“In opposing the new culture, reactionaries, having at their disposal all the money they want, can only counter quality with quantity.”
-Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (May 1942)
Unlike consumer democracies, authoritarian states do not afford their citizens the illusion of freedom. Everything occurring under their tutelage reflect, to varying degrees, their political intentions, limitations and concessions. However inflexible and walled-in they may appear, cracks of sedition always wear away the foundations of control (without necessarily compromising the edifice of power). Dissent is a coveted and much-fetishized commodity in the west, feeding into our superiority complex while reinforcing our charitable convictions about what it’s like to live under an illiberal regime. But our romantic projections are usually far-removed from reality.
Over the last two decades, the cinema of Jia Zhangke has, among other things, illuminated the complexity and fertile ambiguities that working within and in oblique opposition to an autocratic country implies. Neither a superstar dissident nor a regime filmmaker, Jia has transversally chronicled the contradictions of his country over the course of a most transformative period. Having disproved the myths of the free market with its own lethal brand of centralized state capitalism, China is now ready for the next great leap forward: global domination. Though it will be hard to match the genocidal record of the democratic western world, this rising economic empire will likely borrow a trick or two from its predecessor’s handbook. The hegemonic sway of the entertainment industrial complex is one thing China seems determined to emulate, having invested huge amounts of capital in its film industry over the last few years. The Chinese Communist Party knows only too well that where hard power ends, soft power shall begin. While figures like Wang Jianlin, via his tentacular Wanda Group, have started raiding Hollywood assets (though not without some telling setbacks), Jia Zhangke seems to be laying the groundwork for a new Chinese independent film culture and industry. Though, in the case of Chinese cinema, the exact meaning of “independence” is rather ambiguous.
Launching the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival (PYIFF) certainly constitutes the highest profile move in this direction, an event that may well turn out to be epochal as far as Chinese (independent) cinema is concerned. That its inauguration was postponed two weeks due to its coinciding with the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China hints at the priorities at work. Very much like Jia’s filmmaking, PYIFF’s aesthetic and political independence pushed the envelope without tearing it. Unlike other independent film festivals, Pingyao is officially approved by the authorities though operated by a private company (which in a state-controlled economy seems to imply a certain degree of autonomy). While festivals in Beijing (BJIFF) and Shanghai (SIFF) pack hundreds of films within the space of a few days, the festival founded by Jia Zhangke and directed by Marco Müller (formerly of the Locarno and Venice Film Festivals) chose to focus on a relatively small, more overtly curated assortment of titles. The lineup of what its artistic director called a “pluralistic festival, in many instances happily contradictory, and, most importantly, alive” implicitly reflects the audacity as well as the obvious compromises that went into its making.
Two films best exemplified the “happily contradictory” space that PYIFF tactically opened between officialdom and its nemesis. The former was represented by Li Chen’s Sky Hunter, a didactic air force flick spelling out China’s foreign policy by way of fiction, while Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White stood for the latter. Sky Hunter is set in a fictitious Middle Eastern country which the disastrous rule of an unnamed Anglophone country has turned into a nest of terrorists. When things get out of control, the Chinese Air Force must descend from the skies of geopolitical chaos to restore order and establish a profitable cooperation with the troubled yet soon-to-be-peaceful nation. What Pentagon-approved Hollywood war movies do for the American military, Li Chen’s debut feature does for the Chinese Air Force, idealizing its noble virtues while illustrating the more or less explicit interests they will be asked to “defend.” The granitic morality of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on display in Sky Hunter is poorly reflected in the social fresco of Angels Wear White, in which corruption, mass collusion and systemic sexism emerge in the wake of the rape of two children. Rather than individual failings or isolated odious behavior, Angels Wear White interrogates the collective responsibility that society as a whole shares. The film doesn’t paint Chinese society in an especially flattering light, exposing endemic levels of corruption and mass duplicity. What remains to be seen is whether the authorities will clear Vivian Qu’s film for wider distribution within China beyond this festival screening.
A fundamental aspect of the festival is the introduction of foreign films to local audiences and distributors. The birth of the Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas in China last year signaled an important development in the national distribution policy whose infamous quota on profit-sharing foreign films is the most coveted threshold every Hollywood blockbuster dreams to cross. Having less to do with ideological censorship than with hard economics, it will be interesting to see how the quota will adjust in relation to the influx of independent films. Unlike big-budgeted films—which by now are being tailored to the Chinese market, using local talent and locations as well as plentiful lip service—independent films would not generate the same revenue of, say, an installment of the Fast & Furious or Transformers franchises, but could potentially represent more political problem. While PYIFF offered a series of politically charged and locally resonating films such as Ruth Mader’s Life Guidance, Valeska Grisebach’s Western, and Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory, the first film that was released by the new distribution alliance was Kenneth Lonergan’s decidedly safer Manchester by the Sea. According to Müller, the potential audience for arthouse fare in China is over 50 million, an irrelevant number as far as the Chinese box office is concerned but a veritable goldmine for independent cinema. Time will tell if this newly opened window on the Chinese market will encourage independent filmmakers and distributors to create “China-friendly” films like it has in Hollywood or if, conversely, it will be an occasion for Chinese cinephiles to watch on the big screen what they can now only download online.
The relation between Chinese cinema and foreign productions cannot be reduced to mere protectionism, be it ideological or economic, and wasn’t always characterized by it. The political and cultural isolation that followed the Sino-Soviet split and the Cultural Revolution limited the number of foreign films shown in Chinese cinemas. Before this, films from different countries were regularly distributed and screened in China. In 1956 the literary critic Zhou Yang, vice minister of culture and vice director of the Department of Propaganda at the time, even claimed that it was a good idea to assimilate the positive elements of progressive art coming out of capitalist countries. Around 55 foreign films were screened in China that year alone. However, prior to the victory of communism in 1949, things were quite different. In his 1963 study The History of the Development of Chinese Cinema, Cheng Jihua reports that from 1921 to 1941, American films dominated the market. In 1934 eighty-four Chinese titles were produced and distributed, compared to 407 foreign films distributed in China, 345 of which were American. 383 films were screened in Shanghai in 1946: thirteen Chinese, 352 American, fifteen British and three Soviet. In other words, there was a time when American producers and distributors did not have to ask the permission of the Chinese authorities in order to screen their films.
While the struggle for cultural hegemony inevitably conjures the ghosts of supremacism, PYIFF operates along internationalist lines, bringing together films from all over the globe united against aesthetic conformism. That a film like Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage: Coda made it into the lineup speaks volumes about the determination of the festival to tactically break all sorts of cultural barriers. Kitano’s film is in fact “problematic” for Chinese censors due to its unusually generous amounts of violence, but also on account of the historically tense relations between China and Japan, China having been victimized by Japanese aggression on multiple occasions. These tensions are by no means relegated to the past. Heated disputes over the sovereignty of a group of small islands in the East China Sea in 2013 resulted in no Japanese films being released in China that year or in 2014. In a country whose censorship practices ensure that a film festival cannot so easily conceal the political implications of the work it exhibits, the first edition of the Pingyao International Film Festival boldly rendered visible the artistic constraints imposed on cinema in China as well as filmmakers’ efforts to creatively undermine them, effectively making the case for the medium’s contentious powers.