(The article was originally published on the DVD booklet of Ju Anqi’s work published by the project Draft in May 20192019.05 initiated by Institute for Contemporary Art Research (IFCAR) and Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK).)
Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1999, Ju Anqi was 24 years old. Just a few months prior, he had left the Directing Department of Beijing Film Academy, before his graduation. He was eager to make a film in celluloid. Accompanied by his friend Liu Yonghong from the Department of Cinematography, he visited the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio (CNDFS) next to their Academy. In the storehouse of CNDFS, they found a few 16mm Kodak film rolls, which had expired eight years ago. Liu wanted to run some tests to check their usability, but Ju Anqi decided that this was unnecessary after the storehouse manager assured him, “they can definitely be developed, but I cannot guarantee the quality”. He bought these film rolls, for less than an euro each. This is the origin of the images in There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing. For the sound, Ju Anqi went to a market near his neighbourhood and bought a microphone for 3.5 euros. He then went back home and broke the antenna off of his old TV to serve as a boom pole for the mic. These items and a Mini Disc player comprised the entirety of the film’s recording equipment.
Later on, when talking about There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing, Ju Anqi did not hide that he had made this film with the heartfelt desire of destroying film institutions of the time. This destructive urge began with the very composition of the technological set-up, which was why the TV antenna served as the pole of the microphone, with the Mini Disc player and cheap microphone replacing the high-end NAGRA. At that time, as a fearless young filmmaker, he believed it was necessary to revolt against institutional standards and turn them into ruins.
Preparations in place, Ju Anqi, Liu Yonghong, and an additional assistant photographer took to the streets. They carried their tools on a tricycle, rented for 8 euros per day, and two bicycles, which were bought from what was then the largest stolen bike market in Beijing. The morning of their departure, in front of the entrance of the grey residential building where Ju Anqi lived, they took a group photo. The photo was later used as the poster for the film, and has since become one of Chinese independent film’s iconic images: three young guys sitting on the cement ground in front of their bicycles, tricycle and make-shift equipment, framed by the entrance of the building. Each of them has a resolute look, a serious expression. Ju Anqi, seated in the middle, holds a clap-stick he made out of an old cardboard the night before. On it is written: “There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing, 1999”.
Like an unspoken declaration, it could be said that the scene depicts a fearless courage. This disposition was carried out in full over the next two and a half days of filming as they entered Beijing’s most dynamic sites of the era. Besides the streets, they also visited locations such as a school, a shop, a marriage venue, a hair salon, a residential building, a hospital, and even a toilet. The basic question they posed to those they encountered and selected randomly was, “Do you think the wind in Beijing is strong?”. The way the interviewees are encountered and asked this question is abrupt and unexpected, and the responses respond instinctively to such an “offensive”. The varied responses also embody individual attitudes, moods, and even visions of different kinds of life. One of the most impressive sequences in the film occurs with a shot tracking a couple visiting from out-of-town. The camera discovers their anxiety and sadness as they use a public phone under a street-side orange phone booth. Following them into a hospital, the lens observes their sick child, and lingers on the boy’s innocence. In the midst of its recklessness, this is the moment in which There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing discloses palpable tenderness. Also in this moment, it sneaks into the silent undercurrents beneath the endless stream of daily life.
There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing constructs the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject within the “text,” while at the same time not hiding the existence of the camera and the filmmaker within the situation. This relationship is presumptive and even intrusive, and yet it is these very qualities, along with an on-the-ground feel, which constitute the most distinctive features of the film.
Rather than make a moral judgement on these particular features of the film, it is more accurate to understand them in the framework of aesthetics, especially given that no one was harmed in the process of filming. As an “action” film, it embodies the filmmaker’s dissatisfaction towards the dominant forms of documentary at that time. Mainstream Chinese documentary has always perpetuated, to some degree, the propaganda of the state. It was not until the early 90’s that independent film production emerged, offering a sort of alternative format and different point of view from the mainstream narrative. Over the next two decades, independent film production in China gradually formed its own traditions and history, but that is another topic. There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing was inevitably discussed as part of this development, yet in Ju Anqi’s point of view, the works of the independent film scene at that time lacked true innovation. He wanted to make a new film, something more poetic, possessing more abundant meaning, in a way that conventional documentary—whether mainstream or independent—had not yet achieved. He did not even necessarily think that what he was going to make would be defined as documentary.
When he walked onto the streets, he filmed with a conceptual strength and the power of action. The work he presented at the end also embodies a sort of hybridity, which is difficult to define with standard film formats. While There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing looks like a documentary, it is also often considered an experimental film. It is identified as experimental not only because of the utilisation of expired film stock, or for its direct approach to filming over a short period of time on the street, but also for how Ju Anqi thoroughly used all the rushes he obtained, leaving no frame of celluloid unused in the final film.
In these ways, Ju Anqi broke a stylistic boundary through this film. Compared to conventional documentary, he provides a freer form and vision, which releases a unique sensibility and energy. This does not merely stop at the level of aesthetics, but directly corresponds to the reality and social relations of the time, thus extending to a historical dimension. What kind of time was it? It was 1999, the turning point of the century. The dramatic changes that China was experiencing, in the context of the large-scale historical process of modernization, were being felt by everyone. This feeling turned into expectations for the upcoming new millennium, as if all dreams, no matter of individuals or the nation, would be realized in this novel epoch. The whole society was immersed within this atmosphere of anticipation. If these hopes seemed mixed up with complications and uncertainty, it is because that point in time also opened up connections between larger historical moments. These links added indeterminacy to the direction and routes the nation would take in the future.
In the film, these connections are implied through the representation of the city’s main historical sites. During the shooting of There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing, the filmmakers visited Tiananmen Square; however they didn’t really enter the premises, instead making a few long shots from afar. At that time large-scale construction and renovation were underway in preparation for the 50th anniversary ceremony of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to be held there six months later. Despite all, people could not have possibly forgotten what happened at the Square ten years ago, in the spring of 1989. Ju Anqi understands the significance of asking his question, at this moment, in this place. And so the crew recorded the answers and feelings of people around the Square. On the surface they are just talking about the wind, though Ju Anqi is aware that the wind is not that important. As a matter of fact, during the days he filmed, there was not a hint of wind in the city. The last images in the film show two kids standing on the pavement of a broad street and trying to fly a kite. Rather than rising, their kite throws itself onto the ground. In contrast to the title of the film, this scene playfully expresses that the wind, in its literal sense, is absent. Through such contradictions, Ju Anqi creates a rich and profound commentary around wind.
Drill Man is a video work Ju Anqi developed and released in 2016, within the institutional context of the contemporary art world. It was part of the project Draft, conceived by Khanabadosh, Mumbai and Institute for Contemporary Art Research (IFCAR), Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). By this time, 17 years had passed since the shooting of There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing. Over this period, Ju Anqi had participated in various different aspects of film and video art practices. Nevertheless, these two works, perhaps unintentionally, still echo each other. Or perhaps, to put things more accurately, they follow the same spiritual teachings.
Drill Man, much like its predecessor, is strongly conceptual and devoid of an explicit narrative. The film frames a man with a drill ceaselessly drilling away, as he aimlessly wanders through public spaces. The anonymous man repeatedly uses the electric tool to bore into a variety of objects he finds along the way. Including a tree, a flower, a discarded plush toy, a train, a cargo ship, the Great Wall, a construction site, the tent of migrant workers, a seat on the bus, and even a toilet seat in a hotel room… Through these holes he leaves behind a trace of his having existed.
Who is he? Why is he so obsessed with performing such an action? And what is the meaning of these holes? No hints or answers are given in the film. They have to be interpreted. Over the duration of 35 minutes, we only see these different scenes, with him walking and drilling along the way. The film transforms such an image into a symbolic object and behaviour. Such behaviour obviously contains a sort of threat and destructiveness, and the drill, no doubt, carries sexual and/or attacking connotations. That said, the drill man’s intentions are not explicit, or maybe his intention is the action itself. His relationship with the outside world, i.e. society, is defined by the object and his behaviour. His mood is easy to read; he does not want to collaborate.
In this sense, Drill Man extends the force of action that There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing first unfolded in public space. This active force is provocative, still imbued with destructiveness, and still fulfilled through the individual, although the final effect of the two works is somehow different. The clear distinction between the two is that Drill Man contains no dialogue and depicts a single action. Ju Anqi apparently wants to express an alternative mode of existence through a person and their tool, to reveal some kind of hidden emotion and desire. Where does this come from, what type of social situation is it responding to, and to what extent does it reflect the conditions of living in our modern era? These are the questions that Drill Man poses. In the film, the tireless driller eventually falls asleep, and in his dream arrives at a beach. The waves of the sea fluctuate gently, like changing emotions; on the beach there is a woman picking up waste. Ju Anqi spontaneously appoints her as the mother of the actor. Without saying anything the man starts drilling next to her ear; he takes off his clothes and walks into the sea; the sea accepts him, we see bits of the drill scattered on the beach, the film ends here.
In contrast to the conceptual dimension of this work, this is an ending full of personal sentiments. It is as if, in this final moment, all prior efforts have become insignificant. A sense of fragility as well as powerlessness becomes palpable. The social orientation of this work, made apparent through individual behaviour, is clearly present. In this final moment, this person returns to himself, and his internal world is revealed. Ju Anqi often mentions that he is deeply influenced by existentialism, and what he provides here is an existential metaphor for China’s contemporary context.
In 2016 Ju Anqi also shot A Missing Policeman. It is a fiction film project that tells the story of a policeman. In the background of the 1983 Strike Hard campaign—the first campaign the state launched to crack down upon criminal activities during the ‘reform and opening up’ period—six artists capture a policeman while he is on the job. The artists then take turns guarding him for 33 years. During this time, Chinese society changes most intensely, while the policeman has no knowledge of this. However, in an odd way, he develops an intricate relationship with Chinese contemporary art. Through this relationship he becomes a participant in the social changes of contemporary China.
There are absurd components to this story, and to understand it accurately, it is necessary to have some specific knowledge of the changes contemporary Chinese society has undergone. For instance, the starting point of the story, the Strike Hard campaign was a national action that shocked society as a disproportionately severe response to the social changes that accompanied economic reforms. In some typical cases of the time, people were arrested, and even executed, simply because they were dancing at parties at home. 33 years later, in 2016, when the policeman escapes from his underground prison, China has entered another historical phase, in which the mainstream discourse is about the “Chinese dream”. The ban on dancing has become part of the remote past, even becoming a joke—a piece of forgotten history.
For Ju Anqi’s oeuvre, A Missing Policeman represents an unprecedented time span, precisely because he wants to outline from a specific angle the drastic changes that this country has experienced over a key historical period, as well as the fate of certain people throughout this era of change. In contrast to extraordinarily dominant mainstream discourses, Ju Anqi describes ‘underground’ lives, their evolution over time and how they might be implicated in power relationships. While Chinese cinema on the whole shows a certain desire and impulse to recount the 40 years of history since the start of the reforms in 1978, through A Missing Policeman, Ju Anqi offers a parallel historical narrative, both politically or aesthetically.
A Missing Policeman is an incomplete project. In 2016, Ju Anqi accomplished the shooting of the main part of the film with the financial support of the contemporary art system. There is still a great deal of work that needs to be done, including additional shooting, as well as post-production. Yet the spirit of this work is transmitted through the material he already has. In one scene from the film, several policemen interrogate the original policeman after he escapes from his imprisonment. He asks his interrogators if they have ever heard the speech U.S. president John F. Kennedy gave in Berlin in 1963. Remembering the speech he recounts, to the new policemen, a bit that has stayed with him: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free”.
Ju Anqi has been a poet since childhood.