When we think about “independent cinema,” we tend to think of avant-garde filmmakers self-funding their works, writing their own scripts, and directing their own movies — with results that are either critically acclaimed or dismissed as self-indulgent and incomprehensible. But this definition is largely an American import. It originated in the 1940s, when eight major production companies held a monopoly over all movies produced in the United States, and a few pioneering filmmakers challenged the so-called central producer system and went independent.
In China, the concept of independent cinema is considerably more complex. When the term fell into common parlance in the 1990s, audiences usually used it to describe films that portrayed the lives of the marginalized. The so-called sixth generation of Chinese directors, who were mainly active toward the end of the 1990s, embody the Chinese notion of independent filmmaking, particularly the early works of Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Zhang Yuan.
After the turn of the century, independent moviemakers targeted the well-regarded independent film festivals of Nanjing and Beijing and created wide-ranging, documentary-style films in digital format. Many filmmakers explored social issues like state-sponsored land requisition, environmental protection, education, and urbanization. They largely focused on the people living on the lower rungs of society who rarely appeared in mainstream cinema, like laid-off workers, farmers, city beggars, and criminals undergoing re-education through labor.
Many independent documentaries made crude use of technology — the sound and picture quality fell far below what is expected of today’s movies — and employed a narrative style that was direct to the point of being jarring. Nonetheless, these films still gave a voice to China’s social underclasses and sparked discussions of the issues they faced. They challenged taboos about discussing social conflict, combining incisive storytelling with a melancholy aesthetic.
Taking such a tack were films like Wang Bing’s “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks,” which described the decline of a factory following China’s market-oriented reforms of the 1980s; Huang Wenhai’s “Dream Walking,” which depicted the rootless lives of artists and poets; and Zhao Liang’s “Return to the Border,” which told the stories of ordinary people petitioning the authorities, hoping for personal redress or policy changes.
Since 2010, a new form of independent cinema led by directors born in the 1980s has become a veritable force in China’s film industry. Like its predecessors, this “new independent cinema” is privately funded, sometimes by foreign organizations, and generates publicity through screenings at international film festivals. But these productions are different from their predecessors, because their directors explore their subjects through more innovative methods. In many cases, their works are commercially viable in spite of the fact that they do not pander to consumer tastes.
Prior to 2010, filmmakers mainly created independent movies as a last resort, in part because of their conscious rebellion against certain aspects of Chinese political ideology or social structures. But since the turn of the decade, the new generation of moviemakers have proactively chosen this path. For them, the term “independent” is a badge of honor: They deliberately shun funding from government bodies and other organizations “within the system,” in order to claim authority and ownership over the stories they tell. Meanwhile, they seek new forms of fundraising — crowdfunding, selling their houses, or borrowing money from friends and family — thereby debunking the myth that good movies cost huge sums of money to make.
Some critics have noted that new independent cinema strikes a compromise between the system and the market: They neither directly criticize state ideology, nor overtly court commercial appeal. But for me, there is a third force at play here: The new generation of directors is trying to strike a balance between the market, and the system, and the self, ultimately attaining a new vantage point from which to observe Chinese society.
In new independent cinema, the periphery and the center are no longer static players trapped in a binary stalemate; they are immutable forces locked in ever-changing forms of conflict and compromise. These films also challenge the notion that themes of gloom, marginalization, and tension are essential ingredients of a filmmaker’s recipe for conveying their observations on life.
A still frame from the film ‘Summer Is Gone.’ From the film’s Weibo account
Three representative works of “new independent cinema” are “Kaili Blues,” “The Coffin in the Mountain,” and “Summer Is Gone.” Their directors were all born in the 1980s. Although these three films focus on marginal social groups — rural criminals, convicts released from prison, laid-off workers — they abandon the critical realism and documentary style that run through Chinese independent cinema during the ’90s. Instead, these directors probe the medium of film itself, seeking to express the possibilities awaiting their movies’ characters.
Directed by Bi Gan, 2016’s “Kaili Blues” tells the story of a rural doctor living in the city of Kaili, situated in southwestern China’s Guizhou province. While searching for his missing nephew, the doctor comes to an unfamiliar part of town that feels simultaneously worldly and otherworldly. In a take some 47 minutes long, the protagonist is transported from the present to the past. Bi deconstructs notions of linear time, deliberately weakening hard-and-fast references to established chronology, and focusing instead on the characters trying to navigate the dreamworld he creates.
Xin Yukun’s “The Coffin in the Mountain,” released in 2015, tells the story of mysterious happenings that occur after a corpse inexplicably appears in a remote village in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi. With a somewhat literary bent injected with a dose of suspense, the film also employs nonlinear storytelling and mischievously dark humor to illuminate its protagonists’ attitudes toward death, self-preservation, and respect.
The city of Hohhot, in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, forms the backdrop to 2017’s “Summer Is Gone.” The film is set during the 1990s, when the marketization of state-owned enterprises resulted in mass layoffs in the industrial towns of northern China. Director Zhang Dalei takes his childhood as a starting point, arranging the plot around fragmentary recollections of a summer spent preparing for high school. The film transforms the historic social transformations of the era into something approaching a visual essay, in which Zhang foregrounds the relationship of the self to both society and the state.
The abovementioned works are all inspired by the personal experiences of their creators — usually the director’s upbringing. Starting from an examination of the self, the narrator then focuses the lens on those around them, gradually dismantling the desires of the individual that, until the early 1980s, were heavy-handedly subordinated to the goals of the collective. These movies still concern themselves with the fate of the underdog, but the turmoil and bitterness within them are subtly resolved in the end, often by deploying a fade-in here and a fade-out there. And indeed, this refocus on the self helps the viewer to understand the effects of historical change on individual lives.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.