One of the most important filmic events of the decade was Wang Bing’s monumental West of the Tracks, which changed the way we look at documentary, social reality, and Chinese cinema. From December 1999 to the spring of 2001, Wang and his sound engineer Lin Xudong stayed at their own expense in the Ti Xie industrial district in Shenyang (Liaoning Province) to document the slow death of an industrial complex that had been a temple of China’s triumphant advance toward industrialization. As the factories are closing and the workers laid off, Rainbow Row, a working-class neighbourhood, is being slated for demolition and its residents forcibly displaced. To complete the film, Wang had to break free of his promising career as an award-winning television documentarian, learn how to spend time within a given architectural and social space, and eventually find his way to the international production/exhibition/ distribution circuit. West of the Tracks received completion funds from the Hubert Bals Foundation, was shown by about every significant film festival, and was even blown up to 35mm and released theatrically by the French distributor MK2.
Going beyond the tropes of the Sixth Generation, West of the Tracks nevertheless defines the apex of a trend that developed in the post-Tiananmen ‘90s: independent art films produced in China which received praise abroad but were shown neither theatrically nor on television in their home country. However, due to the proliferation of illegal DVDs and the use of the internet, West of the Tracks has had an immense influence upon Chinese filmmakers. Wang Bing helped redefine the use of small, portable digital cameras in an epic context, especially through his reinvention of the tracking shot: simply walking about while carrying his camera. An intimate extension of the body of the filmmaker, the camera keeps him offscreen, but tantalizingly close to the frame. At the same time, Jia Zhangke, the second most influential Chinese indie filmmaker, was writing essays to champion DV as a way of liberating Chinese cinema—at the time, digital works were not subject to the three-tier censoring system of the Film Bureau (the situation is currently in flux)—and started producing the work of young filmmakers.
West of the Tracks takes its time, for the message it delivers is grave: not only is the “orthodox” socialist mode of development, based on heavy industry, obsolete, but the new groups in power are actively betraying those who built socialism in the first place. Building “New China” has been replaced by the politics of chaiqian (demolish and move), and young filmmakers followed suit to document the ruins which emerged in its wake. Wang Bing’s post-socialist heroes are the workers who keep going to a derelict factory where there is no money to pay them, or the residents of Rainbow Row stoically clinging to their dwellings after water and electricity have been shut off. Jia’s protagonists are kids pursuing their Unknown Pleasures (2002) while factories in their small town are closing; displaced workers who help demolish the soon-to-be-flooded cities of the Three Gorges area in Still Life and Dong (2006); and airplane engine builders who witness the crumbling of their dreams in 24 City (2008).
Even in fiction, filmmakers show real ruins, which in turn echo the dislocation of post-socialist lives. Shooting out of Sichuan, Ying Liang and Peng Shan go deeper and deeper in exploring the interaction between real estate/corporate greed and the destruction of the social and ecological environment in Taking Father Home (2005), The Other Half (2006), and Good Cats (2008). Emily Tang goes from a melancholy meditation on empty university dorms after Tiananmen Square in Conjugation (2001) to a sharp mise en scène of the uprooting of young women in Perfect Life (2008). And it’s no accident that the beacon of a new queer culture, Cui Zi’en, would spend months documenting the efforts of a school for migrant children to survive on a construction site in We are the… of Communism (2007). From the cinematic representation of ruins, new groups of filmmakers are emerging—beyond the numerous documentaries chronicling the effects of chaiqian on specific neighbourhoods, women and gay filmmakers as well are asserting their voices, not only helping to salvage scrap from the rubble but opening new perspectives as they do so.
Bérénice Reynaud teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, where she is also co-curator for the Film/Video Series at REDCAT.