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The Chinese Visual Festival, set to run at various locations in London from 30th June to July 15th 2011, kicked off last night with a press preview consisting of an exhibition of works from photographic artists and screenings of several shorts and documentaries. The festival is a described by the organisers as ‘a twin art festival dedicated to promoting Chinese independent documentary making partnering 10 documentaries shown at Birkbeck College and London Confucius Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine with a video art and photographic exhibition at 17 Dorset Square, Marylebone’, and is timed to coincide with the 90th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China on 1st July.
Aiming to shine a new and fascinating light on a side of China which most in the West never see and probably aren’t aware of, the films and exhibitions tackle a variety of topics relating to everyday life, including education, economic recession and family, as well as providing insight into the intense and ongoing changes sweeping through modern Chinese society, often clashing with perceived traditional values. The festival has many highlights, though likely to be of particular interest are screenings of the acclaimed documentaries “For the Love of Shakespeare” by Zhu Chunguang, which follows a group of children learning English by memorising sonnets, and Zhang Yiqing’s powerful “Kindergarten”. These combine with some intriguing and often stunning photography from Li Wei, Lin Zhipeng, Yang Yankang and National Geographic contributor Adrian Fisk to offer an eye-opening picture of China which is at once startlingly different to expectations while at the same time tapping into universally human themes.
The press preview began with “Tide”, a 10 minute short from film maker Yao Songping which charts the effects of the harshest winter in 100 years on the January 2008 mass-migration for the Chinese Spring Festival. The wonderfully genuine film does an excellent job of really capturing the emotions experienced by everyday people as they tried desperately to find trains to take them back to their hometowns, and although the Spring Festival and its deep rooted tradition may not be familiar to Western audiences, the extreme frustrations and eventual elation on the faces are only too apparent and understandable. Despite its short running time, “Tide” makes its point succinctly, and Yao Songping’s grounded approach makes it all the more affecting.
A change of pace followed with a collection of 3 shorts from the Beijing based Cao Fei, known for her video and multimedia work and who has been recognised as a key voice in the new generation of Chinese artists. The first of her pieces to screen was “Rabid Dogs” from 2002, which with a fast paced running time of 8 minutes revolves around young Chinese men and women cavorting in an office, clad in what look rather like Burberry designer clothes, their faces painted garishly to resemble dogs. Using the dog makeup and behaviour as a metaphor, the short is at once amusing, intelligent and somewhat disturbing, playing upon office politics and the base herd mentality which drives them. Where the film really succeeds is in that despite being obviously set in China, its themes and setting should also be instantly recognisable to Western viewers, and in that Cao Fei’s use of the animalistic behaviour is immaculately maintained throughout, and even during its more playful moments remains relevant rather than merely surreal.
Playing after “Rabid Dogs” were “Hip Hop Guangzhou” and “Hip Hop New York”, both clocking in at around 3 minutes each, based respectively in the artists’ hometown and in New York’s Chinatown, and consist of everyday people moving and dancing to a soundtrack by Cao Fei collaborator The Notorious MSG. The entertaining MTV style clips tie into themes of globalisation and the universality of hip hop music (not screened was a third segment, set in Fukuoka, Japan) and have a dynamic, vibrant feel as well as some potent and mischievous imagery.
The final film screening of the night was the feature length documentary “Brave Father” from director Li Junhu, set in 2002 and charting over several years the life of Han Peiyin, a labourer who relocated from his rural home to work in the city of Xi’an to make money to pay for his son Shengli’s university tuition fees and living expenses. On a basic level, the film is an incredibly moving affair, with the determination of its characters offset and cruelly undermined by the harsh economic reality of the modern Chinese employment sector. Whether or not Western audiences can fully appreciate the drive of Chinese parents to sacrifice everything in order to push their children to succeed, it’s impossible not to be affected by the way in which Han Peiyin dedicates himself to his son’s development. The film is certainly bleak at times, all the more so for Shengli’s increasingly inevitable failure to find a job coming in spite of his own hard work and awareness of his father’s efforts. Through this, Li Junhu depicts a China very much in conflicted transition, with the desire of parents for their children to achieve financially being thwarted by factors effectively out of their own hands, and with the traditional ideals of scholarly attainment becoming bewilderingly irrelevant. The pressure, stress and frustration experienced by the film’s subjects make for poignant viewing, and its overall air of hopelessness is accentuated by the lack of any obvious solution or falsely upbeat conclusion.
All films are showing Saturday 2nd July, as part of the following sessions at the Birkbeck College cinema:
Rabid Dogs (Cao Fei) 8’, Tide (Yao Songping) 10’
Brave Father (Li Junhu) 50’
Panel Discussion with VIP Speakers
View point (Ma Fangfang) 10’,
Patent Wars (Long Miaoyuan) 11’,
Nu (Cao Fei) 69’
For the Love of Shakespeare (Zhu Chunguang) 51’,
Kindergarten (Zhang Yiqing) 69’
In addition to continuing exhibitions of photographic art, the festival also includes a second day of screenings on the evening of Thursday 7th July, including My 4-fen Land (Yan Fei) 5’, Water and Land (Huang Cong) 11’, and Mask Changing—A Letter to Antonioni (Pan Jun) 60’, along with Chinese Martial Art and Traditional Dance performances.
Full details and tickets are available via the Chinese Visual Festival Official Site.