The major history of Chinese experimental cinema is that there is hardly any history until the 1990’s. While the more than 100 years history of Chinese cinema has witnessed a handful of excellent fiction narrative films, documentaries as well as animations, experimental cinema has been an absent genre in Chinese film history for a long time, an exotic genre only exclusive to its Euro-American counterparts. After the turn of the century, experimental cinema starts to grow in mainland China, thanks to the founding of several experimental film and video programs. However, the emergence of Chinese experimental cinema was not so much a counter-cinema or radical movement against the mainstream political or commercial cinema, instead it’s more of an artistic and aesthetic endeavor, an exploration and experimentation of the cinematic language, and a redemption of the absent genre often supported by academia or the state, even though many Chinese experimental films are politically or socially concerned.
In this paper, I am not trying to argue that there is no experimentation in the early Chinese cinema or there is not a single Chinese film made before the 1990’s that can be considered as experimental. As a matter of fact, a surrealism tendency was found in the 1979 film Troubled Laughter; Mu Fei’s pre-1949 narrative films demonstrated many individual experimentations; Peili Zhang, the father of video art in China, made 30X30 in 1988, which is generally acknowledged as the first experimental video in China. In addition, major Chinese film historians credited early Chinese comedies and marital art films for their technological and formalistic explorations as compensation to the lack of an experimental tradition in early Chinese cinema. Besides, due to the lack of archive and exhibition, and the turmoil during the war and revolution eras, there might be experimental films that are lost and therefore unknown to Chinese audiences.
However, experimental cinema only starts to appear as a collective concept around the 1990’s, and it is only until the turn of the century that experimental filmmaking has been set on the agenda of Chinese cultural production. In 2003, 2005 and 2006, China Academy of Art, Beijing Film Academy and Central Academy of Fine Arts all launched experimental cinema programs, situated in different departments, respectively. In the meantime, Experimental cinema has been added to the checkbox list of many Chinese film festivals and competitions. In 2009, a state supported experimental cinema exhibition was held at the Peking University, along with a couple of similar events in academic institutions, fan clubs, and the semi-state-controlled artist residency – “798 art district”.
The emergence of an experimental cinema in mainland China, both within and without the support of the state, brings me doubt and interest. Thus in this paper, I will try to draw a framework of the history of experimental cinema in mainland China. I will start using the term “China” to refer to “mainland China” for short. I also choose to use the term “experimental cinema” (试验电影) in its Chinese context, to differentiate it from “underground,” “avant-garde,” “amateur,” “independent,” “personal” or “alternative cinema,” even though the English term “experimental” is usually used interchangeably with the others.
I will first try to distinguish the terms and definitions of experimental cinema in both Chinese and English, and attempt to draw an outline of the history of Chinese experimental cinema, and introduce a few selected artists and their works.
The research will be based on a literary review from related materials as well as accessible information on the production and exhibition of experimental cinema in China, referring to materials in both languages, from books, journals, personal interviews, media coverage, film reviews and other information available on the internet.
Experimental but not Underground: Lost and Gain in Translation
Unlike the exotic cinematic apparatus that were imported to China in the early 1900s, the terms related to experimental cinema were never imported. Instead the English terms “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “underground,” “independent,” “amateur,” “alternative,” “personal” and “minor” were patched literally with their Chinese translations – 实验，先锋，地下，独立，业余，另类，个人，小众, ignoring the linguistic, cultural and socio-political contexts inhabited within the terms. During this re-signification process that re-links the signifier and the signified, lost and gain was inevitable.
How is “experimental cinema” defined, and what’s the inherent meaning of the term “experimental” in English? Up until now, it’s still a question beyond a consensus of opinions in the English academia. Sitney avoids the term “experimental” since “it implies a tentative and secondary relationship to a more stable cinema” (Sitney, xii). The term “experimental cinema” has also been used interchangeably with “avant-garde,” “underground” and the others frequently to conclude the various forms of minor cinemas that are opposed to the practices of mainstream commercial and documentary filmmaking.
Even though historically most of these terms seem to have dominated the terminology privilege in certain time and space, such as “avant-garde” in the postwar America, “underground” in the 60’s, and “amateur” in between the two periods. The term “experimental” prevails today as it becomes the most popular film festival checkbox option, and thus represents avant-garde, underground and other minor cinemas in general, but some film festivals, such as the student Oscars, still stubbornly choose to use the term “alternative” as its standard.
Nevertheless, there is no consistency of the terms used in English. Film scholars still contradict with each other, and it seems that they enjoy the game of definition and re-defining, and challenging others while being challenged. As long as one makes an “innovative” point different from his or her colleagues, chance is bigger to have a paper published.
But the consequence is, when people are applying the term to describe Chinese cinema, the situation becomes really misleading and discombobulating. An interesting case is that many Chinese documentaries labeled or marketed as “underground” or “independent” are entering international film festivals under the category of “experimental cinema.” Another example is that many “personal” or “avant-garde” Chinese films are made by directors who may actually work, at least occasionally, within the state-owned studio system, such as Zheng, Dasheng’s DV China, which is supported by the state-run CCTV 6.
I choose the term “experimental cinema” and its Chinese counterpart 实验电影to differentiate Chinese “experimental cinema” from the internationally celebrated “underground” and “independent” Chinese cinemas, such as the renowned 6th generation films, which are “avant-garde” mostly in its political sense. The Chinese “underground” and “independent,” on the other hand, are very different from what are generally known as the “underground” or “independent” cinemas in the West.
One obvious distinction is that the Chinese “underground” and “independent” cinemas are always narratives: either in the form of fiction or documentary. According to Paul Pickwick and Yingjin Zhang, “underground” is a term preferred by overseas media and embodies expectations of the subversive function of an alternative culture in contemporary China (viii). “Independent,” on the other hand, means a cinematic project’s independence from the state system of production, distribution, and exhibition, rather than to its sources of financial support, for filmmakers increasingly depend on the private (民营) sector and foreign investment, thereby revealing their status of “in dependence” as joint or coproduces, or even contracted media workers. Simply put, Chinese “underground” or “independent” cinema has already deviated greatly from what is generally perceived as “underground” or “independent” in America. As the internationally celebrated sixth generation Chinese directors such as Jia, Zhangke and Zhang, Yuan, have been gradually coming above-ground, the term “underground” seems to be even more problematic nowadays.
Amateur cinema in China, on the other hand, is not made by actual amateurs who are untrained individuals for whom filmmaking is an activity outside of their main profession (Jaffee, 81). Publishing an article “The Age of Amateur Cinema Will Return” in the newspaper Southern Weekend (南方周末), Jia, Zhangke extols a certain mode of amateurism characterized by low budgets and technical minimalism, on-site shooting, and a focus on daily life in contemporary society among directors who are, by all conceivable standards, professionals (Jaffee, 79).
I choose “experimental cinema” and its Chinese counterpart 实验电影 also due to the fact that the meanings of the two are the closest among the other pairs. However, there are certain differences. 实验 means not only experimental, but also experiment and experimentation. Originally a term referring to the basic method of scientific research to test a theory or presumption, it emphasizes a strong sense of innovation, exploration and creativity, and the bravery of undertaking risk and subversion. Thus, the term is in no sense secondary to the so-called “mainstream.” When it’s teamed with the term 电影 (electric shadow, film, movie, or cinema), it suggests an artistic or aesthetic exploration and avant-gardism that pushes the border of the film medium rather than a political otherness. In other words, 实验电影 (experimental cinema) is more of an art for art’s sake, whereas the 地下 (underground) and 独立 (independent) are more of an art for politics’ sake.
Unlike its Western counterpart, there is often a dichotomy or even detachment of pure art and political art in China. The former usually recourses to an elitism that requires a highly cultivated or educated taste, while the latter always borrows the more popular art forms (such as narrative filmmaking) to influence the mass, or the people in the Maoist sense. Such dichotomy or detachment can be traced back to the main ideology of the two distinct classical Chinese philosophies – Confucianism, and Taoism, representing the political view of “in” and “out,” respectively.
The Chinese experimental cinema started with artistic and aesthetic experimentation that covers a wide range of practice: the absence of linear narrative, the use of various abstracting techniques, the use of asynchronous (non-diegetic) sound, or even the absence of any sound track. The short history of Chinese experimental cinema witnessed various forms and sub-genres that are similar to the poetic cinema, visual symphony, motion painting, in Europe and America. There are also works that resemble the trance film, lyrical film, and structural film described in Sitney Visionary Film. However, although I am attempting to categorize Chinese experimental cinema based on its formalistic originality and subversion, there are certain and growing number of Chinese experimental films that also display political dissidence, and social, humanistic awareness along with their artistic and formalistic otherness.
Absence of Experimental Tradition in early Chinese cinema
Among the very few valuable resources I found online, contemporary Chinese visual artist and scholar Cao, Kai wrote on his blog, a brief history of Chinese experimental cinema.
Cao names any time before 1989 the “prehistory era” of Chinese experimental cinema. Before 1949, the progress of Chinese cinema was a process of localization and nationalization of the imported foreign arts. “The early Shanghai national cinema was mainly an entertainment cinema without an industry. Entertainment and popularization was its fundamental functions” (Cao “童贞”). This is in accordance with another film scholar Hsiung Deh-Ta’s statement that “before the Communist take-over, the film industry in China was practically non-existent,” and that “the early Chinese cinema reminded one of the oldest Hollywood traditions but without the professional flair” (Hsiung). After 1949, Chinese cinema becomes a pedagogical tool of the communist party and the government, even though it was publicized as an art form for the people, a Maoist concept that consists of the workers, peasants and soldiers.
Although Cao acknowledged that there were some experimentations in many mainstream movie sequences during this era, including a surrealist tendency found in the 1979 film Troubled Laughter (dir. Yan, Yanjin), some personal and individual experimentation in Fei, Mu’s pre-1949 narrative films, and few experimental shots in Death Visits the Living (1988, dir. Huang, Jian-zhong), the absence of a self-contained, autonomous experimental cinema was inarguable. This absence of an early experimental cinema has its historical reasons and can be traced back to the time when cinema was first imported to mainland China from the West.
There was never an experimental tradition or movement, such as the French Avant-Garde or the German Expressionism, in China since cinema was introduced for several decades. When Lumiere brothers created the first motion picture camera, they explored the apparatus in a realist path, recording and documenting the streets, trains and workers. When Gorge Meliere approached the camera, he experimented with multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color, transforming reality into a dream world. However, according to Chinese film history scholar Lu, Hongshi “when the first film was made in China, it was neither used as a discovery of reality nor an exploration of the form and language of the medium. It was simply used as a secondary tool to document Peking Opera, a conventional Chinese art form.” The first motion picture filmed by the Chinese is Ding Junshan (1905), a recording of the Peking Opera singer Tan, Xinpei. This film and others alike were welcomed and shown in tea houses to entertain customers. However, they were not able to establish a system for film production and exhibition. Thus, Chinese cinema was tilted at the starting line, and lost the chance to establish a normality of exploration, or namely, an experimental tradition at its birth.
About six or seven years later, Chinese cinema began to distinguish itself as an independent art form instead of simply a carrier of traditional art forms. However, due to the lack of technology and economic support, the early development of Chinese cinema was rather slow and lagging. Besides, such early struggle was almost an exploration of a narrative structure since the classic Western three act dramatic structure was also not a custom yet adopted in Chinese theatre.
Interestingly enough, when some Chinese scholars talk about early experimental cinema or avant-garde, they regard it as a precursor for the development of the mainstream cinema (narrative cinema), instead of an opposition against it. Thus, experimental cinema to some extent serves as technical and artistic experiments with utilitarian functions that pave the way for narrative filmmaking.
According to Lu, the compensation of the absence of experimental cinema in China was experimentations in comedy and martial art cinema since the 1920’s: “in terms of representation and expression, the early genre films adopted new and creative camera trick to attract its audience” (30). “The expressionist tendency in martial art cinema emphasized composition, its visual impact and the setting and design of light and shadows” (35). “Adopting a commercial filmmaking mode, these early genre films substituted avant-garde cinema as the driving force for the development of a national cinema” (35).
Another film scholar contends that due to the history of the pedagogical functions of Chinese culture, cinema was caught in the conflicts between education and entertainment (Chen, 33). There was also a collective unconsciousness among artists to enlighten the audiences and reform the society with artistic tools. In addition, the early history of Chinese cinema was parallel with the national history of a semi-colonialist and revolutionary China that was constantly under the threat of foreign invasions and imperialism. Within such historical background, it is understandable of a constant ignorance and demise against the idea of art for art’s sake in contemporary China, which somehow explains the fact that purist, formalist experimentations hardly ever appealed Chinese artists’ interests until very recently.
Emergence of Chinese Experimental Cinema
The period between 1989 and 1992 has always been acknowledged by film scholars in both China and the West as the turning point of Chinese cinema: The Tiananmen square incident in 1989 led to artist’s disillusionment toward party-controlled artistic creation, and Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992 reflected loosening policy of state control and welcoming of market imperatives. An alternative commercial cinema such as Feng, Xiaogang’s New Year celebration films started to emerge outside of the state-owned studio system that are known for its “4p” main melody cinema – political, propagandistic, and party-promoted. In the meantime, an art-house cinema headed by the fifth generation directors such as Zhang, Yimou and Chen, Kaige was already very active on the international film festival arena. Overshadowed by the above-mentioned two “alternatives,” there has always been a constant ignorance of a minor experimental cinema that also appeared during and even before this period.
This early appearance of experimental cinema, like Chinese cinema in general, had a Western connection at its threshold. According to Xiaoping Lin, author of Children of Marx and Coca-cola,
In the fall of 1982, Andy Warhol and a film crew visited Beijing from Hong Kong on a mission to make a documentary titled “Andy Warhol in China.” They were accepted by Chinese Artists’ Association. Unfortunately, the trip was unknown to avant-garde artists in China because the Chinese host, represented a socialist “official culture” that repressed the avant-garde. Warhol, in turn, was unaware of the existence of the Chinese avant-garde artists (Lin, 6).
However, even though Andy Warhol was not aware of the existence of Chinese avant-garde artists at that time, his visit and his “neo-avant-garde” had an influence on Chinese avant-garde art and experimental cinema later. Zhang Huan, a member of Beijing’s art underground in the 1990s, established himself as performance artist as early as 1993 in the legendary “Beijing East Village,” named after New York’s East Village. He later launched his “studio-factory” in Shanghai in 2006, resembling Warhol’s “factory” in New York. Zhang employs about a hundred craftsmen and is indeed a Warhonian “business art” (6).
Having produced films that had no plot but rather simply recorded daily mundane human activities and everyday objects often seen his paintings, Warhol’s experimental cinema is characteristic of strong documentary and improvisational elements. Such idea and approach towards the cinematic apparatus as “an extension of contemporary art” is also widely seen and adopted in contemporary Chinese experimental cinema. As a matter of fact, a large portion of Chinese experimental cinema came out of video artists, who used to work in other art forms, instead of filmmakers.
In 1989, a German professor was invited to the Central Academy of Fine Arts to give lectures. He brought 8-hour video art information, which included Gary Hill, Bill Violla and Matthew Barney. Works of those artists enlightened two-generation Chinese artists like Zhang, Peili and Qiu, Zhijie to access to the complete video art information and realize the possibility of this medium (Li 2003). Influenced by Gary Hill and his genre, Zhang, Peili, often known as the father of Chinese video art, completed his first video art work 30 x 30 in 1988.
Zhang’s early works displayed an interest on the documented performance of a simple, mundane activity. In 30 x 30, he broke a mirror and glued the fragments together. Then he shattered the glass once again, and painstakingly repaired it. In his 1991 production Hygiene, a chicken is placed in a washbasin and lathered with soap for two hours. The bird is remarkably obedient, rarely flapping its wings or otherwise evading the hands that turn the poor creature into a water-logged feather duster. The form of hygiene visited on the chicken makes about as much sense as washing a child’s mouth with soap for saying something that the kid did not understand (“Peili, Zhang” paragraph 2)
A breakthrough of Zhang’s works is that it tries to distinguish itself with the narrative traditions in both fictive and non-fictive forms that have dominated Chinese cinema for so long, and that he further denied the existence of any traditional measures (Li 2003).
Zhang greatly influenced other artists such as Zhu, Jia; Han, Xuan and Yang, Zhenzhong, whose works, although vary in style and techniques, share “the magnification of life subtlety resulted in unconventional experiences” (Li 2003). Such magnification of life can still be seen in many recent works such as Lu, Chunsheng’s 2000 production Coughing Curves (会咳嗽的曲线). The video starts with a conciseness and simplicity similar to its title: a steady wide angle bird’s eye view shot of a courtyard. The camera documents the path of people walking though the yard, starting with only one person, then a few, and soon dozens of people that form a curve. The 8 minute video eventually ends with a zoom-in shot of a woman swaying between her two feet back and forth on the concrete floor.
Early Chinese experimental cinema had many connections with its Western counterparts and inherited a lot of its aesthetics and practices. However, the origin of Chinese experimental cinema differs significantly since it was derived mostly from concerns on the medium itself while experimental cinema in the West originated from their rebellions to the system or the mainstream.
A contemporary video artist and experimental filmmaker Cao, Kai provides a similar version of the history of Chinese experimental cinema.
Cao calls the years from1989 to now the virginity era (童贞时期) of Chinese experimental cinema, and he divides the era into three phases: the obscuration period (蒙昧时期) from 1989 to1996, the burgeoning period (发轫时期) from 1997 ~ 2001, and the pre-puberty period from 2002 to now (the article was published on his blog in 2009, and presumably 2011 is still in the same phase).
According to Cao, the documentary I graduated (我毕业了) marked the inception of the first phase and the 1996 Hangzhou exhibition Image and Phenomenon, denoted its end. The exhibition, hosted by artists Qiu, Zhijie and Mu, Meichun, was claimed to be the first public event in China that included a large number of experimental video works. In the following year, the two artists organized another exhibition Demonstrating of Video Art China ’97 at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (Berghuis, 134).
This period witnessed the entrance of video technology into China, and few contemporary artists started to set foot in this new medium, seeking for personal and artistic expression. The same period also experienced the new Chinese documentary movement, the merit of which was the breakthrough of former documentary forms, and filmmakers’’ attempts to explore the cinematic language. However, both were early temptations and immature experimentations, and hardly any elaborate experimental work was made during this period.
The second phase, as Cao defined, started with Yang, Fudong’ film An Estranged Paradise, and ended with the First Independent Film Festival held at the Beijing Film Academy in 2001 (Cao “童贞”). It was the same period that experienced the DV movement in China.
Although a feature narrative film of a love story, An Estranged Paradise is often acknowledged as an experimental narrative because of its unconventional cinematography, painting-like composition, asynchronized sound, and poetic visual beauty. Her later short film Back Room – Hey, Dawn, as Cao argues, is very representative of Chinese experimental cinema of the period. The film follows several youths waking up and goofing around in the city in the dawn, wearing military clothing and holding swords (Yang). Unlike the former one, this film totally abandons narrative plot, and its disjointed structure is very reminiscent of the early European surrealist film and American trance film and psycho drama categorized by Sitney in his book Visionary Films, such as Un Chien Andalou, The Cage, and Meshes of the Afternoon.
The film, shot on 35 mm, won the best experimental film award of First Independent Film Festival, the first film festival in China that listed experimental cinema separately as an independent category in parallel with fiction and documentary. Hosted by Beijing Film Academy, Southern Weekend (南方周末, a somewhat dissident Chinese magazine based in Guangzhou), Peking University online, and some other institutions, the event invited not only students, but audiences from all walks of life to attend. It claimed itself to be the first independent and grass-root film festival in China and a comment board was even hung on the front door so that audiences can express their opinions about the films. However, such independence and grass-rootness is easily questioned since the institution hosting the event is the most prestigious, state-run film school.
The third phase started with Zhou, Hongxiang’s 30 minutes silent experimental film The Red Flag Flies and continues until now. An award winning long form experimental short, The Red Flag Flies was shown at several international film festivals including Venice and Berlin. The film elector Serafino Murri from Venice Film Festival even made his comment that there has been a birth of “Jean-Luc Godard” in China (Cui).
A pastiche embedded with political satire arguing that China resists change, and will not progress, reform or be free, the film was programmed under the section of “New Territory” at the Venice international film festival. But due to a “political sensitivity,” the film was not accessible to Chinese audiences. According to a synopsis of the film on Zhang’s personal website, The Red Flag Flies rejects any sort of established film classification, including “plot” film and documentary. It also denies classification by not using unified images, a sense of completeness (beginning, middle, and end) and its peculiar origins of sound (Cui).
However, after watching the film and evaluating its production quality, I insist that The Red Flag Flies was over-celebrated in the West, since it fitted into the niche of peddling a self-orientalizing or even self-depreciating image of China that is generally known as the taste of European art festivals for Chinese films, a path that many 5th and 6th generation directors have been through.
Nevertheless, there is some avant-gardism in the film other than the overt political dissidence. For example, Zhou is bold enough to juxtapose male nudity with the red national flag, which is surprisingly rare in most Chinese experimental films. He directs non-professional actors, welcomes cheap technology, and creates parody with superimpositions and amateurish visual effects. He also defies the traditional narrative structure, and reconstructs dialogue between images, symbols and subtitles.
This period has also witnessed the endorsement of experimental cinema as a category in Chinese film festivals, the founding of major experimental cinema programs in higher educational institutions, and therefore the emergence of many young experimental filmmakers.
After the experimental cinema was added as an official category in the First Independent Film Festival, the following Beijing Independent Film Festival followed and maintained this tradition. Later, experimental cinema was included as a separate competition unit into student film festivals, such as the Visionary Youth Film Festival, hosted by the Communication University of China (the former Beijing Broadcasting Institute). In 2009, an experimental (only) film exhibition called The First Chinese Youth Artists’ Experimental Film and Video was hosted at the Peking University, the nation’s most prestigious university. With an academic committee of 8 members, including 4 university professors from mainland China and Taiwan, 2 experts from governmental art institutions, a British film scholar and a 6th generation Chinese filmmaker Wu Wenguang, the event attracted much attention from both media and academia.
In addition, there were and are some fan clubs hosting events and exhibitions, showcasing and promoting Chinese and Western experimental cinema. In the summer of 2008, a 48 hour film competition was held at the Beijing 798 art district, including an experimental cinema unit. On may 4th (Youth’s day in China) 2008 and 2009, an International Young Art Festival screened multiple experimental films from Spain, Japan, Taiwan and China in the Songzhuang art area in Beijing.
Similar to experimental cinema all around the world, experimental cinema in China is marginalized and only accessible to very limited audiences. Ironically enough, different from most European and American early avant-garde movements (or experimental cinema) that emerged as self-motivated, autonomous counter-cinema against the mainstream filmmaking world; the major emergence of Chinese experimental cinema was a combination of unofficial artistic awakening and institutionalized movement propelled by academia, which is presumably supported by the state. A supplement to fiction narrative and documentary filmmaking, the emergence of experimental cinema completes the taxonomy system of Chinese cinema and makes up the decades’ absence of an alternative cinema.
Refreshing Chinese Experimental Cinema: Production and Exhibition
There are two major origins of experimental filmmakers in China. The first and biggest group of contributors so far is video artists. Very few works of these video artists include storytelling; their works concentrate more on the exploration of the visual language and its boundary, and often reflect the idea of rendering a dynamic image from abstract art concept. The most representative figures include the Hangzhou based Gao, Shiqiang, and Shanghai based Lu, Chunsheng.
Figure 1: Gao, Shiqiang’s work
Gao’s work carries a sense of broadness and complexity towards the reflection and bodily experience of daily life, and in the meantime conceives Chinese history and culture. Gao created Faint With Oxygen as the result of an invitation to produce a work on the Tibetan plateau. The video begins with a series of close-up portraits of shepherds in high grasslands, focusing eventually on a young man, Gairi Luosong Gelai, who was forced to teach himself Chinese by listening to the radio. While the work takes a panoramic look at a particular landscape and its inhabitants, it also examines the way language can spark the cultural imagination (“Gao Shiqiang”).
Gao also completed a piece called Red (2008) that contains political symbolism about the Cultural Revolution. “The Red Revolution was, undoubtedly, a magnificent jolt and beautiful ideal. But this ideal brought constant tragedy to mankind,” writes Gao in his statement about this piece. “For those of my generation, history has transformed into a trance and the real world into a joke” (Banks).
Acknowledged as a photographer video and multimedia artist, Lu is preoccupied with the Industrial Era and Communist History, creating art in a mystic rather than nostalgic way. Using fixed camera positions, endless drawn-out shots and seemingly amateurish shooting techniques, he documents human behavior in inexplicable and often bizarre situations (“Lu Chunsheng”). One example is the above-mentioned The Coughing Curve; another is Lu’s work Hey, Lana (2000), which also displays such style: a group of people along with a statue stand in a row, leaning toward a wall with their heads attached to it. They either walk through or stand still in the city as if they are on a platform without any sense of direction.
Figure 2 Hey, Lana
This group of Chinese experimental filmmakers usually have backgrounds in fine arts, and have extended their interest to the new medium – video. Most of their works are devoid of a conventional narrative structure seen in most Chinese cinema, whether fiction or documentary, live action or animation. Many of them identify themselves as video artists instead of filmmakers at first since filmmaking in the history of Chinese cinema has always been obsessed with or exclusive to the narrative form, a tradition that is often conceived by the Chinese as close to literature, while non-linear, abstract and formal aesthetics are linked with art. However, video artists are gradually assimilated into the family of experimental cinema as their works are entering film festivals both domestically and internationally.
Another major and also more recent candidate pool for Chinese experimental filmmaking is the academy. In the early 2000s, with the trend of higher education expansion in China, major educational institutions, university and art institute alike, have set up film art, animation art, media art, and other visual art programs. The students and alumni of these programs become the fresh blood of contemporary experimental cinema.
The Department of New Media Art founded at the China Academy of Arts in 2003, the New Media Art program created at the Beijing Film Academy in 2004, and the Department of Experimental Cinema at the Central Academy of Fine Arts started in 2005 are the earliest and most influential programs among others. With both technical and artistic resources, these institutions announce the completion of a high-end training base for experimental filmmakers, whose works can be widely seen in recent independent and experimental film festivals in Beijing and Shanghai.
However, the three schools have very distinct approaches to experimental filmmaking. As the country’s first and most renowned film educational institution, Beijing Film Academy (BFA) is the cradle of most 5th and 6th generation Chinese filmmakers and has a long tradition of narrative filmmaking. Its departments and programs are designed very similar to the west coast industry-oriented professional film schools in the US, such as the American Film Institute, University of Southern California, UCLA and Chapman University. The experimental film/video program in BFA is named as “New Media Art” under the department of Art and Design (美术系) and is a very minor program within a big narrative filmmaking environment. Interestingly, the program is also parallel with a special effect program, a character design program and a set design program in the same department, all of which are very specialized and career-oriented for narrative filmmaking.
The experimental film/animation program in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, jointly held with California Institute of Arts is less embarrassingly placed within the School of Urban Design. As one of the nation’s top educational institutions for fine art (but not film), the Central Academy of Fine Arts has a great reputation for nurturing artists, mainly painters, sculptors among others.
Qiuyan Wu, a graduate from the experimental film/animation joint program at the Central Academy of Fine Arts who currently teaches at the same university, provides a synopsis of his project Understand (Wu Jing) on his blog: dreamland, restless sleeping ideal, fragments of memories, belief and impulse filling the doubtful dust, and overlapped reality and illusion (Wu). The video starts with the shadow of a Buddha’s bronze sculpture filmed from behind, gradually revealing the back and the head of the Buddha by manipulating the lighting. Then a humming and fluctuating sound enters, and aligns with the shaking head of the Buddha. The video consists of several steady/still shots of the Buddha from different angles and perspectives, and ends with a fade-out of the Buddha that mirrors the beginning.
Tan, Tan, also a former graduate and current faculty member at Central Academy of Fine Arts has made several experimental films that are shown internationally. Her recent work Positive (2010) is a conceptual art that links the yin-yang philosophy to the positive-negative AIDS.
The Department of New Media Art founded at the China Academy of Arts could probably be traced back to the early 1990’s when Zhang, Peili became a faculty member at the school. The program used to be a research center of the new media art until its first official foundation as an independent department in 2003. Recently in 2010, it combined with two other departments that constituted the School of Intermedia (跨媒体学院).
While the former two intuitions have contributed to the experimental cinema circle in Beijing, also known as the “North,” the China Academy of Arts have nurtured most of the Chinese experimental filmmakers that are based in Hangzhou, Nanjing or Shanghai, the Changjiang triangle area. Some artists from Hangzhou migrated to Shenzhen and Hong Kong, which are the geographical South, often referred as the Zhujiang triangle area.
An alumnus from the prestigious China Academy of Arts, Cao, Kai notes that there are also two minor origins of Chinese experimental filmmakers. One group is grass-root artists who were working in other art forms, such as Wu, Quan, a vocal artist in Beijing, Shi, Gang, an architect in Guangzhou, Li, Ning, an avant-garde dancer in Jinan and Li, Wen, a designer in Wuhan (Cao “初潮”).
Another source of minor experimental cinema is short experimental exercises or improvisations made by feature film directors, such as Jia, Zhangke and Gan, Xiao’er. Jia’s La Condition Canine (2001) and In Public (2001) were shown in the Museum of Modern Arts in March, 2010 (Jia).
Another example is filmmaker and professor Gan, Xiao’er’s film Ruo Ji Ruo Li(若即若离). According to one of Gan’s student’s film review, it’s a 90 minutes slow motion long take.
“In the film, the space is limited to a small apartment, the characters include a man and a woman, but there is no dialogue, no plot, only movements, sound of movements, objects, and sound objects. Eventually Gan, Xiaoer told us that he did not know what the relationship between male and female was. He just wanted a catharsis of materialized, past shocking feelings, and inspirations” (Hairmelon).
To conclude, the history of Chinese experimental cinema is very different from its Western counterparts. The emergence of such an experimental cinema in China is attributive to three different forces: foreign influence, self-awareness and arousal of Chinese artists, and state support. With a strong connection and overlapping with video art, Chinese experimental cinema distinguishes itself from the internationally renowned “underground” and “independent” 6th generation Chinese cinema. With several educational programs infusing artist creativity and film festivals’ ongoing coverage, Chinese experimental cinema has found itself a very comfortable niche in the academy. Considering that the world economic center is gradually shifting from North America to East Asia and that Chinese contemporary art has received growing attention and funding from the West, Chinese experimental cinema will probably welcome a blooming era in the foreseeable future.
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