Beginning tomorrow, Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012 – 2014 brings to New York 28 films from the embattled festival that cannot be officially shown in China and are rarely screened outside of the country. Drawing from the last three years of the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF), the series includes documentaries that examine China’s hidden past and unspoken present, bold works by female filmmakers, fictional films that comment on politics and society, and experimental and animated films from some of China’s most original and respected filmmakers and artists such as Ai Weiwei, Hu Jie, Li Luo, Qiu Anxiong, Yang Mingming, and Zhu Rikun.
Founded in 2004 by contemporary Chinese art critic and curator Li Xianting as a platform for Chinese independent films — those not submitted to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China for review and cannot get official or mainstream distribution — and their directors, the BIFF, like many others dedicated to these non-approved films, has faced suppression in recent years.
Initially, instead of outright banning it, officials would permit the festival to happen and subject it to intimidation tactics to remind organizers, participants, and attendees who’s in charge. In 2012, power was shut down at the Songzhuang art colony, where the festival moved a few years prior to avoid unwanted attention, just before the opening film and at various times after that. Next year, comically, no more than five people could gather in a room to watch a film. The plucky attendees resourcefully responded by moving to clandestine locations or holding screenings on moving mini-busses.
However, in 2014, the government took a much harder line. Looking to snag them for tax evasion as it did with Ai Weiwei, officials asked, for the first time, festival organizers about their tax payments. Offices of the Li Xianting Film Fund were raided and computers, files, and its irreplaceable archive of Chinese independent films and associated materials were confiscated. Ultimately, the festival was called off. In a show of solidarity, supporters in China and around the world took to Twitter and Weibo to post images of themselves with closed eyes, representing a play on words (闭目式) that replaces a character in the word “closing ceremony” (闭幕式, bìmù shì) with a homophone, the character for “eye”.
Organized and curated by self-described “China watcher, China movie watcher” film critic and programmer of Chinese cinema Shelly Kraicer, president and founder of Chinese independent film distributor dGenerate Films Karin Chien, and filmmaker and anthropologist J.P. Sniadecki, the idea of bringing the films to New York hatched after last year’s BIFF shutdown with a comment from their friend and colleague Kevin Lee who mused, “I wish we could recreate the festival here somehow.”
“Seeing the empty shelves where they once had a giant collection of DVDs of experimental films and archives of their printed materials was shocking,” Kraicer told The New York Times. “It made us want to go beyond expressions of solidarity.” And so it happened.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, screenings will take place from August 7 – September 13 at institutions dedicated to film or Chinese culture — Anthology Film Archives, Made in NY Media Center by IFP, Asia Society, Maysles Cinematheque, Museum of Chinese in America, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, and UnionDocs — with a number of directors in attendance for Q&A sessions.
“My hope is to raise awareness around what is happening with independent film in China…and it’s hard to explain the many nuances of what’s happening.” Chien said. For more about the state of independent cinema in China, take a look at these comments from some of the from BIFF directors.
We’ve compiled from Cinema on the Edge’s schedule and film descriptions the chronological list below, with each film appearing under the venue where it will be screened. Links either lead to the venue’s general page for the films or specific films. Where available, we’ve also added trailers and links to English-language reviews and interviews with the directors or subjects. If you have any links to Chinese sources, please let us know and we’ll add them. We’re in the process of adding the films to our events calendar.
We are particularly excited that this series has come to New York because Beyond Chinatown’s first public presentation was at an event at the School of Visual Arts in October 2013 that aimed to inform people what was happening to independent film in China and to show solidarity with people of BIFF. We’re eager to see the works that many brave people have stood up against censorship to make, show, and view.
The Kickstarter campaign is still going on. Please consider contributing. In addition to supporting the festival, you can receive some great rewards!
In the coming days, our coverage will continue with interviews with Cinema on the Edge organizers and reviews of films.
32 Second Avenue, New York
$10/General Admission; $8 Students, seniors; $6 AFA Members, and children (12 & under)
Emperor Visits the Hell 《唐皇游地府》
Directed by Li Luo
2012, 67 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Friday, August 7, 6:45 PM with introduction by critic and Cinema on the Edge programmer Shelly Kraicer
Monday, August 10, 9 PM
Based on the first three chapters of Journey to the West, this winner of the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons & Tigers Prize is a quietly astonishing tour de force that hinges on a lovely conceit: relocating to the present day the famous story of the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong’s visit to the underworld. Shot in elegant, black-and-white long takes, the film spins a tale of a local river god, the Dragon King, who, feuding with a fortune teller, alters the weather without authorization and is condemned to death. When the Emperor fails to commute the god’s sentence, otherworldly retribution is swift: he is summoned to Hell. Li’s audacious use of multiple levels of storytelling and filmmaking craftily and joyously subverts every authority around.
Both screenings are followed by Q&A with Li Luo.
Around that Winter 《田园将芜》
Directed by Wang Xiaozhen
2013, 96 min, digital. In Shandong dialect with English subtitles.
Friday, August 7, 8:45PM with introduction by critic and Cinema on the Edge programmer Shelly Kraicer
Tuesday, August 11, 7 PM
This curiously beautiful Daoist comedy, the opening film of BIFF2013, is a first film full of promise. Wang, painting with scrupulously composed, eloquent black-and-white images, tells of a young urbanite who brings his girlfriend to meet his farmer parents in the countryside of Shandong province. Although nothing precisely happens, the farm and surrounding woods are a stage for almost non-stop cursing, kissing, pissing, and fucking. It’s both earthy and somehow unworldly at the same time, featuring perfectly ribald kids, a voyeuristic brother with a urination fetish, and a deadpan comic couple. Wang has a terrific eye, and an utterly unique, low-key comic voice.
Directed by Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and JP Sniadecki
2013, 65 min, 16mm-to-digital. In Mandarin Chinese and Gansu dialect with English subtitles.
Saturday, August 8, 6:45 PM with introduction by critic and Cinema on the Edge programmer Shelly Kraicer
Tuesday, August 11, 9 PM
Two Chinese avant-garde artists and an American experimental filmmaker have collaborated on a stunningly beautiful Chinese experimental-fiction-documentary that dazzlingly combines ghost stories and “ruin porn” to form a celluloid psycho-collage. Shot on 16mm film, it’s set in the largely abandoned oil drilling town of Yumen – a place with an ancient, poetic history in China’s western Gansu province – and takes us through trashed, desolate urban spaces abandoned by Chinese socialism. But the filmmakers bring these places alive with their cast of ghosts, artists, vagabond dancers, and singers. It’s a film chock full of fascinating things: massive oil pumps and sun-blasted vistas; nude performance art and impromptu flamenco; fuzzy bunny rabbits and snarling canines; groovy 70s Taiwan pop and contemporary Korean girl bands; socialist nostalgia and postmodern pastiche.
Four Ways to Die in My Hometown 《我故乡的四种死亡方式》
Directed by Chai Chunya
2012, 90 min, digital. In Gansu dialect with English subtitles.
Saturday, August 8, 8:45 PM with introduction by critic and Cinema on the Edge programmer Shelly Kraicer
Wednesday, August 12, 7 PM
A four-part fiction film that’s as much poetry as it is narrative, first-time filmmaker Chai Chunya’s gorgeous work evokes four characters – a poet, a searcher, a puppet master, and a shaman – each with intense, mystical, deeply-rooted spiritual links to the land (the film was shot in and around Gansu province) mediated by the four elemental symbols: earth, water, fire, and wind. The film’s logic is associative, dreamlike; 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 evoke a lost spiritual world that Chai films back to life in spectacular visual motifs whose meanings are intuited, like deeply felt communal memories.
Cine-Vue calls it a “beautiful, meditative take on remembering as a mode of healing”.
Female Directors 《女导演》and Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories 《听三奶奶讲过去的事情》
Sunday, August 9, 5:30 PM
Wednesday, August 12, 9 PM
Female Directors 《女导演》
Directed by Yang Mingming
2012, 43 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Two brilliant young women, art school graduates with deliciously profane vocabularies and supreme confidence, talk sex, cinema, and power, as they wield their shared video camera like a scalpel. Yang Mingming’s superb debut is hilarious, moving, and subversive: is it documentary or fiction, or something new that violates both modes with gleeful abandon?
Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories 《听三奶奶讲过去的事情》
Directed by Wen Hui
2012, 75 min, digital, b&w/color. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
A language written by women confronts official ideology in dancer/choreographer/filmmaker Wen Hui’s film. She starts from stories her 83-year-old great-aunt tells her of being tortured as a “class enemy” during Mao’s China: the result is poetry, an experimental documentary that combines testimony and dance-like gesture, in black-and-white and color.
Ping’an Yueqing 《平安乐清》
Directed by Ai Weiwei
2011, 142 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Sunday, August 9, 8 PM
Thursday, August 13, 6:30 PM
Introduced by Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry director Alison Klayman.
The documentaries produced by Ai Weiwei’s studio are closer to investigative journalism than to conceptual art. This film in particular starts from a specific case, the mysterious death by “road accident” of a village leader, Qian Yunhui from Zhejiang province, an activist who stood up for his fellow villagers when their land was confiscated without compensation by the local government. Qian’s death in 2010 quickly became a cause célèbre online in China. Ai and his team take up the challenge of determining what really happened, and dig deep into the land dispute lying behind what looks like the convenient murder of a rights advocate. The story unfolds like a thriller, but an ultra-realist one, with terrified villagers, government media spectacles, conflicting stories, and a mysteriously disappearing surveillance video.
Experimental Short Film Program
Monday, August 10, 7 PM
Thursday, August 13, 9:15 PM
Total running time: ~95 min.
Directed by Bi Gan
2012, 26 min, digital
A visually splendid poem that provocatively but elegantly juxtaposes a poet, a singer, a river, a pair of murderers, and the Diamond Sutra.
Directed by Zhi Jun
2014, 30 min, digital
After a fire, scarred bonsai trees are meticulously freed of their supporting wires by medical professionals.
Directed by Chen Zhou
2013, 34 min, digital
The color yellow, as well as artist Chen Zhou and his alter ego(s), star in this droll, playfully conceptual tour de force.
Made in NY Media Center by IFP
30 John St., DUMBO, Brooklyn
$12/General Admission; $10/Members
Directed by Huang Ji
2011, 98 min, digital. In Hunan dialect with English subtitles.
Monday, August 17, 7 PM
Introduction by critic and Cinema on the Edge programmer Shelly Kraicer. Followed by Q&A with Huang Ji.
Winner of the 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Tiger Award, Huang Ji’s brave personal film is one of the most auspicious debuts in recent Chinese cinema. Set in her home village in rural Hunan province, Egg and Stone is a powerful autobiographical portrait of a 14-year-old girl’s attempts to come to terms with her emerging sexual maturity. Since her parents moved to the city to work, she has been forced to live with her uncle and aunt for seven years. Alone with her own inchoate fears and desires, she grapples with a terrifying world of sexual awakening and danger. Huang Ji’s visual sophistication, narrative fluency, and technical polish belie her youth. Cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka (also the film’s producer and editor) contributes beautifully crafted cinematic images, fearfully intimate, softly pulsing with light, saturated with complex emotional power.
Exclaim! says “Egg and Stone does outline an issue [of female relegation] astutely without resorting to maudlin modes of manipulation. And while doing so, it utilizes gorgeous photography and acutely thoughtful composition, adding formalist dimension to this feminine perspective.”
Toronto Film Scene says the film is essential viewing, praises it as “a visually captivating film, with shots that are bound to make a lasting impression”, and “will be sure to spark discussion”.
Maysles Cinema at the Maysles Documentary Center
343 Lenox Avenue / Malcolm X Boulevard, Manhattan (between 127th and 128th Streets)
Directed by Xu Tong
2014, 80 min, digital. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Tuesday, August 18, 7:30 PM
Introduction and discussion by NYU Associate Professor of Anthropology, Religious Studies and Co-director of the Center for Religion and Media Angela Zito
Er Housheng is a blind musician who travels Inner Mongolia with his lover/partner Liu Lanlan performing the saucy, sensationally bawdy form of musical duet comedy called er ren tai. Er’s female audiences are particularly enthralled with his combination of sensuality, Rabelaisian earthiness, and frankly socially subversive lyrics. Director Xu’s specialty is to train his piercingly observant documentary camera — intimate and complicit, rather than coldly objective — on unique Chinese characters like Er, using them to probe deep beneath the surface of China’s clash of rural traditions with its urbanizing contemporaneity. The result is, on one hand, an enthralling ethnographic showpiece; but it’s at its core a passionate and frenzied psycho-drama of lust, violence, and genius.
Sara Galvão praises the film in Critics Associated and The Georgia Straight says it’s a “fascinating look at a world you’d otherwise never see—to the chagrin, of course, of the Mongolian Tourism Board.”
2015, approx. 85 minutes, digital. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Wednesday, August 19 at 7:30 PM
Introduced by Curator Shelly Kraicer and organizers Karin Chien and J.P. Sniadecki. Followed by a post-screening discussion with Wang Wo and Huang Ji.
This film documents the 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2014, from the preparations before the opening ceremony to the process of its forced cancellation, the event which spurred the Cinema on the Edge series. The footage used for the film was captured by audience members, local artists, invited directors and special guests, festival volunteers and workers, as well as journalists and members of the media. It is a film produced by the collective.
725 Park Avenue, Manhattan
$12/General Admission; $10/Seniors; $7/Students; Free for members and persons under 16. Admission is free on Fridays from 6:00 to 9:00 pm.
Directed by J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn
2012, 78 min, digital. In Sichuanese and Mandarin Chinese.
Thursday, August 20 at 6:30pm
Followed by Q&A with J.P. Sniadecki
This is an experimental, structuralist documentary shot in People’s Park, Chengdu, Sichuan, in one single, bravura take lasting 75 minutes by two young American directors. Their camera captures the fullness of Chinese urban leisure life. 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.
Directed by Zhu Rikun
2014, 129 min. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Monday, August 24, 6:30 PM
Followed by a Q&A with Zhu Rikun and Robert Barnett, Columbia University.
Tsering Woeser, the subject of Chinese filmmaker Zhu Rikun’s extraordinary documentary, is a Tibetan writer now based in Beijing. Through her writing and online voice, she has become one of the most eloquent voices on Tibet. Zhu Rikun’s sharply designed, formally innovative documentary is completely in Woeser’s own voice: Zhu alternates formally photographed scenes of Woeser reading excerpts from her secret government “dossier” (which she has somehow gained access to) with scenes of her speaking in her own soft but powerful, eloquent, passionate voice. Woeser’s moving account of her political awakening and current activism makes for a powerful document of a Tibetan woman finding her voice and insisting on her freedom to use it.
Co-presented with Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program.
The New York Times‘ Sinosphere interviewed Tsering Woeser.
Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
Ticket and location information to follow.
Last Moose of Aoluguya 《犴达罕》
Directed by Gu Tao
2013, 99 min, digital. In Mandarin and Ewenki with English subtitles.
Wednesday, September 9, 6 PM
Award winning filmmaker Gu Tao’s weirder-than fiction documentary is a portrait of Weijia, a hunter-poet with a tumultuous life. Weijian is a member of the Ewenki minority, whose homeland is near Siberia in far northeastern China. Forbidden to continue hunting, the Ewenki have been forced to move from their forests into dreary Chinese government-designed permanent villages. Deprived of means of livelihood like many of his people, Weijia spends his time drinking and being a poet… when all of a sudden, as in a fairytale, a young teacher from Hainan, the tropical paradise island in China’s far south, comes to marry him and sweep him away. Weijia, clad in tropical print shirts, doesn’t quite fit into paradise, and his story turns dark, with intimations of madness and violence.
The Hollywood Reporter calls it “engaging” and an “audacious and powerful visual chronicle of the fortunes of a dying breed.”
Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA)
215 Centre Street, Manhattan
$10/General Admission; $5/Seniors and Students; Free/Members
Thursday, September 10, 7 PM
Total running time: ~108 min.
Perfect Conjugal Bliss 《花好月圆》
Zhong Su, 5’26″ 2014
A gorgeous 3D animation unscrolling through Chinese history, from grey urban collapse to ultra-coloured consumer dystopia.
Zhang Yipin, 5’07″ 2013
Traditional pen-and-ink drawings, animating a fuzzy-haired ruddy-cheeked girl’s imaginative world of terror and freedom.
The Hunter and the Skeleton 《猎人与骷髅怪》
Bai Bin 26’07″ (prize) 2012
A spectacular animated version, flash plus thangka, of an Eastern Tibetan folk tale: when a hunter meets a fearsome skeleton monster, are they friends, or enemies?
An Apple Tree 《苹果树》
Bai Bin, 10’43″ 2013
A Tibetan fable, in vivid colours, of an indomitable tree, assailed yet triumphant.
Double Act 《双簧 》
Ding Shiwei, 4’38″ 2013
Black-and-white industrial surreal: bodies float between familiar bureaucratic monuments above, and sunflowers beneath the earth.
Mirror Room 《镜室》
Zhou Xiaohu 8’35″ 2012
Master clay animator Zhou fashions a bathroom of hallucinatory reflections, where Lacan meets fascism.
Profile of Zhou by White Rabbit Gallery in Australia.
The New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2 《新山海经2》
Qiu Anxiong 29’35″ (2007) 2012
Animating classic-styled ink and pen drawings, and filling them with quasi-nightmarish animal-machine forms, Qiu suggests a world under ecological collapse, where genetically tampered animal forms expire on earth and colonize the stars.
Asian Art Newspaper talks about the artist and the work.
Family Reunion 《馬拉自在》
Chen Li-hua 18’ 2012
A-mei, a Taiwanese aboriginal woman working in a factory, is called home for the Harvest Festival, but her boss refuses. In Chen’s imaginative tale, illustrated with cut out and line drawn animation, a daughter’s powerful dreaming saves all.Family Reunion / 馬拉自在 Chen Li-hua 18’ 2012
322 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The River of Life 《生命的河流》
Directed by Yang Pingdao
2014, 101 min, digital. in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.
Friday, September 11, 7:30 PM
Yang Pingdao is one of China’s most exciting emerging filmmakers. His astonishingly creative camera eye brings unexpected beauty to his new feature length film. Using an innovative structure, based on the distinctive texture of family memory through space and time, Yang invents something poised delicately between fiction and documentary to capture crystallized moments in his family history, to recreate in cinematic form its emotional weight and variety, woven around the life and death of his grandmother, and the birth of his child. In order to combine extended family chronicle, implicit national history, and intimate soul-bearing autobiography, Yang employs gentle formal experimentation to invent new cinematic pathways. Opening film and prize winner of BIFF 2014.
Directed by Hu Jie
2014, 101 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Saturday, September 12, 5 PM
Introduction and discussion with Columbia University political science professor Andrew Nathan.
Probably China’s most important unofficial historian-filmmaker, Hu Jie documents with his camera episodes that Chinese official history, for now, ignores. Spark was an underground magazine published in 1960 by four young intellectuals who wanted to expose the devastating famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a horrendous period of national suffering that is still unmentioned in China’s history textbooks today. This is filmmaking as urgent historical investigation: with a shoestring budget Hu combines years of research, and a knack for getting people to talk without fear about the most taboo subjects in China’s recent past. His alternative oral history approach knits together courageous and frequently moving interviews with the magazine’s surviving editor, supporters, and readers, who were ready to sacrifice themselves to alert their countrymen to unprecedented disaster.
Hu Jie’s interview with The New York Book Review.
Stratum 1: The Visitors <底层1:来客>
Directed by Cong Feng
2013, 71 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Saturday, September 12, 8:30 PM
Poet and filmmaker Cong Feng started to film a documentary about whole-scale urban demolition in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, but discovered that the extraordinary rapidity of change and the furious power of China’s history of destruction required something more experimental, more essay-like. From hallucinatory (are they perhaps utopian? despairing?) images of a bulldozer seeming to conjure up a building from its rubble, we follow two characters wandering through debris, telling stories of childhood trauma (featuring canine, not human loyalty during a horrific episode from the Cultural Revolution). Cong, like a visual paleo-geologist, unearths surreal, chilling images of otherworldly beauty emanating from the buried strata of this collapsing world, whose history threatens to be suffocated by layers of experience, of loss, of unremembered suffering.
I Want to Be a People’s Representative 《我要当人民代表》
Directed by Jia Zhitan
2014, 78 min, digital. In Hunanese with English subtitles.
Sunday, September 13, 3 PM
Can a documentary camera be a tool for democracy in China? Jia Zhitan certainly thinks so, and wields his camera like an anti-bureaucratic weapon. Jia, a member of Caochangdi’s influential Villagers Documentary Project (organizer Wu Wenguang has been training local villagers to use digital video cameras to record their participation in ultra-local politics), wants to run to be a delegate to the National People’s Congress. He wins the first round, but is deemed unqualified by officials for reasons they keep to themselves. As the irrepressibly scrappy and stubborn Jia seeks explanations and redress from ever higher levels of authority, he records their interactions scenes that would play as entertaining satiric comedy if they weren’t so frustratingly real.
Satiated Village 《吃饱的村子》
Directed by Zou Xueping
2011, 88 min. In Shandong dialect with English subtitles.
Sunday, September 13, 6:30 PM
Followed by Q&A with Zou Xueping
Zou Xueping’s took her first documentary The Hungry Village (part of Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Project) — made up of first-person testimony about the effects of the Great Famine of 1960 (see Hu Jie’s Spark for another view) on her home village in Shandong — back home to show her subjects. They unanimously disapproved. Frustrated and full of doubt, Zou then made this second documentary discussing the villagers’ reactions to her first. This wonderful, searching, self-reflexive film questions the necessity and usefulness of truth-telling via cinema, when it brings pain and even shame upon neighbours and family. Zou’s 9-year-old niece emerges as its star, a girl who can balance competing exigencies of truth and love with a wisdom beyond her years.
A reception and discussion on participatory filmmaking with Zou Xueping and filmmaker Li Xinmin will take place between the screenings on September 13.
Lead image by Kevin Lee. Film stills courtesy of Cinema on the Edge, except I’m Not Not Not Chen Zhou, which was taken from CAFA.