An Alternative Top Ten

Chinese Independent Films of 2012

Most accounts of the last year in Chinese cinema are dominated by films that were made for the ever-expanding domestic box office, and the local film industry’s struggle for screen time in competition with Hollywood imports.

On the one hand, we read about Back to 1942, an historical epic about a bygone Chinese famine and the latest would-be blockbuster from perennial hit maker Feng Xiaogang and his longtime partners at the Huayi Brothers studio in Beijing. On the other hand, Chinese and now international media have been eager to report on the low-budget hit Lost in Thailand, which appeared out of the blue to claim the title of biggest Chinese-language movie hit in the short history of the nation’s modern box office.

What is absent from most stories of big-time cinema success in China is any mention, let alone celebration, of small-scale independent films. The aim of independent cinema seldom is to sell tickets. This is especially true in China, where independent films avoid or reject the censorship process the government requires to attain a longbiao, or local exhibition certificate.

Though China’s practitioners of independent film suffered in 2012, as festivals and conferences came under official pressure and often were canceled at the last minute, the informal sector nevertheless produced an impressive number of creative, beautiful, and moving new films whose existence should figure in any account in the year in Chinese movies. In honor of pictures mostly passed over by the press, here’s my alternative Top 10—a list of the best independent films China had to offer in 2012.

One documentary stands out from the rest: Three Sisters (三姊妹) by Wang Bing (王兵). Wang, China’s most important documentary filmmaker, shifts from the historical themes he has explored in the past in masterpieces such as West of the Tracks (铁西区) to a subject both intimate and immediate. His camera records the lives of three extremely poor young sisters, aged ten, six, and four who live in an isolated mountainside hamlet in southwest China’s Yunnan province. Over the course of three hours without a shred of condescension or pity, the film brings us into close confrontation with the dirt, poverty, and repeatedly backbreaking daily labor these little girls are compelled to do. Big sister Ying becomes a kind of everyday hero: laborer, cook, farmer, aspiring student, and mother to her two sisters. Wang’s powerful images manage to be beautiful and seem to capture fundamental truths: we feel as if we are seeing into an essential, grassroots kind of life that hundreds of millions of Chinese people still endure every day.

People’s Park (人民公园) is a Chinese movie, an experimental, structuralist documentary shot in People’s Park, Chengdu, Sichuan, in one single, bravura take lasting 75 minutes by the young American directors J.P. Sniadecki (史杰鹏) and Libbie D. Cohn (张莫). The fullness of Chinese urban leisure life contrasts with the rural world Wang Bing evokes. As the camera pans side to side and glides relentlessly forward through the park, it catches hundreds of Chinese urbanites out for fun, relaxation, socializing, and a certain kind of freedom: eating, strolling, singing, practicing calligraphy, and watching each other. Watching becomes dancing as the film slowly gathers an ecstatic, trance-like groove, building to a rapturous climax, as people, movement, music, image, and sound mix together: this is as close to pure pleasure as cinema gets.

Since the dawning of the digital era, independent fiction has attracted most of China’s creatively audacious young directors. Memories Look at Me (记忆望着我), the first feature from Song Fang (宋方), is a quiet jewel made on a shoestring. The director films herself visiting her retired parents at their Nanjing home and leads us to a place somewhere between documentary and fiction as father, mother, and daughter play carefully scripted versions of themselves. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is in the background, but so are Liu Jiayin’s brilliant experiments in first-person family filmmaking. The film is a meditation that speaks of deep passions with the subtlest voice.

More lively is the vibrant coming-of-age film Egg and Stone (鸡蛋和石头) by young director Huang Ji (黄骥). Another women’s story, this time a troubling rural tale (all too typical, Huang tells us) of a young woman’s sexual abuse at the hands of intimate acquaintances from her village. The film, though, is no typically dour Chinese miserablist indie (a genre Western festivals do too much to encourage and perpetuate). Huang bathes her film in vivid, saturated light and color, exhibiting something akin to that unstoppable life force that animates the heroines of Three Sisters in the face of unimaginable adversity.

Quite possibly the darkest Chinese film of the year, and one of the most important, is the controversial When Night Falls (我还有话要说, a title that translates literally as I Want to Say More), by Ying Liang (应亮). Based on the real life case of Yang Jia, sentenced to death for the 2008 knifing murder of six Shanghai policemen, the film has drawn the hostile attention of Shanghai’s police, who exerted considerable pressure on the director and on the producers to suppress the film both inside and outside China. But Ying Liang, whose subtle, ironic indie films make him one of the most incisive young Chinese directors working today, has not made this an explicitly political film. Instead, he adopts an oblique, fictional mode, concentrating exclusively on the killer’s mother, Wang Jingmei (played with powerful restraint by Nai An), her struggle to understand her son’s actions and her subsequent victimization by a criminal justice system that is opaque and oppressive.

Two of the best new Chinese films this year are even more experimental in their approach. The first feature film of novelist Chai Chunya (柴春芽), Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (我故乡的四种死亡方式) is a visionary masterpiece. Burying his narrative lines deep underground, Chai builds up a series of striking tableaux, hypnotically suggestive and pictorially spectacular. Two young women lose a camel, then a father. A retired shadow puppeteer meets a gun-toting tree thief. Storytellers and shamans organize a lost spiritual world that Chai wills back to life in deeply beautiful visual motifs whose meanings lie tantalizingly just out of reach.

Emperor Visits the Hell [sic] (唐皇游地府), the black and white film from Li Luo (李珞), is another kind of narrative experiment. Li takes a sharply satiric concept and makes it seem utterly natural and brilliantly comic. He relocates an episode of the Chinese classic Journey To The West to present-day central China, to Wuhan, where the Tang Dynasty Emperor Li Shimin of the novel is now a corrupt but aesthetically refined official. Ghosts and demons become the criminal gang leaders with whom Chinese officialdom formally and informally collude to share power and amass wealth.

There is room for one strikingly innovative genre piece on my list of China’s best films of 2012: Judge Archer (箭士柳白猿), the second feature from novelist and martial arts practitioner Xu Haofeng (徐浩峰). This independently produced but officially approved wuxia film is about a master archer who adjudicates disputes in the martial arts world. In it, Xu dares to redesign martial arts cinema for the current moment. He borrows from masters Chang Cheh and King Hu but forges an entirely new, transparent, and elegantly visceral style fusing action choreography with editing, cinematography, and narrative experimentation. Xu’s film gracefully embodies what Chai Chunya implies: that radical cinema can show how the living cultural traditions seemingly destroyed by China’s rush to modernize are not only still conceivable but imaginatively re-constructable and even necessary.

Finally, two shorts announce two new directors whose work I suspect we will be following closely in the future. Gyatso Gentsu (白斌) is an ethnic Tibetan professor of art based in southwest China’s Sichuan province. His animated short “The Hunter and the Skeleton” (猎人与骷髅怪) uses eye-popping flash animation inspired by traditional thangka paintings of Buddhist deities to tell the subtly subversive story based on a folk myth of a hunter’s encounter with a fearsome skeleton monster. Next, “Female Directors” (女导演), by Yang Mingming (杨明明), is a fresh, wildly funny, and wickedly self-referential mockumentary about two young actress-directors (one played by the director herself) who turn the camera on each other, as playful cinema-guerrillas set to dismantle traditional conceptions of gender and power.

Many of the now well-known Chinese directors who have achieved a measure of commercial success—or at least the possibility of a domestic commercial release and continued festival exposure abroad—started out as independent directors. By negotiating their own compromises with the Film Bureau, most of the famous “Sixth Generation” of Chinese directors have released films in China in recent years. Notable examples include Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams (青红, 2005) and Chongqing Blues (日照重庆, 2010), Zhang Yuan’s I Love You (我爱你, 2002) and Little Red Flowers (看上去很美, 2006), Lou Ye’s Mystery (浮城谜事, 2012), and a number of films by Jia Zhangke, whose first censor-approved film was The World (世界, 2005).

Despite the pressures of increased interference by the state, restricted screening opportunities, and micro-budgets, the ten films I’ve selected from 2012 (and others like them) suggest that the future of China’s cinema contains possibilities both more extensive and more daring than the mega-budget co-productions currently monopolizing media attention. Independent films invent new ways for all of us, both inside and outside of the country, to see China as it remakes itself anew several times a year, manufacturing futures faster than we can assimilate them.