Lost in Time, Found in Brisbane : Chinese Cinema at BIFF By Mike Walsh

in 14th Brisbane International Film Festival

by Mike Walsh

It was no surprise that two festivals as different as Melbourne and Brisbane in their programming emphases, should both include seasons of recent Chinese cinema this year. Every day in Australia , we open our newspapers to read of the ways in which the massive changes underway in China are impacting on this country. Australia has become a major supplier of commodities to fuel Chinese production, and there is a growing sense that Australians need to broaden their engagement with Chinese culture, to embrace a region from which they have tried to maintain a distance for so long.

Certainly, many sections of the Australian film industry have begun to look to the emergent Chinese film production industry, attempting to position themselves as suppliers of post-production services. Melbourne-based Soundfirm has led the way here, setting up joint venture facilities in China , and other companies such as Animal Logic and Cinevex have chased work in the areas of digital post-production and laboratory services on the basis that they can deliver quality results at cheaper prices than their Japanese counterparts. The South Australian Film Corporation has recently announced a feature co-production with the Shanghai Film Group.

This is all by way of introducing the “Lost in Time, Lost in Space: Contemporary Beijing Film Culture” strand curated by Shelley Kraicer at this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival. Shelley is known to most people interested in East Asian cinema as the coordinator of the indispensable Chinese Cinemas Digest (list-editor@chinesecinemas.org for subscription enquiries). A Canadian by birth, Shelley’s interest in Chinese cinema has led him to Beijing where he is now studying.

He was on hand in Brisbane to introduce a program of six films, whose unifying theme he sees as their ability to express the current state of China as “a culture adrift without history and without identity, disoriented both chronologically and spatially.” His introductory essay primes us to look for the ways that the films register both social and aesthetic influences, and to contemplate the connections between the two.

Foremost among these films was Jia Zhangke’s The World (Shi Jie) a major work which has headlined at several international festivals now. No doubt the film, set in a theme park full of replicas of international landmarks, will be the subject of many longer articles dealing with its savage ironies around China ‘s position in a globalised world. Jia continues to see the main issue for contemporary China as the relation of urban and village cultures, rather than any more outward-looking version of globalization. World culture, like the break dance music of Jia’s earlier Platform, is a series of garish, disconnected facades, failing to cover over the threadbare cultural emptiness which underlies it. The World is a film about the paradoxical smallness of the world for many people whose long-term prospects for happiness are reliant on tenuous personal relationships.

The World is doubly interesting as the foremost film of the transitional period in which the regulatory authorities in the Film Bureau are attempting to heal the breach between the authorized cinema and the unauthorized, low-budgeted and often foreign financed filmmaking for which Jia and his major collaborator Yu Lik-wai have been emblematic figures.

Gu Changwei’s Peacock (Kong Que) is an officially sanctioned production, though the film has a history of censorship problems with the Film Bureau. It has a three part narrative structure built around a family in the late 1970s, with each part dealing with a sibling during adolescence. The period is significant as the end of the Cultural Revolution opened up space for personal lives and ambitions-a theme similarly explored in the recent A Time to Love (Qing Ren Jie). The sister’s tragedy is that she wants to stand out in the crowd; her brother’s tragedy is that he wants to fit in. The final story of the younger brother, who also acts as narrator, ends with the embrace of mediocrity and cynicism. The world may be full of wonders, of brightly colored peacocks-but not for this generation.

Peacock and Letter from an Unknown Woman (Yi Feng mo Sheng nu Ren de Lai Xin) have the handsome production values which stem from the involvement of prominent creative personalities. Gu Changwei is making his directing debut after establishing himself as one of China ‘s most prominent cinematographers working on leading Fifth Generation films such as Red Sorghum and Farewell My Concubine. Xu Jingwei, director, writer and star of Letter from an Unknown Woman is a leading actress and enjoys sufficient clout to merit the involvement of a star like Jiang Wen and cinematographer Li Pingbin (of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai repute).

Tang Poetry (Tang Shi) and Good Morning Beijing (Zao’an Beijing) are at the other end of the production continuum, with the cheap digital video look which has become a hallmark of so much of the more interesting Chinese production in recent years. Tang Poetry has been a film which has inspired strongly divided opinions during the past year. It is a strongly minimalist film dealing with a couple of criminals living wordlessly, yet passionately, in a sparsely furnished apartment. A rough approximation might be to suggest Tsai Ming-liang watching a Jean-Pierre Melville film. The title and the interspersed poems alert us to the tactic of saying little in order to suggest much, while there is also a tasty irony to the way urgent descriptions of nature have been reduced to the angular claustrophobia of a cramped apartment whose spaces we slowly explore. The film appears bleak and difficult only to those with no eye for sly wit and minimalist tactics of suggestion.

Chinese cinema now constitutes the second or third largest volume of feature film production in world cinema. Its emergence, in a rapidly changing set of industrial and aesthetic formulations, is undoubtedly one of the largest issues in contemporary cinema at the moment. From the top end of the commercial market through to the underground movements which are starting to come up for air, we can hope that Australian film festivals maintain their attention to seasons such as this, in order to build on the interest in China and Chinese cinema. These films not only raise issues about Australia’s familiarity with the country which is fast becoming its main regional partner, but they also confront the struggling Australian film industry with potential opportunities which it needs to explore with all the energy at its disposal.