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The Case The Case
PRODUCER LOLA ZHANG CALLS HER YUNNAN NEW FILM PROJECT A “LONG MARCH.” IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE A SCHEME ON A SIMILAR SCALE IN AUSTRALIA. COMPRISING 10 FEATURES BY 10 YOUNG FEMALE DIRECTORS, SOME OF WHOM HAVE NOT DIRECTED BEFORE, THE PROJECT IS FRAUGHT WITH CREATIVE AND COMMERCIAL RISKS—NOT TO MENTION THE PRODUCER’S UNABASHED TALK OF BRINGING ART AND COMMERCE TOGETHER. DISCUSSING HER STRATEGY OF USING DIRECTORS DRAWN FROM A RANGE OF CREATIVE FIELDS, ZHANG EXPLAINS, “I WANT TO BRING FRESH PERSPECTIVES TO THE MOVIES…THIS IS GOOD FOR FILMMAKING, AND ALSO GOOD FOR ART.”

So what motivated Lola Zhang to undertake the mammoth task of producing 10 films by 10 inexperienced directors? It’s not the first time she has taken on such a scheme; a job at an investment company at the turn of the decade led to her formulating the New Film Project for Chinese Directors, an earlier series of 10 works designed to give emerging talent a leg-up into the industry.

Zhang was inspired to take the series concept further when a film shoot in Yunnan piqued her interest in the area. The southern province’s humidity and lush vegetation are a world away from Beijing’s desert clime. Bringing together female creative figures from around China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), Zhang asked each to craft a work set and shot in the tropical locale. Her own background is in arts-related documentary making and conceptual photography, which may go some way to explaining her unconventional producing style.

A small amount of financial support was garnered from the Yunnan Provincial Government, but the films have predominantly been funded by private means. Superficially, China has all the elements required to sustain a strong commercial industry that should have room for such experiments, including internationally recognised stars and directors, a network of studios and, perhaps most importantly, an unimaginably vast domestic market. But mainland Chinese filmmakers operate in an environment of rampant piracy on one hand and strict government controls on the other. Censorship is frequent and arbitrary. Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, for example, had over 30 minutes excised for its release. It’s a measure of Lola Zhang’s passion, as well as creative bravery, that she’s managed to pull the teams and the funding together for the Yunnan New Film Project in this difficult filmmaking environment.

Publicly at least, Zhang and her executive producer, ET, are unfazed by the milieu in which they work. The constraints, says ET, simply require them to be “more clever.” The first two Yunnan Project films, completed last October, indeed demonstrate it is possible to produce worthwhile experiments while passing the censor and garnering official recognition.

the case

The Case is a startling, David Lynch-like tale of repressed small town desires by documentary filmmaker Wang Fen. After Zhang whittled her initially broad list of potential directors down to 10, she took her team south to allow the creative juices to flow in Yunnan’s tropical heat. On the trip, Wang Fen stumbled upon a small village nestled at the foot of a mountain near the Vietnamese border. “During the day the town is a bustling tourist centre”, the director recalled at a recent screening in Beijing. “But at night it’s a deserted ghost town.” Intrigued by this duality and the languid tropical ambience, Wang knocked up a draft script in just two days.

Wang Fen's dark, absurdist tale focuses on Dasam, a harassed middle-aged man running a small guesthouse with his highly strung wife. Waking one morning to find a suitcase floating in the river outside his window, Dasam excitedly pulls the trunk from the water and stows it in his garden. After repeated interruptions from his ever suspicious wife, he forces the case open and is horrified to find an array of body parts neatly encased in blocks of ice. As the ice melts, Dasam’s repressed desires and obsessions begin to emerge from murky depths, materialising in the form of a sultry femme fatale (Wu Yujuan) who checks into the guesthouse.

The premise echoes David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), transferred to a south China village, with the case’s contents taking the place of Blue Velvet’s severed ear. The film’s debt to the surrealist aesthetic is made explicit when Dasam sneaks into his bathroom one night to furtively examine a book of European Surrealist Art. The final 15 minutes sees the uncertain border between dreams and reality, truth and fiction, life and death become utterly blurred as the narrative folds in on itself in an endless, maddening spiral.

The Case is an uneven film of abrupt shifts that aren’t always successfully pulled off. But it’s also an arresting, darkly humorous work and a rare attempt at bringing a genuinely surrealist spirit into the realm of commercial feature filmmaking.

the park

The second Yunnan film is an altogether more sober affair by poet, novelist and essayist Yin Lichuan. At the outset, The Park feels like another predictable, if well acted, tale of parent-child alienation and generational conflict. But this initial familiarity is misleading. Step by step this understated film evolves into a surprising and deeply moving meditation on age, the complexities of human relations and the corrosive, unstoppable effect of time on us all.

June is a 29-year-old TV presenter living in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming. In the opening scene, a visit from her elderly widowed father finds her asleep in the arms of her boyfriend; he hightails it out the window and Dad moves in, doling out constant criticism and gently trying to take control of June’s life. Their relationship goes from bad to worse when June does a story on the matchmaking activities of elders in a local park and finds Dad hawking her details to prospective parents-in-law.

Despite the father’s wilful interference in June’s life, The Park manages to skilfully balance viewers’ sympathies across the generational divide. When June finds one of her suitors is a documentary maker who has interviewed her father about his motivations for being in the park, she demands to see the tape. Her subsequent viewing is beautifully handled in the film’s most subtly effecting scene.

The Park’s restrained but emotionally charged melancholic tone builds to a quiet tear-jerker of a finale that wordlessly conveys an aching sense of life’s transience. Superficially a genre melodrama, this small film contains riches that only yield themselves upon multiple viewings.

a low-budget filmmaking model

Like much Australian cinema, the Yunnan films sit in the difficult middle ground between art house product and full-blown studio-produced commercial cinema. In a story that would be familiar to most Australian producers, Lola Zhang has had a hard time generating interest amongst theatre chains with a series of films by unknown directors and devoid of big stars. Nevertheless, she has persevered and The Case and The Park are currently doing the rounds of cinemas across eastern mainland China. The third Yunnan title, Finding Shangri-la (directed by Taiwanese theatre actor and director Ismene Ting) is currently in post-production in Taiwan. The remaining seven films are in various stages of pre-production.

Low-budget Chinese features over the last few years have largely been disappointing, with the recent Pingguo (Lost in Beijing, director Li Yu) typical of the aimless portrayals of those doing it tough in the new China that tend to characterise these productions. The first two Yunnan New Film titles are something different—modest but memorable slices of low-budget genre cinema that demonstrate what is possible with a small cast and a handful of well used locations. Their success is a tribute not only to the directors’ creative skills, but also Lola Zhang’s creative vision in bringing diverse talents together. Here’s hoping the remaining seven films maintain the high standard.


The Case, director Wang Fen, writers Wang Fen and Zhang Cheng, producer Lola Zhang; The Park, writer/director Yin Lichuan, producer Lola Zhang. Both films produced under the auspices of the Yunnan New Film Project, Filmblog Media, People’s Republic of China, 2007

The writer would like to stress that the views on the Chinese film industry expressed here are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone involved in the Yunnan New Film Project. Thanks to Wang Yi for her help translating the interview with Lola Zhang.

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 17

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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