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Wu Wenguang: An Introduction

From: Cinema Journal
46, Number 1, Fall 2006
pp. 133-136 | 10.1353/cj.2007.0000

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wu Wenguang:
An Introduction

"DV: Individual Filmmaking" was written at a watershed moment in the history of recent Chinese documentary. Its author, Wu Wenguang, is one of the most prominent and prolific independents in the country.1 It gives insights not only into some [End Page 133] of the major issues but also into some of the major changes in Chinese independent documentary. These include debates over what true documentary should be and what it means to be independent as well as the shift from professional Betacam videocorders to DV cameras of all kinds.

Wu Wenguang is best known internationally as one of the founding figures in Chinese independent documentary. In her groundbreaking introductory article on the general topic Bérénice Reynaud recounts the first time she saw Wu's debut film, Bumming in Beijing—the Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing, 1990), as a revelation.2 In the early 1990s no doubt it was equally astonishing for many others both in China and overseas. Prior to this point Chinese documentaries were in what might have appeared to foreigners as a "BBC" mode: narrated, carefully composed, shot on film, with almost no interviews or other unrehearsed moments. In China this was known as the zhuanti pian, or "special topic film," and most were thoroughly controlled.

In contrast Wu's film used large amounts of handheld camerawork, featured much unscripted and stumbling interview material, and appeared largely unplanned. Furthermore, the topic was far removed from official culture in every sense. Wu's subjects were artists living on a commune on the outskirts of Beijing. They were dropouts, something that was only becoming possible in the People's Republic with the development of a nonstate sector in the 1980s. In the socialist system every Chinese was assigned a "unit," which was responsible for providing a job, housing, education, health care, and so on. Opting to live outside this system was thus impossible. Doing so, as these artists did in the 1980s, promised liberation from the monolithic state structure. But it was difficult to get by because the private sector was very much in an embryonic state.

As the film shows, the artists in the commune have a hard time of it. An air of depression and personal crisis pervades the whole of Bumming in Beijing. This may well be because it was shot in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Unsurprisingly, all but one of the artists left the country soon after. (In 1995 Wu released a follow-up documentary on their new and, some would say, equally depressing lives called At Home in the World [Sihai Wei Jia].) But the film itself is so refreshing and spontaneous that it is surprisingly uplifting. And its vision of China off the record and unplanned is totally original and exciting.

In Chinese the on-the-spot spontaneous realist style used in Bumming in Beijing is known as jishizhuyi, a term that stresses its quality of recording things as they happen. It can be used for either fictional forms or documentary, and it is found in literature, film, and many other discursive forms. It remains the dominant realist mode in China to this day. But Wu's essay points to divisions, fissures, and shifts within that the documentary territory inscribed by this mode. In other words, the move away from the old "special topics" film style might have been decisive, but it does not mean that nothing has happened since.3

In the midst of his dismissal of feature films and television, "DV: Individual Filmmaking" reveals that, around the turn of the millennium, Wu found DV as a positive way forward. As he puts it, "DV saved me." Wu has developed a DV auteurism. The low costs and easy technology enable him to wander where he will without worrying about investment or budget. The result is an organic form of filmmaking that becomes part of the life he films. [End Page 134]

Little wonder, then, that his essay and others like it have become manifestoes for the DV movement, which has given a new lease of life to jishizhuyi—spontaneous realism in Chinese documentary. In the last few years film clubs, film bars...