Ghost Town Tours the U.S. - Catch It If You Can

From dGenerate - I've worked my ass off to get this tour together, so if you happen to be at one of these cities and the following critic raves pique your interest, please check it out! A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times:

Zhao has an exquisite ability to balance words with images... The life stories and household interactions that fill out the film’s three chapters take place against a natural background that is shot beautifully... A miniature epic of the everyday.

Time Out New York's David Fear gives the film four stars:

Zhao Dayong’s extraordinary documentary on life in the rural village of Zhiziluo, nestled at the foot of the mountains in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Never mind the nation’s great economic leap forward; the longer you watch Zhao’s chronicle of the financially destitute and the bureaucratically forgotten, the more you feel that you’re witnessing a country fraying at its edges.

Nick Pinkterton in the Village Voice:

I do not expect to soon find scenes to match Ghost Town's mountaintop funeral, the running along after a rowdy exorcism, or the scanning of faces at the town Christmas chorale. His back to prosperity, Dayong finds hallowed ground.

Following its weeklong run at MoMA, Zhao Dayong's acclaimed documentary Ghost Town is screening over the next several weeks at select US engagements. Contact us to book a screening of this film at your festival, museum, or school.

SATURDAY, APRIL 3rd and SUNDAY APRIL 4th Union Theatre, University of Wisconsin 800 Langdon Street Milwaukee, WI 53706

THURSDAY, APRIL 8th Southwest Film Center 3601 University Boulevard, SE Albuquerque, NM 87106

SUNDAY, APRIL 9th Facets Cinematheque 1517 Fullerton Avenue Chicago, IL 60614

SATURDAY, APRIL 17th University of Colorado, Humanities 150 Boulder, CO 80309-0234

TUESDAY, APRIL 27th Melnitz Movies James Bridges Theater, Melnitz 1409 Los Angeles, CA 90095

Check out the Award-Winning Betelnut This Friday at Asia Society!

(cross-posted on dGenerate Films) Yang Heng's Betelnut, winner of the Best First Feature at the Pusan Film Festival and the Critics' Jury Prize at the Hong Kong Film Festival, will make its New York debut at the Asia Society as part of the series "China's Past , Present and Future on Film." You can use discount code asia725 to buy tickets at the $7 member rate. Tickets can be purchased at the Asia Society website or at the Asia Society box office.

Betelnut (Bing Lang) YANG Heng. China. 2005. 112 min. Narrative. Digibeta. Friday, March 26, 6:45 pm

Asia Society and Museum 725 Park Avenue New York, NY 10021

View a clip from the film below. Further details about the film can be found here, and after the break.

“Exquisite!” – Tony Rayns, Film Comment

“Pure cinema” – Susanna Harutyunyan, FIPRESCI – The International Federation of Film Critics

Along a sleepy Hunan riverside, two delinquent boys experience a summer of love and violence in Yang Heng’s visually stunning debut.

Ali and Xiao Yu are two teenage rebels idling away their days along the banks of a river in Jishou, a quiet town in Hunan province. They steal motorbikes, bully and rob kids, sing karaoke and get into fist fights outside the local internet bar. But their rough exterior belies a deeper romanticism, and a tenderness unfolds between them and their teenage loves. As one day bleeds into the next in this impoverished rural setting, it becomes apparent that these sun-baked days of misspent youth will be the wildest, freest time of their lives.

These everyday subjects are transformed by a groundbreaking digital cinematography unlike any other Chinese film. Alternating deep-focus with bold flatness, Yang explores spaces with a mastery that recalls both classical Chinese and modernist landscape painting. Filmed in a summery palette with images that give off an otherworldly glow, BETELNUT offers a one-of-a-kind vision of what it’s like to be young, poor and free in China. “Yang is a first-class visual stylist, and BETELNUT is far and away the most exciting debut film I’ve seen all year.” (Michael Sicinski, The University of Houston)

Critics clash over City of Life and Death

<i>City of LIfe and Death</i> (dir. Lu Chuan)

City of Life and Death (dir. Lu Chuan)

(Cross-published on dGenerate Films)

Lu Chuan’s controversial Nanjing Massacre movie City of Life and Deathpicked up the Best Director award at thefourth Asian Film Awards, held during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. While the film continues to gain attention following its successful theatrical run in China and international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it has yet to be shown theatrically in the US, following an aborted spring release with National Geographic.

Meanwhile, it’s generated a bit of a quarrel among film critics. Shelly Kraicer, who reviewed the film earlier on our site, issued a lengthier critique in Cinema-scope. An excerpt:

"A look at City of Life and Death’s genre and narrative strategies can demonstrate its importance in helping to establish what I’d like to call a nascent post-zhuxuanlu cinema. It is a full-out war epic, massively budgeted and vast in ambition. Huge sets of devastated Nanjing were built, and thousands of extras mobilized to illustrate the battle scenes that open the film. Lu films his striking set pieces in a beautifully modulated black and white, where cinematography, art direction, staging, music, and sound design all conspire to create massive, intentionally overwhelming images of violence, horror, and devastation."

The review has drawn the ire of Asian film stalwart Tony Rayns (who happens to co-program the Asian film selections at the Vancouver Inernational Film Festival), who issues seven bullet-pointed rebuttals to Kraicer’s review. An excerpt:

As a long-term resident of Beijing, Shelly may have noticed that China’s unelected leadership (so sensitive to the least whisper of criticism) decided some years ago to stop pushing Maoist/communist slogans to legitimate its rule and decided instead to promote a strong nationalist consciousness. All factions of the leadership do it, including president Wen Jiabao’s and premier Hu Jintao’s. We saw the fruits of their endeavors in the behavior of Chinese students overseas when they beat up pro-Tibet and pro-Xinjiang protestors during the international tour of the Olympic torch. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Shelly that the hostility to City of Life and Death in China – after its initial enormous success with the public – might have something to do with its refusal to bow to this neo-nationalist tide. Nobody watching City of Life and Death could seriously interpret it as being pro-Japanese; the film shows Japanese soldiers committing numerous war-crimes, and does so without sensationalism and without finding any vicarious pleasure in the spectacle. But Lu’s decision to make one of his recurring protagonists a naïve Japanese sergeant effectively defuses the nationalist thrust found in earlier films about the massacres, such as Wu Ziniu’s unspeakable Don’t Cry Nanjing. In attacking Lu’s film, Shelly seems to be reaching for solidarity with his nationalist friends in Chinese film circles. My view is that the film deserves to be defended from their fatuous and dishonest attacks.

On the Cineaste website, dGenerate’s Kevin B. Lee has his own take . An excerpt:

The imperative to honor the longstanding domestic account of the tragedy, offset by the desire to avoid fraying international ties, and further complicated by the desire to appeal to a global audience with its own expectations of art-house entertainment, makes for one of the most compelling filmmaking gauntlets to be found. These three agendas—political, cultural, commercial—wage a battle within City of Life and Deaththat’s as compelling as the one the film depicts. The film certainly qualifies as an “incoherent text,” to borrow Robin Wood’s phrase, informed by competing social ideologies and commercial ambitions that result in a work of fascinating dissonance.

Full review here.

For an alternative view of the Japanese occupation of China and the story of “comfort women” – women who were forced to sexually serve Japanese soldiers – check out Ban Zhongyi’s extraordinary documentary Gai Shanxi and Her Sistersscreening at Asia Society on April 9.

Chinese Documentary Master Zhao Liang in New York This Weekend

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

This entry is mostly lifted from an announcement posted at dGenerate Films.

In the recent Top Ten Chinese Films of the 2000s poll, one of the top-ranked documentaries was Zhao Liang’s Petition: The Court of the Complainants. A pretty impressive showing, given that the film was just released last year and has been seen by relatively few people, even in Chinese cinema circles. Tonight folks in Minneapolis will have a chance to see what some are calling the most exciting Chinese documentary since West of the Tracks.

Zhao Liang will be visiting New York City this weekend to present his films Petition and Crime and Punishment at the China Institute in New York, and the Center of Religion and Media at New York University. I'll be at both so hope to see you there.

Information on his films and a schedule of his programs after the break.

“Zhao Liang has endurance, an endurance that he shares with many of those who appear in his documentary films. The individual stories of the underprivileged are what interest him, and he makes this a starting point for his exploration of the general constitution of Chinese society. Zhao captures those sides of life that are ignored by official politics and, in so doing, acts as a chronicler of everyday life. Futility, running idle, stubbornness, and stamina are motifs shared by all of his films, while the dramatic consequences of the rapid economic and structural transformation in China constitute the continuous backdrop to his work.” (Quoted from the catalogue of the 2008 Berlin Biennial)

Crime and Punishment (dir. Zhao Liang)

Friday, February 5, 8:00 pm – The China Institute, New York City

Crime and Punishment

Shot near the director’s hometown at China’s border to North Korea, Crime and Punishment follows a few young officers at the local police station as they carry out their law enforcement duties and features cases too insignificant and absurd to be reported in the media: A mentally ill man calls them for a “corpse” he has found in his bed which turns out to be a pile of blankets. An apparently mute robbery suspect would not provide them with the needed confession. The long and penetrating shots of the director gradually uncover the real human stories and key themes from a China that is both regimented and rapacious. This witty picture, whose comedy often has a chilly edge, provides us with an insight into how the social structure is influenced by the omnipresence of police. The film was the winner of the Best Director Award at the 10th One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival and the top prize at the Festival of Three Continents, 2007. In Mandarin with English subtitles, 122 minutes.

Saturday, February 6, 1:00pm – The Center for Religion & Media, New York University

Petition: the Court of Complainants

Since 1996, Zhao has filmed the “petitioners” who come to Beijing from all over China to file complaints about abuses and injustices committed by the authorities. He follows the sagas of peasants thrown off their land, workers from liquidated factories, and homeowners who have seen their dwellings demolished but received no compensation. Often living in makeshift shelters around the southern railway station, the complainants wait months or even years for justice and face brutal intimidation. Filmed up to the start of the 2008 Olympic Games, Petition arrestingly illustrates the contradictions of a country experiencing powerful economic expansion. Premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. 2009, in Mandarin with English subtitles, video, 120 minutes.

Poll: Chinese Films of the Decade

Running on Karma (dir. Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai) Over on the dGenerate Films website, the results of weeks of emailing Chinese film experts and tabulating of ballots to determined the top Chinese language films of the last 10 years. I'm kind of whateverz about the top pick, which I've reflected upon already, but I think results are quite interesting. I didn't expect West of the Tracks to place so highly, and didn't realize Devils on the Doorstep had so much support as well. But the showing for Oxhide was truly amazing - and heartening. I still need to write at length what I think about that film as well as it's equally astounding sequel.

I didn't submit a top ten list to the poll to avoid conflict of interest, but for what it's worth here's what mine would have looked like:

Before the Flood (Yu Yan and Li Yifan) Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang) - still waiting to see Petition though Hero (Zhang Yimou) Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow) Oxhide (Liu Jiayin) Platform (Jia Zhangke) Running on Karma (Johnnie To and Wa Ka-Fai) The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang) West of the Tracks (Wang Bing) - sort of the 800 pound gorilla whose massiveness can't be denied Yi Yi (Edward Yang)

See what everyone else voted by going here

A Revolution on Screen: The Cinema of the People's Republic of China, 1949-1966

"A Revolution on Screen" is a two-part video essay coinciding with the 2009 New York Film Festival Masterworks series "(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949–1966." This series is the first major U.S. retrospective of the films made during the "Seventeen Years" period between the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution. PART ONE: MOVIES FOR THE MASSES (AND A SMUGGLING OF ART)


967 (109). Hai zi wang / King of the Children (1987, Chen Kaige)

Screened Tuesday April 28 on Beauty Media DVD in Weehawken, NJ TSPDT rank #915 IMDb Wiki

First, I want to acknowledge that this is the first - and perhaps only - Shooting Down Pictures blog entry dedicated to a Chinese film, a fact that at first seems baffling given my passion for Chinese cinema (not to mention the fact that I'm heavily involved in a pioneering effort to bring more Chinese cinema to the U.S.). But this blog is dedicated to exploring the titles on the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films list that I haven't yet seen, and of the 20 films from China/Hong Kong/Taiwan on the list, this is the only one that qualifies.

It's also worth noting that I watched this film the same week that I read a breakthrough in-depth article on Jia Zhangke by Evan Ossnos in The New Yorker, the leading figure of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers from the Beijing Film Academy. It's an article that, in my opinion, marks a decisive shift in mainstream American attention away from the Fifth Generation and towards the Sixth Generation (a much-delayed shift, I must say, and one I find all the more amusing since I'm currently focused on what one might call the post-Generation - or de-Generation? - of Chinese filmmakers).  There are 13 productions from Mainland China and Hong Kong listed in the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films, of which five titles are from the vaunted Fifth Generation of Beijing Film Academy directors, and all belong to just two names: Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Too bad there isn't room for other great Fifth Generation works, such as Tian Zhuangzhuang's Horse Thief and The Blue Kite or  Jiang Wens' In the Heat of the Sun, much less numerous Sixth Generation titles by Jia Zhangke, Ning Ying (On the Beat), Zhang Yuan (Sons) and the like. 

I bring up the issue of Fifth, Sixth and post-Generation Chinese cinema because it informed my viewing of King of the Children, the first Fifth Generation film I've seen in a few years (I don't include anything Zhang or Chen have done in the 2000s as they're working in quite a different aesthetic environment than what they did in the '80s and '90s.) In some ways, the highly politicized realism of post-Fifth Generation films have done their work on my eyes, because it was difficult for me to get into the world of the film as an authentic place and time. It's amazing to think that King of the Children was once considered part of a breakthrough movement to bring the "real" China to the screen, in opposition to the whitewashed, progagandizing cinema of an idealized China that was the norm (and still is, though in a more sophisticated form).  In its own way King of the Children idealizes the rural peasantry, lensing the dirt-poor environment in lush, romantic hues.

Vast, almost abstract shots of landscapes and the ruddy soil convey fertility and potential, symbolized as well in the children being taught by an inexperienced sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution.  This rough-edged eccentric prone to fits of laughter allows his students to chart their own path to knowledge, partly due to necessity (lack of schoolbooks and his own training as an educator). It's a celebration of innovation, improvisation and pragmatism, but is soon curtailed by the rule-sticking authorities. The premise is clearly allegorical with elements both highly personal (the teacher standing in for Chen the artist/innovator - a lot of Chen protagonists have this autobiographical subtext of keeping their artistic integrity under pressure of institutional compromise) and impersonal (the children are an largely indistinguishable mass, save for one gifted child whose story of scholarship as redemption for his peasant father's struggles falls into its own symbolic purpose).  Images take on a monumental quality: the children are at times shot from below looking upward like heroic statues, or aligned en masse like the terra cotta soldiers in Xi'an. Even the acting has a stiff-backed affect.  Most of the action takes place around a schoolhouse whose impossibly voluminous thatched roof seems too extravagant for such a dirt-poor setting. There's virtually no depiction of the children's parents and how they live, or any sort of day-to-day living outside the schoolhouse; the community is barely a sliver. These are the kinds of concerns that subsequent Chinese filmmakers preoccupied themselves with filling in; the return of Marxist socialist materialist cinema with a vengeance.

Despite the limitations of Chen's approach in terms of illuminating a social situation by resorting to reductive symbolism, there's no denying that this same approach generates some impressive visuals and uniquely cinematic moments.  A scene that seems both laughably absurd yet aurally and visually stunning is when the teacher, forced to copy a lesson out of the only schoolbook available, furiously transcribes it onto a chalkboard as his students follow suit with pencil and paper. Their scribblings build into a rumble resembling a stampede of cattle (another metaphor invoked to suggest the immense power and herd mentality of the Chinese people). This goes on well into the night, with an oil lamp at each desk offering plumes of fire to this ritual of rote recitation, resembling what John Woo would do with church interiors slathered in candlelight.

While the grandiosity of such gestures may seem patronizing and even cliche after so many Fifth Generation films to follow that made postcard porn out of desolate environs, at the time these were mindblowingly unprecedented expressions of a new subjectivity in Chinese cinema, one that came from a discernibly individual vision rather than a bland, groupthink aesthetic.  Who's to say what this decade's Chinese cinema, dominated by bleeding edge, street-level realism, will look like twenty years from now. 


The following citations were counted towards the placement of King of the Children in the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Erika Gregor, Profil (2004) Lawrence Chua, PopcornQ (1997) Park Kwang-su, Sight & Sound (1992) Time Out 100 Best Movies of All-Time (1988) Tony Rayns, Time Out: Regret in 20 Films (2006) Tom Milne, Time Out (1995)

An unschooled young man, one of the countless victims of Mao's Cultural Revolution, is labouring in the countryside when he is suddenly assigned to teach in a near-by village school. Gradually, he finds the confidence to ditch the Maoist textbook and encourage the barely literate kids to write about their own lives and feelings. At the same time, through a series of dream-like meetings with a young cowherd, he begins to sense the possibilities of a life beyond the parameters of traditional education. There are echoes here of a film like Padre Padrone, but Chen's film is completely free of flabby humanist sentimentality. It takes its tonality from the harsh beauty of the Yunnan landscape of soaring forests and misty valleys: a territory of the mind where hard-edged realism blurs easily into hallucination. By Chinese standards, this is film-making brave to the point of being visionary. By any standards, this follow-up to Yellow Earth and The Big Parade is also something like a masterpiece.

- Time Out

Set during the twilight of the Cultural Revolution, Chen Kaige's third film, King of the Children, concerns a young man who is sent from the city to the country for his scheduled tour of farm labor. Upon arriving in this remote mountain area, he -- much to his surprise -- is asked to become a teacher even though he lacks all the customary qualifications. Confronted with the apathy of his students, the young man decides to throw out the Maoist textbook, which includes such tedious exercises as copying all the characters out of the dictionary, and teach his students to think about the world around them. Just as he begins to connect with his pupils, the authorities catch wind of his pedagogical departures and severely reprimand him. Shot on-location in the Yuan province, King of the Children features some beautiful landscape photography of the region's forested mountains and precipitous river valleys.

- Brian Whitener, All Movie Guide

Chen's King of the Children was completed in 1987. This anguished work demonstrates how contemporary history can be explored allegorically with great artistic power. The 'king of the children', Lao Gan, is sent to a school in Yunnan province, where many of the students are poor and lead unhappy lives. He is a dedicated teacher who has come to realize the futility of learning by rote, and he is keen to stimulate the creative and critical faculties of his students. His teaching methods are unorthodox by approved standards, and since the local elite disapproves of his tcaching style and philosophy, he is dismissed.

Chen successfully expands this story visually into a powerInI and allegorical indictment of the Cultural Revolution that caused irreparable damage to Chinese society. The self- destructive education system portrayed ill the film becomes a symbol for the Cultural Revolution in general. As Chen has remarked, lie did not directly depict the violent social confrontation that took place during the Cultural Revolution. Instead, lie chose the language and syntax of film to create the atmosphere of the era. The forest, the fog, and the sound of trees being chopped are all, according to him, 'reflections of China during that period of time'.

King of the Children is based on a novel of the same title by All Cheng, but the director has modified the story to enhance its visual power. The mute cowherd, for ex- ample, who helps in defining Lao Gan's character and interests, is not found in the original story. Chen's experiments with the visual language of film can be seen very clearly in this work. He invests the film with a certain mystic aura, through his deft use of sight and sound, to create a multifaceted experience which has a pointed relevance to the audience's perspective on the Cultural Revolution.

- Article found on The College of Wooster Chinese Department website

Many would say the Cultural Revolution has destroyed Chinese culture since numerous cultural relics were destroyed. However, intellectually, it was more a time when the values inherent in traditional Chinese culture were carried to a dangerous extreme. This was violently reflected in the behaviour of every individual - from their blind worship of the leader / emperor figure to the total desecration and condemnation of individual rights. These are mere repetitions of tradition.

Chen Kaige, quoted in Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: visuality, sexuality, ethnography, and contemporary Chinese cinema. Columbia University Press, 1995. Page 120


The paradox of a Chen Kaige style is that its screen world is wedged between two layers: a series of viscerally realistic cinematic images new to Chinese cinema, on the one hand, and the fact that this "real" image appears inside an unprecedentedly conspicuous frame, on the other. Between the frames and the symbols the self-referentiality of the film's diegesis opens up. In other words, the emergence of an anti-language has as its outcome an overwhelming presencing of language. "Reality" and history", in contrast, are lost.

In Haizi wang (The King of Children), Chen Kaige confronted this predicament head on. He finally told his (The Fifth Generation's) own story. With a reasoned, self-reflexive consciousness, he narrated his experience of a long, lonely spiritual wandering. This is a tale of the red earth, of an educated youth. In The King of Children, the Fifth Generation stepped out naked onto the stage. It is, according to Zheng Dongtian, "the testimony" of the Fifth Generation. However, even in The King of Children, the Cultural Revolution appears as an absent presence. The film's protagonist is actually the director, Chen Kaige, rather than the educated youth, Lao Gan. The events narrated in the film are best understood as representations of the Fifth Generation's artistic predicament, rather than as the mundane, if intriguing, experiences of an educated youth during the Cultural Revolution. Lao Gan's short career as a teacher provides the readily available signifier. Its signifieds are history and language, the linguistic and the anti-linguistic, the expressible and the ineffable. This is a truly self-referential film: four times in the movie a framing, stationary frontal shot embedded in the middle of the screen - La Goan (that is, Chen Kaige) in the window, reiterates this aspect of its thematics.

In The King of Children, director Chen Kaige exhibits the self-consciousness typical of a lone rambler, one who hopelessly tries to save himself by salvaging historical representation, and attempts to open up a linguistic space for the Son's generation in the space crowded with the words of the Father. Thus Chen's expression is a metadiscourse on expression itself; his language is the longing for language itself. This longing for history and language becomes a struggle reminiscent of the interminable wait for Godot. In Red Sorghum, however, director Zhang Yimou adopts a "mischievous attitude towards this extraordinary heavy material." He shuffles the fragments of history's marginalized language and substitutes the language about desire for a desire for language. The film introduces History/ the Other through historicized representation, thus acknowledging the Father's "rules." This is a reversal of the attitude Chen Kaige represented through the character of Thick Eyebrows. The King of Children and Red Sorghum therefore constitute the polar opposites of the Fifth Generation's treatment of History.

As a spiritual biography of the Fifth Generation, The King of Children, in all of its subtlety and complexity, gives vent to the Sisyphean condition of the generation of Sons struggling under the yoke of history and culture. The film demonstrates, in spite of itself, that the Fifth Generation must acquire the Father's image. They must turn away from the empty horizon. They must end "the anxiety of expression" and achieve self-expression through the acquisition of a new narrative.

- From Cinema and desire: feminist Marxism and cultural politics in the work of Dai Jinhua. By Dai Jinhua, Wang Jing, Tani. E. Barlow. Versa, 2002. pages 23-24, 30, 33

King of the Children continues, in the formalist manner of Lu Xun, the exploration of the cluster of issues involving Chinese national culture that has haunted Chinese intellectuals since the beginning of the twentieth century. To the literary incisiveness of Lu Xun's conception of hope - not as a road but as a crossroads - Chen's work brings the complexity of the filmic medium, in which the suggestively speculary process of zhao duixiang - of finding that which gives us "self-regard" and "self-esteem"  - takes on collective cultural significance. If Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century have consistently attempted to construct a responsible national culture through an investment in figures of the powerless, Chen's film indicates how such an investment, because it is inscribed in the formation of an ego-ideal in the terms I describe, excludes woman and the physical reality she represents. Chen's film offers a fantastic kind of hope - the hope to rewrite culture without woman and all the limitations she embodies, limitations that are inherent to the processes of cultural as well as biological reproduction. The subjectivity that emerges in Chen's film alternates between notions of culture and those of nature that are both based on a lineage free of woman's interference. As such, even at its most subversive / deconstructive moments (its staging of the unconscious that is nature's brute violence), it partakes of a narcissistic avoidance of the politics of sexuality and of gendered sociality that we will call, in spite of the passive "feminine" form it takes, masculine. This masculinity is the sign of a vast transindividual oppression whose undoing must become the collective undertaking of all those who have a claim to modern Chinese culture.

- Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: visuality, sexuality, ethnography, and contemporary Chinese cinema. Columbia University Press, 1995. Pages 140-141


IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT profile page for Chen Kaige:

"Ever since first attracting attention as a leading light of the Film Academy's 'Fifth Generation', he has consistently shown himself to be an imaginative and intelligent stylist; even as he has moved from political parable to more conventional accounts of human desire and despair, his work has remained notable for its visual bravura." -  Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"One of the most prominent and accomplished of the post-"Cultural Revolution" Chinesse directors...Chen's films are renowned both for their emotional delicacy and their lavish spectacle, using an extensive palette of color and state-of-the-art film technology." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

Chen Kaige is, with Zhang Yimou, the leading voice among the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, the first group of students to have graduated following the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 after the depredations of the Cultural Revolution. As both a participant in (as a Red Guard he denounced his own father) and a victim of the Cultural Revolution (his secondary education was curtailed and, like the protagonist of King of the Children, he was sent to the country to "learn from the peasants"), Chen is particularly well-placed to voice concerns about history and identity.

The majority of his films constitute an intelligent and powerfully felt meditation on recent Chinese history, within which, for him, the Cultural Revolution remains a defining moment. "It made," he has said, "cultural hooligans of us." He has a reputation within China as a philosophical director, and his style is indeed marked by a laconic handling of narrative and a classical reticence. This is largely deceptive: underneath is an unyielding anger and unflinching integrity.

Chen in interviews has stressed the complementary nature of his first three films. Yellow Earth examines the relationship of "man and the land," The Big Parade looks at "the individual and the group," and King of the Children considers "man and culture." Yellow Earth seems to adopt the structure of the folk ballads that provide a focus for its narrative, with its long held shots and almost lapidary editing. The Big Parade alternates static parade ground shots with the chaos of barrack room life, while the third film mobilises a more rhetorical style of poetic realism. Together the films act as a triple rebuttal of any heroic reading of Maoism and the revolution, precisely by taking up subjects much used in propagandist art—the arrival of the People's Liberation Army in a village, the training of new recruits, the fate of the teacher sent to the country—and by refuting their simplifications and obfuscations, shot for shot, with quite trenchant deliberation. Attention in Yellow Earth is focused not on the Communist Army whose soldier arrives at the village collecting songs, but on the barren plateau from which the peasantry attempts to wring a meager existence. In the process the account of Yenan which sees it as the birthplace of Communism is marginalized. King of the Children banishes the bright-eyed pupils and spotless classrooms of propaganda in favour of a run-down schoolroom, graffitied and in disrepair, from which the social fabric seems to have fallen away. Likewise The Big Parade banishes heroics and exemplary characters in favour of a clear-eyed look at the cost of moulding the individual into the collective.

In Chen's films what is unsaid is as important as that which is said; indeed the act of silence becomes a potent force. The voiceless appear everywhere—the almost mute brother in Yellow Earth, the girl's unspoken fears for her marriage ("voiced" in song), the mute cowherd in King of the Children. In Yellow Earth the girl's voice is silenced by the force of nature as she drowns singing an anthem about the Communist Party. It is almost better, Chen implies, not to speak at all, than—as he suggests in King of the Children—to copy, to repeat, to "shout to make it right."

To young filmmakers in China Chen's work, and that of other Fifth Generation directors, can seem academic or irrelevant. To the rest of us, the care with which Chen Kaige observes his protagonists' struggles for integrity amid lethally shifting political tides makes for a perennially relevant body of work.

Verina Glaessner, updated by Rob Edelman, Film

CHEN KAIGE: I remember during the Cultural Revolution...

FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You had to denounce your own parents... Yes. We were forced to leave the school and hang out in the streets, that sort of thing, but we would find places, this small group of friends and I--these dark little rooms where we would gather and lock ourselves up and listen to classical music, and I think that the music really made us more psychologically comfortable. There were a lot of things we needed comforting about--most of us had fallen out with or were in big trouble with our parents. We were young and scared. Now there's a lot of social change taking place in China, but for the longest time we forgot how important a thing culture and music were to us as a people.

What sort of access did you have to films as a child? Not very much at all. I had some small degree of privilege because my father was a director and sometimes we would get to go to the film archive and see some films. That's how I got to see Charlie Chaplin for the first time.

Why so many period dramas and all this interest in the past? I prefer to do period pieces because the sad thing is that the Chinese culture has been cut-off, truncated. We've lost our national identity--we have no idea why we call ourselves "Chinese," and I'm not pointing the finger at any one culprit, but someone needs to be responsible now for a reclamation of our society. So I concentrate in my films to focus on a period in our past where Chinese culture was still alive. In my mind, I wonder now if my feelings about this have changed a little. We still don't have a solid identity, but I recognize now that there are good stories to be told and conflicts to be resolved in a contemporary setting--it's a maturation on my part.

When you make a period piece, however, you begin to reclaim China's past for a contemporary audience, do you not? The Emperor and the Assassin for instance, about the first emperor of China, is an astonishing work and my favourite of your films. You're right, you're right--that happens I think. I strongly believe there's a value that still exists in traditional culture that because of what happened in the beginning of the 20th century--the forced belief that our culture was useless--that it's all the more important now to enforce a cultural pride. But the result hasn't been very good. Kids in China want to see the newest Hollywood movie rather than something from their own culture and their own past.

Can you trace sources for your visual compositions? I can't tell you for certain--I think I have that kind of instinct. I understand images more than language. Obviously I spent a lot of time in museums, watching filmmakers I admire, learning a lot from Chinese classical poetry forms that merge image and word. I traveled, and suffered--I loved and was loved, hated and have been hated. Life things, emotional things. Not doing things as an expert, but approaching new experiences with a childlike manner. But I see the images in my mind--I don't block out or storyboard. I'm afraid that if I ask the crew to rehearse too many times that nothing will be fresh. My way to do rehearsals is to do it in front of the camera.

So many of your films are adaptations of other source materials. The fact is I would like to create original stories--I don't really believe in adaptation. I think some interesting things are out there that I can fit into my vision, but I would like to develop more original work.

Tell me about working with Gong Li on three films. I did a lot of talking to her, finding out what she wants. She's an outstanding actress, for sure, and very smart, but I never really developed a relationship with her. She's been very fortunate to collaborate with Zhang Yimou on so many wonderful movies.

What was your experience working in Hollywood on Killing Me Softly? I loved the crew and shooting in London, but I'm not used to this kind of system. There's always a producer with a worried face looking over your shoulder. There's a whole different list of stresses--the budget, and the shooting schedule. It's a completely foreign process. I wasn't involved in the casting process either--Heather [Graham] was decided on by the producer, I only got to cast Joseph [Fiennes].

Can you make any broad statements about your body of work? There are two things that I'm trying to do in my films: I'm trying to be sensitive about human nature. I'm curious to discover what it is to be human--it's our job as artists that we know ourselves more and so, through our art, we can make the world better. The other thing I want to do with my films is to create and develop new elements of cinema language. You can see that change already taking place with new mediums and influences. I'm not very comfortable talking about my films, in reality, I believe in the act of working and the eloquent power of the visual. It's your job to make sense of it all.
- Interview with Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central, 2002

Video: Q&A with director Ying Liang at The China Institute

This is cross-posted to the dGenerate Films website. Last Saturday we had the pleasure of presenting Ying Liang and his film The Other Half at The China Institute. Here's the entire Q&A session with Ying Liang that followed the screening, in three parts. Special thanks to Vincent Cheng for his excellent live translation, and Jeff Yang and Jeff Hao for taping the session.

Part I:

0:00 - "What inspired you to make The Other Half?"

2:05 - "What's your take on independent filmmaking in China?"

4:12 - "Who are your actors? Do they appear routinely in all your films?"

6:30 - "Have your films caused problems between you and the government?"

Part II:

0:00 - Continuing on the topic of the commercial and legal considerations of distributing independent cinema in China

7:00 - "To what degree do you consider your films to be documentary and not just fiction?"

Part III:

0:00 - Continuing on the topic of the film's use of fact and fiction

3:55 - "Why can't an army officer get a divorce?"

5:00 - "Are your films made with a non-Chinese audience in mind?"

"These Movies Kick Ass": My Interview with Richard Pena on Chinese Indie Cinema

No, Richard Pena did not say that Chinese Indie Films "kick ass" - I said that to him, or at least I wished I had. Anyway, now that I have your attention, I want to let you know about a great new resource for Sino-cinephiles. The new website of my distribution company dGenerate Films has a blog that's been seeing steady stream of content coming through, sort of an ongoing depository of all things going on in the Chinese indie cinema scene (that we know of, at least).  Some highlights so far: - The insider's scoop. Chinese cinema festival programmer Shelly Kraicer (Udine and Vancouver Film Festivals, among others) will be a regular contributor to our site with informed articles giving his take on what's happening in the Chinese indie scene. Here's his first entry, "An Independent Film Scene, Thriving Miles from Main Street", reporting on the 3rd Annual Beijing Independent Film Festival. 

- On the Road with Yours Truly. Lately I've been attending academic events related to Chinese cinema to get the word out about dGenerate and meet others in the academic community who are actively interest in Chinese cinema. Recently I've been to the Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting in Chicago and a special series of Chinese independent documentaries hosted at Harvard University. Read up on both and you'll get a sense of how I've been spending my weekends lately.

- Upcoming screenings!  We're happy to be presenting Chinese indie director Ying Liang on a bicoastal tour of NYC and SF this coming weekend.  Read more about his screenings at Film Society of Lincoln Center, The China Institute in New York (yours truly in attendance), the San Francisco International Film Festival and UC Berkeley.

Then read about another dGenerate screening, this one happening next Wednesday at BAM. Jian Yi's Super,  Girls! will be screening at 7:30 with yours truly in attendance.

- Aforementioned "Kick Ass" Interview with Richard Pena.  The only thing scarier about the breadth of Richard Pena's knowledge of Chinese cinema is the likelihood that his knowledge of other national cinemas around the world is equally extensive. 

That's it for now, but more will definitely be on the way.  I'll try to get in the habit of cross-posting... unless you want to get in the habit of visiting or RSSing!