Live in China long enough and you start to forget that the closest most non-Chinese will ever get to China’s uber-urban areas and striking natural landscapes is movies portraying a country, and a people, that to most foreigners, even those of us lucky enough to live here, is still pretty mystifying. Beijing hasn’t been memorialized in the movies the way Shanghai has, and even as movies about China spread internationally – one paradox is that many of the movies about China most acclaimed abroad are banned within the country, a situation which doesn’t do much for dialogue or creating grounds for mutual understanding – most of them are historic epics and/or martial arts flicks, or gritty indie films that reach only select film circuit audiences. Don Willmott’s article on Filmcritic.com, The Last Emperor and Beyond: The 11 Best Movies About Beijing, some of which we’ve written about before, is a good, and self-explanatory, introductory guide. For this article, we dig deeper into the vaults to bring you movies, from documentaries to features, shorts to full full-length films, that offer more insight into Beijing and its citizens. In a city with such a rich history and that is changing so fast, the joy of many of these films is a peek into Peking past. Unfortunately for mainland readers, looking these films up on imdb.com will require a proxy. Between the new BC MOMA arthouse cinema, an international film festival and a strong roster of upcoming film events, independent cinema is alive and well in Beijing.
Starting out on in experimental territory, Beijing De Feng Hen Da ( 北京的疯很大, also known There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing) goes so far as to strip the images from large parts of the film, relying only on audio recordings of the filmmakers asking strangers on the street the rather nonsensical question, “Is the wind strong in Beijing.” Made 10 years ago in the run up to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, the technique produces a broad range of responses. The footage, when it does appear, is an unvarnished look at Beijing a decade ago; it’s one of the few movies about Beijing to feature footage of a public restroom.
A decidedly more traditional documentary, Beijing or Bust follows six ABCs as they pack up their lives in North America and strike out for Beijing, each with their own reasons for returning to the land of their ancestors. A Great Wall is a fictional treatment of the same narrative. The 1986 film was, “the first American comedy shot in China,” and for many viewers at the time, was their first view of modern Beijing. Peter Wang directs and stars as a successful Chinese-American who bails on his Silicon Valley job and packs his family off to Beijing to visit his sister. As one might imagine, comedic culture shock ensues. Filmed before the events of 1989, the movie offers a softer look at life in Beijing than many of the more independent films, Western and Chinese, which followed in the early 1990s.
Beijing Bastards (北京杂种) definitely falls into the grittier category. One of China’s first independent films, the movie revolves around real life rock star Cui Jian and his gang of not-so-merry pranksters. Cui’s rock band can’t get permission to play public concerts, an obvious impediment to stardom and success. He and his peers are spiraling downwards. Unemployment, drugs, forced sex, abortion and plenty of existential angst meant funding was hard to come by. After filming for a year in Beijing, the filmmakers were able to complete the film in 1992 thanks to a grant from the French Ministry of Culture.
A decade later, Beijing Rocks (北京乐与路), by HK director Mabel Cheung, revisits the rock and roll scene through the eyes of a protagonist who was raised in Hong Kong and America but comes to the mainland at the behest of his father who wants him to improve his Mandarin and the family company’s mainland guanxi. He soon meets a Beijing rocker (played by Shu Qi, best known to foreign audiences as the love interest in the first Transporter movie) and finagles his way onto her band’s tour. Not exactly a great movie, the film still offers an up close look at pre-Olympics Beijing as it enters the 21st century and, when compared with Beijing Bastards, a case study in the way alternative culture was entering into and being co-opted by mainland mainstream society.
Lost Dreams of Beijing, a ten minute film by young artist Taikkun Li, documents Beijing’s traditional hutongs and siheyuans, many of which were destroyed to make way for Olympic construction. The film was a hit on the festival circuit but can’t be seen in China without a proxy.
Going further back into Beijing’s history is Cheng Nan Jiu Shi ( 城南旧事, Memories of Old Beijing or My Memories of Old Beijing). Made in 1982, the movie is based around the memories of an old woman of her childhood in 1920s and 30s when her family came to Peking from Taiwan to live in the southern, poorer part of the city. It’s a personal approach to history: the film discovers Beijing past through the eyes of a curious eleven year old and reflects upon it from the perspective of an aging woman pondering the transformations of the previous decades and all that’s been lost in the process.
Chung Kuo, Cina (中国) by Italian new wave director Michelangelo Antonioni is a four-hour documentary from 1972 that looks at China in a way no other film has before or since. The first hour is composed of long shots of Beijing life – perhaps what is surprising about the Beijing scenes is not how much life has changed, but how much remians the same. Though the movie was initially criticized by the government that invited him to China to make it, in recent years its reputation has been rehabilitated and can be found in many DVD stores.
While films have a tendency to look back, Beijing is forging ahead into the future. Zhu Meng 2008 (筑梦2008, also known in English as Dream Weaver) is a documentary that covers the run up to the Olympics from another angle. For five years, filmmakers followed Chinese track star Liu Xiang, members of the women’s gymnastics team, and also the construction of the Bird’s Nest, training of the SWAT forces, and the plight of a family forced to relocate after their neighborhood was selected as the site for the new Olympic Village. In 2010, as the Bird’s Nest sits mostly empty and Liu Xiang struggles to make up for his Olympic blowout, the passage of time makes the film more poignant than the filmmakers may originally have intended.
Ultimately, what makes a city is not the architecture or the history but the people. My Beijing Birthday (我在北京的生日) is Howie Snyder’s story of studying cross-talk in Beijing in 1996. As a beginning student he was placed in a class full of 8 year olds. Snyder returned to Beijing in 2008 and caught up with his former classmates. The resulting 50-minute film uses footage from both experiences that documents how both his classmates and the capital have changed in the intervening 12 years. Everyone’s favorite China hand, James Fallow, raved about it. Go to the movie’s website for screening info.
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