As with last year’s event, the 8th China Independent Film Festival was an exercise in under-promotion: a schedule that was only available in advance if you had the right email address, screenings in lecture rooms at the downtown campus of Nanjing University, and an opening ceremony at a moderately sized venue that provided sufficient seating for those in the know, but left curious latecomers standing in the aisles. This is not a method of organisation that is exclusive to CIFF, as any independent film festival operating in mainland China has to take such measures due to the inclusion of features that have not been approved by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television). 2011 has been a particularly difficult year for such festivals, with the organisers of the Documentary Film Festival China being pressured to cancel the Beijing-based event (which would also have been in its eighth year) due to a tense political climate that coincided with the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and increased mainland internet restrictions. The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival went ahead in October, although not without disruption, as the venue had to be changed twice and police presence was reported at the launch event. Representatives of SARFT were in attendance at CIFF, but did not intervene at either screenings or workshop sessions, meaning that the festival ran smoothly compared to its equivalent in the capital. With political conflicts effectively sidestepped, CIFF was able to offer another interesting selection of features, documentaries and experimental shorts, with filmmakers present for post-screening discussions of their work. It could be said that the ‘real’ festival took place at the local branch of Sculpting in Time (a Chinese version of Starbucks that serves alcoholic beverages in addition to over-priced coffee), where the network of directors, distributors, academics and journalists was further expanded.
While the features emerging from China’s independent sector are undoubtedly political, they often avoid sweeping state-of-the-nation surveys in favour of social microcosms to show the effect of national shifts on the family unit or the individual. Zhang Ciyu’s haunting Pear (2010) is a chamber piece concerning a young married couple who are struggling to complete the construction of their new house on a mountain slope; the wife ends up working in a brothel in town to earn the necessary funds and the husband is left to hang around the waiting room of the establishment while she services her clients. Regardless of how much money she makes, the couple can never keep up with the rate of economic acceleration and the pears of the title – the wife’s favourite fruit, which are brought to her in a basket by her husband – are left to rot, much like their dreams of a prosperous future. The eponymous heroine of Song Chuan’s insightful and quietly heart-breaking Huan Huan (2010) is a young village woman who becomes the mistress of the local doctor; she struggles to find her place in the world despite, or because of, a near-constant bombardment of social messages (birth control regulations, labour force drives, state-controlled television news). The turbulent political landscape of the late 1980s is filtered through a nostalgic lens in Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (2010), although reference to Tiananmen ensures that this engaging drama will not receive a mainland release. High school student Xiaoli lives with his strict but understanding grandfather in Shanghai following his mother’s relocation to the United States, and becomes romantically involved with two girls who represent opposing social ideologies; next-door neighbour Lanmi becomes an escort for easy money while classmate Lili is more politically motivated. Shu resorts to some coming-of-age clichés, but this is still an evocative snapshot of youthful uncertainty at a time of social instability.
If the nicely crafted No. 89 Shimen Road represents a middle-of-the-road approach to Chinese independent cinema – a universal narrative placed within a wider political context – then Pema Tseden’s Old Dog (2011) and Jin Rui’s The Cockfighters (2010) exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Old Dog is a poetic portrait of Tibetan life in which the unauthorised sale of the titular animal by the owner’s son leads his father to retrieve the dog on the grounds that using an animal as a commodity is taboo in traditional Tibetan culture. It’s a thoughtful contemplation on the changing values of Tibet under state reform, with striking long shots of farmland divided by barbed wire and town streets that show slow but steady signs of economic progress. By contrast, The Cockfighters is aggressively commercial, a punchy rural thriller that follows the feud that develops between a youth from a wealthy family and a grassroots family man when the former loses his first cockfighting match to the latter. The narrative device of a destructive game of one-upmanship owes much to the genre cinema of South Korea, right down to the obligatory shaving scene before the climactic showdown, and The Cockfighters certainly makes a gripping bid for international box office viability. Developing links between China’s independent sector and alternative production in other Asian territories were adequately illustrated by Zhao Ye’s altogether gentler Last Chestnuts (2010), which was filmed in Nara, Japan, at the invitation of Naomi Kawase, director of The Mourning Forest (2007). A terminally ill Tokyo woman (Kaori Momoi) wanders the area, searching for her missing son, with only a couple of digital photos as clues to his whereabouts, and is assisted by helpful locals; Zhao conveys the time-sensitive desperation of the mother’s search, although the emotional impact is lessened by unnecessary meta-references to Kawase’s work in the same region.
The documentary line-up also offered a range of approaches to independent filmmaking, from studies of creative culture to self-portraits and undercover reports. Wang Hao’s Seven Days in a Year (2011) documents the responsibilities of an internet-monitoring department in Chongqing, revealing how such restrictions are implemented by low-level state servants who spend the day browsing bulletin boards for negative comments and brainstorming SMS advertising strategies to encourage patriotic feeling. Beijing’s art scene was examined by Zeng Guo in two documentaries, 798 Station (2010) and The Cold Winter (2011). The former provides an account of how a thriving art zone comprised of galleries and studios has evolved from factory space, while the latter follows the unsuccessful efforts of artists to stop the demolition of the art districts that surround the central hub of 798 Station. The Cold Winter shows both the strengths and weaknesses of China’s artistic communities, with everyone committed to a certain ideal, but the movement compromised by a lack of agreement on how to practically realise it. However, as with the features, the most interesting documentaries were those that focused on the individual, exploring past and present Chinese society through daily routine or recounted memory. Wei Xiaobo’s The Days (2010) is a candid first-person account of the director’s cash-strapped lifestyle with his live-in girlfriend Xei Fang; they fight, make love and Wei undertakes various freelance assignments to pay the rent. Xu Tong’s Shattered (2011) follows Tang Caifeng, a woman with a chequered past (involvement in illegal mining and prostitution) who returns to her north-east home town to reunite with her father, a retired engineer who was educated under Japanese rule; Old Man Tang has kept many artefacts of the occupation, but his ‘living history’ is of greater value than the portraits of Lenin and Mao Zedong that clutter the home.
Due to the political implications of making films outside the system in China, not to mention the problem of securing exhibition and distribution for productions that lack the ‘dragon seal’ from SARFT, it is still appropriate to group such efforts under the ‘independent’ banner. Yet it should be noted that some films in this year’s CIFF line-up, such as No. 89 Shimen Road and The Cockfighters, find Chinese independent cinema moving towards an American independent model by locating their social concerns within recognisable commercial genres, not to mention boasting production values that contrast with the ‘hand-made’ qualities of Huan Huan or Pear. This is not necessarily a problem, as coming-of-age dramas or revenge thrillers with a certain level of social-political context appeal to the international art-house crowd, who regularly watch films that exist on the fringes of the mainstream but still adhere to genre parameters. However, it is hoped that such potential crossover successes will not overshadow more marginal works like Yang Heng’s Sun Spots (2009), a minimalist romance between a bored young woman and a violent gangster that is told in just 31 long takes with no close-ups. Sun Spots polarised audience opinion – some found it to be a patience-tester, others were hypnotised by its deliberate rhythm – but nonetheless generated much discussion due to its formal qualities. On the basis of this year’s CIFF selection, the Chinese independent sector appears to have achieved a balance between artistic exploration and commercial aspirations; these potentially conflicting versions of ‘independent production’ are able to comfortably co-exist, mutually supporting one another due to the difficult circumstances under which both are brought to fruition by their directors. CIFF has also encountered difficulties in terms of accommodating the growing interests of directors and viewers within a limited space and schedule, but like the filmmakers that it supports, the festival has managed to find a measure of freedom within a world of restriction.