Fringe figures in focus
Born in 1963 in Nanjing in China, Zhang Yuan makes semi-documentary films about the fringe of Chinese society. His early films were blacklisted by the Chinese authorities and acclaimed at film festivals abroad, but his later films are acclaimed in China too.
During the Berlinale, Potsdamer Platz is one of the most thrilling and cosmopolitan places in the world to everyone but Zhang Yuan, who seems to be out of place at a film festival. His smile adds little sparkle to a reception, his remarks add little brio to press conferences, and his one-breath replies deflate interviews. He is the enfant terrible of the sixth generation of the Peking Film Academy, so his reserve may be the fruit of experience.
His latest film, “Little Red Flowers”’, is a further adaptation of a work by the Chinese cult author Wang Shuo, now known abroad through his novels “‘Top Hooligans”’ and “‘The Name of the Game is Heartbeats”’. “‘Little Red Flowers”’ touched the heartstrings of the audience, so later there were questions for the director. How had he found his little protagonist? Where is the film set? Why is there no clear end to the filmdoes he go out so openly? Zhang Yuan answered with only a word or two.
“‘Little Red Flowers”’ is about four year old Qiang, a boy with round and clever eyes. Soon after the founding of the People’s Republic he is taken by his father to a typical kindergarten, from which he comes home only at the weekends like many other children. At first the kindergarten looks colourful and amusing with the magic of games and rituals, but Qiang is soon seen to be floundering. He finds it hard to keep in step with others, to fall asleep on command or to eat his daily ration. His comrades are always being awarded medals in the form of red paper-flowers for fitting in nicely into their small society, but however hard Qiang seems to try, he never quite copes. He is unable to pull his clothes on without help, he wets his bed, and he contradicts the kindergarten matrons. His charming waywardness vexes the matrons and draws the other children onto his side. Once he has persuaded his friends that one of the kindergarten matrons is a child-eating monster in disguise, there are signs of a “palace revolt.”
‘”Little Red Flowers’” may seem harmless enough with its enchanting soundtrack and picturesque hues, but Zhang Yuan’s little hero is a mini-rebel against the Chinese educational ideal of the fifties. He brings to mind the rebellious figures earlier shown by Zhang Yuan as gradually catapulting into the heart of power: “‘I am interested in centres,”’ he said in the interview.
His documentary film “‘The Square”’ (1994) showed everyday life on the Square of Heavenly Peace five years after the bloody repression of the democracy movement. Whereas “‘East Palace, West Palace”’ (1996) begins with a public toilet serving as a meeting place for homosexuals close to in the Forbidden City, ‘Little Red Flowers”’ remainss in the Forbidden City for most of the film.
Zhang Yuan is also concerned with the clash of frail or fringe figures with institutionalised power. Already in his first film “‘Mama”’ (1991), a semi-documentary about a mother’s relationship with her handicapped son, Zhang Yuan filmed in homes and schools for the disabled and brought his fictional tale into contact with social reality. His approach in the award-winning film “‘Seventeen Years”’ (1999) was similar. For this film about a woman jailed unjustly for seventeen years before being surprisingly released, he was the first person allowed to film in Chinese jails.
In spite of bitter reproaches from fans of the independent Chinese cinema, Zhang Yuan turned at the end of the 90s to commercial love-films, but he continues to show what Chinese authorities dub an “‘unhealthy interest”’ in social dilemmas. He believes that tracing the lives of fringe figures is the clearest way to show the pressures of society. “‘Little Red Flowers”’ is a new and notable instance of his lifelong preoccupation. By now his films have been seen not only in the Wwest but also in China by viewers familiar with high calibre art-house productions from unauthorised copies of DVDs.
In reaching out to Chinese viewers, Zhang Yuan has lost something of his documentary zeal – a trait he used to share with many of his contemporaries. He studied at the Peking Film Academy at the end of the 80s, gaining a diploma in 1989. Like many filmmakers of the sixth generation such as Wang Xiaoshuai, He Jianjun and later Jian Zhangkle and Liu Hao he was sickened by the events on the Square of Heavenly Peace. He belongs to the first generation of Chinese intellectuals with a deep mistrust of authority and a love of personal independence. These intellectuals were no longer able to conform to the conventions of national film studios. Instead of continuing to cultivate the often nostalgic view of China shared by film makers of the fifth generation, those of the sixth generation wished to approach reality with a more economic technique and a raw, mobile and often meandering camera. They filmed at real sites, if necessary in secret, and smuggled film negatives out of the country to have post-production done in the Wwest.
“‘I have left the underground,”’ says Zhang Yuan with a shrug, but he still has a warm heart for his former cronies - for folk on the dole, prostitutes, artists, musicians, pickpockets, petty thieves and industrial workers. Asked what has become of his aesthetic of truth, his former passion for the ‘force’ of reality, he smiles wanly in the press lounge of the Berlinale Palace, saying. “‘Maybe I’ll soon direct another documentary.”’ Then he leans back into the plush upholstery of the lounge and lets his eyelids droop. Whether he is weary or bored is an open question. He reawakens only in talking about Peking - about its pace, about the flattening of old boroughs, about the boulevards and the high blocks springing up all over the place. It is a city chockfull of reality and with a surfeit of feasible themes. I hope that Zhang Yuan, after a film like ‘Little Flowers’, will find his way back to this reality. A city brimming with reality and potential themes. One can only hope that after a film like “Little Red Flowers” Zhang Yuan may be drawn back to this reality.
From the authoress’ interview with Zhang Yuan in January 2006
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
A project on contemporary art in China
(24 March 06 - 14 May 06)