Video: Four Ways of Looking at Chinese Reality

'24 City'

’24 City’

This month the Museum of Modern Art is screening a program of films titled “Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions,” consisting of 28 films from the past 25 years of Chinese cinema. This is one of the largest programs of Chinese films ever curated in the U.S., and almost certainly the largest to focus on the impact of Chinese documentary films in contemporary cinema.

It was my privilege to co-curate the series with MoMA assistant curator Sally Berger. As part of the program I also produced a short video essay introducing some of the films and major themes of the series. It turned out that the films yielded much more than one short video could contain, so I’ve made an additional video essay further exploring how these films engage with China’s constantly transforming reality, and in doing so transform it even further.

China’s historical transformation over the last 25 years unleashed a new kind of reality. Free market reforms, technological leaps and the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people created a nation virtually unrecognizable from its former self. And yet, many side effects of these changes can’t be found on China’s official television or movie screens. To truly capture China’s new reality, a new kind of filmmaking was needed.

Starting in the early 1990s, independent directors, working outside the state media system, captured the unseen lives of people struggling at the fringes: those who rejected or had been rejected by mainstream society. Their lives were filmed without embellishment, but through direct observation of factual reality. And they were told in an intimate, first-person manner that turned its back on the collectivist ideology of mainstream media. These films broke new ground because they challenged the official version of reality endorsed by the state.

This contention over reality—to capture life in China as people truly experienced it—became an obsession in Chinese filmmaking unlike any other in recent memory. And thanks to cheap video cameras and digital equipment, professional filmmakers and amateurs alike had the ability to show life as they saw it. There was an explosion of new images across the country, capturing a society transforming so rapidly that it could barely keep track of where it came from. For that reason, remembering the hidden stories of China’s past was as crucial as recording those of the present.

But as the reality aesthetic has evolved in China, the initial assumptions of truth and objectivity recorded on camera have given way to something more complex: new forms of representation and performance that blur the boundaries of reality and fiction. The underlying insight of these films is that reality itself is a construct of political, cultural and economic factors playing out across everyday life. In this way, these works challenge our notions of what is real, not just in China, but also in our own movies and media, and how they relate to the world that we live in.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.

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