Spring Forum 2011 Summary

Visualizing China in Transformation
The Underground and Independent Films of Jia Zhangke
By Dr. Shu-chin Wu

Dr. Wu’s presentation was an excellent opening to the forum. She mainly focused on post 6th generation filmmakers and Jia Zhangke specifically whose films critique 5th generation film makers as not portraying the modern Chinese reality. Jia Zhangke shows the explicit portrayal of the numerous victims of the radical market reforms like those left in villages, displaced by modernization projects or those unable to find work, etc.

From Dr. Wu’s presentation we learned there are two types of films produced in China outside the State sanctioned film system: underground films and independent films. Underground films have no state approval prior to or post production. They are shot in a relatively standard way and may have prominent directors and actors. The films are not made to ‘oppose’ the government, but rather to ‘expose’ the faults of the government and to voice concerns about those left behind in the ‘New China.’ Independent films are made in an alternative style as non-mainstream productions or art films and the like.

Since these films are not funded by the government, independent and underground film makers must rely on international funding for the films they produce and distribution is often international with mainland distribution occurring through illegal DVD sales as some of these film are banned in China. There is also an issue of reception as there is a disconnect between the subject matter and the audience which is primarily young urban college students, critics and international film goers.

Dr. Wu focused on Jia Zhangke as an example of this type of film maker as he is critically acclaimed and his work is centered on the dislocative aspects of market reform in China. His films reference each other so it is best to watch them in order of production. She used two examples of his films, 'Platform' and 'Still Life.'  'Platform' is about a government entertainment/art troupe in rural China disbanded during the market reforms. These youths have no way to find work and are seemingly stuck in the village, left behind by the capitalistic growth occurring in the coastal urban centers. It uses symbolic content like a train equating to a new phenomena and the route to a new China with allusions to the youths dreams of leaving the village for the glittering Special Economic Zones. Still Life shows the ruin caused by the Three Gorges Dam Project and the extreme ecological and social damage in the name of ‘market progress’ where the beneficiaries are not the locals but, rather, the coastal cities that will receive the electricity.

Dr. Wu concluded with a statement of impact by asking the question: Who Cares?
Alternative Visions and Unofficial Historians
 of Post-Socialist China
A Talk on Contemporary Chinese Cinema and Documentary
by Dr. Qi Wang

Dr. Wang discussed Post Socialist Films and the 6th generation New Documentary Movement which endeavors to deny the official government amnesia of the Cultural Revolution in history. These film makers see themselves as unofficial historians with a desire to portray authentic versions of the past.

The driving impulse for these ‘Unofficial Historians’ and those who participate in these films are the forsaken generation who grew up during the ‘Lost Years’ of the cultural revolution, those born in the 1960’s. These youth were raised to believe in Mao, in socialism and collectivism. The market reforms and complete reversal from the cultural revolution of course left these youth feeling betrayed and confused. This feeling of confusion was compounded by the government denial of the truth of what happened during the Cultural Revolution.

Dr. Wang opened with comments about Cui Jian, known as the ‘Godfather of Chinese Rock,’ who became most popular during the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. She showed the covers of two of his albums, ‘I Have Nothing’ and ‘Balls Under The Red Flag.’ She then explained the significance of a red blindfold covering his eyes and the mistranslation of the term ‘Balls’ which should be translated as eggs implying bastards or ‘Bastards Under The Red Flag.’ Dr. Wang then talked about the similarity between the image on the cover of Zhang Yuan’s film, ‘Little Red Flowers,’ and a photo of Mao’s Little Red Guards. She then quoted Xu Hui, “We were born in the sixties. When the world was in the middle of revolutionary change, we were too young to understand. After we grew up and learned about the exciting events and scenes in that big era, our regrets were unspeakable… The generation before us has their weighty historical fragments to chew on, and the younger generation who were born after the 70s are already pressing on our heels. Between the 1950s and 1990s, we are a generation that appears the most insignificant and most readily forgettable.” She followed this quote with another from Cui Weiping from The Age of Experience; “They have been up on the front of history’s facade, we have been on its back lot; they have found themselves with full awareness in ‘history’s conscious,’ and we have to stay in ‘history’s subconscious;’ they started from ‘history’s strongest note,’ while we began from a weak moan.” This quote accompanied images from Zhang Xiaogang series of oil paintings on canvas titled ‘Bloodline: The Big Family’ which depicts the standardization of the family unit during the Cultural Revolution.

Moving quickly through the next few slides, Dr. Wang covered The Reel China Documentary Film Festival which has featured many of these ‘Forsaken Generation’ film makers including a number of women and ethnic minorities. Dr. Wang focused on two documentaries: ‘I Have Graduated’ by Wang Guangli and ‘West of Tracks’ by Wang Bing. ‘I Have Graduated’ follows the changes in the lives of students at prominent universities following the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, but this film was not covered in depth due to the time frame at hand. Instead, Dr. Wang focused ‘West of Tracks’ which follows the decline and decay of an industrial district in Northern China and is over nine hours long. Much of the footage displays the ghost town conditions that families and workers face in these regions left behind by the booming economy in the East. Long scenes show empty factories and discarded personal belongings forgotten by the workers who were forgotten by their country.

Dr. Wang concluded with two images from a digital photography series titled ‘Forgetting’ by Tian Taiyuan. The first image was of an emaciated skeletal Red Guard leaning on a stone column surrounded by Mao buttons and badges. The other shows a statue of a Red Guard being crushed by a stone column. Both represented the specter of the Socialist Past. Dr. Wang ended her presentation with a beautiful piece of poetry she authored.

Movies mentioned by Dr. Shu-chin Wu by Jia Zhangke
  • Xiao Wu = Pickpocket, 1997
  • Platform, 2000
  • Unknown Pleasures, 2002
  • The World, 2004
  • Still Life, 2006
  • 24 City, 2008

Movies and other Media mentioned by Dr. Qi Wang
  • Godfather of Chinese Rock: Cui Jian
  • Zhang Yuan, Little Red Flowers, 2006 Compared to Mao's Little Red Guards
  • Wang Guangli: I Have Graduated
  • Wang Bing: West of Tracks
  • Wu Wenguang: Bumming in Beijing, Jiang Hu, Fuck the Movies, Dance with Migrant Workers
  • Women Filmmakers: Li Hong, Wang Fen, Yang Tianyi, Shi Tou, Tang Danhong, Sha Qing
  • Ethnic Minority Filmmakers: Zhaxi Nima, Cili Zhuoma
  • Independent Documentary I:  I Have Graduated (Wang Guangli, 1992)
  • Independent Documentary II:  West of Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)
  • Entry Shots in Documentaries Houjie Township (2003) and Before the Flood (2002)
  • Tian Taiyuan: Forgetting, digital photography series