To describe what freedom looks like in China today is to dive into a swarm of contradictions ever in flux. In response to the democracy uprisings in the Middle East, the monitoring of public spaces, online social networks, emails and cellphone calls have greatly intensified.
And yet this authoritarian clenching can’t fully contain the explosive activity coming from an infinitely resourceful generation of free-thinking, tech-savvy Chinese. On the filmmaking front, digital technology has enabled the production and small-scale distribution of hundreds of DIY features, whose aesthetic and socio-political daring can make American indies look tame. Cheng Sim-Lim and Berenice Reynaud have studiously followed Chinese cinema for years, and are bringing over some of the best recent work in an ambitious ten-film, five-venue series spread across the greater metro area. (Full disclosure: I'm a programming exec at dGenerate Films, which handles domestic distribution of two of these films, Disorder and Oxhide 2.)
Looking at the roster of vanguard directors, most may recognize only Jia Zhangke, although his latest effort, made within the state system, may seem his least iconoclastic. Produced for last year's Shanghai Expo, I Wish I Knew weaves 17 interviews into a poetic tapestry spanning China's cosmopolitan center's past century. Initially denounced by critics as state-sponsored promotional hackery, the film has steadily gained appreciation as a subtly subversive fracturing of "official" Chinese history. Either way, there's no questioning the richness of Jia's cinematography and sound design.
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A more overt social critique is offered by one of Jia's formative role models, Wu Wenguang, whose pioneering use of unadorned, highly personalized footage left an indelible stamp on Chinese indies. Treating documents Wu's process of sifting through layers of family history while illuminating national traumas of the past. It's the kind of first-person witness work that has made indie docs the avenging conscience of Chinese mainstream media's amnesia-inducing propaganda. Even a music doc like Sheng Zhimin's Night of an Era is tinged with the ghosts of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and rock's revolutionary promise, now a faint memory.
Punk insolence also seethes throughout Li Hongqi's Winter Vacation until it sonically explodes in response to a schoolteacher's chalkboard scrawl: "How to be a useful person for society." Such civic platitudes are ruthlessly eviscerated in Li's deadpan dystopia, where elders are openly dissed, divorce comes easy and a little boy's dream is to become an orphan. Shot with stunning minimalist precision, Winter Vacation suggests Jim Jarmusch with a mean streak, while Hao Jie's bawdy Single Man plays as if Judd Apatow had been born in a remote Chinese farm village. The 40 Year Old Virgin's got nothing on Hao's 80-year-old horndogs.
Solid as the films are, the series' highlights may be in-person appearances by two of China's most exciting auteurs, Oxhide 2 director Liu Jiayin, and bad boy writer–turned-filmmaker Zhu Wen, whose Thomas Mao may be his most accomplished film to date. Zhu paints a lively, shape-shifting relationship between Chinese artist Mao Yan and his patron, Thomas Rohdewald, who bounce through an unpredictable series of scenarios involving everything from broad slapstick involving randy farmyard animals to sophisticated CGI martial arts satire. Blessed with a limitless supply of playfulness, Thomas Mao does much to prove that in the wild world of Chinese cinema, freedom is a state of mind.
BETWEEN DISORDER AND UNEXPECTED PLEASURES: TALES FROM THE NEW CHINESE CINEMA | April 6–22 | Films screen at Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles Filmforum, Pomona College Museum of Art/Media Studies, REDCAT, and UCLA Film & Television Archive | redcat.org