Homecoming, Postsocialist Memory, and Subjects:
On the 9th Reel China Biennial

By Qi Wang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2020)

Figure 1

The Reel China Biennial is an independent Chinese film and documentary screening series that was inaugurated in 2001. In November 2019, New York University hosted its 9th edition, co-curated by NYU professors Zhang Zhen (张真) and Angela Zito (司徒安) along with Wang Xiaolu (王小鲁), a leading critic of independent film in China (fig. 1).[1] As in the past, this most recent program is fresh and comprehensive. It showcases twelve films created after 2015. Among those, nine are from 2018, and six are of feature length, going over ninety minutes each.

24th Street (24号大街, dir. Pan Zhiqi 潘志琪, 2018), a nominee for the Best Documentary at the 55th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, observes the vagabond life of Su and Qin, a couple nearing retirement age who have lived together out of wedlock for over two decades (fig. 2). The two make a living by running makeshift restaurants to feed fellow migrant workers on construction sites, the latter a common sight in and near cities such as Hangzhou, where the first part of the film is set, due to the massive urbanization unfolding in China. Without a license and at the mercy of shifting conditions that range from weather and location to the police, the hardworking Su and Qin know distress and failure only too well. With their investment turning fruitless once again, they decide to return to their native Guizhou province and perhaps settle down there.

Figure 2

The director’s observational camera follows the couple home and in the second half of the film we discover the lovers’ predicament and an embedded reason for their vagabond state: Su’s wife and grown-up kids bear deep grudges against his affair and neglect over the years. They refuse to satisfy his fantasy that Qin, divorced and at the mercy of her own relatives’ whims, comes to live with the family as a sort of concubine. Urbanization is going madly in Guizhou as well, but Su is nowhere close to being able to purchase an apartment home for Qin. Finding themselves the target of complaints, pity, and rejection, the lovers, aging and disenfranchised, are soon on the road again. The film ends with a parenthetical echo to its opening: Su and Qin are seen in the laboring process of building yet another transient home with the meager possessions and objects they manage to scrape together. They turn a nondescript open field into a bedchamber by putting up a makeshift bed in its midst. Surrounding the bed are two stools, a bucket, and Su’s favorite item of luxury, a red bathtub, all plastic.

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In addition to the hapless and hopeless homecoming in 24th Street, the theme of home—associated both with notions of spatial solidity and emotional solidarity and with their absence—runs across a number of films. In Turtle Rock (团鱼岩, dir. Xiao Xiao 萧潇, 2017) and No Land (冬日回家, dir. Zhang Ping 张苹, 2015), the directors set the camera on their ancestral villages and record the life of close family members in the community (figs. 3 and 4). Stylistically, the black-and-white Turtle Rock offers an immersive experience for the spectator: slow long takes, both static and gently flowy ones, allow what appears at first as an objective observation on the daily life in a remote village to transform into a touching contemplation infused with intimacy, nostalgia, wonderment, and concern. At the end of Daxing Is On Fire (大兴失火, dir. Chen Jiaping 陈家坪, 2018), Li Zhiyong, a migrant worker from outside of Beijing, has to leave the capital due to the overwhelming challenge of finding an affordable dwelling (fig. 5). Rooms for rent have become extremely scarce and exorbitantly expensive following the city government’s mass eviction of migrant workers, which was done under the pretext of safety and security, an expedient but heartless official response to a fire in November 2017 that broke out and killed many in a low-rent building found in Daxing, a district in suburban Beijing hosting a huge community of migrant workers. Li bids adieu to his buddies in the logistics business—they used to deliver goods to Beijing—and starts heading for home: his aging parents, wife, and two young kids await him in Hebei province where livelihood remains uncertain.

Homecoming in temporal terms, or the idea of returning to an earlier and familiar experience, appears in a number of films about socialist history and memory. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) stands out as the single most important shaping factor in the lives of a number of Chinese subjects in these films. Xu Tong (徐童), a filmmaker who once caused a major controversy for his apparent failure to acquire full informed consent from his subjects in Wheat Harvest (麦收, 2008)—including a young sex-worker, her customers, friends, and family—brings to the biennial a highly energetic and intriguing documentary: Barefoot Doctor (赤脚医生, 2018) (fig. 6).[2] The film offers a dialogical portrait of Sun Lizhe (孙立哲), one of the five “model zhiqing” authorized by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1974. Zhiqing is shorthand for “zhishi qingnian” (知识青年, intellectual youth), referring to the millions of college and high school students, many former Red Guards, who were sent to the countryside or remote regions of China to be reeducated by the proletariat and peasants. In addition to its ideological purpose, this national policy was also a way to channel the excessive and frequently violent energies of the Red Guards and to abate the challenge of the economic placement of the unemployed young.

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As the revolutionary-minded son of a persecuted intellectual father, who held a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sun, although fresh out of high school, established a legendary reputation for himself as a sort of demigod capable of curing anyone of anything. Backed by a fantastic combination of exceptional intellectual faculties, a charismatic daredevil spirit that does not shy away from any task demanded of him, and what sounds like sheer good luck, Sun had been able to perform effective diagnoses and successful operations of all kinds on the local peasants despite having had zero education or training in medicine. One famous jaw-dropping episode in his legendary life as a barefoot doctor—the term referring to basic health providers and minimally trained doctors in poor and remote villages—is that he once had to manually remove placenta from inside a uterus when a peasant woman was experiencing dystocia. In the eyes of the authorities, Sun’s unlikely story became a perfect example of the magic educational power of ideological devotion and proletarian love, a wonderful rebuttal to bourgeois intellectuals’ belief in formal education and professional training. Xu’s Barefoot Doctor is a postrevolutionary and postmodern text that weaves together discrete materials into an uneven yet lucid portrait of a historical icon.

Moving between past and present and between Sun and others, the film uses archival footage of the Cultural Revolution, excerpts from existent documentaries, such as an official piece on Sun Lizhe from 1975 and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Ko, Cina (1972, Italy), interviews of Sun and friends, and observational sequences of Sun’s revisit to a village in Shanxi province in 2014 where the locals still hold him in loving memory. The film demonstrates an undeniable excessive reliance on Antonioni’s famous film for Xu’s own dramatic expressive purpose. For instance, multiple shots of Chinese villagers shying away from Antonioni’s curious observational camera are recycled to suggest people’s caution and reticence or Sun’s own helplessness when losing political favor in the latter years of the Cultural Revolution. Frequently, images and moments from Chung Ko, Cina or other unidentified archival footage serve as visual fillers for interviews with Sun and his friends. Such pairing of image and sound is a common strategy in documentary, but Xu does not stop at the level of facile correspondence. The editing is fast, precise, and certainly manipulative, the emotional energy of which rises to what Xu chooses to call “bacchanal.” Critics such as Zhang Zhen (New York University) and Ying Qian (Columbia University) have observed the affinity of this “bacchanal” strain to the director’s writing. Xu apparently demonstrates a comparable tendency for the vernacular and the folkloric in his fiction writing.

In Barefoot Doctor, Xu does not hesitate to repeat the same excerpts—such as a shot of intellectual youth engaged in labor—with excessive frequency, resulting in defamiliarization and a kind of postmodernist reflexivity exercised through citation and pastiche. Hyper repetition also characterizes the film’s soundtrack: Xu plays and replays a guitar movement borrowed from Frieda (dir. Julie Taymor, 2002, US), the fast and excited rhythm of which works surprisingly well in various sequences.[3] As explained by Xu, the hyper rhythm of Barefoot Doctor also has to do with the impressive energy of its central subject, Sun Lizhe, who moves fast, speaks fast, thinks clearly “like lightning,” and shows unfailing care for the villagers and their families. The contemporary footage in the film shows Sun being received and surrounded by acquaintances in the village, the latter singing praise of their returned life-saver in improvised folk songs and bringing in hordes of family members to once again benefit from Sun’s medical skills. As in the old days, Sun offers tireless service: he does free diagnoses and gives away medications brought back from the US, where he now lives.

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Dance on the Square (广场上的舞蹈, dir. Kang Shiwei 康世伟, 2018) focuses on three Cultural Revolution contemporaries of Sun Lizhe: three seniors in their sixties and seventies dance and exercise nightly on a public square in Chengdu (fig. 7). This “dance on the square” phenomenon is a common scene in Chinese cities, often interpreted as a contemporary residue of socialist collective culture. Known for its violent struggle sessions, big-character posters, loyalty dances with “skyward” gestures of admiration, the Cultural Revolution was an era full of crazed crowd performances.[4] Four decades later, the former Red Guards have aged and retired. To maintain physical as well as mental stamina, many of them revive their previous ideological performances in the context of China’s present-day commodity culture: while a variety of familiar revolutionary songs and tunes are still among the favorites to which they dance and exercise, the repertoire available to them is highly eclectic, often including international standard ballroom waltzes, tangos, and rumbas. Dance on the Square organizes its material in a conventional manner, ricocheting among the three selected figures and creating a composite portrait of a grizzled revolutionary generation through interviews, scenes of their current life, and photos or drawings from their pasts. The three subjects all speak of the Cultural Revolution with amazement as well as criticism, acknowledging the era’s shaping power on their lives. Images of their present life form the bulk of the documentary, grounding each remembrance of the past in the warm and poignant texture of the present. The seventy-three-year-old Mr. Xiong is a devoted dancer with a magnificent physique and great dance moves. He spends each day taking care of his centenarian father with love and sometimes exasperation. Mr. Zhou, who prefers doing headstands over dancing, has been planning to pay a visit to his first love. He succeeds in doing that, visits her and her husband, and brings her the many sketches he drew of her when they were in love during the Cultural Revolution. In her turn, the celibate Ms. Yin was once a stout believer in Maoism as well. She began to have second thoughts after witnessing how her father was labelled an enemy of the revolution and was subjected to abuse. Currently, Yin is reviving her dream of becoming a more professional member in song and dance performances. We see her moving and dancing on a stage in the role of a Tibetan yak or a grove of Himalayan barley, the impression being that of another sort of propagandistic entertainment in which she plays, again, a dedicated yet negligible part. As part of an oral history project called “Family Spring Autumn” (家春秋口述历史计划), the chief value of Dance on the Square seems to lie in its content rather than form. The stories are assembled in an efficient and sufficient structure, but the three lives largely remain parallel and separate, which prevents the full weight of the material from becoming more transformative or inspiring to our understanding of history and memory, meaning and form.

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In Character (入戏, dir. Tracy Dong 董雪萤, 2018) seems like a direct and perfect response to Dance on the Square and provides a much more complex, actually disturbing, occasion for a profound reflection on the role of the past in the present (fig. 8). A behind-the-scenes documentary, In Character follows the production of Songs of the Youth 1969 (记得少年那首歌, dir. Ye Jing 叶京, 2016), an autobiographical film based on the director’s own life as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution—Ye was born in 1957—a theme that readily reminds one of Jiang Wen’s much earlier feature film, In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子, 1994).[5] Songs of the Youth 1969 managed to finish production and did a test screening in November 2016. With an original length running over four hours and for reasons not entirely clear except for exhausting its budget, Ye’s film seemed stuck in distribution limbo. Focusing on an early stage of the film’s making—the selection and training of the actors—In Character reveals a macabre process of performative immersion in revolutionary ideology and media. The result is so effective that we witness on screen the eerie and disturbing transformation of the young actors as they interiorize teachings and practices of the revolutionary past—an effect that the seniors in Dance on the Square have once lived and now recall with much dismay.

Mostly in their twenties, the actors are sent to an abandoned munitions factory nested in a remote village in Sichuan province. They are to live there in seclusion for a period. Phones and iPads are collected at the start of the camp training, and they are allowed about five minutes per week to place a phone call to their families. The daily regiment is in military style, with the goal of immersing the actors in the historical atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution to prepare them for filming. Unsurprisingly, the location is covered with revolutionary slogans and Maoist posters, some old and inherited from the location itself, some new and added by the crew. One actress is advised to put away her cute wool hat, despite the damp chilly winter in southwestern China, because its contemporary look is distractingly incongruous with the revolutionary era that defines the film and their current dwelling. The actors are like guinea pigs in a peculiar historical and ideological lab. Clad in Red Guard attire, such as green military uniforms, they live their daily lives like the seniors in Dance on the Square did in the past, studying the Little Red Book (a collection of Mao’s sayings) and singing revolutionary songs.

It gradually beomes apparent to the audience that the way the director controls his actors imitates in disturbing ways the power practices of Mao Zedong. Not on site to train with the actors and unavailable for any direct communication due to the confiscation of cellphones, the director Ye Jing exerts rather absolute power from a mystical distance and gives directions and orders by proxy through an assistant director who, although not much older than the actors, appears astoundingly versed in revolutionary discourse. In the documentary, Ye is seen only once at the camp to inspect the effects of this immersive training. The climax, which builds up like a gradual and deep chill, begins after Ye leaves. Apparently, seeing the director’s satisfaction with their training, a young actor cast for a character named Jiang Siyuan takes the liberty to ask the director for a favor: he wants to leave the camp for a few days in order to visit his family for some urgent personal business. Already departed, Ye nevertheless communicates to his assistant director on site that the camp should hold “struggle sessions” to discuss the matter: the actor’s behavior—namely his petition for family leave—is considered inappropriate, frivolous, and a flouting of the rules that have been followed so perfectly thus far. The assistant director supervises the sessions, and at one point, a female production coordinator or assistant producer flies in from Beijing and joins the campaign, functioning, or performing, as an investigator dispatched from above. One by one, the actors at the struggle sessions become visibly broken under the almost surreal stress and manipulation. Using condemning political language with an emotional vehemence that sounds all too familiar from accounts of the actual Cultural Revolution, they take turns to criticize their unfortunate cohort who appears at first confused and by the end completely defeated.

In terms of political indictment, this small professional-in-training group replaces “revolution” with “film” as the absolute higher mission when exercising verbal violence in ways disturbingly similar to that of the Red Guards. For them, the film (that is, Songs of the Youth 1969) has absolute supremacy over individual desire, and any deviance from its realization—such as a request for family leave—is selfish and wrong. While it is ironic that their defense of the film’s importance is motivated by each actor’s professional ambition in a market economy—that the film be accomplished and they realize their various dreams of achievement and fame—the struggle sessions feel like an anachronistic bad dream from the past. Condemnations are thrown, arms are raised, and tears are shed. At the end of these sessions, the participants demonstrate yet another round of thoughtless adaptability: they decide to name the unfortunate actor’s poor attempt at personal freedom as the “Jiang Siyuan Incident,” thus following a typical Cultural Revolution maneuver of discursive hyperbole to justify ensuing political violence. Made to stand in front of a poster of Mao, “Jiang” is ordered to wear a dunce cap with his name on it and then incant ten times: “I’m wrong! I’m wrong! I’m wrong! . . .”

The documentary ends with a suggestion that the actor in question has to leave the film project, the expression of loss and sadness on his and his friends’ faces at his departure indicating that he very likely will not be returning for shooting. Through a strictly observational camera and a tight editing that never diverts from the central event once arrived in its middle, the documentarian Tracy Dong meant this “concise and pithy” presentation to be a sort of documentary “fist.”[6] In Character captures the actors’ camp as a peculiar lab in which an ideological education is revived under the pretext of prepping for a fictional movie and proves itself, to the alarm and even horror of many in the audience, to be still effective and still relevant should the conditions of history change. The documentary is a compelling cautionary tale about the dangerous alliance between insulation and mind control and the alarming affinity between autocracy and collectivism.

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Han Tao (韩涛), a painter and filmmaker based in Shandong province, brings Weave a Period of Time (岁月如织, 2018), a feature-length experimental film that provides a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to the biennial (fig. 9). With its story about socialist factory workers and a quiet elegance in the composition of many a shot, the film readily reminds one of Jia Zhangke’s (贾樟柯) 24 City (二十四城记, 2008) or Platform (站台, 2000). However, Han proves to be in possession of a highly unique cinematic vision of his own.

According to Wang Xiaolu, one of the biennial’s curators, the past decade saw an apparent downturn in the production of Chinese independent film, but Han’s elaborate experimentation stands out as a rare and precious accomplishment. The downturn is largely due to two factors: first, official interferences have caused a serious interruption of leading exhibition and communication platforms, such as the independent film festivals in Beijing and Nanjing; second, the fast growth in China’s commercial film industry has lured away a number of independent practitioners. Various documentary filmmakers who were present at the biennial also mentioned the heavy-handed influence from certain international funding resources and broadcasting venues in the form of demanding cuts for better marketability. 24th Street is an example in point: partly at the advice or request of NHK, Japan’s leading broadcasting organization that owns a number of television channels, Pan Zhiqi had to cut a younger couple from his original conception and footage, choosing instead to focus only on Su and Qin for easier narrative clarity. Pan wondered whether it was a “good” thing to do that and concluded that perhaps it was “not so good.” In his attempt to protect creative autonomy, Xu Tong has been going to the extreme of staying away from documentary fundraising conferences altogether so as to avoid the pressure and control coming from certain sources of capital funding. The only funding source listed in his Barefoot Doctor is Guyu (谷雨) , a non-profit organization run by Tencent, China’s leading Internet conglomerate. Devoting itself to the promotion and production of non-fiction works, Guyu, according to Xu, has a wonderfully hands-off policy and allows him to work with complete freedom.

As the director of Weave a Period of Time, Han Tao seems more blessed in a way because, as a successful painter, he is able to be his own boss. With seventeen films under his belt so far, he has been able to support sixteen of these with money solely from the sales of his own paintings. That financial freedom, along with what sounds like a moderate and flexible mode of filmmaking commensurate with available production resources, allows Han to realize his vision. Weave a Period of Time is a perfect illustration of the profound and refreshing reflection on Chinese history that can emerge when filmmakers have artistic freedom. Staging a story about socialist proletariat in the 1970s that involves romance, jealousy, scandal, damage, and regret, the film breaks a number of boundaries, such as those between past and present, fiction and nonfiction, realism and performativity, silence and sound.

Chong’er is a worker in a textile factory. He is in love with a beautiful co-worker Xiao Lan. After rounds of courtship, they get married and live happily together. Soon Xiao Lan becomes pregnant, but Chong’er comes under arrest at that point. A female co-worker accuses him of rape and she has a male co-worker as witness. With the social atmosphere before the reform era being highly sensitive to sexual scandals and the misfortune of the case occurring in a period when the government has hardened its attacks on crimes, Chong’er is speedily sentenced to death and executed. Years later, the accusers confess that they lied out of jealousy and spite—Chong’er was innocent. Sad and defeated, Xiao Lan, now aged and childless (she had an abortion following the advice of a senior worker), drags through daily life carrying the weighty memory of her beloved late husband.

Han’s presentation of a rather melodramatic story is anything but conventional. While the main story has a chronological order, the texture of the film surrounding this linear plot is thick and eclectic, giving an aesthetic and historical mass to the central story of love and loss. This is largely done with many formally innovative reenactments of historical time and mnemonic space. For instance, the primary setting of the film is an abandoned factory from the socialist era. Instead of renovating the space for a conventional and clean kind of dramatic realism, Han leaves the factory in its current state of dilapidation and ruin. All performances of work and life in the socialist past take place on this site, in silent dialogue with dark corridors and dusty workshops, abandoned machines and nondescript tools, and various memorabilia in fragments and as leftovers. Dust is everywhere, so are piles of trash. From objects to sites, traces from the past are retained and presented as they are, and in their midst are inserted fictional human reenactments: the actors and their moves. The conflation of existentially incongruent elements—such as the real location and performative dances—feels surreal and powerful: one senses the cracks in time and memory when seeing the actors, dressed as socialist workers, move around the dust-covered old machines in silent, dancelike uniformity. A peculiar treatment of sound and silence is applied to the entirety of the love story; Chong’er and Xiao Lan conduct their romance in mime. They eat non-existent food from non-existent containers, ride non-existent bicycles, dance under non-existent lights, smile with hushed happiness, and holler in silent excitement. The factory environment and the performing bodies form the defining spatiality of the film, while all actions and conversations are mute and take up a phantom-like quality.

In addition, performances of a non-diegetic kind provide a poetic register, functioning a bit like the textual citations that appear in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City but in a more integral manner.[7] Intriguingly, many of these performances seem largely inspired by German expressionist cinema: the opening long take of the film shows files of workers dimly progressing through a long corridor, the choreographed uniformity of their movement reminding one of similar mechanic movements of dispirited workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). A number of unaccounted-for shots of naked figures, mostly male, punctuate the film; these lifeless bodies are seen strewn around the factory, their poses very deliberate and usually in imitation of the shape of a nearby object such as a lopsided chair, an abandoned tool, a machine part, etc., thus forming a highly expressionistic correspondence between figure and setting. The metaphor of such a design is obvious: humans have been spent and forgotten like objects in the industrial space where both once existed and were useful.

Across the two lines of development—the silent fictional romance of Chong’er and Xiao Lan and the deathly poetic commentary offered by the anonymous, symbolic naked bodies—time seems to move on with poignant ignorance. This last concept is communicated through the ubiquitous progression of workers, starting from the opening shot mentioned above. The uniformed workers march, clapping hands and stomping forward in rhytmic unison. It becomes clear that their eyes all look closed, and their unstoppable yet blind march suggests a disturbing ignorance and ruthlessness that marks history, time, and perhaps people too. Collective blindness continues after the worker group becomes updated with younger Chinese wearing colorful contemporary outfits; the latter pass by Xiao Lan, who is now old and still doing menial labor in the factory. In the cart that she pushes around, we find Chong’er, his body silent and bent and accompanying her everywhere. The young people file past the couple, at the same rate and with the same blindness as the workers before them.

Blind and mute, the army of workers passes through the fictionalized past as well as the non-fictional present. Weave a Period of Time closes with interviews of three contemporary worker households, the first being a retired senior who lives alone on a minimal pension and still believes in the path set by Mao Zedong and the CCP, the other two being fuller and younger families that also live in the factory compound. Across their living spaces, which are filled with traces of and memorabilia from the socialist past—much like the mise-en-scène in 24 City—the surreal march of the blind workers continues, clapping and stepping, indifferent yet relevant. One specific icon of the problematic, even guilty, past is the senior worker who once advised Xiao Lan on her abortion. Although a fictional character, the old man is placed in these real worker homes, much like a prop, and his eyes, too, are closed. Han concludes his film with an image that repeats the rich layering in structure and meaning: Xiao Lan and the old man are seen talking at the end of a path, perhaps a flashback to her much-regretted consultation with the old man about the abortion. In the foreground to the right, naked bodies of dead workers—obviously Chong’er and his equivalents—are strewn on and hang from a huge pine tree, offering a macabre comment on the violence and ruthlessness of history.

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Apart from homecoming in both spatial and historical terms, the biennial featured a third category that includes two documentaries and one short fictional piece devoted to LGBTQ activism and subjectivity in China. Life of a Woman (我要活着, dir. Dajing 大京) is a portrait film of Sisi, a young transgender female Christian from Beijing who narrates and debates her ongoing journey of finding her many roles in social, familial, and professional terms (fig. 10). Energetic and contradictory at times, this young spirit speaks about herself in multiple voices and at multiple venues: as female and male, through monologue, public speech, and theatrical performance, looking both vulnerable and determined in her effort at self-definition. Fan Popo (范坡坡), a young gay filmmaker and activist famous for making Mama Rainbow (彩虹伴我心, 2012), a heartwarming documentary about the parents of gay Chinese joining in the LGBTQ movement, brings Drum Tower (鼓楼西, 2018), an eighteen-minute fictional piece follows the lives of two characters (fig. 11).

Figure 11

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A teenage boy living with a busy single parent plays truant from school and encounters Miss Mi, an attractive transgender woman who owns a hole-in-wall fashion shop in an alley in Beijing. The area, however, is to be wiped out soon due to the government’s policy of modernizing the urban landscape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two develop a romantic fancy for each other and one day they disappear. Through animation and special effects, it is suggested that they either step into or fly beyond a colorfully painted wall, a naïve metaphor about transcendence that nevertheless feels touching for its innocence and poignance. The third piece in the group, Block and Censor (一次网络视屏管理, dir. Chen Ahwei 陈啊炜, 2018), documents Fan Popo’s experience of dealing with media censorship (fig. 12). In December 2014, Fan realizes that his documentary Mama Rainbow has been mysteriously removed from multiple Chinese websites. Unable to hear a satisfying clarification or restore the documentary anywhere online within China, Fan starts a legal proceeding against SARFT, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, the official body supervising the Chinese media industry, including exercising censorship. His attempts come to no avail and repeatedly result in indirect responses. Step by step, the documentary shows the inquiries, proceedings, discussions, and written responses from the authorities in a straightforward, chronological manner, fully communicating the frustration of Fan and his lawyer.

A salient impression gathered from all these three films is the clear and confident, although sometimes also vulnerable, subject status of the various LGBTQ individuals. Often using a centered composition focusing on the face or body of an LGBTQ protagonist, the films tend to adopt a performative mode and encourage a featured subject to announce their self-image, verbally and visually, with engaging eloquence. Sisi is intelligent and thoughtful, warm and considerate, believing that an honest representation of her own identity search forms a “contribution to social equality and justice.” The charming Miss Mi in Drum Tower, played by a transgender actress, is given a central and prolonged close-up in which she paints her lips and face with red lipstick. While the lighting on her in this shot is quite expressionistic—her painted face emerging bright and dramatic in contrast with the surrounding darkness—and thus suggests an uneasy and sad vulnerability, the teenager’s friendly gaze at her and the many affirmative point-of-view shot/reverse-shot pairings help to balance a little that passive image of Miss Mi. After all, at the end, the two take a leap together over the wall or “rainbow.” Certainly, Fan Popo’s persistent pursuit of legal means against a government body—the process, although frustrating, contains some funny moments—is one of the many invaluable efforts of the LGBTQ community in engaging mainstream society with confidence, courage, and wit.

Figure 13

Another prominent Chinese subject to appear as the central character of a film is Ye Yun, a person of short stature living in the city of Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. As the only documentary in the biennial that has been released in movie theaters in China, Mr. Big (大三儿, dir. Tong Shengjia 佟晟嘉, 2018) follows Ye Yun in his daily life to see how he might realize a dream: pay a visit to Tibet (fig. 13). Ye works as a custodian in a copper company and is the only remaining son of an aging father. He has never married. A huge amount of screen time is spent on the debating and hesitating shared by Ye and his close friend, the latter being an experienced traveler and having a deep love for pristine lakes like those found in Tibet. Their main concern is whether Ye’s physique would allow him to handle altitude sickness, which can be strenuous even for a person of normal stature. After numerous consultations and medical exams, Ye hits the road, despite the uncertainties. The denouement is encouraging and the ending is happy: except for occasional difficulties, Ye thoroughly enjoys his journey. He succeeds in climbing up to the Potala Palace in Lhasa and also arrives at the Himalayan base camp to take in a view of Mt. Everest from afar. The film’s observational camera is close enough to capture many intimate interactions between friends, co-workers, and family. Despite the many sad things in life—both of Ye’s elder brothers have been killed in traffic accidents, for example, which accounts for his father’s premonitions about his travelling to Tibet—Ye and those in his life continue to show an amazing spirit for life and fun as well as genuine care for each other. Joining the many other and different subjects and stories screened at the 9th Reel China Biennial, Ye, or Mr. Big, offers a bright note about the curiosity and resilience of the human spirit that transcends national boundaries.

Qi Wang
School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology


[1] All the images used in this essay are from the biennial website, see https://tisch.nyu.edu/cinema-studies/events/fall-2019/reel-china-2019 (accessed 2020-06-15). Unless otherwise noted, all remarks by filmmakers, scholars, and critics are collected from the Q&A sessions during the biennial.

[2] In 2012, Ying Qian offered a lucid review of the heated debates that erupted at the 2011 Nanjing Independent Film Festival (中国独立影像年度展) between academics and filmmakers on ethics and documentary. She begins her essay with a discussion of the controversy over Xu Tong’s Wheat Harvest, see, Ying Qian, “Just Images: Ethics and Documentary Film in China.” For a highly informative discussion of Wheat Harvest in Chinese, also written by Qian, see, 钱颖, “在江湖社会的秩序和道德里行走” (Walking in the Order and Ethics of the Jianghu Sub-society), 开放时代 (Open Times), vol. 2 (2012).

[3] The ending credits of Barefoot Doctor admit this debt to Chung Ko, Cina and Frieda. The production team explains its temporary inability to solve the copyright process and invites the copyright holders of these two films to contact the director.

[4] Li Zhengsheng (李振盛), an important photographer whose work keeps an invaluable record of the Cultural Revolution, notices that the movements in the loyalty dance “were always toward the sky,” see, Jennifer Lin, “Dancing for Mao.” For Li’s photography, see, Li Zhensheng, Red-Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey through the Cultural Revolution, edited by Robert Pledge and introduced by Jonathan D. Spence (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003).

[5] For a thorough discussion of In the Heat of the Sun, its relationship with socialist memory, as well as Jiang Wen’s other films in that context, see Qi Wang, Memory, Subjectivity and Independent Chinese Cinema (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 71-86, 185-190.

[6] For an interview with the director Tracy Dong on In Character, see, AotujingDOC (凹凸镜DOC), “ ‘文革实验’:为了入戏, 这群演员回到了疯狂的1969” (Cultural Revolution Experiment: To Be In Character These Actors Returned to the Crazy 1969).

[7] For a critique of 24 City, see, Qi Wang, “The Recalcitrance of Reality: Performances, Subjects, and Filmmakers in 24 City and Tape,” in Zhang Zhen and Angela Zito, eds., DV-Made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations after Independent Film (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015), 215-236. It happens that Li Ning (李凝), the choreographer and director of Tape, has a long collaborative friendship with Han Tao. Two out of the many performative sequences in Weave a Period of Time are credited to Li Ning, one of which is the utterly beautiful and imaginative love chase between Chong’er and Xiao Lan as they run under flowering trees in slow motion.