Ou Ning, founder of the
Welcome to Destination Shanghai (Andrew Cheng, 2003).Cheng’s work typifies independent film. According to Hu Yuan, co-editor of DVD Guide and coordinator of Shanghai 101: “It is not something produced efficiently with a high degree of division of labor, and more important, it should not be subjected to market forces."
Johnny Wong (middle), the person-in-charge of Espaco Video, Macau: "The spirit of DIY is that you are creating something yourself and you are responsible for that work."
Love is Not a Sin (Doug Chan, 2003) won the Golden DV Award at the HK International Film Festival.
Conjugation (Emily Tang, 2001). As Tang describes it, "To us, in the winter following the 1989 summer, restlessness and despair filled the air ... Thus comes my film, in which you can peep into the wells of some people’s hearts while they molt.”
Bumming in Beijing (Wu Wenguang, 1989). “Wu’s works directly influenced the ‘Sixth Generation’ filmmakers.”
Old Men (Yang Tianyi, 1999). Yang spent over 2 years on making this DV documentary about the daily life of a group of retired men near her home.
Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 2004). Using a DV camera, Liu shot this 110 min. documentary about her family in their own apartment. “With the growing popularity of digital equipment, one can shoot films without technical support, and that’s how films become personal.”
Pirated DVDs of Jia Zhangke’s films. “What kinds of films are circulated is not determined by centralized policy, but instead by market forces in the pirated VCD/DVD market.”
Taking Father Home (Ying Liang, 2005)
Withered in Blooming Season (Cui Zi’en, 2005)
Walking on the Wild Side (Han Jie, 2006). “Independent film culture is part of the street culture and youth culture in the PRC. There is a kind of youthful playfulness in these independent films.”
Tiexi District (Wang Bing, 2003): a nine-hour documentary about Tiexi, once an important heavy industrial area of Shenyang, China. “As Ou Ning observes, the rapidly changing environment in the PRC has been a provocative subject matter for local independent filmmakers.”
East Palace, West Palace (Zhang Yuan, 1996). “International film festivals’ critical recognition of the PRC independent cinema is very important in the marketing of their films. Normally they have to get some prizes in these festivals, and then these films are sent into the piracy market.” Zhang’s film exemplifies this process.
Diamond Hill (Cheang Pou-soi, 2000).
Leaving in Sorrow (Vincent Chui, 2001).
Fubo (Wong Ching Po & Lee Kung Lok, 2003). Many Hong Kong filmmakers have used independent production as a stepping stone to the mainstream. Such examples include the directors of the above three films, who first made indie films but later went into the mainstream industry.
The following dialogues with film critics in the PRC and Macau were conducted over a period of one month in 2004.  [open notes in new window] While there are some changes in the independent film scenes in the PRC and Hong Kong ever since these interviews were done, their views and observations offer us useful understanding of Chinese independent cinemas in a global context. Some of these recent changes will be updated at the end of this essay. These critics generally share strong convictions in upholding the oppositional nature and critical role of independent cinema. Many of these concerns are central to the traditional debates of auteurism. Their views on the notion of authenticity, personal vision, independent spirit and adherence to realism demonstrate a crucial strand of cultural and aesthetic value which still persists in a postmodernist world where the erasure of high-low culture seems to have weakened such a conviction. Some of them have also commented on the different patterns of independent filmmaking in Hong Kong and the PRC. These cross-cultural comparisons have helped us to see the relationship between cinema as art and cinema as industry in different regions. Very interestingly one critic has illuminated the connection between cinema and its publics, urging for wider circulation and reception of independent films. Their opinion has led us to consider once again how independent cinema can function as a form of public criticism in a rapidly globalized world.
Definitions of independent cinema
How do you define independent cinema?
Ou: To define filmmakers as independent, we would normally consider their finances first, i.e. from where the directors get their funding. Then we have to see if they hold on to their free and independent thinking in the production process. The latter is crucial in defining an independent filmmaker, because it’s hard simply to look at the budget and production cost of a film and decide if this film is an independent film or not. Budget and production cost can be misleading. For example, the production cost of Made in Hong Kong (Fruit Chan, 1997), HK$500,000 (US$64,000), is considered inexpensive in Hong Kong, but it is a lot of money in the PRC, and can come along with a lot of professional and technical support. Simply looking at the production cost and ignoring the context in which the film is made doesn’t really help us define independent cinema.
We could define whether a film is independent from different aspects such as visual style, subject matter, funding institutes, etc. But it’s better to define independent cinema in terms of critical thought and independent spirit expressed in a work. Independent cinema should always be personal. In filmmaking, whenever it comes to final editing and how the film should look like, the producer and the production company have a very strong say in the decision-making process. We should investigate if the director and his production crews have been interfered with by their financing agencies and market considerations. Besides, sometimes the government intervenes, too.
Yang: First, independent cinema is produced on a low budget. Second, it is not funded by a major film studio. Third, the rationale behind film production is that there is something personal that needs to be articulated. Fourth, it doesn’t intend to pander to mass taste. Fifth, it is not designed for mass distribution.
Ping: First, independent film production is not backed up by a big film studio. Second, directors have to be responsible for the whole production process and the thought expressed in the film. The concept of independent cinema is always related to a low budget, limited resources, and little technical support. It should be something authentic. The director should not represent any film studio or government. Since film production is different from novel writing, it has to involve a lot of people. But a truly independent production is not a mass-produced commodity—it is something personal, like a form of novel writing.
Hu: Independent cinema is not and should not be an industrial product. Therefore, it is not something produced efficiently with a high degree of division of labor, and more importantly, it should not be subjected to market forces. For example, Shanghai Panic (Andrew Cheng, 2001) and Welcome to Destination Shanghai (Andrew Cheng, 2003) are typical examples of independent cinema. The director was simultaneously the scriptwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, and the actor because of limited resources and limited technical support. The director is responsible for the whole production process and the film is shot in a very short time with a realistic documentary style. He was also responsible for all the distribution work and festival competitions.
Wong: In fact, these days, people prefer to use the term “do-it-yourself (DIY) video,” instead of the term “independent cinema.” But if you need a definition of independent cinema, I would say independent cinema means, first, independent critically, and second, independent financially. Financial independence is a bit tricky, because film financing is seldom independent at all. But in independent film production, even if you are financed by some outside parties, they shouldn’t interfere with your production and impose their thoughts or rules on your works. Although many films are funded by institutions in the industry, to be qualified as independent films they shouldn’t be governed by the rules of commercial markets. Critical independence means that the creator articulates some original and authentic thoughts in their production, because filmic creations so far have been allied with commercial productions which are subjected mainly to market forces. After all, it’s about a filmmaker’s independence. It’s difficult to create films without any commercial linkages, though.
Can films really be independent? I am highly skeptical of the idea of independence, especially in the area of cinema. In fact, the definition and meaning of independent cinema cannot be delineated properly. That’s why I prefer the term “DIY video,” because at least the intention and the production process are authentic, as implied by the word DIY. What I stress is the level of independence a filmmaker achieves in making their own work. Nothing can really be truly independent. But the spirit of DIY is that you are creating something yourself and you are responsible for that work. DIY video is the kind of film practice I enjoy the most, because it is more personal, I mean, in the production process and in the thoughts expressed.
Lau: My definition of independent cinema is that first, the thematic concerns should be different from genre films. Second, they should be funded by studio-size production house. Third, there is no star-driven system as independent films should use non-professional actors, or at least less famous people or people from other fields like modeling or drama.
Reasons behind the emergence of
Do you see any independent film cultures in Hong Kong, Macau and/or the PRC?
Ou: In the last few years, there is an emerging and energetic independent film culture in the PRC. The initial stage of the independent film movement was linked to the June Fourth incident (also known as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre). After the incident in Beijing, instead of ideological and political reforms, the PRC was gradually changing into a country focused on economic development. Since the shift in the focus of national development and the party’s policy was too sudden and drastic, various social problems emerged. An important one was that the intellectuals, the artists, and the elitist circles were isolated and marginalized from the system and old establishment with which they had long been familiar. That’s why they became independent as they had to search for their new identities in the changing social context. Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing, out in 1989, initiated the first independent film movement in the PRC in the early 1990. The early independent PRC films were shot on VHS and the equipment and technical support was supplied by the television industry, because film equipment at that time was still expensive and inaccessible to the general public. One characteristic of these independent films was their elitist taste since they tried to record the struggle of the increasing marginalized elites. Wu’s works directly influenced the “Sixth Generation” filmmakers and their standard mode of film practice—indifference to the official film quota, fundraising independent of the state film system, realistic and almost documentary-like visual style, and concern for the marginal social groups.
Yet in the mid-1990s, independent film culture changed because of the democratization and popularization of the DV medium. Independent PRC films of the time, like Old Men (Yang Tianyi, 1999), were different from the ones in the early 1990s. These films were made possible because DV lowered the cost of production a great deal and enabled common people to reach this previously elitist medium. Any common person outside the Beijing Film Academy could make films without permission, since the DV medium provided them with inexpensive, high-tech equipment. One could just get their DV and go shoot films without technical support.
That’s how films become personal. Since common people normally start their filmic creation with their surroundings, they can record many undocumented changes and problems of contemporary Chinese societies. Even the official documentary financed by the state could not capture the changing Chinese societies that these films have recorded, because these DV filmmakers have full blooded local and personal urban experiences. Their understanding of local space and experience cannot be reproduced by outsiders. Perhaps the historical value of these independent films will be treasured and reevaluated after ten or twenty years, because they have objectively witnessed changes in the political structures and the everyday lives of Chinese people in the ‘90s.
Pirated VCDs and DVDs also played a significant role in establishing the independent film culture in the mid-1990s. In the past, films were accessible to the general public only in theatres and the cost of intensive viewing was high. Besides, there used to be centralized control over film circulation, and film production and consumption were organized in a top-down structure. Ideological control was severe and heavy censorship restricted the number of films that could be publicly released. Only privileged people in the film archive and the Beijing Film Academy could have access to the unofficially released films. But nowadays, every household can get hold of a VCD/DVD player very easily. With the DV medium and pirated VCDs and DVDs, the cost of understanding films is lowered and we have a very energetic film culture here in the PRC. The structure of film circulation and consumption has become bottom-up, because now what kinds of films are circulated is not determined by centralized policy, but instead by market forces in the pirated VCD/DVD market. We could say that there is an influx of films. Because of this unique condition in the PRC, we could say that this film culture represents a kind of democratization of film.
Wang: Ou Ning has almost said everything I wanted to say. But I want to add one more point. Independent film culture is part of the street culture and youth culture in the PRC. There is a kind of youthful playfulness in these independent films. The emerging independent films in the PRC represent the thematic concerns of people who were born in the 1980s. When you compare these films with older films made ten years ago by someone from the 1970s, you can see some significant differences: their perspectives and the subjects they are interested in. How these teenage filmmakers understand the medium is different from their older counterparts. They ignore the conventions and rules set up by the older generations such as a single subject matter, consistent plot structure, etc. These films represent the youth cultures and the social contexts in which these teenage filmmakers were brought up. More and more teenagers are involved in independent film production, because technical competency is no longer an issue in making a film. The process of editing has been simplified with increased technological development.
Ou: Comparatively speaking, Hong Kong has a relatively more cosmopolitan culture, because of the lack of centralized control from the government. Hong Kong independent films are different from those from the PRC. There is a well-developed network of film circulation in Hong Kong. For example, the Hong Kong International Film Festival screens a lot of independent films, and the Arts Centre organizes monthly or seasonal programs for independent films. It’s very important to have established network for people to view independent films. What is insufficient in Hong Kong film culture is the number of publications and criticism on independent films, though.
Ever since Vincent Chui made Long Distance (1996) and Betrayal (1998), I have seen most of the independent films produced in Hong Kong and have organized two retrospectives of Hong Kong independent films in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. From my contacts with Hong Kong independent filmmakers, I have observed that they obtain their funding more easily than their PRC counterparts do. Yet the quality of the films is just OK. Although they have a good mastery of various filmic techniques, their works only focus on local issues and are hence not very visionary in terms of the thoughts expressed. Even though with fewer financial and political constraints, the independents films produced in Hong Kong are less provocative when compared to the PRC ones. I have to admit, though, the changing Chinese society in the PRC is already a provocative subject for local independent filmmakers. Just shooting people’s lives on the streets is already provocative enough to make a good documentary. Hong Kong independent filmmakers can’t find such a provocative social reality in Hong Kong.
The reception of these two independent film cultures is different. Hong Kong independent films are not taken seriously locally while the PRC independent films always evoke huge debates and discussions on the Internet. This phenomenon is backed up by the innumerable independent film buffs in the PRC. Pirated VCDs/DVDs have given them a good understanding of film history and film aesthetics, and many of them are professional but harsh film critics. We don’t see such a keen reception of independent films in Hong Kong.
Wang: I want to add one point to Ou Ning’s observation on the reception of independent films in Hong Kong. The film buffs in Hong Kong have no thorough understanding of film history and film aesthetics. Many of them are just fans of idols, instead of film buffs of good films. Many of them don’t even understand many technical elements and formalistic qualities of films.
Hu: There is a significant independent film culture in the PRC. From 2002 to 2003, we saw two DV films coming out every day. The quality is not guaranteed though, because many of the films are made by student-directors. You don’t have to look at most of them as they just reproduce some segments of their everyday lives in a realistic style and extend them into feature films. The number qualified to enter a film festival competition is less than 40 a year. Those qualified to enter international film festival competitions are less than five. In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, you could easily find an independent film director. That the DV film culture is flourishing cannot be denied.
The intensity of circulation through piracy is more effective than showing your films in local film clubs city by city. Piracy can reach every common person while a local film club screening reaches less than two hundred film buffs in a single city. International film festivals’ critical recognition of the PRC independent cinema is very important in the marketing of their films. Normally they have to get some prizes in these festivals, and then these films are sent into the piracy market.
Ping: Yes, of course there are many independent filmmakers in Hong Kong such as Barbara Wong Chun Chun, Simon Chung, and Vincent Chui. Most Hong Kong independent films we see in Shanghai are circulated through piracy. However, the Hong Kong independent films released through piracy are always those being sold on the black market, so the number of films that we have seen is quite limited. They are repackaged as erotic films or spectacle films because this strategy attracts more common people, like Yau Ching’s Ho Yuk: Let’s Love Hong Kong (2002). Just the DVD cover has helped the sales a lot. Barbara Wong Chun Chun also has quite a large market because of the tabooed gender issues in her films. It is the pirated DVD producers who select films for the general public, not the general public themselves. Since there is no established market for independent cinema, these Hong Kong independent films have to be repackaged as something more accessible and less high-brow in the PRC.
Wong: Hong Kong independent cinema is tightly linked to the mainstream industry. Many independent film practitioners don’t have a clear identity, or a distinctively different identity as alternative or independent filmmakers. Their ultimate goal is to work and be recognized by the industry. Their so-called ‘independent’ filmic production is just a process, a stepping stone for their recognition as someone who is able to make films. There are truly independent videomakers, of course, like Ellen Pau at Videotage, but they focus mainly on videos, not narrative films. The independent filmmakers in Hong Kong always want to work as legitimate filmmakers in the mainstream industry. They are waiting for opportunities to be absorbed into the industry. After all, nearly all of them are graduates from film schools. It’s valid for them to expect to be able to make films continuously, to find someone to finance them, and more importantly, to screen their works in cinemas. I mean, they want their works to be exposed to more people. Their pursuit is reasonable, I think.
Basically there is no film in Macau. There are small amount of videos, though. For Hong Kong and PRC cinemas, you have to pay attention to their different contexts. In the PRC, you have to resort to DIY videos if you want to express your thoughts in films, because of all the industrial and political constraints. In such a context, there are numerous DIY videos, for example those works made by students of Zhang Yaxuan of the Beijing Film Academy, and Conjugation (2001) by Emily Tang. There are clear distinctions between videos and films, between independence and mainstream in the PRC. Since films have to submit to the dominant ideology and have to be censored heavily in their subject matter, what can be expressed in films is always restricted. Like Jia Zhangke, even though he is very famous and critically recognized, he cannot enter the mainstream and has to rely on foreign funding. People like Zhang Yuan are rare and exceptional. Even though their films are not shown locally, the PRC independent cinema has quite a big foreign market. They can easily find a French distributor for their films. Thematically, their films are more sociopolitical and socially committed. But in the context of Hong Kong, the distinction between independent filmmaking and the mainstream is not so clear. For example, in Fruit Chan’s movies, we can locate some threads of commercialism, and it’s hard to clearly label his works. Another example is Doug Chan. He has made some commercial films before, but his Love is Not a Sin (2003) was shot on DV and is considered an independent film. It won the best digigal film award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Is he an indie filmmaker? The answer is ambiguous. But one point I’d like to make is that I find most of the thematic concerns in Hong Kong independent cinema shallow and unoriginal in their philosophical perspective.
Lau: There are a lot of indie films in Hong Kong. When you go to the Arts Centre, you can see indie films on screen. Or you can buy VCDs or DVDs distributed by Asia Video, Shu Kei’s Creative Workshop, or Ying E Chi. The last decade in the PRC saw the flourishing of indie film productions. But for most of the indie people, they have to resort to this mode of filmmaking because the subject matter that they want to deal with are forbidden in the official mode of filmmaking and would never pass through censorship. That’s why they distribute their films in foreign countries. The difference between these two indie cinemas is that in Hong Kong, if you want to make an indie film, you shoot it as long as you have your stories and actors. But in the PRC, indie film productions are not officially encouraged. The official policy of the Beijing Broadcast, Film and Television Bureau kind of forbids you to make any films on your own. Even if you have made a film, you can’t show it publicly in cinemas or any open areas, otherwise, you will be in trouble. The ‘procedures’ in the circulation of these PRC indie films are: first, go to a foreign film festival and get some awards, then get your work distributed through piracy and local film groups. The case of filmmaking in the PRC is rather exceptional, because censorship and the film quota system have imposed a division between ‘legitimate filmmaking’ and ‘illegitimate filmmaking.’ The focus and central concerns of this ‘illegitimate filmmaking’ are allied with marginality and minority—the lives of marginal artists and underprivileged social groups in urban China, for example. The marginal and minor status of this mode of film practice is well received in other cultural contexts because the PRC represented in these films is still mysterious to non-local people. These films are ‘realistic’ and have become some of the pathways to better understand present-day urban China. These films, however, have no market for local people, except for the elite groups in the Beijing Film Academy, because these films are like reproductions of everyday lives that common people experience, and they would go to cinemas to see these works. But above all, these films are banned locally. Unlike the Hong Kong situation, there is no interaction between the indie production and the mainstream audience because of myriad political reasons.