Zheng Kuo’s award winning documentary “The Cold Winter” was shot from the end of 2009 to early 2010, and focuses on the struggle of artists near Beijing’s famous Chaoyang District 798 Art Zone to protect their land and studios from demolition by developers. During the exceptionally cold winter of the title, the artists formed the “Warm Winter Plan” movement as a means of defending their rights and raising public awareness, being subjected to threats and brutal violence in the process.
Though the issue of (often forced) relocation in China has been covered by many other documentaries, “The Cold Winter” feels fresh and challenging from the start. On a basic level, Zheng Kuo does a great job of depicting the suffering of the artists and the at times shocking levels of violence they encounter, as well as the protests and various events they stage to try and fight back. Equally, if not more importantly, the film also focuses heavily on the astonishing amount of bureaucracy that the issue and their efforts involve, with government officials and red tape lurking around every corner. A mixture of talking heads style interviews, footage and anecdotal conversations, the film sees Zheng taking a very detailed approach, covering every aspect of the story with an even handed openness and a genuine desire to capture events objectively. Though the film has some potentially show-stopping moments, including the involvement of high profile art rebel Ai Weiwei and some fascinatingly ambitious and creative protests, Zheng shows confidence and a steady hand in keeping them almost in the background and never exploiting the more sensational aspects of the tale.
Where “The Cold Winter” also impresses is in Zheng’s portrayal of the artists themselves, who are members of the middle class or elite, and very different to the usual downtrodden or socially excluded figures who feature in such documentaries. Far from being white-washed martyrs, his camera presents them to the viewer as flawed human beings, each with their own schemes and motivations for being involved, which range from the financial to the idealistic, many clearly trying to use the plan for making political statements. This leads to a gradual and possibly inevitable deterioration of relationships between the artists, with plenty of arguments and insults being captured by the camera, camaraderie giving way to bickering and accusations of selling out. This continues, and even intensifies, once the movement has succeeded, and through this Zheng questions the very nature of protest and the protection of rights, which for many people clearly means many different things. Zheng as director ambitiously attempts to distance himself from the many players in the story as much as possible, and by not offering easy answers or obvious support or condemnation, the film makes for a unique examination of the fine line between politics, art and personal freedom.
Crucially, the film also offers rare insight into the difficulty of democracy in China, a subject which Zheng tackles without judgement. This will likely surprise many viewers used to accepting the supposition that democracy in its western-understood form is simply denied or banned due to the one party system – what Zheng exposes here through the behaviour of the artists is democracy breaking down, betrayed by self-interest, pride and the desire to chase profits and form beneficial relationships, with there being a suggestion that such a system might not be a great fit for Chinese society, in its current state at least. This makes the film very different to others with similar themes, and clearly it’s one of Zheng’s key drivers in having made it, as can be seen in the fact that the trailer ends with the unanswered question: “How far are we from democracy?”
(“The Cold Winter” screens as part of the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival in collaboration with DocHouse on May 12th at Riverside Studios as part of the Voices from China Now double bill with Little Proletarian.)