The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.
The establishment of a few vanguard independent film festivals — like the China Independent Film Festival, founded in Nanjing in 2003, and the Beijing Independent Film Festival founded by critic and curator Li Xianting in 2006 — gave rare breathing room to independent, experimental and artistic voices from China. Though they had a fertile pool of young directors to work with — filmmakers eager to experiment with new styles, stories and to create films that caused wider social discussions — both the CIFF and the BIFF faced regular opposition from local authorities throughout their runs, which ended in 2020 and 2014, respectively.
In recent years, the model for indie films has altered dramatically. While this list is comprised of ultra-low budget movies, the appetite for arthouse fare has increased significantly in China, with movies like Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Guizhou director Bi Gan, Wild Goose Lake by Diao Yinan, and Balloon by Tibetan director Pema Tseden, establishing successful box office models for more experimentally inclined films.
Filmed when director Liu Jiayin was just 23 years old, this familial movie takes Liu’s family as its main focus, depicting their daily lives within an impossibly small apartment. The film takes a seemingly mundane topic and transforms it into something huge, and emphasizes the possibilities of film on a tiny budget.
Samantha Culp, writer, curator and producer: I’m a bit biased because I got to work with Liu Jiayin, and she’s amazing, and that made me respect her even more. But I became aware of her because of this film. It just blew my mind in terms of the possibilities of domestic documentary. It makes so much other arthouse documentary look so convoluted and overly pretentious because it’s both so simple and so mysterious, and so strange, about the textures of her everyday life with her family. To this day I’m not entirely sure — it is scripted to a degree, but there is something that’s kind of magical about it. It makes the interior of one’s own family and domestic home seem really strange, like you’re encountering them for the first time. It’s one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen.
Directed by the frontman of legendary Chinese rock band, New Pants, The Panda Candy depicts rebellious youth and lesbian love, set in karaoke bars and concerts with the lead in the film on tour with her friend’s band, The Panda Candy is at once an ode to youth, to music and to sexual longing.
Samantha Culp: It’s a Chinese female, queer, punk road trip movie. It feels like the best of ‘90s American queer cinema or international queer cinema filtered through the pan-China punk scene of the mid-2000s. It’s so bubbly and colorful and fun, and of course, people had some issues with it because Peng Lei is a straight man, not a lesbian. But as a portrait from the inside of a kaleidoscopic, colorful Chinese indie music renaissance across 30 different cities — they filmed it on tour — it’s very special.
Hao Jie’s debut film, Single Man, is set in a village north of Beijing where men outnumber women. He dives into the fictional sex lives of residents within the film’s setting, weaving together varying relationship dynamics, where men buy wives from different provinces, remain bachelors for life or carry on affairs in secret.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: 21-year old filmmaker Hao Jie assembled non-pro fellow villagers for his directorial debut about a group of unmarried old men’s frustrated and chaotic sexual lives in the countryside, where women are outnumbered and sought after. Heavy social topics such as poverty, gender discrimination, human trafficking, and living conditions of the LGBT minority form its background without stealing the thunder of an unstoppable, laugh-out-loud story about how jungle rules and human desires defy law and morality in this isolated and scenic rural community. The radiating creative talent shown in this no-budget production garnered acclaim and hopes for the near future of the Chinese indie film scene and a more open censorship environment.
Director Li Ning documents years of his life attempting to find success as an avant garde artist. The result is a grueling film, which documents his familial pressure, whom he struggles to support, as well as the enthusiasm of the artists that he works with, all caught on film in this seemingly cathartic attempt by the director to understand his own artistic efforts.
Benny Shaffer, PhD Candidate in Media Anthropology, Harvard: Shandong-based artist Li Ning’s Tape challenges conventions in the documentary form, fusing performance art and autoethnography as it blurs the lines between over-the-top public spectacle and intimate private life. Shot on grainy DV tape, Li chronicles his avant-garde performance troupe’s three-year saga spent occupying public spaces with their outlandish, deftly choreographed performative interventions around the city of Jinan. His obsession with the material qualities of tape — its adhesive that binds objects and people together — resonates interestingly with the endless cataloguing of his personal life recorded on DV tape. This fragmented array of elements ultimately forms a highly unusual and surreal portrait of artists working on the margins of the art world in China.
One of nine films in the Self Portrait series by artist, dancer and documentary maker Zhang Mengqi, Self Portrait: At 47KM stands out from the pack as she returns to the village her father grew up in, using performance, local oral history and the history of her family to self-identify in a three-pronged personal deep dive.
Maya E. Rudolph, writer/director/producer: Zhang Mengqi began making documentaries in her father’s hometown, a village she calls “47KM” in Hubei province, as a student in the Wu Wenguang Folk Memory Project at Caochangdi Workstation. The Folk Memory Project was initiated by Wu Wenguang, the filmmaker often described as the godfather of Chinese documentary, to encourage a young generation of burgeoning filmmakers to return to their family hometowns to interrogate past events through interviews with village elders and the collection of oral history as documentary practice. It’s probably safe to say no one has run with this prompt quite like the “post-80s” [born after 1980] filmmaker and classically trained dancer Zhang Mengqi, who as of 2019 has made nine documentaries in 47KM that explore not only painful histories of life in the Cultural Revolution era, but also the struggles of contemporary village life, her own connections to the past, her family, and her identity as an artist.
WATCH IT Mubi
An arthouse film in the classic sense, screening at a variety of museums and auditoriums, Wang Bo’s China Concerto is framed as an essay, a theoretical and elucidating dive into culture, showmanship and spectacle in a modern China that refuses to compromise its uniqueness.
Samantha Culp: Though Chris Marker is an obvious reference point for filmmaker Wang Bo, his debut film essay China Concerto, exploring the culture of spectacle in his hometown of Chongqing, goes far beyond its influences.
WATCH IT Amazon Prime
Having attracted attention with his first two features, director Diao Yinan’s third movie Black Coal, Thin Ice was a sensation, nabbing the highest prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014. Diao has been integral in introducing a more commercially viable, higher budget style of arthouse film to China, with this and his most recent title Wild Goose Lake getting a wide cinema release, the latter bringing in around 30 million USD at the box office.
Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: About the less savory side of contemporary Chinese society, the gritty social satire and black comedy has evolved from the beginning of this century into a tradition that’s one of a kind in the world.
A film that dwells on feminism as much as it does on mysticism, Cai Chengjie’s first feature film went through various iterations, debuting at First Film Festival in Qinghai province before being re-edited and being given a “global release” at International Film Festival Rotterdam. The DIY nature of the movie, along with its discussion of widowhood and superstition makes it a film full of talking points on Chinese society and the nature of moviemaking in the country.
Karin Chien, dGenerate Films: The Widowed Witch is the kind of indie film rapidly facing extinction in China. The film itself is an underdog story — shot on borrowed equipment, by a first-time filmmaker, with friends and family, over 11 days during Spring Festival, in remote northern China, it went on to win the top Tiger Award at Rotterdam, the world’s best arthouse film festival. The masterful blend of dark comedy, magical realism and scathing satire is intoxicating. Cinema should be full of risk and enchantment, and this film delivers in abundance.
Director Vivian Qu’s second feature is as important, prescient and relevant today (perhaps more so) as it was when it was released. The film depicts the very real silencing of rape and sexual abuse victims by powerful men, something that has come more to the fore of conversations in China over the past few years.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: Vivian Qu’s hyper-realistic film tells a story about how a corrupted coastal town silences a young girl raped by a powerful man and another girl who’s the only witness with access to evidence. It shockingly resembles social reality in which numerous similar incidents constantly happen but the female victims’ voices always get neglected, discredited or intentionally shut down by a male-dominated public discourse even during the age of global #MeToo movement.
Chinese Art Film “Speaks Up for Kids Whose Voices Are Never Heard”
Just under four hours long, the late Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still stands as a monument in recent Chinese film. Set in the industrial north, in Hebei province, the landscape is integral to the film’s story and the message that viewers take away from it. As filmmaker Liang Kun wrote for RADII, “We can sense a glimpse of hope from the ending, as these four characters, abandoned or neglected by the process of industrialization, find something more than just disappointment and devastation in this wasteland.”
Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA: In the age of “the Chinese blockbuster,” the sudden appearance of An Elephant Sitting Still felt like it emerged from another universe, with an understated and sensitive story, a bold signature visual style, and an uncompromising epic canvas that brings to mind masterpieces like Platform and A Brighter Summer Day. This should have been the announcement of a major new talent for the future of Chinese cinema, but after the director Hu Bo took his own life, it tragically became his farewell poem. A rare and unique gem of a film that should be cherished.
“An Elephant Sitting Still” is an Elegy for China’s Industrial North
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