"Frozen" - An Indie Director is Caught Between Anonymity
by Augusta Palmer
Independent filmmakers struggle worldwide to get their films made -- but
making an independent film in China isn't merely difficult - it's
illegal. So it's hardly surprising that few people in the U.S. have ever
seen a Chinese "independent" film. That is what makes "Frozen",
directed anonymously and independently by Wu Ming (Chinese for "No
Name") and being released in New York's Cinema Village on March 25 by
International Film Circuit, such a rare and fascinating film. "Frozen"
is based on the story of an actual student artist who committed suicide
as an act (and a performance) of protest. Shot in China and smuggled out
of the country to be finished in the Netherlands with a grant from the
Hubert Bals Fund, "Frozen" has had a circuitous trip to American
If the subject matter or political nature of its production makes you
suspect "Frozen" is a didactic work of little interest to arthouse
audiences, you're in for a surprise. The film itself is at the same time
accessible to the general viewer and an accomplished work by an
experienced and talented filmmaker.
As the political realities dictated that No Name could not do publicity
for the film and expect to continue his filmmaking career in China,
Wendy Lidell of International Film Circuit agreed to speak with
indieWIRE about "Frozen".
indieWIRE: Could you start by telling me about International Film
Wendy Lidell: Right now we have close to 50 films in our catalogue. We
release 4 to 6 films a year - American independent and foreign language
films. IFC began curating packages of films which toured to alternative
venues and we evolved into doing single title theatrical release. I
would say we do review-driven art-house fare predicated on theatrical
release and then we take it through non-theatrical, home video, and we
iW: What makes you as a distributor willing to distribute a film like
"Frozen", which might be seen as a "difficult" film to release both in
terms of its subject matter and the difficulties of doing pre-release
publicity with an anonymous director?
Lidell: I would say that International Film Circuit is dedicated to
finding an audience for a film rather than finding a film for an
audience. We see the artist and the art as who we're serving and we try
to develop a strategy for making that work in the marketplace rather
starting from the position of "well, people want to see a slasher film
so let's find a slasher film."
In general terms, I saw the film and said, "This is an important film.
It's a window on a subculture in Beijing that none of us in the U.S.
even knew existed. It's a beautiful and well-crafted film and it should
be seen in the U.S. And then I scratch my head and think, "Can I do it,
can I manage it?" And my assessment was that I could manage it.
iW: In an article on "Frozen" from Box Office, Karen Achenbach claims
that the international film market can only sustain one or two
independent Chinese films a year -- is that a statement you'd agree
Lidell: I think that's really a kind of ignorant statement because if
there were three great Chinese independent films, the marketplace would
find room for them. All those marketplace rules of thumb are made to be
broken. It may be that the article's assessment is based on the historic
performance of Chinese films in the marketplace; but I think finally
that if there's a really great film and it's handled well, the
marketplace will support it. I'm sure that from Box Office's
perspective, "Frozen" may not even get on their radar. It's a Hollywood
trade paper. Maybe only two Chinese films can make half a million
dollars a year and I don't think they think it's really been released if
it doesn't make half a million dollars. It's really racist, isn't it?
iW: Yes, I think it is. And I think Chinese films really seem to get
saddled with that kind of perception. Films from Hong Kong seem to get
some attention, but films from Mainland China and Taiwan are often
Lidell: I have a couple of (award-winning Taiwanese director) Hou
Hsiao-hsien's early films which never really got a theatrical release. I
think that what [Village Voice critic J.] Hoberman wrote about one of
them, "A Time to Live and a Time to Die", is not dissimilar from what
Box Office said, but puts it in better relief. He said that if Hou
Hsiao-hsien was French, his film would be playing at [New York art
house] Lincoln Plaza.
I would restate what the article is saying to point at the racism in
America and I think it's true that if some of these Taiwanese filmmakers
were working with anglo actors in a European language some of these
films would be getting a much wider release. But to say that there's
only room in the marketplace for two. . . I don't understand that kind
iW: Tell me from your point of view about "Frozen", No Name and the
struggle to get this film made and released.
Lidell: No Name told me that the film was made independently because he
anticipated that the script would not pass muster with the censors.
However, the reason that it's actually an illegal film is because it was
made independently and it's illegal to make a film independently.
iW: What kind of consequences will No Name face, even without giving
interviews, for making a film independently?
Lidell: His new film has been held up by the film bureau for a long time
now. They're waiting and hoping that it will go through and he has 2
more scripts waiting to be approved for production and he has been
rehabilitated to a large extent.
iW: Rehabilitated in what sense?
Lidell: In the sense that people have come to his defense in China to
help him so that he will be allowed to work again. He does not wish to
speak even as No Name because he needs to distance himself from "Frozen"
so that he will be allowed to work again. I guess that would be a very
good way to couch it.
Of course this is my spin on it. I understand it in the Cultural
Revolution tradition of confession and saying, "I did these things, I
was a bourgeois traitor and I'm really sorry. Now I'm back with the
program." I am extrapolating, but that's what appears to me to be going
iW: Are the other Chinese personnel who worked on the film using
Lidell: They're using real names; something I will never understand.
iW: So, the censorship really seems to be a matter of the government
Lidell: I think Americans can understand this in terms of the American
political cliche "plausible deniability." As long as the government can
say they don't know who it is, there isn't as much of a problem.
It took me a long time to understand what in the film would be offensive
to the Chinese government. I believe it has to do with the timing of the
film, the fact that it was made four years after the Tienamen Square
massacre which was largely a student uprising and was based on the real
story of a student, an artist, who committed suicide as an expression of
protest. Also I think it's the Western decadence, Western bourgeois
decadence, and the very idea that they're listening to rock music and
not being good little red soldiers - that bothers them.
In America, we're so used to this so-called democracy co-opting us and
letting us air our protest in harmless ways like movies, that we wonder
why the Chinese government is bothered by this.
* * *
Thus, as the U.S. relinquishes the pressure we previously put on China
about human rights issues it seems even less likely that independent
film production will become legal in China. And though a hard-nosed
analysis would suggest that China as a market is simply too large for
the U.S. to refuse to trade with it, it's certainly a crime that films
like "Frozen" will continue to be a rarity and that no interviewers will
be able, in the near future at least, to ask No Name what drove him to
make this film about the life and death of a young Chinese artist in
spite of the very real consequences he may face for doing so.
In an earlier interview with film scholar Berenice Reynaud, No Name gave
what we will have to take, for now, as his answer to that question:
"We have to make films that depict reality because most of the films
produced in China, even when they pretend to be "realistic", are
completely fake. Fifth Generation filmmakers [e.g. Chen Kaige, Zhang
Yimou] made a lot of good films about Chinese culture and history. But
now we need to make films that pay attention to contemporary reality.
Chinese people need more works of art -- film, music, painting -- that
are really close to their lives, to their feelings of sadness, happiness
or hopelessness. They need films that can wake them up and make them
think, 'I can do it too.'"
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance writer and a doctoral student in Cinema
Studies at NYU whose research interests focus on cinema from Taiwan,
Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China.]