For two weeks in September 2012 The Screen @ RADA and Birkbeck Cinema hosted the first ever London Chinese Independent Film Festival. The festival programme featured nine independent films and documentaries from mainland China and its aim was, in the words of its organisers, to “guide its audience through the extraordinary journey taken by Chinese independent cinema in the past two decades”.
Our new contributor M. Lý-Eliot is reviewing for us two documentaries screened during the Festival, Wu Wenguan’s pioneering 1990 Bumming in Beijing (credited with inspiring the launch of the New Documentary Cinema movement in China) and Liu Jiayin’s 2009 Oxhide II.
As two films were made almost 20 years apart, reviewing them together lends itself well to making comparisons between political and social realities of their subjects, many of whom are female artists (and, in case of Oxhide II, her family). Perhaps surprisingly, the position of women in the portrayed social circles may seem to have been better 20 years ago:
“Before the introduction of the market economy of the last 20-30 years, China had no product advertising aimed at women. The socialist government declared a devotion to equality between the sexes in dress and in work. In Oxhide II, the relative equality of the middle-aged mother and father’s relationship (where we see them sharing the labour inside and outside the home, and where the artisan father performs a lot of traditionally ‘feminine’ work such as cooking and sewing) is presented as somewhat old-fashioned. Gone are the days where women like Zhang Ci in Bumming in Beijing would be automatically assigned to edit a magazine (a job many current female UK graduates could only dream of!). In the China of Oxhide II, a young woman’s employment prospects have ceased to be skills-related and gender-blind.”
While Bumming in Beijing cuts dynamically between poor artists’ bedsits, Oxhide II documents making 73 dumplings…in real time. This makes “for blissful but hungry viewing”, remarks M. Lý-Eliot.