Saturday, January 16, 2010

Esther M.K. Cheung: Dialogues with Critics on Chinese Independent Cinemas

Dialogues with Critics on Chinese independent cinemas
by Esther M.K. Cheung
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The following dialogues with film critics in the PRC and Macau were conducted over a period of one month in 2004. [1] 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.


* Ou Ning, founder of the film appreciation organization U-theque in Guangzhou and Shenzhen
* Wang Bang, Guangzhou film critic and essayist
* Hu Yuan, co-editor of the film magazine called DVD Guide and coordinator of the film group named Shanghai 101
* Yang Lu, co-editor of DVD Guide and coordinator of Shanghai 101
* Ping Hui, co-editor of DVD Guide and coordinator of Shanghai 101
* Johnny Wong Chi Weng, film critic and part-time lecturer at the University of Macau, person-in-charge of the visual art organization Espaco Video
* Frankie Lau, film critic and historian, coordinator of Espaco Video [2]

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.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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