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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

The uncompromisingly independent visions on display in "Between Disorder" leave plenty of room for beauty, wit, formal innovation and the other "unexpected pleasures" that the series title refers to. For example, Zhao Ye's poignant tone poem "Jalainur" posits a deceptively minimalist storyline about Old Zhu, a steam-engine train conductor whose imminent retirement means saying goodbye to his apprentice and close friend Li Zhizhong.

The movie's beautifully composed shots of smoke-belching steam engines heaving like fire-breathing dragons, and human figures silhouetted by moody night skies, wrests lyricism from the machine-ravaged landscapes of Inner Mongolia. Shruggingly indifferent to their bosses' party-line platitudes about the noble mission of industrial nation-building, the men forge a separate peace with one another from nearly wordless exchanges. "Jalainur" brings to mind the terse poetry of European Modernist writers such as Samuel Beckett, while its metaphorical landscapes evoke Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point."

"The sort of strategies that Modernism has used to fracture narrative, the sort of self-reflexive techniques, I think you can see in a lot of these films," Lim says.

Among the most startlingly original movies is "Oxhide II," a sequel by the young female director Liu Jiayin to her stunning, self-financed "Oxhide I" (2004), which she shot in Cinemascope in her parents' 50-square-meter apartment/kitchen/workshop in southern Beijing, where the family scratches out a living by making purses. Casting her real-life parents as themselves and deploying a single, stationary camera, the writer-director combines carefully choreographed body movements and seemingly incidental but actually scripted dialogue in tightly framed shots, producing a claustrophobic and harrowing, yet disarmingly humorous narrative of a family's inner tensions.

The banal rituals of daily life take on surprising significance as Liu reveals her skill as a miniaturist master and her deep empathy toward characters struggling to break free of physical and social confines. Reynaud compares the way the "Oxhide" films unfold to the method of spreading out and reading a classical Chinese scroll painting. "What they borrow from the scroll is the absence of a vanishing point, the absence of a master gaze and, very importantly, the use of negative space," she says.

(Liu Jiayin will be present at REDCAT's Friday, April 8 screening of "Oxhide II" and take part in a Q&A session after a 4 p.m. Friday screening of "Oxhide I" on the Cal Arts campus in Valencia.)

"Oxhide," "Jalainur" and several other series films underscore a tendency among independent Chinese filmmakers to mix fiction with documentary. Those strategies are skillfully deployed in Jia Zhangke's "I Wish I Knew" (2010), which suggests how historical memory in China, including cinematic memory, is among the collateral damage wrought by Communist Party-administered capitalist progress. In this unclassifiable movie, by arguably China's most significant filmmaker of the past decade, contemporary images of economically booming Shanghai are refracted through the gauzy filter of older films -- some, like the classic "A Spring in a Small Town" (1948), dating from when roiling Shanghai was the country's movie-industry capital -- and interviews with directors, cast and crew members of those earlier movies.

In between these sequences, a beautiful woman wanders phantom-like through Shanghai's rain-swept streets. Gradually, the film's multiple layers of commentary unite to create what Reynaud describes as "this very complex texture of movies about Shanghai by people who are not living there but have some sort of relation to Shanghai through memory or exile."

Traditional vérité documentary also has a place in the series. In "A Disappearance Foretold" (2008), filmmakers Olivier Meys and Zhang Yaxuan relate the systematic destruction of a poor, run-down but still vital Beijing neighborhood to make way for new projects tied to the 2008 Olympic Games. The movie observes ordinary Chinese citizens voicing unusually candid opinions (some cynical, others resigned) about their society and venting their fury at bureaucrats.

Unlike the legions of foreign journalists who parachuted in to cover the Olympics, then flew home, these filmmakers gained their subjects' trust by spending months witnessing their hardships, Reynaud says. "They have the sense of patience."

Liu Jiayin shows a similar patience with her long, single-take shots of a tiny family's valiant tragi-comic struggles, as do the quietly observed, unrushed moments of "Jalainur." Patience indeed may be a prerequisite for filmmakers hoping to make lasting works while modern China rushes by.

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