From Documentary to Fiction and Back: Reality and Contingency in Wang Bing's and Jia Zhangke's Films

By Veg, Sebastian | China Perspectives, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

From Documentary to Fiction and Back: Reality and Contingency in Wang Bing's and Jia Zhangke's Films


Veg, Sebastian, China Perspectives


Jean-Luc Godard famously remarked that "All great fiction films tend toward documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction [...] whoever entirely opts for one necessarily finds the other at the end of the road." While the artistic basis for such a parallel has sometimes proven elusive, recent films from China show a remarkable convergence between the genres, in terms of both techniques, topics and directors. If Jia Zhangke's documentary In Public (2001), shot largely in the Datong railway station, appeared as a director's scrapbook somehow appended to the corresponding fiction Unknown Pleasures, his latest feature film Still Life (2006) is on the contrary presented as an "outgrowth" of the documentary Dong that Jia originally set out to shoot. More importantly, Jia is not the only major director to be switching genres: Ning Ying's 2002 documentary The Road of Hope met with an international success comparable to her feature films; Li Yang obtained the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2003 for his first feature, Blind Shaft(adapted from a story by Liu Qingbang), after directing three documentaries. His latest film Blind Mountain (2007) is a feature film about the trafficking of women, based on documentary research and a large number of interviews with women kidnapped and sold into marriage.

Historically, the rise of "independent" Chinese cinema in the 1990s is inextricably linked with the documentary genre. At a time when censorship of officially approved films was still pervasive, the emergence of independent documentary in the early 1990s reflected a new generation of directors choosing to begin working entirely outside the state-controlled production and distribution system. Documentary films were not only cheaper, as Li Yifan forcefully underlined during a panel discussion, they also did not fall within the direct responsibility of the state administration for radio, film and television. It was therefore an obvious way for young directors to experiment with new themes and techniques, without financial support, but also without any direct interference from the propaganda organs. Historically, it therefore comes as no surprise that independent Chinese film grew out of the documentary movement. This is mirrored in the themes favoured by this generation, such as the railroad motive, a classic topic in propaganda film, subverted in Du Haibin's documentary Along the Railway (2001) before returning in In Public, The Road of Hope and Wang Bing's Tiexi qu (2002). In the same way, the mine motive was used by Li Yang and Jia Zhangke in Platform, but also in documentaries such as Xiaopeng's Mine no. 8 (2003). This theme resonates more broadly with Wang Bing's story of the dismantling of the gigantic state-owned enterprises of the north-east in the 1990s, also fictionalised by Wang Chao in The Orphan of Anyang (2001). What started out as a strategy to avoid official interference and the constraints resulting from a lack of funding, therefore developed into a movement with its own dynamic. In the wake of the demise of the aesthetics of (socialist) realism (xianshi zhuyi), directors began to seek a more complex aesthetics of "reality" (xieshi). Their deconstruction of the barrier between subjectivity and objectivity represented a way of calling into question a one-dimensional approach to the relation between cinema and reality. This does not mean that documentary is necessarily more "realistic" than fiction, as Jia Zhangke remarked in an interview: "It is easier to show certain realities in fiction, and they appear more authentic. [...] When you make a documentary, and you want to raise certain questions, people do not necessarily want to talk about their private lives. There's a danger of filming only appearances. It's even more difficult when filming ordinary people, and they are the ones I want to talk about."((2) Furthermore, each genre creates a distinct relationship with the public and private spaces in which they are shown and discussed, with documentary paradoxically appearing as a more "private" form of expression than fiction, at least as far as its audience is concerned. …

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