The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions at MoMA

Museum Of Modern Art
May 8 – June 1, 2013
New York

If there is a singular preoccupation in the Museum of Modern Art’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions, which organizes an impressive body of independent Chinese films and videos of the last 25 years, it is with bodily presence. Visionary in the most haptic sense of the term, this vast and varied group captures real bodies in social space by filmmakers who occupy the same space as their subjects, and testifies to their presence as that space crumbles around them, radically and, at times, violently reshaped by the social, political, and economic forces of a new China.

Fuck Cinema. 2005. China. Directed by Wu Wenguang. Photo Courtesy of Wu Wenguang/China Independent Documentary Film Archive.

The filmmakers whose work is on display alternately belong to what has been labeled the Sixth Generation, the Urban Generation, the Tibetan New Wave, and the post-Sixth Generation Independent Documentary movement. The multiple banners speak to the difficulties of categorically defining a geographically diverse and rapidly evolving group of practitioners, but they also belie the monumental importance of the work on display as a unified movement in global cinema. As the films on screen attempt to keep pace with the ways that Chinese localities are being shaped by and against the forces of neoliberalism, they propose radical new approaches to documentary cinematography and cinematic realisms, aesthetically gratifying feature-length (and longer) work on low-to-no budget, and productive modes of resistance to an antiquated state-sponsored studio film system.

Li Hong’s Out of Phoenix Bridge (1997), a remarkably intimate and incisive documentary portrait of female migrant workers living in Beijing, was recorded with equipment borrowed from Li’s day job at CCTV. Speaking from the confines of her communal hut where she strategizes a furtive monthly bath, one subject on screen remarks that she thought “Beijing would be perfect, but it’s a big disappointment.” These women work as maids and street vendors, and the dynamic tension of the film lies between these characters’ freedom and obligation, both financial and moral, and between the myth of self-determination and the realities of Chinese social mobility. Most will eventually have to return to their home villages to marry, and it is difficult to detect a sense of historical or personal progress on display. It’s also difficult to ignore the obvious parallels to another major realist cinema movement, Italian Neorealism, and that movement’s own connection to the failure of the grand narratives of modernity after World War II. The result is an atmosphere of Lyotardian postmodernity with characters pinned between waxing and waning teleological narratives.

Zhang Yimou briefly left behind the grand historical allegories for which he and his Fifth Generation contemporaries are best known to make The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), a street-level work of critical realism shot in a quasi-documentary mode. Footage recorded with hidden cameras, wireless microphones, and non-professional actors performing in actual settings interweave with more traditionally staged scenes, and one gets the sense that the porous boundary between the real and the staged here testifies to a method in which the filmmaker and his subjects are confronting reality, rather than constructing it. While ostensibly a portrait of a peasant woman seeking official recourse for her husband, whose genitals found themselves at the wrong end of a village official’s foot (this isn’t the only film in the series that conflates infertility with neoliberal influences), the film is most concerned with the way that power is grafted onto a geographical rather than moral framework and the ways that encroaching urban values are infringing upon rural imaginaries. Compelled by her unwavering sense of justice, Qiu Ju travels to the city to adjudicate her husband’s case, transgressing boundaries of fashion, class, and gendered propriety in order to navigate the unsteady terrain. Movement characterizes Qiu Ju’s ordeal, and the everyday of her everyday is radically reshaped by her body in flux.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. 2003. Directed by Wang Bing.

Movement and its opposite are further thematized in the extended first shot of Wang Bing’s masterful long-form West of the Tracks (2003). Traversing an industrial landscape, flat and grey, the camera is affixed to the front of a slow-moving train, and the shot feels like a long crawl into the heart of an Anselm Kiefer canvas. After arriving at its destination, Wang’s camera presents a thick-description of the last holdouts employed in a nearly forgotten foundry at the last furnace in frigid Northeast China. If Wang is interested in salvage documentation, however, its subject appears to be time. As an icon of modernity, the train that Wang rides in remains a powerful symbol of the collapse of time’s relationship to space in the industrial era. Here, time is nearly all that is left and it sits in painful abundance—the only surplus value generated by the workers on screen. Wang privileges the wide shot, taking an entire room and the durational intensities of its inhabitants’ conversations in one go. This camera style may be a byproduct of Wang’s need to keep a low profile (and evidence of Frederick Wiseman’s influence on the independent documentary movement) but it is also supremely effective as it transforms the spaces it captures—break rooms, smelting floors, a convenience store in the nearly abandoned neighborhood nearby—into sites of theatrical performance. The filmmaker too, the sound of whose breath is at times registered on the soundtrack, activates the performance from the other side of the proscenium arch. The camera brackets physical spaces as discursive threads, and subjects and spaces onscreen exist in symbiotic relationship to the real.

Wu Wenguang’s Fuck Cinema (2005)further develops the idea of first-person camera as performer when it overtly leers at a series of women who are auditioning for “a role of a lifetime” as a prostitute (or “hostess”) in a studio system film production. Wu’s documentary lens provides a cynical reflection on the dissonance between the fantasies and pursuit of pleasure that the Chinese mass media engenders in many of its consumers and the alarming lack of agency that governs many of those consumers’ sense of the everyday. But Wu is equally critical of those who have migrated to the city in hopes of breaking into the industry as he is of the producers of these cinematic confections. In the prostitute casting session, the male voice that orders aspiring actresses to remove their outer layer of clothing remains off-screen, but the camera echoes his lascivious gaze. The framing simultaneously mocks the duped auditioner and the film producer, leaving open for now the question of how Wu’s own posititionality as observer aligns on this axis of power. That question is clarified later when one of his subjects reads aloud for the camera his reflections on his relationship with Wu. “Some people asked: Wu Wenguang is making a documentary about you, you are working as an extra for him, how much does he pay you per day? I pondered this for a moment.”

Can watching the remapping of at once exciting, terrifying, and spectacular new contemporary Chinese imaginaries be a spectator’s sport? To what degree is the economic liberalization of China a totalizing project, and to what degree are the filmmakers who bear witness to such change, and by extension their audiences, implicated in the process? This is at least one of the central questions of i.Mirror (2007), a 30 minute short by the contemporary artist Cao Fei generated entirely out of footage from the online platform Second Life. The video starts with a quote from urban designer William J. Mitchell that suggests that our networked selves are inexorably and recursively linked to our environments, but this sentiment clashes with the Octavio Paz poem “The Balcony”—an autobiographical piece that speaks of a silent figure perched on a balcony, witness to radical urban change below—that scores the first section of the piece. Ambivalence—i.Mirror moves at a sometimes plaintive and sometimes feverish pace—is registered in the shape of forms (empty high-rises, “for sale” signs) that fracture into digitally generated planar geometries and barely maintain their indexical relationship to their real life referents.

Huang Weikai pushes the failure of China’s infrastructural coherence to an absurd pitch in his equally haunting and mesmeric Disorder (2009). Unified by a grainy high-contrast treatment to the images, the documentary crosscuts between unspecified locales and assorted vignettes: policemen debate whether a suicide prevention strategy or a strategy to cover up their failure to prevent a suicide would demand less of their effort while a seriously aggrieved man threatens to jump off a bridge nearby; a food inspector explains to a restaurant patron the epistemological impossibility of assigning blame for the cockroach found in his bowl of noodles; and two young drivers of a late-model Volkswagen become increasingly unhinged as the man they may or may not have run over refuses to let them buy his silence. As a revisionist city symphony compiled of footage collected from 12 different amateur videographers, this is a film that gestures towards a radical conception of the multitude, and one that I think would make Paolo Virno proud.

Oxhide II. 2009. China. Directed by Liu Jiayin. Photo Courtesy of Icarus Films.

Deep fractures, separation, memory, and loss are often made literal in Old Dog (2011), a quietly devastating work of Tibetan New Wave Cinema in which windows and doorways become spaces where competing realities collide. Pema Tseden works with a remarkable economy of means to depict a desperate struggle for integrity (in multiple senses of the term) that takes the form of a father and son dispute over the commodity status of their shepherding mastiff in impoverished rural Tibet. Economies of urban affluence threaten traditional ways of life, and this is a film about a father’s unspoken conviction of the irreconcilable distinction between a living creature’s worth and the impossibilities of assigning it a value (as Marx wrote, “Value needs a difference for its expression”). Where the film begins with a dense and forceful soundscape, we are left with silence at the end, and the many forms of loss that haunt Old Dog are palpable.

No less concerned with the quotidian, albeit on a smaller scale, is Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II (2009), a nine-shot, 132-minute film that applies a rigorous cinematic formalism to an intimate family gathering. Sound is key here, too. Liu holds a rolled out form of dough in her hand, tearing off piece by piece in preparation to make dumplings for the family meal. She is doing it wrong, her mother observes. Dough shouldn’t sound like that when properly ripped. Liu’s day job is in writing scripts for TV dramas, and evidently the muscle memory that comes with time and repetition has not had the space to reproduce itself in her generation’s hands. “I wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t tell me,” Liu responds. She watches on as her mother executes curt snaps of dough. The radical changes occurring in front of us are often invisible, it seems, and if your body isn’t attuned to the many forms of evidence and the many disciplines of listening on display, then you just might miss them.

11 West 53 St. // NY, NY.


Jason Fox

JASON FOX is a filmmaker based in New York City. He currently teaches at Vassar College.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues