History Lessons: Zhao Liang’s First Documentaries
“After these reforms, there was a period of drastic change,” Zhao Liang says, referring to Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations,” a project adopted by the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1970s to rejuvenate the country’s failing economy. These reforms made it easier for directors like Zhao to make films, but China’s adoption of capitalistic practices also created a divide between those who grew up in a planned economy and those raised in the competitiveness of the free market. “My earlier films were all about how individuals fitted into this larger system. We wanted to make a record of this time, one that belonged to the people. Not the official version. We wanted to make our own history.”
Although best known for Behemoth (2015), a visually striking interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Zhao originally made a name for himself in the early 2000s shooting independent documentaries. Many of these films explored how this generational gap manifested itself amongst those abandoned by China’s program of economic reform. Paper Airplanes (2001), Crime and Punishment (2007), and Petition (2009) screened at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival as part of a retrospective of the director’s work. “The early ‘90s were quite an odd time in China,” he explains to British writer and film critic Tony Rayns during a master class held in London’s China Exchange. “Before the ‘90s, the only way you could obtain a video camera was if you were a professional cameraman. It felt exciting. It was the first time in Chinese history that filmmakers didn’t have to go straight from school into state enterprises. We were able to lead our own lives as artists.”
By the ‘90s, Chinese society had changed so dramatically that many were left anxious and bewildered. A new generation was entering a world strikingly different from the one their parents grew up in, something Zhao explores in his second feature, Paper Airplanes. Originally intended as a documentary about Beijing’s burgeoning punk scene, the film’s focus shifted when Zhao encountered a group of young heroin users. “I had a DV camera and did everything on my own,” he explains when asked how he shot his early films. “I was more or less a one-man band.” Without the burden of a film crew, Zhao was able to embed himself amid this motley group of cultural orphans, accompanying them as they drifted further away from the prosperous future they were promised.
The new economic and technological freedoms of the ‘90s resulted in a rise of independent Chinese documentaries. It was a movement characterized by a detached, observational style, reminiscent of the vérité aesthetic of Frederick Wiseman’s films, like Welfare (1975), Multi-Handicapped (1986), and Near Death (1989). Zhao shares Wiseman’s fascination with the relationship between institutions and communities, but unlike the American auteur, Zhao is far from an invisible presence behind the camera. Instead, he immerses himself in his subject’s worlds. Paper Airplanes depicts a side of Beijing largely beyond the purview of most audiences, with graphic scenes of drug use interspersed with conversations between the group and their friends and family. What’s perhaps most shocking is not what we see, but how we see it. The customary distance between documentarian and subject is breached countless times, sometimes visibly, like when one member of the group uses Zhao as an alibi so he can continue getting high. Other times it’s merely inferred by the trusting glances they give his handheld camera. “I didn’t keep a conscious distance between myself and the group,” he explains when asked about the ethics of representation and intervention. “I could have gone and helped them, or done something, but I was there to work. I was close to these people, but I think the camera creates a distance.” It sounds callous, but Zhao’s early work is fuelled by an impetus to show a hidden side of China’s newfound prosperity. It’s a sentiment shared later in the film by one of the groups’ parents who, after listening to his son talk about the pain of heroin addiction, turns to Zhao and says, “Our country needs to see this.”
There’s a phrase used in China to describe those born after 1980. The balinghou generation has become a colloquial term for young people who never experienced food rationing and were born after the introduction of the one-child policy. Since the last decade, there have been numerous think pieces in the Chinese media about this new generation of “little emperors.” But these articles only describe a small cross-section of the urban middle class. Zhao’s films, on the other hand, examine both rural and urban realities, focusing on those forgotten during this era of rapid development. Zhao’s fourth feature, Crime and Punishment, expands upon this approach by filming a group of cadets in the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a militarized police force in rural China that patrol the North Korean border. The film opens as these young officers meticulously fold their mattresses into neat, identical piles, and ends with the slaughtering of a dog. The message seems to be that rigid conformity leads to violence, but as Zhao observes these officers brutally interrogating their suspects — almost all of which are elderly men — it becomes clear their repertoire of conflict and coercion is underpinned by a sense of anxiety about what their future holds. Ultimately, these young men are just like the teenagers in Paper Airplanes, lost in a world that feels increasingly unfamiliar to the one they imagined. “On the face of it, the film focuses on the police station and the day-to-day duties of the officers,” Zhao tells us while discussing the editing process for the film. “My real focus was on human dignity and the relationship between fathers and sons.” Despite the brutality on display, there are no real villains in Crime and Punishment. Towards the end of the film, the cadets discover only a handful of them will become official PAP officers. It’s a surprisingly tender scene, with Zhao capturing the moment these young men realize they’re trapped in the same system of control as the elderly villagers they lorded their newfound freedoms over.
There’s an anger behind Zhao’s films that implies these people haven’t been “left behind,” but deliberately hidden from public view. In Petition, his examination of the human impact of China’s compromised legal system, we see this firsthand. The film’s central relationship is between Qi Huaying, and her daughter Fang Xiaojuan, who have arrived in Beijing to petition the government about her husband’s suspicious death. Caught in a Kafkaesque struggle to get their voices heard, Qi and countless other petitioners have converged on Beijing to complain about the injustices carried out in their hometowns, but are made to wait years before their complaints are acknowledged. They live in a makeshift shantytown near Beijing’s southern railway station that became known as Petition Village, an area that was demolished shortly after the film was completed as part of an effort to clean up the city before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Shot over the course of 12 years, the film observes Fang as she grows up, but at a certain point she approaches Zhao to confess that she’s running away. “Who can I blame for my life?” she asks him, “Only my irresponsible parents.” She admits to Zhao that she’s too scared to tell her mother she’s leaving the village, so asks him to deliver a letter for her. “For the sake of my happiness, my only choice is to leave,” she writes, but when Zhao gives the letter to her mother, Qi runs away. “Stop filming me,” she shouts, but he continues to chase after her. Some critics have questioned Zhao’s decision to betray his subject’s trust like this, something he struggles with himself. “This style of work makes me uncomfortable,” he confesses. “People like me born in the 1970s have a very strong sense of social responsibility, and I’m finding it more and more difficult to make films like this. I’m intruding on these people’s lives. Now I always keep a distance of two to three meters from my subject. I get the same material, but it feels less exploitative.”
Years later, Qi confides to Zhao: “It’s difficult to comment on this society, for fear of harming China’s image.” It’s a fact Zhao is all too aware of. Shortly after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Petition was banned and Zhao was asked to withdraw it from the Melbourne International Film Festival. So far only one of his films, Together (2010), has received an official release, but that hasn’t discouraged him. “It’s a cruel reality that I can’t do anything about, but I won’t stop working. When I make films, I don’t think about their greater meaning. They’re [part of] a personal expression and I want to continue expressing myself in this way.” Looking back over these three films, it’s fascinating to see how Zhao re-defined China’s growing generation gap as a symptom of state-sanctioned negligence, rather than an unavoidable by-product of economic growth. These early works go some way to understanding the resentment and unrest bubbling underneath China’s global image, with the passage of time only confirming the importance of Zhao’s filmmaking.
A retrospective of Zhao Liang’s films was held at the 2019 Open City Documentary Film Festival, which took place between September 4 and September 10.