City of Suspended Possibility…

Friend Jonathan Bach has written a beautiful essay, Shenzhen: City of Suspended Possibility. Highly recommended because he nimbly places myths about success and failure, homecoming and homemaking, and self-construction and urbanization with respect to western theories of the same. In other words, City reminds me why the essay remains my favorite genre; illumination on the human condition through critical perspective and sympathetic voice.

film maker liu gaoming

On Tuesday, December 2, 2008 SACS hosted the Shenzhen premiere of Shenzhen filmmaker, Liu Gaoming’s film, “A Song.” Mary Ann O’Donnell interpreted the after film discussion. QSI Shekou provided the venue.

Ostensively straightforward, “A Song” tells the story of the anti-Shenzhen Dream; a young guitar player migrates to Shenzhen, looses his job, lives off his friends, and falls in love with the possibly drug-addicted hostess who lives in the apartment across the alley. When not hanging out or trying to sell commercial yellow pages over the phone, A Song spies on his pretty neighbor. One day he vanishes.

However, unlike traditional films, “A Song” challenges genre conventions by documenting the filmmaker Liu Gaoming’s memory of A Song, rather than presenting a cinema verité of A Song’s life. In 1996, Liu also migrated to Shenzhen. For three months, he and A Song lived together in a crowded apartment in one of Shenzhen’s urban villages. Then Liu changed jobs, moving to another part of the city. He and A Song lost contact with one another. Later, through a mutual friend, Liu heard that “Maybe A Song made a mistake, so maybe he’s hiding from the police.” Liu has repeatedly wondered what could have turned his first Shenzhen friend, the friend who cooked him dinner and cared for him, what could have turned this basically decent human being into a swindler? What actually happened while Liu was at work and A Song hung out at the apartment?

“A Song” is Liu’s painfully intimate exploration of that fundamental time, when both men faced the existential challenge of making a new life in an alien city, alone. According to Liu, “The only difference between me and A Song is that I persevered and stayed, while he left.”

In fact, unlike A Song, Liu Gaoming has achieved the Shenzhen Dream. He is now the creative director of his own design company, has a beautiful condo in one of Shenzhen’s upscale neighborhoods, and drives an imported car. His wife is an equally talented and successful fashion designer and their four-year old daughter laughs easily.

Liu came to Shenzhen after receiving a teaching degree in painting from a teacher’s college in Ganzhou, Jiangxi. After graduating from college he taught middle school art class for half a year before deciding to pursue his dreams in Shenzhen. During his first year in Shenzhen, Liu did odd jobs in art related businesses. However, the following year, he was hired to work in a design studio and his life became more stable. He settled into his job, learned the trade, and then in 2001 opened his own design company, Brothers Design.

However, the more materially successful Liu has become, the more he has felt disconnected from the city that enabled his rags-to-riches transformation. This is one of the paradoxes of the Shenzhen Dream. Once a migrant achieves the dream and becomes a Shenzhener, it becomes apparent that although everything is different, nothing essential has changed. The desires and dissatisfactions that compel one to migrate to China’s most important post-Mao experiments don’t dissipate simply because one makes good. If anything, existential questions become more acute. Indeed, thirty years after the Reform and Opening era began, many of the beneficiaries of Deng Xiaoping’s policy to transform Maoism are actively asking themselves if there is a spiritual dimension to all this economic booming.

For Liu, the question, “How did I get here?” became salient in 2003, when his parents visited him. He was shocked to realize that they really were already old and that time really was that relentless. Liu Gaoming suddenly wanted to know: how did I get here?

In order to understand both his alienation from the Shenzhen dream and the actual city, Liu Gaoming began making films. However, when he picked up a Sony 790 and turned his gaze on Shenzhen and its residents, Liu had no previous film making experience. In fact, no one on the production team of “A Song” had any film making experience and Liu himself still doesn’t know what kind of sound system was used during film. He does remember that they used two hanging and two body mikes. Consequently, Liu has humorously named his film company “Amateur Productions”.

To date, Liu has completed two films, “Rib” and “A Song,” is editing a third, “Beijing” and is planning his fourth. Each film focuses on a Shenzhen anti-hero, someone whose life never quite takes root in the city. Instead, like the pirated DVD hawker of the eponymous documentary “Rib,” the Shenzhen anti-heroes who populate Liu’s films start off at society’s edge, begin a downward spiral into its uncharted depths, and then vanish without a trace.

Filmed in 2004 and edited in 2007, “A Song” was Liu’s first interrogation of the anti-Shenzhen Dream. The film implicitly asks: If the only difference between a Liu Gaoming and an A Song is that Liu stays and A Song leaves, what does it mean to inhabit Shenzhen? Is there any point to staying in the city?

Liu takes a non-judgmental view of A Song’s inability to pursue the Shenzhen Dream. Instead, he matter-of-factly shows the sparse conditions of A Song’s life. The apartment is not only cramped, but also presses up against other apartments that are so close that if A Song were to reach out through the barred window, he and the neighbor could shake hands. The incessant noise compounds the visceral lack of privacy. At the same time, A Song doesn’t speak with anyone; he practices speaking Cantonese with a book, he pretends to call customers on the phone, and he grunts instead of answering the pretty girl who washes his hair and cajoles him into joining her for a “chat”.

A Song’s silent implosion is painful to watch, but Liu holds the camera unwaveringly on the memory of his friend. A Song stands on bench. A Song smokes a cigarette. A Song rides a bicycle in the apartment living room, first circling then crashing into the long sofa. A Song becomes nothing more than a body occupying space. A Song vanishes. Liu admits that he originally filmed in color and then converted the files to black and white because, “That’s what I felt like when I was making the film.”

“A Song” ends with a fantasy sequence in which Liu imagines that A Song has returned to his hometown and resumed his career as a music teacher. This image poignantly speaks to how migrating to Shenzhen has changed individuals like A Song and Liu Gaoming, begging the question: is going home the last, unrealizable Shenzhen Dream?

old man party, shenzhen

this weekend, independent documentary digital film-maker liu gaoming (刘高明) and independent film producer zhu rikun (朱日坤) curated “old man party, shenzhen (老男人的party)”. like many shenzhen artists, gaoming has a white-collar day job (he has his own design company), which supports his artistic activities. this makes the shenzhen art scene very different from other cities, where being an artist is often a fulltime practice. zhu rikun is the head of fanhall films, a beijing based institution which produces and promotes chinese independent films.

the event was held at club de vie (圆筒艺术空间) was founded by a group of professional artists and wine tasters, bringing together both economic and aesthetic interests in a way similar to the loft space at oct. club de vie’s owner, feng zhifeng (冯志峰) is designer by day. again, the shenzhen twist on art promotion. club de vie is located within the shenzhen sculpture institute hosted the event–this is the same unit that sponsored fat bird’s “draw whiskers, add dragon”. the head of the institute, sun zhenye has said that it is their goal to turn 8 zhongkang road (中康路八号;their address) into a brandname.

the party took place on saturday and sunday; three films were screened each day. invitations to the event were texted to folks in gaoming’s and zhifeng’s circles. all of the films were digital documentaries, made out of diverse interests and commitments, but sharing limited financing. information about the artists and their work is available on the fanhall site. i have noted when the artist has an independent website. anyway, the artists and their films were:

huang wenhai’s (黄文海) “dreamwalking (梦游)” was about several beijing artists who went on a road trip to nanyang. performance artist li wake(李娃克), poet motou beibei (魔头贝贝), and painter ding defu (丁德福) are all somewhat known within contemporay art circles. their intention was to make a film with wang yongping (王永平). huang wenhai went to help with the filming. however, the filming fell apart and huang wenhai ended up filming the artists’ daily life, which included drinking, impromtu performances, and drunken discussions on the meaning of life.

zhao dayong (赵大勇) presented “nanjing road (南京路)” about garbage pickers living at the heart of shanghai’s fashionable shopping district. the film focused on heipi (black skin), a migrant from the northeast whose poverty and subsequent arrests and beatings by the police lead to him going crazy.

wang wo (王我) showed “chaos (热闹)”, an impressionistic account of how it feels to live in contemporary china. interestingly, “renao” refers more to the general excitement of a crowded and prosperous area than it does to chaos, per se. indeed, describing a place as “renao” is more often than not complementary.

xu xin (徐辛) presented “the huoba troupe (火把剧团)”, a film that looks at the demise of sichuan opera. once the home to opera troupes and tea houses, chengdu is increasingly modern. young people prefer to go to discos and bars, and some of the old opera stars are now running song and dance troupes.

zhou hao’s (周浩) “hou street (厚街)” brought the documentary lens to guangzhou, chronicling a year in the lives of migrant workers on hou street. all lived hand to mouth, looking for jobs in nearby factories. none have the kind of traditional relationships that made life meaningful back home.

hu xinyu (胡新宇) presented his first work “men (男人)”, an intensely personal film about hu xinyu, his friend old su, and their neighbor shi lin. old su graduated from the national film academy. after loosing another job, he moved in with hu xinyu, who filmed their days together.

all six films were made by non-professionals, who had turned to digital film-making as a way of expressing themselves. to my knowledge, this is the first time such an event has been organized in shenzhen. so an art scene emerges.