Places of Individuality in Chinese Cinema at Berlinale 2020

Conversation around discourse and dialogue in Chinese cinema have featured prominently at this year’s Berlinale

By Maja Korbecka


For the last several years, Chinese films have been a mainstay in the Berlinale’s programming. Chosen filmmakers such as Wang Quan’an, Lou Ye or Zhang Yimou were members of the “Berlinale family” - a term often used by former director Dieter Kosslick to refer to auteurs whose films were consistently invited. The new festival team headed by Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian has put more focus on discourse and dialogue highlighted especially in this year’s On Transmission series. However, the conversation exceeds the section’s frames and permeates the whole programme. If one looks for striking contrasts and surprising similarities, they certainly can be found in two Chinese selections, which are the only contemporary fiction films from mainland China in the 2020 programme.

Both films are also linked to the figure of Jia Zhangke, reflecting various aspects of his relationship to the idea of Chinese cinema: its audience, cinematic image of the nation, filmmakers who shape it. Jia was one of the seven directors invited to bring one of their peers to the Berlinale and engage in dialogue about cinematic art accompanied by two film screenings: a work of their own and of the guest they have chosen. In the On Transmission section, Jia Zhangke selected CROSSING THE BORDER (GUO ZHAO GUAN) a feel-good family road movie directed by Huo Meng. This choice might reflect his desire to support independent filmmakers in their pursuit to connect to the broad Chinese audience. In the Forum section, THE CALMING (PINGJING) a minimalist arthouse pan-Asian production directed by Song Fang, features Jia as a producer. It reveals his ongoing support of individualist filmmaking in China that chooses to ignore market and audience expectations.

THE CALMING and CROSSING THE BORDER are very personal projects, written and directed by their respective authors and connected to their personal backgrounds in China. However despite having a Chinese director and producer, and being mostly shot in China, THE CALMING is not labelled as a film from the People's Republic of China in the program. Is there something that makes THE CALMING less officially representative for China than CROSSING THE BORDER? Both films have several elements in common: themes of travel, mobility and family. However the difference between the two titles is much more visible in many elements of the narrative: location, character design, language, mode of storytelling. The contrast is connected to the unending divide in Chinese philosophical thought and ways of seeing the world: one that is endorsed by the government, the other treated as an uncomfortable anomaly. A comparison of the two films’ narrative elements will shed light on their strategic location in the festival programme as well as within Chinese cinema.

CROSSING THE BORDER recounts a journey through Henan, director Huo Meng's home province. Starting from Yuanma village, the main characters drive a slow farm truck to visit an old friend on the distant western border of the region. The experience of rural provincialism is deeply ingrained in the film, celebrating a kind of diversity strictly within the national frame. THE CALMING, on the other hand, takes place in Tokyo, Niigata, Beijing, Nanjing and Hong Kong. The travel between Japan and China connects the film to a transnational paradigm, reminiscent of the idea of pan-Asian cinema prominent in the 2000s.

The increased mobility is also connected to the main character's identity, an upper middle class woman filmmaker whose exploration of space and environment is not marked by national borders. Her privilege is reflected through professional, educational and social capital that allows her identity to become more fluid through the experiences of international travels and friendships. When asked about what it means for her to be Chinese, writer director Song Fang stated that she is more interested in the individual experience, while rigid and inflexible terms such as nationality are secondary. The main character in THE CALMING serves as her alter ego, both are well-rounded citizens of the world but admit that Chinese language and culture filter their ways of seeing the world.

The protagonists in CROSSING THE BORDER are the stark opposite. The film’s elderly farmer and his grandson experience limited mobility. They are left behind by working-age family members who have joined the urban lower class. The film tackles the phenomenon of massive internal economic migration and its extreme demographic effects on the countryside that is inhabited mostly by elderly people and their grandchildren. CROSSING THE BORDER reflects the state of Chinese society more explicitly and comprehensively than THE CALMING, which focuses on the personal matters and is largely disconnected from social issues.

The differences between the films continue in their use of language. In THE CALMING, the main character shifts smoothly between Mandarin, English and Jiangsu dialect, indicating her ease as a cosmopolitan. Her language abilities are one of the benefits of her education and access to the resources. In CROSSING THE BORDER, the grandfather strictly speaks the regional Henan dialect while his grandson uses national standard Mandarin. Their communication reflects gaps in generation, education and history. While they can’t speak each other’s language, they are able to devise a practical way to understand each other. Language abilities are acquired through informal learning that meets the necessities of everyday life.

When it comes to narrative style, CROSSING THE BORDER fulfils the state approved ideology, presenting an exemplary Chinese man who remains very trustful and good-natured despite difficult experiences of Chinese history, as if the Cultural Revolution did not traumatise him at all. It could be that such idealisation is informed by the filmmaker's longing for his grandfather, who was a motivation for making the film. The cinematic space is extremely clean and polished, as if dirt was cast out from the countryside. There is a different kind of sterility in THE CALMING. The visual style is minimalist, colours are toned down, cinematic space is very ascetic, the camera often remains static, centred on the protagonist’s face, her figure and the way she interacts with the environment. All these factors reflect the main character’s self-imposed isolation from society and desire to come closer to nature, however the pursuit might be after its idealised depiction. The shared idealisation could be grounded in the filmmaker’s cultural position as the university-educated privileged generation, whose youth coincided with the reform period when more and more opportunities emerged to study and capitalise on the opening market.

Both films represent two extremes in Chinese philosophical thought that continue to guide the ways people in China interact with each other and the environment. CROSSING THE BORDER is permeated with Confucian point of view. The focus on family, filial piety, social roles and the attached responsibilities, the pursuit of harmonious coexistence visibly drive the narrative. It is also the reason why the film complies with the national agenda, since Confucianism enjoys an unexpected renaissance, becoming a useful tool of soft power as orchestrated by the government. THE CALMING, on the other hand, is closely connected to Taoist perspective and values: withdrawal from society, reconnecting with nature, life in isolation, focus on private and personal instead of public and collective that renders such attitudes suspicious from the government’s point of view, regardless of the period in Chinese history. Taoism had always existed on the margins of Chinese society but its importance cannot be underestimated.

While a transnational cinema paradigm and Taoist undertones might mark THE CALMING as less officially representative for China, it does not fully answer the question of why the film’s country of production is left blank. Jia Zhangke concluded his 2020 Berlinale Talents masterclass expressing hope that the future of Chinese cinema will no longer be marked by traumatic generational experiences, and that filmmakers will finally be able to move on to truly individualist filmmaking and explore the language of cinema beyond the prescribed forms and national framework. The Chinese film industry is going through great transitions, the future is even harder to predict than the changing moods of film censors. The only thing left for us to do is to wait and observe.