Director Zhang Yuan, Still Kicking

Zhang Yuan, a veteran rebel among Chinese filmmakers, recently came to New York for the premiere of his film Beijing Flickers at the Global Lens 2013 series at the Museum of Modern Art. Ever since Mama, his 1990 debut about a mother and her mentally challenged son—widely regarded as the first independent film in China—Zhang’s films have blurred the line between fact and fiction. He focuses on characters living on the margins of Chinese society: the stubborn property owner who refuses to leave his “nail house” in Demolition and Relocation, the transsexual dancer in Miss Jin Xing, and the former inmate trying to reconnect with her family in Seventeen Years.

I remember my first experience with Zhang Yuan’s work. It was probably in the early 1990s in Shenzhen, watching his music video for rock musician Cui Jian’s song “Wild In the Snow” broadcast on MTV, which we could pick up across the border from Hong Kong. Influenced by my brother, who is seven years my senior, I’d been a big fan of Cui Jian since the late 1980s, when I was in primary school and my family still lived in the inland city of Xi’an. My brother played Cui Jian’s first two albums countless times on the cassette player on our dining table in our family’s bleak old Xi’an apartment. To this day, I can still recite all the lyrics. One day in 1995, my brother rented Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards on an LP—a vinyl video disc that looked like the long-playing records for which we named them. In the nicely decorated and spacious living room of our new Shenzhen home, we had our own newly acquired LP player. We were all in such a different mood. My father was no longer a college professor in Xi’an; by 1995, he was working in real estate in southern China. My brother was no longer that “angry youth” I recalled roaming the city on his bicycle in the early summer of 1989. By 1995, he had become one of China’s first certified public accountants and wore a suit and tie to work every day. By that time, my music heroes were Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, and my favorite movies were Forrest Gump and True Lies. Watching Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards, I wasn’t familiar with Cui Jian’s new songs and it was strange to see our old heroes struggling to find rehearsal space in Beijing. We didn’t discuss the movie after watching it. The experience was almost like saying goodbye to old friends who, in our minds, were stuck in old times. Years later, in 1999, when Zhang Yuan released Crazy English, I was a college junior crazily studying English and obsessed with taking the TOEFL exam. I couldn’t be bothered with Chinese independent film. In wasn’t until 2004, when I moved to New York and decided that what I really wanted was to be an artist, that I developed an interest in Chinese independent films and started to appreciate (it’s never too late) several of Zhang Yuan’s older films.

Meeting Zhang for the first time, in 2013, was a strange experience. His face is still boyish and quick to respond. He carries himself like an independent artist. When he talks about his movies, genuine creative energy darts in his eyes. And his message is pretty much unchanged from twenty years ago, but somehow feels potent today. It reminded me of a recent interview in which Cui Jian said: “Don’t think that because you are twenty or thirty years younger than I am that we are not the same generation. As long as Chairman Mao’s portrait still hangs on Tiananmen, we all live in the same time … We are all refugees from good years.”

Cast of Characters

Cui Jian: China’s most famous rock musician, whose politically charged lyrics and music often fuse rock, blues, rap, and Chinese folk music traditions and have influenced generations of Chinese since the late 1980s.

Dou Wei: Ex-husband of pop singer Faye Wong and former lead singer of the heavy metal band Heibao, or Black Panther, which was popular in the early 1990s. Nowadays Dou Wei is better known for his post-rock and electronica compositions.

Tang Danian: A film and television director and screenwriter who co-wrote the scripts for Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards and director Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (2000).

Liu Xiaodong: One of contemporary China’s leading painters to achieve international stature, Liu also is an active participant in China’s independent filmmaking movement. Liu collaborated with Zhang Yuan on Beijing Bastards, Wang Xiaoshuai on The Days (1994), and Jia Zhangke on his 2006 films Dong and Still Life.

Li Yinhe: A sociologist, sexologist, and activist for LGBT rights in China. As a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, she submitted proposals to legalize same-sex marriages in 2003, 2005, and 2006, without any success. She was married to the late writer Wang Xiaobo.

Wang Xiaobo (1952–1997): Arguably the most admired contemporary Chinese writer, Wang only became famous after he died of a heart attack in 1997. His wildly imaginative and humorous novels and essays celebrate individuality and creativity in China’s often repressive social environment.

Li Yang: A self-made English instructor and motivational coach, Li has built a business empire around his unconventional English teaching methods, which involve shouting out English sentences and phrases loudly, fast, and clearly.

Xie Fei: A renowned Chinese film director, Xie won the Silver Bear at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival for his 1990 film Black Snow, and the Golden Bear at the 43th Berlin International Film Festival for his 1993 film Woman Sesame Oil Maker.