March 11, 2004

The Underground Orient Express

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It is one of the great ironies of world cinema that China, the Earth’s most populous nation, has rarely been represented in international film. Until very recently, the state-sponsored film industry was routinely censored. Films had to be about the proper subject matter, convey this in the proper tone, and rein in any “wild” performances to get the state funding that ensured success. However, after the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s, a group of young directors from the Beijing Film Academy were allowed to work in small studios around the country.

This group, dubbed the Fifth Generation, included such luminaries as Zhang Junzhao, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou, removing the maudlin and overly melodramatic overtones of former Chinese cinema, and introduced new focuses on history, marginalized groups, and the sources of resistance that met the rise of Chinese Communism in the ’40s. Films like Yellow Earth and The Horse Thief delineate the borders between the Chinese and immigrants, and Communists and peasants. Now, the Sixth Generation of filmmakers (responsible for such successes as Beijing Bicycle and Chungking Express) has arrived in China and abroad. Cornell Cinema hosts some of their most piercing explorations of sexuality, society, class struggle, and those pockets of faith that keep Chinese youths afloat.

Professor Edward Gunn of the Asian Studies Department was involved with the selection of the Chinese Underground series. daze asked him about the state of Chinese cinema, and about the making and reception of these movies:

DAZE: How are these five films in some sense representative of Chinese underground cinema?

Edward Gunn: They are a mix of documentary and feature films, largely about sexuality, that are illicit in China. This topic, together with economic disparities, religious activities, and art itself, have been major themes in the recent wave of independent underground filmmaking in China.

DAZE: What is the Chinese mainstream these films rebel against? Similarly perhaps, how are these movies “progressive”?

Gunn: Cornell Cinema showed one of the recent “underground” films about economic exploitation last fall. The films in this group deal primarily with gender and sexuality that is not deemed suitable for theatrical viewing in China.

We have also included two documentaries about artists in China and abroad as part of our own on-campus interest in current Chinese visual avant-garde art, which, like independent filmmaking, has exploded. Since progressive is a very contested term, I cannot answer for that in a short and simple fashion. Socialist China was long defended as “progressive,” and these films would contend that it has not been so.

DAZE: The Box in particular uses the cinema verite style. Have Chinese filmmakers in the underground incorporated Western documentary techniques, or is this an isolated case?

Gunn: The Box is considered unique. I think that Paul Pickowicz, one of the principal scholars of Chinese film at UC San Diego, will offer some comments on this when he visits us. Cinema verite itself has been used for scenes on and off since the late 1940s in feature films.

DAZE: The Box seems like it would be especially controversial, both because of the sexual frankness of the dialogue and the excessive nudity in the film. Was there a backlash when the film came out?

Gunn: The film did not come out publicly. The state in China bans the distribution and public showing of films that it disapproves of rather than banning their production. So as small amounts of capital have freed up and technology for filmmaking have been made more accessible, young filmmakers have gone into making these independent productions that do not aim at public showings within China.

They are “underground” films because they are not approved for Chinese theatrical distribution. Their contents are cause for state concern, but so far the state has not attempted to police their production.

DAZE: Cry Woman details the life of a professional mourner. Is this an actual custom in China, or is this more of a parody, since the film has a heavily comedic tone?

Gunn: Professional mourners used to be very common as low-paid “extras” in a public display of mourning in funeral processions. After the early 1950s, this practice largely died out on the mainland, and has been reinvented.

DAZE: Has the censorship of film eased since the end of the cultural revolution, or is there still a prevailing belief that the government should regulate the arts? For example, I read that in 1993, Farewell My Concubine was the issue of much controversy for its negative portrayal of the Maoist regime. Is such censorship the cause for these films being “underground?

Gunn: The established, formerly state-supported film studios in China now make very few films for theatrical distribution, and most of the work is in television, which is booming.

The state has been so seriously concerned about the content of films that it approves for general distribution, and audiences are so awash in both video compact discs or DVDs of films from abroad and domestic television productions, that the Chinese film industry has suffered greatly.

DAZE: Fish and Elephant was a rather demure lesbian film. By that I mean that there was only one real sex scene in the film, which was not terribly explosive at that. If the film was meant to make a splash, why was it so restrained? Censorship?

Gunn: China, as you can note in Crying Woman, is well-stocked with (illegal) porn, mostly pirated video compact discs of foreign films sold in street stalls or by peddlers.

So the film was not aiming to break taboos of sheer sexual explicitness, but to establish and explore social and psychological contexts for behavior that is still little understood or totally unacceptable among many; not to make a form of sexuality sensational, but, rather, to assert a place for it in recognizable, ordinary settings and lives.

The Chinese Underground film festival begins Saturday, March 13, with a free showing of Ying Weiwei’s Box. at Willard Straight Hall at 5:00 p.m. On Tuesday, March 16, Cornell Cinema will screen Leave Me Alone, followed by a discussion with Prof. Paul Pickowicz (UCSD). For more information about the film schedule, visit or call (607)255-3532.

Archived article by Zach Jones