Beijing Bastards

In mid January of this year, the Film Bureau of the People’s Republic of China announced that Jia Zhangke’s “credentials as a director” had been “restored”. This announcement may strike readers familiar with Jia’s works as a bit anticlimactic. After all, since 1997, Jia Zhangke has done very well for himself – winning prizes at Berlin, Venice, Vancouver, and Pusan, and earning the praise of a number of the more discerning Western reviewers, including Tony Rayns and J. Hoberman – without the recognition of any relevant bureaucratic organs in his own country. Still, the restoration of Jia’s credentials means, in effect, that he is now allowed to make movies in China, that the status of illegality will not shroud his works in the immediate future. A news article posted on the popular Internet portal sina.com used an interesting metaphor to describe this development: “taking off the ‘underground film’ hat” (1). This metaphor emphasises not what Jia has gained – his “credentials as a director” – by being welcomed back into the fold of legitimate Chinese cinema. Instead, it emphasises what he will lose: the legitimating sense of anti-legitimacy conveyed by the loaded, evocative, and increasingly quaint term “underground director”.

Mainland China has, in the past decade, produced more than a few underground directors. While a few Chinese critics have decried the use of that term in this context, on the grounds that the associations it calls up with the American underground of the 1950s have little to do with what is going on in China today (2), it is fair to argue, and it is frequently argued, that China’s contemporary rendition of underground cinema does the term more justice than do those of most other countries in most other eras. In order to obtain government recognition and permission to show their films in the nation’s theatres, Chinese filmmakers must fulfil several requirements: they must purchase a quota number from a state-run studio (though it is not necessary that the studio agree to produce or finance the film), they must submit both a plot synopsis (until late 2003, a full script was required) and the completed film to government censors, and they must not make the film public – including submitting it to international festivals – until the censors’ approval is secured. Filmmakers who fail on any of these counts can expect that their film will be banned and they themselves forbidden to make any more films in China until further notice. These formal strictures, combined with a fair degree of flexibility in the actual functioning of the Chinese film world (relatively loose and even more loosely enforced laws governing DVD and VCD production, the availability of DV cameras and foreign and domestic private capital) have created a situation in which banned films proliferate. Since 1993, when Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days and Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards were shown at international film festivals in flagrant violation of Chinese law, the Chinese underground film has all but crystalised into a veritable genre, recognisable both to international audiences and to curious, savvy domestic viewers: films with low production values that address potentially sensitive aspects of life in contemporary China. Observers have loosely dubbed this cluster of filmmakers the “Sixth Generation”, an overly vague but still useful term that emphasises the contrast between them and the better-known Fifth Generation directors (a group which includes Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Li Shaohong).

Xiao Wu

By Jia Zhangke’s own estimate, around 100 films that bypassed formal government approval have been made in China since 1999 (3). Among the hordes of such underground products, though, Jia’s own films have always stood out. On the one hand, his three feature films to date – Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002) – have been polished enough to escape the criticism levied, generally by Chinese writers, against the works of other independent directors: namely, that the films themselves are uninspiring from a cinematic and narrative perspective and that they have received a warm welcome at international festivals largely because of the marketability of the phrase “Chinese underground” in the West, itself a result of an updated version of Orientalism that treasures the idea of Chinese intellectuals as oppressed fighters for whom every act of representation is political (4). Critical consensus in China and abroad seems to have it that Jia’s films, in contrast, would be worthy of the honours that have been showered upon them no matter what political context surrounded them. Though Jia Zhangke may not have been among the earliest Chinese directors making films outside the official system, his influence in the unofficial film world today is distinctive and unmatched. He is, or has been, in spirit if not to the letter, the premier Chinese underground director.

In many ways, the story of Chinese underground cinema has for a long time been a myth ripe for dismantling. A cursory look at its history in the 1990s reveals that the act of making a film outside the official system may have all along represented more a procedural or tactical decision than a moral, political or aesthetic one. While Zhang Yuan’s and Wang Xiaoshuai’s early, banned films were attracting the attention of foreign audiences eager to see just what kind of thing was banned in China, some of their contemporaries were making films that tackled similarly controversial social issues, with similar audacity and often similar visual aesthetics, but that were approved by government censors and thus permitted to be released domestically. Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards is inarguably better-known abroad than Guan Hu’s Dirt (1994). Made only a year apart, the two films are both about disaffected youth and Beijing rock, and both were financed “independently” (that is, by private sources rather than by a state-run studio), but Guan Hu purchased a quota number from the Inner Mongolia Film Studio and submitted his film to the censors, who approved it. Where edgy content is concerned, Zhang Yuan’s and Wang Xiaoshuai’s early films are at least matched, and possibly surpassed, by Lou Ye’s first film, Weekend Lover (1993), which deals frankly with sex and violence among teenagers and which was an aboveground film released under the auspices of the Fujian Film Studio. (When the Western media discusses, in awkwardly broad strokes, the “Sixth Generation” of “underground filmmakers”, Lou Ye’s name is usually included alongside Zhang Yuan’s, Wang Xiaoshuai’s and Jia Zhangke’s because his third film, Suzhou River (1999), was banned and, unlike his earlier works, received a much wider release at foreign festivals than at home.) The fact that scholars and reviewers both in China and abroad often have a hard time saying for sure whether a given film was banned or not – understandably so, as a certain number of non-banned films get tiny releases and often eventually become unavailable in China, while plenty of bans on particular films are eventually lifted (5) – offers further defense for the assertion that the line between the underground and the state-sanctioned surface is blurry and, perhaps, not all that significant. Particularly now that certain banned films can be purchased on pirated DVD and VCD in China’s major cities, the difference to urban, educated domestic audiences who know how to look for these films can seem slight indeed. Be all that as it may, the catchphrase “banned in China” almost certainly helped certain films gain an audience outside of China. In addition, it is still the case, and remains a significant fact, that films that are actually banned in China are, thanks to the restrictions on theatrical release and advertising, often destined to be permanently unavailable to the vast majority of the domestic population.

So Close to Paradise

Even more telling than the fuzzy line dividing underground from aboveground is the increasingly fuzzy line dividing aboveground from flat-out mainstream, where individual directors are concerned. Jia Zhangke’s “defection” from the underground is nothing new; in fact, it merely adds his name to a lengthy list of filmmakers who, after making one or more films illegally, have recently begun working within the system. Some of these filmmakers have continued their earlier patterns of making films with low budgets, presumably for smaller audiences and festival circuits, changing little besides their work’s legal status in China. But Zhang Yuan has very famously elected to take a different route. His first aboveground film, Seventeen Years (1999), was a family melodrama that was derided by a few fans of his previous films for what was perceived to be an overly cuddly portrait of the Chinese prison system (6); and his newest work, Green Tea (2003), starred Jiang Wen and Zhao Wei, two of China’s biggest commercial stars, and was rumoured to be an erstwhile contender for China’s Foreign Film Oscar nomination for that year. Apparently Lou Ye has, for the time being, adopted a similar strategy; his most recent film, Purple Butterfly (2003), starred Zhang Ziyi and was an expensive critical failure. Wang Quan’an, whose 1999 film Lunar Eclipse was banned post-production but who took the film to foreign festivals despite the ban, has secured an American distributor (the Film Library) for his new, aboveground The Story of Er Mei and is planning to work with the Xi’an Film Studio on a lavish adaptation of the famous contemporary novel Plains of the White Deer. Wang Xiaoshuai’s career has been more mixed. His first foray into aboveground filmmaking, So Close to Paradise (1997), spent years tied up with censors before it was approved; then he made Beijing Bicycle (2000), which was banned post-production; and he has since returned to underground filmmaking with Drifters (2003). But the announcement early in 2004 that the ban on Beijing Bicycle will soon be lifted indicates the possibility of another turn in fortune for him. In any case, Beijing Bicycle was clearly intended for a wide domestic audience, and its enthusiastic reception abroad – including distribution in the United States, a market notoriously unreceptive to the works of younger Chinese directors – indicates that it may well have little trouble finding that audience.

Meanwhile, a number of less famous once-underground directors have been turning legitimate very recently, without having first earned the fame and festival roster that might secure them the budgets and star power that Zhang Yuan currently commands. Indeed, it has begun to seem as if making an underground film is, for certain directors, a convenient way to get a debut film made with a reduced number of hassles and hurdles. For example, Liu Hao, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy’s Continuing Education division, made his name as a director in 2002 with the unapproved film Chenmo and Meiting but will be following proper bureaucratic procedures for his new work-in-progress, Such a Pair of Big Sheep. And the former author Zhu Wen followed his banned debut, Seafood (2001), with the legitimate South of the Clouds (2004). In other words, more than ever before, the act of making an underground film, or marketing a banned film, may be functioning less as a statement or a form of resistance than as a strategy – in this case, a strategy for the entry of aspiring filmmakers into an increasingly competitive field. A young director is more likely to secure healthy funding for a second feature film if his first feature won a prize at Nantes or Pusan; and his first feature is arguably more likely to earn attention at festivals if it is attending not under the ominous-sounding auspices of the China Film Corporation (the official organ handling exports of Chinese film) but as a work that is “banned in China”.

With all this being the case, it may be easy to see Jia Zhangke’s turn to legitimate filmmaking either as perfectly predictable and therefore worthy of little excitement, or as absolutely meaningless. But a healthy degree of interest in the topic prevails in media and informal discussions here in Beijing all the same. As hinted above, some of this concern most likely stems from Jia Zhangke’s emblematic status in the contemporary Chinese cinematic field. Not only is he the most praised and most influential of independent Chinese directors, but he is also the author of an essay on the subject of “amateur filmmaking” that is widely cited as something of a manifesto relevant to the dawn of the DV era (7). That essay, combined with Jia’s frequent and unashamed public references to his own relatively humble geographic and social origins, have made him a veritable poster boy for the still pending democratisation of Chinese filmmaking. And, as much to the point as any other piece of evidence, media reports on Jia’s work consistently impute to him personal moral qualities that relate implicitly to the quality and concerns of his films: “sincerity”, “determination” and the like (8). For several years now, Jia Zhangke has embodied and given an active voice to the most optimistic assessments of what underground filmmaking could possibly be. His decision to leave the underground offers a quiet rebuttal to those assessments, dealing a final blow to a fantasy that has been under less fatal attack from a variety of quarters for years.

Jia Zhangke’s recent decision to make his next film through legal channels came on the heels of a pointed invitation from China’s national Film Bureau, a branch of the nation’s Ministry of Radio, Film and Television. In late December of 2003, rumours that Jia wanted to seek formal approval for the film led the Bureau to issue the following statement: “As of yet, the Bureau has not received Jia Zhangke’s plan and application to make the film in question. We hope that he will accept the Bureau’s forgiveness and renounce his current path, will recognise his own proper place rather than choosing to locate himself outside of the community of Chinese cinema.” (9) The italics above demarcate a phrase that I have translated a bit awkwardly; the Chinese expression is of Buddhist provenance, literally means “return to the shore”, and is generally, though not here, paired with another phrase that means “leave behind the sea of suffering”. The pair of phrases refers to the idea that, no matter how onerous the burden of one’s past sins, one can always begin anew on the path of righteousness, provided one’s remorse is great enough. This is not undramatic language for an entity like the Film Bureau, which generally expresses its sentiments in slightly stiffer terms.

While Jia was considering his options in light of this invitation, Chinese audiences familiar with his work speculated curiously on what would happen. Because of the somewhat sensitive legal and political issues involved, the Internet naturally proved to be the best forum for more lively discussions of Jia’s upcoming decision. The claim that a film’s legal status in China is always of more interest to foreign audiences than to domestic viewers is belied by the words of an anonymous poster on a Beijing-based website for film fans, words which document the unique complex of emotions and implications that, for certain Chinese audiences, surrounds Jia Zhangke. At the end of December 2003, not long after the Film Bureau had made its invitation to Jia public and before Jia had responded, the poster wrote:

Will Jia compromise?…Never! He will never fail to turn his lens toward the common people, toward their anxieties over food and shelter. The laughter and tears of young people like us will always be his subject matter. Only because he records the dreams and disillusionment of young people like us is his camera so human, so direct…My image of Jia Zhangke is of a regular guy from Shanxi [Jia’s home province and the setting of his first three films] who will always hold fast to his principles, even if that puts him in dire straits, no matter what kind of disaster it brings him – someone a lot like Liang Xiao Wu [the eponymous hero of Xiao Wu]

Screw our filthy, corrupt, stinking Film Bureau! You guys can have all the prizes Jia’s brought back from festivals, and along with them your tottering old system also deserves a few resounding slaps on the face! (10)

The hopes and confidence of this poster, of course, turned out to be ill-founded. Jia Zhangke did agree to accept the absolution offered by the Film Bureau. He submitted a plot synopsis to censors for approval and arranged to affiliate the project with the state-run Shanghai Film Studio. His goal, he told the press, was to allow domestic “audiences to see my film on the big screen.” Meanwhile, he asserted that “my style won’t change for this film. I will still make realism a priority; it will be a ‘native soil’ film about ordinary people.” (11) This kind of assertion is, on the one hand, innocuous and reassuring. It is clearly designed to offer passionate fans like the one quoted above assurance that, censors or no censors, quota number or no quota number, Jia Zhangke will not actually “compromise”, nor will he abandon the demographic groups with whom the poster identifies and whose stake in Chinese film representation is an unstable quantity that must be defended by nothing less than heroic acts. On the other hand, Jia’s assertion that nothing about his actual films will change serves implicitly to confirm the slightly more cynical assumption about Chinese underground filmmaking and cinematic resistance discussed earlier in the article: when all is said and done, the term “underground” has long referred to administrative status and nothing more.

Resolution and compromise: these two terms have dominated media discussion of Jia Zhangke and his new film since the news above was released. The popular magazine Film Viewing (Kan Dianying) ran a story about the film in its March 2004 issue. Somewhat ironically, given that a magazine with a mainstream circulation like Film Viewing‘s would have been highly unlikely to run a full-length story on Jia before now, the author of the piece is reserved and ambivalent about the potential consequences of Jia’s new status: “This might mean that he will be spared unnecessary hassles and obstacles and will be able to widen his audience; it might also forebode the compromise and collapse of a great talent and the addition of some ‘fresh blood’ to the ranks of mediocrities.” In interviews with both lead actors, the journalist asks if Jia Zhangke’s integration into the studio system will lead him to “compromise”. The answer from both is, not surprisingly, a resounding no (12).

Seventeen Years

As interesting as the question of whether Jia will compromise or not may be, and as natural as it may be to ask it under the circumstances, it is a thoroughly unproductive question to ask at this point – and perhaps at any point in the near future. After all, no one can say with any certainty what the telltale signs of a compromised talent are. Zhang Yuan’s career, the most common negative example of this sort of trajectory, indicates, if nothing else, that there are several ways an ex-underground director can earn opprobrium for “selling out”: the sentimental and solemn Seventeen Years was suspected of being a spineless capitulation to political forces, while the glossy, expensive, and prurient Green Tea was seen as a soulless appeal to the bourgeois market. The finished product of Jia’s upcoming film could very easily run into trouble with the censors; if so, Jia will be forced to choose between altering the work and releasing it abroad as an underground product. The former move would obviously signify compromise, and the latter would signify resolution, but only, perhaps, of a compromised variety.

Given all that Jia Zhangke represents to the Chinese cinematic world, it is easy to forget that he is still a very young artist (he was born in 1970), currently making his fourth film, with a budget quite a bit larger than those with which he is accustomed to working. Since his debut, each of his films has borne the burden of high expectations from scholarly and critical communities in China and abroad. Now, with the decisive fate of the Chinese underground implicated in how his new film turns out, those expectations are bound to be more onerous than ever. And the pitfalls that young directors typically encounter as they advance from precocity to maturity are, in Jia’s case, likely to be blown a bit out of proportion. If domestic fans or foreign audiences associate their consequences with Jia’s new legal status, then the subsequent re-evaluations of Jia’s potential as a director might be harsher than they otherwise would be. And it is quite possible that verdicts on the future of the entire Chinese film industry – its underground, aboveground, and ambivalent branches – will be issued on the basis of what Jia Zhangke produces in the next few years.

The World is the title of Jia’s upcoming film. It will be jointly produced by the Shanghai Film Group Corporation and by Hong Kong’s Xinghui Production Company, with additional assistance from the Beijing-based Chuntian Advertising Company and Xihe Production Company. The leading actors will be Cheng Taisheng, who is best known for his role in Zhu Wen’s Seafood, mentioned above, and Zhao Tao, who was the lead actress in both Platform and Unknown Pleasures. The film will be set and shot in Beijing and in the wealthy southern city of Shenzhen. Thus, its setting marks a departure from the thematic modus operandi with which Jia established his fame. His three previous films are all set in his home province of Shanxi, and the main setting of both Xiao Wu and Platform is Fenyang, the unremarkable small town where he grew up. For a director who has made the complexity of provincialism a prominent theme of his previous work, this shift clearly represents a meaningful statement and experiment. My limited advance knowledge of the film indicates that Jia’s aspirations for this experiment are high.

The World‘s main characters are young people from rural areas who are working in larger cities, some of them as performing artists. The idea of a link between cosmopolitanism and performance has been posed in Jia Zhangke’s work before and is posed with particular clarity in Platform, his second and most ambitious film. Platform, clocking in at nearly four hours in some edits, follows four members of a Shanxi Communist Party performance troupe from the waning years of the Cultural Revolution through China’s tumultuous 1980s. Jia’s screenplay for that film – all the screenplays he works with are his own – relies on loose symbolism to convey his characters’ initial infatuation with and gradual disillusionment with post-Cultural Revolution postmodernity and with world popular culture, both of which they encounter through the media of popular music and film, themselves mediated through the independently remarkable media of boomboxes and VCRs. On the platforms of the makeshift rural stages on which they perform their own versions of the songs and genres they are encountering for the first time, they attempt to step into, and become active participants in, world culture. A lingering irony, however, intrudes on these aspirations and is expressed by the pun, operative in Chinese as well as English, on the word “platform”. One of the main characters dreams of seeing, and maybe even riding on, a train. Not until a good hour and a half into the film do the characters encounter their first train, and the promises it represents – physical mobility, actual and not merely virtual or mediated encounters with world culture – end up unfulfilled at the film’s end, when most of the characters are still confined to their isolated corner of the world and have stepped away from or discarded their youthful dreams of leaving it.

As that summary should make clear, Jia’s screenplays are careful compositions; his cinematic language tends to work in tandem with, and sometimes plays a subordinate role to, the thematic structures already erected in the story. In Platform, stages take the place of trains; performance is the vehicle through which one may access world culture and the world – a vague but powerful term, essentially a stand-in for all the longings of the film’s youthful characters. But in The World, or at least those parts of the work in progress that I have had access to, that connection seems to be turned on its head: it is not so much that performance conveys the world as that the world is nothing but a performance.

On March 13 of this year, I was able to observe Jia Zhangke and his crew putting together four shots for The World in Beijing’s World Park. The World Park is, as the name implies, a miniature model of the world, along the lines of portions of Florida’s Epcot Center or the Las Vegas Strip. Set amid isolated, rather hard-scrabble surroundings in the southeastern extremities of Beijing, the Park features small-scale replicas of famous works of world architecture, generally no more than one or two from any given country and including several from China itself. Ian Buruma has noted, with the aesthetic distaste one might expect, the prevalence of such theme parks in East Asia and offers the following comments on the prospects for future improvements in the areas of human rights and democracy for nations accustomed to the consumption of this kind of virtual reality: “China…[may end up being] the shining model of authoritarian capitalism, saluted by all illiberal regimes, corporate executives, and other PR men for an emasculated, infantilised good life: the whole world as a gigantic theme park, where constant fun and games will make free thought redundant.” (13) Buruma’s pessimism seems a little alarmist and even a bit condescending. I myself felt more touched by and curious about the replicas – not life-size, but not terribly small either – of the Easter Island statues set barely a hundred meters away from a reduced model of the Sydney Opera House. Due north of these spectacles, presumably in imitation of actual world geography, is Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Thailand’s Royal Palace; just to the west of these is the Taj Mahal. A brief segment of The World encompasses these three areas.

Jia Zhangke is presumably as interested in these odd playgrounds as Buruma is; some of the Shenzhen portions of the film were filmed in Shenzhen’s similar Window on the World theme park. One of the Beijing scenes is a shot nearly two minutes long of an appreciative tour group being led through the park. The tourists, played by extras rounded up among actual visitors to the World Park, follow a tour guide and a middle-aged man filming them with a video camera (played by a photographer-for-hire who works in the Park) past the Thai Royal Palace as the man with the camera tells them that they are entering Thailand. Their dutiful waves and shouts of “Hello, Thailand” have barely subsided when the photographer informs them that they are leaving Thailand and should bid it goodbye. Then the tourists are told that they are entering Cambodia and are provided with a bit of historical background on the Angkor Wat before they are led in the direction of India. All the while the camera has been first tracking and then panning to follow them, in the protracted, impassive fashion that should be familiar to those who have seen Platform and Unknown Pleasures, both of which clearly display Jia’s penchant for long takes and moving cameras. In the shot that follows, the tourists encounter a trained elephant (a nice touch that speaks to the relatively comfortable size of Jia’s budget for this film) and respond enthusiastically in the affirmative when the tour guide asks them if the miniature version of the Taj Mahal they see before them looks like the “real” Taj Mahal, as shown in a picture she holds up. Finally, in the shot after that, a group of young dancers in Indian costumes, the female lead among them, banter before mounting a stage to put on an ethnic performance for these tourists.

Unknown Pleasures

So a bit of irony appears to animate the title of The World. My interpretation of the unfinished film is of course only speculative, but traces of themes in embryo are very apparent in the shots just described. The main characters have presumably left their homes in search at least in part of the cosmopolitanism associated with China’s large cities, but what they find is a sham cosmopolitanism. Indeed, the heroine, through her Indian dance performances, ends up representing for pay the exotic and the foreign to other provincial Chinese. For all the slight humour in the scenes just described, Jia’s interactions with his actors, particularly the extras, offered no suggestion that anything more than gentle satire is intended in these scenes; the tourists’ glee as they greet and say goodbye to Thailand, Jia emphasised during the 16 takes of the scene that I witnessed, is supposed to look natural, not exaggerated, not comic. And, judging from Jia’s previous films, one expects this work to eschew condescension in favour of a more wistful and solemn tone. Platform, as described above, is about the failure of young Chinese to escape their desolate home for an imagined greater “world.” Unknown Pleasures picks up where that story left off; that film portrays people who are a decade younger than the principle characters of Platform and who find little but ennui and violence in the diversity of popular culture and emblems of cosmopolitanism that form the backdrop of their lives, a diversity that the characters in Platform could barely have dreamt of. Finally, in The World, the historical progression Jia seems to be tracing may well advance a step: the characters in this film will have succeeded in boarding trains, but the palpable actuality of “the world” will still elude them.

Another of the several ironies surrounding The World is that this film, about the treacherous and thwarted advance toward cosmopolitanism, is slated to be the work through which Jia Zhangke may make the transition from international to domestic success. By making a film legally sanctioned by the authorities and that thus may be shown in Chinese theatres, Jia is coming home, in a sense. The complaint that China’s artistically ambitious films are made for foreigners is a familiar one among the concerned critical community, and this is all the more true for illegal Chinese films, which are generally quite difficult for domestic viewers to access. The slight oversensitivity inspiring this complaint – after all, it is hard to find a country anywhere in the world whose art-house films do not receive more thorough attention at international festivals than they do among mainstream audiences at home – does not discredit it entirely but instead indicates the urgency of and strong emotions inspired by the question of what Chinese national cinema is capable of being.

Given the history and present situation of Chinese film, that question is not merely an aesthetic, commercial, or even patriotic one. It also has important implications for Chinese politics, and for the rights and status of all Chinese citizens. The distinction between underground and aboveground film may have been overblown; the term “underground” may now be nearly discredited by faddishness, liberal usage and mediocre filmmaking; and the intentions of China’s underground filmmakers may often have been more practical than political. Be all that as it may, it is still very probably true that the methods and messages of underground cinema have had a profound influence on certain Chinese viewers’ understanding of what is and is not possible in their society and in their own lives. My guess is that Jia’s decision to make a legal film is every bit as much a political statement as anyone’s decision to make an illegal film. The idea, presumably, is that it is absurd that the works of a filmmaker with Jia’s concerns should be banned from theatres in the unremarkable towns and working-class neighbourhoods where they are set; and that these films’ significance is compromised if Chinese audiences cannot see them in large numbers. One cannot help admiring this impulse. But it is also very clear that obtaining a second chance from the Chinese authorities is a very small feat compared to the challenges that will lie ahead if Jia actually hopes to reverse that situation. The completed film will need to pass through the censors. Then, perhaps more dauntingly, The World‘s actual potential to find a new audience in the domestic market will have to be measured by its performance in a distribution system fraught with confusion and inefficiency. Then, most dauntingly of all, the film will be tested alongside the commercial fare, both foreign and domestic, that is the more typical option chosen by the audiences Jia hopes to reach. If Jia’s characters can go looking for the world and find themselves in the World Park instead, it seems natural to assume that Jia himself is running the risk of ending his search for his nation in an ambivalent territory of unforeseen pressures and disappointments, where grand hopes have been reduced to miniature approximations of their original forms.

The author would like to thank Pan Jianlin and Zhu Rikun for their invaluable assistance with the research for this article.

See also “An Interview with Jia Zhangke”.


  1. Mao Guoli, “Jia Zhangke zhengshi huifu daoyan zige; xinpian rengran pai xiaorenwu shenghuo”, Qingnian Shibao, January 10, 2004, http://ent.sina.com.cn.
  2. Wang Xiaoyu, Zhongguo dianying shigang, Shanghai guji chubanshe, Shanghai, 2003, pp 246–7.
  3. Jane Perlez, “In Sophisticated Shanghai, Still Sneaking to See Films”, The New York Times, December 30, 2003.
  4. The best-known and most articulate statement of this opinion comes from the Chinese film scholar Dai Jinhua. See Dai Jinhua, “A Scene in the Fog: Reading the Sixth Generation Films” trans. Yiman Wang, in Cinema and Desire, eds Jing Wang and Tani Barlow, Verso, New York, 2002, pp 71–98.
  5. The ban on He Jianjun’s The Postman, for example, has just been lifted (Michelle Qiao, “Delivering Postman”, Shanghai Daily News, February 26, 2004). Also, rumour has it that Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (2001), which was made under the auspices of the Beijing Film Studio but whose final version did not make it past the censors at its time of release, will receive an official stamp of approval in spring of 2004.
  6. A telling example of the standards and concerns that tend to animate Western discussions of Chinese independent directors can be found in a short piece by Chris Berry about Seventeen Years. See Chris Berry, “Zhang Yuan: From Underground to Mainstream”, Cinemaya, 1999, pp 14–15.
  7. Jia’s essay, entitled “The Age of Amateur Cinema Will Return” (“Yeyu dianying shidai jijiang zaici daolai”) first appeared in the newspaper Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) and was later reprinted in Yigeren de yingxiang: DV wanquan shouce, eds Zhang Xianmin and Zhang Yaxuan, Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe, Beijing, 2003, pp 307–8.
  8. Huo Ding, “Shijie bu shi wenti: wenti shi zou chu Fenyang de shijie”, Kan Dianying, March 2004, pp 44–47.
  9. Reported in Jinghua Shibao, December 20, 2003. The precise wording quoted here is attributed to the Wu Ke, the Vice-Head of the Bureau.
  10. The quoted post comes from someone who goes by the handle “lifesucks” in the Film discussion forum of the website www.fanhall.com.
  11. Mao Guoli, “Jia Zhangke zhengshi huifu daoyan zige; xinpian rengran pai xiaorenwu shenghuo”, Qingnian Shibao, January 10, 2004. Posted at http://ent.sina.com.cn.
  12. Huo Ding, “Shijie bu shi wenti: wenti shi zou chu Fenyang de shijie”, Kan Dianying, March 2004, pp 44–47.
  13. Ian Buruma, “AsiaWorld”, The New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003, p. 57.

About The Author

Valerie Jaffee is a visiting scholar at the Beijing Film Academy. She holds a Master's degree in Chinese Literature from Columbia University.

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