Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 396-398
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Painter and illustrator Shui Bo Wang's second documentary film differs significantly from his first, Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Where Sunrise presented the Maoist history of China up until June 4, 1989, against the backdrop of Wang's own artwork from childhood through adulthood, Swing in Beijing focuses on the art and philosophy of his Beijing contemporaries in the post-1989 period. Though radically different, the two films express the ambivalent and often ironic perspective of artists born and raised during the Cultural Revolution as they come to terms with urban China's accelerated economic, social, and cultural transition in the 1990s.
Consisting mostly of interviews conducted in 1998 intercut with aerial and street scenes of daily life in Beijing, accompanied by the contemporary punk/rock songs of one of the interviewed artists (lead singer Gao Xing of the group Underbaby), the film's primary contribution is overlapping visual evidence of the paradox of life in Beijing at the turn of the millennium with commentary by a dozen avant-garde artists that both enhances this evidence and reveals its ironic underside. The most salient example of this dialectic is when articulate sculptor Zhan Wang observes: "MacDonald's and Coca-Cola have this kind of commercial behavior where they will not only force you to [End Page 396] eat it and drink it, but they will change your lifestyle, your spirit, and your cultural beliefs—then you will accept American pop culture." Meanwhile the camera is presenting scenes of huge Coca-Cola billboards and crowds formed outside local MacDonald's restaurants and then zooms in on an empty Coke bottle at the work table of Zhan's own sculpting studio. Zhan laments the fact that artists cannot truly affect the drastic changes occurring in urban society, but he does his part by documenting in photographs the demolition of the traditional neighborhood surrounding the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the construction of a commercial skyscraper in its place. He believes that the primary issue facing Beijing since 1994 is the destruction of its old districts. The psychological result, he says, is the erasure of roots: "The huge changes in Beijing are like the snow covering your footsteps: you don't know where you are coming from. I have lost the sense of belonging."
Another artist reflecting this same concern is Wei Dong, whose paintings juxtaposing contemporary women partially nude in Cultural Revolution garb with traditional landscapes express the contrast of skyscrapers alongside humble siheyuan dwellings. Although this theme of the shocking transformation of urban architecture resurfaces, an even stronger theme in the film is stated by Wei when he asserts that curators and patrons in Hong Kong, Europe, and the United States cannot fully appreciate the sociohistorical meaning of his work—while his own generation in China that would understand his paintings is prevented from viewing them due to their subversive sexual/political nature. He dreams that one day his paintings may be seen by his own countrymen.
This same desire is expressed emphatically by filmmaker Jia Zhangke: because his film Xiao Wu was funded by a Hong Kong production company, it can't be shown in China—and even though it has won six international film awards, Jia feels no sense of accomplishment because he can't share it with the Chinese people. Jia's commitment to filming "ordinary people at the bottom of society because they are the real China" exposes a nostalgia that surfaces in several other artists as well. Jia comments that people who saw the film either loved it or hated it: they either felt it showed the "real" China or that it exhibited a rural China that caters to Western taste, a point that comes up repeatedly in Swing in Beijing.
Most of the interviewees are from...