Compared to the film festivals that are held regularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the annual China Independent Film Festival is a relatively low-key affair. Largely organised by volunteer staff, screenings take place at the two main campuses of Nanjing University, the Gulou campus in the downtown area of the city, and the more recently developed Xinlin campus located on its outskirts, with related gatherings at nearby art galleries and eateries. As not every film in the line-up has received the stamp of approval from the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), this celebration of Chinese cinema occurs under the political radar, and the lack of the promotion means that many students of Nanjing University are not aware that an important film festival is taking place on their campus until a few banners appear in the days leading up to the event. However, the festival organisers somehow manage to make this ‘invisible’ festival sufficiently noticeable and 2010 screenings were well-attended, leading to a series of productive Q&A sessions with the filmmakers in attendance and valuable networking events.
Although the festival programme split the selected titles into the two distinct strands of feature films and documentaries, three films almost defied such categorisation. Emily Tang’s spellbinding Perfect Life (2008) juxtaposes the fictional narrative of a woman working in a somewhat seedy business hotel in Shenyang with documentary footage of a Hong Kong resident who is undergoing a messy divorce and struggling to support herself as a dancer-for-hire in a tacky club. Jia Zhangke served as the executive producer of Perfect Life, and the fusion of fact and fiction recalls his masterpieces Platform (2000) and 24 City (2008), but Tang steps out of the shadow of her financial benefactor by imbuing proceedings with an element of magical realism as the real and the imagined eventually come to co-exist. Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (2010) features Dian Qiu, a real-life prison guard and ‘trash poet’ who insists that prisoners read his verses aloud as a means of raising their spirits, but does so within the context of a fiction narrative. This recreation of the artistically inclined prison guard’s routine serves to bookend an entirely fictional mid-section about a small-time scam artist who runs a fake employment agency and seeks meaning through the opera routine that he performs on his rooftop. The behaviour of the inhabitants of the crowded city slum in which The High Life is located is as morally questionable as it is economically desperate, but Zhao also finds evidence of the human spirit amid the urban squalor. Li Luo’s Rivers and My Father (2010) is beautifully shot in black and white and echoes the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the director weaves together a series of family recollections of childhood. The final third of this meditative experience consists of comments and criticism that Li’s father made about the film after seeing an early cut, a lovely touch that emphasises the manner in which memory is altered when filtered through the medium of cinema.
The other features were more clearly defined in terms of narrative, but were no less innovative or insightful. Liu Jian’s edgy animation Piercing (2009) takes place in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and follows the misfortune of a young man who loses his factory job and is then beaten up by supermarket guards after being mistaken for a thief. Although overly bleak at times, Piercing creates a credible world where bribery, poverty and police brutality work in tandem, and no good deed goes unpunished. Some much-needed humour was provided by Hao Jie’s hilarious Single Man (2010), which episodically explores the sexual activities of the bachelors of a small village. Hao works wonders with amateur actors and a scene in which the villagers gang up on a pair of tight-fisted watermelon buyers serves as both a comedic set-piece and a commentary on village mentality in situations of conflict. The only disappointment in the feature strand was Liu Yonghong’s Tangle (2009), a drab drama about a small-town traffic cop dealing with familial responsibilities. Yongshong served as cameraman on Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003), arguably one of the best films from mainland China in the past decade, but Tangle was less aesthetically and thematically sure-footed.
The documentary strand found filmmakers adopting a variety of perspectives – communal, environmental, individual and institutional – to examine modern China. Zhou Hao’s Cop Shop (2010) was at once remarkable and mundane; the filmmaker had managed to secure permission to shoot for 15 days in a police station in Guangzhou Railway Station, but the audience becomes as hardened to the daily grind as the officers that Zhou is documenting as they deal with petty disputes and repeatedly explain that they cannot help to secure train tickets. Chen Xinzhong’s deeply moving Red White (2009) chronicles the efforts of the survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to overcome personal grief and rebuild their community; Chen picks up on personal approaches to dealing with tragedy (a Taoist worshipper tries to prevent another earthquake by comforting the spirits of the dead, an elderly man cuts hair in a makeshift salon to avoid dwelling on the loss of his grandson) but also considers how the town has been failed by the state in terms of preparing for such a disaster. Yang Yishu’s On the Road (2010) was filmed during the snowstorm that swept through Southern China in early 2009 and follows two truck drivers as they set off from Nantong to make a delivery in Guizhou, only to find that one road after another is closed due to treacherous weather conditions. A compelling study of how friendship is tested under pressure, On the Road captures the alternately dangerous and tedious nature of the drivers’ predicament as they navigate an increasingly risky route or take refuge from the storm in cheap motels. While each of these documentaries dealt with a microcosm of contemporary Chinese society, Guo Xiaolu’s superbly realised Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) is a comparatively sweeping state-of-the-nation study; 12 vignettes, including an old peasant who has lost his land, a weapon factory worker who wishes that Mao was still in charge, and a disillusioned flower-arranger in a high-class hotel, form a mosaic of modern China that considers the impact of economic reform on the individual.
The 7th China Independent Film Festival served to emphasise that alternative production in China is very much in a state of transition, moving from an ideologically charged ‘underground’ movement to a self-sustained ‘independent’ sector. Although still politicised, the sector is not only showing signs of the formation of its own industrial networks but an awareness of how to work around the state, rather than to stubbornly work against it. This is evident in the manner in which a wider political context was absent from many of the films and documentaries in the festival, although this presumptive measure to side-step the restrictions of SARFT is also a political statement in itself. Some of the films at CIFF had already secured DVD and VOD distribution in the United States, while Single Man was reportedly warmly received at San Sebastian in September and could be a contender for crossover success, but other titles are less likely to find screen time beyond the festival circuit. As such, it may seem perfectly reasonable to wish that this particular festival was able to enjoy more exposure, but in order to maintain the quality of the 2010 event, to continue to hide in plain sight seems like the more suitable strategy.