My China Now: A Moving Image Project was produced by Intelligent Alternative, Beijing, a not-for-profit project agency, established by Karen Smith in 2006 to support creative projects that foster awareness of Chinese culture within China and abroad. The idea for My China Now arose out of a brain-storming session between Karen Smith and Deborah Wall from CHINA NOW in Beijing in Autumn 2007, which led to its being commissioned by CHINA NOW, as part of the festival of Chinese culture taking place across the U.K. between Chinese New Year and 31 July, 2008.
Chinese society is a mixture of elements; some are static while others shift in swift currents of change. In the past I could generalize about Chinese life with some confidence. Today that confidence has been shattered. You can make any number of statements about China and they are all true: Things are good, things are bad; China is quite developed, and yet also underdeveloped. China has so many luxury hotels, malls, department stores, and restaurants. You can buy everything that you can find in stores in the United States. And yet at the same time, it is also possible to say that China is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Chinese government recognizes that there are more than 50 million people in China who do not have enough to eat. You could say that personal freedoms are greatly limited in China. That is true. And in this respect it is not difficult to criticize China. But if you understand the pattern of history you might also say that this the best period in China's life as a society … the best period in hundreds of years of recent history.
Wang Meng, writer and former Minister of Culture 
Preparation for ‘My China Now – A moving image project’ began in late 2007. The momentum that set the tone for the development of the project was frenetic. It began with several months of navigating brilliant ideas, complex storyboards, and impossible fantasies from almost fifty filmmakers, while simultaneously negotiating funds for those projects that were within our powers to realize. All of which resulted in a delayed start for the final number of filmmakers that we were able to commission, tight, eleventh-hour shooting schedules, and creative resolutions for otherwise costly production operations. The final edit of the program, which brought together a total of thirty-three films from twenty-five filmmakers, was completed at the last possible moment before the first screening — the premiere of the commissioned films — which took place at London’s Hayward Gallery in early June 2008. This marked the start of a three-month run of the program in venues across the U.K.
Unfolding against this very particular moment, as the art world bows to commercial interest of astounding force, ‘My China Now’ was an extremely refreshing project to work on, particularly in terms of the energy that resonates in these moving images in myriad variation, but ultimately for the extraordinary picture that this body of work by some of China’s leading young filmmakers and artists paints of China today. It was a challenging project, too; primarily in terms of finding funding for the films proposed, but also in managing the expectations of the various directors (established and emerging artists, as well as independent filmmakers), some of whom found the choice of issues before them to be quite overwhelming. Wu Ershan’s film Zhai Yun’s China is a fine example of one of the filmmakers’ sensitive means of dealing with the challenge: Wu asked Zhai Yun, a blind child, to describe his China; a China he saw in his imagination, and which is as clear and real to him as the vision of any sighted person. Zhai Yun’s words allowed for a richly nuanced visual interpretation of one individual’s China now.
The intensity of the filmmaking process and the emotional engagement each project required left all too little time to reflect upon the commonality of and discrepancy between themes that were becoming apparent as the films were brought together. This is perhaps the most interesting element of the project, as the filmmakers and artists hail from very different backgrounds and their approaches to the moving image operate with very different goals in mind. Video art has now become a familiar aspect of the contemporary art world, and tends towards ‘artistic’ qualities that eschew the narrative elements traditionally associated with mainstream filmmaking. In essence, the difference between ‘film’ and video art is a mindset, both on the part of the creators and the audience, often dictated by the venues in which such films can be viewed. Here, it was our intention, and a rare opportunity, to blur the boundaries. Interestingly, one of the most complex aspects of the project was defining ‘short film’ for the various participants; the language tending to pigeon-hole or limit the concepts even as we tried to delimit them. However, as the number of films grew and a picture of China began to emerge, the moving image was proving an extraordinarily powerful medium for conveying a contemporary narrative of life in China — abstract human emotions and experiences as much as concrete event and point of view. Here then, the words of Wang Meng, quoted above, were felt to encapsulate the goals of the project, for they embrace the multitude of descriptions that China invokes today. Wang’s voice further articulates a direct personal experience from a Chinese perspective, and reiterates many of the emotions washing over Chinese society at present with an authority that I, as a foreign interloper, could be deemed to lack.
The complexity to which Wang Meng alludes also underpins the choice of film — rather than fine art, photography, or any other conduit for expression — as the medium for ‘My China Now’. From the first, the project set out to explore the contradictions, conundrums, and qualities of life of which Wang Meng speaks, and to function as a means of throwing them open to discussion both inside and outside China. Where CHINA NOW’s primary goal was to allow a British audience to receive a very different set of impressions of China than are usually presented in the mainstream media, it seemed natural to use film, a medium that has popular appeal — certainly a more democratic appeal than pure art. Here was an opportunity to use the moving image to present as accurate and dynamic a vision of China today as objectively and humanly possible: and a vision seen through the prism of Chinese eyes, not an image mediated by a western mindset. One might ask how that can be possible, since I myself am not Chinese — the eternal dilemma for non-Chinese curators trying to present an equitable vision of China today. I was fortunate in receiving guidance from Beijing-based producer Yennie Hao, and Shanghai-based filmmaker Mathieu Borysevicz. Naturally, the participants themselves were instrumental in achieving the necessary balance.
‘My China Now’ reveals the astonishing wealth of short films and video art works that are being produced in China today. Where funding and distribution remains large hurdles for the majority of would-be filmmakers, a great many independent projects go unseen, especially outside China or outside a handful of points on the festival circuit. What is perhaps most surprising is the insightful work being done in the field of documentary filmmaking. ‘My China Now’ includes diverse works from Shanghai-based Shu Haolun, Chen Zhong, Xue Li, and from Joanna Arong based in Beijing, which explore compelling issues such as the impact of China’s manufacturing boom, local elections, identity, dying traditions, and the shifting tide of rural versus urban populations. Within the selection of narrative films we see the range of contemporary emotions and lifestyles, as well as the changing living environment. There is similarly rich seam of video art that cloaks its visions, questions and suggestions in softly nuanced poetic moods. Here, Cao Fei, Jin Shan, Yang Jiamei, Wang Qingsong and Wang Peng provide wide-ranging examples of artistic approach and subject matter. The quality of animation is of particular note. Sun Xun is currently a leading artist of his generation, together with Guo Yuanyuan and Peng Penghua, Wu Junyong and Wang Bo. The animation pieces presented in ‘My China Now’ demonstrate a particular ability to convey the mood of contemporary youth culture. Equally, Beijing-based Society Skateboards (Raph Cooper and Li Qiuqiu) reveal themselves to be fluent in this language, using video film and real situations, as does Xue Li in his portrayal of graffiti artist Xu Ruotao. Not least, Zhao Bandi deserves special mention for his musing upon this aspect of contemporary China, presented through a range of hysterical stereotypes, for each of which he creates a costume: part of the unique collection that is his Bandi Panda Fashion.
‘My China Now’ also includes two dynamic approaches to contemporary issues. The first, the art world in Rick Widmer’s Telephone; the second, in Mathieu Borysevicz’s Tai’an Lu, the experience of navigating ‘foreignness’ — as an American living in Shanghai, married to a Chinese, both about to become parents to a child somewhere between the two. Young directors Pan Baocheng and Zhang Zhonghua provide two slightly more traditional, but none-the-less evocative, short films that coincidentally contrast the growing gap between life in the rural provinces and the heart of the capital, each through the story of a young male.
With the assistance of the Department of New Media at China National Academy, we were also able to present works by three graduating students for the first time abroad. The three, Yi Lian, Feng Chen and Xiao Yuankun, provided a delightful group of shorts, combining animation and live action, comedy and pathos.
Given the emphasis upon ‘now’, in selecting existing films for the project, it was important to focus on those that had been created within the last several years. Only a very small number were not — one My Name is Zhong created by documentary filmmaker Chen Zhong, another, Look Around, by Wu Ershan from 1997— but the uniqueness of their content, and the relevance of the questions these pieces explored provided compelling reasons for including them. The only criterion adopted in the selection process was to ensure no direct overlap in content, and that the length did not run beyond that reasonably implied by ‘short’ — the films run between two and 29 minutes.
What is most pleasing about the final selection is the diversity of emotion they encompass: humour, pathos, fun, frivolity, frustration and fears, through topics that include change, advance, development, poverty, displacement, fashion, nightlife, food, health, music, business, love, and money. Each of these topics can be said to underpin the filmmakers’ experience of the times, which again brings us back to the reduction of uniformity about the people’s lives: China today is something that each person experiences in their own particular way.
My China Now would not have been possible without the support of CHINA NOW, and the hard work of Deborah Wall and Oliver Carruthers. Additionally, the project would not have been made a reality without Rick Widmer and the support of his team at Today Art Museum. Thanks again to Yennie, to Mathieu, to Sun Ning, and Michael Hue-Williams.
1. Talk by Wang Meng, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, Houston, 11 March, 1998 (tr. Zha Jianying).
Skyscraper, Director: Wang Qingsong, 6 minutes
In 1997, artist Wang Qingsong swapped painting for photography because it allowed him to expand his fascination with desire and consumerism into grand, staged panoramas suffused with all the weight of great history paintings. The resultant works have the feel of an epic movie. Skyscraper is Wang’s first film. Shot to widescreen format on 35mm film, Skyscraper takes a broad swath of China’s impoverished countryside as the backdrop to a familiar and idealistic metaphor for the nation’s tumultuous advance: a modern-day Tower of Babel imbued with all the associated aspirations and sense of portent. Wang’s tower is a brilliant, golden monument to modernity: a web of iron scaffolding as fragile and fleeting as a mirage.
A Walk in Yiwu, Director: Shu Haolun, 10 minutes
For Shanghai-born Shu Haolun, change is a topic that provides particular inspiration, and which led him to Yiwu, a wholesale hub on the eastern seaboard that is the largest manufacturing market in the world. It currently attracts so much foreign trade that there are thirteen Middle Eastern restaurants alone to cater for visitors. For Shu, Yiwu represents everything that is unfolding in China now, which he presents in a parody of a government infomercial packed with a bewildering list of facts and figures that are staggering: so much so that at first it’s hard to get the irony of the approach. Bear with it, as the statistical overload upon which A Walk in Yiwu pivots is one extraordinary fact of life in China today.
Tai’an Lu, Director: Mathieu Borysevicz, 12 minutes
US-born Shanghai-based Mathieu Borysevicz is an artist, critic, curator and filmmaker who has split his time between New York and China for more than a decade. Since 1995, Borysevicz has produced films and television for various networks including Channel 4 and National Geographic. His documentary feature Zhang Huan Studio was shown at the Asia Society, New York, in 2007 in tandem with the artist’s show there. Borysevicz’ film Tai’an Lu is a personal reflection of life in Shanghai from his own point of view as a foreigner married to a Chinese, and whose own lives are transformed as they embrace parenthood. It provides a balance of vision alongside the current China picture painted by the locals.
751: A Process of Modernisation, Director: Xue Li, 9 minutes
This is Beijing-based artist and photographer Xue Li’s third documentary work, and follows the remaking of a defunct electronics plant that is part of the now-infamous 798 Art District in Beijing. Following the extraordinary success of 798, Beijing’s much publicised and outré trendy factory art zone, the administrators of the neighbouring 751 factory decide to give their plant a makeover. Xue Li documents the process by which the expansive factory buildings are demolished, the production lines and monstrous mounds of machinery dismantled, to make way for an ambitious interpretation of what could be a new consumer paradise.
Zhai Yun’s China, Director: Wu Ershan, 6 minutes, 21 seconds
Zhai Yun’s China is one of ‘My China Now’s’ most popular and succinct works. The highly talented Wu Ershan, who hails from Inner Mongolia, graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1998. As an independent film-maker and artist, he has produced a wide range of filmatic works, including the satirical Soap Opera (2004), Fire! (2002) and Look Around (1997), the latter two are included in ‘My China Now’. When asked about ‘his’ China, Wu Ershan says he did not know where to begin. His answer was to invite eleven-year-old Zhai Yun, a blind child, to describe his vision of China: a China he had only ever heard about, and which he could never hope to see, but which exists in his mind as a personal vision that is beyond dispute. Wu Ershan then collaborated with young artists and animators to illustrate Zhai Yun’s words. The result is as surprising as is it humorous as it is fantastic: images that are truly moving.
It’s Monday, Director: Pan Baocheng, 15 minutes
Beijing-born Pan Baocheng is one of China’s youngest recognised directors. His first feature, The Story of Doonza was a coming of age piece about first love. From that slow-paced blushing tale, Pan turns his attention to the edgy bustle of the capital at its most aggressive and bolshy: the Monday morning rush hour. It’s Monday unleashes subconscious sleeping fears upon the blurring waking hours of a frenetic Monday morning.
Farewell Dinner, Director: Hang Cheng, 9 minutes
Beijing-based Han Cheng studied history and worked as a journalist with Beijing Youth News before deciding to become a full-time screenwriter. His work began in the theatre where he swiftly moved to directing. Farewell Dinner is one of his first film projects.
Heroes No More, Director: Sun Xun, 9 minutes, 4 seconds
Artist/animator Sun Xun was born in 1980, in Liaoning province in China’s north east. He graduated from the printmaking department of China Academy of Fine Arts in 2005, and established P animation studio in 2006. By 2007 his short films were being included in major film festivals. Previous works include Requiem (2006) and 21 Grams (2007). Sun Xun is considered a leading artist of his generation.
RMB, Director: Wang Peng, 6 minutes
Artist Wang Peng has never been prolific, preferring carefully chosen impact over volume. He has worked with performance, video, film, and photography. In 2007, two film works were screened in the UK as part of ‘The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China’ at Tate Liverpool. Wang’s work is relevant to any discussion of the issues that lie at the core of contemporary art in China. Taking their cue from the immediate socio-political framework, Wang’s film and video works represent an extraordinary barometer of prevailing attitudes. Here we see that yes, it is money that most people want and is certainly on the mind of the entire population as the economy gets ever hotter and inflation starts to stalk the land.
Fantasy City, Directors: Guo Yuanyuan / Peng Penghua, 5 minutes, 57 seconds
Animator Guo Yuanyuan studied visual communications in Wuxi, before starting her first job in an animation studio in Shanghai, rising to become its creative director. In 2006, she began collaborating with former fashion student Peng Penghua, together launching Guopengzi studio. They completed a first major project, The Ants!, in 2007. Peng Penghua also makes independent films, and produces illustrations for comic strip books. Fantasy City is their take on twenty-something turmoil in love and the heart of the urban environment: an emotional journey that brings a girl to her senses.
25,000 Miles to Heaven, Director: Jin Shan, 9 minutes
Artist Jin Shan was born in a small town near Hangzhou, to which he ascribes his mindset and outlook: he views art and life as a big world with many complicated parts, each of which needs careful nurturing. He came to film impulsively, and habitually works from personal experience. 25,000 Miles to Heaven is a good example of his oeuvre, being inspired by the life of an uncle, but equally invoking the residual effects of ‘building socialism’ in the manner of castles in the air.
Jishuitan, Director: Liu Hao, 4 minutes
Liu Hao is a feature film director whose film Two Great Sheep — a delightfully moving and comic story of a model agricultural worker in remote Shanxi, who is rewarded with the task of nurturing two imported sheep — won Best Feature in the Victoria Independent Film & Video Festival, Canada, in 2005, and was screened on China Night at the Cannes Film Festival also in 2005. In Jishuitan he takes an entirely different approach, in a poetic personal invocation of a district of Beijing associated with his childhood. The mood is soft, fleeting as the passing of time in a city undergoing dramatic change. The overhead flyover carries an ever greater volume of traffic, including the ‘eye’ through which we view the city as the car circles the roadways until the end of the day when he can return to the comfort of home. Against the abstract nature of modern life, that at least is unchanging.
Hayward Gallery (Concrete)
The Hayward Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
Tues, Weds and Fri June/July
Brewhouse Theatre and Arts Centre
Coal Orchard, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1JL
5 July – 2 August
10 am – 5.30 pm, Mon–Sat.
BBC Big Screens
Video Nation, BBC, Level 10, The Mailbox, Birmingham B1 1RF
City Art Centre
28 June – 20 September
The Yorkshire Waterways Museum
Dutch River Side Goole
East Yorkshire DN14 5TB
Chinese Arts Centre
Market Street, Manchester M4 1EU
From 9 June
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road, Dulwich, London, SE21 7AD
Sunday 24 Aug, Sunday 31 August, Sunday 7 September
From 4–5 pm on each date.
Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design
Southampton Row, London, WC1B 4AP
23 June – 18 July
Reception, University of the Arts London
University of the Arts London, 65 Davies Street, London, W1K 5DA
23 June – 18 July
‘My China Now’ also appeared at Video Fest in Milan 12-14 July. It will be screened in Beijing towards the end of the year, and then continue to tour round China, and hopefully to more venues on other countries.
Karen Smith is a Beijing-based curator and art historian specializing in contemporary Chinese art.
- Fri, 1 Aug 2008