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"Underground" movie directors emerge
(China Today)
Updated: 2004-04-26 09:58

The Chinese censor recently cleared an internationally acclaimed movie shot in Beijing four years ago for public screening in China.

The DVD cover of Beijing Bicycle.
Despite winning the Silver Bear and Best New Talent prize at the 51st Berlin International Film Festival in 2001, the public screening of Beijing Bicycle was until recentl prohibited in China. Why?

Because its director, thirty-something Wang Xiaoshuai had not obtained approval from the Film administration Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television before showing his film at the festival. He was, moreover, banned from shooting films for one year and thus became an "underground" director.

Shot in April 2000, Wang's Beijing Bicycle is a tale of contemporary adolescent angst as expressed by two boys of a similar age and different family backgrounds.

One is a 17-year-old waidiren (resident of a different region) who comes to Beijing looking for work. After many rejections, he finally gets a job as an express bicycle courier, albeit on condition he buys his work vehicle from the company in monthly installments deducted from his salary. The day he becomes its official owner, the bicycle is stolen. After much fruitless searching he spots his bicycle being ridden by a schoolboy his own age, and decides to steal it back. By this time his urban contemporary, having bought the bicycle on the black market, also regards the bike as his inalienable property. After initially banging heads, the two come to an arrangement ...

Beijing Bicycle's investor publicized the movie internationally and it was slated to premier at the Berlinale. Wang Xiaoshuai had no time to submit his film to the mandatory and lengthy approval procedure, according to which:

Films participating in overseas film shows or festivals must be approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

Wang says he had no choice but to skip this time-consuming procedure, as he would otherwise have missed the festival.

Wang Xiaoshuai, a "sixth-generation" film director.
Wang Xiaoshuai graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1989. Most of the films he has made since have been banned from public viewing because of his "serious violation of relevant regulations." His maiden work, an independent film called The Days, was designated by the BBC as one of the 100 best films ever made.

So Close to Paradise was a contender for the Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or and his Drifters was selected and screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and at the Contemporary World Film section of the Toronto Film Festival. Although these achievements guaranteed Wang's funds to shoot more films, he cannot make his name as a director in China without access to a mainstream domestic audience.

Wang's underlying feeling of rootlessness as a so-called underground director, and his desire to emerge into the sunshine of acknowledgement are reflected in his films. Drifters is about a man from a small city in southern China who returns to China with his son years after having stowed away on a ship to America years previously. The film expresses Wang's feeling of drifting to the extent of living in a vacuum.

He explains, "For a long time I felt like an invisible observer. It seemed that no matter where I went or lived, I was a social outsider."

Many interpret the lifting of the ban on Wang's film as an historic event in the development of Chinese film. Beijing Bicycle is the first underground film to have been legitimized since the recent implementation of reforms by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

As such, it signals the shooting of more offbeat and controversial films in China. One example is a proposed film by China's most commercially successful director Feng Xiaogang. When he first applied to the Administration to make his No Thieves At All (Tianxiawuzei) in 2002, he was rejected on the grounds that: "A thief is an unsuitable film protagonist." Feng has since obtained approval to shoot his movie.

In the Film Making, Publishing, Screening Operation Admittance Interim Regulations, promulgated on December 1st, 2003, the relevant article was amended to read: "Film making units are encouraged to participate in overseas film festivals (shows).

The proposed entries should obtain a Permit for Public Screening, and be put on record at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television before being publicly shown." The crucial difference is in the phrase: "...applications should be put on record;" which formerly stated: "... applications should be approved."

This means that Wang or any of his "underground" peers can obtain approval to shoot a film by submitting a 1,000-word summary of its plot to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, who will then put it on record.

A poster for Platform.
When shooting and editing are complete, the director concerned can obtain permission for public screening of the film after it has been through relevant censorship procedures. This is a radical departure from the stringent and lengthy procedure of the past, which required putting the whole screenplay through a laborious comment-recompose-retrial process.

On November 13, 2003, the Film Administration Bureau held a conference at the Beijing Film Academy which "underground" directors Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke. Director of the Film Administration Bureau Tong Gang and deputy director Zhang Pimin attended.

The conference marked a change of attitude towards so-called "underground" directors as it advocated their being regarded as the new blood of the Chinese film industry to be guided and nurtured, rather than renegades whose creativity is choked at source.

Says Jia Zhangke, "This change in attitude on the part of the authorities indicates that film-makers accord more respect, that more importance is attached to creative film-making, and that the industrialization of film is accelerating." Jia is currently shooting World, which is partly sponsored by the state-owned Shanghai Film Studio, and the first of his films to be approved for public screening in Chinese cinemas.

Jia was hoping to cooperate with the Shanghai Film Studio at the planning stages of his Platform, but it was not to be. He has finally got his wish. Says Jia: "The Shanghai Film Studio is a flexible and active, rather than rigid, organization. Most important, they like my approach to filming, which gives me creative space." He does not think that moving from an underground to mainstream audience will make any difference to the theme or style of his next film. As he says, "The only difference is that the film can be shown to the general public, which matters to the investor."

Wang feels the same way. "An 'underground' film is not necessarily gloomy and dismal. Beijing Bicycle is generally light, but with bleak overtones. "

Although Wang is walking in sunshine again, he feels less optimistic about his earlier films as none of them prior to Beijing Bicycle are likely to be passed for public showing. He says resignedly, "There are few repertoire cinemas or small salons in China, and putting my early films on general lease is impossible. The problem as I see it lies in China's restrictive film environment, whose inadequate distribution channels and paucity of art film cinemas make it impossible for them to find a following here." Wang believes it is imperative that China promulgates a film classification system. "Only by classification can there be a correct market orientation, whereby both audiences and films are protected. This will be far better for China's film industry than any amount of international awards."

He is heartened at the authorities announced intention to implement a classification system. Wu Ke, deputy director of the Film Administration Bureau says a film classification policy is in the process of being drafted. "Once promulgated, it will mark a milestone in China's century-long film-making history" says Wu.

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