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China's cinematic revolution

A 12-movie series at REDCAT reveals the daring independent streak shown by a new generation of filmmakers working with scant resources outside government purview.

April 03, 2011|By Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • A homeless man cooks a makeshift meal in the ruins of Qianmen, a 600-year-old Beijing neighborhood, in the documentary "A Disappearance Foretold."
A homeless man cooks a makeshift meal in the ruins of Qianmen, a 600-year-old… (REDCAT )

Ever since the 1920s, Chinese film history has been grouped into large, monolithic blocks, as imposing as the Great Wall. There's the First Generation of silent-movie pioneers, the Fifth Generation of "post-Maoist humanists," the Sixth Generation that sprang from the cultural wreckage of Tiananmen Square, and so on -- coinages used both in and outside China.

But it may be time to retire such static terminology, judging from the dozen highly individualistic, genre-mashing works that make up the series "Between Disorder and Unexpected Pleasures: Tales From the New Chinese Cinema."

The program, which opens April 6 at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles, offers a sense of how Chinese independent filmmakers are stretching the limits of the art form while overcoming undernourished budgets and steering around -- or perhaps soaring over -- the heads of hard-eyed government censors. Spurred by the advent of cheaper digital technology, these young filmmakers are stylistically daring and increasingly fearless in addressing, or at least alluding to, taboo topics such as homosexuality (in Hao Jie's "Single Man," for example) and the heavy social costs of China's breakneck dash toward modernity.

What's more, this new generation comprises not only several filmmakers who didn't train at the state-run Beijing Film Academy but also a number of painters- and writers-turned-directors who are bringing fresh visual and narrative approaches to their camerawork. "I call it this sort of flowering of many voices," says Cheng-Sim Lim, a film scholar who co-curated "Between Disorder." "You have this breaking up of this very unitary view of Chinese film."

China's commercial film market lately has become one of the world's fastest growing. The nation's rapidly expanding middle class is spending more of its discretionary income on entertainment. Dozens of new Western-style multiplexes are springing up. Hollywood and Hong Kong investors are casting lustful looks at a potential audience of more than 1 billion people.

The nation's independent film scene is a far different matter economically but no less dynamic in creative terms. Alternately exhilarating and alarming, slyly humorous and poetically melancholy, the series' films collectively present a prismatic view of a society in which individual artistic expression is rising but entire categories of people -- displaced farmers stuck in the feudal era, the masses of urban poor -- have been rendered expendable, as their communities and ways of life get steamrolled by China's aggressively globalizing political economy.

The series depicts a country in which gleaming new corporate high-rises loom like giant terra-cotta warriors over tattered but teeming residential areas. "You cannot walk in a major Chinese city, or even a small Chinese city, without walking in a field of rubble," says Berenice Reynaud the series' other curator and a film scholar who's on the faculty at California Institute of the Arts. "It's 'destroy, destroy, destroy.'"

Although none of the films in "Between Disorder" is likely to turn up in the flashy new theater chains of Shanghai or Guangzhou, independent Chinese movies now appear regularly on the international film festival circuit. They've also become easier to see inside China.

"You have film clubs, cafes, you have also a number of websites where you can download independent video for free, [and] you have a lot of little film societies," says Reynaud. She and Lim conceived the series about 15 years ago, under the auspices of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and have been programming it ever since.

Reynaud says she acquires many of the films during annual Hong Kong trips from which she returns loaded down with as many as 150 DVDs. Because they work outside Beijing's state-run film bureaucracy, these filmmakers are generally tolerated, if viewed with glancing suspicion. "They have the benefit of being ignored, basically, by the authorities," Lim says.

Although the REDCAT portion of the series wraps up Saturday night, films also will be screened this month at the Hammer Museum and the Egyptian Theatre, and April 11 through 14 at the Pomona College Museum of Art/Media Studies. The Echo Park Film Center will host an April 11 showing of "Night of an Era" (Zaijian Wutuobang), Sheng Zhimin's 2009 documentary ode to the Chinese independent rock movement of the 1980s and the onstage antics and backstage lives of some of its performers.

Beginning April 29, the bulk of the series will be re-screened at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, whose chief curator, David Schwartz, shares Reynaud and Lim's bullishness toward China's independent film explosion. "It sort of reminds me of the early days of American independent cinema when, because 16mm cameras were available, people were able to go out and make their own movies," Schwartz says. "People who are looking at world cinema right now are looking to China."

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