NOTABLE AND RECOMMENDED CHINESE INDEPENDENT DOCUMENTARY FILMS

CHINESE DOCUMENTARY FILMS RECOMMENDED BY CHRIS BERRY

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Jian Yi
Chris Berry is a professor of Film and Television Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also a Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre. He obtained his MA and PhD in Theater Arts (Film & TV) from the University of California, Los Angeles. In the 1980s, he worked for China Film Import and Export Corporation in Beijing. Since then, he has been teaching about film and media in various universities in Australia, the US, and the UK, and his academic research is grounded in work on Chinese cinema and other Chinese screen-based media. In September 2012, he will become Professor of Film Studies at King’s College, London. [Source: La Frances Hui, China File, chinafile.com/china-through-independent-lens, 2012]

“Crime And Punishment” ( Zui yu Fa) directed by Zhao Liang (2007): Like the best of Frederick Wiseman’s films, this observational takes us into the bureaucratic absurdities of a social institution---in this case, a police station in Zhao Liang’s hometown in Northeast China. Watching policemen naively letting him video them as they try to beat a confession out of a deaf mute is both one of the most shocking and funny moments in recent Chinese cinema.

“Mask Changing: A Letter To Antonioni” (Bianlian Zhi Andongniaoni de Yi feng Xin) directed by Pan Jun (2004): During the Cultural Revolution, Michelangelo Antonioni made a documentary, Cina (1972), that was immediately banned. When it came out on DVD in China a few years ago, Pan Jun went back to where Antonioni shot, found the people in his film, and showed them the clips. Not only do we get some truths behind the film, but we also witness the sheer joy and excitement of Antonioni’s subjects as they see precious footage from their past.

“Meishi Street” ( Meishi Jie) directed by Ou Ning (2006): Cycles of demolition and construction have affected every Chinese urban citizen. The government owns the land, so they are powerless to stop the developers. But as Meishi Street shows, they do resist. Ou Ning gave restaurant owner Zhang Jinli a camera, and he uses it as a weapon in the battle for the control of speech in public space that the film shows is central to the campaign

“Though I Am Gone” (Wo Sui Si Qu) directed by Hu Jie (2007): This is an exceptional achievement because it combines remarkable testimony with a self-reflexive meditation on documentary. Hu pioneered the trend for politically sensitive oral history films. Here, he interviews the husband of Bian Zhongyun, principal of a Beijing middle school beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution by her own students. Told his wife was dying in hospital, he grabbed his camera. Hu’s film not only interrogates the Cultural Revolution, but also the compulsion and need to witness, document, and record.

“West of the Tracks”(Tiexi Qu) directed by Wang Bing (2001): Wang Bing’s nine-hour elegiac epic is a strange echo of the Lumière brothers’ much shorter Leaving the Factory (1895). Instead of workers happily coming off their shifts, the three parts of West of the Tracks trace the death of an iconic Mao era heavy industrial zone and show people leaving forever. Smoky, snow-covered, and dark, it made me think of the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) as I sank into it and became immersed in its thoughtful nostalgia.

Chinese Documentary Films Recommended by Karin Chien

Karin Chien is an independent film producer and distributor based in New York City. Karin has produced ten independent feature films, including most recently Circumstance, the winner of the 2011 Sundance Audience Award. Karin is also the 2010 recipient of the Independent Spirit Producers Award. Karin is the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema in North America. [Source: La Frances Hui, China File, chinafile.com/china-through-independent-lens, 2012]

“Meishi Street” ( Meishi Jie) directed by Ou Ning (2006): A landmark in activist filmmaking in China, Meishi Street shows ordinary citizens taking a stand against the planned destruction of their homes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The subjects were given cameras to film their firsthand confrontations with the authorities.

“Disorder” ( Xianshi Shi Guoqu de Weilai) directed by Huang Weikai (2009): Huang Weikai's one-of-a-kind news documentary captures, with remarkable freedom, the anarchy, violence, and seething anxiety animating China's major cities today. Made from more than 1000 hours of amateur footage, Disorder reveals an emerging underground media, one that has the potential to truly capture the ground-level upheaval of Chinese society.

“Ghost Town” ( Fei Cheng) directed by Zhao Dayong (2009): A remote village in southwest China is haunted by traces of its cultural past while its residents piece together their existence. The first Chinese independent documentary to screen at the New York Film Festival, Ghost Town elevated the Chinese digital documentary movement to new levels of poetry.

“Crime and Punishment” ( Zui yu Fa) directed by Zhao Liang (2007): A prime example of how independent documentaries are on the vanguard of Chinese cinema, Crime and Punishment is an unprecedented look at the everyday workings of law enforcement in the world’s largest authoritarian society. With penetrating camerawork, Zhao Liang patiently reveals the police methods used to interrogate and coerce suspects to confess crimes---and the consequences when such techniques backfire. With a cold, objective eye, Zhao’s artistry withholds judgment in this cinematic slice of reality.

Chinese Documentary Films Recommended by Jia Zhangke

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Disorder
Jia Zhangke, Chinese director, writer, and producer, was born in Fengyang, Shanxi in 1970. He began his career as a screenwriter and director in 1995 while studying Screenwriting and Cinema Studies at the Beijing Film Academy. In 1998, his first feature film, Xiao Wu, won the Wolfgang Prize and Netpac Award at the 48th Berlin International Film Festival. In 2006, Jia’s Still Life received the Golden Lion Award in the 63rd Venice International Film Festival. In 2009, he was awarded the Officer Order of Arts and Letters of France. In 2010, he received the Leopard of Honor of the 63rd Festival del film Locarno. Jia Zhangke’s main filmography as director includes: Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life, 24 City, and I Wish I Knew. Jia’s writings include: Jia’s Thoughts, Interviews with Chinese Workers, and I Wish I Knew---A Record of the Film. He lives in Beijing. [Source: La Frances Hui, China File, chinafile.com/china-through-independent-lens, 2012]

“West of the Tracks” ( Tiexi Qu) directed by Wang Bing (2001): The film depicts a panoramic scene of the decline of China’s state-owned factories following the failures of its planned economy. Landscapes of desolate factories and portraits of people living in difficult predicament reflect a poetic sorrow.

“Before the Flood” ( Yan Mo) directed by Yan Yu (2005): The Three Gorges Project is about to bury the thousand-year-old ancient city of Fengjie in rising water. With their cameras in hand, the directors linger on the old town of Fengjie, in the process of being demolished. Anticipating the monumental changes, people here are trapped in a web of complex conflicts. With the city submerged, will the memory of it endure?

“Petition” ( Shang Fang) directed by Zhao Liang (2009): Petitioners from around the country carry their grievances to Beijing, hoping to attain the justice that they have been deprived. But in Beijing, their personal sufferings inevitably become politicized.

Chinese Documentary Films Recommended by La Frances Hui

La Frances Hui is Film Curator at Asia Society New York. She has curated film series featuring contemporary Chinese documentary and fiction films, New Wave Japanese cinema, Japanese documentaries, Thai cinema, and Iranian cinema. [Source: La Frances Hui, China File, chinafile.com/china-through-independent-lens, 2012]

“Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers” (Liulang Beijing) directed by Wu Wenguang (1990): Considered the godfather of independent Chinese documentary filmmaking, Wu Wenguang documents the life of struggling young artists in Beijing. This film provides insights into how contemporary Chinese artists whose works now fetch millions at international auction houses might have begun their careers.

“Disorder” (Xianshi Shi Guoqu de Weilai) directed by Huang Weikai (2009): Filmmaker Huang Weikai meticulously assembles footage taken by amateur videographers documenting chaos, violence, and absurd happenings on the streets of China to create this pointed essay of urban mayhem.

“ Petition” (Shang Fang) directed by Zhao Liang (2009): How does justice work in China for the powerlessZhao Liang follows petitioners as they fight their causes all the way to Beijing from all over the country, only to find themselves locked in an unending limbo.

“Railroad of Hope” (Xiwang zhi Lü) directed by Ning Ying (2002): Filmmaker Ning Ying is a rare breed among independent Chinese filmmakers, not only because she is a woman, but also because she attended the Beijing Film Academy alongside 5th generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who decidedly do not share the same aesthetics, concerns, and economic paradigms as their younger counterparts. In this film, Ning follows seasonal workers on their annual three-day gruesome train ride from Sichuan to Xinjiang to work in the cotton harvest.

“Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul” (Xun Zhao Lin Zhao De Ling Hun) directed by Hu Jie (2004): The most fearless of all independent filmmakers, Hu Jie tackles some of the most taboo subjects in China. This film documents the life of a bright Beijing University student Lin Zhao (1932-68), who was banished during the anti-rightist movement for her outspokenness. In jail, Lin continued her defiance and wrote critical commentary aiming at Mao Zedong on prison walls and any scraps of paper she could find using her own blood. Lin died tragically and forgotten during imprisonment.

Chinese Documentary Films Recommended by Zhang Xianmin

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Super Girl
Zhang Xianmin is a film producer and critic, an organizer of the China Independent Film Festival, and a leading figure of the independent film scene in China. Since 2005, he has produced feature films such as Raised from Dust and Fujian Blue (best film in the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2007). He is the author of two books---All About DV and Invisible Images. An actor since 1994, he has starred in Rainclouds over Wushan, Summer Palace and Raised from Dust. Zhang is also executive officer of the Heaven Pictures Indie Cinema Fund. [Source: La Frances Hui, China File, chinafile.com/china-through-independent-lens, 2012]

“Using” ( Long Ge) directed by Zhou Hao (2008): Zhou Hao always works on several productions simultaneously. While making Using, he was also filming other documentaries, including one about the cotton industry and another about young athletes. The central character in Using is known as Brother Long by other social outcasts. Originally from Northeast China, he makes his living dealing drugs in Guangzhou, and eventually he is trapped in drug addiction himself. He helps others, but also requests help from others all the time, especially from the filmmaker Zhou. But what Zhou offers cannot save him. The story is astonishing and thrilling.

“Bing Ai” ( Bing Ai) directed by Feng Yan (2007): Feng Yan spent seven years in the Three Gorges region following a peasant woman, Bingai, who refused to give up her land [for new development]. Feng is greatly moved by Bingai’s uncompromising personality. Feng says that most Chinese people give up their land too easily, like losers. Meanwhile, the extraordinary effort Feng puts into making this documentary is comparable to Bingai’s perseverance. In this sense, the filmmaker and her subject are mirror image of each other.

“Crime And Punishment” ( Zui yu Fa) directed by Zhao Liang (2007): Zhao Liang documents the routine work of a small police station in Northeast China (on the border between China and North Korea). He is a local there, but has lived in Beijing as a conceptual and visual artist for many years. Despite what the film title might suggest, the lively daily events captured do not provoke deep reflection. But the arrangement of events, including the omission and lengthening of certain plot materials, as well as the philosophical investigation of the possibilities in human relations are all important issues that face contemporary documentary making.

“Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul” (Xun Zhao Lin Zhao De Ling Hun) directed by Hu Jie (2004): One of the most primordial Chinese documentaries, it marked the beginning of the citizen documentary movement in China.

“New Castle” ( Xinbao) directed by Guo Hengqi (2010): New Castle depicts the current condition of rural China. It is groundbreaking both in depth and breadth. A member of the post-80s generation, Guo Hengqi is a younger and lesser-known newcomer that I want to recommend.

Chinese Documentary Films Recommended by Yingjin Zhang

Yingjin Zhang is Professor of Chinese Literature at University of California, San Diego. His English books include Encyclopedia of Chinese Film (1998), Screening China (2002), Chinese National Cinema (2004), From Underground to Independent (2006), Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China (2010), and A Companion to Chinese Cinema (2012). [Source: La Frances Hui, China File, chinafile.com/china-through-independent-lens, 2012]

“Fuck Cinema” ( Cao Tamade Dianying) Wu Wenguang, director (2005): A pioneer of Chinese independent documentary, Wu Wenguang follows an impoverished migrant worker who is desperately pitching his amateur screenplay in Beijing. Wu sometimes places himself in front of the camera and is relentless in depicting the film world as more deceiving than alluring. His critical self-reflexivity establishes the film as both documentation and performance, thereby encouraging the view to explore a new ethics of the self vis-à-vis the other.

“Last Train Home” (Guitu Lieche) directed by Fan Lixin (2009): A compelling picture of large-scale migration in contemporary China, this documentary enumerates the human costs of globalization by tracking both long-distance journeys and daily routines in the industrialized city and the hinterland countryside. Stunning images of huge crowds outside the railroad station during the spring festival and the persistent tension---even physical violence---between a teenage daughter and her parents raise serious questions regarding traditional value and human dignity in a changing society.

“Petition” ( Shang Fang) directed by Zhao Liang (2009): Shot over a decade, this documentary contains so many disturbing images that keep the viewer on edge all the time. Concepts of human rights and social justice appear so powerless---yet all the more crucial---when petitioners are forced to live in a miserable condition in Beijing. Perseverance and bravery on the part of petitioners and activists are contrasted with the dismissal and violence from the bureaucracy in a world of irrationality and absurdity.

“Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul” (Xun Zhao Lin Zhao de Ling Hun) directed by Hu Jie (2004): This audacious, heart-wrenching work challenges a culture of indoctrination and oblivion by investigating a case of political persecution in the early decades of the PRC. By retrieving writings done with the victim’s own blood and interviewing her former acquaintances, the film demonstrates that the past is not forgotten and justice still awaits redress in China.

“West of the Tracks” ( Tiexi Qu) directed by Wang Bing (2003) This epic 9-hour deliberation on the decline of massive industrial manufacturing in northeast China compels the viewer to confront the ghostly ruins of giant machines and deserted factories. The soon-to-be-unemployed workers’ uncertain future evokes the nightmare rather than the glory of socialist legacy and human civilization. The slow-moving train that punctuates the film bears witness to a science fiction-like world where even the machine is abandoned in an industrial wasteland.

Translator Cindy Carter on Films She Translated


Super Girls clips On some of the films she has worked on translator Cindy Carter told Bruce Humes of Ethnic China: On “Paper Airplane”directed by Zhao Liang (2001): Gritty early DV-generation documentary about heroin and the Chinese rock scene. The first film I ever subtitled, and I did it for free. Over a dozen years later, Zhao Liang and I have worked on 4 films together and he is one of China’s most prolific and respected indie directors. He recently completed "Petition," his decade-long labor of love documentary project. [Source: Bruce Humes, Ethnic China, May 14, 2012]

“West of Tracks” directed by Wang Bing (2002-3): This massively ambitious 9-hour, 3-part opus about life in China’s rust belt changed the landscape of Chinese documentary film. Wang Bing spent 5 or 6 years of his life planning, filming, editing and perfecting this film; I spent 4 months, off and on, translating it. Everyone who worked on "West of Tracks"---from director and producers, to video techs and subtitle editors and translators, to those unnamed and intrepid individuals who volunteered their services or equipment for a few hours or days or weeks---poured their souls into the film, and it shows. Wang Bing and I have done five or six other projects since, and hopefully will continue to work together. If anyone in the world of Chinese indie film deserves the designation of “auteur”, it is Wang Bing. (Though in the world of mainstream Chinese film, the greatest auteur is Jiang Wen, hands down.)

“Before the Flood” directed by Yan Yu and Li Yifan (2004): A sprawling documentary about the demolition and relocation of an ancient village in the path of the Three Gorges Dam Project, "Before the Flood" touches on a number of issues (property rights, community, local politics, religious revival in China, etc.) that would inform the work of these directors for years to come.

“Fairytale” produced by Ai Weiwei with 16 directors (2007): This was the first truly collaborative film translation of my career, and it was an education in itself. Looking back, it’s hard to say what stands out the most---being part of a project that brought 1001 Chinese citizens to the Kassel Documenta in Germany, and dispatched 16 directors all over China and Europe to capture the personal stories of those 1001 individuals; working with Ai Weiwei for the first time; trying to helm the translation of a film that shrank from 20 to 14 to 9 hours (chosen from among hundreds of hours of footage) in the course of one summer, and ended in an “artistic parting of the ways” between producer and supervising director; or being able to hire and work with some of the translators (Eric Abrahamsen, Brendan O’Kane, Joel Martinson, Jim Weldon, and Alice Wang) I had known for years but had never had the chance to work with closely. This was right about the time that the Paper Republic website was going online, and although we had known each other socially before this intensive project, none of us had much insight into the process or prowess of our colleagues, the group of translators that would later form the core of the “Paper Republic crew”.

“WE: Creatures of Politics, Voices of Conscience” directed by Huang Wenhai (2008): One might logically inquire what sort of cajones are required to direct and produce a documentary film about three generations of Chinese political reformers and civil-rights activists, then schedule it for release just before the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I can only think of one Chinese filmmaker with the testicular and spiritual fortitude it requires, and that man is Huang Wenhai. You’d never know it to look at him: Wenhai is a practicing Buddhist, soft-spoken and mellow in the extreme, the kind of person you’d expect to find meditating on a mountaintop, not lugging camera equipment around to underground dormitories, home-based churches, or the site of the infamous 1959 Party Plenum in Lushan. And yet there he was, recording some of the most incisive dialogue in the history of Chinese film. With limited release abroad and virtually no release (but for a few furtive screenings) in mainland China, this documentary is still damn-near invisible, but I hope that at some point, it will be seen and remembered, because there is quite literally nothing like it. Many of the subjects who appear in the film (several have died of old age in the intervening years) are old-school cadres, survivors of the Long March, former high-ranking members of the Propaganda Department or Xinhua News Service who dared, in their retirement, to speak out in support of constitutional government, rule of law, and respect for individual liberties. But optimists and reformists beware: this is not a feel-good film. In the end, what stands out most is the complete disorganization and disconnect between three generations of patriotic and well-meaning individuals who can agree that reform is essential, but can’t seem to get on the same page about the specifics.

“Timber Gang, Survival Song, Bachelor Mountain” directed by Yu Guangyi (2004, 2007 & 2010): You can’t talk about the current state of Chinese manhood without referencing Yu Guangyi’s "Changbaishan Sanbuqu" (White Mountain Trilogy), about the inhabitants of the remote national forests of north-eastern China. It’s not all about the menfolk, of course, but in these northern climes, where women are a scarce commodity, the gender-gap colours every aspect of society. I translated the last two films of the trilogy, and we’re still looking for an investor for finance the retranslation and subtitling of the first part (Timber Gang).

NOTABLE INDEPENDENT DOCUMENTARY FILMS

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Dooman River
“Dooman River” is a feature film by Zhang Lu. Kevin Lee of dGenerate Films wrote, “Lu Zhang Lu has made a career of exploring the ambiguous boundaries that define his Korean-Chinese heritage, perhaps no more explicitly than in this film, situated on the North Korean-Chinese border. Depicting the complex interactions between men escaping the PRK and the ethnic Korean Chinese who reluctantly take them in, it’s Zhang’s most accessible film, offering emotional payoffs while complicating notions of Chinese and Korean identities. Technically it’s a Korean-European production, which may explain why it’s been largely marginalized from discussions of Chinese cinema of the past year; but in no way should its relevance be in doubt.” [Source: Kevin Lee, dGenerate Films]

Xu Tong’s “Wheat Harvest” is a film about prostitution in China. The discussion after the screening centered on the fact that the filmmaker didn’t obtain proper consent from the sex workers he had filmed. Since sex work is illegal in China, the film might have brought risk of arrest and prosecution to the subjects in the film.

“Sona, the Other Myself” (Goodbye, Pyongyang) is a documentary by Yang Yong-hi. It explore questions of ethnic identification and solidarity, probing into the tragic ways in which national boundaries affect people’s lives and reminding us of the vital yet fragile efforts of those who seek to maintain human connections across national borders.

Notable Independent Documentary Films from the Mid 2000s

“Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul” by Hu Jie (2004): Lin Zhao was a young woman who attended Peking University in the 1950s. Of all the students at the university, she was the only one who refused to write a political confession during Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, and as a result was sentenced to prison. Lin composed endless articles and poems from her cell. Forbidden to use pens, she wrote with a hairpin dipped in her own blood. Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul stands as a landmark in the Chinese independent documentary movement. The result is a lasting testament to a young woman’s legacy of courage and conviction.

“Senior Year” (2005), a film by Zhao Hao, is an in-depth examination of how a class of teenagers prepares for the national college entrance exams in China. When it comes to anxiety about how the U.S compares with other nations, there’s always plenty to go around. But for a real wake-up call, nothing can compare to Zhou Hao’s Senior Year, an in-depth examination of how a class of teenagers prepares for the national college entrance exams that will determine their destinies. Faced with mountains of memorization and rigid behavioral standards, most buckle down, but some rebel and some simply crumble under the pressure. Zhou brings tenderness, humor, and quiet outrage to this rare, behind-the-scenes look at China’s educational system.

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Xu Tong's Shattered
“Timber Gang” by Yu Guangyi (2006) is a documentary that confronts the viewer with a China not-yet eclipsed by massive development, depicting the grueling, Herzogian conditions of rural subsistence labor. Lumberjacks in a mountainous area of China use a method that has not changed for centuries. The men stay in humble cabins, where they eat, drink wine and sleep together. This is the last year for the lumberjacks. In the spring they will start looking for other work in the city.

“Before the Flood Sunday” (2005) is a landmark documentary following the residents of the historic city of Fengjie as they clash with officials forcing them to evacuate their homes to make way for the world’s largest dam. Shot over two years, Before the Flood is a breathtaking achievement in verité-style documentary filmmaking. This profound film shows the human effects of one of history’s grandest social engineering projects, reflecting on the loss of both home and heritage.

“Meishi Street” (2006), directed by Ou Ning, shows ordinary citizens taking a stand against the planned destruction of their homes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Acclaimed at over two dozen museums and galleries around the world, Meishi Street, by renowned visual artist Ou Ning, works as both art and activism, calling worldwide attention to lives being demolished in the name of progress.

“Super, Girls!” (2007), directed by Jian Yi, China, follows ten teenagers on their quest to become superstars on China’s biggest TV show. Through candid interviews and footage of nail-biting auditions, the film offers a fascinating look inside what the Chinese media have dubbed “the Lost Generation.”

Chinese independent films is becoming richly differentiated. Some of the best and most groundbreaking ones in 2010 according to Kevin Lee of dGenerate Films were “Crossing the Mountain” (dir. Yang Rui); “East Wind Farm Camp” (dir. Hu Jie); “The High Life” (dir. Zhao Dayong); “No. 89 Shimen Road” (dir. Shu Haolun); “The Old Donkey” (dir. Li Ruijin); “Rivers and My Father” (dir. Li Luo); “Single Man” (dir. Hao Jie); “A Song of Love, Maybe” (dir. Zhang Zanbo); “Spiral Staircase of Harbin” (dir. Ji Dan); “ Triumph of the Will” (dir. Mao Chenyu); and “Winter Vacation” (dir. Li Hongqi). [Source: Kevin Lee, dGenerate Films]

Time Out Shanghai describes Pema Tseden’s “The Search” as “A visual poem, as well as a bittersweet song of cultural identity.” The review says: “”The Search” unfolds at two levels: the classical codes of cinematic representation, and issues pertaining to the national (an ambiguous term, if any, for Tibetans born in the Chinese province of Qinghai) Pema’s immense talent, however, prevents “The Search” from being yet another film about trying-to-make-a-film; with subtle humor, melancholic accuracy, and impeccable dignity, it opens a too-rare vista into what moves and ails the Tibetan men of his generation.”

“Please Vote For Me” (2007) directed by Chen Weijun: What would democracy look like in China? In Wuhan, a city in central China about the size of London, a third grade class experiments for the first time in selecting a Class Monitor through an election. As if nobody needs to be coached how to run an election campaign, candidates quickly go all-out to solicit votes from their fellow classmates. Backstabbing, bribing, bullying, fancy speeches---all sorts of aggressive tactics are employed to win votes. Tears are shed, feelings are hurt, and friendships are tested. What have these children learned from this experiment? Is democracy destined for exploitation? [Source: Asia Society, September 25-October 29, 2011]

“Children of the Chinese Circus” (2007) directed by Guo Jing and Ke Dingding: Take a behind-the-scenes look at the training of some of the world’s best acrobats and circus performers. In this Shanghai circus school, a highly disciplined environment, small children endure excruciating and dangerous training regimes. Mostly from poor families, these children are sent to the school by their parents in the hope that the specialty training will secure them a future. While small children sustain agonizing daily practice, the teachers are also under tremendous pressure to produce award-winning stunts. A faculty meeting turns into a Cultural Revolution-styled criticizing session. This film is set to change your perception of acrobatic performances forever. "Recalling the finest nonfiction achievements of Frederick Wiseman”. Fiercely intelligent." [Source: Robert Koehler, Asia Society, September 25-October 29, 2011]

“Brave Father” (2007) directed by LiJunhu:  Han Shengli has been admitted to a university in Xi'an. For his peasant family, this presents an incredible opportunity to move up the economic ladder. To pay for his education, the family sells off most of its valuable belongings. Shengli’s father also comes to Xi'an to find work in construction, while the son quietly collects plastic bottles on campus to make small change. The extremely shy son, who struggles to find a job upon graduation that pays better than his father’s construction work, is a sharp contrast to his old man, who is expressive and resourceful, and reads from a small notebook about his dreams for his son. While a brighter future is not yet in sight, he still believes all the sacrifices will eventually pay off. "An incredibly moving affair, with the determination of its characters offset and cruelly undermined by the harsh economic reality of the modern Chinese employment sector." [Source: James Mudge, Hollywood.com] 

Notable Independent Documentary Films from the Late 2000s


Ghost Town Among the more interesting documentary Chinese films made in the late 2000s, which were featured at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema, were “Ximaojia Universe” directed by Mao Chenyu (2009); “Disorder” directed by Huang Weikai (2009); “Ghost Town” directed by Zhao Dayong (2008); “Survival Song” directed by Yu Guangyi (2008); “Wheat Harvest” directed by Xu Tong (2008); “Disturbing the Peace” directed by Ai Weiwei ( 2009); “Using” directed by Zhou Hao ( 2008); and “Bing Ai” directed by Feng Yan ( 2007)

“Queer China, “Comrade” China” (2008), directed by Cui Zi’en, China’s most prolific queer filmmaker, presents a comprehensive historical account of the queer movement in modern China. Unlike any before, this film explores the historical milestones and ongoing advocacy efforts of the Chinese lesbian and gay community. A Shanghai Timeout Review of “Queer China, Comrade China” (“Zhi Tongzhi”) goes: "Espousing a more traditional form, and dividing the film in seven chapters, Cui covers incredible ground in a relatively short amount of time (60 minutes). Fact-filled, yet fun-filled, Cui’s film pays homage to all the tongzhi warriors, male or female, prominent or unknown, who are bringing about what Li (Yinhe) describes as a major sexual revolution."[Source: dgeneratefilms.com, December 2010]

“Spiral Staircases of Harbin” (2008) was directed by veteran director Ji Dan. "On a hill in Harbin, in China’s Heilongjiang Province---the director’s hometown---a girl neglects her exam preparation in favor of drawing pictures. Her mother wants her to study. Below, a couple is unable to talk with their son who is always playing with his friends. The emotional lives of these powerless parents play out against the atmosphere of an unforgiving modern urban society. In the film Ju uses interviews to paint an intense, soul-bearing investigation of two friends from her youth, one poor and ill, the other middle class but stressed, set against Harbin’s symbol-laden cityscape."

“Using” (2008), directed by Zhou Hao, is about a twisted relationship develops between an urban Chinese couple struggling with heroin and a filmmaker chronicling their addiction. Zhou’s unflinching depiction of his friends’ repeated attempts to quit blurs the line between filmmaker and subject, and raises provocative questions about the ways in which each uses the other.

“Ghost Town” (2008), directed by Zhao Dayong, is about Zhiziluo, a town barely clinging to life. Tucked away in a rugged corner of Southwest China, the village is haunted by traces of China’s cultural past while its residents piece together a day-by-day existence. “Directed with scrupulous attention to detail(Manohla Dargis, New York Times),Ghost Town, which debuted at the New York Film Festival, “is one of the most important films to have emerged from the booming (but still unexplored) field of Chinese independent documentaries. (Dennis Lim, Moving Image Source). “Ghost Town” is divided into three parts. It takes an intimate look at its varied cast of characters, bringing audiences face to face with people left behind by China’s new economy. A father-son duo of elderly preachers argue over the future of their village church. A twelve year-old boy scavenges the hillside to feed himself. Zhao’s novelistic yet urgent film attests to the filmmaker’s deep commitment to his subjects as well as the painful lives of those forgotten by the onslaught of development.

“Wind, Flowers, Snow, Moon” (2008), directed by Yang Jianjun, is set in small village in the northwest of Sichuan province, where Mr. Yang, a ninety year-old grandfather, is the ninth-generation successor in a family of fengshuiexperts. They preside over funerals for the village. The documentary focuses on intimacy with life-and-death and the tragedy of how “the young perish, while the old linger”. Sons and daughters wrangle over funeral expenses; an affectionate couple dies, one after another. Yang’s family celebrates the birth of his great-grandchildren while simultaneously burying a son who has died of cancer.

Kevin Lee of dGenerate Films wrote: “”Wind, Flower, Snow, Moon” is one of the most quietly beautiful documentaries of recent memory. With a gifted eye, first time director Yang painstakingly details life among his own family, who practice the ancient art of Buddhist geomancy, bringing blessings to others at all stages of life in northwest Sichuan province. To be honest, it’s not so much a ground-breaker as an exceptional film whose unassuming manner of mastery is at risk of being lost in the shuffle. It’s criminal that this film wasn’t pushed or noticed more in the fest circuit. But it just goes to show that there is no end to the discoveries to be found in Chinese independent cinema.” [Source: Kevin Lee, dGenerate Films]

“The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World” (2008) directed by Chen Weijun: Situated in Changsha, Hunan is the world’s biggest Chinese restaurant, which seats up to 5,000 diners and employs 1,000 staff. A sprawling complex containing pavilions in the style of traditional Chinese architecture, the restaurant is owned by Qin Linzi, a middle-aged female self-starter who used to earn 30 RMB a month. Documenting the restaurant’s day-to-day operation, the film shows routine slogan-chanting sessions intended to boost morale among the staff. A perceptive portrait of Chinese society, this engaging documentary provides a window into traditional Chinese customs that often revolve around banquets. "A fine example of what documentary film can be. It is fascinating, deeply entertaining."  [Source: Todd Brown, Twitch]

“”The Village Elementary” (“Changchuan cun xiao”) by new director Huang Mei is a deceptively simple film about rural education and poverty. Huang’s honesty, her respect for her subjects,including a charismatically intellectual, politically aware, but sadly frustrated Sichuanese elementary teacher, gives the film a dirt-poor lyricism that tightly binds the minute details of individual lives to larger issues of political powerlessness and economic dependence. Liu Heng’s “Back to Daxian” (“Huidao Daxian” ) is also set in a school in Sichuan. This rambunctious, rough-hewn but sometimes shockingly vivid glimpse of urbanized seventh graders battling with their teachers, parents, and each other is compulsively watchable.” [Source: Shelly Kraicer, http://dgeneratefilms.com, 2010]

“Lao Ma Moved” (2009) is directed by Zha Xiaoyuan: "Rug-weaver Lao Ma and his family live in a remote village at Haiyuan County, Xi Haigu District, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Rug weaving is a profession closely tied to traditional craft, but economic difficulties ensue as weavers’ families wrestle with marriage, childbirth, water shortages that ruin farming, and the hard fact of needing to travel away for work. The film reflects the poor living conditions of the Hui Muslim peasants in this mountain area.

“Mouthpiece” (2009), directed by Guo Xizhi, is an unusual film that takes us into the everyday life of a media organization in the southern city of Shenzhen. It unfolds in two parallel spaces: the Shenzhen TV news program “First Spot” and the city itself. At the TV station we see work routines of meetings, article writing, worry over viewing rates and market share, even lunch time napping. Out in the city, “the mouthpiece” news organ crews walk the energetic streets, recording people delivering their misfortunes to the camera while houses of immigrants are destroyed with thundering explosions.

“Once Upon A Time Proletarian” (2009) directed by Guo Xiaolu: Thirteen chapters provide poignant snapshots of individuals navigating the modern China. An old peasant calls his country ‘shit” and yearns for the old days when greed and corruption were less rampant; a young car washer from the countryside calls Beijing huge and unfriendly; a young woman at a hair salon wants to find a rich husband; businessmen sit around and chat about the prices of Russian prostitutes.  This meditative film offers an existentialist take on the common experience of disillusionment and disorientation in an evolving social and economic landscape that is far removed from the bygone days of Mao. Filmmaker Guo Xiaolu is also a prolific writer. Among her works are A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth.  [Source: Asia Society, September 25-October 29, 2011]

Notable Independent Documentary Films from 2010 and 2011


Winter Vacation “Winter Vacation” by Li Hongqi (2010) is a film of quiet anger. Throughout its still mastershots, a many peopled cast passes in and out of this wintery town within Inner Mongolia. Terse and deadpan, Winter Vacation evinces a style recalling such filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch, Tsai Ming-Liang and Corneliu Porumboiu.

“No. 89 Shimen Road” by Shu Haolun (2010) is a poignant reflection of memory in the years leading up to Tianemen Square, No. 89 Shimen Road tells the story of one boy’s coming of age and the community that supported him on one street in Shanghai. Creating an eerie relay of stand-ins for the coming tensions within China throughout the 1980s the film finds urgency and a personal voice within the register of nostalgia. Conceived of as a richly textured fictional account of the time, the film weaves many elaborate devices including still photography and controlled film footage meant to evoke a document of the time, an elaborately recreated milieu. DVD

“A Love Song, Maybe” (2010), directed by Zhang Zanbo, is about a waitress who becomes involved in a relationship with a customer who comes to her for pleasure and escape. Their relationship, however, is plagued from the very beginning by lies, desire, impetuosity, confusion and pain. Shot among friends, the film creates an atmosphere of intimacy that alternates every day domestic life with the intensely emotional world of karaoke.

“Fortune Teller” (2010), directed by Xu Tong, is about a pimp named Li Baicheng who makes a living by telling the fortunes of prostitutes and others in the demimonde of salons and massage parlors. In his forties, he met Pearl Shi, a woman cruelly mistreated at home because of her disability. He decided to leave their hometown, taking her with him to the countryside of northern China. But now a bitterly cold winter combines with a campaign against prostitution to send the couple back to their hometown. Spring is coming; they take to the road once more and travel to a fair where they wait for their luck to turn. A fascinating look at how people still find meaning in old traditions of divination in their fast-paced urban lives.

Kevin Lee of dGenerate Films wrote “Fortune Teller” continues the detailed portraiture of the professional underclass heexhibited in his first documentary Wheat Harvest, expanding it into a 360 degree panorama of a vibrant, sprawling subculture that could never be shown in mainstream Chinese media. Xu ironically employs the chaptering structure of classic Chinese novels to tell the story of a crippled soothsayer, his mentally disabled wife, and a clientele of prostitutes ever anxious about their futures. Xu doesn’t do this to elevate his socially disreputable subjects, but to collapse notions of high and low into a universally moving story of people who bring uncommon dignity to their lives and work. [Source: Kevin Lee, dGenerate Films]

“Buddha Mountain” directed by Yi Yu won an award the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2010. Fan Bing Bing won the best actress award the festival for her performance in the film.

“When My Child is Born” (2010) directed by Guo Jing and Ke Dingding: Take a rare glimpse into the life of a young academic couple in Beijing. Jun is finishing her Ph.D. in Australia and is a Virginia Woolf specialist. Long, who has just returned from a research study in Germany, is struggling to finish his dissertation on Marx and Kant. An unexpected pregnancy propels the couple to marry quickly and navigate the world of parenthood. An overbearing mother-in-law enters their private world and expects to be in every part of child rearing. The film offers a candid and intimate portrait of two people caught between freedom and responsibility, career and family, and the new and old.  [Source: Asia Society, September 25-October 29, 2011]

“New Beijing: Reinventing a City” (2010) directed by Georgia Wallace-Crabbe: Beijing has enthralled the world with major architectural wonders such as the National Stadium (Herzog & de Meuron), National Aquatics Center (PTW Architects), CCTV building (Rem Koolhaas), and National Theater (Paul Andreu). Behind the futuristic face of Beijing are old neighborhoods and hutongs (traditional narrow alleys) that have to be sacrificed for new developments. Heritage activist Zhang Jinqi and other volunteers scramble to document the fleeting old Beijing in a photography project. While Zhang mourns the past, major international architects express their visions for the renewed city. Working with a Chinese crew, Australian filmmaker Georgia Wallace-Crabbe captures the dilemma between development and preservation. [Source: Asia Society, September 25-October 29, 2011]

“Floating” (2011) directed by Huang Weikai: A 30-year-old rural-born singer brings his guitar to Guangzhou to eke out a living by performing in public spaces. Like many migrant workers who don’t possess residence permits to stay in this southern metropolis, he is constantly dodging the authorities. The camera closely follows the singer’s daily life as he performs in pedestrian underpasses and lives out his tumultuous romantic life, which involves suicide, abortion and a bad break-up. As the film progresses, we find the filmmaker, who also made the much praised Disorder (2009), getting intimately involved with his subject’s precarious existence. Floating offers a humanist portrayal of those who drift on the fringes of society. [Source: Asia Society, September 25-October 29, 2011]

Jian Yi


The Fortuneteller “Jian Yi is a filmmaker from China whose work actively engages ordinary citizens in documenting their own lives. He directed the critically acclaimed films “Super, Girls!” and “Bamboo Shoots”, and co-directed the groundbreaking “China Village Documentary Project”, in which ordinary villagers from across China used video cameras to record the changing rural dynamics in their home villages. [Source: dgeneratefilms.com]

Jian Yi, who wasn’t trained as a filmmaker but worked at a number of film-related jobs such as editor, production assistant, producer, and curator for film festivals, is also the founder of the Participatory Documentary Center at Jinggangshan University and Original Studio, one of the nation’s first innovative community art centers. His documentaries and feature films, which reveal the social and cultural tensions of contemporary China, have won international awards and are shown worldwide. He is a 2010 Open Society Institute Fellow.

“Dong Sun” (“Bamboo Shoots”) won the Bronze Zenith Award at the 31st Montreal World Film Festival. “Chao Ji Nü Sheng” (‘Super, Girls!”) was inspired by a popular television singing competition with roughly the same name. On the latter Jian said, “I followed the competition as it took place...When I was unlucky, I got kicked out; but when I was lucky, everything went smoothly. I followed five participants mainly. Among them, Wong Yulan was the focus. I think she is a very interesting person. On the day that she passed the preliminary round of the singing competition, she noticed that there weren’t enough pencils to go around. She went to buy hundreds of pencils and then sold them to her fellow participants at the competition.”

Huang Weikai’s Disorder

“Disorder” is a bold documentary by Huang Weikai. It was mentioned as one of the best films of 2010 by Moving Image Source and Film Comment magazine, and won Best Documentary at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Seeing it at the Reel China Film Festival in NYU, Hua Hsu of The Atlantic called it “one of the most mesmerizing films I’ve seen in ages.” One critic wrote: “The faster Chinese urbanization advances, the stranger peoples’ behaviors and moral standards become. Disorder combines more than twenty street scenes into a collage, revealing absurd facets of Guangzhou’s urban life, giving us an experimental film about the city, in the spirit of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Camera.” [Source: dGenerate Films]

According to to the New York Times: “Disorder” is a piece of bricolage drawn from more than 1,000 hours of video, shot in large part by nonprofessionals working in Guangzhou and other cities in the Pearl River delta of southern China. They made their footage available to Mr. Huang, who then chose, edited and ordered the sequences he wanted down to just under an hour. “It’s like a chef who goes out to the market to get ingredients,” he explained when asked about the process he used in making the film, which shows scenes of urban chaos in which pigs wander onto a congested expressway, water mains burst, streets flood, the police beat vendors, and a baby is found abandoned in a garbage-strewn lot. “What he makes of those ingredients depends on him.”

The Chicago film festival described Disorder as a “gritty digital city symphony of Guanzhou? and “Vertov on acid?. Drawing on hours of footage from a network of amateur videographers, Huang summons a critique of whitewashed contemporary media and all-pervasive voyeurism.

On why he made the film, Huang said: “I have lived in the city for a long time, and I have always been very concerned with city life. In recent years, cities have evolved a lot. This explains why I want to make a documentary about present city life in China. This film reflects what I think about city life, especially the chaotic side of it.

On the films Chinese title "Now is the Future of the Past,” Huang said, “I thought for a long time in vain about what name to give to this film. One day, I paced back and forth in my office and noticed a newspaper on the floor. It was the last edition of the year 2007. It summarized the accomplishments by Chinese artists in various fields of art. The introduction of the report was a standard piece that offered a review of the past and a vision of the future. The last sentence of the forward said, “The future is the constant arrival of the present.” Then I asked myself, what is the present? Isn’t the present the future of the past? That was how I decided to name my film.

Hu Jie and "Though I Am Gone"


Queer China In a letter to 2012 film festival in Kathmandu, Nepal on Chinese documentaries organized by Film Southasia and curated by La Frances Hui of the Asia Society, Hu Jie wrote: I am not a professional filmmaker. I was once an air force captain, and I had studied at an art academy. I could have become a painter because I love painting. But when I saw human sufferings and the painful past and present, I kept asking myself: What is art? What is my relationship with art? [Source: dGenerate Films, August 14, 2012]

Once I acquired a very simple family-style video camera. I began to use it to film things happening around me. I realized that this was the artistic medium between me and reality. Later, I used this little camera to enter a not so distant past. I pushed open a door that had previously sealed off history. Behind that door are victims’ corpses, cries and sobs, blood and hidden truths. I need courage, which I have being a 15-year army veteran. I also have health. I also need an independent mind. I need to know that where I live, there was this history. I am an artist. I need to investigate, document, preserve, and share.

Though I Am Gone, Hu's second film, concerns the death of Bian Zhongyun, the leader of a prestigious girls' high school associated with Tsinghua University and mother of four. On August 5, 1966, Bian collapsed on the school campus after enduring prolonged verbal and physical abuse from her own students, and died shortly thereafter. [Source: Liang Chen, Global Times, February 17, 2012]

Hu interviews Bian's husband Wang Jingyao, who bought a camera and took pictures right before her cremation, revealing her bruised body. The elderly man in his 80s speaks about his wife's death with frankness and emotion. "Bian was the earliest victim of a student beating in Beijing. I photographed the film from a different angle: a husband who used to be a supporter of violent revolution rethinks his ideas," Hu said.

Hu is now collecting information and materials for his next documentary, commemorating the death of Gao Hua, a controversial Chinese historian of the early years of the Communist Party of China.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, University of Washington; Ohio State University ; Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012


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