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Chinese Independent Cinema : origins, development and present challenges

Le cinéma indépendant chinois : origines, développement et défis actuels

par Brigitte Duzan

Communication à un colloque sur le cinéma indépendant chinois, mars 2012

Révisé novembre 2012


 “Chinese independent cinema” is an expression which has been coined by the very directors most commonly associated with the movement. It appears in the title of a book which has marked their strongest assertion of existence as a community, namely a collection of interviews with ten directors published in 2007 under the title “On the Edge : Chinese Independent Cinema” (《中国独立电影:访谈录》) (1).


By that time, it was generally accepted as a common reference for those filmmakers and applied to a movement which had evolved from a chaotic underground movement to a more disciplined one, trying to negotiate with the authorities for a recognized position within Chinese cinema. But it had begun some eighteen years before.


It all started in the aftermath of the Tian’anmen events of June 1989, in a period of repression, of drastic curtailment of


On the Edge : Chinese Independent Cinema

the relative freedom that had blossomed in the few years before. It resulted in a breach in the monopolistic state system, but it was not so much a conscious move towards artistic freedom, still less a gesture of defiance ; it was rather a personal initiative driven by circumstances. It then developed because technical progress made it possible to shoot a film on a shoe-string budget, without the need to depend on a studio.


This is the first signification of what is meant by Chinese independent cinema : mainly underground filmmaking, breaking loose from the state-sanction production system. Thence the first questions which come to anybody’s mind : How did this happen, and why ? And as in a criminal movie : who did it ? Then how did it become a full-fledged independent movement ?


But a further reflection inevitably leads to question the very concept of independence : it does not exist in the absolute, but is always defined as an absence of dependence on something or somebody. The next step therefore leads to ask : can we really speak of independent cinema ? Has it ever been independent ? Is it a significant concept today  ? And if so, in which respect ?


I. Independence : origins and development


Chinese independent cinema developed at the same time in both documentary and fiction, and actually blurred the two concepts : independent cinema is also a stylistic story. The chronology usually starts with one specific fiction film and filmmaker, but we have to add the documentary counterpart to have the whole picture, especially since the cross-breeding happened from the very start.


1. Fiction films : Zhang Yuan


Zhang Yuan (张元), who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in June 1989, is generally credited with the first independent film of the post-Tian’anmen period : « Mama ». This is not exactly so, but it did signal a movement to cut lose from the State studio system to shoot films that could not otherwise have been made. It is interesting to underline that Zhang Yuan’s decision to shoot outside a studio was a circumstantial move, and had originally no definite pre-intention, just the desire to finish a film…


a)  « Mama »


« Mama » (《妈妈》) started as a project of the Children’s Film Studio ; Zhang Yuan was still a student at the Beijing Film Academy, but was supposed to be the film’s cinematographer, his major at the Academy. The script was called « The Sun Tree » (《太阳树》). Zhang Yuan worked on


Zhang Yuan

the storyboard with the scriptwriter Qin Yan (秦燕), who was also to be the lead actor in the film. But, three months later, the studio decided to cancel the whole project which was not deemed profitable enough.


Dai Qing


It was then taken over by the August First Studio, this time with another director, but Zhang Yuan again as cinematographer. He was even sent scouting for locations as far as Dunhuang. But the project was again cancelled, after the Tian’anmen Square events, mainly because the script was based on a short story by Dai Qing (戴晴).


Originally an engineer working on guided missile systems for the PLA, Dai Qing became an army writer, then, in 1982, a columnist for the 

Guangming Daily (光明日报) ; in 1989, she openly opposed the Three Gorges Dam Project, and collected material on the subject which was later published in a book. At the time of the Tian’anmen Square protests, Dai Qing joined other scholars, calling on the government to curtail corruption and support democratic reform. When students staged large protests that included a hunger strike, Dai Qing made a passionate speech on Tian’anmen Square, encouraging students to leave peacefully to avoid bloodshed. She was one of those who warned the students that, if they stayed, they could provoke a violent crackdown that could seriously set back the process of reform. She was not heeded, and the crackdown came on June 4. Dai Qing was arrested on June 14, and stayed in prison until January 1990, but was still kept under surveillance until May.


Under those circumstances, the film project was understandably shelved. But Zhang Yuan had already worked so much on it, he did not want to give it up. The film focuses on a librarian struggling to raise her mentally handicapped son in Beijing while, at the same time, dealing with an absent and unresponsive husband. Zhang Yuan had developed a deep and emotional understanding of the subject, and had even interviewed several mothers of handicapped children, interviews which he later integrated


Dongdong and his mother, in Mama

into his film, increasing its feeling of gritty reality.


He therefore decided to go ahead, and revised the script with his wife, the scriptwriter Ning Dai (宁岱), and with Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅). He shot the film in his apartment, mostly in black and white, on a shoe-string budget of 100 000 yuans, financed with funds collected from his family and his friends, plus grants he had collected from small enterprises, touring the country with a letter of recommendation of the National Association of Handicapped Children.


In China, the film was deemed much too dark, and was banned as soon as it went public, in 1990 ; on the contrary, it was feted abroad in various film festivals and even won the Special Jury Prize at the Nantes Three Continents Film Festival in 1991. On that occasion, the president of the Jury referred to Zhang Yuan as “the first Chinese independent director and producer”, to the astonishment of Zhang Yuan who had had no idea of the sort.


In fact, it was not even exactly true. « Mama » had been formerly declared and registered, under a licence number of the Xi’an studio. Those license numbers were necessary to get approval to buy film rolls. Four copies were then made of the film, one was bought by Shenzhen local governement, two others by the provincial  administrations of Hubei and Jiangsu, and the last one by the city of Shanghai which, at the time, had the only arthouse cinema in China. Strictly speaking, it was therefore not really independent.


b)  « Beijing bastards »


This was not the case of Zhang Yuan’s second film : “Beijing Bastards” (《北京杂种》), in 1993. From the very start, the film’s credits show no sign of either licence number or film studio : this very silence proclaims it is « hors système ».


A bleak picture of youth, played by rock musicians and artists, blending reality and fiction,  it is an allegory of the situation in China after Tian’anmen, meaning that the young Chinese considered themselves as bastards of the regime. It is a veiled denunciation of the repression which followed June 4th, since the famous rock musician Cui Jian (崔健), who plays the main part, had his music played in the square during the students’ protests, rock music at the time being a sign and symbol of rebellion.


Zhang Yuan has emphasized that the film also has its message of hope : at the end, the crying new-born baby is


Beijing Bastards

supposed to symbolize the future renaissance of Beijing and its youth. But it remains, on the whole, a grim, desolate and desperate movie that no studio would have produced.


Cui Jian, symbol of rebellion

beginning 1990’s


It could in fact be made thanks to a grant of the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Festival, and was produced by three of the film’s main figures : Cui Jian who plays the main part, but also wrote the music and part of the script, Christopher Doyle who was the cinematographer, and Hong Kong filmmaker Shu Kei whom Zhang Yuan had met at the Nantes film festival. However, for lack of money, postproduction was suspended in 1992, and could be finished only thanks to the help of the French ministry of Culture.


So, from this very start, independence was already quite relative, since it entailed a dependence on foreign sources of financing, technical backing and promotion. This made the situation at home quite difficult, turning into a kind of game of cat and mouse.


What made matters worse, was that Zhang Yuan “dared”

show his film at the Locarno Film Festival, in spite of the Film Bureau contrary advice ; they even threatened Marco Müller who was at the time the director of the festival. The announcement of the special mention garnered by “Beiing Bastards” was the last straw. Zhang Yuan was officially condemned as “spiritual polluter” and blacklisted.


The move was rather drastic. Not only could he no longer make films in China, other artists were also forbidden to work with him – the ban extended to six other filmmakers ; studios were forbidden to let them rent cameras or other equipment. At the same time, the authorities promoted commercial and ‘harmless’ films, blockbusters (大片) and  New Year’s entertainment (贺岁片). This further marginalized the young independent filmmakers, but did not stop them. 1994-1996 is one of the best periods for independent films.


Zhang Yuan went on filming… but a documentary first : documentaries did not have to be submitted to the censorship bureau, they enjoyed relatively more freedom ; furthermore, it was adapted to the very subjects the new filmmakers wanted to film, and indeed it developed quickly in those years.


2.  Documentaries : Wu Wenguang                                  


Here, again, the general consensus is to point to a specific filmmaker and film to mark the beginning of what has been called the New Documentary movement. But the story does not really start so abruptly. First, what appears as a sudden shift of focus in subject and style comes from the preceding period, from the “cultural fever” of the late 1980’s, and the gradual consciousness that society was changing and that, in the process, many people were left aside, on the margins, and had to be accounted for, an awareness which came along mainly because filmmakers identified with them.


But there was no way for a filmmaker, still less than anybody else, to express a personal view of what was happening, of what they felt was happening. Documentaries in China since 1949 have been a monopoly, in the hands of a central agency called the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio (中央新闻记录电影制片厂), created on the 7th of July 1953 as an agency depending from the Party, as were the Xinhua Agency and People’s daily. Documentaries had the sole purpose of explaining history and serving official propaganda. They were educational tools.


But they have in fact a much longer history which needs to be quickly recalled, to show that, when the new documentary movement started at the turn of the 1980’s, it did not come entirely out of the blue.


a) A long history made short


The Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio had its origins in the Yan’an Film Group (延安电影团), founded in 1938 under the leadership of the 8th Route Army political department. But the first documentary, called “Yan’an and the 8th Route Army” (《延安与八路军》), was made by Yuan Muzhi (袁牧之), who had just finished “Street Angels” (马路天使) the year before. It was made in heroic conditions, with a camera left by Joris Ivens, another one bought in Hong Kong, and hardly enough film ; post-production was made in Moscow in 1940, at the outset of the war with Germany, so that the film was lost.


But the point, here, is that Yuan Muzhi himself was the inheritor in the 1930’s of a documentary tradition which can boast two leading forerunners : Sun Mingjing and


Yuan Muzhi

Cheng Bugao. If Sun Mingjing (孙明经) became part of the establishment after 1949, at the end of the 1930’s he made a series of documentaries which can be considered as independent : his series about the old Tea-Horse Road, about the Ya’an salt-mines and about people and sceneries in Xikang. But his purpose was mainly educational.


Cheng Bugao


This was not the case of Cheng Bugao (程步高), and he can truly be considered as a forerunner of an independent documentary movement. He started his career making documentaries in a small studio, the Dalu studio (大陆影片公司), which he created in the early 1920’s for the purpose of showing what he was able to do and getting his name known in order to gain entry into one of the big studios of Shanghai. That is how and why he made two documentaries : “Wu Peifu” (《吴佩孚》), a portrait of a fascinating but ruthless commander of the Zhili Clique, and “Luoyang Scenery” (《洛阳风景》), a forerunner of the Chinese “scenery films”.


Later on, as he was working in the Mingxing studio, he resumed shooting documentaries, at least on two specific occasions : one in 1932, when the Japanese launched their first assault on Shanghai, he went to shoot “ The Battle of Shanghai” (《上海之战》). But much more interesting is the

film he made one year later, the same year as his more famous « Spring Silkworms » (《春蚕》). The film is called “Wild Torrent” (《狂流》) and was made on the basis of a documentary, but mixing reality and fiction.


It all started with a natural disaster in May 1931 : the Yangzi flooded sixteen provinces. Cheng Bugao went to film the disaster area around Wuhan with two cameramen, and came back with a documentary showing a shocking contrast between the poor victims fighting to survive and the rich contemplating the scene from afar. Back in Shanghai, he showed the rushes to his friend Xia Yan (夏衍), one of the leading scriptwriters of the Mingxing film company with whom he was working on the script of “Spring Silkworms” ; under the spell of these images, Xia Yan imagined a story taking place in that context, and focusing on the social conflict between victims left fighting for themselves and rich families going on with their life of leisure.


Cheng Bugao then made the film, mixing footage from his documentary with scenes of fiction, so that the difference


Xia Yan

was blurred, the main part being played by Hu Die (胡蝶). The film had such an impact on the audience at its first public screening, on the 5th of March 1933, that it resulted in an immediate reaction of the Nationalist government : studios suspected of leftist tendencies were ransacked by squads of “Blue Shirts” and their films blacklisted. It is generally considered as the true beginning of left-wing cinema. 


In this respect, it must be underlined that the spirit that presided over the emergence of this cinema as well as its later development bears many similarities with the situation at the beginning of Chinese independent cinema in the 1990’s. When one considers the cinema produced in Shanghai in the early 1930’s, the similarities are confounding. It has also be noted by Zhang Zhen in her introduction to her book “The Urban Generation” * :

In modern Chinese history, the 1930’s and 1990’s stand out as strikingly parallel in terms of accelerated modernization and urban transformation, aggressive industrial and post-industrial capitalism, and an explosion of mass culture with the accompanying issues of social fragmentation and dislocation.”


A few lines later, she adds this revealing comment :

When asked about the influence on him of the cinema of the 1930’s, Zhang Yuan characterized it as “the most stylish and moving” and “the most lively period” in Chinese film history.”


But chance was the determining factor, like a spark igniting a pyre.


b) The New Documentary movement of the 1990’s


It is not pure coincidence that, in October 1993, the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio was formally placed under the authority of CCTV. In fact, it was allotted such a ridiculously small budget that it mainly subsists as manager of the vast stock of documentaries it owns, which are nowadays used by filmmakers shooting films on Chinese history, and particularly the war. Official documentaries are now made by and for television programs.


But, at the same time, a new documentary movement emerged, quite reminiscent of the 1930’s and in line with the social preoccupations of the time, centred on the lower and marginal classes of society, those bottom (底层) margins of the chaotic urban environment which the fiction filmmakers were also focusing on.


It is generally considered that the movement started in the winter of 1991-92 : a big conference on documentary filmmaking took place in Beijing at that time, and was the opportunity to screen a number of new works, mainly for television, but among the films screened was the one by Wu Wenguang (吴文光) called “Bumming in Beijing : the last dreamers” (《流浪北京 : 最后的梦想者》), which had also been screened at the 1991 Vancouver festival. Wu Wenguang’s intention was to get away from the newsreel style of Chinese


Wu Wenguang

official documentary as it had evolved since Yan’an times, and revert to a cinematic style, at a time when the general preoccupation was to fight against a return to ideological rigidity in the aftermath of Tian’anmen.


Bumming in Beijing


Wu Wenguang had started his film at the beginning of 1989, focusing on five of his artist friends, all illegal residents in Beijing who, in order to try and fulfil their dreams, had refused a job in some remote province after graduating from university. He was trying to capture an authentic impression of the dark reality of life in the post-Tian’anmen back alleys of the capital. The film broke new ground in its style as well as its subject : it was influenced by the cinéma-vérité style used in a Japanese TV serial famous at the time, and developed into a personalized and subjective approach. It is shot in long slow sequences, like reflecting on empty spaces, with long moments of silence, recalling classical painting where the void is the main element. But these moments of silent reflection are like the negative echo, the other face of the Tian’anmen protests, the silence after the storm. It is a rather gloomy reflection, without any positive outcome.


Wu Wenguang was very close to the other filmmaker at the start of the independent cinema movement, this same Zhang Yuan who launched the break with the studio system and whose third film was, actually, a documentary of the same kind, co-directed with another member of the new documentary movement,  Duan Jinchuan (段锦川): “The Square” (《广场》). It seems that the idea of the new documentary movement was initiated at a private meeting in the house Zhang Yuan had then in a hutong in Xidan (which has since then been destroyed). But the term itself appeared for the first time on the documents presenting “The Square” at the 16th Hong Kong International Film festival, in 1993.


Zhan Yuan films ordinary, everyday life on the square : children playing with kites, old people playing frisbee, people


Duan Jinchuan

passing by, bicycling, others visiting, everything is quiet, peaceful. But then, there are the policemen and soldiers, revealing the omnipresent control of the State. And at the end of the film, salves of cannon are fired, for some visiting foreign statesman, and suddenly there is a flash of anxiety, tension flaring on everybody’s face…


The film was made right when Zhang Yuan had been blacklisted and forbidden to film in China. He did it pretending to be working for CCTV. He captures every reaction, without dialogues nor music.


Duan Jinchuan, for his part, was influenced by Wu Wenguang whom he met in 1990 while he was shooting “The Last Dreamers”. Both of them, in turn, were influenced by other documentary filmmakers’ works they saw in 1993 at the Yamagata Film festival, where Wu Wenguang was awarded the Ogawa Shinsuke prize for his documentary “When I Was a Red Guard” (《我的红卫兵时代》). They were particularly awed by Frederick Wiseman and Bob Connolly.


Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅) too was part of the early days of this new documentary movement. He had been sent to the Fujian studio, in 1988, but managed to find enough money, about 10 000 $, to shoot his first film, in 1993 : a fiction film, but focusing on the life of two young painters who were playing their own part. In English, it is called “The days”, but the Chinese title (《冬春的日子》) means ‘the days of Dong and Chun’. The man was in fact the now famous painter Liu Xiaodong (刘小东), who at the time led the same marginal life as Wu Wenguang’s friends.


The film was immediately put on the black list, but this kind of subject became commonplace. It was still the subject of the first full-length documentary made by Huang Weikai (黃偉凱) in 2005 : “Floating” (《飘》), on the wanderings of a street musician.


The Days


In the second half of 1995, however, the independent filmmakers turned again to fiction. But in doing so, they incurred the wrath of the authorities.


3. The turning point of 1996


Zhang Yuan was again on the forefront. Right after “The Square”, he made a film called « Sons » (《儿子》), once again intermingling reality and fiction, since it tells the story of two young neighbours of his whose life and family were destroyed by their father’s alcoholism and drifted on the verge of marginalization.


a) New restrictions


Then, in 1996, he made « East Palace, West Palace » (《东宫西宫》), the first film in China overtly on the subject of homosexuality, subtly using the theme as a symbol of the opposition between official and underground, between centre and margin, and reverting to the old imagery and symbolism of Chinese traditional opera. This was enough to have problems.


In addition, however, Zhang Yuan managed to get his film out of China for post-production in France. In 1997, it was then part of the official selection of the 50th Cannes film festival, section “Un certain regard”, and was widely publicized.  When Zhang Yuan came back to China afterwards, he was deprived of his passport and the Chinese authorities had passed drastic measures to make sure this unfortunate state of event would not happen again in the future - which heralded a period of tightened shooting conditions.


East Palace, West Palace


The 1st of July 1996, the SARFT (State Administration for Radio, Film and Television) issued a new regulation in 64 points which strictly forbade the making of any film outside the state studios ; in addition, no film could be produced, distributed or imported without prior agreement of the censorship authorities. Of course, as many Chinese laws and regulations, it is a masterpiece of ambiguity, ideal to justify the interdiction of any film whatsoever : it starts with six good reasons to ban a film (if it constitutes a danger for the State, defames it, reveals State secrets, encourages pornography, superstition or violence), but then a seventh point adds that it can also be banned “for any other content forbidden by the legislation.”


A double movement immediately followed – the one towards continuing independence, the other back to the studio system - but both with dire consequences.


b) Movement back to the studios


This new 1996 regulation started a movement back to the studio system, since it was in theory now impossible to make a film outside a studio. But it is also the beginning of very hard times for those who decided to reintegrate the system : the art of compromise became a must, a quite frustrating art of compromise. Here again the cases of Zhang Yuan and Wang Xiaoshuai are emblematic.


1. Zhang Yuan


In 1999, Zhang Yuan makes a film in the Xi’an studio which marks his return to the State system ; it is his first film to have been released in China : “Seventeen years” (《过年回家》). The story takes place in Tianjin ; a young girl who has just spent seventeen years in prison for killing her half sister is granted permission to go back to her family for the New Year ; but, at the moment of leaving, nobody comes to collect her. A young female prison guard then offers to accompany her back home. But, when they arrive, they discover the old house has been torn down and her parents have moved somewhere else…


It took Zhang Yuan a whole year to get his script approved, but he did, and he even got the authorization to film within a prison, which actually was the main reason why he so much wanted to have his film approved. It was the first time a


Seventeen Years

camera entered a Chinese prison. The film was released in December 1999, and it was a big success.


2. Wang Xiaoshuai


The other interesting example of early attempts to play by the rules is that of Wang Xiaoshuai, who was one the first to decide to do so. But it was not such a success story.


Way back in 1994, he had conceived a project which was supported by Tian Zhuanzhuang (田壮壮). It was originally called “The Vietnamese Girl”, but the script was refused by the censorship bureau. It took three years of negociating, arguing and bickering, even the title had to be changed. Finally the film was authorized, under the Chinese title “The porter and the girl” (《扁担·姑娘》) - translated “So Close to Paradise”. It was produced by Han Sanping and the Beijing studio.


But the finished product had hardly anything to do with the initial project. It has kept something of the original film noir atmosphere and style, with a wonderful work on colours, watered blues slashed by sudden outbursts of light and flashes of red, but it is so diluted it has lost all significance. Censors have changed the focus, from style to emotion, in a very ordinary Chinese fashion, and the script itself is at times incoherent, making it hard to follow the story.


So Close to Paradise


What is worse is that accepting the censors’ requirements did not even help the film get a good distribution, since it was still considered with suspicion, even hostility, by the authorities, for its dark atmosphere and pessimistic vision of urban reality. Production started in 1994, but it was not distributed in China before autumn 1998, and still with limited diffusion. It was shown in Cannes in May 1999, in the section “Un certain regard”, and was granted the Tiger award of best film at the 2000 Rotterdam film festival, but it remains a film of compromise.


It had been supported by Wang Xiaoshuai’s friends in the Beijing film studio who had lost a lot of money with  it. So Wang Xiaoshuai then made a comedy, hoping they would thus recoup at least part of their losses. But the film was shot in nightmarish conditions, and resulted in still worse losses.


So, for his next film, Wang Xiaoshuai did not bother to pass censorship, with the result that the film, “Beijing Bicycle” (十七岁的单车), was banned, in 2001. He had gone full circle.


c) Continuing independence from the studios


The frustrating limitations of working within the system were enough to convince many independent filmmakers to remain independent, in spite of the difficulties. But, at that very moment, fortunate circumstances made it easier to film outside the studios.


The so-called ‘digital revolution’ changed the rules of the game. Not only was it now possible to have light equipment, with the possibility of editing the film on a personal computer, it was also perfectly adapted to the mainly urban subjects filmed : it permitted a free and personal style, a vivid rendering of day to day, ordinary life close to the characters depicted. And it was cheap.


1. Documentaries


Two documentaries made in 1999 can be considered as the turning point of the digital era in China, which at the time coincided with the development of independent cinema : “Old Men” (老头) by Yang Tianyi (杨天乙) , and “Beijing Cotton Fluffing Artisan” (《北京弹匠》) by Zhu Chuanming (朱传明).


Yang Tianyi is a typical case of this new generation of filmmakers who emerged in the aftermath of 1996. She was a dancer, then, in 1992, entered the PLA Art Academy to become an actress, and actually played a part in “Platform” (站台) by Jia Zhangke. In her last year as a student in the Academy, as she came back home, everyday, she saw a group of old people who sat in front of the apartment building where she lived ; she eventually bought a small digital camera and filmed them for two years, following their regular coming and going, and registering their conversations.


Old men


Zhu Chuanming’s case is slightly different as he worked first in a petrochemical factory at the end of his studies, before being admitted into the Beijing Film Academy to study photography. It is while he was wandering in Beijing, looking for subjects for photos, that he met a young migrant worker, who recycled the cotton of old cushions and quilts in a derelict hut along a main road. After a while, he decided to film him, using an ordinary family-type camcorder to do it ; the image is not the best, but the film is quite exceptional, with a rare depth of human and emotional feelings.


Jiang Hu


DV was also instrumental in enabling older filmmakers to renew their style, like Wu Wenguang using a Betacam SP camera to make “Jiang Hu, a Life on the Road” (江湖), that same year 1999. But the two previous cases are a kind of model for everything that was to develop in the following years in the field of independent documentary, leading to such masterpieces as Wang Bing (王兵)’s “West of the Tracks” (铁西区) in 2003, Zhao Liang (赵亮)’s “Petition” (上访) five years later, or Xu Xin (徐辛)’s “Karamay” (《克拉玛依》) in 2010 : all

works conceived and filmed over long periods of time, in a symbiotic relationship between the filmmaker and his subject.


However, this development was not restricted to documentary ; or rather this documentary style extended to fiction, and, at the same time, the whole movement took a different spirit, another face and renewed energy. It is often considered as a second phase of the independent film movement.


2. Fiction


The initiator of this change in the late 1990’s was of course Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) whose “Xiao Wu” (小武) in 1997 and “Platform” (站台) in 2000 launched this new phase. Jia Zhangke and his friends of the Beijing Film Academy Young Experimental Workshop were born in the early 1970’s, raised in the era of reform, had a strong distaste for the kind of filmmaking taught at the Academy and a burning desire to make their own voices heard.


The big difference was that Jia Zhangke came from an ordinary lower-middle family, in a small town in Shanxi. He had to do odd jobs to earn a living as a student, painting advertisement billboards and putting up shop signs in Taiyuan, Shanxi capital. When at the Beijing Film Academy, he supported himself by writing TV episodes as a ghost writer. He therefore wanted to reclaim cinema as means of communication for the ordinary citizen, the one caught in the midst of urbanization and economic turmoil. Beijing Bastards were angry artists, Xiao Wu is a poor pickpocket in the backwater of modernization.


Jia Zhangke eagerly took advantage of the digital revolution, which was also a cinematic democratization. He started with his short documentary “In Public” (《公共场所》), in 2001, because it was made for the festival of Jeonju in South Korea, which makes it one of its requirements. But it influenced the making of the film, giving him a lot of freedom of movement. Then, partly since his next film, “Unknown Pleasures” (《任逍遥》), had serious budgetary problems, he also shot it in digital, very quickly, in nineteen days.


But this film marks the high tide of the digital movement, Jia Zhangke explained he found the technique has limitations and he had to cut a number of scenes because the quality was not good enough. It is also the last film he made outside the studio system. 2002 is also a turning point.


4. The other turning point of 2002


The restrictions and controls exerted on cinema after 1996 had had dire consequences. The number of films made annually fell from a yearly average of approximately 150 in the mid-1990’s to 88 in 1997 and even 82 in 1998. Still worse, of the 88 films produced in 1997, only 44 obtained approval for release from the censorship bureau. Audience numbers plummeted. But Titanic made 4 million US$ in Beijing movie theatres alone in 1997.


a) Restructuring and drive for profit


The threat represented by imported films, mainly American, coupled with the poor results of domestic films, were enough to precipitate a dramatic reconstruction of the State-owned film industry. Starting in 1999, some State-owned studios began to be restructured along the lines of joint-venture companies with private investments, or incorporated into large entertainment-related enterprises. The movement started with the Beijing Film Studio ; the model was in turn borrowed by the Shanghai film studio, then those of Changchun and Xi’an. Then, as the three sectors of production, distribution and exhibition were opened to private companies, local and international investors got involved in the moviemaking industry. Furthermore, in 2003, limitations on co-production were lifted ; non-State production companies could apply for production licenses.


As a result, the involvement of foreign capital in all sectors of the film industry undermined the very nature of Chinese cinema. Long considered a pedagogical tool used to support Party policy, it had increasingly to respond to the demands of domestic and foreign investors for profits. As a result, in the early 2000’s, profit making, and therefore commercialization, became a major preoccupation of the Chinese film industry.


b) Relaxation of censorship


This preoccupation induced a relaxation of censorship procedures. In September 2003, the SARFT issued new regulations for script approval : a draft script had to be approved prior to shooting, but, after the film was completed, it could be submitted to local or provincial censorship committees. Out of 214 films completed in 2004, only one HK movie was rejected, because of its depiction of violence, and in 2005, 251 films passed censorship. Most of the investment in these films were from non-State companies.


c) Resurfacing of many independent filmmakers


As a result of this loosened censorship control, announced in a solemn meeting in December 2003, many independent filmmakers had their films approved for release. Jia Zhangke was one of them. He has repeatedly said in interviews that the reason for his surfacing from the underground was only the relaxed environment of censorship :

Originally… the censorship apparatus was, to a large degree, restricting our freedom of choice. But now, it looks like we’ll have the chance to express ourselves freely, and that’s why I’m willing to give it a try.” (2)


He had prepared himself for lengthy requests for revisions, but it was not even the case : he had to review the language used in a few lines of dialogue, ant that was it.


Others also joined mainstream cinema at the same time and for the same reason. Wang Xiaoshuai had the ban on “Beijing Bicycle” (《十七岁的单车》) lifted ; then his 2005 film, “Shanghai Dreams” (《青红》), was approved by the censors, and even submitted to the Cannes film festival as China’s official submission. Similar cases occurred for Lou Ye (娄烨) - “Purple Butterfly” (《紫蝴蝶》) was allowed to show in China, which might explain the flaws and discrepancies in the script, but he has since then reverted to a defiant underground, while others like Jiang Wen (姜文) have taken the commercial mainstream option.


II. Double Dependence : Present Challenges


The problem nowadays is that this relaxed atmosphere has not survived the Olympic Games, and the so-called independent cinema has now fallen into a double dependency : worst censorship ever and obsession for the market. In other words, economic constraints are now added to political or ideological restrictions, the worst of situations.


But independent cinema still survives at the margins, and remains, in spite of everything, a creative sector full of drive and dynamism.


1.  The challenges


a)  The challenge of censors


Nowadays, censorship has become obnoxious even for the best mainstream filmmakers. Two recent anecdotes reveal the underlying tension among the profession.


1. In August 2011, a theatre play was a tremendous hit in Beijing. It was a comedy, called “The sorrows of comedy” (《喜剧的忧伤》), and the main part was played by the popular actor Chen Daoming (陈道明), but this does not entirely explain the reason for its incredible success. It is in fact a satire of the absurdity of censorship now prevailing in China.


The main character is a writer of comedies who wants to have his latest script approved. The play takes place in 1940,


Chen Daoming en censeur borgne

dans « The Sorrows of Comedy »

and the censor is a general who recently came back from the front, where he lost an eye. He begins saying that people don’t want to laugh in time of war, then, in the following week, starts a thorough analysis of the script, asking for the most delirious and hilarious revisions.


This is the funny part, but the sad one came later : after the premiere, there was a cocktail party attended by the best and the brightest of Chinese theatre and cinema. Among the celebrities attending was Feng Xiaogang : he was reported to have been so shocked by the play that his hands were shaking and he dropped his glass which crashed on the floor. His wife, the actress Xu Fan (徐帆), collapsed on her knees to collect the pieces and burst down in tears. She later wrote on her micro-blog : “The comedy has turned into a tragedy.”


2. Then, in late August, the same Feng Xiaogang burst out during a formal address at an official conference about the so-called “Cultural Reform”. His words were quoted in an article of the People’s Daily, at the end of the month :

The pressure of censorship on filmmakers and creators has been reinforced. The SARFT makes dubious interpretations of everything, and passes judgments on questions of principle. The required revisions have become ridiculous…. This stupid system is hampering cinematographic creation and thus damaging it.”


He added :

A film is defined as “positive” or “negative”, this is the only criterion of judgment used by the censors, but, at the same time, artists are required to create works able to survive in the future, as if the great classical works of the past could be judged according to their being “positive” or “negative”. The result is that everybody now prefers to remain on the safe side, and avoid contemporary subjects which might be deemed “negative”.” (3)


If this is true of somebody like Feng Xiaogang, one can easily imagine what it can be for young filmmakers trying to create something new and original.

But the most tragic is that filmmakers are now much more pressured by the drive for commercialization, the obsession with the market. Having a film approved is not the end of the story. And that’s where independence becomes much of an illusion.


b) The pressure of the market


The drive for the market is not in itself something new ; it dates back to the 1980’s, at a time when the authorities tried to reconstruct a system which had become obsolete and financially bankrupt. Subsidies were curbed, and studios given increased autonomy. At the same time, there was a rediscovery of the audience, its tastes and aspirations, better known thanks to opinion and popularity polls, in particular those of the journal “Popular Cinema” (大众电影).


This led to a change in the tripartite balance of power defined by Paul Clark, between the Party, the filmmakers and the public (4), and had positive results : the policy of “opening up” in the field of cinema also meant stylistic experimentation, a complete renewal of styles and themes.


But the autonomy granted to the studios also gradually led to more dependence on financial results, and therefore on the box office, to be able to optimize returns on investments. It became an obsession after the financial and restructuring reforms at the beginning of the millennium.


In the early 2000’s, the film authorities formally acknowledged cinema as an industry which,  from then on, had to operate first and foremost on the basis of the market and aim at profit-making. As is often the case, the change appears in the very wording of the official documents : they had previously referred to cinema as a “service”, an undertaking with serious political and pedagogical functions (shiyè 事业); now, the new documents issued by the SARFT began using the word “industry” (chǎnyè 产业).


The official discourse then continuously emphasized the need to industrialize Chinese cinema especially in order to make it competitive on the international markets, a new policy that was developed in the wake of the 16th National Congress (5). In that context, it was of course the Hollywood model which was in everybody’s minds, for State as well as private film productions. But the commercialization of cinema also had its domestic component, that is the targeting of domestic audiences to make them into a profitable market.


The latest development was brought about by “Avatar” when it was released on the mainland in January 2010. Titanic had been a shock, Avatar was almost a trauma. The Chinese film authorities now have only one goal : master the 3D technique and beat the Americans.


c) The marginalization of small budget and art films


The result is a resolute expansion of chains of big movie theatres catering to a mainly urban, white-collar and trendy audience which considers cinema as a fashionable entertainment. It is also an expensive one, and more and more so as movie theatres are developed as a form of very lucrative investment.


Nowadays, less than 20 % of films made and approved are released in mainland China, and about half can boast to have a good distribution, so that independence has become more of an illusion, and a marginal question anyway. Mainstream or independent, filmmakers are all in the same situation. If they don’t produce films promising to be big hits, they have no chance of being released. Not long ago, it was censorship their worst problem, and the reason for their choice of independence, with the consequence that they were dependent on international festival circuits for international recognition. But they were disconnected from the audience in China.  


Today, market forces are much more insidious than censorship, but the result is still the same : independent filmmakers are disconnected from their domestic audience, and the solution does not seem easy to fathom. They depend on small venues, film bars, minjian film clubs, university backyards, but more and more on domestic film festivals. Those are a new interesting phenomenon which is tolerated by the authorities provided they do not make too much advertisement, and keep a low profile. One of the latest creations, the Beijing First Film Festival, founded and animated by Wen Wu (文武), seems to be gathering momentum, and gradually building an audience ; it has even started a cooperation with the French festival Angers Premiers Plans.


Another promising development could be the internet, with the diffusion of  VOD on dedicated sites like tudou or youku. But it is all very fragile, since dependent on the vagaries of politics and on the bigger problem of the definition of a public space.


However, the spirit of independence still lingers, and, while mainstream cinema hardly departs from historical blockbusters or comedies, in a cautious move to limit risks and optimize BO returns, the few remaining so-called independent filmmakers are creating interesting new forms and styles.


2. A continuous creative drive


Some filmmakers have opted for an image of artiste maudit, defiantly pursuing works produced abroad and tailored for international audiences, but totally cut from the mainland. This is, for instance, the case of Lou Ye, but his talent seems to be waning.


More interesting is the multifaceted stylistic and aesthetic research pursued by various filmmakers in China, engaged in a rhizome-like diversification of styles.


a) Lines of flight


Documentaries certainly are the most numerous works representative of the Chinese independent movement. Many documentary filmmakers continue their socio-political critique (Du Haibin, Wang Bing, Xu Xin…) : those are documentaries treated like works of fiction, with a strong narrative line emphasized through careful construction and editing.


But there is also a strong trend towards focussing on the private, intimate and day to day life (Liu Jiayin (刘伽茵)’s “Oxhide 1/II” 牛皮贰I/II), or even spiritual experience (Ma Li’s “Mirror of Emptiness” 《无镜》). There are so many documentaries being made right now on all aspects of Chinese life, society and even scenery that it will constitute a formidable archive for the future, if they are well preserved, which is a point to keep in mind.


The general picture is one of swarming talents of various origins, especially, now, on the margins. There is a whole array of photographs and painters whose works have a distinct aesthetic quality, and a cross-breeding with the artistic scene. They are part of a strong movement of experimental video, with diversifications in the field of animation.


Liu Jiayin


b) Lines of convergence


It seems there are thus innumerable lines of flight, an incredible creative richness which barely surfaces but is the most pregnant of Chinese cinema today, but which also hides lines of convergence since there is a kind of group phenomenon, around a school or around a person.


For instance, the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing (中央戏剧学院), may appear as an alternative to the Beijing Film Academy. From there comes a group of original filmmakers like Cai Shangcun (蔡尚君), Diao Yinan (刁亦男) or Liu Fendou (刘奋斗), who worked for a while together, at the end of the 1990’s, as scriptwriters for Zhang Yang (张扬) and Shi Runjiu (施润玖) ; Liu Fendou then started his own production company and produced “Spring Subway” (开往春天的地铁》) by Zhang Yibai (张一白) en 2002. It was then the best years for independent cinema.


Private groups have also emerged over time, many of them created by the artists themselves. One example is Zhang Xianmin (张献民) and his Beijing Indie Workshop (影弟工作室) founded in 2005 to promote Chinese independent cinema and which has lately produced Old Dog” (《老狗》), the last film


Zhang Xianming

by Pema Tseden (万玛才旦). Zhang Xianming is also the founding father of the Chinese Independent Film Festival (CIFF) which is nowadays the most important and influential venue for independent filmmakers.


This is certainly one of the strengths of the movement : filmmakers are not isolated, and they have a common sense of mission, as Ling Zifeng (凌子风) ‘s son Ling Fei said in 2009 :


At the beginning, underground or independent films claimed an engagement, a personal language. The filmmaker decided to choose a subject the official cinema would never have considered. So, there have been good films, but there have also been films whose only specificity was in their subject, irrespective of the way it was treated. Today, … if a filmmaker decides to stay independent, it is because he wants to concentrate on the artistic quality of his film, and work independently of market trends.” (6)


But, in spite of this creative impetus, there are signs of discouragement, a perceptible mood of disillusionment which may be the most worrying today. At their best, those filmmakers keep the hope of being eventually able to work within the system and having their films released domestically. But it seems to be a long road to get there.


Conclusion : 2012, beyond independence, or independence on the margins…


The very idea of independent cinema has been from the very start fraught with illusions. Nowadays, independence in the realm of filmmaking has lost much of the relevance it might have had at one point in time. But since there is still a spirit of independence as a creative force pushing forward unabated, in this sense there is still an independent cinema in China. Its main problem is now to get known, inside China.


The prevailing model, in this respect, is Jia Zhangke. On can argue that he is trying to bridge the gap between independent and mainstream cinema, trying to bring up a new narrative, new aesthetics to the Chinese mainstream cinema. He is defining an alternative way, and, in this sense, he may represent the best hope for independent filmmakers by the way he manages to have his voice heard in official circles, but without compromising on his aesthetic principles, intent on maintaining a relatively high freedom of artistic creation. But he has been rather absent lately and we are still waiting for his next film, “The Age of Tattoo”, which has been in the making for quite a while now.


However, even in his case, the fundamental point remains the access to the audience, and the screening opportunities. Jia Zhangke’s own experience shows that even an official release is not the end of the problem. When “The World” (世界》) was released, it hardly made 100 000 euros, and soon disappeared from the few screens where it had been shown. When “Still Life” (三峡好人》) was released, on the 14th of December 2006, it was the same day as Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower” (满城尽带黄金甲》). “Still Life” had just been awarded the Golden Lion in Venice, but it was released at odd hours, at 9 in the morning or 1 in the afternoon in many places, how can a film compete against an official blockbuster in such conditions, without even speaking of the difference in promotion budgets ?


In addition, tickets price in China are today much too expensive : cinemagoers prefer to go and see the big dapian which makes the headlines or the latest comedy hit which seem much more rewarding in view of the money spent. If cinema has become an industry, for the audience, it has become pure, but expensive, entertainment.


Raising public awareness, forming the tastes of the public are nowadays the most difficult challenges for Chinese independent cinema. This was clearly indicated in a recent initiative made at the last meeting of the Association of Chinese filmmakers, in 2011. The Association had created prices in 2005 which have been granted only twice since then. It seems they now want to actively promote young filmmakers and small budget films ; interestingly, there is no mention of independent cinema per se, which is revealing, but the initiative is led by respected figures like Tian Zhuangzhuang (田壮壮) and Xie Fei (谢飞). The latter announced that their main objective was to negotiate with movie managers to give small budget films more visibility, one of the points to discuss being a decrease in tickets prices in specific cases (7).


But the main problem arises from policies which are insisting on considering cinema as an industry, with the only purpose of making profits. It is indeed nowadays restricted neither to China nor to cinema, but it has taken unique proportions in China. Since 2003, the SARFT has been collecting 5% of box office revenues, to finance a fund dedicated to the development of the “film industry”. Even big production companies are affected ; Huayi, for instance, had to pay SARFT half of its 2011 profits. And this goes to finance such films as Wuxia or the latest 3D blockbusters.


We are witnessing a return to quantitative practices that are redolent of past times, we also feel a terrible sense of urgency, in official circles, of catching up, akin in spirit to the Great Leap Forward, with cinema replacing steel, and Hollywood Britain. But the combination of tightened controls and the urge to “industrialize”, make profit and compete on international markets has resulted in 2012 in a dearth of good Chinese films. The exceptional growth figures of the mainland box office are due for the main part to the American blockbusters’ continued success.


In this dire situation, independent cinema is fighting for survival. A double movement is taking shape : many independent fiction filmmakers are going back to the mainstream in the hope of getting more visibility in their country, and to try and get some financial return on their work ; the big names have left the boat. At the same time, there is a frenzy of documentary filmmaking, mainly because there are so many attractive subjects and shooting with light digital cameras is easy and cheap. The result is not necessarily satisfactory in qualitative terms.


There remains a small number of very good documentary filmmakers who will continue to work independently because they need to retain their freedom of expression. An interesting development now seems to be the experimental cinema which has appeared on the margins, but with a different model altogether : initially backed by the big institutions like the Beijing Film Academy and the Central Academy of Drama, it is now evolving as an artistic movement which might well provide in the years to come the best and the brightest at the brink of independent cinema.




(1) The interviews were edited by Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河), a poet and prominent critic of music, art, and literature ; as he was a key figure of the literary magazine Jintian, the interviews were published at the same time in a special issue of the magazine and in Hong Kong by Oxford University Press, in 2007. This is a common reference.

(2) Valerie Jaffee, « An interview with Jia Zhangke », Senses of Cinema, June 2004.

(3) Voir :

(4) Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema : Culture and Politics since 1949, 2-3.

(5) In January 2003, the vice-director of the Film Bureau of the SARFT made a speech at the National Conference of Film Production, where she proposed guidelines for 2003. Her speech was entitled : “For a full implementation of the spirit of the 16th National Congress to promote and foster the reform, development and renovation of the film industry”  (全面贯彻十六大精神加快推进电影产业的改革发展创新) :

(6) Interview by Luisa Prudentino, Monde Chinois, Regards sur les cinémas chinois, n° 17, p. 82.

(7) Voir :



Selected bibliography 


- Berry, Chris. Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China : the Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution, Routledge, 2004.

- Berry, Michael. Speaking in Images : Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers, Columbia University Press, 2005.

- Clark, Paul. Chinese Cinema : Culture and Politics since 1949, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

- McGrath, Jason. Postsocialist Modernity : Chinese Cinema, Literature and Criticism in the Market Age, Stanford University Press, 2008.

- Pickowicz, Paul/Zhang, Yingjin (eds). From Underground to Independent : Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

- Zhang, Rui. The Cinema of Feng Xiaogang : Commercialization and Censorship in Chinese Cinema after 1989, Hong Kong University Press, 2008.

- Zhang, Zhen (ed). The Urban Generation : Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the 21st Century, Duke University Press, 2007.


Monde chinois, Regards sur le cinéma chinois, Choiseul Editions, n° 17, printemps 2009.

China Perspectives, Independent Chinese Cinema : Filming in the “Space of the People”, n° 2010/1


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