Beijing Bubbles, a new documentary about punk and rock music in Beijing, screened Thursday night at Cinefamily as part of the Don’t Knock The Rock movie line-up. The filmmakers, based in Berlin, both have long-standing connections to the music industry in Germany; George Lindt and Susanne Messmer have been involved in independent record production and music journalism for many years, so it was with a clear passion that they went to Beijing to find “punk rock visions at the other side of the world.” The film follows five bands, which were each introduced with taglines that read as entries in the punk-rock encyclopedia. Joyside, the popular indie punk band: “There is no use to be a hard-working man.” Hang On The Box, the experimental girl band: “We need a quiet mood to think about music.” New Pants, the shaggy-haired skinny boys: “We are still underground.” T9, the hermit throat-singer: “I have isolated myself since a long time.” Sha Zi, the bluesy duo: “We don’t want to be a part of that society.”
In the online synopsis, it says the musicians, although stylistically diverse, have all “retired from the world in which they have grown up.” And that’s exactly it. There are no options for these people: they have retired, at the ripe-old-age of twenty-something. Aside from one band member in New Pants who owns his own toy store, the cameras followed around these musicians doing absolutely NOTHING—they stroll, they browse, they sit, they talk. Some of them have had stints in the accepted “subculture” commodity position of record store and used clothing store clerk; the film makes it clear that, by choosing to pursue a life devoted to Western music, their only choice is to stay at home all day.
But Beijing Bubbles didn’t go in to WHY that is their fate. Why do these girls and boys have no income, no creative jobs, no art collectives, no home made music fanzines? The answer points plainly towards their government, their societal constraints, their country’s fear of independent thought. But you have to come to those conclusions yourself. Perhaps the filmmakers were too timid to ask “Why?” Or maybe they did, but the youngsters were too scared (or drunk) to answer.
With scarcely any cultural context (the absence of which makes the Bubbles in the title seem exceedingly appropriate), the lives of the musicians played out as banal, broke, stay-home-all-day subjects; and while that seems to be the point of their lives–this deviation from an acceptable routine–the monotony didn't have to be the point of the movie. Amidst the looming Beijing Olympics, and the recent violence against Tibetans and their supporters, including journalists, I would have loved to see the filmmakers connect to the root of their subjects’ disenfranchisement. What we got instead was a litany of clichéd catch-phrases: “We are living in a subculture,” “Depression helps me make music,” “All I want to do is sing, drink, and fuck,” etc., etc., etc. Joyside’s new album was even titled Drunk Is Beautiful.
The “Humai” throat-singing feats of T9’s singer Yiliqi, who is the son of a Mongol and a Manchurian, were a delightful inclusion that worked like a shot of espresso, although he doesn’t appear on-screen until the last fifteen minutes. The closest the film came to addressing the larger imprint of the Chinese culture was with two comments made by Sha Zi singer Liu Donghong. In the first, Liu was talking about the proliferation of prostitution in bars during a stroll with his girlfriend, and he asks the crucial question, “Where have all the girls gone?” An interesting societal dilemma with an interesting answer. No time here, but anyone familiar with the One Child law can start to imagine the fate of many baby girls born in China. And the second was during a stroll in Tiananmen Square. Liu looks up at the ominous Great Hall of the People legislative building along the western perimeter, and says simply, “They have many meetings here. They come here, and they make decisions. And then they come out with bad ideas.”
For more info visit www.beijing-bubbles.com