Geneva Anderson digs into art

Straight from Ai Weiwei’s Playlist—“Turn It On,” docs related to SFMOMA’s China exhibit you can stream at home for free or catch at SFMOMA

A still from Zhang Bingjian’s 2009 documentary, Readymade, screening January 24 at SFMOMA and free on Kanopy as part of SFMOMA’s Turn It On: China on Film, 2000-2017 series.  The film captures the lives of two middle-aged Mao Zedong impersonators in the PRC: Mr. Peng Tian, a 46-year-old farmer from Mao’s home town in Hunan Province who walks into the Beijing Film Academy one day in full Mao dress to study film acting; and Chen Yan, a 51-year-old housewife from Sichuan Province and the only female Mao impersonator in China.  Zhang’s coverage of her life, both onstage and off, reveals the struggle she has with her husband and daughter who disapprove of her impersonating Mao and refuse to support her.  The film tackles the continuing cult of personality of Mao Zedong as a cultural icon, and the mixed feelings stirred up in different generations when they are confronted with him “alive” again through his impersonators. Image: Zhang Bingjian

SFMOMA’s groundbreaking China exhibit, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World has entered its final month; it closes Sunday, February 24, 2019.  Bracketed by the end of the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989 and the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the exhibit showcases 100+ works by more than 60 artists and collectives that anticipated and reacted to China’s sweeping and turbulent transformation to a global superpower in the new millennium.   Through documented performances and socially engaged projects, paintings, photographs, installations, and videos, the exhibit explores how artists such as Cao Fei, Huang Yong Ping and Ai Weiwei acted as catalysts for change, critically questioning the massive changes all around them.  The exhibit, which caused such a stir at the Guggenheim due to three artworks which outraged animal rights activists, has been accompanied by a number of special programs at SFMOMA.

The film series, Turn It On: China on Film, 2000–2017, is exceptional.  Curated by Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Wang Fen, the series had its genesis at the Guggenheim, NY.  It was suggested by Ai Weiwei to the Guggenheim exhibition curator Alexandra Munroe as a means of helping people further understand China and the history and current state of its contemporary art.  Weiwei invited documentary filmmaker Wang Fen to collaborate.

A still from Wang Jiuliang’s 2016 doc, Plastic China, about China’s plastic waste industry through the eyes and hands of those who handle it.  After visiting a huge recycling plant in Oakland and learning that the US and many other developed countries, even in Asia, export their plastic waste to China, Jiuliang wanted to understand what happens to imported plastic waste once it arrives in China.  Six years in the making, his film documents the dirty downside of China’s capitalist surge as it explores a gnarly plastic recycling facility in a small town, dedicated to the business of processing plastic waste. The facility, one of 5,000 unregulated recycling plants operating in that town alone, is operated by two families in a tense relationship—the family of the owner and a family of employees.  Eleven-year-old Yi-Jie works in squalor alongside her parents while dreaming of attending school.  She pulls enticing ads, toys and everyday items from the trash to eek out a secondhand life. Kun, the facility’s ambitious foreman, hopes for a better life.  Screens: Saturday, January 26 at 3 p.m. at SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theater.


Turn it On Screenings remaining at SFMOMA:

Since January 10, SFMOMA has been screening selections from this film series at its plush Phyllis Wattis Theater for free (each film requires an RSVP).  There are five screenings remaining and all are in mandarin with English subtitles:

Readymade, Thursday, Jan 24, 6 p.m.  This 90 min film is part of SFMOMA 101, an going SFMOMA free program which invites local thinkers to the museum for a stimulating conversation about art with an introduction by a SFMOMA curator.  At 5 p.m., Abby Chen, curator and artistic director at the, Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, will speak.  She will be introduced by Eungie Joo, SFMOMA curator of contemporary art.

Falling from the Sky, Saturday, Jan 26, noon (film runs 145 min)

Plastic China, Sat, Jan 26, 3 p.m.  (film runs 82  min)

Prisoners in Freedom City, Sun, Jan 27, noon (film runs 36 min)

Garden in Heaven, Sun, Jan 27, 1 p.m. (film runs 200 min)


Free Streaming of the series via Kanopy:

How exciting that SFMOMA has partnered with Kanopy, the library streaming service to host 16 films in the series for free online viewing through February 24, when the exhibit closes.  Anyone who has library card from one of the thousands of public and university libraries Kanopy partners with can stream the films for free.  I used my Sonoma County Library account.   To sign up for a Kanopy account, and more information about Kanopy, click here.

Some films in the series are long, so we can be especially thankful for the chance to view them at home.  Ai Xiaoming’s engrossing Jiabiangou Elegy: Life and Death of the Rightists (2015) about the persecution of inmates at the Jiabiangou Labor Camp where 2,000 died, is split into six segments and runs 409 minutes.  Xu Xin’s Karamay: Memories of a Terrible Tragedy (2010) about the fire that claimed 323 lives at a theater performance in 1994, runs 356 min.

Ironically, no films in this series were made between 1989-2000, the critical years the exhibit covers.   All films are from 2000-2017.  In a 2017 interview for China Film Insider (click here), Wang Fen explained this is because “very few people had access to equipment back then. The rare few who had access were people who worked for state-owned film & TV studios. These people had very little interest in making the type of documentaries that couldn’t be distributed and wouldn’t be backed by their studios. Around 2000, home video cameras suddenly became available and affordable, which led many young filmmakers to start making films on the subjects they care about.”

Details:  Turn it On: China on film 2000-2017 runs through Sunday, January 27, 2019 at SFMOMA.  Screenings are free but require RSVP.   The series also can also be streamed free on Kanopy.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World runs through February 24, 2019 at SFMOMA.  Free entry with general admission. Tickets: free for SFMOMA members; $25 adults; $22 65 and older; $19 19-24 years; free 18 and under.  Save time and buy tickets online before coming to SFMOMA.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | Art, Film, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAAMFest 2013—Jin Dan’s masterpiece “When the Bough Breaks,” examines upward mobility’s downward emotional toll on a Chinese migrant family as days, months, years pass

Two young Chinese girls from a migrant family that has relocated to a big city struggle to earn money to pay for their brother’s schooling and are forced to abandon their own studies, putting their futures in jeopardy in “When the Bough Breaks,” directed by Ji Dan, one of China’s preeminent female documentary filmmakers.  Image: CAAMFest

Two young Chinese girls from a migrant family that has relocated to a big city struggle to earn money to pay for their brother’s schooling and are forced to abandon their own studies, putting their futures in jeopardy in “When the Bough Breaks,” directed by Ji Dan, one of China’s preeminent female documentary filmmakers. Image: CAAMFest

It’s hard to top recent Chinese documentary masterpieces like Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong, 2008, 169 min), Fortune Teller (Xu Tong, 2010, 129 min) or Last Train Home (Lixen Fan, 2009, 85 min).  And yet Ji Dan’s latest film, When the Bough Breaks (2011), maintains remarkable dedication to its difficult subject: a family of five Chinese migrants living on the outskirts of a city, their fragile state worsening with time.  It ebbs and flows with high drama as well, pulling us into a family tragedy involving innocent children that seems informed by the great master storytellers.   

In China today, over 120 million migrant workers have sacrificed everything for a country that barely acknowledges them, gambling all their resources on the dream of a better future. China’s dirty little secret: it’s turning its back on these workers and choosing instead to focus on rapid modernization—at their expense.  To tell this story, Ji Dan focuses on two girls and their brother, all of whom desperately need and want an education and their parents, two trapped and defeated individuals who are unable to provide it.  

Ji Dan is one of the most important filmmakers in China today.  Her past works include Spirit Home (2006), Dream of the Empty City (2007), and Spiral Staircase of Harbin (2008), which won prizes at both the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and the China Documentary Film Festival.   To create such an intimate portrait of this fractured Chinese family living on the outskirts of Beijing, she spent three years following and getting to know them.  She even took up residence in the teacher’s dormitory of the school they attended.  The film screens today, Saturday, March 23, 2013, at the Oakland Museum of California at 2 p.m. (details here) as part of CAAMFest 2013’s final weekend.

Trash is an active metaphor. The family wades through trash heaps from dawn till dusk and the father collects and sells scrap metal, while family’s three vulnerable children fight against all odds – including their own parents – to continue their education and pursue a better future. But this is no ode to victory at the end of a long period of tribulations, it is instead a compelling examination of how life can leave one with a series of choices that all lead to undesirable outcomes. The parents, especially the disgruntled drunkard dad, do all they can to maintain some semblance of control, while the two pre-teen twin daughters struggle to hold the family’s long-term financial vision, though they too exhibit their father’s impatient proclivity for conflict. As the two headstrong girls try to negotiate a path to independence, security, and adulthood, the film reveals how some children are forced to make their own way in the world, assuming the responsibilities of adulthood long before they should have to.

Here’s what critic Brian Hu of PAC-ARTS (Pacific Arts Movement) said when the film screened at the San Francisco Asian Film Festival —Long, impeccably-shot verbal arguments that seem to into stretch into hours are riveting not so much for the yelling, but for the minutiae, in particular the silence of the son, whose fate motivates much of the conflict. Through it all is a sense of environmental doom: the weather, the military jets, the sounds of firecrackers in the distance. When the film comes to a close following a Lunar New Year unlike any other, a visceral transcendence is achieved that numbs the skin and pounds the heart.

Renowned Chinese artist Hung Liu, who currently has a retrospective at OMCA, “Summoning Ghosts, the Art of Hung Liu” canceled her appearance at today’s post-film conversation, but sent this statement about Ji Dan and her filmmaking—

As a filmmaker, Ji Dan spent a long time working with the family, not just on them. Her film is thought provoking and raises questions about family dynamics, personal and societal relationships, and class issues when people live physically and psychologically on the edge. The film shares a harsh reality and is truly moving. It shows us that there are many families living in isolation on the cusp of society, as if on an island. When the film was screened in Shanghai in 2011, several younger members of the audience asked why the film was long. In response, Ji Dan articulately and eloquently expressed her commitment to the need for longer documentary filmmaking in order to tell the full story. I was compelled to speak up and support Ji’s dedication in the face of Hollywood’s influence to train the viewer to absorb only shorter films. As I shared with Lori Fogarty, the Executive Director of the Oakland Museum of California, I am truly impressed with the dedication of women filmmakers from Beijing who challenge film industry standards with their engaging full—length documentaries. They are bold enough to tell dramatic stories about real life, about real people in the contemporary world. I think we must show that we care about humanity by watching and supporting these female filmmakers coming out of China. Ji Dan made an impression on me, and I hope to bring many female filmmakers and their documentaries to the attention of US audiences. With filmmakers like her, who follow a family for seven years to capture their story, we must respond with support. Hung Liu

Details: CAAMfest 2013 runs March 14-24, 2013 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco and Berkeley. Regular screenings are $12 and special screenings and programs are more. Click here to see full schedule and to purchase tickets online.

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment