‘Amateur’ Auteurs

By Rob Dennis

meishi-street-ou-ning-coa-fei.jpgMeishi Street, 2008

Three impressive recent works from China display a striking digital dissent

“The return of the amateur film era is just around the corner,” wrote a buoyant Jia Zhang-ke back in 1998. In a manifesto style tirade against what he saw as the professional standards of filmmaking in modern China, Jia’s hugely influential article called for a new ‘ethics and truthfulness’ in cinema, one that could be reached only through independence from the state run industry. “I feel close to the amateurs. Their approach stems from a belief in equality and justice. They have a sincere interest in life and genuine empathy toward normal people.” Ten years on, Jia’s international reputation may be firmly established, but his own claims to true independence have been fettered by compromise (since the early part of the decade Jia has submitted his films for government clearance) However, in his wake, filmmakers and videographers have responded to Jia's call to arms, sidestepping interference from authority to produce works of genuine independence.

Jia's late nineties optimism stemmed, in all likelihood, from the arrival of mini-dv. With previous home-recording technology never really taking hold in Chinese society, it is perhaps here, in the land where most are produced, that this new affordable and small device may well have had its most profound influence. In three contemporary works we can see how this visual technology has aided and abetted the moulding of a new amateur aesthetic, something akin to the amateur future that Jia foresaw. Mid Afternoon Barks, Fujian Blue (co-recipients of the 2007 Dragons and Tigers Award at the Vancouver Film festival) and Meishi Street exist, to some degree, as responses to this change in independent production. Evidently differing in style and form, all three address the social and psychological impact of China's economic rise, and offer alternately satirical and impassioned comment on the realities of living through an economic miracle.

Meishi Street

Meishi Street
is a documentary assembled by artists and curators Ou Ning and Coa Fei as part of a larger research and film project about the Da Zha Lan district. It concerns one of the many redevelopments imposed on Beijing in the run up to the Olympics. Meishi Street, just a few km south of Tiananmen Sq, is condemned to demolition. Its residents, mindful of compensation as well as sentimental attachment, stage resistance. The piece begins as political reportage then shifts to a more authored, personal form, back to reportage, before finally flitting between the two with confident ease. The 'authored' sections of the film come from Zhang Jinli, a camcorder novice recording his ultimately futile battle with authority. Like Factory 420: the condemned building making way for luxury housing in Jia latest work 24 City (and the town of Fengjie in Jia’s previous feature Still Life), Zhang's family owned restaurant is to be forcibly de-listed from existence by government command.

Zhang is Jia's perfect 'amateur': eccentric and an inveterate show off, he uses his new found recording tool to capture the dramatic and the mundane – his increasingly desperate protests alongside perversely domestic episodes and other idiosyncratic antics. In many respects the work is similar to British artist John Smith's mid nineties video Home Suite, in which the affable author took us on a tour of his soon to be demolished Leytonstone house. But whilst forced relocation may be as evidenced in Western democracies as in totalitarian states, Ou Ning and Coa Fe's document tackles many of the explicitly Chinese facets of this global tale – most startlingly in the use of text banners (by both sides), laying out objections in clear script, and hung from seemingly every possible flat surface.

meishi-street-ou-ning-coa-fei-2.jpgMeishi Street, 2008

But it is the ever-present camcorder that remains the key weapon in this bureaucratic war. When the officials arrive to finally carry out their demolition work, a lackey wields his own hand held device, proving how such a 'democratic' technology is ultimately nothing of the sort. Finally we see Zhang, his camera held slack at his side, as the emotions of the event take hold.

Fujian Blue

Fujian Blue
, unlike the other works discussed and, indeed, unlike the majority of true 'independent' Chinese cinema, is presented - with a hint of arrogant determination - in colour 16mm. First time director Robin Weng's exacting use of material looks almost like an act of provocation; video plays its part in Fujian Blue, but Weng is clearly circumspect of the technology. Here the camcorders are in the hands of petty extortionists, secretly filming the sexual misadventures of lonely 'remittance widows' (wives of those who work abroad) in order to blackmail them for cash. This is amateur filmmaking taken to its most degrading conclusion.

The film is divided into two parts. In the first – ‘Neon Knights’ – we meet Amerika, Roppongi and their likely-lad followers, enjoying a decadent life of drink, drugs, girls and karaoke. These eastern ‘Mean Streets’ hoods clearly follow the western model. The characters in Robin Weng’s drama are some way from the melancholic, stunted adolescents of Jia’s early films Pickpocket and Platform. There is a real cynicism in their actions - a need not just to wear jeans and listen to punk, but for the full western nihilistic experience. A sad desperation seems behind their every move as they struggle to imagine the lives being led by their fathers and friends who have fled. Part two – ‘At Home, At Sea’ – follows Dragon, perhaps the most introspective of the group, returning to his home village in order to lay low after a gangland stabbing.

fujian-blue-robin-weng.jpgFujian Blue, 2007

Fujian province on the southeast coast of China, near the border with Taiwan, was among the first of the coastal provinces to be opened up to the wider world in response to Deng Xiaoping’s open door policies of the late seventies and early eighties. Its unique location has made Fujian a centre for both external emigration and internal migration, and as such has become, in the words of director Weng, ‘the nexus of a modern Chinese diaspora.’ Fujian Blue illustrates the social and psychological ramifications of the province’s strange flux.

Weng's film works well as a companion to Nick Broomfield’s 2006 docudrama Ghosts. That film, with its dramatised recreation of the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, detailed the lives of Fujian province emigrees, exploited - and eventually sacrificed - by both the Chinese 'snakehead' gangmasters and the British state. Blue is a missive from the other side, with shots of the protagonists looking out to sea (and at one point hallucinating a mirage of the London skyline) offering a mordant reminder of the tragedy. Yet the characters here are not suffering any abject poverty; they are lacking in self-belief rather than food. Escape to Britain, the US, Japan or wherever, would clearly offer immense economic benefits, but the need to flee seems as much psychological as financial.

Mid Afternoon Barks

Two men stand in a field smoking.

“Have you ever had this kind of dream before?” says one to the other.

“No, never.”

“We shouldn’t tell this to anyone else.”

“Of course. I never tell people things anyway.”

“Don’t tell your brother either.”

“Of course not. I don’t really like him.”

“I don’t like him either. He’s always so proud.”

“Sometimes he’s alright.”



“Does he smoke?”

“He does. He smokes quite a lot.”

This dialogue occurs mid way through Zhang Yuedong's debut video feature Mid Afternoon Barks. It is one of a few conversations, full of baffling non-sequiturs and deadpan surrealism, in Zhang’s otherwise mostly word-free work. Whether this scene itself is a dream, or the scenes preceding and succeeding it, is never made clear. Indeed, not much is.

A strange reverie in all its weirdly compulsive tedium, Zhang’s fragmentary and elliptical narrative manages to be infuriating and fascinating in equal measures. Like a zen Jacques Tati, Zhang writes, directs and stars. The piece is split into three separately titled sections. In the first, ‘The Village and the Stranger’, a man, probably a Shepherd (Zhang) arrives in a small makeshift village. Taking a room for the night, he finds himself sharing with another. The two have a disjointed conversation about the relative merits of driving cars over chopping wood. After they bed down for the night, a woman (the landlady?) enters and informs the two men that they must plant a pole before they sleep. The pair duly do as they are told and erect a wooden telegraph pole in a dark field. In the morning the Shepherd awakes and wanders around the village. The next section, ‘City Wood Repairman’, is, if anything, less intelligible, involving some more wood, some canal fishing, and some off-screen (and unexplained) gunshots. Finally, ‘Watermelon and Farmer’ concerns a street watermelon seller harassed by kids and intimidated by demanding customers, and finally moved along by some surveyors wanting to erect yet another pole.

The pop-Freudian symbolism is happily ever-present (cigarettes, snooker cues, cars going through tunnels, you name it), and Zhang's intelligent integration of DV's very flatness into his golden ratio framing only serves to heighten the lucid surreality of events. But aside from the ‘exquisite corpse’ feel of the work, Zhang has crafted a neat allegory of China’s breathless stride forward into hyper-modernity (with the final story of the put-upon melon seller being the most overtly parabolic.) The poles, however phallic, must equally symbolise the urgent, compulsive – and perhaps needless - construction that is literally changing the face of a country.

mid-afternoon-barks-zhang-yuedong.jpgMid-Afternoon Barks, 2007

The results of the recent swing in global economic fortunes for China's financial stability are clearly still not fully known, but with most forecasters predicting a sizeable downturn in growth, not least because of falling demand for products from the West, future narratives may well be needing to deal with the inverse effects of a potential slump: an empty 24 City; emigrees returning home to unfaithful wives (and no job.) What Jia feared back in 1998 was an encroaching homogeneity in Asian cultures, brought on by the forces of global capitalism, something clearly still of concern for the director as witnessed in the tale of a personal shopper in 24 City: the daughter of factory workers now buying clothes for the loaded but letharic ladies of China's ‘nouveaux riche’. Whilst these films illustrate the cultural and moral dangers of China’s surge into modernisation, all equally offer examples of impassioned dissent and defiant independence. With China sliding towards a globalised uniformity, these ‘amateur’ filmmakers break ranks with the traditional state apparatus and, in doing so, offer an ironic singularity in spite of their messages of global woe.

More information on Meishi Street and the Da Zha Lan project can be found at www.dazhalan-project.org

Rob Dennis is a film writer based in London.