Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2010: Chinese Cinema in Review

Documentary maker Ai Xiaoming filming in the studio of painter Yan Zhengxue in Beijing, September 2008. Image Dan Edwards.

While 2010 is rapidly receding into the past, earlier this week dGenerate Films paused for a moment to look back over the past year with a compilation of comments and “best of” lists from a range of filmmakers, critics and academics. Although I was on holiday in Australia when they were compiling contributions, I managed to knock  together a quick entry comprising titles, moments and events that sprung to mind when I thought about the past twelve months. It's been a busy year!

Other contributors include the dGenerate team, academic Michael Berry, Beijing-based festival programmer Shelley Kraicer, and filmmakers Xu Tong, Hu Jie and Huang Weikai. My effort is reproduced below – you can click here for the complete entry on the dGenerate Films site.

2010 Year in Review
2010 left a stream of images seared on my mind, from the bloodied body parts of a petitioner mowed down by a train in Zhao Liang’s Petition, to the melancholic countenance of the poetry writing cop in Zhao Dayong’s The High Life, to the parade of aging Shanghai faces in Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew. Some of these images entertained. Many horrified. But whatever their nature, they all served to expand our understanding of that thrilling, maddening and sometimes frightening space that is contemporary China.

Zhao Dayong's The High Life.

For me the aforementioned titles represented the year’s viewing highlights. But as any student of Chinese cinema knows, the real struggle for local filmmakers since the late 1970s has not been so much getting films made as getting work screened. Despite the ongoing inanities of China’s censorship regime, 2010 was a relatively good year for Beijing in terms of the visibility of more challenging filmic content.

After opening in late 2009, Beijing’s Broadway Cinematheque MOMA kicked off 2010 with a comprehensive retrospective of Third Generation director Xie Jin, and maintained a strong program all year. Despite grappling with the same restrictions faced by every “official” cinema in China, it’s a testament to the work of programmer Wu Jing that BC MOMA has consistently pulled large crowds to an eclectic roster that has included everything from rarely seen classics like Xie Fei’s Black Snow, to unsettling contemporary works like Liu Jie’s Judge and Yang Rui's experimental feature Crossing the Mountain.

The futuristic surrounds of BC MOMA, Beijing's one and only arthouse cinema.

2010 was also the year that saw the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), in Beijing’s 798 art zone, establish itself as a serious screening venue, hosting controversial works like Zhao Hou’s Using, Xu Tong’s Fortune Teller and Zhao Dayong’s The High Life. Put simply, UCCA made works available to local audiences that are very difficult to access elsewhere in Beijing – and often pulled near capacity crowds in the process.

Personally, though, the real highlights of 2010 for me came in a series of face-to-face interviews I was able to conduct with some of the Chinese directors I admire most.

Early in the year I was able to chat with Nanjing filmmaker Hu Jie (In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, Though I Am Gone) by phone – only to have our call interrupted by police monitoring his line. Mid-year I was privileged to spend an afternoon observing Hu Jie’s friend, the activist academic and documentary maker Ai Xiaoming, as she interviewed painter Yan Zhengxue about the three years he had recently spent in jail as a result of his advocacy work with local farmers.

The year ended with an extended interview with Zhao Liang in his studio on the outskirts of the capital, reflecting on his 10 years of innovative documentary making amongst some of China’s most marginalised groups.

The quiet determination of these men and women to tell their stories, despite severely restricted domestic screening opportunities, constant hassles and occasional personal dangers, left a profound impression. For me, their films do what cinema does best – open our eyes to new worlds that would otherwise remain invisible. More importantly, these directors are key players in the ongoing struggle to make China a more open, reflexive and creative place, working for little to no personal gain and frequently enduring restrictions on their own lives to make the films they believe in. Veteran Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan summed up the attitude of much of China’s filmmaking community before a full house at BC MOMA in December: “I don’t know when we will see change, but our voice cannot be beaten.”

Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan spoke out against the restrictions on Chinese filmmaking when he appeared at Beijing's BC MOMA cinema in December 2010. Image Dan Edwards.

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