Posted by Joel Martinsen on Wednesday, March 28, 2007 at 11:50 PM
There's been a lot of discussion recently about remarks made by a SARFT official at a film conference in Jiangsu last week. Zhang Hongsen, deputy director of the Administration's Film Bureau, let fly at a number of art films that he said were shameful for the Chinese people.
Fan Bingbing and Tong Dawei lost in Beijing.
· Jia Zhangke's Still Life: Zhang suggested that Jia cuts himself off from the people he films, and pointed to the dismal box-office for Still Life as evidence of artistic failure. Jia responded that Zhang's words did not sound like the friend he knew, and trusted that they'd been taken out of context. He affirmed that all critics have a right to their own opinions about his work.
· Lu Yue's Thirteen Princess Trees: Zhang attacked the broken ethical system of the film: "From Kubrick to Takeshi Kitano, there are many movies in the history of world cinema that reflect the cruelty of adolescence, but none of them are as confused as Thirteen Princess Trees. Contemporary students have many problems, but is their moral value system so degenerate?" Lu responded that since the film had been killed, such criticism was only natural, though 'degenerate' might be pushing it a bit.
· Ning Ying's Perpetual Motion: Zhang disliked the depiction of the bourgeoisie in this film, which came out last year: "It is decadent, vapid, and despondent. The creators made no judgments; on the contrary, it seems that they appreciated this feeling. I feel that this must be corrected. The master Luis Bunuel filmed The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that portrayed the middle class, but he used the scalpel of cinema to dissect society and get people to think. This is where our young directors need more study."
· Li Yu's Lost in Beijing (苹果): Zhang thought that this film took advantage of ideological differences to chase international awards, insulting the Chinese people in the process. He said, "Our directors should consciously defend the honor of the motherland." Li affirmed that all critics have a right to their own opinions about her work.
Running through Zhang's criticisms was the notion that cinema is a tool for promoting Chinese culture abroad. He worried that international audiences would gain a mistaken impression of China through these films, and cited approvingly the words of a Berlin judge who said that Beijing is nothing like Lost in Beijing.
In its report on the Berlin festival, Hollywood Reporter notes that far from being impressed with the lawlessness and depravity of China as depicted Li Yu's film, audiences gradually walked out complaining that it was boring. In an earlier interview with HR, Li said that she wanted "Lost in Beijing" to be used for the Chinese title as well (instead of "Apple"), but the Film Bureau objected to the use of "Beijing".*
As usual with recent SARFT pronouncements (whether ex cathedra or at unofficial conferences), public opinion went fairly heavily against the Administration. Here's an op-ed by Chang Ping in Southern Metropolis Weekly, where he is deputy editor-in-chief:
SARFT spoofs domestic filmsby Chang Ping / SMW
What is SARFT for? Most people would think that it is used to criticize domestic film and TV; otherwise, why would it issue ban after ban on TV and demand cut after cut during film reviews? Not long ago, a SARFT official issued a statement after watching a TV program that parodied Curse of the Golden Flower and The Banquet, saying, "artistic works should not be permitted to criticize domestic film." Perhaps because this had too much of a "officials may set fires but the people may not light lamps"-flavor and was too divorced from common sense, the media felt uncomfortable recording his exact words in their reports, and voluntarily changed it to "domestic films cannot be spoofed" (不准恶搞国产电影).
But it appears that SARFT was not grateful; they apparently really wanted you to understand: forbidding you from playing at something was for no other purpose than to keep it for themselves. So goes criticism, and so goes such a fun pursuit as egao. For example, saying "Restricting broadcasts of foreign cartoons during prime-time is the cry of the youth" is very egao: evidently those TV stations were stupidly unaware of the demands of the audience, but fought to broadcast foreign cartoons that were detested by the general youth. Recently, a deputy director at SARFT blasted Li Yu's Lost in Beijing and urged Jia Zhangke to learn sympathy for others. No matter how you look at it, straight-faced irony, egao criticism.
According to that deputy director, Lost in Beijing tells the story of a migrant worker couple. The wife is raped by her boss, and the husband uses this to blackmail the boss for 20,000 yuan. When he finds his wife is pregnant, he demands 120,000. The deputy director said, "As artistic expression, this story can be forgiven. But as Chinese people, we cannot permit this film to make an insulting depiction of our times." Why is it that "Chinese people" and "artistic expression" are so incompatible? His statement sounds a little bit insulting to the Chinese people. As for the story, even speaking from a strict interpretation of the law, isn't this just an out-of-court arrangement of a civil matter subsidiary to a criminal investigation, commonly called a "private settlement"? Give it to a judge, and it's possible that the judgment would be for 120,000 yuan - how does this insult the Chinese people? It's too egao! Thinking it over, it's best just to trust the analysis of someone online: "What an outrage! How could our bosses or leaders rape? Our boss only seduces, commits adultery, and drives good women to prostitution!"
As for Jia Zhangke, this deputy director's evaluation was genuinely innovative. Jia Zhangke has neither box-office nor scandal; isn't it his reliance on "compassion for lower levels" that's allowed him to make it to today? Even Zhang Weiping wasn't so bold as to deny this point during their argument, and he even admitted that Jia makes "art films" - in the minds of movie people, "art film" is a term of respect. This deputy director used his position as a "good friend" to say, "I've reminded Jia Zhangke that if he wants to climb high, he must have compassion for others." The words of this "good friend" were too weighty, virtually ripping everything out from under him, and they were directed at an entire generation: for sixth-generation directors, this is a common failing, to "not infuse movies with one's own feelings, but to depict things too objectively from the standpoint of an observer. This naturalistic description can extremely easily become an absolute realism. They've ignored drama; what they shoot looks exceptionally icy, monotonous, and insufficiently saturated with color...." What would the outcome be of following this deputy director's prescription for warmth, saturation, and drama? Isn't it clear to everyone that this would be a "main theme" film? He no longer uses "not permitted" in his sentence structure, but rather uses the techniques of artistic criticism to issue orders, the position of a good friend to perform administrative work. This too is egao. Like they say, face heaven and earth without reservation, but fear the official who's got an education.
* * *
Shanghai Youth Daily managed to find someone to support the minority position in a point-counterpoint column, but Lu Gaofeng's argument basically boils down to something like 'don't air our country's dirty laundry overseas':
And short piece by Xu Bin in Monday's Mirror put the whole issue to rest by citing everyone's favorite critic of the dark soul of the Chinese people:
Note 1: Oddly, a January China Daily report implies the opposite. However, since its report on Zhang's criticisms names Jia Zhangke as Apple's director, that interpretation might be suspect.
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Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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