Originally a line from Lou Ye’s 2000 film Suzhou River, the phrase “my camera doesn’t lie” was used by independent Chinese filmmakers in the 1990s and 2000s to characterize a style of filmmaking that aimed to highlight the spontaneity of its subjects. This film aesthetic came a long way, from Chinese film production during the Cultural Revolution, where although films were under pressure to produce very radical forms of art, they remained art of the state. What is interesting about any form of art is exploring how universal elements of the artist’s process — creativity, imagination, vision — are able to form a reflection of the histories and cultural contexts that surround their work. In every era, the intricacies of Chinese society are interpreted, incorporated, transformed, and reflected upon by films and filmmakers.
From “pedagogical cinema” to the Fifth Generation
Ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, cinema was destined to have a unique place in China’s cultural space. Film production was incorporated into the state’s vision for the economy; annual meetings dictated the agenda of upcoming film releases and funding for studios came directly from the state. Popular performance art, with their entertainment value, came to be used as a means of political and ideological expression. The films made with government support and funding include “model plays” such as Red Detachment of Women (1960). While they are intriguing in their social and artistic significance, they nonetheless remained “art of the state.”
In 1978, the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of an era of reforms marked a new period in Chinese culture and economy. The filmmaking scene was no exception to this economic and social change. The state’s diminishing involvement in the cultural arts, and the political opening provided by the CPC’s admission of past mistakes allowed filmmakers to address previous years of strife, albeit often indirectly. The emerging directors of this era, most of whom were students at the Beijing Film Academy, also became exposed to the potential of film as an expression of their individual visions in a way that the previous generations did not. The result was a cinematic discourse that made it possible for filmmakers to direct their films in ways that moved beyond the pedagogical function of cinema that had characterized much of Chairman Mao’s regime. This generation of directors, commonly referred to as the fifth-generation, produced films that recorded Chinese modernity, and were subversive in the sense that they displaced the grand “national narrative” envisioned by the previous generation by turning to personal memories and local histories. These fifth-generation films, the most famous of which include Yellow Earth (1984), Blue Kite (1993) Horse Thief (1986), and Red Sorghum (1987), are typically set in the pre-revolutionary period but comment indirectly on the post-revolutionary era. They are often characterized by their intricate and complicated relationship with history, echoing the directors’ memories of the turbulence of their own youth.
These themes can be seen, for instance, in Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, which follows a communist soldier on a mission to gather folk songs from the countryside. This film drew upon Chen’s experience as a “sent-down” youth to the countryside, retold through the soldier’s realization of the immense disparity between the narrative of party salvation that he had been told in his urban upbringing and the reality of rural villages still rife with poverty and exploitation. This focus is also shown in Farewell My Concubine (1992), a film rich with exploration of gender roles, the relationship between individuals and history, tragedy, and fate. Throughout this era and after, the lives of the marginalized — queer people, thieves, and prostitutes — were beginning to be depicted on the big screen in ways that they never had before.
Space and Creativity
The cultural and political space of the 1990s and early 2000s can be encapsulated by two events: the 1989 Tiananmen protests and Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour. The tone of the new decade was set by Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, during which it became clear that China would reorient away from the old command economy and towards marketization. China’s intellectual and business exchanges with the international community soared, and cultural producers started initiating their own projects instead of waiting for government assignments. Yet, the civil society that arose from the reform era was still constrained by past institutions. All this is encapsulated in the other part of the political junction: just a few years earlier, the 1989 Tiananmen protest and its subsequent governmental response clearly indicated the existence of certain red lines, and foreclosed the possibility of visible oppositional culture in China. Chinese society and its cultural production was, in the words of Carlos Rojas, haunted by “spectres of Marx, shades of Mao, and the ghosts of global capital.” The resulting artistic and cultural space was one in which economic freedom was offered to citizens in exchange for their political and ideological loyalty at the margins.
The film industry, as a space that operates within and reports upon the nation’s cultural and political environment, has also responded to these historical changes in various dimensions. On one hand, the commercial film industry grew, financing methods transitioned from state-sponsored to private investment, and box office success became much more important than it had ever been. Hollywood made its entrance into the Chinese market in the early 90s: the market beckons, even if this relationship had been characterized by both hope and frustrations. On the other hand, the 1989 part of the political junction meant that filmmakers were still subject to differing levels of censorship.
Both the regulation and bodies of censorship have been an ever-changing process, but the one constant is how inconsistent and arbitrary it has been for the past three decades. While all commercially released films have to be submitted to the relevant film bureau bodies prior to screening, there also existed a semi-shadow industry where China’s independent cinema scene grew. While independent cinema in the West typically refers to films that are not mainstream or not produced by large studios, independent cinema in China refers to films that are not submitted to censorship. While these independent films don’t get released anywhere commercially within China, they were seen and circulated in China in a quasi-underground manner ranging from showings at small film festivals, informal screening venues, or through online distribution. Up until 2017, when the new film law passed, these films occupied the grey zones of Chinese regulation—hundreds of independent documentaries and features were made in this space each year. Some were entered into film festivals overseas, such as Summer Palace (2006), or more recently The Widowed Witch (2017), both of which received successful festival runs but no or limited domestic release. Domestic independent film festivals across the country also provided space for creators to connect.
Pardon, Your Camera is in My Face
The subjects of the sixth-generation cinema and the documentary movement between the 1990s and early 2010s were made up of a heterogenous crew of taxi drivers, migrant workers, prostitutes, KTV hostesses, construction workers — those that bore the brunt of China’s social transition. These sixth generation directors, the most famous of whom include Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Zhang Yuan, concern themselves intensely with the present, if the fifth generation films are primarily concerned with representations of history, then these sixth generation films are cinematic articulations of ways in which socioeconomic transformations were experienced by individuals. These independent films created from the 1990s through the 2010s confront various legal and practical limitations of filmmaking and social life in China on an individual scale, telling stories of ordinary problems being navigated by everyday people. Huang Weikai’s Disorder (2009), which consists of a series of short vignettes of urban life in Guangzhou, documents the chaotic, absurd, but nonetheless vibrant moments brought by rapid and profound social change. In a similarly quotidian vein, Duan Jinchuan’s No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996) follows the lives of people in Tibet, de-romanticizing and demystifying their everyday exchanges. Hanjia’s Winter Vacation (2010), set in a frost-bitten Northern China, depicts subjects who imagine their self-identity beyond the confines of their small town. These films follow the thread of China’s cultural and economic transformation, plucking the authentic experiences and memories of the Chinese people from the noise of materialism pervading the nation at the turn of the century. The world as projected by these filmmakers through their subjects’ eyes is a reflection on Chinese modernity itself.
In 2017, the Film Industry Promotion Law came into effect in China, codifying comprehensive regulation on independent domestic films. Screenings of films without a dragon seal — the title card which would appear at the beginning of a film signalling its official approval for release — was banned in theatres and semi-private institutions alike. As international exposure had been crucial to the distribution and reception of the aforementioned independent films, the new law prohibiting these domestic films from being shown in overseas film festivals without the dragon seal became yet another detrimental force in a market already tense with commercial pressures. In this environment, the number of independent film festivals, such as Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival, dwindled. In the commercial space, while numbers soared at Chinese box offices, the hits of cinema consisted largely of war epics like Wolf Warrior (2015) or comedies driven by star power such as Hi, Mom (2021).
The combination of extensive regulations and pressing commercial influence created immense pressure in the Chinese independent film industry. Yet in spite of these pressures, the impetus for cinematic freedom can still be found in young creators who are still creating with inexhaustible vitality and creativity. That same impetus inspires content, channels, and voices in places that audiences would not normally expect — we need to look no further than the past 50 years of Chinese cinema for humbling reminders of the ways that ingenuity can transcend its confinements.