Images that Cannot be Banned – New Cinema in China from 1995
By Jia Zhangke
One day in 2001, the Beijing Evening News carried a news item: a pirate DVD dealer was caught in the office of the Literature Department in the Beijing Film Academy. This man came regularly to sell DVDs to the staff and students of the Academy, and was subsequently reported by the students who felt strongly about copyright. The Literature Department was implicated as it happened on their premises. But the unofficial version was much more dramatic: it was claimed that the informers were not students but the fact that it took place in the reputed Beijing Film Academy enhanced its absurdity. This pirate DVD dealer was more like a direct seller and his ‘rags to riches’ story, as circulated among the students, was like the plot of an edification film. In 1999, when DVD was becoming popular in China, this dealer came to Beijing from another province. He started his business by coming to the Academy every day with a briefcase. Six months later he bought a motorbike and made his rounds among the colleges in Beijing. The motorbike became a second-hand jeep in 2000 and, when he was caught, it emerged that he had just bought a new Santana.
From the economic and legal points of view, this story reveals that copyright infringement in China is indeed serious. However, from the cultural perspective, it shows that there is huge demand for films in China. Though in its most productive times Chinese cinema churned out about 250 official productions annually, we had long been barred from works from other cultures – classic films that had touched and influenced countless people. Before the easy availability of pirate DVDs, it was hard to imagine how an ordinary citizen could access Godard’s Breathless or Tarkovsky’s Mirror – even popular American films such as The Godfather or Taxi Driver were hard to come by. People were ill-informed about films and excluded from the accumulated cultural experience of a hundred years of cinema.
It is easy to imagine the image deprivation in China before the implementation of reform and the opening up of 1979. Anyone with some understanding of China knows that Chinese culture during that period was put into the tightest possible straightjacket. Aside from the so-called revolutionary arts advocated by Mao Zedong, there was no living space for other cultures.
It is more difficult to understand the restrictions that cinema in China was subjected to after the end of the Cultural Revolution, especially since the 1980s. We all know that with the political thaw in the Deng Xiaoping era, a more liberal way of thinking gradually spread throughout China. Western modern literature, music and arts were translated or introduced into China en masse. Circa 1989, a philosophy craze swept the nation, works of Nietzsche, Sartre or Freud ran into several reprints, and the Cultural Department began the systematic translation of all Novel Literature Prize-winners. After Deng’s American visit, American country music appeared on radios, and many hummed ‘I am Leaving on a Jet Plane’ while wearing their first pair of jeans.
The cinema had its own calls for reform. In 1979, Zhang Nuanxin, the director of Seagull, and her husband, the writer Li Tuo, jointly published the essay ‘On the Modernization of Cinematic Language.’ While introducing the thoughts of Barthes, it also called for the reform of clichéd Chinese cinematic language by learning from its Western counterpart. It started off a clamour for theories and cinema studies and was a key part in the modernization of Chinese thought in the 80s. Literary and philosophical concepts such as ‘stream of consciousness’ or ‘alienation’ were, to a very large extent, introduced to China by way of the discussion of Western films. To Chinese intellectuals, works like Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad or Antonioni’s Red Desert served as their introductory course to Western arts. Words such as ‘Godard,’ ‘jump cuts,’ ‘Rive Gauche,’ or ‘Fassbinder’ began to creep into their writings.
A floodgate was opened. Like novels such as A Hundred Years of Solitude or Metamorphosis, films such as The 400 Blows and The Nights of Cabiria could now freely enter the intellectual life of the Chinese. Surprisingly, in the face of this thought-liberation that was sweeping through society, cultural departments were still adamant in their strict control over imported films. Only very few filmmakers and elite intellectuals were allowed to watch these films in screenings that were closed to the general public. These were called ‘internal screenings’ of ‘films for internal reference.’ It was said this practice came from Jiang Qing, Madame Mao. During the long period of the Cultural Revolution, only cinema adaptations of the so-called eight Beijing opera ‘model plays’ were shown in the nation. They are all about heroes of the Party of the army, for the edification of the country’s 880 million people. But the screening programme in Zhongnanhai was far from monotonous. Jiang Qing used to be a Shanghai movie star in the 1940s. In her frequent private screening parties, Western films bought from Hong Kong were shown. This practice had affected the lives of the upper class, and watching films that were not available to the public became a political privilege. The term ‘films for internal reference’ gave this practice an academic or professional aura and it was a convenient way of explaining to the public why these films could only be screened ‘internally.’ In the early 80s, when the public clamour for films, especially from the intellectuals, was too great for the cultural department to ignore, they again resorted to ‘internal screening.’ The privileged circle was greatly enlarged to satisfy the demand, but the audience still tightly restricted.
Hence, the privileged circle that had access to ‘internal screenings,’ originally less than a thousand Party elites and political stars, was enlarged to incorporate the intellectual elites. Cultural units in Beijing and Shanghai were allowed to host irregular ‘internal screenings’ to satisfy the academic demand of certain professionals. Tickets were given out free of charge. The point was, that though the circle had been greatly enlarged, a privileged circle was still a privileged circle. Almost no such screenings were held outside citizens were not allowed into the cinema. But the excitement inside the cinema could be felt in the media. Intellectuals eagerly talked about The Deer Hunter or Kramer Vs Kramer. Chinese people began to hear names such as Meryl Streep of Dustin Hoffman. The ‘internal screenings’ practice thus stimulated the impression that the culture was opening up while at the same time hiding the real state of events in society.
This brings us to another question. Why was the Government willing to loosen up its control of literature and music, but still put a tight rein on cinema? It was because Lenin once said, ‘of all the art forms, cinema is the most important to us.’ Cinema, with its capability of surpassing the obstacle of language, is acknowledged to possess a much more powerful influence. Even illiterates could understand the thoughts expounded through images. Hence, though Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past has been readily available in many bookstores since the 80s, Godard’s films were still banned images. In today’s China, cultural policies are far from being as liberal as economic policies, and the cinema, unfortunately, is the most conservative link in the cultural chain.
The situation began to change after 1995, and no-one could have thought that it was the pirate VCDs from coastal Guangzhou and Fujian that broke open the cinema control…Fishermen of these coastal regions had brought back Sony Walkmen and Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop tapes in their wooden boats. Fifteen years later, they pulled the trick again. This time they brought back films from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Before the popularity of VCD, relatively few people watched films at home because of the high cost of video-players and VHS tapes. But in 1995, more tha ten VCD player factories were set up in southern China and their cut-throat competition led to a drastic fall in the price of a VCD plater – from over 3000 RMB to about 800, which many urban citizens could afford. Home cinema became a chic pastime: with a TV set, a VCD player and two speakers, a high school teacher or taxi driver could host a private screening at home, like Jiang Qing did in 1970. Computers also entered people’s lives at that time, and it was popular to have a VCD drive installed in your PC.
In the beginning, the pirate VCDs brought back by the fishermen were huge in number but their selection was haphazard. An occasional Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin could be found amid a heap of Hong Kong kung fu films of the 70s. Generally speaking, Hong Kong’s commercial films made up the bulk – John Woo’s masterpieces such as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China and Jackie Chan’s kung fu comedies were all very popular. Then American films made their landing in force. Pirates, while busy tracking the latest Hollywood releases, also found time to organise American film retrospectives. A week after the American release of True Lies, pirate copies were available in Beijing. VCDs of such quasi-simultaneous releases were almost all ‘handheld’ versions. They were shot in the cinema from the screen with a handheld camcorder. You could hear audiences laugh or cough in such versions, and sometimes see the shadow of someone walking out. Pirate versions of films such as The Godfather, Taxi Driver or The Graduate began to appear. It was noted that intellectuals constituted a niche market and pirate ships specializing in European films also began to appeal. Unfortunately for Kieslowski, his Blue was the first of this type to be pirated, but it was Juliette Binoche who suddenly had a million Chinese added to her fan base.
To the Chinese, even a film made in 1910 was new. Films with household names, but which never had been seen, directors whose names one had only heard, and film stars whose faces were seen on stills in magazine, were suddenly all accessible. The unleashed enthusiasm for film was simply uncontainable. Official control of the cinema was now only applicable to the legal film trade. For instance, the Film Council expressed its strong displeasure over Richard Gere’s Red Corner, but pirate VCDs of this film could be found everywhere in Beijing. The pirate’s network covered every corner of China. It would be no exaggeration to say that wherever there was a post office of a petrol station, a film pirate could be found. Pirate editions gave back viewing freedom to a Chinese people that had been kept far away from film images. We were put in an embarrassing and paradoxical position when the unreasonable film segregation policy was breached by illegal pirates.
Most consumers of pirate films agreed that copyright infringement was immoral, but none seemed to fin anything wrong in their purchase. They were busy enjoying the double pleasure of the return of empowerment and watching pirate films. In 1999, equally inexpensive DVD players entered the market and people began to upgrade their hardware in terms of visual and audio quality. In response, pirates also upgraded their supplies by giving us work by Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Godard, Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa and Hou Hsiao Hsien, and almost every classic in film history.
In 1997, China’s first non-official film society, Office 101, was set up in Shanghai. It showed that the young people were no longer satisfied with private screenings. They wanted a platform that could enable free discussion. 101 boasted about 200 regular members, made up of teachers, workers, civil servants and students. The organiser, Xu Yuan, used to work in Shanghai Customs. He resigned from his post after the society was set up. They picked the Hong Kong Cultural Centre as their regular screening venue. Post-screening seminars were also held, and the discussions would be published in their own periodical. Similar screening societies mushroomed after 1999. In Guangzhou, there was the Southern Film Forum which was formed by media journalists and visual workers. In Nanjing there was films from the Rear Window and in Wuhan, Wuhan Cinema. There were also the People Cinema in Jinan, Practice Society and Phenomenon Workship in Beijing and Changchun Cinema Learning Group in Changchun. Locate them on a map of China, and you will find that they pretty much cover the whole of the country. Even more surprisingly, soon after their establishment, most of these societies openly extended their activities to the public level. In Beijing, Practice Society used the Box Pub near Qinghua University as their screening venue and topical screenings of works by Fellini or Buñuel were regularly held. Activities that were once known only to members were soon featured in popular publications such as Beijing Youth Weekly or Elite Shopping Guide. Soon, almost all film societies had their own BBS on internet, which is where they found their space for dialogue. The most famour internet forum in Films from the Rear Window, the BBS of the Nanjing film society of the same name. Huang Ting Zi Cinema Line, the BBs of Practice Society, also receives a great number of hits.
Links to these societies can be found on www.xici.net. On their BBS, the discussions of films have shifted from Western film reviews to the current issues in Chinese cinema. Banned independent films from the 90s began to attract interest again. Zhang Yuan’s Son (1995), Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993), He Jianjin’s Postman (1995) and Lou Ye’s Weekend Lover (1995) – films that had been left to gather dust – began to appear in film societies’ lineups. When these once-banned films are watched on the projected screen amid the hustle and bustle of a pub or café, we have to say that they are images that cannot be banned.
The first batch of indie directors, such as Zhang Yuan and Wang Xiaoshuai, started out as rebels against the establishment. The 1989 Tiananmen incident was just over when they graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. After the grat social turmoil, many Chinese intellectuals chose to alienate themselves from the establishment. Their feeling can be seen from the anger in Beijing Bastards (1993) and the loneliness in The Days. These films, made outside the official studios and not following the established line, were, of course, banned. Hence, the Chinese independent film movement that they started was for a long time beyond the grasp of the public. Then, film societies began to screen more and more young people became familiar with the concept of independent films.
At this time, more young people outside the Chinese cinema establishment were ready for independent filmmaking. In the same way that reading can encourage our desire to write, the easy access to films that started from 1995 has tickled the filmmaking fancy of many. Some were students, some workers, some white-collar workers, some writers or poets. Their non-professional background didn’t hinder their technical ability, because we were now in the dynamic DV era.
DV in China has changed a people’s cultural habit. Prior to its appearance, Chinese people did not have a tradition of expressing themselves by way of moving images. Even photography was a rarity. Literature reading and writing were our preferred means of self-expression. There was a paucity of visual experience. Post-1949, only official studios were allowed to make films, and cinema became an art form monopolised by the Government. Our long separation from film made us forget that cinematic expression was our right too. With DV, the Chinese began to see the world through the viewfinder. What DV gave us was not just a new form of expression, it was the return of a right. Post ’95, most people who were committed to official, independent filmmakers, they formed a brand new Chinese cinema outside the establishment. They began to take control of their image life.
Many directors who had a DV camera chose documentary as the starting point of their creative careers, and it was an exciting event. In the hundred-year history of Chinese cinema, two traditions were sadly missing: one was that of the documentary and the other that of experimental cinema. The independent movement triggered by DV has filled this void, and directors have popped up far and wide. Before that, most directors resided in active cultural centres such as Beijing or Shanghai. Now, the trend of filmmaking has spead to far-flung Sichuan or Guizhou. Yang Tianyi, Du Haibin and Wang Bing for Beijing, and Yan Yu and Li Yifan of Chongqing are some of the famous names.
Last summer, a young man came to my Beijing office. He was a student of Shanghai University and was working on a series of campus screenings. They planned to screen Xiao Wu and came to me for a quality tape. I took one out from the cabinet and handed it to him. After putting it away he handed me a contract and asked me if I cared to sign it. It was an authorization declaration, stating that the screening was authorised by Xiao Wu mainland China copyright-owner Jia Zhangke. It was the first time I saw people taking copyright seriously in China, so I happily put my signature on it, though it stated that they were willing to pay me zero RMB for the screening.
China is developing rapidly. Everything happens fast. For us, the key is to hold tight to our camera, hold tight to our power.
From All About the World of Jia Zhang Ke (Hong Kong Arts Centre: Hong Kong, 2005)