New book highlights a “golden era” for Chinese indie film

The internet and new digital technologies allowed independent film to flourish in China over the past two decades, a film scholar writes in a new book.

The big picture: Filmmakers in China’s rural areas taught themselves filmmaking, shunned major production studios, and showcased their work directly to online audiences, allowing authentic rural stories to challenge more dominant urban narratives.

  • But stricter censorship now threatens the “golden period” that lasted from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, author Karen Ma says.

Details: For her new book, China’s Millennial Digital Generation, Ma conducted extensive interviews with Chinese indie filmmakers who were born around the 1980s and have focused their work on their home regions in China, rather than the country’s large metropolises.

  • These filmmakers “were among the first from their villages to embrace cell phones, the Internet and other modern technology,” Ma writes. “This enabled them to quietly but deliberately question with thought-provoking art-house narratives the singular, official image of a glorious urban China.”

Background: Ma was inspired to write the book after watching Chinese indie films in Beijing in the early 2010s, which confirmed her “long-held suspicion – that the glitzy commercial films at regular Chinese cinemas did not tell half of the story of modern China’s rise, “she writes.

  • Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, two of the greats among Chinese film directors, made acclaimed films like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell My Concubine” in the 1990s, but have now pivoted to making “politically correct” blockbusters, Ma writes.
  • Unlike film directors from earlier generations, Ma writes, “many younger directors have deliberately zoomed in on current rural concerns and the lives of those often overlooked as China sheds its image as a developing nation and emerges as a capitalist powerhouse.”

Filmmaker Li Ruijun, featured in the book, is a good example of how these grassroots filmmakers are “devoted to telling the rural tale,” Ma told Axios in an interview.

  • His 2012 film “Fly with the Crane” tells the story of a village coffin-maker whose livelihood is destroyed when the government makes a new policy requiring cremation.
  • The film explores how elderly village residents would choose their coffins carefully and with pride, even trying them out. The coffin-maker reflects on life and death in a village. His belief is that “I have no say in how I came into this world but at least let me have a say in how I leave this world,” Ma told Axios.

What to watch: New guidelines issued in 2022 extend traditional film censorship guidelines to online television and movies.

Go deeper: China builds its own movie empire

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