There are a few reasons to justify Richard Brody’s claim that Chinese filmmaking was “the crucial story in cinema of the past decade.” The astonishing output from Jia Zhangke, Wang Bing, Li Yang, Ying Liang, and other young Mainland mavericks has not only been the perfect complement to the Western media’s sensationalized narrative of an ancient, exotic civilization’s reemergence onto the world stage, but it has also functioned as an antidote to millennial death-of-cinema anxieties. Here it seemed that a national movement of filmmakers were reclaiming the moral and political commitment that had made movies a central part of American culture in the Sixties and Seventies, and that in the process they were building an aesthetic legitimacy for the digital medium that was rumored to be spelling the end of their art form. Wrap all of this up into the image of a courageous, self-jeopardizing auteur defending his art against an authoritarian regime and delivering news to the outside world about the oppression of his people, and the new Sinophilic cinephilia seems even more of an inevitability.
I don’t mean to sound willfully cynical about high-brow Western spectatorship, or to dismiss the much-praised progress of Chinese cinema as a mere marketing ploy. To my non-Mainlander eyes, the profound achievements of this latest generation of Chinese filmmakers are as fascinating as the iconicity they have acquired. I’ve certainly been complicit in heroizing a Jia or a Wang, and as much as a critic would like to maintain his cold rationality, most recognize that the excitement, sentimentality, and outright fandom that a great artist or promising new wave can inspire are the very essence of cinephilia. In the midst of all the hype, though, it helps to watch as widely as possible and keep a firm grasp on the bigger picture. This has been slightly easier to do in New York in the past year, which has seen a handful of strong film series covering both classic and contemporary PRC cinema.
Thanks to The Film Society of Lincoln Center, audiences have been treated to a small collection of recent work from independent directors like Ying Liang, Yang Jin, and the Korean-Chinese Zhang Lü (in last April’s “On the Edge: New Independent Cinema from China 2009”), as well as an unprecedented retrospective of films from the “Seventeen Years” period between the founding of the PRC and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks sidebar last September). If that didn’t satisfy your appetite, an ardent filmgoer could seek out the occasional screening at China Institute or the Asian CineVisions series at MoMA. This month, though, is a real embarrassment of riches, with MoMA’s Jia Zhangke retrospective launching this Friday (complete with short films, other rarities, and appearances by Jia and actress Zhao Tao), and Asia Society’s program of seven independent Chinese films made between 2005 to 2008. [The rest of the post can be read at The Auteurs.]