Directed by Zhang Ximing
Reviewed by Jenn Marie Nunes
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2018)
I want to write a review of I’ve Got a Little Problem (我有一个忧郁的, 小问题, 2018), a recent documentary film directed by Zhang Ximing 张溪溟, that doesn’t begin or end with Ren Hang’s death. I want to write a review that doesn’t begin or end with Ren Hang the “provocative Chinese photographer,” the chronicler of his own depression, or the victim of Chinese censorship. What I want is to write a review that touches on the smaller, more personal elements of Ren Hang’s life, that sees Ren Hang as the “ordinary person” he said he felt he was, that makes space for the complexities of Ren Hang the person in the context of his politically charged life and afterlife.
Of course, Ren was depressed, as the writing highlighted in Little Problem attests to, and he was a provocative photographer. His images engage the naked body and sexuality in a way often described as fluid, unsettled, aesthetic, unresolved. And while his photography has thus been framed in the context of queerness and non-normative representation, it is only poet Christopher Soto’s feature on Ren’s poetry in Dazed that offers up the personal (ordinary?) detail that Ren had a boyfriend, that he was a “queer Chinese photographer.” In Zhang’s documentary, sexuality is also elided. Perhaps this lack of attention to Ren’s personal life follows his explicit wish just to be part of the ordinary majority, to be able to just create as he creates. Or, as his friend and model Ho King Man tells Soto, Ren “‘exhibited much control over his images and poetry’” during life, “‘possibly because it was so difficult to have that much control over his mental health.’” As someone who struggles with depression, I understand that feeling of helplessness. As a queer-identified person, I also can’t help but want to claim Ren and his art, much like as a poet I want numerous translations of his poetry—including the English translations by Ho King Man and Casey Robbins—to be as accessible to everyone as the versions Ren originally posted online once were. I want his queerness and I want his poetry to be as visible, as much a part of what is now his legacy, as his photography.
But as Little Problem makes clear, photography was a huge part of who Ren was. He photographed the naked body because it is something we naturally encounter living alongside others. He photographed the bodies of his friends or friends of friends because he felt the need for emotional connection in his work. Ren took issue with censorship laws in China labeling both his process of photographing naked bodies in public spaces and his photographs themselves as obscene and licentious. He has repeatedly said he did not think of his work as taboo; he just photographed what appealed to him. Yet on aperture’s blog, where Stephanie H. Tung gives an overview of Ren Hang’s photography, he is quoted as saying: “My work is all about sex, lust, and porn . . . but I’m not quite at the point where I can make people feel desire yet.” Whether or not Ren intentionally pushed boundaries, he was certainly aware of the boundary his work pushed at, and he articulated a line between his art and the pornographic: his work does not turn people on. Thinking about this distinction, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s gloss of pornography, when in her discussion of the erotic she says that “pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling” (54). In both of these examples, it is the experience of something that is key to distinguishing between “obscenity” and “art.” This is where the artist loses control.
Ren’s work is an exploration of the complexity of feelings that rise alongside the surface of sensation, an interrogation of the possibility of sensation disconnected from feeling, or the feelings that sensation alone might then evoke. In Ren’s “cool, saturated . . . tightly composed” photos, the human body wavers at the line drawn between object and subject, sometimes shape, sometimes color, sometimes genitals, sometimes scenery, yet never not human. That is, while Ren’s photographs have the high gloss and aesthetic of fashion photography, this “superficiality” does not simply erase or flatten the humanness of his subjects. Ai Weiwei tells Time magazine, “Ren Hang represented a new generation of young Chinese artists . . . Their works reflect the reality of China, today. The images are fresh, but also empty and superficial. They contain a deep sadness within.” While I do not feel sadness in all of Ren’s photos, looking at the bodies he presents I feel a tension, the sense of being situated somewhere between gazing at the beauty of an object and experiencing a connection with another subject, a tension between the softness and the violence of moving into desire. Looking again at how Ren and Lorde attempt to distinguish pornography from art, I see what seems to be an almost intentional slippage in the language of desire, feeling, and sensation that throws into question our very impulse to neatly distinguish between these two categories. Similarly, Ren’s photography reminds us how constructed and how personal our definitions of all of these concepts—obscenity, beauty, pornography, gender, sexuality—in fact are.
So it is not that Ren’s work did not push, and it is not that he did not know that his work pushed, but rather that he was not invested in pushing simply to be shocking or to make a political statement. And while Little Problem glosses over Ren’s reception outside of China, his artistic vision was enthusiastically embraced by a transnational audience. In 2011, his photography was part of Ai Weiwei’s group show “Fuck Off 2” in the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands, and that was only the beginning, with other shows, fashion collaborations, and museum exhibitions from the US to Australia to follow.
At the same time, Ren firmly situated himself in an artist’s community in Beijing. Perhaps it is his strong identification as a Chinese artist that informs Zhang’s choice not to emphasize the international recognition Ren received well before his death. Ren may have been successful and he may have a significant audience for his art, but he struggled in China. By turning away from Ren’s international reception and from identity politics, I’ve Got a Little Problem creates a filmic world that represents Ren as an artist who could not live an artist’s life freely where he most wanted to: at home. That is not to say Ren Hang had no support in China, but that he was still constantly forced to stand “opposite to ordinary people” because of the way Chinese laws figured his art. Zhang’s emphasis in Little Problem, then, reconstructs the claustrophobic atmosphere in which Ren worked, where finding a print shop to print a book of his own photography for a foreign patron was an epic undertaking.
This narrowed field of vision, along with the way the film is structured, also allows Zhang’s documentary to create a sense of the experience of depression. Moving in loops through time, Little Problem cuts between footage of Ren at work as a photographer amongst his friends, Ren performing his writing in a theater space, Ren engaging a Chinese lawyer in order to find a way to do his work without legal repercussions, and Ren speaking directly to the camera, interview style, about his art and his life. This strategy of returning to the same moments not only works to filmically represent the context of censorship in which Ren—the thinker, the artist, the friend—made art, but it also allows repeated return to Ren’s own articulation of depression, evoking the relentless way depression can spiral through one’s life.
Because that’s the thing about depression: it can permeate your life even if you have a community around you and whether you are making your art or not. But that doesn’t mean it defines you or what you create. Coming back to the “control” Ren exerted over his work during his life and his insistence that he is not a political activist, I wonder what our responsibility is to him, as well as to his photographs and his poetry, after his death. What is the story of Ren Hang that we should tell? Beginning with Ren’s depression, ending with his suicide, and centering on his struggle to create in a context of censorship, I’ve Got a Little Problem tells the story of Ren the provocative photographer fighting for creative freedom against an oppressive state and ultimately losing the battle, suggesting that it was the oppressiveness of the Chinese state that fueled Ren’s depression and finally decided his tragic outcome. At the same time, while Zhang wields a number of special effects—manipulation of speed, focus, color, framing, and so on—in an attempt to present a hip, edgy rawness that honors Ren Hang’s style, he also engages elements of a cinéma vérité mode to give us glimpses of Ren the ordinary person who did his work because it made him happy.
The work of a documentary is not to tell us everything, but to draw our attention. It is because I’ve Got a Little Problem made me attend to Ren Hang that I now want to know more than I can learn from just looking at his photographs. One of my favorite scenes in the film is of Ren eating crab with friends—someone explains how to twist the legs off, how to crack the crab open, makes sure those eating male crab eat the sperm and those eating female crab eat the ovaries. The friends sit around a cluttered table, extracting crab meat with teeth, fingers, chopsticks. Cracking, sucking, chewing, they chat about Ren’s poetry; someone compares eating crab to eating a cockroach, and someone comments on the excellence of the ginger in the vinegar.
I’ve Got a Little Problem offers several entry points into the numerous stories of Ren Hang. For me, watching this documentary has opened into an exploration of Ren’s poetry—its circulation, its reception, and the tenderness, humor, and frankness of the stories it tells about Ren. I suggest taking the opportunity Zhang’s documentary presents to begin your own exploration.
 The selection of Ren’s poems included in this review are pulled from https://www.chopsueyclub.com/blogs/blog/ren-hang-poetry-translated-poem-2017. The translations are mine. Video clips are courtesy of The Cinema Guild, the film’s North American distributor. To purchase or rent the film, go to the Cinema Guild website. I’ve Got a Little Problem was produced by Parallax Films.
 Lorde, Audre. 2007. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider. New York: Ten Speed Press, 53-59.