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)


from dGenerate: Chinese indie cinema @ NYFF & Jia Zhangke controversy

a couple informative pieces posted at one of my gigs: Ghost_Town

Lu Chen has a great essay on Ghost Town, the only Chinese film selected for the main lineup of this year's New York Festival. She gets into the NYFF's history with Chinese films and the significance of Ghost Town's selection to the prestigious fest. Full disclosure: dGenerate Films will be working with Zhao Dayong and the Ghost Town team on their US distribution and festival run.  If you’re interested in screening Ghost Town at your festival or venue, please contact us.

In addition to Ghost Town, it's worth pointing out that the NYFF will also screen 20 classic Chinese movies dating from 1949-1965, a crucial period of Chinese cinema that covers the first 17 years of the People's Republic of China.  I'm already busy at work on a video piece tied into this screening series (which could mean fewer updates on this blog for the next couple weeks, but let's hope not).

I've also posted another CinemaTalk podcast, this time with Michael Berry, Associate Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He is the author of the BFI Film Classics monograph Jia Zhang-ke’s Hometown Trilogy, which offers extended analysis of the films Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures.

Professor Berry shares his insights on Jia Zhangke, specifically his career development since the “Hometown Trilogy” and his recent controversy at the Melbourne International Film Festival.   Be sure to read Jia’s statement of withdrawal from the Melbourne Film Festival as a point of reference.

Listen to the podcast

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 Reference.com

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

"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 dGeneratefilms.com!

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Platform (2000, Jia Zhang-ke)

brought to you by Glenlivet 12 year-old single malt Scotch. When you need some liquid courage for revisiting a personal landmark movie, go Glenlivet. BACKGROUND INFO:

FIRST SCRENING: Sunday, October 8, 2000, 1:30PM - 38th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

It was a month since I moved to New York to live with Julie [my future ex-wife], and a year since we completed two years of teaching in rural China.   The New York Film Festival was a point of entry into the city's formidable film culture (it's since become my annual ritual). I showed up too late to get tickets for marquee attractions like In The Mood for Love or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - but there were plenty of tickets left for the only feature from mainland China.

In that screening my Chinese past and cinephilc present were united, and two year old memories that were already boxed up in a dark mental basement were retrieved, given pride of place, monumentalized.   The way Jia Zhangke filmed those kids stranded in the boondocks, taking delight in the changes around them before the world robbed them of their naïvete, the way he acknowledged pop culture's influence on their dreams and identities, was the same way my students in China saw themselves.   But he also scrutinized youth culture's seductive qualities and lamented its inability to contend with the demands of the adult world -- and that's what really spoke to me, how I had left China, rootless and destitute. Now I knew what Bunuel felt when he smashed the projector at a screening of Rose Hobart and accused Joseph Cornell of stealing his unfilmed visions.

Who was this Jia Zhangke?   I had never heard of him and had no critical or popular reputation as a reference point - no Ebert, Kael or Rosenbaum review upon which to rest my certainty, only lukewarm, somewhat uncomprehending praise bestowed by the New York Times. Had I ever felt so bereft and tentative in formulating my own response? Even if a critic I respected had offered a review that I agreed with, what were the chances they would speak from the same experience that was vital to what I felt this film was really about?   There had been films in the past that I felt belonged to me in some way or another, but this was the first time that I felt a film had been entrusted to me - that I had something no one else had: a duty to make the film understood.

The prospect of fulfilling this duty was grim from the onset, because the one person who I had shared China with most found Platform to be an utter bore.   Tedious, self-indulgent, pointless, Julie said; the Chinese are portrayed so inexpressively, with none of the convivial close-ups of Chinese like in To Live , her favorite Chinese movie.   How could she not see what I saw?   Did it not reflect or validate a sliver of her two years in China?   There was no time to dwell on this rift -- I had already decided that it was the greatest Chinese film I had ever seen, a feeling reinforced when I finally saw that kung-fu blockbuster breakthrough by my college hero, Ang Lee.   Such a watershed in bringing Chinese cinema to the global stage, and yet such a dandified work of neo-Confucian anti-feminist spite, with no sense of specificity to a space, place or community - it was everyone's Chinese movie, and no one's.   Platform was mine, and that meant everything.


watching the shitty Artificial Eye 4x3 non-widescreen piss-poor transfer DVD. I can't find my New Yorker DVD copy (which sucks because it's the first DVD that I was ever cited on... a long story, which I've decided out of discretion not to include in this post, despite its immense significance to my life... I'll just say two things: that at one point in my life Jia Zhang-ke played a sort of matchmaker in absentia for me.  Imagine what it's like to meet someone you're attracted to and have them present you a printout of an essay you wrote three years ago with multiple passages highlighted and bolded.  I finally got to tell this to Jia last October, and he was flattered. Second, that I saw James Gray's outstanding film TWO LOVERS today and had a lengthy discussion afterwards about how youthful, go-for-broke romanticism, practically a symptom of arrested development, gives way to the sober pragmatism of adult relationships, achieved through a kind of spiritual death of youth.  It's worth bringing this up because PLATFORM itself chronicles this process in ways that few films this decade have - ALMOST FAMOUS tries to be about this but doesn't let you feel the full impact of innocence lost - really Philip Garrel may be the only director who can compete.)

0:00:02 - I didn't realize the opening sound was a squeal of what sounds like a speaker feedback - rhymes with the final sound of the kettle whistle at the end.

0:00:25 - coarse talk about illicit lovers, the kind you would never hear in a state-sanctioned Chinese film - Jia making a statement that this movie is going to tell you what you don't hear about elsewhere.

0:01 - "Platform opens with a performance of "The Train to Shaoshan" by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children's propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M's Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao's China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group's audience wasn't school children - it was a large gathering of adult male farmers...

As Deng Xiaoping's market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies." - Matt Parker

from an email to Matt:

The group has it's biggest audience in the beginning, presumably due to a village mandate that everyone attend typical of rural Chinese communist practices. And that the audience is somewhat aware of the kitschy inadequacy ofnthe simulated chair train, but they seem to enjoy themselves all the same, in contrast to the fistfight that erupts at one rock concert near the end. And little details like the song of the Tibetan girl (programmed as a kind of ethnic propaganda reassuring everyone that the gov is doing right by those people). Another favorite moment is when they're introduced to that song by Zhang Di ("I,Zhang Di, am often asked/ if the girls of Singapore are better than Taiwanese girls") Sure it's vapid pop like you say but it's the first encounter these kids have with a singular voice of individualism, the antithesis of the vapid groupthink and group culture you also described. I'm glad that Jia's film is more descriptive than prescriptive; as such it bears vivid witness to a crucial period of a world superpower in the making like no other film has.

0:03 - WTF! This version is missing the solo by the "Tibetan" girl. I wish Jia would release the 3 hour "directors" version of the print I first saw at NYFF - I still think it's better than the 2 1/2 hour version that hit theaters.

0:06 - Holy shit, the train sounds at the beginning - for a second feature Jia has his motifs laid out masterfully.  And the wild, collaborative teenage energy of it - this was what was missing from THE WORLD (unless you want to see that film as a depiction of a fascist state-as-theme park in which case the lack of youthful anarchy has a purpose, I suppose...)

0:09 - I've seen about 200 Chinese features in the time since I first watched PLATFORM. I've long attributed the evolution of Chinese indie cinema into the long-take slow-crawl conventions that prevail today to this film. But watching it so far I'm amazed by the goofy accessibility of this movie (at least relative to much of what has followed it) - the peasant performance, the hollering in the bus, the sight gags with the bell-bottoms, this is Judd Apatow compared to the opaqueness of its successors.

0:14 - Ah yes, the scene that made me seek out Raj Kapoor and AWAARA, another all-time favorite. I have this film to thank for that.

0:15 - Jia's rule of thumb with this film seems to be "have more than one thing going on in a scene - preferrably one expository thing and one piece of incidental cultural context, and lay it on like dressing on salad" - case in point, Zhao Tao's character Yin Ruijuan comes out to meet her father who scolds her for hanging out with the wrong crowd - then he interrupts himself to tell a group of delinquent kids to turn and face the wall - we learn that he's a police officer and we get to see how authority figures treat juveniles.

0:17 - I fucking love this city wall. City walls have existed in China for centuries, occasionally rebuilt, to defend against invading Mongols and such. Who would have thought it'd be the preferred site for romantic trysts and heart-to-hearts. Interesting how you can hear other people talking from some undefined distance, suggesting that privacy is never an absolute state.

0:22 - "Fengliu, fengliu, shenme shi fengliu?' I wish they had this poem at karaoke bars. Expositionally significant because the concept of romance was publicly taboo for decades - and it's to Jia's credit that he doesn't make a big deal out of that (taking a cue from late 80s Hou). Maybe it's to Western audience's loss, but it bolsters the integrity of the film.

0:30 - I remember discussing Platform with novelist-filmmaker Zhu Wen (Seafood, South of the Clouds), who criticized the film for trying to be too epic, for trying to make a grand definitive statement about an entire generation. May have amounted to professional jealousy. Looking at this film, I have no complaints with Jia trying to say as much as he could about his generation's experiences of life and its slow evolution over the course of a decade. Our sense of where this country and its people has come from is the richer for it.  What's especially great about it is how he's able to lay in a lot of these details incidentally, as if they just happen to pass by the screen. For sharp contrast, see how Scorsese handles trying to convey historical information in GANGS OF NEW YORK.

0:43- ah yes the wall scene. The use of space here really struck me when I first watched it. I'm not sure if I've seen Jia use this technique since. To be honest I'm not sure if Jia has exhibited this degree of playfulness since his first two features, and it goes without saying that I wish he would...

0:47 - Bad boy pop officially lands in central China. To this day I still can't find this song by Zhang Di about whether Taiwan girls are better than Singapore girls, or the "Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan" song. But this sequence sends a chill through my spine, because it's depicting the dissemination of culture in a way that feels historically authentic while capturing the spirit of exhilaration, like what it was like for me to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time, or the moment I finally got Guns 'N' Roses (October 1990 Future Business Leaders of America conference in Fresno, watching a roomful of suburban white boys slamdancing to "It's So Easy").  This is not an easy thing to pull off, as wanna-be time capsule movies like THE WACKNESS will testify.

0:54 - more playing with the space of the walls - exiting the stage, a quasi-homage to Lim Giong jumping out of the frame in GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE.

1:03 - to my knowledge this is the first depiction of abortion in any movie from China, the country where more abortions take place than anywhere in the world. Followed by subversive use of "official" radio broadcast, one of Jia's stylistic hallmarks, to be copied by many Chinese filmmakers (though it was Hou Hsiao Hsien's CITY OF SADNESS that first made prominent use of this device in a Chinese cinematic idiom)

1:17 - we're well into the Fengyang youth group's first tour of the countryside, a trip that takes on multiple meanings - an examination of emerging class differences between city and country Chinese, visible even in the nascent stages of post-Mao Open Door Era China; an '80s pop version of the Cultural Revolution compulsory "sent down" assignments that urban youths had to endure; the limited possibilities to live as free and easy artists/know-it-all hipsters in a Communist society.

1:25 - there's a scene from the original cut that's missing from this mining sequence - a really dark and sinister moment when the troupe manager tries to collect from the drunk mine bosses and the bosses retort by threatening to have the miners rape the women of the troupe. I think I'd have to say that the film may be better without it - we'll eventually learn of the troupe's hardships in less melodramatic ways.

Another thing that's missing - a road interlude where they're listening to a Chinese adaptation of Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" from the movie STREETS OF FIRE, translated in Chinese as "I Miss My Mom." (I may be one of less than a dozen people in the world who saw that scene and got the reference...)

1:30 - ah yes, the title song sequence. Brings back a memory of my first week in China as an English teacher and going to a tacky nightclub where this 30-something singer performed a one man musical revue with the help of several skimpily clad model-dancers. One of his numbers was "Platform" and I remember him singing this song with an eerie guttural rage ("My heart waits, waits, ENDLESSLY WAITING..."). Watching PLATFORM the first time I thought of this guy and the possibility that he could have been one of these kids, only grown up and still hacking away at his dream of bringing music and a little star power to the world. I wonder where he might be today...

1:42 - Zhong Ping disappears. I wish I had the guts to ask Jia or someone whatever happened to this actress - not only does her character disappear from the film, but the actress disappeared from movies. I wonder if the two disappearances were connected.

1:45 - For the record, this drunken bricklaying scene wasn't in the original cut.

1:46 - I remember in the course of writing the Senses of Cinema essay feeling apprehensive that PLATFORM owed possibly too much to Theo Angelopoulos' THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS to be considered a truly groundbreaking work. But now I see how this film has its own idiom, achieved more through the violence of history separated by cuts from scene to scene than lyrical long take camerawork.

1:47 -

Is it true that I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall Is it true I have a one-way ticket? Leaving on a road with no end? Is it true I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall? Is it true, as I said before That lovers must be lonely?

Hands down the most poignant scene in the film. A young lady at her office on night duty, hearing a song and letting herself be carried into a dance she used to perform, surrounded by invisible memories of her old gang of comrades, her ex-boyfriend. The past resurrected, reanimated and put to burial all at once.

1:52 - Loveable Wang Hong-wei having his Billy Idol moment - I'm sure Billy Idol has had fruit and shoes thrown at him at some point. Things obviously not going well for the All Star Rock-and-Breakdance Electronic Band.

1:54 - A scene of startling, documentary-like directness, twin sisters talking about why they've joined the band, which feels as much 1999 - or 2009 - as 1980s. Girls leave their homes for more or less the same reasons then as now.

2:06 - Such a sad scene - the two girls dancing on a truck to "Girl Under a Streetlamp" along the roadside while the traffic drowns and crowds out their performance. Defiance and despair. They've adopted a cheesy 80s disco song as their chosen form of artistic expression, and they're not even performing it terribly well, but the courage, grit and pathos of the scene is undeniable.

2:21 - This subplot about Cui Mingliang's parents and his relationship with his absent father may feel a bit extraneous, but again, it's one of those things that hits a nerve with me, given my own family history. It just seems to take a long time just to establish that the father has remarried, without offering additional information - narrative, historical, etc. It might have had more of a place in the longer cut. Speaking of which, from my essay for Senses of Cinema:

For what it's worth, here I would like to describe the coda to the original version of the film, which has since been excised from the “distributor's cut”. It begins with a long shot of a silhouetted figure standing in the midst of a vast and desolate landscape, firing a rifle towards the sun lingering on the horizon (whether it is rising or setting is not made clear, and it adds to the alluring mystery of the image). The camera pans away from the armed figure until it reveals the entire ensemble of the movie, dressed in their performance costumes, standing together and facing the sun, in such a way that resembles the idealized human profiles depicted on Chinese currency. These people, whose collective hopes have been dashed over the course of the film, are given one final chance to re-occupy a common space, bravely facing the sun that symbolizes the setting of an old age, or the dawning of a new, or both. This is one of the most beautifully lyrical and humanistic images I've witnessed in the recent history of cinema, and for some reason it's not even in the final cut.

Guess there's still work to be done...

LAST MINUTE ANNOUNCEMENT (as usual): Special Screening Event in NYC Tonight

Come see what I've spent hundreds of hours working on for the past year!


Discover the New Chinese Indie Film Scene at China Institute SINOMATHÈQUE
The China Institute and dGenerate Films
Friday, January 30, 2009
6:30pm - 8:00pm
China Institute
125 E 65th St
New York, NY


Join us for TWO SCREENINGS and a LIVE Q&A with insiders from the burgeoning Chinese indie film scene:

6:30-7:15 PM SAN YUAN LI (45 min, OU Ning, CAO Fei, 2003) 

Equipped with video cameras, twelve artists present a highly-stylized portrait of SAN YUAN LI, a traditional village besieged by China's urban sprawl. Reminiscent of Dziga Vertov's THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (USSR, 1929) and Godfrey Reggio's KOYAANISQATSI (USA, 1982), China's rapid modernization is brilliantly presented, with fast-edited scenes choreographed to music. Commissioned by the Venice Berlinale, SAN YUAN LI explores the modern paradox of China's economic growth and social marginalization.

7:20-7:40 PM DIGITAL UNDERGROUND IN THE PRC (18 min: 6 episodes, 3 min each, Rachel Tejada, 2008) 

On a mission to acquire films and seek out the best and brightest of the Chinese independent film scene, Karin Chien and Suyin So from dGenerate Films visited post-Olympics China in September 2008 Traveling from Shanghai to Nanjing to Beijing with cameras rolling, they found China's OTHER film community. Join them as they visit the largest underground film festival in China, explore the spirit of independence in Beijing, tour film compounds, attend a government-approved film event, and discuss the future of Chinese cinema. Karin Chien and other members of the dGenerate Films team will lead an open discussion. (Videos courtesy of Chunnel.tv and Berlin Cameron United/WPP)

ADMISSION: $5 for China Institute non-members, $3 for members.

This film series is made possible through the generosity of the public and private grantors, and the support of the general public. All proceeds will go to the Education Department at China Institute to support future programming.

FREE popcorn and refreshments will be served and an open discussion will follow the screening. 

Seating is LIMITED. Reservations are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Please visit www.chinainstitute.org/edu/sinomatheque for tickets.

For further info, contact sinomatheque@chinainstitute.org or 212-744-8181 x150