. Ma was taken aback by the anger and absurdity she encountered from male filmmakers. ‘I found myself plunged into a bizarre moment. I thought this topic could be discussed, but their reaction suddenly made me feel how inappropriate my questions were’, said Ma. So, where does the male filmmakers’ anger come from? Why has the discussion of gender become a taboo in Chinese independent cinema? Ma’s experience is certainly not a single case, but also shared by numerous women practitioners in the scene.

Improvised panel led by female filmmakers and curators

In a panel titled ‘How to Exhibit Chinese Indies Overseas? A Forum of the Young Generation of Chinese Film Curators in Europe’, a cohort of young female curators shared their understanding of feminism and their experiences in curating independent cinema. However, at the end of the panel, the cohorts were lectured by two veteran male filmmakers and curators on the topic of what constitutes an independent spirit and how to ‘inherit’ the legacy properly. In this regard, if we revisit the question posed at the beginning of this report regarding the definition of the independent spirit, it becomes evident that the male-dominated culture is an integral component of this spirit.

In this context, the voices of the marginalised, whether they are women, queer people, documentary subjects, or younger generation practitioners, are often muted. The broader narrative of Chinese independent cinema revolves around challenging authoritarianism, promoting ‘mankind’ liberation, and striving for equality. However, this male-dominated culture, deeply entrenched in patriarchy, internalises a certain sense of hegemony, relegating issues related to gender and ethics in the service of the ‘noble’ mission of achieving ‘independence’ from the state system.

When discussing the aftermath of Chinese independent cinema, it may be time to reconfigure how to transgress the so-called legacy and bring in a new soul.

Chinese Independent Film Archive Launch Film Series: Chinese Independent Cinema Today
25 September – 6 October
Chinese Independent Film Archive (CIFA) website: https://www.chinaindiefilm.org/


  1. Chris Berry, “The Death of Chinese Independent Cinema?”, The Asia Dialogue, 3 July 2017.
  2. The Chinese Independent Film Archive is the primary research outcome of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project titled ‘Independent Cinema in China: State, Market, and Film Culture’ (2019-2024).
  3. Anne Friedberg, Window shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (London: University of California Press, 1993).
  4. Richard Dyer, ‘‘Coming out as going in: The image of the homosexual as a sad young man”, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation (Routledge: London, 1993), p. 73-92. Chris Berry also further brought Dyer’s idea to bear on East Asian cinema in “Happy Alone? Sad Young Men in East Asian Gay Cinema”, Journal of Homosexuality, 39 (3/4), 2000, p. 187-200.

About The Author

Xiang FAN is a film researcher and teacher, based in University of the Arts London. She received her PhD in media communications and cultural studies from Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on Chinese independent and art cinema, film festivals and exhibition culture, women’s cinema, the archive and unspoken history. She is the dossier editor of “Cinema and Piracy”. She is the also the editor of Chinese Independent Cinema Observer. Her monograph Contemporary Art Cinema Culture in China is forthcoming in 2023 as part of the Bloomsbury’s "Global East Asian Screen Cultures" book series.

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