Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Documentary is My Lifelong Career” – an interview with Zhang Tianhui

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks as I'm off to Australia for a well-earned break. There are some changes afoot for 2011 which I'm hoping will give me more time to devote to Screening China. Until then – happy holidays!

But before I go...

Back in October I was lucky enough to catch a pair of documentaries by Zhang Tianhui at the Get It Louder Festival in Beijing. Both 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing (poster above) revealed Zhang's talent for sympathetically sketching his subjects while gently revealing their all-to-human failings. You can read my reviews of the films here.

After the screenings in Beijing, Zhang headed south to film the Asian Games in Guangzhou, so I was unable to interview him in person. He kindly took the time, however, to answer a few questions about his filmmaking via email – a translation of our interaction is below.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Ruan Lingyu & Stanley Kwan at Beijing's BC MOMA

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu in Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage (1992).

Last week Beijing's sole art house cinema, BC MOMA, hosted a ten day retrospective focussing on China's legendary silent screen actress Ruan Lingyu. On Sunday (December 12) the season drew to a close with a grand finale featuring a live musical accompaniment to Ruan's most famous role as a doomed Shanghai prostitute in The Goddess (1934), followed by Stanley Kwan's 1992 Ruan Lingyu biopic Centre Stage, starring Maggie Cheung. Kwan was on hand to introduce the film and offer some stirring words about the need for greater freedom in China's contemporary film industry.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Zhao Liang on his new documentary Together

A tearful moment for Hu Zetao (left), one of the HIV+ volunteers working on Gu Changwei's drama Life is a Miracle, captured in Zhao Liang's new documentary Together.

Zhao Liang is undoubtedly one of the leading lights of the independent Chinese documentary scene, and in the past I've written about his films Petition and Crime and Punishment. Recently Studio-X, a space in central Beijing run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, hosted a series of screenings of Zhao’s earlier works, alongside a small exhibition of his photographs – more on this in a future post.

At one of the screenings, I was surprised to hear from Jillian Schultz of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (an institution that has supported much of Zhao’s work) that Zhao had just completed a film about HIV in China that had been passed for official release. Given the controversial nature of Zhao's earlier documentaries I was surprised to hear his new work was going into cinemas, and frankly dubious about whether this information was correct. A few days later, however, my friend Wu Jing, programmer at Beijng's BC MOMA cinema, mentioned to me that they had a new documentary – which turned out to be none other than Zhao Liang's new film, Together.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

dGenerate's Karin Chien in Beijing

dGenerate Films President Karin Chien.

In my last post I mentioned the October visit to Beijing of dGenerate Films President Karin Chien, who was in town meeting many of the directors dGenerate works with, as well as seeking out new talent. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Karin when she was here and was impressed by her quiet eagerness to listen and absorb the views and experiences of people on the ground, from local filmmakers to observers like myself.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

dGenerate: Taking Chinese Indie Films to the US

Apologies – time has once again gotten away from me and it's weeks since I last posted. I blame a string of visitors to the capital  – and too many nights out as a result.

A lot has been happening so to get the ball rolling again here's an interview I conducted some time ago with Kevin Lee, Vice President of Programming and Education for dgenerate Films, a non-theatrical US distributor that's taking Chinese independent cinema to North American audiences. Their website has become an important source of news on Chinese independent cinema, and they have been kind enough to link to several of my Screening China posts and other articles this year.

The interview below was conducted during Kevin's visit to Beijing earlier this year and was published in Agenda magazine (no. 66, November 4-17), the sister publication to the Beijinger magazine. It was also published on on November 18.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Vicious Circle of Justice: Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment

Zhao Liang's Crime and Punishment.
 Zhao Liang is one of my favourite contemporary Chinese documentary filmmakers. As well as mentioning him many times on this blog, I wrote about his most recent film Petition for RealTime back in June. Last week I contributed a review of Zhao's earlier film, Crime and Punishment (2007), to the dgenerate Films blog. You can read the review below, or see it in it's original context here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fractured Memories, Contested Histories: Jia Zhangke's "I Wish I Knew"

Zhao Tao in Jia Zhangke's documentary I Wish I Knew.
 Some time ago I mentioned Jia Zhangke's new documentary I Wish I Knew, which had a season at Beijing's BC MOMA back in July-August. Shortly after I was commissioned by RealTime arts magazine in Australia to write about the film, so I held off doing a post about it. The RealTime article recently appeared in the Oct-Nov issue (#99). You can read it below, or see it in its original context here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What is China? Looking Behind Things with Director Zhao Dayong

If you read my post on The High Life back in June, you'll know I'm a fan of director Zhao Dayong (pictured left, image by David Bandurski), one of the most innovative and intriguing filmmakers to have surfaced in China in recent years. Zhao's career began with the feature-length documentary Street Life in 2006, but he first attracted international attention with his following up film, the epic documentary Ghost Town, which I wrote about for RealTime. More recently Zhao unveiled his first dramatic feature, The High Life, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March, where the film won the Silver Digital Award and the FIRPRESCI Prize.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Zhang Tianhui – A Documentary Talent to Watch

Gong Fenghai on Tiananmen Square in Zhang Tianhui's Farewell, Beijing.
 It's not often you stumble upon an exciting new talent completely unexpectedly, but during the National Day “Golden Week” holiday here in Beijing I attended a few screenings at Ou Ning's “Get It Louder” festival and came across two of the most poignant and affecting locally-produced documentaries I've seen for some time: The 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing, both by the young Beijing-based director Zhang Tianhui.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Superstition and Cruelty: Xu Tong's Fortune Teller

Li Baicheng and his wife Pearl in Xu Tong's Fortune Teller.
Anyone living in major cities like Beijing or Shanghai is aware of the gaping chasm that exists between urban and rural life in China, but that doesn't make being confronted with the inequalities any less shocking. Xu Tong's new documentary Fortune Teller, screened recently at Beijing's Ullen's Center for Contemporary Art, delves into China's lower depths by spending a year with a crippled itinerant fortune teller and his deaf, mute, mentally impaired wife as they move around Hebei Province in China's north. The film is every bit as grueling as this description implies.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Endless Tragedy, Endless Tears: Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow

Sandra Ng and Simon Yam as the long suffering parents in Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow.
 Although I was in Hong Kong earlier this year when Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow debuted at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I was too busy catching films I thought would be tricky to see on the mainland to make an effort to see it. The film garnered good reviews, however, and even helped inspire talk of a Hong Kong film industry revival. A few weeks ago I finally laid my hands on a DVD copy and gave it a spin.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An Evening with the Activist Documentary Filmmaker Ai Xiaoming

Documentary filmmaker, academic and activist Ai Xiaoming filming recently in Beijing. All images Dan Edwards.
Recently I was privileged to spend an evening with the academic and documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, a key figure in China's network of activists employing digital video to put stories on screen the Chinese authorities would prefer remained out of sight.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pyongyang Cinemas – a Peek into North Korea

Kim Il-Sung pictured above the performers at the Mass Games in Pyongyang, August 2010. The picture backdrop constantly changes throughout the performance and is formed by thousands of school children holding various coloured boards. Image Dan Edwards.
I recently took a break from the hustle and bustle of Beijing with a brief trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – more commonly known as North Korea. Unfortunately I didn't see any local films – unless you count the teeth-grindingly dull propaganda videos were were shown at every museum – but we did catch glimpses of a couple of Pyongyang cinemas.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

China's Blockbusters: Selling Tickets and Whitewashing History

Kindly old Uncle Mao takes time out from the civil war to play with a couple of kids in a field full of flowers. A heartwarming image from The Founding of a Republic.

Apologies that Screening China has been a little quiet of late. I've been extremely busy with work at the Beijinger, a slew of freelance articles and some traveling. There are a couple of holidays coming up here in China, so I'm hoping I can use that time to do some catching up. I've got lots to post about!

To get things rolling again, here is an article I recently had published in The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine based in Japan covering the Asia and Pacific region. The piece is a look at China's recent state-sponsored blockbusters like Aftershock and Founding of a Republic, and the rampant protectionism the Chinese state maintains to help shore up the success of these locally-made studio films.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Visions of Taipei in Recent Commercial Taiwanese Cinema

Chang Chen in Chung Monghong's Parking (2008).

Taiwan has a great tradition of arthouse filmmaking, strongly influenced by European postwar modernism, stretching back to the 1980s, but it's heartening to see the more commercial end of the industry also undergoing a minor revival in recent years.

The locally-produced Cape No. 7 (director Wei Te-Sheng) became the second highest grossing film in the island's history in 2008, beaten only by Titanic. Unfortunately I haven't seen that film, but in the past few weeks I have watched two other recent products of Taiwan's commercial sector on DVD – Chung Monghong's Parking (2008) and Arvin Chen's Au Revoir Taipei (2010), both part of what the Hollywood Reporter calls “the trend of new Taiwan films... [that] weave a circus of zany figures into a tapestry of multistranded stories.”

Friday, August 6, 2010

Aftershock: Remaking History as a Family Affair

Xu Fan as Li Yuanni, shortly after the Tangshan earthquake hits in Feng Xiaogang's "Aftershock."
Recent history is not a realm China's commercial filmmakers are generally too keen to touch. It's hard to depict the witch hunts and famines of the 1950s, the widespread brutality of the Cultural Revolution, or even the social upheavals of the 1980s without casting aspersions on party rule, and casting those kinds of aspersions is not something you do if you want to remain within China's state sanctioned film industry. As far as I'm aware, Feng Xiaogang's new blockbuster Aftershock (Tangshan dadizhen, literally “Tangshan Big Earthquake”) is the first Chinese feature to look at one of the 20th century's worst natural disasters, the 7.8 magnitude quake in 1976 that flattened the northern city of Tangshan and officially killed 242,000 people.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gong Li & a Sixth Generation Love-in at Beijing's BC MOMA

Gong Li in her most recent film Shanghai, in which she co-starred with John Cusak.
 While Feng Xiaogang's IMAX blockbuster Aftershock (Tangshen da dizheng) was opening on 3,500 screen across China last Thursday (July 22), Beijing's BC MOMA cinema was hosting a big night of its own. Gong Li was spotted shooting outside and several star directorial talents – including Jia Zhangke – were on hand for the Beijing premiere of Wang Xiaoshuai's Chongqing Blues (Rizhao Chongqing).

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Tribulations of Chinese Rural Life: Huang Mei's The Village Elementary

While many things have improved in the People's Republic since the death of Mao in 1976, access to public education for the poor isn't one of them. I recently saw The Village Elementary, a documentary by Huang Mei, that delves into this issue with a portrait of life in a tiny village primary school in Gansu Province, west China. This arid, mountainous region features breathtaking  scenery, but harbours villages so impoverished its hard to believe they exist in the same nation as the glittering skylines of modern cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

From the Dark Side of Economic Success: Zhao Liang's Petition and Guo Xiaolu's Once Upon a Time Proletarian

From the latest issue of the Australian art magazine RealTime.

“Bring down corruption, give me my human rights!” That’s the plaintive cry heard near the beginning of Zhao Liang’s film Petition (pictured left), a disturbing look at the brutality, violence and intimidation surrounding those seeking justice in contemporary China. Guo Xiaolu’s Once Upon a Time Proletarian similarly continues the Chinese independent documentary tradition of probing what lies behind the glittering facades of China’s economic success. Both films appeared at the recent Hong Kong International Film Festival, the only place in the People’s Republic where such critical works can play at such high profile events.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Black, Absurdist Take on Modern China: Zhao Dayong’s The High Life

Recently I had the opportunity to see Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (pictured left) on DVD, my second viewing after a screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival back in April, where the film scooped the FIRPRESCI Critics’ Jury Prize and the Silver Award in the Asian Digital Competition. I’d enjoyed the film in Hong Kong, but as so often happens at festivals there was little time to reflect on it before it was swept away by the sights and sounds of another half dozen movies in the days following. Happily, my positive impression of the film was only reinforced by a second viewing on DVD.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Whole Other Way of Being: Yang Rui’s Crossing the Mountain

On May 15 I attended the Beijing debut of Yang Rui's first dramatic feature, the strange, experimental  Crossing the Mountain, screened as part of BC MOMA's ongoing “Young Chinese Filmmakers” showcase.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reflecting on a Changing Society: Interview with Judge director Liu Jie

 In my last post I wrote about Li Jie's film Judge (Touxi), which recently appeared at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and is currently screening in Beijing as part of BC MOMA's “Young Chinese Filmmakers” showcase.

Last weekend (Saturday, May 15) I was able to interview Liu Jie (pictured left at last year's Venice Film Festival) in Kubrick Cafe, next to the BC MOMA cinema, and ask the director about how he was able to get a film dealing with such touchy topics approved for mainland China.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Deliberating Life and Death Over Tea: Liu Jie's Judge (Touxi)

 I finally got to see Judge (Touxi, director Liu Jie) on Friday (April 23), up at Beijing's new art house cinema BC MOMA. I'd been keen to check out this film for some time, as I'd read it dealt with the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners – an extremely touchy topic in the PRC. Although fairly grueling, Judge proved to be one of the most provocative and involving mainland features I've seen for some time.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Screen Time: Chollywood Takes on the World & Edwin Maher on the Big Screen

My weekly Beijing film news roundup from

“A vibrant film industry capable of competing with the best Hollywood can produce” – that’s the image being pushed on a new English-language site ( designed to raise China’s screen profile on the world stage, according to UK newspaper the Guardian.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Thoughts on Yin Lichuan's "Knitting"

I saw Yin Lichuan's Knitting (牛郎织女, Niú lán zhī nǔ) on Saturday night (April 17) up at Beijing's Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and, sad to say, I was quite disappointed. Yin's debut The Park (公园, Gōng yúan) was a sensitive, low-key melodrama that traced the importance of family ties in China, as well as the cross-generational tensions wrought by the enormous, rapid social changes that have redrawn the contours of contemporary Chinese society. Knitting is a similarly small-scale work, but lacks the emotional insight of Yin's earlier effort.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beijing Screening Wrap Up

I had intended to post this earlier, but time got away from me.  There’s lot’s happening over the next week in Beijing, though with the Caochangdi PhotoSpring kicking off tomorrow, I think I’ll probably spend most of the weekend at the wonderful Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. You can read my post about their activities this weekend on the Beijinger website.

The Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA) up at the 798 art zone is currently hosting the The ScreenOut Film Exhibition, sponsored by the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper. The SMD has long been involved in promoting China’s more cutting edge cinema, an activity that has occasionally got them into trouble, as the Beijing-based filmmaker, writer and curator Ou Ning recalled when I interviewed him last month for my RealTime article on Chinese documentaries. I’ll be posting my interview with Ou Ning shortly, so stay tuned for the rest of that story.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Aticle from RealTime on China's Digital Documentary Generation

Recently I have become fascinated by China's burgeoning independent documentary sector. I've written several articles on the subject, including the one below in the latest edition of the Australian arts magazine RealTime.

You can see the article in its original context here. You can find more of my work for RealTime here.

Alternative Realities: China's Digital Documentary Generation

While China's political system remains deeply authoritarian, the country's overwhelming size and explosive growth have opened cavernous gaps in the government's control of culture, through which a new generation of DV-wielding documentary filmmakers has climbed.

“I’ve never heard an independent filmmaker in China ask themselves, ‘Can I do this?’,” comments Hong Kong-based producer David Bandurski. “Independent filmmaking is the freest avenue of expression that exists in China today.”

Welcome to Screening China

Welcome to my new blog about Chinese film and filmmakers. I've been living in Beijing for close to three years now and have become increasingly fascinated by China's independent filmmaking scene. Much like Beijing's vibrant rock music scene, there's an explosion of creativity taking place in China's screen culture, mostly without any kind of institutional support, and often in spite of various obstacles put in the way of filmmakers and those screening their work by the authorities. So while the official, state-sanctioned industry pumps out endless historical epics, a small but dedicated group of Chinese filmmakers are grappling with the reality of a vast nation going through incredible changes. Unfortunately these films are rarely seen inside China itself. In cities like Beijing, however, there are a growing number of small screening venues, usually in cafes or galleries, presenting independent films to a dedicated audience.

So my reasons for starting this blog are several. Firstly I wanted somewhere to collect my published writing on Chinese film. Secondly, I wanted a space to publish all the stuff that isn't suitable for magazines or newspapers – interviews, short reviews, musings, and short film-related news items. And lastly, I wanted to help publicise the small but growing screening culture in Beijing, where I live. Places like BC MOMA, CNEX cafe and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art are providing increasing opportunities for locals to experience the true diversity of China's vibrant filmmaking culture.

I work for, where I also publish a regular film column which I'll reproduce here.

So - stay tuned! And get involved through the comments if you have anything to contribute.