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“帧外有真:探觅华语独立电影的虚实交界”

WANG Zifei

2 November 2022

As part of Indie Chinese Cinema Week 2023, CiLENS organized a panel discussion on 22 October with speakers Jean-Michel Frodon, Zhang Zhen, Cao Liuying, and S. Louisa Wei. The discussion focused on authenticity in the context of Chinese Indie Cinema, aiming to reveal the various dimensions and challenges associated with this concept.

The following transcribed and edited text from the event recording presents some of the key insights from the panel.

Speakers: Jean-Michel Frodon, Zhang Zhen, Cao Liuying, and S. Louisa Wei

Discussion transcribed and edited by: Wang Zifei

ICCW 2023 Panel Discussion Poster. Designed by: SHU Weixi.


Jean-Michel Frodon:

Thank you, Indie Chinese Cinema Week (ICCW), for inviting me. I truly wish I could be with you for this session, and I apologize for only being able to talk to you through this video. However, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you.

What I want to convey is that the rest of the world hasn’t fully grasped the magnitude, depth, and speed of China’s transformation. This massive country, with the size and population of a continent, has been going through remarkable changes. Chinese cinema, going beyond the outdated distinction between fiction and documentary, has used various cinematic techniques and CGI to capture the realities of the country’s rapid evolution, a process that elsewhere would have taken more than a century. As a foreigner, I wouldn’t dare to comment on the influence of these films within China itself, as it depends on the opportunities to watch these films created by independent filmmakers that present non-official perspectives on society and its transformations.

There’s a vast history, yet to be fully explored and told, about the circulation of indie movies in China through numerous initiatives, locations, and methods. But from abroad, there’s been virtually nothing, certainly not in the news on television or in newspapers, that has provided a documented and empathetic approach to this significant phenomenon we are discussing, which is still ongoing in various ways.

Personally, I stopped using the term “the 6th generation” somewhere in the mid-90s because we are now talking about a long-term phenomenon that extends far beyond that. It’s great that ICCW showcases films from directors of different backgrounds and ages, including Lou Ye and much younger filmmakers. But among them, there’s a director who, to me, encapsulates much of what cinema has offered in terms of portraying the realities of China, and that is Wang Bing (王兵). Since his fim “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” at the beginning of this century, Wang Bing has been developing a dual approach to contemporary daily life. He portrays the poorest, the weakest, the left-behind side of China’s economic boom and its history since the late 1950s through the memories of those who suffered political persecutions and misguided decisions that affected the lives of millions. “Three Sisters” or “The Man Without Name” represent the first approach, while “He Feng Ming” or “Dead Souls” are excellent examples of the second approach. However, perhaps none is as significant as the one being screened at ICCW, the film “Youth.” In this film, you witness, hear, and feel a much more complex understanding of what’s happening in the sweatshops where young rural people struggle to make a living. It is a protest against harsh living conditions, but it’s not just that. Like “Bitter Money” before it, “Youth” also captures the vital energy in action, acknowledging the numerous dark sides while offering insight into the progress these young people are making. This, I believe, provides access to reality in all its multi-layered complexity.

Here, I cannot help but compare this to one of the most significant filmmakers of our time, Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯). I want to highlight one aspect, even if it’s almost 20 years old, and that’s the word “platform.” The way it addressed realities within China based on the relationship with imitatied objects from abroad, like foreign monuments in amusement parks, was prescient. It anticipated the intense integration of virtual imagery and digital communication into daily life. This, to me, exemplifies cinema’s unique ability to facilitate a better understanding of what’s happening and what might happen. It’s possibly the only way for the camera not to deceive, achieved not by just capturing what’s there, but by framing and editing to create an open proposal, infused with actual situations, enabling each viewer to connect what they see and hear with other factors of understanding, combining knowledge and emotions.

I would have loved to delve into these topics more deeply, perhaps even challenge some of the ideas presented in the seminar. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible this time, but I hope there will be another opportunity. For now, I wish you an excellent week of screenings and discussions.

Zhang Zhen:

The pursuit of authenticity in representing objects and subjects has been a focal point for many independent Chinese filmmakers for over 30 years. Notably, around 1990, Chinese independent cinema began emerging, influenced by the 1989 democracy movements. This period saw the production of documentaries, feature films, and experimental works, which I believe spurred the early independent film movement. While it wasn’t explicitly labelled ‘Indie’ at the time, it embodied a desire to break free from the state-sanctioned, sponsored, and mandated film industry.

In the spirit of reform and the market economy, the state-owned studio sectors were collapsing, much like other state-owned industries. The film studio was a part of that restructuring or transformation (转型). In many ways, it was a response and reaction to the discourse, particularly a discourse originating from the reformists. At the time, the prevailing mantra was ‘实践是检验真理的标准,’ which translates to ‘Practice is the criterion for testing truth.’ This shift aimed to prioritize reality as the measure of truth, in reaction to the hyperbolic propaganda and cultural productions of earlier decades, notably during the Cultural Revolution. The film studio was integral to broader social, economic, and cultural changes.

Some early independent filmmakers operated both within and outside state-owned sectors and studios, with notable figures such as Shi Jian (时间), Jiang Yue (蒋樾), and Wu Wen Guang (吴文光) among them. As a historian, I consistently aim to reconstruct the collective efforts and shared struggles that contributed to this movement. Therefore, it raises concerns for me that it’s not uncommon for a few filmmakers to later receive special recognition from Western festival curators and critics, occasionally being regarded as seminal figures. Over time, more individuals, including women filmmakers like Yang Lina (杨荔钠), Feng Yan (冯艳), Ji Dan (季丹), and many others, became involved. Independent cinema, notably in documentaries, aimed to tackle issues while distancing itself from the ‘专题片’ (special-topic documentaries) that often featured authoritative male voiceovers and a top-down perspective. This marked a substantial contribution to emerging independent cinema and documentary.

Another vital concept and theme, though not solely originated by independent cinema filmmakers, was embraced and expanded upon by them, enriching its semantic and, I would argue, even its ontological significance. This concept is ‘现场’ (xianchang), which signifies being on the scene, right there when events are happening, as opposed to the pre-recorded and pre-fabricated nature of television studio productions, prevalent in most, if not all, state-sponsored films, both fictional and non-fictional. ‘Shijian’ (实践) and ‘Xianchang’ (现场) practice, involving engagement with the real and being present at the scene, were crucial foundations for the birth of the independent spirit and practice.

The biennial festival ‘Reel China’ (真实中国) in New York since 2001 has been closely associated with the pursuit of concealed truths limited by state aesthetics and production methods. Many curatorial and alternative exhibition practices for Chinese independent cinema abroad were initiated by diasporic Chinese artists and critics, including the founders of Reel China. While they initially connected the contemporary art world with independent cinema, we later assumed control at NYU, broadening our scope to encompass films from Hong Kong and other Sinophone regions. In our last edition, there was a notable increase in the representation of works by overseas Chinese students. Over the past 30 years, significant global changes have presented challenges to what was once known as Chinese independent cinema, impacting public showcases, especially in places like Songzhuang (宋庄) and Nanjing (南京). While filmmaking and the contributions of independent filmmakers are undoubtedly path-breaking, it’s essential to acknowledge that the impact of independent cinema would be substantially diminished without exhibitors, distributors, and festival organizers like you. As a feminist scholar and curator, I’ve been dedicated to diversifying and integrating gender queering discourses into independent cinema, which initially had a predominantly masculine, male-centric community and culture. Within the realm of Chinese independent cinema, there are also a number of issues and challenges pertaining to gender equality and inclusion. Therefore, as we promote independent cinema, write about it, and engage in discussions, it’s imperative that we address the intricacies of its history, its various components, and the different generations involved. Emphasizing and amplifying the voices of marginalized groups, particularly women and queer filmmakers, is of utmost importance.

I’ve had the opportunity to watch a couple of films from your program in preparation for this forum. The one that particularly struck me is the Tibetan documentary about the orphan girl. Her story deeply moved me. I was also both sad and happy to see that Pema Tseden was one of the executive producers. It brought back fond memories of Pema, who is a dear friend. I appreciate the inclusion of such work. I also noticed that this film carries the dragon seal (龙标), which, in some ways, highlights the complexity of the existence of alternative filmmaking. I think that independent cinema, as we have conceptualized it in our publication and as other scholars have in Southeast Asian independent cinema, always includes a hyphen—’in-dependence.’ It signifies a certain dynamic within a matrix, in relation to the state, the mainstream, and capital. I believe that the production context of this film, similar to some of Pema’s recent works that have received Dragon Seal approval, speaks to the young filmmakers’ desire to carve out a space within the challenging circumstances in mainland China today. These films, including Yang Lina’s, have also been able to secure Dragon Seals and theatrical releases. I see this as a form of middle-ground alternative cinema. These films don’t fit the traditional underground mould, but they also aren’t propagandist or ‘main melody’ films. They manage to navigate censorship by addressing social and economic issues without delving too deeply into sensitive or forbidden areas. These films are vital for capturing everyday life experiences.

I was delighted to finally see ‘A Marble Travelogue’ from your program, a film I’ve been eager to watch for some time. It’s a global documentary, distinct from the earlier, more personal, individually made documentaries, characterized by a single person using one camera. Films like Wang Bing’s early works and even Ji Dan’s recent film I saw in the UK were truly independent in terms of a personal point of view. However, a new wave of films with larger crews and transnational capital is emerging. These resources enable a broader range of geographical settings and the exploration of complex narratives and issues. I enjoyed the film, as it provides insightful commentary on globalization and China’s rise just before the pandemic. The epilogue, somewhat ironically, marked a shift in the trajectory of China’s rise due to the pandemic and recent geopolitical changes during post-production.

I haven’t seen ‘Youth’ yet but considering its large-scale production with multiple cameras and significant entities involved in investment, distribution, and festival participation, it’s evident that Chinese independent cinema has evolved into a more industrial mode of production. However, I also want to raise a potentially controversial point. After listening to Frodon’s video earlier, I believe we should reconsider the continued consecration of auteurs, especially male auteurs, in this context. It’s essential to examine the kind of reality they produce and how it differs from the earlier days of this movement and culture.

Zhang Zhen during the panel discussion (Captured from Zoom)

Cao Liuying:

Re-examining authenticity in today’s context is of great cultural, industrial, and societal significance. The rapidly changing social landscape in China challenges filmmakers’ thoughts and perceptions, prompting them to re-evaluate their understanding of reality for their creative work. Moreover, the cinema industry’s globalization has given rise to cross-border creators and filmmakers, as seen in this year’s ICCW program. Films like ‘The Marble Travelogue,’ ‘Havana Divas,’ and ‘Youth’ exemplify cross-cultural and cross-national narratives, contributing to the diversity of Chinese-language cinema and enriching discussions on authenticity.

Since I now live in Europe, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many filmmakers who work across borders. Some of them are Chinese filmmakers who have studied and live in Europe, while others were born here and are the children of the first generation of migrants. They grapple with a complex sense of self-identity, which they eagerly explore through their cinematic works. Some filmmakers still reside in China but choose to centre their stories on protagonists who roam the globe. On the other hand, there are filmmakers based in Europe who opt to film protagonists and stories within Chinese society. These choices result in a complex array of story origins and narratives, adding multiple layers to the concept of authenticity.

Certainly, we should not underestimate the significance of the works by emerging and established filmmakers hailing from the wider Chinese-speaking region. Filmmakers in places like Singapore, Malaysia, and various Asian countries have been delving into themes of Asian identity and Chineseness from distinct vantage points. For instance, consider the Malaysian director, Tan Chui Mei, who, as a female director, released her latest film, ‘Bavarian Invasion,’ in China last year. Such instances spark important discussions, and the movement of films from diverse Chinese-speaking regions to mainland China further amplifies opportunities for us to explore the concept of authenticity.

Moreover, there’s a compelling category of Chinese directors who have transitioned away from explicitly addressing Chineseness in their work. Their focus is on seamlessly integrating into the broader film industry landscape where they operate. Take, for instance, a film presented at the Warsaw International Film Festival last year, titled ‘What Remains.’ This Swedish narrative, shot in Finland by a Chinese filmmaker, is entirely presented in English, signifying a truly cross-border, multinational production. Another captivating case in point is ‘Killing the Violet’ (杀死紫罗兰), which recently premiered at the Pingyao Film Festival. This graduation feature is the brainchild of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yu (张钰), a female director. The story unfolds entirely in Japan, with the entire team and narrative conducted in Japanese, despite the Chinese director. These works furnish us with fresh examples and unique perspectives, enabling a deeper exploration of the concepts of Chineseness and Asian identity. They vividly underscore the dynamism of Chinese-language directors, especially the new generation nurtured in cross-cultural environments.

From my daily experiences, I’d like to discuss the production and distribution processes and their influence on what we commonly refer to as ‘authenticity.’ Personally, I’ve shifted my perspective when discussing a film. I now prefer to describe it as an industrial creation. The extensive journey of filmmaking and project development involves numerous arguments, negotiations, and compromises that collectively shape the final product. Over the years, there have been substantial changes in how Chinese-language films are produced and distributed. Factors such as identifying the target market and potential audiences play a pivotal role in directors’ and screenwriters’ considerations, significantly impacting their creative work. This approach differs from earlier discussions that primarily revolved around textual analysis. Consequently, I’ve come to view a film as an industrial product.

While China may not actively pursue co-production agreements, individual directors have secured funding from sources outside China, which can come from film festival investment platforms, specific institutions supporting project development, or pre-sale rights from distribution channels. Regardless of the funding method, those involved often have their own requirements. For example, in many European countries, co-production support programs provide non-repayable funds, preserving the director’s creative freedom. However, to secure official funding, a project must involve a local production company, potentially introducing diverse perspectives that may conflict with the creators’ original intentions, sometimes emphasizing stereotypes in Chinese stories that affect a film’s authenticity. Some films with sensitive content cannot be produced in China, prompting creators to seek external funding. But does external funding guarantee complete authenticity in the content? This is a question worth pondering.

As more films continue to be produced within mainland China, it’s important to note that the rules of the mainland Chinese film industry are unique and complex. It represents a significant box office market; however, the pandemic has shifted the industry’s dynamics and created an unequal distribution of resources. Arthouse films struggle to find success in mainland cinemas, and the economic downturn has made online platforms less willing to heavily invest in acquiring arthouse films. Nowadays, more arthouse films are enlisting A-list celebrities in the hopes of attracting a larger audience and boosting box office numbers. For instance, Bi Gan (毕赣) cast Tang Wei (汤唯) and Huang Jue (黄觉) in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ (地球的最后一个夜晚) , marking the beginning of using A-list celebrities in Chinese arthouse cinema. Nevertheless, it’s been demonstrated that relying solely on star power, without effective marketing and promotion, can still be quite challenging in achieving satisfactory box office performance. In this context, the overseas market has become a focal point for Chinese-speaking filmmakers.

In my daily work, I’ve observed that most arthouse or independent filmmakers view international film festivals and the overseas market as their first distribution steps. They anticipate that featuring their films at festivals can generate overseas sales revenue, potentially offsetting any box office shortfalls in mainland China. What sets this new generation of directors apart from their predecessors is their global perspective. Many independent directors, aiming to bypass the censorship board, prioritize overseas Chinese or international audiences as their primary target. This shift in focus naturally influences their storytelling techniques and, subsequently, the film’s authenticity.

Lastly, and certainly a topic worthy of deeper exploration, is censorship. In the context of Chinese cinema, it’s a critical factor that profoundly shapes filmmakers’ creative processes. Notably, as Professor Zhang Zhen mentioned, many independent filmmakers have successfully secured the Dragon Seal for their recent films, signifying their acceptance into a domain where they can distribute their work within the Chinese system. This transformation from an underground status to partial legitimacy within the Chinese context is a fascinating process to witness.

Cao Liuying during the panel discussion (Captured from Zoom).

Liyo Gong:

Exploring authenticity in filmmaking, I, as an editor, find my position particularly intriguing because it demands deliberate detachment — a conscious effort to remain disconnected from the broader production and industry aspects. My primary focus is to remain firmly grounded and completely immersed in the craft, much like sitting in the kitchen, sharing a reality-check moment with the filmmaker. This role is inherently isolating, as I am not directly involved in the comprehensive production and marketing of the film.

Within the confines of the editing room, a distinctive challenge arises. We often ascribe to films the power to capture and represent truth and reality, a legacy inherited from the world of photography. We tend to perceive photography as an imprint of light on a negative, a tangible trace and a memento of reality. However, when it comes to films, a paradox emerges. With 24 frames per second, films transcend mere reflection — they aren’t the objective truth but instead a series of carefully crafted moments. In my opinion, films represent the viewpoint of a filmmaker or a collective filmmaking process. Authenticity, in this context, involves remaining true and honest to that particular perspective and position held at the time of crafting the film.

Liyo Gong, S. Louisa Wei, Wang Zifei at the panel discussion. Photo by: DU Zhongtian.

As an editor, my role involves translating this distinct perspective and perception, embedded in time and history, into an artistic artifact. What makes an artifact ‘art’ is its ability to transmit emotions across time. This notion was frequently emphasized by Wang Bing during our collaboration, and it deeply resonates with me, as it mirrors the profound and historical nature of art. Editing, at its core, entails the meticulous act of compressing hours of recorded time into a cohesive timeframe — it’s akin to chiselling a piece of wood into a statue or sculpting marble into a work of art. It’s the intricate process of converting time into an experiential piece for the audience. My unique position of an editor allows me to straddle both ends — I serve as the first spectator of the film and, simultaneously, as one of the creators behind it.

Regarding Wang Bing’s film ‘Youth,’ the editing process adheres to a very specific approach closely aligned with his distinctive method, which emphasizes chronological storytelling. He is obsessed with recording history and recording time and he needs to respect the evolution of the characters, how the souls change, and how they grow old. There’s no manipulation of the order of events, as Wang Bing believes that any deviation would be sensed by the audience, compromising the authenticity of history and time that is being captured.

Sustaining authenticity during the editing process is a complex task because editing inherently involves manipulation — it’s about what remains unspoken but is deeply felt by the audience. To preserve honesty and authenticity during editing, empathy plays a pivotal role. Empathy enables us editors to connect with the filmmaker’s emotions and experiences, and when we convey this empathy through the film, the audience can receive and empathize based on their own encounters. This approach opens the door to a more personal and genuine connection, allowing the audience to feel and experience the film, all while preserving the filmmaker’s original intent.

Liyo Gong at the panel discussion. Photo by: DU Zhongtian.

Louisa Wei:

I specialize in historical documentaries, so authenticity is something I achieve through rigorous research. We meticulously analyse every image and scrutinize every newsreel we discover. We adopt an archaeological approach, attempting to establish when these events occurred and what transpired before them. Consequently, we invest significant effort in our research to ensure that every detail is accurately placed. Because a lot of the time, when you purchase newsreel footage from various sources, the descriptions are often mistaken. So, typically, it takes me five to eight years to complete a film, with a significant portion of that time dedicated to research.

Another critical aspect related to authenticity in my practice is the preservation of our history. Engaging with people and asking the right questions often uncovers hidden gems. I prefer open, free-flowing conversations to elicit in-depth responses. This is why many people often ask, ‘How did you get this person to speak so much?’ because the archive also interviewed her, and she didn’t say a word. I replied, ‘Did you ask her the right question, or did you ask a yes-or-no question?’ Asking the right question is essential, as it tends to lead to more detailed answers. My films, deeply rooted in extensive research and oral history, typically leave viewers with the sense of having learned a great deal about previously unfamiliar subjects. For example, while working on ‘Golden Gate Girls,’ I consulted a Hollywood editor for advice on broadening its appeal. He suggested weaving specific World War II events into the narrative to demonstrate how my characters were connected to the historical backdrop. This incorporation of a well-documented historical period into a story about lesser-known figures has often left audiences saying, ‘I knew so little about what was covered in this film, but I learned so much.’ This accomplishment is the result of years of storytelling that draws extensively from research and oral history.

I have many friends who are documentary filmmakers, and I’ve told them, ‘You know, I just can’t do what you do—following a drug dealer for two years or more; I have a day job.’ However, they can’t do what I do because they never know where I find my footage and other materials. There’s a profound sense of connection when I simply sit and listen to people sharing their stories. It’s a passion of mine. I have a knack for encouraging people to recount fascinating tales, and the most compelling stories often happen to be the tragic ones from their lives. I’ve experimented with a ‘direct cinema’ style, which heavily relies on observational techniques. This unique approach has made each filmmaking experience feel like I’m attaining another ‘PhD.’

Louisa. Wei at the panel discussion. Photo by: DU Zhongtian.


Speaker Bios:

Jean-Michel Frodon is a journalist, critic and historian of cinema. He is the author and editor of various volumes on French cinema, Chinese cinema, film theory, film history, cinema technology, and politics.

Zhang Zhen is a professor at New York University, where she teaches Cinema Studies and directs the Asian Film and Media Initiative. She has an extensive publication record on Chinese independent cinema and has served as the primary organiser of the biannual Reel China Documentary Festival at New York University since 2001.

Cao Liuying is a film critic, programmer, producer, festival strategy consultant, and publicist. She co-founded the Chinese film production company Midnight Blur Films and serves as the artistic co-director of the Red Lotus Asian Film Festival in Vienna.

Liyo Gong, born in Belgium, is a film editor, musician, and actress interested in blending visual arts and narrative cinema. She has collaborated with filmmakers like Wang Bing and Lawrence Lek, and she recently starred in Bas Devos’ award-winning film “Here.” She is also a DJ in the “Heartbroken” collective, performing worldwide and creating soundtracks for international venues and events.

Louisa Wei is a filmmaker and Professor of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong. She has published extensively on early Sinophone and women’s cinema and has directed several documentaries, including ‘Golden Gate Girls’ and ‘Havana Divas.’

Transcriber & Editor Bio:

Wang Zifei is the co-curator of Indie Chinese Cinema Week 2023, and a Ph.D candidate at Heidelberg University, Germany. Her current research focuses on Chinese independent cinema.

About CiLENS:

CiLENS e.V. is a Berlin-based non-profit film curation collective that explores the potential of cinema as a space for transcultural dialogues through the showcase of primarily independent Chinese films. Find out more at: https://www.cilens-film.org.