Chinese Visual Festival 2011: Screening Day 2

The Chinese Visual Festival is 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.

The Chinese Visual Festival, which runs through to July 17th 2011 in London, had its second screening session on Thursday 7th July at the Confucius Institute at South Bank University. The evening included a couple of short films and a feature length documentary, and was followed by Chinese Martial Arts and Traditional Dance Performances.

The first film of the night was “My 4-fen Land” by Yan Fei, a delightful 5 minute short depicting the effects of the recent global economic crisis on the life of peasant farmers in rural China. The effects, as it turns out, are negligible at best, with the subjects of the reportage treating it as a far off concern that has no real bearing on their lives. Although this in itself makes for an interesting and ironic social comment, the short also serves to highlight the fact that their lives are still every bit as difficult and harsh as they were before – to an extent, the farmers seem to occupy a position outside of the system, both economically and geographically, as they toil in their picturesque fields and still struggle to maintain their self-sufficient existence. The film itself is succinct and visually impressive, consisting of some telling interviews intercut with naturalistic footage, and with Yan Fei bringing things together very neatly and getting the point across without being heavy handed.

Next up was Huang Cong’s 11 minute “Water and Land”, focusing on a 17 year old girl called Ru, living in the coastal city of Zhuhai, where she and her parents have been sent after their fishing village Xinzhou was cleared to make way for real estate developments. In order to try and make more money and find better opportunities, she quits her studies and heads to Guangzhou, where despite her best efforts she finds it incredibly difficult to land and hold down a job. Although “Water and Land” might have benefitted from being a touch longer, it tells a fascinating and powerful story, highlighting the near hopelessness of the task that the younger rural and forced migrant generation face in trying to make better lives for themselves away from their impoverished homes. Ru’s journey is moving and depressing, as whilst her dream of becoming a music video performer may initially seem childish, she is clearly hard working and willing to take on whatever work she can find. The film gets more tense as it progresses, with her failing in more and more job applications and being fired from a clothes shop after being accused of stealing, highlighting the pressure and frustration of her desire to make something of herself and support her parents.

The last film of the festival was the highly anticipated “Mask Changing—A Letter to Antonioni” from Pan Jun, a 60 minute feature which offers a fascinating follow up on Michelangelo Antonioni’s controversial 1972 documentary “Chung Kuo – Cina”, which was accused in some quarters of misrepresentation and exoticism (a subject also recently touched on in Jia Zhangke’s excellent Shanghai documentary “I Wish I Knew”). Thankfully, whist many may have forgotten or may not have seen Antonioni’s original (which sadly at present is rather difficult to get hold of on DVD), Pan Jun employs a charming and approachable structure, framing the documentary quite literally as a letter to the legendary film maker and including many clips. Through this, it conversationally rather than confrontationally addresses and questions some of the potentially more debatable areas of “Chung Kuo – Cina”, revisiting places, people and crew members. This narrative device works very well, presenting a fascinating picture of the changes in China and Chinese society in the 30 years which have passed. Though down to earth, the documentary is attractively shot, with Pan Jun making the most of the obvious visual differences in the various landscapes, and showing a winningly human side in its interviews. This often takes place through some effective split screen work, playfully comparing the past and present.

The film is all the better for never really attacking Antonioni or for trying to act as a propagandist style refutation of his observations in China, and in a way is quite thematically similar, taking a somewhat ambiguous stance and making it clear that Pan Jun is really only offering an updated snapshot of an ever evolving and changing country. At the same time, the film also entertains as a wry deconstruction of the making of “Chung Kuo – Cina”, and indeed of the documentary form in general, with some of the interviews throwing a revealing light on artifices and misunderstandings. This is at times quite amusing, and the film has several telling scenes of how Antonioni’s original was indeed contrived and misrepresentative, though again Pan Jun wisely never pushes things too far.

Whilst this does leave a number of unanswered questions and the film could perhaps have delved into the subject and the political reaction to “Chung Kuo – Cina” on its original release (in particular the treatment of those who worked with Antonioni at the time), it stands as a highly engaging and enjoyable piece of documentary cinema, and served as a perfect finale for the festival.

Although the film was the last of the screenings, the Chinese Visual Festival continues its exhibition of photographic art for another week – more information is available at the Chinese Visual Festival official site.

Chinese Visual Festival 2011 from Jingjing Xie on Vimeo.