A brief history of Chinese independent film with Tony Rayns

Tony Rayns has been introducing Asian films and filmmakers to the West for almost four decades. He spots new directors and ushers them into essential film festivals, so the world got to know Takeshi Kitano and Wong Kar-Wai, as well as Uruphong Raksasad and Amir Muhammad.

The Vancouver International Film Festival is now big mostly because of his programming for the Dragons & Tigers section (1988-2006). He was awarded the Foreign Ministry of Japan’s Commendation in 2008 for services to local cinema. In 2012, to celebrate the 25th year since Tony Rayns began presenting Korean films to foreign audience, native auteurs dedicated to his work a documentary: TONY RAYNS, THE NOT-SO-DISTANT OBSERVER. A writer for Sight & Sound since the 1970s, Mr. Rayns also finds time to make quality subtitles for Asian filmmakers, which plays a significant role in worldwide screenings.

He is one of the few who came to Mainland China in late 1970s, witnessing its change and helping its cinema to reach a bigger crowd. If it were not him, people might not have been able discover Jia Zhangke, Cui Zi’en and Ying Liang that soon. As David Bordwell once wrote: “Like André Bazin and Henri Langlois, Tony is one of the animateurs of world cinema, and everyone who loves film is in his debt.”

Questions = XU Jia, answers = Tony RAYNS

You went to Hong Kong in 1977 and then to mainland China in 1978?
I think that’s right. Yes.

Where did you go to school?
School? You mean university? Cambridge.

You went to Cambridge. To study Chinese?
No. Had I known, at that time, that my work and life would bring me to this part of the world and I’d spend so much time here, I would have done an oriental language, but the option was there and I did a literature degree. One of the requirements was a second language, and I could have done Chinese, Japanese, or something: those possibilities existed in the university. However, because I have no idea this would be the direction that things would take, I did French, which I already spoke. My French was already pretty fluent so I thought the easy option is to stick with French, so I chose French as my second language and did a paper on French literature. So no.

Is it common that film scholars do English literature in university?
As I said, I am very very old and at my time in the university, there was no such thing as a film course. Later, they started a film course and it is possible to go there to study film formally but it was not an option in my time. I was lucky enough to have a director of studies, the rather famous British literary theorist Raymond Williams. Raymond Williams himself was very interested in film so he was quite sympathetic and maybe it was one of the reasons why he picked me as his student. It’s possible; I don’t know. He never said that to me. I certainly had told him that I was interested in film. But he was interested in film and it was for that reason, quite sympathetic to the fact that I spent most of my time working on film, but not much on my course. So I was lucky, in that sense. But anyway, there was no film option for me. I did do film in various ways: I edited a film magazine, I made films, I programed two or three film societies, I edited the film pages in a university newspaper – I did all kinds of film-related things, but not very much on my course, unfortunately.

How did you get to visit China for the first time?

I was invited. I became interested, first in Hong Kong film, in early 1970s, mostly because of wu xia pian / martial arts films. At that time, there was no film in China because of the Cultural Revolution, and everything was closed down. It was only about 1972 when film started to be made again: there were a few gang-of-four films, sort of hardcore propaganda, not much interest to me, I have to say. So Hong Kong cinema was Chinese cinema, at that point.

My discovery was quite an exciting thing for me, and I wanted to know more, so I began writing a lot about Hong Kong cinema. I was invited to the Hong Kong Film Festival the first year, in 1977, because I was one of the very few people in the West writing about these films or trying to write about these films. I was making lots of very naive, stupid mistakes, but I think people here, at the festival, who started the film festival in Hong Kong, saw that I was interested, because they saw some of my writings, but they also saw that I made naive mistakes. They thought it would not be a bad idea to give me a first-hand exposure to Hong Kong so that I would make fewer mistakes, so they were kind enough to invite me to the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1977, and everything went from there really.

When I went back to London, I am sure I was talking and writing a lot about Chinese cinema, but particularly Hong Kong cinema. I no longer recall how the suggestion came up, but somebody in London, probably Zhong Ying Gong Si from the China Film Corporation, suggested, through the embassy in London, to do some kind of China film events. This was very soon after Mao’s death, but presumably it was their way of saying things are different now: we could do things now that we could not do before; are you interested in doing something? So the idea came up to have a delegation to China, to experience China and to investigate some Chinese films.

This invitation was channeled to the National Film Archive, which is part of the British Film Institute, and at that time the feature film officer in the National Film Archive was a very close friend of mine, called Scott Mick. Immediately, the invitation landed on his desk, and he called me up, asking me to have lunch with him. He said: “Listen, we have this opportunity to go to China, what do you think?” I said: “Grab it! It’s a wonderful chance! Let’s go to China, see some films and find out what’s happening in China, because it seems a rare opportunity!”. At that time, there was not much tourism to China, and official delegates tended to do communist things, not cultural things. So we thought it was a good chance. Scott had no academic interest at all, but he liked the idea of going to China. He said he would rely on me to do the more serious side of it and he would do the tourism side. I said: “That’s fine!”. So we were delegation of two people. We accepted the invitation from (it must have been) Zhong Ying Gong Si, as they were our hosts in China. Before we went, they did invite us to let them know the films that we hope to see, so we did all the research we could in London. And we went back to the beginning: the archive and origins of Chinese cinema. We made lists of the silent movies, ’30s movies, ’40s movies that we hoped to see.

When we arrived, they were not able or willing to show us any of those films. They did not have any. They said: “Well, we have some from the 1950s; you can see those old copies, but that’s it!”. We were, of course, very disappointed, because we wanted to get more historical perspectives. We were prepared to believe that pre-communism Chinese cinema is more interesting than post-communism, so we were looking forward to seeing a lot of pre-1949 films. We were introduced to the China Film Archive which, in fact, had an office right next door to Zhong Ying. The archivers were very nice, but they said: “We can’t receive you, because we don’t have our own room yet. The archive is the storage in the countryside and it’s still closed. We have no idea what conditions the films are as everything has been locked up for the last thirteen or fourteen years. We are not ready to receive visitors yet, so nice to meet you. Goodbye!”.

So we saw nothing in Beijing from the Archive, but they were nice and they were very frank. They said: “We are not in a position to show you anything at this moment. We have nothing ready and we don’t have a screening room!”. On the same trip, though, after about ten days in Beijing, mostly we spent watching films. We went to Shanghai, and Shanghai, of course, was much more flexible. Shanghai did have pre-war films. It had quite a big collection of their own productions, of which they were rather proud, so Shanghai was happy to show us THE SPRING RIVER FLOWS EAST / YI JIANG CHUN SHUI XIANG DONG LIU (Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli, 1947) and CROWS AND SPARROWS / WUYA YU MAQUE (Junli Zheng, 1949), some of the late 1940s classics, but they also showed us STREET ANGEL / MALU TIANSHI (Yuan Muzhi, 1937) and CROSSROADS / SHI ZI JIE TOU (Shen Xiling, 1937) from 1930s. So they had not many films, but nonetheless, things we could not see anywhere else, which we were delighted to see. In Shanghai, they did not care. They had copies in the studio, because they were proud of them. It was part of their history, they thought. They were happy to show them to us, so we were delighted to have our first glimpse of earlier Chinese cinema.

When we went back to London, we decided to celebrate Chinese films, which I think was what Zhong Ying Gong Si had in mind and we said that we would like to do a proper retrospective of Chinese cinema, trying to get some historical perspective, to show some older films, as well as some recent films. To sketch, in a very loose way, the history of Chinese cinema development. Because China itself was not in a position to display most of its older films, we could borrow copies from Shanghai, films like CROSSROADS and STREET ANGEL. But the Archive remained closed, so we started with other archives. Since my friend Scott worked for the National Film Archive in London, obviously, there was a network of contacts with other archives and he spoke to them to have some inquiries, so he collected a few other old Chinese films from other archives.

So was it before or after Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up policy?

The event we did was in 1980. It did take two years. We were there at the end of 1978, so it took a year or so to coordinate all of this and sort it all out. We, of course, avoided hardline communist films. We went for things that were more interesting. I did not realize that at the time, but later I found out that at the end of the 1950s, there was a kind of war in Shanghai between old leftists, who had been active in the 1930s and 1940s, and new leftists who were being imposed by the communist government.

You have old people like Xie Jin and Shen Fu from the old film industry and have a background of old Shanghai filmmaking. They have certain ideas about what kind of films they should make. They also have their version of leftism, socialism. And there were these tough, much more militant communists who were imposed by Beijing who made very different kind of films and have very different attitude toward propaganda. So, I think in 1950s, there was a kind of war in Shanghai cinema between those two fractions. On the one hand, Xie Jin and other people, made more Hollywood-style films, with political twists to it. A look at the film: nostalgia, the pre-war times, costumes – everything about it was sort of basic Hollywood-type of filmmaking. On the other hand, you have Wang Ping, for example, a woman director who made a film about the communist occupation of Shanghai, difficulties of the young guards as they try to control unbridled society of Shanghai, so there were much more hardline communist propaganda films.

You have been introducing Chinese independent films to the West since the beginning. Can you comment on the changes over the years?

Pretty much! The reason that independent films came into existence was mostly because of the government. It was not because of censorship. Chinese independent film was really born in 1989. The Tiananmen Square Massacre was the crucial event, because Tiananmen Square Massacre meant none of the studio was willing to hire the students who graduated from Beijing Film Academy (Beijing Dianying Xueyuan).

I am sure you know the official procedure before that point, being if you graduate from one of the five departments in that school, basically, you are assigned by the Film Bureau to one of the 16 film studios, scattered around China. The normal thing is, if you are a graduate, you are assigned to one studio to work. You could be borrowed by another studio. It was not like a life sentence to be there, but basically that is how it worked.

By the end of 1980s, that system was already beginning to break down, because, apparently by that time, Deng Xiaoping had already returned to power. And Deng Xiaoping had made it known that he favored dismantling the state enterprises or at least forcing state enterprises to become profit-making, to support themselves, to stop relying on the government. The film industry was clearly one of his targets. I thought he was much less interested in heavy industry than things like culture, which clearly was a soft target. So, the film industry started to think, in a very clumsy way, about how it could become a self-supporting industry. And that made them reluctant to keep going with the old system of apprenticeships: students coming from the Film Academy to be placed in the studios to work their way up the system to eventually become directors, cinematographers or whatever.

The first practice was appearing within the system. But the crucial thing was Tiananmen Square, because after Tiananmen Square, all officials in organizations in China greatly distrusted students. The last thing they wanted was a student who might be associated with trouble in Tiananmen Square. No studio wanted to hire the students. There was a group of people who graduated in 1990, I think, one generation who graduated. They were subsequently named by some people as the Sixth Generation, but it is a stupid name. Anyway, the group did graduate, they include people like Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye, and some not so famous, like Lu Xuechang. Most of them could not get jobs. Nobody wanted them.

Wang Xiaoshuai was the first who found money privately to make a film called MAMA (1990). He got money from some charity organization, because the film was probably about a mother, a single parent with a handicapped child. The charity dealt with that kind of issue, I think; that was the initial seed money to make MAMA. Then, for some reason, the Film Bureau stepped in and forced Xiaoshuai to go to work in Fujian. He was told he must must leave Beijing and go to Fujian Film Studio to work as the assistant to Wu Ziniu. Xiaoshuai was extremely reluctant, but went. He felt he had no option but to agree. So he went to Fujian. He ended up abandoning this project and he handed it onto the cinematographer of the film Zhang Yuan, whom he knew well, together with the money and contact. Zhang Yuan ended up making this film himself, and interestingly not putting a word of gratitude to Wang Xiaoshuai on the credits of the film, so there is no acknowledgement on the film that Wang Xiaoshuai had anything to do with developing it and setting it up in the first place. A behavior that later became very typical of Zhang Yuan. Wang Xiaoshuai has never completely forgiven him. In fact, he is very bitter about it, resentful.

Anyway, the film got made. When it was finished, Zhang Yuan managed to sell it to Xi’an Film Studio, so it became legal. It was not legal during production, because nobody had approved of anything. He sold it to Xi’an, but they were in some disarray, since Wu Tianming had left and was in exile. Xi’an was producing very little, they had a quota to fulfill and were looking for anything they could get, so they bought this film. Zhang Yuan did not lose money in it, and nobody lost money in that film, except possibly for Xi’an Film Studio.

So, the film came into existence, and Zhang Yuan carried on. Very soon after this, he was making music videos with Cui Jian. Then the idea came up to use Cui Jian’s music, featuring Cui Jian, so he made BEIJING BASTARDS / BEIJING ZA ZHONG (1993). And then he carried on. He made EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE / DONG GONG, XI GONG (1997). Then the government started to get a bit angry about this, and tried to take steps to stop him or to punish him, for making independent films. In the meantime, Xiaoshuai ran away from Fujian and made THE DAYS / DONG CHUN DE RI ZI (1994) with Liu Xiaodong and his wife, who were friends with him anyway. Xiaoshuai is mostly in the art world, more than in the film world, so he knew a lot of artists: it was natural for him to think about that subject in his first film. He made THE DAYS; around the same time He Jianjun made his first film, called RED BEADS (1994).

All began to escalate and then mushroom. However, the first one to actually antagonize the government was Zhang Yuan. Mostly because of EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE, which was kind of embarrassing for them, due to the subject, I suppose. Maybe other things, too. So all of those filmmakers, even including He Jianjun, became a little bit more nervous about making underground films, making illegal, indie films. And they started to look for ways of making legal films. They started to explore possibilities to find private financing.

By this time, it was in the mid-1990s, and the situation was changing very fast. The studios were increasingly open to do co-productions with private companies. There were more and more private companies that became very wealthy and willing to invest in film production; and there were lots of individuals, who became wealthy and interested in becoming film producers. So possibilities were multiplying.

Independent cinema, of course, grabbed that chance, but it also grabbed the chance, at the same time, to become legal.There was a period in the late 1990s, when there was not much happening in independent cinema, but that changed because of Jia Zhangke. Jia Zhangke made his graduation film in the film school, Beijing Film Academy, although he was there as a film student, not in the directing class; he was there to do film studies. He made a film called XIAO SHAN GOING HOME / XIAOSHAN HUIJIA (1995) and he went on to make THE PICKPOCKET / XIAO WU (1997). He not only made THE PICKPOCKET, he also publishes his famous text in Southern Weekly, which was kind of a manifesto for independent film. I am sure you know this text is widely printed across China, probably the single most widely printed text relating to cinema, of any kind, in those years.

It turns out to be an inspiration to an entire generation of young people. Every time I met Jia Zhangke at the time of THE PICKPOCKET in Beijing, when I went to his place, there was a big stack of video tapes inside the door, because kids from all over China began sending him independently-made films. They said: “You’ve inspired me! I’ve followed your example! Can you help me? Where can I show this film? What can I do with it, now that I’ve made it?”. So he was seeing all the independent films at that time and he had this pile of films by his door, and he would start handing them over, saying: “That’s quite good! That’s sort of interesting! That’s not very good, but maybe worth a look!”. So every time I visited Jia Zhangke, I would leave with a stack of video tapes in my bag.
It was clear to me that he was the central figure. If there was a surge in independent filmmaking at the end of 1990s, it’s almost 100% because of Jia Zhangke. That is the history in miniature.

What about in the new millennium?

Well, as you must have known, things have become more difficult; some people have become more discouraged by the government. The government is taking direct action against some people, most famously – Ai Weiwei. Also some other filmmakers like Lou Ye. Lou Ye was not even making an independent film really, but he was doing an illicit film: it was a film without permission. So it was not exactly an indie film, with big names and edgy, well-known actors. And he has done it twice! He did it with SUMMER PALACE (2006) and he did it again with SPRING FEVER (2009). He was a serial offender, in terms of the Chinese authority. He kept being naughty, again and again. So they banned him and they gave him a hard time. They punished him.

That was the beginning of a series of actions against independent film. They were closing down festivals, harassing Li Xianting Film Fund. You know, all kind of nasty things happen. And it has quite a lot of discouraging effect, but it has not stopped independent filmmaking. I work with the Vancouver International Film Festival. Last year, our prize in competition for new directors was won by Li Luo’s EMPEROR VISITS THE HELL, which is a wonderful film. It is the Wuhan (the city where the film is based) underground. This is the first film from Wuhan since Xiaoshuai stopped making films in Wuhan. And it is an indie film.

Right. But for Jia Zhangke, things have become so much better – his first three films were underground, but the next two were shown in the public cinema, even his documentary.

Yes. Jia Zhangke became very exposed. But we should not talk about this right now. This is a rather difficult moment for Jia Zhangke. We are not going to go deeper in this topic. Sorry!

I see, sorry! Because he has been producing a number of films…

That is true. He may also be directing some films.

Is there a problem? I hope it is not from the government.

I cannot say any more right now. You will discover soon enough.

You mentioned Li Luo’s film, so what do you like most about that film?

What I like most about it, mostly it is the humor. I think it’s a very smart film in all kinds of ways. I love the casting of the film, but I think the idea of weaving present-day China through a sort of minor digression in XI YOU JI (JOURNEY TO THE WEST) is already a very witty thing to do. It works both ways: it says that the novel, in some way, predicts the future of China; or in another way, the bureaucracy that is in place in the Ming Dynasty is still in place now, and little has changed in this structural organization of China. It cuts the other way as well, and says that the people who are running China are basically gangsters. That is Number 1: correct; and Number 2: witty. I mean, Li Luo, like all the directors, is very careful of what he says in interviews and Q & A-s after his screenings, but the film is not so hesitant: I would say it speaks loud and clear.

OK. How do you perceive the rise of female Chinese indie filmmakers in different film festivals, from Yang Lina to Huang Ji, from Liu Jiayin to Song Fang? There are just too many.

Too many? Why there are too many?

Um, from zero to six or seven?

Oh, that is good, in fact – overdue! I have nothing to say at all. That is a very good thing.

Could you, please, elaborate this idea?

Listen. I take it as automatic, or axiomatic that there should be as many women filmmakers as there are male filmmakers. Why not? I mean, that is what it should be. There is some catching-up to do. China, it must be said, has not such a terrible record of women directors. There have been interesting women directors since, at least, the 1950s. However, in the earlier years, most of them are communists, hardline communists, I would say. If you look at film directors like Wang Ping, they were basically making communist propaganda films that were very unambitious. So that was kind of disappointing. Nonetheless, there have been women directors from way back in China, and then the communists took over the film industry. So, China is not worse than most countries in terms of women directors; it is better than some. Anyway, it is about time that there were equal numbers of women directors and men directors, and I am glad to see things are moving in that direction.

What would you say is the strength and weakness of Chinese indie cinema at the moment?

The weakness is the government. The weakness is the fact that the government is persecuting it. I used to get excited about these things, but I have become weary in my old age. Now it is clear to me that it is going through cycles – you know, at the moment, the government is very down on indie film. Maybe in three years’ time, they will forget about indie film, they will stop noticing and things would go back to what it was before. That has already happened at least twice in my lifetime. They got very excited in the mid-1990s, but by the late 1990s they have forgotten it again. The same thing happened in the first decade of this century.

Right, that is the outside environment, but what about its genetic weakness, if any?

You see, the question is too big and I do not have a snappy answer to it. The fact is China remains a complicated and difficult country, with a huge number of social and political problems and not so satisfactory system of governments, appalling environmental issues, appalling economic disparities between the rich and the poor. All of which makes it very rich background for culture. There is a lot, really a lot, for cultural people, to talk about, to react against the authority. That is a good thing. It is like the opposite of Singapore, where nothing ever happens: you have a completely passive, obedient population. China is, happily, not like that. Probably because China is so big; it is impossible to control it in a way they control Singapore. The Communist Party cannot control China – it is too large, too anarchic, and too unpredictable to pro the rebellion too much. Too much out of control actually. But you cannot control in all kinds of ways. Not totally. Even during the Cultural Revolution. And that is very good for Chinese culture, because it means that there is always space for independent artists. There is certainly plenty of material for independent artists to react to.

Then what would you say are the opportunities for general or budding filmmakers?

No. There is no obvious opportunity, because it is quite a down period. The spaces for showing films are limited, overseas there is plenty of opportunities, but inside China – not so much. But as I said, my sense is that it will change again. Sooner or later, probably in three or four years’ time, people would forget this period.

An abridged version is previously published on FESTIVALISTS.COM.

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