Cao Chang Di: Finding the Middle Ground
For the past month I've been living in Cao Chang Di International Art Village (草场地), a thirty minute bike ride north east from the center of Beijing. In a matter of about ten years, these quaint streets have been overcrowded with art studios and galleries vying to become the next Ai Weiwei—(his name here is akin to a noun, a verb, an adjective, and yes, a brand). After all, many credit Ai Weiwei as the architect of this new, too-cool-for-the-official-art-district-next-door, village. What's fascinating is how the working class taxi drivers, street cleaners and barbers have come to interact with the high culture of China's art literati.
In a month, I've never once seen a local walk into the art studios that dot Cao Chang Di. There are undeniably two worlds co-existing in this village. The literati dress in hip way-too-hot-for-summer clothes while the locals take slow steps through the streets in flip-flops. What Cao Chang Di makes clear is that high art, the stuff that fills the homes of the aristocracy and newly built hotels, makes little if any impression on the masses. It's not that the original villagers of Cao Chang Di—before the addition of "International" and "Art" were squeezed into the middle of the village's namesake—can't afford the galleries (they're all free), it's that they have no interest...at all. I only draw the striking asymmetrical parallel to make a point that may be useful for understanding the relationship between art and commerce.
The same problem plagues the film industry. Very few countries have been able to balance the delicate scales between producing content that is artful and commercial. Taiwan's film industry was swept away by the arthouse sensibilities of European film, only to foster a generation of filmmakers that fell flat with the general populous; their domestic film industry nearly collapsed completely from the mid-1980's to mid-1990's. It's not that these arthouse films weren't 'great'. They won all sorts of awards at European festivals, but the guy who swept the floors afterwards wasn't sneaking into the theater to see the show.
On the flip side of the coin, China has fallen into the grips of commerce when it comes to producing films. The box office is littered with commercial flicks so shoddily constructed that I once heard the woman behind me crying and the young man next to me laughing hysterically (while watching Go Away Mr. Tumor). At the risk of making a broad generalization, Mainland Chinese films in theaters today tend to focus on production values and genre-filmmaking without interrogating the emotions their characters, and subsequently the audience, are (supposed to be) feeling. The films are ridden with false sentimentality, confused tonal shifts and intrusive plot gimmicks. They aim and turning a buck and until they begin to seriously interrogate subject matter—a problem worsened by the censorship of the China Film Group—their chances of becoming timeless pieces of art, launched into the cinematic canon, will fall to the wayside.
Here's the bright side: the average Chinese consumer is getting savvier. Whereas the word 'import' used to be automatically equated with quality, many people's tastes are now maturing. When I saw a special edition Budweiser bottle, in a glass case, propped up like a wine bottle, with a light shining through it, at a posh restaurant, I couldn't help but laugh. I turned to my Chinese friends who said, "I know. It used to work, but Chinese people are getting smarter".
The same is sure to happen with films. While Go Away Mr. Tumor stood at the top of the box office for weeks on end, films like these are bound to fall flat in the long run, in the opposite way they did in Taiwan; they're all crass cash, no heart and for that matter no art. My hope is that China can find some success with mid-sized budget films with independent voices. The public is already beginning to turn on its own film industry. Many young people I've met forgo the cinema and tune into the small screen—laptops, phones, tablets, television—in search of their varied tastes. The inklings of discontent won't spell disaster, but they scream lost opportunity. If China wants to export culture across the world, their films are going to have to change.
The theaters are over-saturated with brown bellied cash cows (the red coming from the Party and the green coming from the capital). When you mix red and green over and over again, you still get brown; the color of shit. Until investors, distributors and censors understand that the tried and true formula isn't always the safest bet, they will be laughed off the world stage. Chinese movies like the ones I am seeing will never play across the Pacific ocean. The movies will keep coming out muddied.
I come with such sharp criticism not because I mean to lambaste Chinese film on the whole, but because I have come to love so many of them. In the Heat of the Sun, Yellow Earth, In the Mood for Love, Farewell My Concubine, the recently released The Assassin, these are all incredibly touching films. They manage to channel wide-sweeping sentiments and combine them with sharp cultural commentary and a rich analysis history.
There's not a lack of competent directors, or cinematographers, or writers for that matter, but there is significant lack of opportunity for their voices to be heard. The real opportunity in China isn't these big co-productions and it's certainly not making films that are so bludgeoned by the knife of investors that they becomes about 'Nothing'. The opportunity in China is in the mid-sized film connected to what's going on. Just as the Cao Chang Di galleries are too 'high taste', China's films are too 'high-concept' i.e. 'low taste'. There's got to be a middle ground.
Photos: A gallery showing hosted by local artists of Cao Chang Di where I showcased some of my street photography. The best part being we were able to include some of the locals who got a rise out of the various works. All the sticky notes make up a feature screenplay I'm writing about cowboys in southern Nevada...while in China. Go figure. My desk is getting progressively messier.