Treading on East Asian Cinema

An Interview with Tony Rayns
Volume 11, Issue 1 (January 31, 2007)
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The Vancouver International Film Festival holds many benefits for the ardent cinephile. Here on the Left Coast it is tucked away from the rabid media buzz and distribution-mongering of Cannes, Toronto and Sundance, unraveling in two and a half weeks of hysteria-free moviegoing, with quiet venues, a relatively noncommercial atmosphere, and cinematic treats from the all around the world to pick from. This year featured films from Guatemala to Croatia, East Timor to Senegal, Rwanda to Qatar. An especially pleasing branch of the VIFF’s wonderful internationalism comes from the Dragons and Tigers program, which focuses on East Asia. For the past fifteen years, the program, under the guidance of programmer Tony Rayns, has brought us films from mainland China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, giving many filmmakers their first break on the festival circuit and providing invaluable Western exposure to a generation of first-time filmmakers. One of the leading Western critics and promoters of East Asian cinema, Rayns has worked hard to bring us the films of directors whose current stature in the West might never have been achieved otherwise. Besides big names like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wong Kar-Wai, he’s introduced Westerners to talents like Zhu Wen, Cui Zi’en, Uruphong Raksasad, Kim Kyong-Mook, and Amir Muhammad. I took some time out from my festival film-bingeing this October to talk with Rayns about the future of Dragons and Tigers, the South Korean film renaissance, the indie scene in China and other topics.

Offscreen: Well the first question I have is, I guess, a fairly obvious one. You’ve been an extremely important part of the VIFF in past years, programming the Dragons and Tigers section of the festival. Why is this your last year, and what plans do you have that relate to promoting East Asian cinema in the future?

Tony Rayns: It’s my last year in Vancouver because I have been doing it a long time and I feel…I’m always critical of other people who cling to jobs for what seems like too long and don’t give a new generation a chance. We’ve had this program now for fifteen years, and my feeling is that it really is about time for some renewal. If I keep doing it, it’ll be more of the same. I think it’s quite a good idea for me, and more for the festival, to have some fresh ideas and maybe some change of approach, to prevent things from getting stale. That said, for me personally, it’s time, I think, to slow down a bit. I’ve spent a lot of years doing a lot of traveling, a lot of writing, under a lot of pressure, searching for films for the section and particularly searching for interesting debut work or work by young filmmakers for the competition, and to be honest it’s left me very, very tired and I’m somewhat in need of a rest, I think. So, it suits me to step down at this point, and it suits the festival, I think, to have some new thinking, some change of strategy. I think everybody knows that it’ll be very hard for the festival to replicate what I’ve been doing without me, because, without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing or anything, I do have a very…I am kind of unusual in that I spend a lot of time in East Asia every year, and I have the time and energy, or I make the time and energy, to go looking for films. It’s going to be difficult to find somebody else who has the same pattern of movements, the same time availability, the same network of contacts that lead to things. So it’ll be quite difficult for them to reproduce the section in the same way that it has been run for the last fifteen years. I personally don’t know what Dragons and Tigers will look like next year, but I’m quite sure it’ll be somewhat different from what it is now. I think that’s not a bad thing. I’m perfectly cool with it and I think the festival is quite cool with it. I’ve said to the festival that I’m very happy to remain on board as some kind of advisor or consultant, and indeed possibly as a programmer as long as it’s in some small, defined section of the festival, like maybe a tribute or a special event or something like that. I just don’t want to be responsible for a large chunk of the program anymore. What lies in store for me, I’m, to be honest, not completely sure at this point. I work with a number of other festivals and at the moment I have no plans to stop doing work for them, but they are all much less demanding of my time and energies than Vancouver. And I’m hoping that by not doing Dragons and Tigers I will free myself up to do other things. I’m open to offers, basically. I have some involvement in a project to start a new DVD label and that might come to some fruition quite soon; we don’t know yet.

Offscreen: One thing that I noticed in the program notes for this year’s Dragons and Tigers was the prevalence of the word “indie.” Now, “indie” is a label that I am used to, and I think most people are, to being applied to American film. I’m not exactly sure what the term means in the context of East Asian cinema. Does it refer to production and distribution? Does it refer to aesthetics? Is it a mixture of both?

Tony Rayns: As I used it in the catalogue –and you’re exactly right to notice that it crops up more often than perhaps it used to– as I used it in the catalogue it refers to production and distribution, primarily, not really aesthetics. There are a number of East Asian film industries that have reached a kind of crisis: Hong Kong, most famously; Taiwan, pretty famously also; Thailand is looking a bit shaky at this moment; the Philippines is like a rollercoaster constantly, nobody quite knows what’s happening there; Indonesia similarly, there’s a very painful attempt to re-grow to the kind of prominence that it used to have. Indonesia, like Hong Kong, had a hugely successful film industry making hundreds of films a year, which then collapsed in the 1990s and has gone down to like three films a year from two hundred. That’s a pretty catastrophic decline. And Indonesia is in the process of building itself up again, and there are an increasing number of filmmakers who are trying to make films, but it’s somewhat precarious and the revival is by no means secure. So while you have on the one hand a country like Korea which is sensationally successful in its own market, and you have Japan which is at least steady in its own market, and you have China which is kind of a growing market, you have other countries in the region which are facing real trouble. Both of those situations tend to stimulate the growth of new independent filmmaking. In the countries where there’s no film industry anymore to speak of you get by definition indie work, because kids who want to make films see no other option open to them but to just go out and do it, basically. And obviously the new digital technology has made that easier –cheaper, easier, you need smaller crews, and there are far fewer restrictions on you. You can do pretty much what you like. That’s happened in Hong Kong, it’s happened in Taiwan, it’s happened in the Philippines, it’s happened to some degree in Indonesia, it’s happening in Malaysia. So all of those are quite good examples of responses to problems in the film industry, a lack of opening in the film industry, or a complete decline in the film industry, leaving young filmmakers with one option: making films in an indie way and trying to distribute them in an indie way. Conversely, in the more successful countries like Japan and Korea, I think indie filmmakers have come into existence again partly because it’s not that easy to break into the film industry. To persuade a producer to trust you with large amounts of money to make a film is not always that easy if you’re an untried talent, and it’s much easier if you’ve got some work under your belt and you can show what you can do. So a lot of people go into indie filmmaking for that reason, I think. They make what are often called “calling card” movies, I mean work that’s designed to show off their talents so that they can get jobs in the industry. That certainly occurs in both Japan and Korea. Another reason is that the industry is primarily very commercial in its orientation and there are people who find that the kind of things they want to do don’t somehow fit. They can’t find a producer who’s willing to support the particular project they have, or the particular subject they want to deal with. And so those people are forced into indie production simply because there’s no other way. If they tried to do it in a more mainstream way, it wouldn’t get made. And so there’s been a very noticeable growth in indie filmmaking of pretty much the kind of seen in the States, except that I would say a very high percentage of what’s made in the States as indie cinema, and the kind of stuff that’s seen at Sundance every year, is aimed at commercial distribution in some sense. The filmmakers are hoping and expecting that they will be noticed and the film will be picked up, and like Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) or something like that will be put out into mainstream distribution and will hopefully do well. It’s the Steven Soderbergh story, actually; I suppose that’s the origins of it all, but since Steven Soderbergh popped up there’ve been countless examples of filmmakers who are hoping to follow that path. In East Asia it’s not quite the same. There are indie filmmakers who have exactly those ambitions, and I can think of several examples in Korea, but there are far, far more examples of people who don’t have that ambition and just want to make indie films because they feel it’s the best way to express themselves at this point. Maybe they have ambitions to move into the industry at a later point, perhaps on the back of their indie work, but they’re making indie work as indie work, and they’re looking for alternative ways to show it, distribute it, and try to make money from it, primarily with DVD publishing.

Offscreen: I’m particularly interested in what the term “indie” means in a country like China. Am I right in understanding that “indie” in China means not government-funded and sanctioned?

Tony Rayns: You are, but it’s not quite that simple. I don’t want to go into a long history lesson, but broadly speaking, since the Communists took power in 1949, China has had a state film history, which has been state mandated, state controlled, state financed. The state has controlled every aspect of it, from the censorship of the individual films right through to the distribution, the sales, where the films are shown, when they’re shown, how they’re shown, how they’re exported. It was a state monopoly, in effect. Since Deng Xiaoping in 1987 launched the movement to move state industries into the private sector and make them self-supporting –in other words, to reintroduce capitalism into China– the film industry has been in some disarray. The first stage of this was that the studios were told that they were no longer under direct state control, that they had to take responsibility for their own affairs, but that they could still have an unlimited line of credit at the Bank of China and they didn’t have to worry about the financial side too much just yet. So they kept going to some degree. Knowing that there was unlimited credit available to them, it didn’t really matter what they did. In the early nineties that was further modified: they were told that there was no longer a line of credit for them at the Bank of China, and they basically had to be cast up on their own feet and become financially self-supporting. This actually paralyzed the film industry. Forty years of state control did not produce anybody at all, not a single person that I’m aware of, who had the knowledge, the skill, or even the mindset to produce films cost-effectively, do a budget, do a schedule, etc. And then they were made to figure out how to distribute them, promote them, and sell them overseas. So the film industry in the 1990s went into a kind of paralysis, and nothing happened, I mean really for a long time. The level of official production in China plummeted, because no studio was willing to produce anything at all, for fear of losing money on it, because they were told suddenly: You have to take care of it, you control your own distribution, now you look after it yourself, you control your own sales, your own promotion, all the production aspects, all of it is your business now. And people, suddenly handed these responsibilities, had no idea what to do with them. So it was a catastrophic time, actually, for the film industry. Very, very slowly it has built itself back up again, although nothing like the scale it was on before, and a large number of private film companies have come into being. Until very recently the state law was that a private film company would have to make its films in cooperation with an old state studio. That was mainly to prop up the old state studios; it was to make sure that they had their names on something that was being made. It was a recognition, a very cynical recognition, actually, that the energy to make new films was all coming from the private sector. It was only new companies that were producing films, really, but to save face and to keep the old Shanghai and Beijing film studios alive, films had to be co-produced with them, which in effect meant paying money to them for the use of their name, because the private company was actually doing all the work. That was obviously a very iniquitous system and of course it produced a lot of resentment and complaint. And that’s recently been rescinded, so now it’s possible for private film companies to just make films. They no longer have to bail out anybody else or save anybody’s face; they just make what they want to make. And censorship has loosened up to some degree as well. The society is on the point of introducing a ratings system, so that not all films have to be suitable for all audiences, and that’s obviously going to be a step forward. The filmmakers, particularly the filmmakers that move from the indie sector into the state sector –or into the commercial or mainstream sector– have all reported that censorship has not been too bad. Most of them have had some…tension, but most of them have been reasonably happy with the way things worked out. In the 1990s, when the industry was, as I described, kind of in paralysis, if you wanted to make films, and there was a whole generation of kids graduating from the Beijing Film Academy who did want to make films, there were no openings. It was made doubly difficult by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, because after that nobody wanted to hire students. Students were seen to be trouble. Few wished to have the wrath of the Communist Party come down on them for allowing these dangerous dissidents, these unstable people, to do anything. People were absolutely paranoid about employing the new generation of students. And what happened was that quite a large number of young people started to make indie films, outside of the system. And if you made a film outside of the system then you really were outside the system; you were an outlaw in Chinese terms. You didn’t submit your script for pre-censorship. You didn’t submit the finished film for censorship. Very often, because there was no opening to show the film in Chinese cinemas, you smuggled the film out of the country and you started showing it in festivals overseas. Vancouver, actually, was one of the first festivals where this type of film was shown. The international premiere of Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993) was in Vancouver. The international premiere of He Jianjun’s Red Beads (1993) was in Vancouver. I think some of Zhang Yuan’s early films had their international premieres here, or if not their premieres then very early screenings outside China. So I think Vancouver in the early nineties was pretty much in the forefront of introducing this new independent cinema from China, and obviously we’ve remained very faithful to it since. In the last few years since the law changed again and allowed private companies to operate without having to prop up the old state film industry, or what’s left of it, there’s been a shift from the independent sector into the mainstream, and some of the leading filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan and some others have been urged by the authorities to make legal films. And they have. So Jia Zhangke’s last two films have both been legal films, after the first three were not. Zhang Yuan’s last four films, five films even, have been legal films, where the early ones were not. I think many people expected, as a result of this shift, that indie filmmaking would kind of disappear in China. The opposite has been the truth; in fact, there’s been an explosion, there’s been ever more of it, and much of it away from the big centers. So, for example, we’re showing in this festival a film called Betelnut ([2006), by Yang Heng. It’s his first feature, it’s made on digital, it’s shot in a town in Hunan, and it’s an indie film. It’s a very low-budget film that could only have been made in that way, I think. I mean, no commercial producer would have invested in it because it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t have any sex or violence, it has no strong story line, it’s a mood piece, basically. So that kind of filmmaking continues to exist in China, in fact in ever larger numbers. We have several other examples here too; we have Withered in a Blooming Season (Cui Zi’en, 2005), and a number of other Chinese indie films that have no connection with the mainstream. These continue to be made, and I would say if anything the numbers are increasing.

Offscreen: Withered in a Blooming Season is a film I wanted to ask you about. Cui Zi’en is a very interesting filmmaker; in 2004 he came to the festival with The Narrow Path (2004), which was a very allegorical, comical, purposefully unrealistic film, and this year he’s come with what seems to be very much a realist film. Does this trajectory he seems to be following reflect a need, or a desire, to break into mainstream filmmaking, or is it just something that he’s interested in trying for a change?

Tony Rayns: I think it’s more the second. Since Withered in a Blooming Season he’s made another feature called Refrain (2006). I even considered showing both of them here, but when it became clear that he couldn’t come to Vancouver this year, I decided to show only one. I decided to go for the more realistic one –which I think you’re correct to say Withered is– simply because it’s rather different from his other work, and I thought it would be interesting for people here who’ve followed his work to see another side of him. Refrain is not like The Narrow Path, particularly, but it’s closer. It’s unrealistic in the way that Narrow Path is unrealistic, so he’s certainly not making a shift. Cui Zi’en is always going to be marginal, he’s always going to be underground, and he’s never going to be accepted by the mainstream, because of what he talks about. His own personal position is a highly anomalous one. He’s a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, but he’s not allowed to teach, because he refused to promise that he would stay away from gay topics in his classes, and the school said: In that case, you can’t teach. But he remains on the payroll. He remains in their housing. His apartment is in the Film Academy complex, and it’s paid for by the Academy. So he lives, essentially, free, and he’s paid a modest salary by the Academy, and he’s free to pursue his own activities. Ironically –I think it was two years ago– Fudan University in Shanghai launched China’s first Lesbian and Gay Studies course, and it was an overnight sensation. It was absolutely packed; there were hundreds of students clamoring to join this course. There was almost limitless curiosity about the topic. This success was reported nationally, in fact internationally, and since that happened, in other words in the last two years, Cui has been inundated with requests from universities all over China to come and teach Lesbian and Gay Studies courses for them. So he’s not allowed to teach in the Film Academy because he won’t promise to stay away from lesbian and gay issues, and the rest of the country is clamoring to hire him because they want him to talk about that. It’s an irony that’s not lost on him, I think. However, partly because he was not given permission to teach in the Film Academy, he started to make films. He was always writing. He’s published one or two novels and some other fiction. He’s published several volumes of film criticism –the last one was dedicated to me, rather sweetly, so I’m very touched by this. But Cui has found himself becoming increasingly involved with filmmaking. I think now he’s reached the point, from what he’s said to me, where he wants to devote himself almost fulltime to making movies. I’m sure he’ll still write a bit, but he doesn’t really want to teach anymore at this point. He started to make films about four or five years ago, and there’s been a noticeable evolution in his work, particularly a growing sophistication, I think. He started off as a kind of guerrilla filmmaker, wanting to film his own fiction. The first time he came to Vancouver was with a film called Enter the Clowns (2001), which is his first feature, really. That film has great chunks of his fiction literally read out on the soundtrack, and also some scenes that are dramatizations of things that he’s written. This was really Poverty Row filmmaking: not only was it made with no money, it was made with no technical expertise, it was all committedly very rough and unpolished, very raw and unmediated, you could say. What we’ve seen since, and I’d think Withered in a Blooming Season is a very good example of this, is a growing sophistication in his film language, a growing concern with technical issues. He wants his films to be more polished and a bit more easily accessible. He doesn’t want them to have that kind of “guerilla” feeling; he wants them to be easier to watch, more pleasing, potentially, to a large audience. But it’s always going to be a niche audience, it’s always going to be a minority audience, because he has no ambitions to penetrate the mainstream, and he has no expectations of doing so either. His work is always going to be marginal in China. The interesting thing, though, in the last year, is that he has sold three of his films for DVD distribution in China, legally. It turns out that the laws governing film distribution and film censorship are different from the laws governing DVD distribution and censorship. And it’s been quite cool for him to sell three titles in China, since he’s never able to show the films as films in cinemas.

Offscreen: Maybe you could briefly describe in general some of the other ways that indie or marginal Chinese filmmakers are able to subsist while making their films.

Tony Rayns: I think it’s different in any case; I’m not aware of any general pattern in this. Everybody who chooses to do this faces their own challenge of how to live. The same is true of all people in China, not just filmmakers, who choose not to buy into the system. The system used to be the Communist Party system; if you wanted to get ahead in China you absolutely had to be a Party member. There was no alternative, really. Nobody could achieve high office or prominent roles or any kind of promotion, actually, unless you were a Party member and you had the sanction of the Party, the endorsement of the Party. Nowadays, China has become one of the most ruthlessly capitalist countries in the world, and it’s cruelly mercenary. If you’re not extremely business oriented and extremely ruthless, you won’t get ahead very much. Now how people survive in that context I don’t truly understand myself –I wish I did understand. There are a lot of people I meet in China about whom I find myself scratching my head saying “How do these guys survive? What are they living on? What income can they possibly get? What do they do that makes it possible to pay for this meal that we’re having or this film that they’ve made?” On the other hand there’s a lot of money sloshing around and a lot of rich people in China these days. Rich is a relative term, but there’s a large entrepreneurial class which is doing well as never before, right across the country. Many of the independent films we see have been financed by local entrepreneurs who have got money kicking around, nothing much to do with it, and have been persuaded that it might be quite groovy to produce a film. They’re told it won’t cost very much, and they say, “Oh, I can afford that, no problem, I’ll throw money into it.” I’ve met people like this myself. I met one property developer who loved film because he loved actresses, he wanted to chase actresses, and he figured if he could produce films he would get, you know, personal introductions to various actresses, and this would be his…path to bliss. There are any number of stories like this. They cross the spectrum of experience. People have all kinds of different motives for doing these things, but it’s not hard, I guess, to find investment for a film. How individuals live is another question. I can’t really give you a coherent answer to that, I don’t know myself.

P.S. Heading photo is Hou Hsiao-hsien.

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