FESTIVALS: Chinese Dogme 2001: A New Wave Cultural Revolution
by Alexa Olesen
(indieWIRE/ 03.06.01) -- "We don't want to lie anymore," stated filmmaker Ning Ying at the China Institute library last Friday during a discussion devoted to contemporary Chinese film as part of Lincoln Center's "Urban Generation" film festival. "It used to be during the collective period that there was no difference between the individual and the collective point of view," explained Ning of her country's past. "But after so much propaganda -- when during the Cultural Revolution we were reduced to seeing 10 movies over and over again and never seeing one true image -- we said we don't want to lie anymore. The chance to express myself," added Ning. "That is a revolution."
The film festival (which ends this Thursday) has taken as its focus the so-called "Sixth Generation" or "new born" generation of Chinese filmmakers. Featuring eleven films, most of which were made outside of the state system and have never been widely released in China, the festival is a cinematic window onto the seedy underbelly of Chinese city life today. Tackling subjects such as homosexuality, alcoholism, prostitution, drug abuse, thievery and rape, the films are gritty and realistic -- a clear shift away from the 5th Generation Chinese film style, perfected by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, of sweeping sagas often adapted from successful contemporary novels.
Young Chinese filmmakers today script their own pictures, and use non-professional actors, valuing realism (and working within tight or even non-existent budgets) over spectacle. (See Andy Bailey's report "Chinese Indies Take to the Streets" /onthescene/fes_01China_010223_NY.html for a more detailed examination of the films.)
Opening remarks at Friday's reception reminded the audience of a time when the China Institute was founded back in 1926: China was in the midst of rebuilding itself from the ground up, casting off the trappings of a 5,000 year old feudal society in favor of Jazz-age fashion, Freud, and phonographs. The last emperor had fallen from power and a privileged republican society ruled. It was also the heyday of the May Fourth movement, an intellectual revolution that sought to revive what was seen as a stale and anachronistic Chinese culture with the exciting ideas that were being gleaned by exchange students from the universities of Paris, London, Chicago and Berlin. Intellectuals who had studied abroad returned to China to forge a modern society that could meet the super powers of the West on equal footing.
Echoing the May Fourth period, China is once again in the midst of enormous changes. For the film industry, this shift is from an aggressively censored state run system to a market system ruled by box office ratings. These young filmmakers are caught in the middle, still censored, but able to fly below the radar and get their films made if they get funding from abroad.
Wang Quanan, a 1991 graduate of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy and the director of "Lunar Eclipse" explained that he was able to develop his individual style by studying abroad. "When I was 20, I was given the choice to either go to Europe or to college. This was an important decision and a major turning point in my life. I chose France and it was there that I found the desire to be a filmmaker."
Ah Nian, the director of "Call Me" a story about a villager struggling for a new life in the city who sells his own blood and ends up contracting AIDS, agreed. "Now we have to portray society by looking at the individual. We can no longer try to know individuals by taking a macro view of society."
In the interstitial space between the old and new systems, we find filmmakers who for the time being value the expression of their own voice above all other considerations, an attitude that has resulted in some wonderful, although slightly flawed films.
"I think that the current crop of Chinese filmmakers is more honest than any other in existing world cinema today," said Jing Yan, co-writer and co-producer of "Postman" (1995), a contemporary Beijing tale about an introverted, yet nosy, young postman who cannot resist opening the mail he delivers.
Based in Los Angeles, Jing Yan has the doubly difficult task of making films in China to distribute here through her company Butterfly Films. "I really honor all these films [in the festival]," said Jing. "They are trying to break out of the old Chinese film system and really express themselves and their reality for the first time. I would never say they are perfect, but I honor them for being honest and truthful."
[Alexa Olesen is a freelance writer who has contributed to The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, ARTnews, and others.]