Bumming in Beijing

The voices of silence

I saw my first Chinese documentary, Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing – Zuihou De Mengxiangzhe, 1990), at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1991. A young man was taking a hand-held video camera though the streets, back alleys and run-down apartments of Beijing, probing into the daily lives of marginalised artists. Part Jeanne Dielman (for its long takes, mundane actions and empty domestic spaces), part awkward cinéma vérité-cum-talking heads, with a touch of interventionism à la Marcel Ophuls (as Wu sometimes appears in the image and can be heard conversing or arguing with his subjects), Bumming in Beijing, unfolding over 150 minutes, offered access to a China never seen before, and was a genuine breakthrough in formal terms. I have recounted elsewhere, in a text recently quoted in Senses of Cinema, the exhilaration I experienced at discovering this first documentary (1). I was particularly fascinated by the moments in which apparently “nothing happened” and nothing was said. As I was analysing it at the time as a throwback to the tropes of Chinese classical painting (in which “the void” plays an essential part) (2), I was happily challenged by Ernest Larsen’s sensitive description of the piece:

Wu is not afraid to show us “nothing” – someone cleaning a flat, for example, or making a painting… It is tempting to see this figure of style as distinctively “Chinese” – but the temptation is worth resisting. Furthermore, Wu’s long takes and emphasis on duration serve as a kind of counterpoint to the suddenness with which Tiananmen was crushed… The prolonged moments of near silence in Bumming in Beijing produce the aesthetic effect of outlasting the remembered roar of government tanks (3).

On the other hand, at crucial moments, Wu adopts a performative mode that goes beyond the tropes of traditional vérité and brings forward his body and his voice, as if to fill the void. Yet, unlike Marcel Ophuls, who inserts his disruptive questions and confrontational humour to track down his interviewee’s lies and omissions, Wu stages himself within the picture he (re)creates. The void that structures Bumming in Beijing sends the viewer back to the few months between spring and autumn of 1989 during which no image was taken and death was taking its toll. It is a void that threatened to engulf him as well as his subjects, so the relationship he establishes with them, far from being confrontational, is of shared sympathy. Of the five people whose lives he observes – a female writer (Zhang Ci), a male (Zhang Dali) and a female (Zhang Xia Ping) painter, a photographer (Gao Bo) and an experimental theatre director (Mou Sen) – two define themselves as “vagabonds” (mangliu) (4) either emotionally (Zhang Xia Ping, who later has a nervous breakdown in front of the camera) or professionally (Gao Bo, who equates it to the state of being a freelance photographer (5)). Like them, Wu is an independent artist, unattached to any “work unit”, and working underground – a fate shared by a number of filmmakers of the “Sixth Generation” after 1990 (6).


Born in 1956 in Yunnan, Wu worked as a farmer in the last years of the Cultural Revolution. He studied literature and had a brief stint as an educator and television journalist before turning independent in 1989. His breakthrough work, Bumming in Beijing, shot between 1989 and 1990, revealed the ambition of accurately portraying his generation – a goal shared by two other important works of the early 1990s. Between 1988 and 1991 (with a six-month gap after June 1989), Shi Jian and Chen Jue, two members of the short-lived Structure, Wave, Youth, Cinema Experimental Group (SWYC) (Zhonghuo ‘Jiegou, Lanchao, Qingnian, Dianying’ Shiyan Xiaozu) conducted more than 100 interviews with people from various strata of society living around the city’s famed square: survivors of the imperial era, street performers, grandmothers, small entrepreneurs, young women in modelling schools, foreigners. These interviews, reorganised into eight episodes of 50 minutes each and intercut with historical footage, tend to favour people who become possible vectors of change: young entrepreneurs – whether they open an advertising production company, an alternative bookstore or a cultural institute – or women trying to break the Confucian mould by embracing the most visible forms of Western modernity (such as opening a fashion school). The series resorted to what I once described as “a smorgasbord of strategies” (7), including talking head interviews, cinéma vérité, historical and MTV footage and still photographs (8).

The third important piece of the immediate post-June 4th period was, also by the SWYC, I Graduated! (Wo biye le, 1992), in which eight recent graduates who were attending China’s most prestigious universities in June 1989 are interviewed about love, sex, employment prospects, their philosophy of life, their ambivalent desire to travel abroad and their memories of the student movement. More compact, more intimate, and more poignant, I Graduated! starts with a subjective shot from the point of view of the filmmakers as they clandestinely enter one of the universities. Quoting poetry, hiding behind a cynical mask of existential posturing, listening to or performing pop music, the interviewees are students of literature, political science or philosophy, engineers or architects, political cadres or drop-outs. As the memory of Tiananmen Square continues to haunt them, they express ambivalent feelings toward the West – should they travel abroad (and wash dishes in a foreign restaurant)? Should they stay (and see their horizon limited forever)?

At the time, neither Wu Wenguang, nor the members of the SWYC had been abroad (Wu only started to travel after his work was shown in international film festivals) – yet their work is delineated by the off-screen existence of a faraway, maybe fantasised, international scene. What prompted Wu to shoot Bumming in Beijing was the writer Zhang Ci’s decision to marry an elderly American man who’d take her to the US. By the end of the piece, three other subjects had also married foreigners and moved abroad – Wu was to follow them a few years later with At Home in the World (Shihai Weijia, 1995), a documentary which combines tales of further displacement: Zhang Ci’s second marriage in a California suburb; Gao Bo’s difficult life, between freelance photography and portraits of tourists under the Eiffel Tower; Zhang Dali spray-painting the streets of Bologna at night as a way to vent a solitude that neither marriage, fatherhood nor success can assuage; and, more poignantly, Zhang Xia Ping’s marriage into a well-meaning but religious Austrian family, where her free spirit is slowly crushed. Torn between motherhood and her desire to continue painting, Zhang seeks refuge, once again, in mental illness.

Wu offsets their trajectories with that of Mou Sen, the experimental director who stayed at home, and who fights censorship and bureaucratic harassment. Like the young men and women of I Graduated!, Mou Sen and his collaborators are in “internal exile” – a fact further explored by another video, The Other Bank (Bi an, 1995), directed the same year by Jiang Yue. Mou Sen had organised a directing workshop to stage the play The Other Bank (a nostalgic criticism of the communist utopia) with 12 theatre students, who, once the workshop was over, were sent back to a life of unskilled job seekers. Disillusion, cynicism or despair settled in – with a few exceptions (a young man bringing theatre to the peasants of his own town) (9). It’s highly likely that the feelings expressed by Mou Sen’s former students would not be so different from unemployed or poorly employed art graduates from Australia or the US. Yet, in post-1989 China, these feelings are relatively new, the products of an unholy mixture between a decaying socialism and an unchecked market economy.

Socialism no longer guarantees a job fit to your capacities. The “invisible hand” of capitalism does not match job-seekers and employment. Yet the very visible hand of bureaucracy is still at work. It is a bastardised system, generating various phenomena of geographical and social uprooting and displacement: unaffiliated artists without work units and residency permits (10); uprooted peasants seeking work in the cities, laid off factory workers no longer seeking work, migrant farm workers; young men and women who do not recognise themselves in the picture offered by the government: “The motherland I love is the China of my imagination… I like to call it China, not PRC”, says one of the interviewees of I Graduated!

A hybrid genre, the documentary as it developed from the late 1980s on was particularly apt to representing these feelings of estrangement, of internal exile. The June 1989 crackdown made independent documentarians acutely aware that “normal” channels of communication were closed to them, in particular state television. So most of the documentaries finished after 1989 are subtitled – sometimes awkwardly – in English, as, gradually, the international network of film festivals and art venues became their only outlet.


Documentary and television had entertained a complex history in China. The “Documentary Studio” was only producing mediocre propaganda films (11).

All Chinese documentaries made prior to 1989 took the form of the pre-scripted illustrated lecture. Mostly, they were known as zhuanti pian, or literally, ‘special topic films’, as opposed to newsreels (xinwen pian), which cover a range of topics in short reports (12).

However, television was to open up a space for experimentation. The first example of this was River Elegy (Heshang, 1988), a six-part series directed by Xia Jun and narrated by Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiiang, which aired twice on the government-sponsored CCTV (China Central Television) in the months preceding the spring 1989 Movement. I agree with Chris Berry that, with its overwhelming use of pre-scripted voice over, the series does not break any formal ground, but its message (an attempt to locate the cause of a number of historical failures in China’s refusal or fear to deal with the outside world) was so controversial that the series was banned and Su Xiaokang – now living in exile in the US – became one of the most wanted intellectuals in the aftermath of the June 4th massacre (13). River Elegy marks the end of the first period of collaboration between documentary filmmakers and state television. The same year it was aired, Shi Jian and Chen Jue were trying to initiate an original formula for Tiananmen Square. It was commissioned by CCTV, but produced independently. When the series was finished, however, CCTV refused to air it. Wong Ain-ling, Asian cinema curator at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, programmed it for the 1992 edition, but had to withdraw it under pressure from CCTV. Meanwhile, the most productive members of what became known as “the New Documentary Movement” – an informal group of people, mostly based in Beijing, whose documentaries started to get known after 1989 – were dropping off from the TV stations that employed them. In 1989, Wu Wenguang quit his job as a television journalist; in 1992, Duan Jinchuan left the Tibet TV Station where he had been assigned after graduation in 1984, and returned to Beijing to direct independent work.

However, TV networks like CCTV continue to employ talented, ambitious young people who enjoy relative creative freedom and sometimes moonlight as independent filmmakers. Due to a loophole in China’s legal system, the making of documentaries is actually less regulated than the making of fiction. The marginalisation undergone by Sixth Generation filmmakers is predicated on some provisions of the “Regulations on Administration of the Film Industry” that not only subject feature films to a two-tier censorship system, but also identify government studios as the only “work units” authorised to produce films. So, no matter what its content is, an independent production is de facto illegal (14). Documentaries are not subjected to the same rules, so it has become possible for young filmmakers, especially in the last few years, to have a “day job” in a TV station and produce their own independent work without getting into trouble with their employers. Moreover, even if a film produced by and for a TV network is rejected by censorship, it is simply not aired, and its maker usually incurs no further trouble.

Fish and Elephant

For example, Li Hong left her mark on the New Documentary Movement with her first piece, Out of Phoenix-Bridge (Hui Dao Fenghuang Qiao, 1997), while continuing working for CCTV. A delicately crafted piece with a unique feminine sensibility, the video is an intimate look at the lives of four young girls from a remote village in Hunan province who have come to Beijing to work as noodle vendors or domestics. Gradually the piece refocuses from their conditions of existence to their emotional lives, and the stories of family pressures, enduring poverty and lost loves that are hidden in the snowed back alleys of the faraway Phoenixbridge. Another young woman, Li Yu, was a top TV host before becoming a writer-director with CCTV in 1997. In 1999, she directed the controversial (and banned) independent documentary Sisters (Jiemei), then made a 16 mm independent feature, Fish and Elephant (Yu he Daxiang, 2001), the first narrative to deal with the emotional and sexual life of lesbian women in China with sympathy and a flurry of realistic touches. Asking her performers to play themselves, Li Yu said (15) that she felt the need to turn to fiction to protect her subjects, for a documentary might have “outed” them to their families (16). Wang Bing, the magnificent auteur of Out of the Tracks (Tiexi Qu, 2002 – see below) also comes from television, where he directed an 18-part, award-winning series entitled Campus Affairs and several documentaries for the series Common People’s Homestead. Kian Jianning, one of the few documentary auteurs to use a tripod and whose images are “so beautiful that they are close to obscene… [and] remind one of the early work of Chen Kaige, [through] the vastness, emptiness and desolation of the landscape”, is Deputy Director of a TV Station in the Ningxia Autonomous Region (near Mongolia). It is there that he shot his latest piece, Yin Yang (Yinyang, 1997) – about a fenshui master in a poor village. Chen Weijun directed To Live is Better than to Die (Hao Si Bu Ru Lai Huo Zhe, 2002 – see below) about a family of HIV+ peasants while working at the Wuhan TV station (Hubei Province) (17).

This constant exchange with television has allowed young documentarians to keep honing their crafts and have access to equipment after hours – while, faced with the ever-evolving nature of spectatorship in China, the networks have benefited from their creativity and experimentations. This dialectic keeps changing, as more and more directors have access to their own mini-cameras and at-home computer editing equipment, and foreign financing sometimes makes it possible to break away from the local networks. Yet, even though independently produced documentaries will never be aired in China, television remains a distant gauge and horizon, shaping the new media landscape.

The (Re)Construction of Reality

At a formal level, experimentation started in a bubble of isolation, but decidedly against the tropes of the zhuanti pian. No matter how cliché it may appear in the West (18), the use of “talking heads” was a revolutionary statement, “giving the floor” to people whose voice had never been heard before. At a technical level, this was made possible by the availability throughout Asia (19) of light consumer cameras with incorporated microphones, while the cameras previously used in documentaries were heavy, cumbersome and necessitated separate sound equipment and crew. Camcorders made the synchronous recording of sound available to anyone “literate” enough (in the Benjaminian sense) to compose and read an image – and 35 mm film equipment itself was becoming more efficient and portable. In the 1990s, the Chinese film industry started to give up its long-time habit for post-synchronisation. To go back to independent production, in his ground-breaking Mama (1990) – a savvy mixture of documentary and fiction, completed the same year as Bumming in Beijing – Zhang Yuan interviews the mothers of mentally challenged children. The surprise but also the quiet exhilaration of these women, whose opinion no one had ever bothered to ask, is perceived even through the rough translation of the subtitles. Tiananmen Square makes an almost encyclopaedic use of the talking head, giving equal time to the left-over of history (a lonely eunuch reminiscing his time in the Forbidden City), the people trying to reshape history or those who simply witness it. In I Graduated! the interviews become more intimate, allowing space for silence, hesitation, anger and tears. The length of the piece (64 mins) makes it clear that it was not intended for television broadcasting, and that Shi Jian and Chen Jue were positing themselves within the realm of independent, underground documentary. It would have been interesting to see where such a positioning would have led them – had the SWYC not self-dissolved shortly thereafter.

On the other hand, Wu Wenguang’s multifaceted approach opened new vistas. Bumming in Beijing is an “impure form” – or, maybe, to return to André Bazin’s famous expression, “a mixed cinema” (un cinéma impur in French) (20). To track an elusive, complex and often painful reality, Wu mixes various forms of talking heads (with and without the voice of the interviewer) with sequences shot in a style that spontaneously reproduces direct cinema. It’s only after travelling abroad that Wu discovered in the films of Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa Shinsuke – with their vérité approach and use of long takes – echoes of his own work. In the following years, Wu became an advocate of vérité in China – organising documentary screenings and conferences and publishing a desk-top magazine, Documentary Scene (Jilu Shouce, 1996-7), the short-lived independent monthly art magazine New Wave (Xin Chao, 2001) and editing two collections of critical texts, Document (Xianchang, 2000 and 2001).

Meanwhile, Wu was struggling and experimenting to (re)define his own style. In 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1966, Wo de hongweibing shidai, 1993), he still resorts to talking heads to interview former Red Guards who reminisce and reflect about their involvement in the “movement” as teenagers. Although only a few years younger, Wu was aware of the gap that separated his experience from theirs. Moreover, these people – two businessmen, a philosopher, an engineer, as well as “Fifth Generation” director Tian Zhuangzhuang – are “settled” in life, with comfortable incomes and positions (except for Tian Zhuangzhuang who was banned from filmmaking at the time, but still endowed with the “aura” of a world-famous director), while Wu was an independent video artist, surviving day-to-day on the fringe of illegality. Wu did not have access to his interviewees’ daily lives as he had in Bumming in Beijing, so, neatly divided into topical chapters, the piece first appears to have a traditional structure. Wu quickly disturbs it by alluding to his own involvement in the Beijing underground and intercutting footage of the all-girl rock band Cobra rehearsing a song titled “1966, Red Train” (21). The piece then opposes two forms of struggle for modernity – the one embodied by the Red Guards who wanted to put the old world to death and become a part of revolutionary history, and the one represented by the members of Cobra, striving to find artistic recognition against sexism and marginalisation in the gray post-Tiananmen era.

At Home in the World also contains a great number of interviews, in which the five “subjects” talk about themselves or their situations, but they are totally integrated to the vérité footage. Wu shares their lives and living spaces, follows them in their various activities, often inserts himself, or his live-in girlfriend and collaborator, Wen Hui, in the image, and continues ongoing conversations with them that becomes part of the texture of the moment. This sort of intimacy might become dangerous, or at least too close for comfort, and At Home in the World marks the apex, but also the end of the ambitious project that Wu had once nurtured – of following the lives of his five friends and recording them throughout the years. Apparently, some of them felt offended by what was revealed of them in the second “episode” of the “series” (22).

Out of Phoenix-Bridge

Out of Phoenix-Bridge makes a similar use of the “interviews”, as the young women talk to the filmmaker who has temporarily moved into their cramped little room. However, Li Hong does not appear in the image, and her “voice” is only present through laid-over titles in which she narrates the story of her relationship with the girls and the different layers of contradictory interpretations that she went through. As artists like Li Hong and Wu Wenguang wilfully play with the interaction between objectivity and the subjective gaze, the New Documentary Movement was to take a turn toward a more rigorous use of vérité techniques. One of its finest achievements was No 16 Barkhor South Street (Ba kuo nan jie shi liu hao, 1996, Grand Prix du Festival du Réel in Paris), in which Duan Jinchuan takes a close look at the daily life of one of these “neighbourhood committees” (ju wei hui) that exist throughout China. As the committee is in Lhasa, however, a muted tension exists between the Chinese cadres or residents and the Tibetan citizens, which permeates the piece at all levels, linguistically, humanly and administratively. People come to the ju wei hui to sort out various problems: marital disputes and family squabbles, petty theft, robbery, delinquency, unemployment; they receive their political education from it; young policemen from the countryside arrive for training etc. Duan adopts the “fly-on-the-wall” technique; he never interferes, never asks questions, never comments. In spite of this, an acute form of social criticism seeps subtly and is particularly palatable in the last sequence, which records the grotesque preparation of the official ceremony celebrating China’s takeover of Tibet, in which the participants are given minute instructions about the political significance of what they are supposed to wear or where they’re supposed to pee.

Tibet and the Construction of the Other

Assigned to Tibet TV station after graduating in 1984 from the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, Duan Jinchuan was among a handful of young Chinese who, willingly or not “took the trip to Tibet” in the mid- to late 1980s. Another was Wen Pulin, who came from a background of fine art and experimental theatre and worked with Duan at the TV station. In 1991, Jiang Yue joined their team, and co-directed the nine-part documentary series Tibet (1991) with Wen – Duan being the editor. On the side, the three men were making personal documentaries on various aspects of life in Tibet – such as Highland Barley (Qing ke, 1986), in which Duan Jinchuan experimented with the documentary form for the first time; The Living Buddha of Kangba (Kangba Huofu, 1991) by Wen Pulin, who developed a keen interest in Tibetan Buddhism; or Jiang Yue’s Tibetan Theater Troupe of Lhama Priests (La ma zang xi tuan, 1991) and Catholics in Tibet (Tian zhu zai xi zang, 1992). Between 1989 and 1992, Wen Puli and Duan Jinchuan co-directed The Sacred Site of Asceticism (Qing pu-ku xiu zhe de sheng di, 1993), a sympathetic look at the lives of people involved in the practice of asceticism, while clearly commenting on the status of the filmmakers as outsiders to the culture. Even after his return to Beijing in 1992, Duan continued to express a fascination for Tibet, as evidenced not only by No 16 Barkhor Street, but also by what may be his most visually beautiful work to-date, The Ends of the Earth (Tian bian, 1997). Lasting 140 mins, the piece majestically yet intimately follows transhumant shepherds through the spectacular landscapes of the Northern Plateaus.

Other people “sent down” to Tibet did not particularly like it and returned to China as soon as possible, marginalising themselves by leaving their “work unit” in the process. Mou Sen, the experimental director whose work is documented by both Wu Wenguang and Jiang Yue, assigned to the Tibetan Drama Troup in 1986, returned to Beijing after one year. Yet, among some young Chinese people, the “trip to Tibet” became a “rite of passage” for a self-styled mangliu, comparable to the trips to India or Nepal within Western counterculture during the 1960s and ’70s. One of the young men interviewed in I Graduated! took a leave of absence from school to travel to Tibet, then was expelled and returned to Beijing in 1992, jobless and homeless, before finding work in an advertising company. Gao Bo spends a sizeable amount of time in both Bumming in Beijing and At Home in the World, travelling to Tibet to take pictures. More than any “minority culture”, Tibet represented a sense of absolute Otherness, the possibility of escape from a teleological and Han-centred history of China as rewritten by Maoism. Moreover, while in Tibet, far from the Film Bureau or the Ministry of Culture, a film-/videomaker, a photographer or an artist would have a certain freedom to experiment, travel, and have access to a number of different institutions. Finally, the plight of Tibetans, forcibly occupied by the PLA and persecuted for their religious beliefs, could function as a metaphor for the alienation experienced by marginalised people facing an oppressive government.

Documentary film constructs an “Other” – the subject of the film – as opposed to the Self of the filmmaker who detains the power of framing, recording and editing. However, in the case of filmmakers documenting their own culture, especially when this culture is marginalised, the boundaries between the Self and the Other, the subject and the object, are sometimes blurred. A recent example in the US is Dogtown and Z-Boys (2000), in which Stacy Peralta, a former skateboarder, pays homage to his old Santa Monica neighbourhood, Dogtown, and the culture of skateboarding that sprang from it. Wu Wenguang is a much more accomplished filmmaker than Peralta, but, mutatis mutandis, Bumming in Beijing comes from a similar space of shared interests and lifestyles between director and interviewees, with a keen sense that “we” – the subjects of the documentary, both in front and behind the camera – are the marginalised Others in a society that oppresses or misunderstands us. On the other hand, there has been a bevy of documentaries that stage the distance between filmmakers and subjects – a position explored with a mixture of acerbic wit and tragic guilt by Godard in pieces like Here and Elsewhere (1974), later brought to annoying extremes by Nick Broomfield and handled with exquisite flair and delicacy by Li Hong in Out of Phoenix-Bridge. The purest forms of vérité, as practiced by Duan Jinchuan, and, in the later part of his career, by Jiang Yue, strive to eradicate, or at least limit, the index of presence of the filmmaker. He/she, of course, is manifested through framing, editing etc but the implicit ethics that underlies vérité is that the opacity, the unknowability of the Other is almost sacred, and that the distance that exists between subject and object has to be respected, yet taken in stride instead of becoming the topic of the film. The filmmaker’s desire to “understand” is at best naive, at worst manipulative or imperialist. The only thing that can be done is to develop techniques and tools that allow the Other to exist, unhindered, in front of the camera, and, if he/she feels like it, to speak his/her own words, no questions asked, no explanations needed, no judgment born. There is a growing body of scholarly literature on the representation of non-Han minorities in Chinese cinema, and it is not the topic of this paper to examine the often complex argument made in these texts (23). Yet, apart from the forthcoming essay by Chris Berry referenced above, very little has been written on the impact that the “Tibetan experience” had on the New Documentary Movement. It seems, though, that what the videomakers discovered in Tibet was a certain “problematic of the Other”. As their subjects did not speak Chinese, they learnt how to listen to the “grain of the voice” as much as to the meaning of the words – to be attentive to body language, unfamiliar cooking or cleaning habits or religious rituals as much as to speech itself – to include silence in the evanescent texture of things.

The DV Revolution and the Bridge to Narrative

Wu Wenguang is fond of saying that there is a sharp cut-off in his work: before and after DV. Upon acquiring a mini-camera, Wu became so excited at its possibilities that he became a keen advocate of this new tool in the articles he wrote and the magazines and books he published, and even executive produced China’s first underground DV narrative feature, Zhu Wen’s Seafood (Haixian, 2001) (24). In the second instalment of his collection of texts, Document: The Scene (Document: Xianchang) (25), Wu devotes a chapter to Jia Zhangke’s work. Since Xiao Wu (shot in 16 mm, 1998) and Platform (Zhang tai, shot in 35 mm, 2000), Jia has also become an ardent advocate of DV. In 2000, he shot a 30 min digital documentary, In Public (Gonggong Changsuo) (26), and his latest feature film, Unknown Pleasures (Renxiao Yao, 2002), shot on digital video (and later transferred to 35 mm), started as a documentary project (27).

The dialectical to-and-fro between the New Documentary and underground narrative filmmaking predates the advent of digital modes of recording. Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (Dong Chun de rizi, 1993) – the fictionalised account of the marriage breakdown between two young painters, faced with poverty, marginalisation, the repressed memory of the 1989 crackdown and the faint hope of selling paintings to foreigners or of emigrating to the West – and Wu’s Bumming in Beijing can be read as the two sides (one documentary, one narrative) of the same coin. In 1994, Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan collaborated on The Square (Guangchang), the first bringing his technical knowledge of 35 mm b/w cinematography (he shot the film himself) and his familiarity with Beijing’s urban spaces, and the second his talented command of the vérité style and his capacity to function with a reduced crew (he recorded the sound). The film, that “captures the little stories that happened during May and June” (28) 1994 on the Square unfolds, on the one hand, like the everyday urban reality that the protagonists of Beijing Bastards refused to see or be a part of, and, on the other, as a meditation on the relationship between “little people” and the ever-present structure of power that Duan was to record in No 16 Barkhor Street.

Jiang Hu: on the Road

Another moving echo happened between Sixth Generation narrative and the New Documentary Movement. In 1999, Wu Wenguang completed Jiang Hu: on the Road (Jiang Hu), an ambitious piece during which, equipped with his mini-DV camera, he and his reduced crew (three to four people) lived several months with the members of a “Song and Dance Company” as they set up and then dismounted their huge tent throughout China. A year later, Jia Zhangke released the equally ambitious Platform, that follows the lives of young “cultural workers”, from Fenyang (Jia’s hometown, where Xiao Wu was already taking place), from 1979 to 1989, their performance troupe evolving from Maoist propaganda theatre to vaguely sexy Canto-pop extravaganza. The film’s sheer duration (29) seems indebted to Wu’s systematic use of the longer form (Jiang Hu lasts 149 mins).

While Platform is impregnated through and through with the uneasy remnants of Maoist ideology, Jiang Hu alludes to another mythology, that of the wuxi pian (martial arts film). Defining the narrative space of martial arts, the jiang hu is an alternative world of knights-errant, killers for hire and vagrants – in other words, a world of mangliu. So, even though Wu depicts a counter-society further away from him than the marginalised artists of Bumming in Beijing, a certain identification continues to take place. Moreover, like Wu himself, these people are performers. In 1994, Wu had co-founded The Living Dance Studio (wu dao sheng huo) with his partner, Wen Hui, one of the best-known modern dancer/choreographers in China. The couple (still unmarried after years of cohabitation, which is a subversive stance in China) often create performances together, Wu as a playwright, actor and video artist. The “performative” aspect of Wu’s video work is nurtured by his ongoing collaboration with Wen Hui. In Jiang Hu he no longer appears in the image, but the camera dances.

The spectacles of Old Liu’s “Far and Wide Song and Dance Tent Show” are more markedly erotic and raunchy than those of Platform: they involve bikini-clad girls dancing at the sound of pop music, sexual jokes and explicit love songs. The performers are impoverished young farmers whose hope of making a better living is slowly but surely crushed by the troupe’s growing insolvency: salaries are not paid for months, and whatever money is made is used to bribe officials and the police and get protection against local thugs. The small camera allowed for a “fly on the wall” intimate approach, in which people reveal themselves without interviews. A lot of the piece takes place under the tattered tent, a hybrid space at the boundary between the public and the private, littered with suitcases, clothes and remnants of meals, and which serves as both living quarters for the troupe and performance space at night. The travellers seem free like birds, while in fact, without salary, they are trapped in a strange no-exit where personal tensions erupt, couples frolic and quarrel, and a telling moment happens in front of a portrait of Maggie Cheung reproduced on a paper bag. This was the icon of their dream, of the show-business they once naively hoped to partake in, while they remain, “on the edge of the world – of the modern, happy, wealthy life they were yearning for” (30).

Wu’s next piece (still in progress, even though the first part was shown in the festival circuit in 2002), Dance with Farm Workers (He Mingong Tiaowu) deals with another kind of mangliu: displaced peasants that have come to work on construction sites in Beijing. The piece was conceived by Wu, directed by Wen Hui (with herself, Wu, some foreign students and 30 seasonal construction workers as performers), set in a disused textile factory, and reworked by Wu as a 57 min video. As it stands now, Dance with Farm Workers is a sort of counter-point to Jiang Hu – like the performers under the big travelling tent, the protagonists have left farm work in the hope of bettering their conditions of existence, and find themselves pushed, once again, to the margins of society. The performance, for the first time in their lives, gives them centre stage, and Wu films their interaction with the “professional” artists, such as the dancers or himself, and their gradual understanding, not only that they’re going to get paid for appearing in the piece, but also that they can use their bodies, toned and trained for hard work, to produce “art”. In the second (yet unfinished) part, Wu is following their lives.

It is another form of wandering that Fifth Generation director Ning Ying (see bottom of endnote 6) tackles in her first foray into documentary – also made possible by digital recording. (Significantly, Ning’s newest project, temporarily titled Spring Festival and currently in post-production, was shot on digital video). Like Jiang Hu, the piece was shot “on the move” with a reduced crew (two people, including the director), but in the extremely confined space of a crowded train, covering 3000 miles in three days and two nights between Sichuan province and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the North of Tibet. The piece starts on the platform, with nightmarish images (albeit “normal” to anyone familiar with Chinese train stations – see This Happy Life, discussed below) of people entering the cars through the windows, burdened with bundles of all size, children, toddlers, foodstuff, baskets, even animals; young girls crying for not being able to board the train; hordes of people running from one end to the next of the platform, following contradictory information blasted through loudspeakers. Then, as if by miracle, everyone settles for the long, boring journey. And Ning Ying and her collaborator asks questions: “What are you doing here?” “What do you expect from life?”

Most of the travellers are peasants whose farm yields so little that to make ends meet they have to hire themselves to harvest cotton in the Xinjiang plantations – an internal migration that, every autumn, involves several thousands of them (mostly women, as the menfolk stay at home to till the fields and take care of the children). Yet, on the way, the filmmakers pick up other stories, that have little to do with cotton. A young girl wants to go to school where her family lives. A wife is meeting her husband, who has a comfortable job there, but wonder, after months of silence on his part, if he is waiting for her, or already living with another woman. What strikes the most in these close-ups that compose the best part of the film is the quality of the smile that the travellers display on their rugged, yet strangely beautiful faces. It is not a smile of happiness, nor is it the compulsory, identical, mechanical smile of the peasants in official pictures of the Mao era, but a smile that expresses an inner strength while facing life-long adversity. Answering the unseen interviewer, three peasant women reply, matter of factly, yet smiling:

I’m not sure what happiness means. Happy people don’t need to go far away to get a job… It’s all for our children and parents… This is not a happy life. Happiness is to stay at home.

The New Documentary Movement in the 1990s

In 1998, Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue founded a small company together, China Memo Films (bei jing chuan lin yue ying shi zi xun you xian gong si), through which they produced some of their most remarkable work to-date. With This Happy Life (Xing fu sheng huo, 2002), Jiang makes a giant step forward, as he becomes the attentive and sympathetic witness of the lives of two train station workers in Zhengzhou (Hunan province), who are also close friends. Fu Jiansheng, the Party Secretary, became a young widower after a botched abortion imposed by the one-child-family policy, and raised his son alone, weaving a rare emotional bond that is threatened when the young man leaves for the army. In spite (or maybe because of) a remarriage of convenience, he is a lonely man, open to soulful monologues in front of the camera and prone to crying when remembering his first wife. Liu Yongli, an unskilled worker pompously called “Director of Passenger Transport”, happily married with a lovely, spirited wife younger than him and father of a little son, gets into debt to buy a luxury apartment. When he loses his job to downsizing, he quietly utters these terrible words: history made me obsolete. Jiang’s masterful editing alternates domestic scenes, quiet moments (when the two men go fishing together) and intimate talks with the bustle of their professional lives at the station. Their duties involve crowd management at rush hour (which often means pushing people to enter the train through the windows), dealing with petty bureaucratic matters and the state of mind of their co-workers, reporting a murder, even taking care of an abandoned baby. Jiang offers a fascinating look at Chinese masculinity, and often surprises us (when Fu Jiansheng recalls offering his nipples to his orphaned son after his young wife’s death).

The Secret of My Success

No less fascinating, but with a broader sense of the absurd, Duan Jinchuan’s The Secret of My Success (Lin qi da she tou, 2002) focuses on another kind of man, Mr. Lu, a shameless, ambitious, unscrupulous go-getter, whose engaging personality nonetheless steals the show. The surprise does not come from what the piece reveals of Lu’s inner life, but from the potentially compromising situations he allows Duan to record on tape. A birth control official in the remote northeastern village of Fanshen, Lu has to take things into his own hands when a pregnant woman defying the one-child-family policy disappears to avoid mandatory abortion, accusations of corruptions are waged against the village council, and local elections turn into a shouting match. The ever-jovial Lu also has to juggle professional and personal life, which means keeping both his wife and his mistress happy, and defending his lifestyle – with a smile – in front of the camera. Duan’s forte is the subtle dialectic between individuals and institutions, and there are many hidden layers in the piece – from a humorous criticism of “Chinese pragmatism” and the absurdities of petty bureaucracy, to an understated indictment of the cruelty of forced family planning.

Less prolific, Li Hong completed her second piece, Dancing with myself (He Ziji Tiao Wu) in 2002. Instead of linking the recording of everyday life to larger political and social issues, Li uses vérité in an idiosyncratic way, to extract a hidden poetry from these minute snippets of life that she captures almost on the sly, but always with the warm collaboration of her subjects. A particularly beautiful moment occurs when Yu, an employee in a hospital boiler room, speaks of his sexual longings (clearly for the benefit of the young – and attractive – filmmaker, whose presence is neither underlined nor denied) while, through a small miracle of chance, a pigeon lands by him. The piece revolves around the dance classes that the beautiful Madame Wu – herself a laid-off waitress – teaches in a public park to an odd collection of “ordinary people”, in whose life the filmmaker then gently enters…

Jiang’s, Duan’s and Li’s latest work were co-produced with French and British money, but due to aesthetic disagreements with the producers, Li’s piece was replaced by Wu Gong’s Shao’s Long March (2002) about a young slacker’s enrolment in the PLA. The three films – accompanied by The War of Love (2002), the portrait of a matchmaker with marital problems of her own, on which Duan and Jiang collaborated – have circulated in various film festivals and been aired on the BBC in shortened cuts introduced by a British voice-over, which distracts from their vérité style (fortunately some festivals are showing the longer, original versions). Being, literally about “nothing”, but the texture of life itself, Li’s piece could not be reduced to such treatment. The lightness of her approach – elegant like a brushstroke – remains unique, precious and fragile.

New Directions

Other women’s voices, sometimes no more than a whisper, are being heard. A fact I deplore in the New Chinese Cinema is that the advent of market economy seems to have limited the number of women filmmakers, and this seems true for documentary as well – at least for those who “make it” into the West, for, as Li Yu’s case proves it, there are many female documentarians with a substantial output that we hear nothing about until “something big” (such as making “a lesbian feature”) happens. I am grateful to Wu Wenguang, again, for having put me in touch with Yang Li-Na (once a featured performer in Jia Zhangke’s Platform) who dared to venture into the rather un-Chinese field of first-person documentary. Her Home Video is a sometimes awkward, at times acerbic, most often moving, attempt to unravel the “mystery” that is, for every subject, her parents’ break-up.

The field of independent documentary keeps growing, and the makers come from all corners of China – hence documenting, in a non-exotic manner, landscapes, customs, lifestyle, economic issues, social problems that, more often than not, the Chinese government is trying to put the lid on. One of my former students, Li Lin, a visual artist who had emigrated to Australia, returned to China with a video camera and brought back a harrowing documentary, Three Five People (2001), about three HIV+ and heroine-addicted kids living in the streets of the industrial city of Chengdu (Sichuan province). Documenting a growing social phenomenon, made possible by the constant influx of peasants seeking industrial jobs, their turning to drugs to ease their discomfort at city life and a strange loophole in Chinese law pertaining to juvenile delinquents, the piece made the round of international film festivals, from Vienna to Yamagata – this “mecca” of independent Asian documentaries.

To Live is Better Than to Die

One of the “discoveries” of the newly created “World Cinema Documentary” at the Sundance Film Festival was Chen Weijun’s To Live is Better Than to Die. In 1992, in the small village of Wenhou (Hebei Province), the villagers were convinced to sell their blood – and now 60% of the population is infected. Chen settled into the farmhouse of the Ma family, where the father, Shenyi, is HIV+, and the mother, Leimei, is slowly dying in front of the camera, flies already gathering on her once-beautiful face, now white as chalk and hollowed by weakness and pain. In the golden hue of the late summer harvest, the three children are playing, as children will, but only the elder, Maniu, born before 1992, is healthy. She’s a bright young girl, excellent at school, who has come to realise that she may spend the rest of her life without a family. The baby boy, Cao, is quite sick – his little stomach can’t keep any food, and the director does not spare us close-ups of his diarrhoea, going beyond “bad taste” to communicate a sense of the physical unease and deterioration caused by the disease. Not being allowed to shoot in the clinic or the county office where the Ma family keep coming and going in search of temporary help, Chen concentrates on the no-exit of the farm. The outside world with its doctors and petty officials remains off-screen, which gives an unexpected rigor to the piece.

As the recent SARS epidemic reminded us, the Chinese government is not very forthcoming in acknowledging and dealing with health problems, and collaborating with world medical organisations, and has long denied the existence of an AIDS problem. To Live… is a courageous piece which fills a gap, puts names and faces behind the statistics. Another unacknowledged phenomenon is homelessness. Du Haibin decided to shoot Along the Railway (Tie lu yan xian, 2001) in the railroad hub of Baoji (Shaanxi Province), in which he had spent some of his childhood, after meeting a group of homeless boys there. The video explores a counter-society of vagrants, old and young, that drift along the tracks, their strategies for survival, their campfires and tattered clothes, their occasional descent into madness…

However, the Chinese documentary event of the year is the nine-hour West of the Tracks, partially financed by the Hub Bals Fund in Rotterdam – a powerful demonstration that the experiments of the New Documentary Movement (vérité, long durations) have reached another level of artistic maturity. Equipped with a small DV camera, Wang Bing and his sound engineer, Lin Xudong, stayed in the Ti Xie industrial district in the city of Shenyang (Liaoning Province, in the Northeast) from December 1999 to the spring of 2001, to document the slow death of the complex. Mismanaged and technically obsolete, the factories are closing down one after the other; most of the workers, while anxiously waiting to be laid off, have not been paid for months. Some, chronically affected with lead poisoning, routinely spend several weeks a year in the hospital to get treatment. Meanwhile, the poetically named Rainbow Row, a working-class neighbourhood mostly inhabited by factory workers, is being slated for demolition, and its residents forcibly displaced. At the end of the piece, only the freight train continues to function, rushing in a gutted landscape.

Wang has organised the material in three parts. The first, Rust (240 mins) is a monument to the crumbling of state-run heavy industry (smelting, steelwork. foundries), lingering on the strange beauty of these disused industrial spaces, but also on the human scale of the workers’ recreation rooms. The second, Remnants (175 mins), is also the most poignant, for these “remnants” are no other than the workers themselves, once the pride of a socialist economy based on industrialisation, now “redundant”, unnecessary, cumbersome, to be removed like trash. The segment starts on a group of 17-year old boys, with their love stories, beepers and “cool” clothes, who, deeply disturbed by what is being done to their now-unemployed parents, have no purpose in life and no future. Then it shifts to the protracted horrors of mass displacement. One after the other, families move to faraway smaller apartments they can’t afford; the neighbourhood starts to crumble; those who persist in staying have their water, heat and electricity cut off, and are threatened by thugs. The “remnants” are also these pitiful left-overs of human life – scrap metal collected by the poorest to be sold a few cents. The third part, Rails (130 mins) – structured by magnificent long shots from the front of a moving train, at different hours and different times of the year – focuses on the railroad workers, focusing, in its middle part, on Old Du, whose younger wife has run away, leaving him alone with two teenage boys. One day, Du is caught stealing coal and sent to prison…

West of the Tracks, as well as Along the Railway, Railroad of Hope, To Live is Better than to Die, Dance with Farm Workers and Three-Five People address, directly or indirectly, the issues of mass displacement, internal migration and the high price currently paid by Chinese society for globalisation. As Arif Dirlik and Xudong Zhang note

While Chinese leaders like to speak of ‘using capitalism to develop socialism’, the current reality may well be the reverse: the use of ‘socialism’ to achieve capitalist development. Under the guise of socialism, China has become a source of cheap labor, with far-reaching implications for economies globally (31).

Peasant life was always full of hardship and misery, but never before had they to sell their blood or send their wives away, by the thousands, to be able to offset the poor return of the harvest. Never before were they snatched, by the hundreds of thousands, to fulfil the needs of industrial development or work on high-rise building construction sites, only to be spit out when they are no longer needed, losing their jobs to modernisation, their homes to urban development, their sanity to drugs or homelessness, their children to delinquency. Alluding to a more archaic form of displacement (as “troupes of singers and tumblers”, often with a number of young girls trained to sing a “ribald, and even saucy repertoire”, roamed the South of China several centuries ago) (32), Jiang Hu brings one more piece to the puzzle. In the People’s Republic of China, the working poor have no place to go. These different documentaries are also quite specific about the way globalisation affects various categories of the population – from peasants to peasants-turned-industrial workers, from men to women (who experience different forms of displacement and internal migration, as the jobs offered to them are dissimilar), from adults to children, who may be the first generation of Chinese to come from a mass phenomenon of dislocated families, drug-addicted parents, runaway mothers, homeless relatives…

West of the Tracks: Remnants

However, what touches me the most in West of the Tracks is not its “epic” quality, nor the (remarkable) scope of its social criticism, but the feeling of loss that pervades the entire piece, and how it is expressed in the bodies, faces, and minute gestures of the subjects. Wang devotes a lot of time to the mah-jong games, drunken arguments and all-male camaraderie of the about-to-be-laid workers (some scenes in the shower or locker room reminded me of Alain Guiraudie’s Ce Vieux Rêve qui Bouge [2001] – also about the effects of the dismantling of a factory on a group of men – minus the homosexual subplot). He follows the wanderings of 17-year old Bobo and his mates as they “goof around” and try to find a way to make certain girls pay attention to them. He spends several cold nights, at the pale light of a candle, with dispossessed residents. Then, he documents the public breakdown of Yang, Old Du’s 17-year-old son when his father is finally released from prison. Abandoned by his mother, deprived of his father, brutally informed that the family is evicted from their miserable shack, he is overwhelmed with grief and starts crying, kneeling in front of his father, swearing his love for him, crawling on the floor. Wang Bing mostly focuses on male societies – as do Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue – and his work, in turn, constitutes a precious document on the way Chinese men behave and express themselves. Du Yang’s tears bring to mind those shed by Fu Jiansheng in This Happy Life. Yet, his irrepressible, spectacular sudden adolescent despair brings to my mind the distant echo of another breakdown that took place more than ten years ago, in an art gallery in Beijing, in front of Wu Wenguang’s camera. That afternoon, the young painter Zhang Xia Ping started rolling on the floor, insulting God, and saying she was not sure of what her real name was. Now, as the roar of the Tiananmen Square tanks has fainted away but social disorder is a constant in everyday life, another national trauma needs to be publicly enacted, and it is men who have breakdowns as well, who show how vulnerable they are, how little control they have on their lives… While it may be premature to project the Western concept of “sexual politics” onto contemporary Chinese society, the ultimate “remnant” (or the Barthesian “punctum”) of hours spent viewing these documentaries is how deeply upset the balance between the genders is in China.

Meanwhile… on the Western front. West of the Tracks has garnered international acclaim and been shown in major film festivals, such as Vienna, Rotterdam and Berlin. Last June, the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival programmed the film in its entirety, and invited Wang Bing. The US Embassy in Beijing denied him a visa….

To Wen Hui, and all the Dancers


  1. Bérénice Reynaud, “New Visions/New Chinas: Video-Art, Documentation, and the Chinese Modernity in Question”, in Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds., Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996, mentioned in Charles Leary, “Performing the Documentary and Making it to the Other Bank”, Senses of Cinema Issue 27 July-August 2003. It should be specified that Leary’s piece and mine were written, without communication between the two of us, at the same time. I was, however, too late to beat the deadline, so I am now benefiting from reading Leary’s article and rewriting mine accordingly.
  2. See François Cheng, Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1991
  3. Ernest Larsen, “Video Verité from Beijing”, Art in America, September 1998, pp. 53 & 55
  4. In Liulang Beijing, the first character, “liu” is identical to the second character in mangliu. “Liu” means currents, as in a river, while “lang” also means “currents” or “waves”, so the term connotes a certain romantic rootlessness, either by choice or circumstances that perhaps leads to transient relationships and adventures. Moreover, the Chinese term for “homeless man” is “liulang han”, which would in turn translate into “bum”. (Research: Victoria Meng).
  5. Gao Bo uses the phrase in English.
  6. The commonly accepted definition of the Sixth Generation includes filmmakers who graduated during or after the events of June 1989, and directed their first films illegally, outside the accepted production units: Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, He Jianjun, Jia Zhangke, Li Yu, Wang Chao, Emily Tang, Zhu Wen. However, this definition is too restrictive and leaves room for confusion and factual errors (some of them reproduced in Charles Leary’s otherwise excellent article). First of all, not all Sixth Generation films are produced independently or “para-legally”: some directors started to work within the studio system – such as Zhang Ming, whose Rainclouds over Wushan (AKA In Expectation, Wushan Yunyu, 1995) was produced by the Beijing Film Studio, but later banned for not having complied to the Film Bureau regulations concerning export visas. Zhang Ming did not go underground, but stopped working until he could direct a second officially-sanctioned feature, Week-end plot (Miyu Shiqi Xiaoshi, 2001), produced by the Inner Mongolia Film Studio. Another luminary of the Sixth Generation, Lou Ye, did not produce films outside the studio system either; Suzhou River (Suzhou He, 2000), for example, was produced by the Shanghai Film Studio. And Zhang Yuan or Wang Xiaoshuai did not stop being “Sixth Generation directors” when they decided to make officially sanctioned productions, such as Zhang Yuan’s Seventeen Years (Guo nian hui jia, 1999 – produced by the Xi’an Film Studio) and Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Close to Paradise (Yuenan guniang, 1998 – produced by the Beijing Film Studio). Secondly, while it is true that all Sixth Generation directors did not graduate from the Beijing Film Academy (such as He Jianjun) – Jia Zhangke, however, did graduate from it, albeit in 1997, i.e. eight years after the first “batch” of directors – who were more directly marked by the June ’89 events. Thirdly, while defining the Sixth Generation for its “urban themes” is accurate, this does not justify including Ning Ying in the group – in spite of her personal connections to it (her sister, Ning Dai, a noted screenwriter, married Zhang Yuan and is the mother of his child). Albeit younger than her colleagues Chen Kaige et al. Ning Ying entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and graduated in 1982 – which makes her a bona fide Fifth Generation director. Moreover, her films have never been “paralegal”; her “Beijing Trilogy” – For Fun (Zhao le, 1992), On the Beat (Mingjing gushi, 1995) and I Love Beijing (Xiari Nuanyangyang, 2001) – was produced or co-produced by the Beijing Film Studio.
  7. Program Notes for the Series “New China/New Visions”, Museum of Modern Art in New York, November 4 – December 12 1997
  8. The Group’s manifesto may be worth quoting: “By means of observing and recording reality on a massive scale, and through the authors’ detached contemplation [of] reality, we want to present a more truthful and more expansive document [of] the life of Chinese people at a particular time, a time in memory… It is also our intention, in the present and given context, to truthfully engage in the construction of a theory and a practice of audiovisual documentation that is genuine, open, penetrating and expansive”. Structure, Wave, Youth Cinema Experimental Group production notes, quoted in The 16th Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue (Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1992, p. 98).
  9. For a more complete description of the tape, see Charles Leary, “Performing the Documentary and Making it to the Other Bank,” op. cit.
  10. The situation has not improved much in recent years, as proven by the semi-documentary film Beijing Suburb (Beijing Jiaoqu, 2002), in which Hu Ze looks at the harassment undergone by artists without a residency permit.
  11. Chris Berry, “Zhang Yuan: Thriving in the Face of Adversity”, Cinemaya, the Asian Film Quarterly, 32:42
  12. Chris Berry, “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism” in Zhang Z. ed., The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the 21st Century, Duke University Press, Durham (forthcoming, 2004)
  13. For more information on River Elegy, see Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, Deathsong of the River: A Reader’s Guide to the Chinese TV Series Heshang, Richard W. Bodman and P. Wan, trans., East Asia Program, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 1991; see also Chinese Sociology and Anthropology 24, no.4 and 25, no.1 (1992).
  14. The 1993 reform, allowing collaboration between studios and “above-ground” private production companies that purchased their “production quota”, somewhat eased the “system”, and, at the beginning of 2002, that provision was modified, making it possible for independent filmmakers and producers to apply directly to the Film Bureau to obtain a “production permit” without going through a studio. It is too early to assess the effects that such changes will have on independent production in China – some documentary filmmakers, such as Duan Jinchuan, are already thinking of turning to fiction. However, when the first works of the Sixth Generation were produced, the original system was in full gear, which explains why Zhang Yuan’s Mama (1990) and Beijing Bastards (Beijing Zazhong, 1993) or Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (Dong Chun de rizi, 1993) and He Jianjun’s Postman (Youchai, 1995) were illegal.
  15. Interview with the author, Vienna (Austria), October 2001.
  16. For this reason, documentaries about homosexuality in China are few and far between. In 1996, Wang Feng and Gary Wu directed Comrades (Tongzhi) before emigrating to the United States (the video was shown at the NAATA Asian Pacific Film Festival in San Francisco). In 2002, Echo Y. Windy (Ying Weiwei), a young TV director, completed her first independent documentary, The Box (He Zi), the somewhat awkward presentation of the daily life of a couple of lesbian women that was shown in Berlin and Hong Kong.
  17. It should be mentioned, for accuracy’s sake, that an April 14, 2003 article in Time Asia alludes to the possibility of Chen loosing his job due to the international exposure received by his documentary. See http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/article/0,13673,501030414-441239,00.html
  18. At least for its use on television. On the other hand, talking heads have remained an important trope for radical political documentaries.
  19. One of the first to take an active interest in this phenomenon (and whom I must partially credit for my interest in Chinese video documentary) was the videomaker/activist Cheang Shu-lea, born in Taiwan but based in New York between 1977 and 1995, where she became involved with Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish T, two alternative media public access organisations. In 1990, she produced and distributed the series Will Be Televised, in collaboration with video/performance/agit-prop artists in five Asian countries – The Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC (she and curator Mi Ling Tsui edited a selection from River Elegy). In 1994, Cheang directed her first feature film, Fresh Kill, and started to create web-based interactive installations throughout the world, occasionally returning to cinema with the science-fiction digital porn feature, I.K.U. (2000), shot in Japan.
  20. André Bazin, “Pour un cinéma impur”, in Qu’est-ce que le cinéma – edition définitive (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1975 – originally published in 1958), translated as “In Defense of Mixed Cinema”, in What is Cinema (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967).
  21. Cobra was a splinter from the group of Cui Jian, the underground rock star who had become a symbol of the spring 1989 movement and whose lifestyle loosely inspired Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards.
  22. Wu Wenguang, conversation with the author, Beijing, July 1997. In another private conversation (Washington DC, April 1989) about the British film series 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up etc. that followed the lives of a small group of individuals every seven years, French film critic Serge Daney assessed that “only the institution of television” would be capable of carrying such a project, passing it on from one director to the next and assuring continuity. Wu’s ultimate failure to document the lives of his friends at regular interval seems to confirm this point.
  23. See, in particular Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema – Culture and Politics Since 1949, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987, pp. 95-101; Chris Berry, “Race (Minzu): Chinese Film and the Politics of Nationalism’, Cinema Journal 31, no.2 (1992), pp. 45-58; Esther C.M. Yau, “Is China the End of Hermeneutics? Or, Political and Cultural Usage of Non-Han Women in Mainland Chinese Films”, in Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar and Janice B. Welsch, ed., Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 1994; and Zhang Yingjin, “From ‘Minority Film’ to ‘Minority Discourse’: Questions of Nationhood and Ethnicity in Chinese Cinema”, in Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, ed., Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1997, pp. 81-104.
  24. Because of his interest in DV, Wu was also responsible for making me discover the work of another independent filmmaker making narrative films in DV, Andrew Cheng. See my review of his first film, Shanghai Panic (Chengyu Su, 2002) in CinemaScope, Toronto, No 13, Winter 2002, p. 57. For more on Andrew Cheng, see my upcoming article, “Ripples of Change”, Film Comment, Sept-Oct 2003.
  25. Tianjin: Tianjin Institute of Social Sciences, 2001. A short critical description of the book by Hong Kong critic/programmer Wong Ain-ling was published in Documentary Box # 18, op. cit, p. 29.
  26. On this film, see my article “Cutting Edge and Missed Encounters – Digital Short Films by Three Filmmakers”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 20 May-April 2002
  27. Jia Zhangke, interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, Le Monde, Paris, May 25, 2002. “My initial project was to make a documentary on industrial architecture. At first, I only wanted to show these factories and warehouses built in the 1950-60s that are now disused. Gradually the idea to insert characters in these settings became essential. I was able to develop the project by using a DV camera, which makes it possible to make quick decisions, is easy to handle and allows you to shoot cheaply” (translation mine).
  28. Zhang Yuan, interview published in City Entertainment Biweekly, Hong Kong, August 25, 1994, reproduced in the catalogue of the 19th Hong Kong International Film Festival, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1995, p.16
  29. The cut shown at the UCLA Film Archives in December 2000 and the Berlin Film Festival in February 2001 was 192 minutes; the film was later cut to 155 minutes (as in the version shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and distributed in the US).
  30. Wu Wenguang, program notes, Panorama Section, Berlin Film Festival, 2000
  31. Post-modernism and China, Arif Dirlik & Xudong Zhang eds., Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2000, p.5
  32. Collective, Shanghai Institute for Historical Research, Nadine Perront ed. & trans, Shanghai: Opium, Jeu, Prostitution, Editions Philippe Picquier, Arles, 2002, p.170

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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