High roads to China

Mike Walsh on Chinese cinema

Peacock

Peacock

Peacock

Recently it has been hard to avoid thinking about Chinese cinema. I’m in Adelaide, listening to the Premier of South Australia and no less than 2 federal ministers trumpeting the first feature co-production between Australia and the Shanghai Film Group. I’m in Melbourne, watching a season entitled Horizons: New Chinese Cinema at the film festival. Then I’m in Brisbane watching another Chinese season, Lost in Time, Lost in Space.

Not only is it the hundredth year of Chinese cinema, but every day it seems we read of the ways in which the massive changes underway in China are impacting on us. As Australia becomes a major supplier of commodities to fuel Chinese production, there is a growing sense that we need to broaden our engagement with Chinese culture, and embrace a nation from which we have, for too long, tried to maintain a distance.

Given this plethora of film events, it seems useful to draw breath and assess the types of filmmaking going on in China, and the possibilities they might represent for Australian cinema industries.

Global impact

It was instructive to read the recent comments of the deputy head of the Film Bureau, the government body which regulates cinema in China. He celebrated the fact that China now had the third largest national cinema in the world, while going on to express regret that last year the industry produced only 3 good films, by which he meant 3 big commercial hits.

The Melbourne Film Festival gave us a chance to sample 2 of these hits—though the fact that 2 of the films had already screened at the nearby Chinatown cinema for several weeks points to the continuing invisibility of ethnic exhibition for middle-class festival audiences. Feng Xiaogang’s A World Without Thieves shows us what our grandchildren will all be doing on Saturday night if the grandiose claims about this being the Chinese century come true. Montage action sequences, a fat soundtrack, and a regionally recognised Hong Kong star (Andy Lau) speaking Mandarin provide a good sense of the current state of the emerging Chinese blockbuster.

Stephen Chiau’s Kung Fu Hustle and Lu Chuan’s Kekexili: Mountain Patrol take the package a further step by incorporating financing and distribution from Sony Pictures, indicating the ambitions of Chinese filmmakers to tap into global markets by using the Hollywood distribution system.

Art cinema

The next level beneath the commercial behemoths is the art cinema release. Shot on 35mm film on a scale which necessitates official government approval, these more cautious, handsome films are easily incorporated into film festivals and pay TV services such as World Movies.

Foremost here is Gu Changwei’s Peacock which screened at both Melbourne and Brisbane festivals. While it is an officially sanctioned production, the film has a history of censorship problems in China. It has a 3-part narrative structure built around a family in the late 1970s, with each part dealing with an adolescent sibling. The period is significant as the end of the Cultural Revolution opened up space for private lives and personal ambitions (a theme also explored in Shanghai Dreams, shown at Melbourne). Sister’s tragedy is that she wants to stand out in the crowd; older brother’s tragedy is that he wants to fit in. The final story of younger brother, who also acts as narrator, ends with the embrace of mediocrity and cynicism. The world may be full of wonders, of brightly colored peacocks—but not for this generation.

Peacock and Letter from an Unknown Woman, which was shown at Brisbane, have the striking production values which stem from the involvement of prominent creative personalities. Gu Changwei is making his directing debut after establishing himself as one of China’s leading cinematographers on famous Fifth Generation films Red Sorghum and Farewell My Concubine. Xu Jingwei, director, writer and star of Letter from an Unknown Woman is a celebrity television actress and enjoys sufficient clout to merit the involvement of a star like Jiang Wen and cinematographer Li Pingbin (of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai repute).

Underground

In recent years, a divide has developed in Chinese production between these officially sanctioned films and the underground production economy of the Sixth Generation, where films are shot on digital video without government script approval, and the thematic emphasis is on the spiritual and cultural vacuum opened up by the embrace of market values. The most important event in Chinese cinema over the past year has been the attempt by the Film Bureau to heal the breach between above-ground cinema and the unauthorized, low-budgeted, and often foreign financed filmmaking for which Jia Zhangke has been an emblematic figure.

Jia’s The World was the headline Chinese film at all of Australia’s festivals this year. Melbourne went one better, contextualizing it with a retrospective of Jia’s films and his cinematographer-collaborator, Yu Lik-wai.

The World is set in a theme park full of replicas of international landmarks, and will undoubtedly be the subject of much commentary dealing with its savage ironies around China’s position in a globalised world. Jia continues to see the main issue for contemporary China as the relation of urban and village cultures, rather than any more outward looking version of globalization. World culture, like the break dance music of his earlier Platform, is a series of garish, disconnected facades, failing to cover the cultural emptiness which underlies it. The World is a film about the paradoxical smallness of the world for many people whose long-term prospects for happiness are reliant on tenuous personal relationships.

Brisbane and Melbourne both contained outstanding examples of this low budget digital production which has emerged with so much strength in China in the last decade. Brisbane’s best shot was Tang Poetry, a film which inspired strongly divided opinions. It is a deeply minimalist film dealing with a couple of criminals living wordlessly, yet passionately, in a sparsely furnished apartment. A rough approximation might be to suggest Tsai Ming-liang watching a Jean-Pierre Melville film. The title and the interspersed poems alert us to the tactic of saying little in order to suggest much, while there is also a tasty irony to the way urgent descriptions of nature have been reduced to the angular claustrophobia of a cramped apartment whose spaces we slowly explore. The film appears bleak and difficult only to those with no eye for sly wit and minimalist tactics of a rich sparseness.

Melbourne’s low budget triumph was Li Shaohong’s Stolen Life, the story of a young woman’s disastrous liaison with a man who uses and abandons her. It is significant that Li, a Fifth Generation director, who last year made the big budget digital effects film, Baober in Love, has gone on to this cheaper video feature, which looks like it was shot for TV. The smaller scale of the production, with its tight, bold compositions, suits it well—a moving parable of the way that a generation was separated from its children, and the ways that a new generation is unwittingly replicating the sins of the past.

Australian connections

So, what’s all this got to do with the Australian cinema? Why should it rouse our filmmakers from the stupefaction of nationalism which has been a central tenet of our film policies?

Certainly, many sections of the Australian film industry have begun to position themselves as suppliers of post-production services to the Chinese film industry. Melbourne-based Soundfirm has led the way here, setting up joint venture facilities in China. Other companies such as Animal Logic and Cinevex have chased work in the areas of digital post-production and laboratory services on the basis that they can deliver quality results at cheaper prices than their Japanese competitors. The end-titles of Kung Fu Hustle make interesting reading for the list of Australian names and companies which feature in lab work, digital post-production and Dolby sound mixing.

The South Australian Film Corporation, which famously led the nationalist film renaissance in the 1970s, is attempting to get in on the ground floor of post-nationalist regionalism by organizing a co-production, Long, Long is the Road and Far, Far is the Journey, to be shot in Adelaide and Shanghai at the end of the year. The film will be written and directed by Chinese filmmakers with an Australian cinematographer. Director Gu Yi’an, a well-known theatre director in Shanghai, explained to me that he wanted to capture China as seen by a foreign eye. The shoot will move from the Australian summer to the Chinese winter in order to maximize the contrast between landscapes.

The emergence of Chinese cinema, in a rapidly changing set of industrial and aesthetic formulations, is undoubtedly one of the most significant issues in contemporary cinema. From commercial blockbusters aimed at a world market, through to the underground movements which are starting to come up for air, we can only hope that Australian film festivals maintain their attention to seasons such as these, in order to build interest in both China and Chinese cinema. These films not only raise issues about Australia’s familiarity with the country which is fast becoming its main regional partner, but they also confront the struggling Australian film industry with potential opportunities which it needs to explore with all the energy at its disposal.

Melbourne International Film Festival, July 20-Aug 7; Brisbane International Film Festival July 27-Aug 8

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 17

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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