Cutting Edge

Nick Pinkerton on “The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14”

J. P. Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn, People’s Park, 2012, color, sound, 75 minutes.

CHINESE MONEY, implicitly or explicitly, has become a major factor at the contemporary multiplex—hacked Sony e-mails revealed a round of anxious self-censoring before the Adam Sandler vehicle Pixels began shooting, while Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation arrived in cinemas with the stamp of the government-run Chinese Movie Channel among its many sponsors. It remains to be seen how recent economic tremors will impact investment in movies, but for now investors seem eager to throw yuan into film projects—so long, that is, as they aren’t Chinese independent cinema.

In contrast to the emergence of China as a box-office force there is the star-crossed fate of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, founded in 2004 by Li Xianting, an art critic and curator. In 2012, when the festival’s ninth edition was held in the far eastern artist-community suburb of Songzhuang, a suspicious power outage interrupted the opening screening, forcing organizers to carry on in a jerry-rigged theater in their offices. The following year, only three of the festival’s nine venues were able to run more or less according to schedule, while the website for the Li Xianting Film Fund, the event’s organizing entity, went offline abruptly. Not even a pretext of soft authority was maintained on the occasion of the next announced fest, in August 2014. Already the Li Xianting Film School workshop, whose participants supply a great deal of the material screened at BIFF, had been forced to operate clandestinely, and when the time came for the festival to begin, cops backed up by plainclothes “villagers” blocked spectator entry to the Film Fund’s offices, confiscating cell phones and cameras. Li was forced to sign a statement asserting that no fest would be held that year, along with organizer Fan Rong and artistic director Wang Hongwei, a star of several films by the acclaimed (and embattled) Jia Zhangke, including A Touch of Sin (2013). All of this is in keeping with a concerted effort to discourage filmmaking outside of official channels from screening either at home or abroad, so preventing the emergence of more problematic high-profile artists like Jia. There was no rescheduling, and the BIFF has not been held since.

Of course Li and his compatriots would like their festival to be known for its films rather than its persecution, and it is here that the in absentia “Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14” program hopes to be of service. It is made up of screenings scattered across multiple New York City venues, beginning at Anthology Film Archives and then continuing to satellite events at Asia Society, the Maysles Cinema, Union Docs, and other participants. The program was selected by formerly Beijing-based critic and curator Shelley Kraicer; Karin Chien, whose dGenerate films has been instrumental in distributing the best of mainland Chinese cinema in the US; and J. P. Sniadecki, whose documentary The Iron Ministry opens in New York on August 21 and who has two films on the bill of fare, his collaboration with Huang Xiang and Xu Ruotao, Yumen (2013), at AFA, and People’s Park (2012), at Asia Society.

To select a “Best of . . . ” would seem to be a daunting task; in both 2012 and 2013, the BIFF showed over one hundred films, while the 2014 edition was meant to host seventy-six premieres. (Alongside Chinese independent films, the BIFF plays films from around the world, with an especial preference for films from developing nations.) The program encompasses documentary, narrative, experimental, and, in a program at the Museum of Chinese in America on Centre Street, animated works, showcasing a variety of regional dialects: not only Mandarin but Cantonese, Hunan, Sichuanese, Shandong, and Gansu.

While China has jumped into the art market both feet first, it has been considerably more circumspect when it comes to film festivals—not only is noncommercial cinema difficult to respectably monetize, it has historically been regarded as a potentially destabilizing medium: not art, but propaganda. The threat BIFF poses is one of alternative history, manifest in the festival’s commitment to documentary, amassed in an archive which was purportedly seized by the Chinese officials. In some cases this is a means of restoring a connection to the prerevolutionary world, as in Wen Hui’s Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories (2012), in which the filmmaker interviews her eighty-three-year-old great-aunt, who candidly recounts, seemingly without bitterness, both her suffering as a child bride in prerevolutionary China and the daily abuse she faced as the daughter of landowners in the postrevolutionary People’s Republic, a real worst-of-both-worlds existence.

Yang Mingming, Female Directors, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 43 minutes.

Third Grandmother’s Stories plays with a testimony from another generation, Yang Mingming’s Female Directors (2012), a rough-hewn, rambunctious, and endearingly convoluted selfie mockumentary in which the filmmaker costars as one of two recent film school graduates on the hustle in Beijing who discover that they’ve been sharing the same benefactor/boyfriend. Along with Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone (2011), a remarkably poised, redolent autobiographical work in which the filmmaker re-creates the vivid textures of her girlhood in Hunan Province and the body shame endemic to the culture in which she was raised, it makes for a strong program of films that explore the degree to which equality between the sexes has remained a lip-serviced ideal in Chinese society. (Egg and Stone screens in a one-off at the Made in NY Media Center in DUMBO on August 17.)

Luo Li’s Emperor Visits the Hell (2012), like Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories, endeavors to connect present to past—in this case the sixteenth century. The narrative is drawn from the early chapters of Wu Cheng’en’s Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, which tells of the monk Xuanzang’s importing of Buddhist sutras from India and has been the subject of countless adaptations, including a lavish forthcoming Chinese-American coproduction directed by Zhang Jinlai. Luo’s approach is to defamiliarize the material by radically banalizing it, the stuff of myth made to reflect a contemporary culture of cronyism, currying favor, covering up mismanagement, passing the buck, and greasing palms. In Luo’s hands the Dragon King (Mai Dian) becomes a petty gangster and Taizong Emperor Li Shimin (Li Wen) a stout bureaucrat who, at the film’s close, is seen breaking his character over a bibulous dinner, mouthing off about China as a peasant society that needs enlightenment.

Among the principal attractions of Emperor Visits the Hell is Jie Ren’s grisaille black-and-white digital cinematography, equaled by that of Wang Xiaozhen’s queasy comedy Around that Winter (2013), the story of a young man’s homecoming in rural Shandong with his girlfriend in tow, and a film that announces a comic sensibility so bizarre and hyperspecific that you can’t help but respect it. Wang, it seems, is determined to advance his narrative almost but not quite exclusively in scenes of bodily functions, including sex and—more frequently—bathroom breaks. The blessing and curse of mainland Chinese independent filmmaking is that it is, inasmuch as anything can be today, the product of a hermit culture, hemmed in by the Great Firewall of China and a hostile government, forced to feel things out for itself in the relative absence of existing models to emulate. This breeds genuine eccentrics, always in short supply—you’d have to be a little cracked to take on these odds.

“Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14” runs August 7–September 13 at Anthology Film Archives, Asia Society, Maysles Cinema, the Museum of Chinese in America, and UnionDocs.