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.
The main problem with Knitting is that it treads a path that every second “serious” Chinese feature seems to take these days, focusing on inarticulate youths leading aimless lives in nondescript Chinese cities (in this case Guangzhou, though the city isn't named in the film).
Zhang Yuan kicked off the so-called “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers back in 1993 with Beijing Bastards (北京杂种, Běijīng Zázhǒng), the first of these “lost youth” films. Jia Zhangke produced what I still think is the best of the genre, Unknown Pleasures (任逍遥, Rèn xiāo yáo), in 2002. Since then there's been a seemingly endless parade of features replicating the characters and hopeless situation of Unknown Pleasures, but without the dark humour, social insights and reflexivity that makes Jia's work so great.
One of Jia Zhangke's greatest skills is his ability to deftly sketch his stories before the broader canvas of contemporary China, without ever being heavy handed, didactic or obvious. His films work both as human dramas and snapshots of China at a time of radical change. In contrast, most of the “lost youth” films that have followed Unknown Pleasures make no attempt to place the plight of their characters in any sort of broader social context, and they add nothing new to the portrayal of human relations. Gao Wendong's Ant City (not sure of the Chinese title), which I saw at the recent Hong Kong International Film Festival, is a case in point. Simply sticking your camera in front of dull people leading dull lives does not make for social critique or interesting filmmaking, no matter how unfortunate their lives are.
Admittedly, Knitting is several cuts about Gao's effort, but I still felt like I was watching a film I'd seen a dozen times before. Although I quite liked the performances of the three leads, I didn't think Yin added anything to similar works that have gone before, nor did I find her portrayal of the love triangle at the heart of the film particularly engaging.
I couldn't help comparing Yin's film with the many Chinese documentaries I've been watching lately. Frankly, most recent Chinese dramas don't even come close to capturing the diversity of characters and situations found in the work of Chinese documentary makers operating outside the official industry. Which makes me think the censorship of China's film sector is playing a part here.
If you're a Chinese filmmaker who isn't interested in making purely escapist historical epics or very low-budget films on controversial topics that won't be shown in your homeland, your choices are limited when it comes to engaging with the nation's contemporary reality. Politics are a no-go area, as are most of the key historical turning points of the past half-century. Frank depictions of sex are out, and homosexuality remains touchy. Corruption is considered too sensitive, as are social or class divisions. What does that leave you with if you want to explore what's happening in China today?
In contrast, when I interviewed producer David Bandurski last month about the mainland's independent documentary sector, he commented, “I've never heard an independent filmmaker in China ask themselves, 'Can I do this?' They pursue their own vision with determination. They film what they want, how they want. And in most cases they have complete control over the film that results. It goes without saying that there is far more depth in these explorations than you can find in traditional media in China, which are strictly controlled.”
This difference between the “official” and “unofficial” sectors in China is glaringly apparent when you compare Knitting to The Hight Life (see still below), the first dramatic feature by Zhao Dayong, which debuted at the 2010 Hong Kong Film Festival. Although The High Life is a drama, Zhao emerged from the documentary sector – his previous film was the acclaimed documentary Ghost Town.
Yin Lichuan discussed some of the restrictions facing mainland filmmakers during the Q & A after Saturday's screening of Knitting. She claimed there were several elements she wished to include in the film that had to be left out because of the censors. It was unclear whether she preemptively removed these elements or was told to cut them in order to get the script passed. I know from working in China's media that one of the most insidious aspects of the PRC's censorship regime is its vagueness, which forces writers, journalists and filmmakers to second-guess what's acceptable, thereby fostering a kind of internalised self-censorship.
One element Yin specifically mentioned she had to leave out of Knitting was the sexual nature of the love triangle at the heart of the film. She explained that in the book Knitting is based on, it's clear the male protagonist has sexual relations with the two girls in the story, which I imagine lends the story an underlying tension lacking in the movie. Knitting opens with a love scene (albeit a very non-explicit one) between the male lead and his girlfriend. But Yin was forced to leave the nature of the male lead's relationship with the second girl in the story somewhat vague – apparently a man having sexual relations with two women was considered too racy for Chinese screens.
With these kinds of ridiculous restrictions on Chinese directors, is little wonder that China's most interesting films are being made outside the reach of the authorities. Last year Zhao Dayong was quoted as saying this about the process of submitting a film to the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT): “It’s like asking to be raped.”