2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
Dialogues with critics on
Chinese independent cinemas
by Esther M.K. Cheung
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
various independent cinemas
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 digital 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.
Differences and interactions between
Hong Kong and other Chinese communities
What are some of the constraints of the independent cinemas in the PRC and Hong Kong?
Ou: One minor point first: PRC independent films have a bigger international market, while Hong Kong independent cinema doesn’t have one. But the major point is that censorship is a big problem restraining the development of independent film culture. For example, the Film and Television Bureau in Beijing recently imposed some rules on DV films, which are now officially considered a specific type of film. Independent DV filmmakers, like 35mm filmmakers, have to get their films censored before they can be publicly shown. Without proper registration of your film—say if you enter a festival competition without reporting to the officials—you will get yourself into a lot of trouble. You may be fined and penalized, and you wouldn’t be allowed to make DV films for three years. After you have been blacklisted, your DV films can never be shown publicly in the PRC. Another serious constraint is that the independent film culture is always underground, which means that these films can only be viewed individually at home in VCD/DVD format. Also, it’s very hard to raise funds for independent film production in the PRC. I don’t see any significant constraints on independent cinema in Hong Kong. It’s always a problem with their vision. Even the PRC independent filmmakers have similar problems with their vision. Although they have benefited a great deal from the democratization of the filmic medium, they haven’t realized that films can be mobilized as a vehicle for building a civil society. Films, even DV films, in this sense, could be political, but not many filmmakers or artists understand the broader implications of filmic politics.
Wang: If you want to make an independent film in the PRC, you have to know how to deal with censorship and the grey area of filmmaking. For example, you have to avoid subject matters related to politics. The concept of politics in the PRC can be very tricky. Independent film production like Tammy Cheung’s July (2004) could never be made in the PRC. If the officials found out that you produced or circulated something like July, it would surely be considered politically subversive and you’d be in serious trouble.
Are there interactions between the independent and the mainstream cinemas in the PRC and Hong Kong?
Ou: Independent cinema is like the backup of the mainstream cinema in Hong Kong. There are significant interactions between the two seemingly unrelated or oppositional cinemas. Since the Hong Kong film industry is a well-established one, it has a mechanism to incorporate film talents outside the establishment for its own development. Andy Lau and Eric Tsang always support the new film talents and help independent filmmakers establish their careers within the mainstream. In the PRC, since there are already serious problems in the film industry because of the changing social context and the declining demand, the mainstream does not have a dynamic interaction with independent cinema. Yet, things are changing quickly these days. For example, the Shanghai Film Studio has been carrying out a number of reforms and incorporating the ‘Sixth Generation’ filmmakers like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke, and Zhu Wen. Independent cinema and mainstream cinema are like neighbors living next door to each other, seemingly separated by a wall. However, when you investigate this wall thoroughly, you can find holes in it, which allow the independent filmmakers to sneak into the mainstream.
Ping: In Hong Kong, interaction between the independent and the mainstream is possible. In the PRC, it is very difficult. The phenomenon where underground filmmakers like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai were reincorporated into the mainstream filmmaking earlier in 2004 has been misread by many as a sign of interaction between the independent and the mainstream. It looks as if there have been revolutionary changes in the structure of PRC filmmaking because of the vibrant independent film culture. However, the whole picture is not like that at all. It has to be noted that Jia and Wang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, so they will always be part of the film production establishment. To paraphrase it, they will always belong to the mainstream. Those who do not graduate from the Beijing Film Academy and do not belong to the film establishment are excluded from the mainstream filmmaking scene or the established filmmaking network. The truly independent filmmakers are always the outsiders of the state filmmaking system. Compared to the situation here, the film industry in Hong Kong is an open one. It welcomes others to come in. But the PRC film industry is a closed one, and without a proper permit you cannot enter the field.
What are the major differences between the independent cinemas in Hong Kong and other cultural contexts?
Yang: The quality of Hong Kong independent films is much better than that of the PRC ones. The PRC independent directors who come from the Beijing Film Academy can of course make good films, but others who are outside of the state film production system are not able to make anything good. The independent film directors in Hong Kong, on the other hand, are either former film critics or film school graduates. Since the level of film appreciation and film viewing are generally better in Hong Kong, the works produced in such a context are inevitably better. The independent film practitioners in Hong Kong are exposed to more films of good quality and classic films, so they have a better understanding of the medium and what can be expressed through films. You may see 400 films one year in Hong Kong while we only see 40 in the mainland. That’s the major difference. Also, the variety of independent films in Hong Kong is greater. The subject matter, thematic concerns, and cinematic styles vary from director to director. This, I think, is also related to how much you have been exposed to other film cultures.
Hu: The major differences between the two independent cinemas are their thematic concerns and subject matter. There are a variety of topics—like gender, gayness, or urban life—covered in Hong Kong independent cinema. The PRC independent cinema always focuses on how to portray marginal people. Sometimes they may cover topics like the city but their central focus is still the people instead of other, more abstract subjects. Jia Zhangke, for example, has always focused on the more concrete life of the people even if he is trying to capture city life. Another point that has to be noted is that, in the landscape of PRC independent filmmaking, nearly all the independent film directors are trying to establish themselves as a cult figure in the media. Fame is very important for the independent filmmakers in the PRC. Directors hate each other, and their fans also attack other directors on the Internet. There was a big debate in 2002 between the Jia Zhangke camp and the Wang Chao camp over Wang’s The Orphan of Anyang (2001). Jia made some remarks on this once, saying that he hates this kind of independent film culture.
Ping: Independent filmmaking is a promising business in the PRC, because a single film could be sold at US$50,000 in the foreign market. Since it is a good business, many people have entered the field and claim they are independent directors. These people don’t enjoy independent filmmaking at all, they are not responsible for their works and they just see their works as a business opportunity. Most of the so-called underground or independent films produced in the PRC are not personal expression or an articulation of the artist’s vision. These filmmakers deliberately pick up some taboo, sensitive, and provocative issues like prostitutes, AIDS, and blood-selling, and the story is always set in a shabby and gloomy environment for no reason. They just want to establish themselves and sell their films in the foreign market. In their work you don’t see any sympathy or understanding of the subjects that they are portraying—all you can see is superficiality and hypocrisy.
Wong: In Hong Kong, there is no established market for a truly alternative film culture and hence, alternative filmmaking. In France, there is an established arthouse circuit and arthouse films could be shown throughout the year. Like Jia’s films—they were shown in France for more than a year…every single one of them. But in Hong Kong we can’t even find a single truly arthouse cinema. That’s why no film practitioners are willing to make independent or arthouse films as their livelihood. Even the Hong Kong Film Archive has been just restoring the oldies and reconstructing the history of Cantonese and Chinese cinema. Some believe there is independent cinema in Hong Kong. But this discussion is more like a game in a small circle, because the circulation of these works is not good, and not many people have seen them.
If you know the Ying E Chi people, you would see that they are in fact working in different fields, some in a very commercial realm. You see, Vincent Chui has already made a film Fear of Intimacy (2004) funded by a private investor and he is OK with his present situation, because he is finally able to make a film which is to be shown in the commercial theatre. Another example which highlights the dilemma of independent cinema in Hong Kong is Tammy Cheung. Even though her Secondary School (2002) is such a critically recognized work, she is unable to get funding for her next project because her work doesn’t sell very well in the market. That’s why she also has to take up some advertising jobs or to shoot concerts. Hui Kwok-ming in Macau also faces a similar struggle. How can such financial condition in independent filmmaking support one’s creation and livelihood? Even high art is subjected to market forces. Without a proper market and industrial support, maintaining a filmmaker’s independence is hard.
Lau: I think that the independent filmmaking scene in Hong Kong is pretty similar to those in other cultural contexts. It depends on how good the director is. Some good independent directors who have made feature films, I would say, are Carol Lai and Yan Yan Mak. But they do not shoot independent films anymore, as their previous works were recognized by other producers and investors who have confidence in investing in their present projects. Independent film practitioners’ ultimate aim is to shoot feature films in 35mm with proper funding and distribution. I guess that no one likes to embrace the label ‘independent filmmaker’ in Hong Kong because it’s just a stepping stone in the process of recognition of their talents. Independent filmmaking—on the production side—is in fact attached to mainstream film industry. It has supplied film talents to the industry to invigorate production in the mainstream.
But the whole landscape of independent filmmaking has not brought significant impacts or changes to the Hong Kong general public. Only a certain percentage of those who go to places like the Arts Centre, Broadway Cinematheque and the film festivals have an interest in [Hong Kong/Chinese] independent cinema. Its future is not optimistic. I don’t think that independent cinema reemerged in the mid-1990s. There are always people shooting independent films, for example, people like Allen Fong in the ‘80s, and the members of the Hong Kong Film Culture Centre. The number of experimental films and indie films in the ‘70s and ‘80s was smaller and they have never been made into DVDs and VCDs. That’s why people have forgotten these films. One point has to be emphasized: before the prevalence of DVDs and VCDs, there were already some small-sized film groups which gathered a number of film buffs, and they did indie production together. They have existed the whole time, only that they are not as visible as the indie production today, because of the developments in media technology in recent decades. But in the ‘90s, these film groups ceased to exist, because film buffs had more access to the filmic equipment and other people’s films because of the affordable prices of digital film equipment, DVDs, and VCDs. I don’t think a comparison of indie productions can be made fairly because the social conditions of these indie films and the constraints involved in film production in the ‘80s and ‘90s were totally different. In the ‘90s, we saw large scale, centralized film competitions and annual indie film screenings being organized and publicized. We also had VCDs and DVDs circulating indie works in the market. But we didn’t have any of these for indie productions in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Do you see any potentialities in the independent cinemas in the PRC and Hong Kong?
Hu: Since the commercial Hong Kong cinema has been fully developed for the last twenty years, the areas in Hong Kong cinema that could be further developed are the alternative ones. The decline of the Hong Kong film industry in the mid-1990s also means the rise of other forms of Hong Kong cinema. The openness and international status of Hong Kong could help the development of local independent film culture.
Independent filmmaking in the PRC is too constrained and a promising development is not likely. The quota system and the centralized filmmaking system have constrained all modes of filmmaking. Films which avoid trouble in censorship are inherently boring, because of the ridiculous censorship. For example, in a ghost film, there could be no ghost. How could suspense and horror work without ghosts in a ghost film?
Ping: No matter what the context is, I’m pessimistic about the idea of development of independent cinema. First, independent film production is always funded by limited resources. Second, there is no strong market for these independent films locally and globally. If an independent filmmaker stays forever in independent filmmaking, they could not further develop their career cinematic creations.
What they should aim for, I think, is to be an alternative within the industry instead of staying outside the industry. The film talents should always opt for legitimized filmmaking so that their work can be shown to the public. What is the most important is that they should create something different. Quentin Tarantino, for example, is a mainstream director, but can you say his works are completely commercial? The influence of a filmmaker always comes after his films. If your films are not shown publicly, no matter how critically acclaimed you are, you cannot get anywhere.
Postscript: some updates
In the above interviews, one of the most interesting observations is about the different patterns of independent filmmaking in Hong Kong and the PRC. While censorship in the PRC has for some time forced filmmakers to seek overseas financial support and opportunities of exhibiting their films, some of them have started to open up formal and direct channels of communication with the domestic audience in mainland China. Jia Zhangke’s more recent films such as The World (2005) and Still Life (2006) were attempts to engage with the local audience, no matter whether the films were well-received or not. One might even say that he has moved from the realm of the underground to that above the ground. This move shows us that the scope of the cinematic public sphere depends very much on the ways in which filmmakers define it through the process of producing and distributing their films. It, however, does not necessarily reflect their compromises with official ideology, collective consciousness, and commercial consideration, giving rise to popular reception and commercial success. Jia’s The World, for example, had only a box office record of US$125,000 while Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (2006) had raked US$12.5 million.
In the case of Hong Kong independent cinema, what has not been mentioned in the interviews is the diversity of independent filmmaking in Hong Kong cinema. While the critics are right to observe that some of the Hong Kong independents aim at becoming mainstream industrial practitioners, quite a few of them traverse between the independent and mainstream terrains so as to secure their spirits of autonomy and personal vision. It can be observed that some well-known industrial filmmakers such as Ann Hui and Stanley Kwan have made documentary films which were not profit-driven, fitting in the common criteria of independent productions. Another more “dramatic” example would be Fruit Chan whose earlier reverse path from the mainstream to the independent terrain in mid 1990s has now become an oft-quoted example of the possibility of crossover. His productive oeuvres of making a series of independent productions have inspired other filmmakers to follow suit. In terms of sources of funding, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council has played an important part since the mid 1990s to fund film projects. Bryan Chang’s After the Crescent (1997) and Vincent Chui’s Leaving in Sorrow (2001) are two representative productions. In 2006, financially supported by Focus Film, Focus: First Cuts featured six films made by new film talents in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the PRC, Malaysia, and Singapore. Focus Film is a company helmed by Hong Kong film star Andy Lau who is dedicated to nurturing independent vision and discovering new directors. He has been continuously sponsoring new and experimental directors to produce and distribute their debuts. Among them, with a small budget, mainland Chinese young filmmaker Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone (2006) surprisingly hit the PRC box office nearing 15 million RMB (about US$2 million). These cross-border interactions among Hong Kong, mainland China, and other Asian cities will chart new trends and directions which define the ways in which we understand the nature of independent filmmaking in the global context.
Acknowledgement: The work described in this paper was fully supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Project No. HKU 7416/05H).
1.My sincere thanks to a number people who contributed to the compilation of this set of interviews with critics from the PRC and Macau. Cheng Kwok-Hung, the one who transcribed and translated the interviews, was the most important contributor because it was through him that we were able to make connections with the interviewees. Jamie Ting-chee Ku, Nicole Hess and Michelle Kwok Lai-yung have offered invaluable help in the editing and word processing of this article.
2. The interviews recorded and compiled in this report were conducted over a period of one month in 2004 in various locales in the PRC and Macau. The three critics from Shanghai 101 were interviewed on June 1, 2004 at Shanghai University. The conversation with the two critics associated with Espaco Video was made on June 8, 2004 at Macau University. The interview with the film critics from Guangzhou, Ou Ning and Wang Bang, took place on July 2, 2004 at their U-theque Studio in Guangzhou. I would like to express my greatest gratitude to them for their time and precious opinion.
3. Ann Hui’s As Time Goes By (1997) and Stanley Kwan’s Still Love You After All These (1997) are autobiographical documentaries which fit in the general criteria of what an independent film should be.
4. Fruit Chan had worked in the film industry as assistant director for ten years before he filmed Made in Hong Kong (1997), his indie debut. Chan’s independent film productions include “The 1997 Trilogy” which consists of Made in Hong Kong (1997), The Longest Summer (1998), and Little Cheung (1999). His second incomplete trio called “The Trilogy of the Prostitute” consists of Durian Durian (2000) and Hollywood Hong Kong (2001). Later he made Public Toilet (2002), and shifted to a somewhat mainstream production called Dumplings (2004) which, except with the use of professional actors, is not very different in style and subject matter from his earlier works.
5. Lam Wah-chuen, the cinematographer for Made in Hong Kong, is a typical example. He admitted that his own attempt to make Runaway Pistol (2002) is inspired by his collaboration with Chan when they produced Made in Hong Kong.
6. See its official website: http://www.focusfirstcuts.com for detailed information on the objectives of the project and its relation with Andy Lau’s company Focus Films.
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