"Estranged Paradise" begins with a slow, elegant montage of hands: first, scrambling through the water of a tank to capture and extract an eel. Then, the hands of a couple hang awkwardly apart before slowly, shyly reaching to touch and grasp. Hands strike match after frustratingly unsuccessful match in order to light a stick of incense. A hand holding a brush brings a traditional landscape to life on the screen as an unseen narrator expounds upon the Tao of Chinese painting.
The ambitious artistry and heavy-handed imagery of the black-and-white film's opening shots offer the first indication that its director, Yang Fudong, is not a filmmaker by trade. Mr. Yang, 31, is better known for his ironic photographs and his short art videos, which have been featured at exhibitions including the Istanbul Biennale and the Yokohama Triennial. He is also one of the few Chinese artists slated to participate in the upcoming 2002 Shanghai Biennale. Yet Yang had long nurtured cinematic aspirations, and has been working on "Estranged Paradise" ("Mosheng Tiantang") since 1995. Filming completed in 1997, but funding problems postponed completion of the sound editing until this spring, and it debuted at Germany's Documenta11 in June.
Installation and video artists like Yang Fudong have become the newest toasts of Shanghai's modern-art scene, and are among the more internationally recognized figures of the city's resurgent avant-garde. Meanwhile, the government-run Shanghai Film Studio spews out propaganda puff pieces that are abysmal even by the low standards of China's mainstream film industry. The city's independent film scene is all but nonexistent, strapped for cash, creativity and commitment. "Estranged Paradise" marks the first feature-length film released by a video artist in Shanghai, and highlights the disparity between the two genres.
The current stagnancy of Shanghai film is ironic given the city's role as the birthplace of Asian cinema. In the first half of the 20th Century, Shanghai's film industry was second only to Hollywood, and Old Shanghai films featuring stars like Ruan Lingyu, Hu Die, Zhao Dan and Zhou Xuan remain popular classics. Shanghai provided the foundation for Hong Kong's thriving cinema, as many of its leading actors, directors, writers and cinematographers fled to the British colony after 1949.
The government-run Shanghai Film Studio (SFS) was one of China's strongest studios, in relative terms, up until the 1980s. Since then, while official studios in Beijing and Xian have become comparatively open, SFS has deteriorated. Although its production quality remains high, and it boasts China's only special effects department, it suffers a dearth of creativity. Its scripts are uniformly unrealistic and mushily melodramatic, and in execution usually overacted.
"They make all these bad propaganda films about corruption, like 'Fatal Decision' and 'Matter of Life and Death'," complains Maria Barbieri, president of film production company Sinema. Observers blame the decay at
SFS on the careerism of its management, which is more committed to rising through the ranks of the Cultural Bureau than making good films, and is thus very cautious. "They make these big films, with huge budgets and technology, but that are just not interesting. Their directors are old and have no talent," laments Ms. Barbieri
With the exception of works by a few luminaries like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang, government-sponsored films throughout China tend toward the mediocre. Cinematic innovation in China is usually led by filmmakers who operate independently of the state-run studios, usually "underground" because they film without the requisite permits. According to Chinese film scholar Yingjin Zhang, they are mostly ignored by the mainstream industry and "circulate among friends and colleagues at home and screen at international film festivals." Over the past few years, however, a handful of independently-made films, have enjoyed some mainstream success, and many of Beijing's independent films now circulate domestically on the pirated DVD market as well as the international film festival circuit.
Such activity is noticeably absent in Shanghai. None of the noteworthy films set in Shanghai in the past decade were made by Shanghai-based filmmakers. "Estranged Paradise" is one of only about half a dozen independent films to come out of Shanghai since 2001, but that small number marks an improvement.
One reason for the capitol's predominant role in independent Chinese film is its famously loophole-laden distribution laws. Another commonly cited cause is the Beijing Film Academy, which provides a focal point of activity and source of fresh blood. But, according to Han Jianwei, maker of the yet-to-be-released "Shanghai Man, Shanghai Woman" SFS used to play a similar role in Shanghai.
According to Mr. Han and other independent filmmakers, the real problem lies in the practical commercialism of the Shanghainese personality. While little capital is needed to, say, write a song or novel or paint a painting, making a film requires a major personal and financial commitment, with little return on the investment. They also stress that Beijingers are more willing to go out on a limb than the risk-adverse Shanghainese. Zhong Qiang, a Shanghai-based Hunanese painter and director of "Metamorphosis" ("Sejie," 2001),
observes that "In Beijing, more people are willing to invest in culture."
By comparison, Shanghai's video artists face fewer funding obstacles. According to Katelijn Verstraete, a founder of arts organization BizArt, " A film is practically an enterprise, while video is a one-man show. Video is still regarded as an art, and is made for a small group, compared to the goal of an independent film to be distributed and seen. The young people making video art just aren't that ambitious."
Art video's lack of traditional narrative also eliminates filmmaking's need for scripts and professional actors. Shanghai's independent filmmakers have tried to bypass funding hurdles similarly, using casts with only a few trained actors, if any. Yang Fudong recruited friends to act in "Estranged Paradise," and Andrew Chen, in his largely plotless "Shanghai Panic" ("Women Haipa" 2001), filmed a group of Shanghainese slackers playing themselves.
The video influence is evident in "Estranged Paradise" in that many of its pictures of ennui have the feel of vignettes, idyllic snips, like a protracted short film. Filmed in Hangzhou, known as China's "Paradise on Earth", it features many lingering scenes of the city's now vanished old streets. Hangzhou seems as much a character as the protagonist, Zhu Zi, a hypochondriac young artist convinced that he is dying of a mysterious and unidentifiable illness. The film follows his wanderings between home and hospital, as he wistfully observes a world he feels unable to participate in and receives from friends and fianc¨Ĥe affection he feels unable to return.
Zhu Zi's discontent is interspersed with a madman haunting the train station, and Yang explains that the film is about the dichotomy between the two characters. "The film is about young people's attitudes toward life. Everyone wants to be happy, and through the course of the film the protagonist learns to appreciate and enjoy what he has, while the madman represents the dissatisfied, the self-righteous."
The alienation of urban youth is a ubiquitous subject in Shanghai's independent films. The hypochondria of "Estranged Paradise" runs through other Shanghai films, such as "Shanghai Panic," in which a character imagines he has HIV. Shanghai's independent filmmakers also tout themselves as more artistic then their Beijing counterparts, claiming the legacy of avant-garde art even when their backgrounds lie in the more prosaic realms of television commercials.
Andrew Chen, who has also wrapped a second effort, believes Shanghai will eventually revolutionize Chinese film. He stresses that Shanghai-based filmmakers have a "uniqueness, to which Beijing filmmakers can't compare." They witness "the commercial process, the commercialization of the most Westernized city in China. People stationed in this city are influenced by commercial values, but if they dedicate themselves to filmmaking, their work will be very strong, and quite different from Beijing's. They will urbanize filmmaking in China."
Asian Wall Street Journal, November 8-10, 2002