This year at Sydney Film Festival, there has been an express focus on Chinese cinema in the China: Rebels, Ghosts and Romantics section. Behind the program is Shelly Kraicer, who has been active in Chinese cinema since the 1994 Toronto Film Festival. Studying and living in both mainland China as well as Taipei and Hong Kong, Kraicer has developed an intimate relationship with the country and more so, its increasingly defined cinematic landscape. For 2014’s festival, Kraicer has programmed an incredibly diverse mixture of films from mainland China. From the sprawling documentary on mental illness in China in Wang Bing’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, the slow burn of Lake August, the home camera filmed Beijing Ants, to the glossy Up in the Wind, Kraicer has delivered an articulate statement on what Chinese cinema is today. We were able to catch up with him and talk about the rationale, experiences and approaches to film that informed his curation of the festival’s selection as well as where he thinks China’s cinematic landscape currently is and where it will go.
I wanted to start by asking – what prompted your original fascination with Chinese cinema?
That’s a good question. I was living in Toronto and going to Toronto International Film Festival. There was one year – I think it was 1994 – where they had a bunch of really exciting films from China and Taiwan and Hong Kong all at the festival and I saw them all together. I saw Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, and I saw Li Shaohong’s Blush and Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’amour and I suddenly realised that all these exciting and brilliant films were being made in Chinese-speaking territories and I wanted to learn more about them – so I started writing about them, and then it became this kind of research project, where I wanted to know about the cultures where the films came from, and why Hong Kong, Taiwan and China in the mid-90s (at that point) were all incredibly important centres of contemporary filmmaking, and it all sort of grew from there.
In this year’s selection, all of the films are from mainland China. As a curator, who I feel has put a strong focus on diversity, what rationale informed your choices for your final selection for the festival?
I really wanted diversity, but I did it more in genres, and scale of filmmaking. Almost everything is very centralised in China. I know a lot of filmmakers and 90% of them are in Beijing – there are some in Shanghai and some in interesting regional areas like Guangzhou and Yunnan for documentary filmmakers. But what I like to do as a curator is show Westerners things they haven’t seen before. So I didn’t want to show ‘costume films’, Wuxia films with flying swordsmen, and very dark social critiques about loners who take to violence because society is screwed up – those are the typical ones that make it into the west. I wanted to broaden things up and put in films that Chinese people watch and all sorts of different kinds of film. I think we’ve got four documentaries, four features. There is a glossy feature, Up in the Wind, which is my representation of Chinese commercial filmmaking; there’s an independent feature, Lake August, which is a very slow, beautiful film; an art film which western film festivals are very good at showing. Dancing in the Room is this funky, indie, offbeat film which is a little more closer to a Japanese indie or a Sundance film. The documentaries are little homemade documentaries like Beijing Ants where a couple and their camera record their lives, and there are bigger documentaries like Wang Bing’s Feng Ai – what’s it called in English?
Til Madness Do Us Part…or Madness and Love, which I think you suggested at the screening.
They asked me what I thought the title should be. I suggested Madness and Love, but the producer had ’Til Madness Do Us Part in his mind.
Dancing in the Room had a lot of trouble with censors initially. What’s the story behind that?
They had a lot of trouble with it. It’s very dark. Right near the beginning, there are little things and there are big things, with this girl coming to Beijing – this young woman, maybe she’s 20, 22 – but she kind of narrates a little bit and she says, “The pollution here is unbearable.” I’ve never seen that line in a Chinese movie that’s passed censorship, because they take that stuff out. Then she ends up in a whole horrible bunch of situations that she’s very unhappy about and then takes certain steps to deal with this, to express her anger and frustration. So it’s not a positive movie about how young people go to Beijing and thrive, which is usually the kind of movie that gets passed. So I’m really surprised that the censors approved it at all, but they did have lots of trouble, and they had to make small changes and big changes. Very cleverly, the original ending is quite dark and I think the film bureau, which is the censors, wanted an “un-dark” ending so they actually did two endings. And you can tell, so an audience knows, if you watch it you can do the edit in your head. If you like, remove the censored ending and just get a sense of what the original ending was like. They’re very clever.
Back to ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, because out of the ones I’ve seen at the festival, it’s probably been the one that’s stuck with me the most because of its content, but also I feel that it’s something that would be quite difficult as a programmer to think, initially, “Am I going to be able to get people to come and see this?” Because initially, when I saw it, I was excited by the length but everyone I tried to tell would bring that as a negative, but I said, “No, it’s a good thing.”
That’s what I tried to do when I introduced it. I tried to say, “He’s made a 9-hour film so you’re in for a walk in the park,” just to reassure the audience. It’s a challenge to show a film that long and to try and get people to come to a film. You say, “It’s set in a mental asylum in China,” and people who are going to want 2 or 4 hours of escapist cinema aren’t going to go for it. But there are things you see in that film about what life in China is like that you can’t see in any other film. What Wang Bing does is he opens up. He’s so patient and observant, that he takes you deep, deep, deep into certain kinds of truth about individual lives, and about life in a social context. I don’t know anybody else who can do that in China, so I’m willing to take a risk and see if audiences come to the film.
With his fly-on-the-wall mechanism, I can’t find much written on the film online about it. I was wondering, what is his process with getting into those locations in the first place? How do those people initially react to being filmed?
There are a couple of issues at least. This is his second attempt to film in a mental hospital. The first one, about 10 years ago, they said no. And that was closer to Beijing. Then he found this place, and he doesn’t actually say where it is, because you’re not allowed to film. But it’s somewhere in Yunnan province. I think you can tell from his license plate, in the moment where the film goes outside. Yunnan in is south-west China. He didn’t say exactly how he got in. He’s kind of a genius at getting into places that you’re not supposed to get into. He doesn’t have permission to make these films, so this is very independent. But he talks his way into situations, he’s very persuasive. The institution was willing to let him in. And then there’s the question of filming these patients somewhere between, right? And for many of them, as you can see, their connection with reality is very faint at best. They don’t know what’s going on, or they’re drugged a lot of the time. So they’re interesting questions of consent. Do they know what he’s doing? I doubt that they’ve signed consent forms, and that’s a complicated moral situation, which is worth really thinking very hard about. I mean, some of them love the fact that he’s around, and I think he spends a lot of time before, just hanging out with them and making himself part of the environment there. And then he can kind of disappear, and they don’t notice him. But sometimes they like to perform for him – there’s a camera on them, and suddenly someone’s paying attention. There’s a whole range of responses, and somehow one of the aspects of his genius – besides capturing beautiful images – is to put people at ease, so they seem to live as if they weren’t being recorded by a camera. Yet, he’s there. But it is worth thinking about issues of consent, because that’s a really important ethical dilemma for a documentary filmmaker, especially filming people like children or mental patients.
Since you’re also functioning in the capacity of an Official Competition jury member as well, and you’ve got Black Coal, Thin Ice, did you have a role in helping pick that film, or was that just another Chinese film which has ended up at the festival?
That came through the standard selection that Nashen Moodley, the Artistic Director, did. I can’t really be involved in picking a film that I’m also judging on the Jury. So that was done entirely separately. But it fits into the program quite nicely. I’m glad that it fits in with the seven films I selected. I’m happy that it’s here.
There’s also the Australian film that was made, which surprised me when it sold out – China’s 3Dreams.
I don’t know that one. What is it?
It’s a documentary about China in the 20th and 21st Centuries, which was made by Nick Torrens. It sold out and they put on another screening.
China’s really incredibly important for Australia. China’s becoming your most important client, or producer of raw materials, is it? So it’s a weird relationship, where it inverts the typical postcolonial relationship, where the white European-based society, instead of extracting resources from an African or an Asian country – this is an Asian country extracting resources from a country with a European background. It’s a fascinating inversion. As a Canadian, Canada doesn’t have that kind of relationship yet, with China. So I think China’s really important to Australia and the idea of what China is, and China’s power, and China’s influence in the world. So I just wanted to say that one of the things, I hope, if my curating is working, and people here have certain set ideas about what China is – maybe it’s threatening, or the trend of the 21st Century, or it’s an exotic place full of people who can’t understand, or lots of normal, limited ways of thinking about China – what I hope, through these kinds of films, is that people find other, less limited ways. I’d like to complicate the ways people think about China, because the only thing you need to know about China is that there’s many things you need to know about China. It’s such a diverse and complicated place. I hope that comes through.
I feel that a lot of early things that I read, describing Dancing in the Room’s star, Jiang Yuchen, as a Chinese Greta Gerwig, and when I read that, I just thought, “This kind of seems like this ad to the typical film-goer to be like, “Look, it’s like –’”
– It’s like, “A meets B” –
But once they come in, they realise how complex and different and intricate these characters are in these films, and I feel that that’s a very interesting kind of way to bring someone in and then just shatter everything about them. Do you feel that kind of description is indicative of a Western influence in some of those films, or does it undercut the intricacies of some of the characters?
I think Peng Lei – because he’s a pop musician, so he’s famous as a band leader, but the band definitely has a Western sound: very sweet, melodic. “Post-punk”, he calls it, but it doesn’t seem punk to me. So he’s steeped in Western influences, so I wouldn’t be surprised that he’s watched lots of films. In fact, that film seems more Japanese indie-influenced, if there’s an influence. Although it’s a very original kind of Beijing thing. And the thing about her performance that’s interesting is she’s a non-professional actress, as far as I know. I haven’t done any research. But she has an unusual beauty, she does very nice close-ups, and she seems to be, at the same time, comfortable on screen and kind of awkward. Her line-readings aren’t totally natural, there’s an odd rhythm, but they seem very distinctive of hers. So I think he’s made a really interesting casting decision, and she’s not a normal, typical actress. She has her own way of speaking that I think he’s folded into the film in a nice way. It feels very fresh. You never know what she’s going to say, or what speed she’s going to say it [at].
I’m quite excited to watch this film now.
It’s a very little film. I have a moderate expectation. It’s not a masterpiece of cinema or anything, but it’s the first time I’ve seen anything like that from China, where some young, independent voice (but who still wants to get the film released in China, he’s determined, Peng Lei, to play within the rules) but still wants to preserve this uniqueness. I think it’s a very critical voice. twenty-somethings having no future in Beijing, unless things change. But he does it in a very light and humorous way… except for the mass murder part. [laughs]
Were there any films in China, since you only get to pick a very small amount, that you wanted to screen, which never did eventuate? Or things you want to show in the future? Other directors, even?
Well, there are a couple of films I’ve already shown here, in commercial releases or in other festivals, which would have fit the program nicely. Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor, which was the big blockbuster film of the year. Feng Xiaogang is called – this is hysterical – “China’s Steven Spielberg”, but that doesn’t mean anything, he’s better. He does mass-market films that are hugely successful, but he’s got a very sharp, satiric edge, which is not Spielbergian. But since that was released in regular theatres in Melbourne and Sydney, maybe Brisbane, we couldn’t show that. The Jia Zhangke film, Touch of Sin, which won a prize last year in Cannes, was already showing in Sydney, so that might’ve fit. Vivian Qu’s Trap Street, I wanted to show but that was shown in a small film festival here a little while ago. Because there’s one woman director, and six men, and that’s not a good balance. I tried to be aware of various kinds of diversity, so her film would have also fit but, because it showed here, and the rules for the festival are Sydney Premiere. And that’s all.
I’ll just ask one quick thing. Out of the selection, are there any things you feel most proud and excited to screen at the festival?
I have to love them all equally. [laughs] An unusual one, maybe, because we haven’t talked about it: the commercial one, Up in the Wind. The Chinese film industry – the box office has taken off now, there are many, many super, blockbuster hits and they’re almost all terrible and the same. They’re romantic comedies, and they’re kind of “bourgeois training films”, I call them. They’re about buying cars, and living in huge apartments, and reinforcing these values of training Chinese audiences to be consumers. Up in the Wind is one of the only ones I’ve seen that’s a big blockbuster glossy film with stars, but it’s not about that, it’s about the absence of spiritual values, and their unfortunate replacement by commercial consumerism in China. So that, for me, is a blockbuster film that is incredibly aware of deeper issues, and has a critical attitude towards social change.
You can catch the China: Rebels, Ghosts and Romantics screenings playing the rest of the festival :
Beijing Ants – Saturday 14th June 3:25pm
Lake August – Wednesday 11th June 8:30pm, 14th June, 2:15pm
Mothers – Saturday 14th June 1:15pm (w/ The Private Life of Fen Fen)
The Private Life of Fenfen – Saturday 14th June 1:15 (w/ Mothers)
Up in the Wind – Friday 13th June 8:30pm, Sunday 15th June 6:15pm.
Read our reviews for the films that have already screened as part of the selection:
– ’Til Madness Do Us Part