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Film expression incubates underground

By 24 June 2009 No Comment

“Can I smoke in here?” said Wu Jiang, 27, glancing around the lobby of a Beijing hotel with annoyed nonchalance.  Without waiting for a reply, the shaggy-haired film student lit up his cigarette with a hint of rebellion.

“I started to listen to rock ‘n’ roll,” he said when asked when his interest in shaking the status quo first began. “I wanted to be a rebel.” While many of his high school classmates prepared to enter university, he waited until a few years ago to enter one of China’s most prestigious film universities — the Beijing Film Academy.

Wu said his parents have rejected his choice of career and lifestyle. “They can’t face it,” he said, adding that his parents would have preferred that he establish himself in society as a “normal” person without calling attention to himself.

Wu recently produced a 30-minute movie that defied China’s film censorship regulations by introducing both a killer and a rapist as protagonists. These characters were purposely created by Wu to shed light on subculture life in China. He has also explored his interest in the country’s minority cultures in his films, he said.

Wu is a part of an underground film scene that draws young filmmakers eager to express their creativity despite Chinese law. These filmmakers are dubbed the Sixth Generation, a group that deviates from old-style political interests and “base[s] work on individualism and open-market opportunism,” according to film critic Chen Xiaoming’s study, “The Mysterious Other: Post Politics in Chinese Film.”

China’s censorship regulations are so restrictive that Chinese filmmakers cannot express themselves as freely as their Western counterparts. All entertainment media must undergo a strenuous approval process through the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

The censorship committee eliminates any content considered a threat to social welfare, such as sensual music, violence, gambling, superstition and excessive horror. These themes are “a threat to the development of minors, and take away from the purpose of filmmaking,” according to the administration’s Web site.

In direct defiance of the censorship restrictions, Wu and his fellow underground filmmakers operate from university editing rooms or the modern Chinese streets. These low-budget films do not romanticize Chinese culture the way their mainstream counterparts do in order to conform to the regulations. These filmmakers prefer free exercise of their creativity, even if they have to do so with home-video cameras.

“The only important thing about making a film is the art,” said film art director Peng Tiengchung, one of Wu’s friends. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs.”

Peng, a self-described artist, says he suffers for his ideals. Working in set designing and construction is not enough to produce a film. Only government-approved companies have the right to subsidize a film.

Independent filmmakers like Wu can only show controversial films in public through national film festivals such as the Song Zhuang Independent Film Festival and the Shifan University China Youth Film Forum.

Someday, Wu would like to be good enough to exhibit his work in foreign independent film festivals. In the meantime, he produces comedy shorts to increase his exposure in the mainstream market. The films help subsidize his costs so he can continue exploring themes of his interest.

“I hope to one day make something of my own without restrictions,” Wu said.

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