Chinese Independent Cinema
Luke Robinson (University of Sussex)
‘Chinese independent cinema’ is a term that covers a range of different cinematic forms, both fiction and non-fiction. However, generally speaking, it refers to material that has not received a ‘dragon seal’, or longbiao: the official endorsement of the Chinese censors. Without a longbiao, films cannot be released domestically. Of course, this frees the filmmaker to explore topics and forms that may be explicitly non-commercial or politically sensitive in nature. This is why cinematic independence in China is often explained not just as material produced outside the state media system, but also as material that departs from state-sanctioned narratives on certain topics. It is also why many independent Chinese films are famous for their extended running times. But, as with all alternative or informal media, such freedom comes at a cost. The government-managed China Film Archive in Beijing contains no copies of these films because, officially, they do not exist. How to collect and preserve what is in many ways a quintessentially ephemeral film culture has thus been a pressing issue since the films first started to emerge at the end of the 1980s. It has become more so since China’s first Film Industry Law came into effect in 2017, for the first time potentially criminalizing the production and circulation of material without explicit state permission.
The Chinese Independent Film Archive (CIFA) is the result of an AHRC-funded project based at Newcastle University that, in response to this situation, seeks to establish a publicly accessible, Europe-based archive of Chinese independent film culture. To celebrate the launch of our website, we have run a range of events about Chinese independent film, and offer the opportunity to sign up for a mailing list to be alerted to news, events, and other information.
This playlist has therefore been conceived as an introduction to Chinese independent cinema for those who might be less familiar with the field. It is not in any way comprehensive or representative; we have drawn on material that is available online, and mostly subtitled in English, which has inevitably influenced the nature of the list. Animation, for example, is an increasingly significant part of Chinese independent film culture, but much harder to locate on the web. Some of these films can be found on our YouTube channel, where we upload material with the permission of filmmakers, but even when not, the titles below are publicly accessible. We hope you will explore the list, and, if you enjoy it, the archive’s website and our events.
Bumming in Beijing/流浪北京 (dir. Wu Wenguang, 1990)
This is one of the earliest examples of independent filmmaking in China. The film started life as a TV episode focusing on the lives of freelance writers and artists in the Chinese capital, at a time when working outside the traditional Communist work unit, or danwei, which was then a relatively new phenomenon. However, Bumming in Beijing’s production was interrupted by the events and aftermath of 1989. Director Wu Wenguang completed the film in his own time on borrowed professional equipment, a model that many other independent filmmakers would come to imitate. Screened privately at home, the documentary’s international career was launched at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1990—another dynamic that would come both to characterise, and to trouble, independent filmmaking in China. Bumming in Beijing is available on the CIFA YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ES1LnLCRtQ&feature=youtu.be
Xiao Shan Going Home/小山回家 (Jia Zhangke, 1995)
Jia Zhangke is now an establishment figure both within and without the PRC. Nevertheless, he was one of the earliest independent fiction filmmakers in China. Xiao Shan Going Home/小山回家 (1995) was shot while he was still a student at the Beijing Film Academy. Its no-budget style and focus on the everyday—the film’s protagonist is a Beijing-based cook trying to return to his hometown for Chinese New Year—all prefigure Jia’s later features and documentaries. So, too, did his collaboration with the film’s main actor, Wang Hongwei, who went on both to appear in other films by Jia, and to direct the Beijing Independent Film Festival. This was one of the key ‘unofficial’—in other words, unapproved—festivals that emerged in the 2000s to screen independent cinema for domestic audiences. The film can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=je_CEVNdskQ (no English subtitles).
Wellspring/在一起的时光 (dir. Sha Qing, 2002)
Wellspring is an early example of an independent documentary shot on video rather than film. It focuses on a rural family’s struggle to look after their ailing son with cerebral palsy, and the conflicts that emerge as the son’s health declines. At once universal and incredibly specific, Wellspring is a moving and inspiring story that opens a window onto Chinese healthcare provision for the poor. It also raises classic questions of documentary ethics, which came increasingly to the fore as independent filmmakers began to train their cameras on those left behind by China’s transition towards a market economy. The film is available on the CIFA YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lntCGFL7Xqk
Ai WeiWei and Ai Xiaoming and the Committed Documentary
Ai Weiwei is a world-famous artist; Ai Xiaoming was an academic at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. Both are unusual in that they exploited digital technology to produce and distribute politically committed, low-budget documentaries in China. Part of a broader wave of digitally enabled citizen journalism, these films explicitly target the abuse of state power. While Ai Weiwei’s performative interventions are distinct from Ai Xiaoming’s more obviously activist style, their films are nonetheless often characterised by an immediate, embodied aesthetic that scholar Zhang Zhen calls ‘digital political mimesis’. Disturbing the Peace/老妈蹄花 (2009), a collaborative work, is probably the most famous of Ai Weiwei Studio’s activist films, and can be found on his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD_Em5xHUKg&t=3s. Ai Xiaoming’s Three Days in Wukan /乌坎三日 (2012), about the 2011 Wukan Protests in Guangdong Province, can also be accessed on YouTube (Chinese only) in three parts: Day One; Day Two; and Day Three.
Condolences/慰问 (Ying Liang, 2009)
Filmmaker Ying Liang was key to developing independent film culture in western China’s Sichuan Province, where he was artistic director of the Chongqing Independent Film and Video Festival. The short film Condolences/慰问 (2009) was his response to witnessing a fatal traffic accident. Its subtle stylistic blurring of fiction and documentary reflects the growing interest in reflexivity and mediation demonstrated by filmmakers across the 2000s, but the film retains the critical perspective on contemporary China that would eventually force Ying into exile in Hong Kong, where he currently lives. Condolences is available on the CIFA YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AU9e0R2TBKo&feature=youtu.be
Falling from the Sky/天降 (dir. Zhang Zanbo, 2009)
Falling from the Sky explores a highly sensitive phenomenon: the fallout—literally—from China’s space satellite programme. Director Zhang Zanbo documents the impact of falling debris from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, one of China’s three satellite launch centres, on the inhabitants of Huining in Hunan Province. 2008 was both the country’s Olympic Year and its ‘year of aerospace’; a surreal China is richly depicted in this documentary in a sobering and compassionate way that captures the tension between narratives of national glory and the personal sacrifices these narratives often obscure. Falling from the Sky can be found on the CIFA YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCT4iLkANFJ_HSsSpshqtCoQ.
From its inception, artists were closely involved in independent film production in China, but the twenty-first century has seen an even greater interpenetration of these two spheres. We can trace this in the emergence of films that combine documentary footage with an increasing interest in experimental form. Disorder/现实是过去的未来 (dir. Huang Weikai, 2009) and Stratum 1: The Visitors/地层1:来客 (dir. Cong Feng, 2013) are two examples of such work. In Disorder,Huang combines and reworks amateur ‘found footage’ of his hometown, Guangzhou, to create a delirious contemporary take on the City Symphony. In Stratum 1: The Visitors, Cong explores the demolition of Beijing’s urban landscape, destabilizing our relationship to that space through a range of experimental and essayistic techniques. These include reversing sound and image tracks and installing two actors as our guides in the film. Disorder is available to stream via DAFilms at: https://dafilms.com/film/7656-disorder, while Stratum 1: The Visitors can be found on the CIFA YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rb8GDvBWyeE&t=273s
A Filmless Festival/没有电影的电影节 (Wang Wo, 2015)
Wang Wo is another Chinese artist and filmmaker with a YouTube channel, on which you can see examples of his more experimental work. However, here we’d like to recommend his documentary A Filmless Festival/没有电影的电影节(2015). Composed from footage shot by audience members, organizers, participants, and members of the press, the film documents the preparations for, and ultimate government proscription of, the 2014 Beijing Independent Film Festival. A Filmless Festival succinctly captures the problems faced by independent film culture in China today, and the reasons why archiving this culture is so important—the impulse behind CIFA itself. The film is available on Wang’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WSctD7D3MQ&t=12s
Luke Robinson teaches at the University of Sussex and is one of the co-investigators of the AHRC grant supporting CIFA. The other team members are Dr Sabrina Yu, principal investigator (Newcastle University); Prof. Chris Berry, co-investigator (King’s College London); and Dr Lydia Wu, research associate (Newcastle University).