The Chinese (Film) Revolution: The Rise of Independent Filmmaking in China

By Delle Chan

IMG_1319On the morning of the 23rd of August 2011, Professor Paul G Pickowicz, a Visiting Distinguished Scholar at NUS, gave a lively and intellectually stimulating presentation entitled “The Dynamics of Independent Filmmaking in China.” His talk, which attracted a substantial audience, is part of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ ongoing “Distinguished Leaders in Asian Studies Speaker Series.”

The jovial and fluently multilingual Professor Pickowicz commenced his talk by sharing how the liberation of the Chinese film movement runs the entire gamut, percolating down to even underground amateurs. He then went on to suggest that this is but an unapologetic reflection of the increasing democratisation of culture in modern China. Indeed, the subjects explored in these independent films are, by and large, starkly anti-conformist, centering on issues that the state sector refuses to address. They often focus on the savagery of the human condition and the gritty underbelly of society, foregrounding an array of topics such as environmental degradation, corruption, organised crime, all aspects of human sexuality, prostitution, gang violence and drug abuse.

Professor Pickowicz then proceeded to show to the engrossed audience some clips from various independent Chinese films – some humorous, some graphically explicit, but all undeniably and incredibly raw and illuminating. One of the more memorable clips, from the controversial (and de facto banned) film Summer Palace by Lou Ye, reenacts the brutality of the Tiannanmen Square protests of 1989. Another clip, from a documentary entitled A Day to Remember, showcases amusing yet poignant footage of civilians refusing, point-blank, to discuss the said protests on camera. Yet another clip, from the film These Dogs Belong to all of Us, cleverly employs dogfights as a metaphor for human savagery.

After screening the various clips, Professor Pickowicz moved on to assert that these independent filmmakers do not actually see themselves as dissidents, thereby dismantling the popular binary assumption that pits so-called courageous rebels against a repressive state. Instead, he posits that such filmmakers should be seen as being involved in an elaborate dance of sorts with the state, using subtle methods to foreground the aforementioned taboo topics and pique societal conscience.

He then summed up his engaging presentation by concluding that independent filmmaking in China is indeed a labour of love; it demonstrates the filmmakers’ artistic license and genius, as well as their heroic attempts to underscore the multifarious aspects of human society. Furthermore, he confidently announced that independent filmmaking is here to stay, what with such films receiving increasingly more attention from scholars, as well as a growing domestic and foreign audience. Indeed, in the wake of his stimulating talk, independent Chinese filmmaking may just have won over quite a few more fans!

About the Man

Professor Paul G Pickowicz is a Distinguished Professor of History and Chinese Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and the inaugural holder of UC San Diego Modern Chinese History Endowed Chair. His books include Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale, 1991), New Chinese Cinemas (Cambridge, 1994), Revolution, Resistance and Reform in Village China (Yale, 2005), The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (Stanford, 2006), Dilemmas of Victory (Harvard, 2007), and China on the Margins (Cornell, 2010). Moreover, he has won three distinguished teaching awards, namely, the UC San Diego Alumni Association (1998), Chancellor’s Associates (2003), and Academic Senate (2009).

The talk in question is just one of the many items on Professor Pickowicz’s agenda during his term at FASS. Besides this talk, he also hopes to complete some work on a new book entitled China on Screen: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation and Controversy, as well as begin a conference paper entitled “What’s so Funny? Cyber Humor in Contemporary China.” Together with Dr Nicolai Volland of the Department of Chinese Studies, he will also co-chair a four-part workshop on Chinese filmmaking in Shanghai during the War Years (1938-1945).

About the FASS’ Distinguished Leaders in Asian Studies Speaker Series

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Distinguished Leaders in Asian Studies speaker series presents cutting-edge research by top international scholars in Asian Studies. The FASS’s research agenda in Asian Studies emphasises comparative and inter-Asia studies drawing on strong located knowledge in the regions of South, Southeast and East Asia in particular. The special series capitalises on FASS’s extensive research networks to publicise the work of top international scholars in Asian Studies.

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