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Rebuilding Humanity: Gaze of the Exile and Chinese Independent Cinema.

Ever since its emergence in the 1990s, independent films and videos in Mainland China have been discussed by filmmakers and scholars both within China and elsewhere as a practice that occupies an abject position--a desubjectivized and deindividuated position that is ostracized by a political community (Berry, ed., 2003 [2006]; Ouyang 2007; Pickowicz and Zhang, eds. 2006; Zhang 2005; Zhang, Xie, and Chen. eds. 2006). On the one hand, it is seen by the political community (or authority) as a position that is unwanted, detestable, and subject to surveillance, disavowal, and containment. On the other hand, such an obsession by the political authority with externalizing it, desubjectivizing it, and containing it testifies the community's constant need to reincorporate the abject in order to maintain the community's own ontological consistency--and subjectivity.

The concept of abjection, initially proposed by Julia Kristeva (1980 [1982]. 1-6), refers to the way I am subjectivized and individuated, by perpetually forming a relationship with elements rejected by my body or psyche. For instance, when I see bodily fluids that I produced and rejected--nasal mucus, phlegm, or even semen--I feel disgusted by them. At that instant, these fluids are objectified. Yet. they were once parts of me and they continually seek to form a relationship with me. In her discussion. Kristeva (157-73) uses this psychoanalytical formulation to theorize the position of women as a form of abjection in relation to men. Later on, Judith Butler (2000) extends this idea to rethink bare lives, i.e. biological lives there are ostracized by a polis and reduced to animal lives, which can be managed, persecuted, or even executed without breaking the law of the land. Yet. as Giorgio Agamben (1995 [1998], 71-115) points out, a political community is subjectivized precisely by desubjectivizing and reducing all human lives to bare lives. And the state's power to manage and execute them instantiates its juridical authority.

One reason to consider Chinese independent cinema as a cinema of abjection is that many of these films and art works, as pointed out by Markus Nornes (2015, 29-56). Yiman Wang (2005, 15-26; 2011, 217-36). and Zhang Zhen (2007, 344-88), represent bare lives--migrant workers, lumpen proletarians, sex workers, dislocated children, political dissidents, women, and queer activists: lives that have been visibly deindividuated, desubjectivized, and depoliticized under state-controlled neoliberalism and biopolitics. Another reason is that these directors are themselves bare lives, who are under state observation, persecution, and ostracization. Yet, how individual/(de)individuated filmmakers negotiate with their respective abject positions differ from one another. Some filmmakers work peacefully with the party-state or even become part of it, most notably Jia Zhangke, who now serves as Representative of the People's Congress of the People's Republic of China (PRC) (Jing 2018). Others left Mainland China and started new creative lives in exile (Wen 2016).

In this article, I first reflect upon my experience as Film Consultant of Chinese Visual Festival (London) since January 2013 and map out the increasingly complex assemblage of Chinese independent film and art making. Then, I scrutinize my ongoing discussion with director Huang Wenhai (aka Wen Hai), a journalist-turned-filmmaker who has lived in exile in Hong Kong after his film Wo'men [We, 2008], a documentary about an older generation of political dissidents, put him into trouble. Wen Hai, together with Zeng Jinyan and Ying Liang, are some of the few outspoken filmmakers who ended up leaving the Mainland in order to avoid constant harassment by the party-state. Yet, more so than his cohorts, Wen Hai consciously delineates his works and his fellow artists' as a fangzhu de ningshi (gaze of the exile). In other words, he actively appropriates the abject position, from which he seeks to make sense of their struggle with deinidividuation and desubjectivization. Finally, I scrutinize Ying Liang's most recent short film, Mama de kougong [I Have Nothing to Say, 2017] to rethink how an independent director who occupies the abject position can constitute a new kind of humanity through an alternative or extraterritorial (a position that is doubly occupied and doubly ostracized by contesting sociopolitical forces) kinship (Butler 2000. 57-82; Fan 2015b, 389-402).

Before and After the New Film Law

On April 1, 2017, the new Film Law (People's Republic of China, 2016), which made any production, distribution, and viewing of films and other moving images unlicensed by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) illegal, became effective. As predicted by most Chinese independent producers and directors at the time, including Chen Yifan, Li Hongqi, and Zhang Xianmin, the execution of this has been extremely difficult in the age of cross-regional coproduction and online distribution. (1) Hence, almost a year later, in January 2018, most Chinese filmmakers I met at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) could claim that this new law had very little effect on independent filmmaking. (2) Yet. it also means that the standard by which the party-state judges whether a film is legally passable or not remains nebulous.

The Film Law is one of the many steps by which the central government could take tighter control over what can be seen both domestically and overseas. In political terms, it determines which filmmakers are worthwhile to be interpellated as politicized subjects and individuals. This has been an ongoing struggle among Chinese independent filmmakers for a number of years. In one of the earliest English-language volumes devoted to this subject, From Underground to Independent, while Yingjin Zhang (2006, 27-28) prefers following the protocol among these filmmakers and Mainland Chinese scholars by calling these works independent films, Paul Pickowicz (2006. 5-10) suggests calling them "underground" films. Pickowicz has in mind the earliest group of independent films made by Chinese filmmakers in the 1990s and early 2000s. including Wu Wenguang's Beijing liulang [Bumming in Beijing, 1990], Zhang Yuan's Beijing zazhong [Beijing Bastards, 1993], Jia Zhangke's Xiaowu (1997), and Cui Zi'en's Choujue dengchang [Enter the Clowns, 2002]. He aptly points out that none of these filmmakers hid themselves from the party-state. Rather, they negotiated with the party-state's highly ambiguous policy, according to which making an independent film was not illegal. Yet, at what point a film was considered by the party-state as overstepping its sociopolitical boundary has always been undefined.

The agenda of the party-state might be unspoken; however, it was by no means nebulous. By the 2000s. documentaries and fiction films that critiqued the negative impact of the market economy or represent the suffering of the migrant workers were generally tolerated. For example, between 2001 and 2015. Zhou Hao, a journalist who used to work for the Guangzhou-based liberal newspaper Nanfang zhoumo [Southern Weekly], made a number of direct-cinema-styled documentaries. Many of these films are montages of raw footages he collected with an observational camera on specific locations. (3) For example, in Chaiguan [Cop Shop, 2010, in two parts], the camera enables the spectators to stay in a police station at the Guangzhou Railway Station around the Chinese New Year period. Since the Guangzhou terminus is a hub for migrant workers (most of them undocumented), the spectators are able to see them struggling with their abject status: as they negotiate for train tickets in the black market (undocumented workers are not allowed to buy legitimate train tickets), get arrested and detained for loitering, sleep on the benches of the police station and get mistreated by the police officers because they are not allowed to be registered in hotels. Even though most spectators would understand that these workers are reduced to bare lives under state-controlled neoliberalism and public surveillance, the film does not make any direct accusation against the party-state. Therefore, the film was tolerated by the government.

Zhou's works, together with other fiction films and documentaries that address socioeconomic issues without directly referring to their political roots, as well as animations made by ethnic-minority directors, were among those selected and screened at the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) in Nanjing, founded and curated by producer Zhang Xianmin in 2008. (4) This festival was often compared to the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF), founded by artist Li Xianting. BIFF was constantly harassed or shut down by the local police.

For instance, in 2014, guests at BIFF found themselves not being able to check into their hotels. The local police did not allow any screenings with an audience of more than five people to take place. As a result, the festival guests gathered together for casual discussions over dinners and drinks, and many of them were given USB drives that contained that year's film selections. (5) In 2015, the police arrested and detained the festival organizers and confiscated the festival digital archive (Shah 2015). The major trigger of the shutdown was Zhu Rikun's documentary Dang 'an [Dossier, 2014), which is a one-scene-one-take videotaped session of Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser reading the party dossier she obtained secretly, an act comparable to a U.S. citizen obtaining their CIA dossier and reading it publically in order to expose the level of government surveillance penetrated into the daily lives of the ordinary people.

Meanwhile, as Hongwei Bao (2018) argues, the annual event we now call the Beijing Queer Film Festival (BQFF), since its inception by queer filmmaker Cui Zi'en, was also shut down between 2014 and 2015. Historically, BQFF featured a combination of fiction, experimental, and documentary films on LGBTQ subject matters. Yet, more so than other queer film festivals and programs around the country, it featured more filmmakers who used the cinema as a means of direct political intervention. In fact, as the local police began to intervene in the festival, determining the locations (e.g. whether the festival should retreat to the margin, reoccupy the city center, abscond to an embassy, or in one year, transformed into a USB stick that the spectators could watch on a train collectively) and screening formats of the festival became acts of political strategization.

The passability of a film in the eyes of the party-state, to a certain degree, depends on two factors: (1) whether the film has crossed the line from huigu (introspection) to fankang (protest); (2) whether the film can be considered having artistic values. For instance, Wang Bing's nine-hour documentary, Tie Xi Qu [Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2002] employs lyrical long shots and long takes to convey the desolation of a town abandoned by the state-owned steel industry. Meanwhile, his fiction film Jiabiangou [The Ditch, 2010] uses similar techniques to contemplate on the hardship and political frustration of young intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), who went in exile to the countryside in response to Mao's call for the intellectuals to learn from the farmers and workers. Despite the fact that both films touch upon politically sensitive matters, their artistic values and their non-confrontational stance allowed them to be screened domestically and abroad. The same can be said about the films of Beijing-based Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, whose film Tharlo [2015] can potentially generate many political readings. However, its breathtaking black-and-white cinematography with lyrical one-scene-one-takes, its introspective narrative tone, and its seemingly personal subject matter enabled the film to obtain SAPPRFT's approval.

In fact, films and video works made for art galleries, including the works of Cao Fei, Ju Anqi, and Zhou Tao were not required to seek SAPPRFTs approval. Film distribution company Heavenly Pictures (Tharlo and Luhian yecan [Kaili Blue, 2015]) has specialized in representing these films. With the implementation of the Film Law, more distributors and producers, including Zhang Xianmin and Xie Meng, encouraged their filmmakers like Yang Pingdao and Cai Chengjie to make films that privilege their artistic values. (6) Meanwhile, ethnic-minority filmmakers from Tibet and Xinjiang could show their films domestically and abroad, though they are not always granted passports to travel to film festivals overseas. (7) Today, most of these films constitute the majority entries from China in Euro-American hubs of independent Chinese cinemas, including IFFR, Berlinale, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), International Film Festival of Asian Cinema Vesoul, and Chinese Visual Festival (CVF, London). These works include Changjiang tu [Crosscurrent, Yang Chao. 2016], Ershier [Twenty-Two, Guo Ke, 2016], 500m800m [Yao Tian, 2016], Yunshui [Impermanence, 2018], and Xiao guafu chengxian ji [The Widowed Witch, Cai Chengjie. 2018].

Gaze of the Exile

In other words, the price for being politically confrontational is to be politically desubjectivized and deindividuated, i.e. to be reduced to a bare life that is subject to observation, arrest, persecution, or even ostracization. Moreover, while political confrontation in art, aimed at an elite audience in art galleries or art festivals in China and abroad, are considered more tolerable than in the cinema, which has the potential to engage "ordinary" spectators to grasp the core of their social, economic, and political traumas. For many filmmakers, the solution seems to be easy: make art, no film.

Yet, insisting that one is an artist while not crossing the line into being a filmmaker is easier said than done. After all, the divide between artistic creation and filmmaking is entirely dependent upon institutional definition. For example, Zhao Liang's documentary Beixi mosou [Behemoth, 2015] was produced as a piece of video art. In the video, Zhao deliberately uses breathtaking cinematography with a pastel and highly limited color range to capture the natural landscape of inner Mongolia in the style of the ink wash painting. Such landscape, however, has been rapidly invaded, destroyed, and abandoned as wasteland by highly polluting industry in China's speculative economy. Zhao insists that the film does not protest against China's state-controlled neoliberalism and its impact on the homeland of ethnic minorities. Rather, it is an artistic experience for intensive contemplation and observation. Yet, after being selected by the Venice International Film Festival, Behemoth enjoyed an immense success in the European film festival circuit. Such success in turn puts Zhao under government observation and the film was not allowed to be screened in public in the Mainland. In 2016, when the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London screened the video, Zhao refused to interact with film distributors and programmers, with the intention of drawing a line between his artistic creation and the commercial film industry.

While filmmakers could consider turning themselves into "artists," journalists were eager to use the moving image as a tool of sociopolitical criticism. For them, taking refuge in "art making" is a step towards being interpellated by the ideological apparatus of the party-state. Filmmaker and scholar Zeng Jinyan (2016, 12-13), based on the analysis proposed by U.S.-based scholar Xu Ben and filmmaker Hu Jie, offers an insightful contextualization of the conundrum faced by Chinese independent filmmakers today [a similar view is also proposed by Jason McGrath (2010)]. For Zeng, in the 1980s, intellectuals and artists generally believed in democracy and progressive sociopolitical philosophy from Europe and North America. Economic reform was believed to be a path towards political liberation. However, the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and Deng Xiaoping's "southern tour" affirmed the party-state's intention to accelerate economic reform without any corresponding political freedom. Then, when China joined the World Trade Organization on December 11, 2001, it was clear that what Deng called you Zhongguo tese de shehui zhuyi (socialism with Chinese characteristics) would be a biopolitical system organized around state-controlled corporations and party institutions.

Academic research and artistic creation ceased to become a critical space. Rather, they constituted a highly limited mode of public sphere where members of the society negotiated their disagreements in accordance with the terms laid out by the party-state.

For Xu (qtd. Zeng 2016, 12), such development gave rise to an interest in the xin guoxue (new national studies), i.e. the studies of intellectual concepts and ideas specific to China, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Chinese film and media theories. These studies are made possible in Europe and North America by the fascination with the possibility of using East Asian philosophies to address the theoretical impasses in "Western" thinking, which are part and parcel of Euro-American "liberal" politics (Fan 2015a, 1-4). Yet, in China, they are aligned with the rise of nationalism and patriotism. Meanwhile, some scholars in China openly believe that a mode of democracy and self-determination different from the way their "Western" counterparts would understand them can only be made possible by supporting the party-state's biopolitical power (Zhao 2008). Finally, an even larger number of scholars employ Euro-American postcolonial and postmodern theories to critique the global state of neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and power asymmetry (Dirlik and Zhang, eds. 2010). Nevertheless, in so doing, they perpetuate a belief that China --as an imagined community--is a victim of Euro-American postcolonial politics, without examining China's role as a colonizing power and the power asymmetry internal to its own biopolitical structure (Shih 2013, 1-7). In this sense, Zeng argues.
Art is ultimately useless. It cannot resolve any actual problems.
Elitist art needs to maintain a distance from reality. But now, it
intricately and actively enters--and is compelled to enter--the terrain
of power. Individual artists are therefore in competition with each
other for cultural capital. They try to increase their own values by
constructing different forms and appearances. In my opinion, however,
the most outstanding artists are born in the margin. They hold
different opinions from the hegemony and they are always in exile. They
even exile themselves in their homeland. They turn this piece of land
into a terrain of adventure without boundaries and borders, where they
conduct experiment on their own selves and on the world. They test the
public and the empowered in the art circle. They challenge their
tolerance on criticism. They problematize "harmony" and they are
determined to deconstruct and destroy the established order, even at
the price of sacrificing their own selves and their families. (Zeng
2016, 15)

For Zeng, therefore, an exile is someone--or properly speaking, a bare life--who actively puts into question the subject-object relationship established by the existing power assemblage. (8) This power assemblage is no doubt part of the larger postcolonial global asymmetry, which in turn codifies the power asymmetry and biopolitical pressures that operate China as a polis. In fact, the existing power relationships, understood in terms of those between the subject and the object, the empowered and the disempowered, the center and the margin, and the elite and the public, actively compel artists to reproduce the same asymmetry in their creative works and in their financial economy. An exile is therefore someone who is abandoned by this assemblage as an object. Yet, it relates to the assemblage not entirely as an object, as it actively seeks to form a relationship to the assemblage itself. Their works are often looked down upon as objects that generate disgust. Yet, the establishment's ontological consistency is intricately dependent upon a constant desubjectivization and deindividuation of the exile and a constant claim of its biopolitical power over it. For Zeng, a filmmaker's responsibility is to represent reality directly, not to package it as a piece of art.

As a journalist-turned-director, Wen Hai made a documentary in 2008 called We, which features dissident Li Rui (1917-2019). Li joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1937. In 1958, he became Secretary of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) in the Ministry of Water Resources. In the Lushan Conference between July and August 1959, he was labelled a rightist for his support for military leader Peng Dehuai (1898-1974). He then became political prisoner during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Upon his release from prison, he became highly respected by other party leaders. Yet, he has also been exceptionally outspoken and critical of the party. We got Wen Hai into trouble understandably because Li is a highly "sensitive" figure. In addition, Li's circle consists of many senior members and retirees from the CPC, who are not afraid of criticizing the party. Shot in the style of direct cinema, the sight of old intellectuals openly critiquing the CPC without any visible interference from the police is uncanny. Nonetheless, such lack of police interference also testifies to the fact that their opinions do not matter. In fact, after hearing their ideas for a while, the spectators inevitably sense that these intellectuals have no understanding of the sociopolitical conditions of the ordinary working class in today's Chinese society.

The irony, therefore, is that the film does nothing to incite the spectators' sense of distrust in the established party leadership. Rather, it puts into question the trustworthiness and effectiveness of a group of supposedly world-renowned dissidents. As the film's sequel, Xiongnian zhi pan [We the Workers, 2017] suggests, power struggle cannot come from a group of intellectuals. Rather, it must come from those workers whose mere existence is considered by the party-state as a threat, unless they can be tamed as productive workers within the state-controlled neoliberal economy.

In his book, Fangzhu de ningshi [Gaze of an exile, 2016] and in his presentation in a workshop hosted by CVF, Wen Hai (2017) traces the process of (self-)exiling of Chinese independent filmmakers at two historical junctures: (1) the emergence of the DV camera in the 1990s, which enabled filmmakers who were not trained in television to come up with a new mode of documentary filmmaking unfettered by the commercial narrational paradigm; (2) the Jasmine Revolution in 2010, which alarmed the Chinese government about the subversive power of social media and filmmaking.

Wen Hai sees the film festival circuit overseas and individual filmmakers in exile as a sustainable site of resistance. Between 2016 and 2017, a number of films challenging the established sociopolitical order or the active surveillance of the party-state were shown in film festivals around the world. In his presentation, Wen Hai claims, "These works include Wang Jiuliang's Suliao wangguo [Plastic-China], Ma Li's Chou [That Room], Guo Xizhi's Gongchang qingnian [Factory Youth], Ai Xiaoming's Jiabiangou jishi [Jiabiangou Elegy], Rong Guangrong's Haizi bujupa siwang dan haipa mogui [Children are not Afraid of Death, Children are Afraid of Ghosts], Ai Weiwei's Renlei de liudong [Human Flow], Xu Xin's Changjiang [A Yangtze Landscape], and my Xiongnian zhi pan [We the Workers].""In addition to Zeng, Wen Hai, and Ying Liang, directors Wang Wo, Cui Zi'en, and Fan Popo also went overseas. In a conversation with director Han Guang, who made Wangming [Exile], Wen Hai proposes:
After 1989, many Chinese intellectuals went in exile either by force or
of their own volition. They established a new tradition of exile
literature. Their representative figures include Gao Xinjian, Ma Jian,
Yang Lian, Bei Dao, Bei Ling, Ha Jin, Meng Lang, and more recently,
Liao Yiwu in Germany. They continued to work in the Western literary
circle. Bei Dao and Bei Ling published their own magazines and
anthologies Jintian [Today!] and Qingxiang [Tendency] respectively,
which became the main media for publishing exile literary works.
Moreover. Gao Xinjian received a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000 and
Liao Yiwu was awarded the Peace Prize in Germany in 2012. These were
important literary prizes in the West. The achievements of these
authors in exile have enriched and broadened Chinese literature; they
also established an important offshoot that has remained independent
from the official literature of the Mainland. But unfortunately, China
has yet to establish a system of exile cinema. Meanwhile, Iran, which
is also a totalitarian state, has an exile cinema, which is widely
recognized by film festivals around the world. As far as I can
remember, your work Exile and Li Ying's 2H (aka General in Exile;
1998), who also worked in Japan at the time, can be considered the
pioneers of Chinese exile documentary cinema. (Wen 2017)

In other words, Wen Hai is interested in proposing a form of deterritorialized--or what I would call extraterritorialized--minor cinema, artistic practice and a sociopolitical discourse that offer a critical space for independent filmmakers who found themselves occupying the abject position. Being physically away from China, these directors persist in making films that actively challenge the power asymmetry of the established social order and within the artistic circle. Yet, they insist upon maintaining a distance from this order as ostracized and abandoned lives that no longer see themselves as part of such order. However, through international circulation of these films and continuous exchanges with artists and filmmakers from home, these filmmakers in exile can potentially rewrite the language of Chinese independent cinema (Deleuze and Guattari 1975 [1986], 16-27).

Reclaiming Humanity

Wen Hai's idea of establishing a system of exile cinema, however, is questioned by some other filmmakers. To a certain degree, what Wen Hai proposes is not new. Among many exile writers. Bei Dao, Gao Xinjian, Ha Jin, and Liao Yiwu have certainly become influential in "world" literature. Yet, their works are not widely known in Mainland China to this date.

Moreover, a new generation of readers and moviegoers who were brought up to believe in the leadership of CPC and Xi Jinping also found some of these literary interventions irksome or even offensive. For instance. Tiananmen exile Ma Jian conducted a presentation at CVF in 2017 based on his book The Dark Road [2014], an English-language fiction based on his substantial research in China's one-child policy and its physical violence on women. His uncompromising accusation against the Chinese government for human rights violation, his use of extremely graphic images, and his aggressive manner solicited complaints from the audience and the host of the event, Reuters.

Moreover, teaching in the United States and Japan or making films in Hong Kong, a city that is increasingly under the surveillance and direct intervention from Mainland China, is not always conducive to making films that are critical of Chinese society and politics. Unlike novelists and poets who could write on China-related subjects without being in the country, documentary and fiction filmmakers find it more difficult to engage in Chinese subject matters in Hong Kong and overseas. To complicate matters, these filmmakers also want to make an effort to engage themselves in local politics and social problems. Yet, they are not always accepted as part of the local filmmaking community, nor are they comfortably "in synch" with local politics.

In his most recent work, Hanjiao yu miyu [Outcries and Whispers, 2017], Wen Hai negotiates his liminal position between China and home, imprisonment and freedom, and political activism in the form of outcries and in the form of silent protest, by weaving together three different sets of footage: (1) a combination of documentary footage and video confessions made jointly by Wen Hai and Zeng, which offers the spectators an intimate account of how Zeng handles her own house arrest, her struggle to exit Mainland China in order to pursue her Ph.D. in the University of Hong Kong, her painful divorce from Hu Jia, and her desire for sexual liberation when she comes face-to-face with misogyny at home and in social media; (2) documentary footage of female migrant workers in a factory in Guangzhou, their industrial action, and their fight against police brutality during the strike; (3) footage from the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement in 2014, the largest mass protest in Hong Kong history to demand for the rights to nominate candidates for future chief executives (governors).

If one watches this film from the perspective of an individual who has a clear sense of where home is, what is meant by political subjectivity, and in fact, human dignity, this film would look entirely incoherent. However, the film would make total sense if one abandons any preconceived notions of home-versus-exile, human-versus-animal, and subjectivization-versus-desubjectivization. The film invites the spectators to witness the silenced struggle of an intellectual being treated as an animal because she is a woman and because she does not conform to the established notion of femininity; the outcries of female migrant workers who were treated as dispensable mechanical components exploitable for profits; and young Hong Kong protesters who saw themselves as depoliticized lives with no subjectivity. Yet, Wen Hai engages the spectators neither as subjects with an agency to see, live, and act in these political acts of defiance, nor as objects who maintain a safe distance from these people. Rather, the spectators occupy the abject position of being alienated by all three struggles because they are not part of any of these realities. Yet, they can relate to these protesters via their shared abjecthood. In this sense, a new form of humanity can be imagined not based on subjectivity and individuality, but on their shared deprivation of any opportunity to be individuated and subjectivized. For Wen Hai, the shared abjecthood between these activists on screen and the spectators offscreen, fostered temporarily by the cinematic experience, does not necessarily produce agency. Yet, such absence of agency initiates an impetus to put into question the political power that actively deprives them of their agency by reducing them to bare lives.

If we look at many films selected by IFFR in 2018, we can observe that there is a shared attempt among many Chinese independent filmmakers to rethink what is meant by being human when one occupies the abject position. The most remarkable fiction film at IFFR regarding this matter is Ying Liang's I Have Nothing to Say. Like Wen Hai, Ying is also in exile in Hong Kong. Ying was put under surveillance by the party-state after the success of his 2012 film Wo haiyou hua yao shuo [When Night Falls]. According to Ying's own description, the film was commissioned by the Jeonju Film Festival (Korea). It is based on a renowned case in 2008, in which a young man, Yang Jia, was being accused of attacking the police, which caused the death of six officers. The film is about Yang's mother, who, after having spent five months in a mental hospital because of the stress brought about by the case, returns to her home in Shanghai. The district attorney urges her to collect evidence to prove her son's innocence. As a result, she devotes more than two days to do so, only to find out that Yang had been executed in the morning of the second day.

The principal photography of When Night Falls was completed in Hong Kong on February 20, 2012. On April 7, Ying's parents in Shanghai told him that they were visited by the police, who demanded that he withdraw the film or reedit it. The locked picture of the film was sent to Jeonju on April 14 and on April 16, the parents of Ying's wife (Peng Shan) in Zigong, Sichuan, were visited by the local police. They were told that When Night Falls negatively distorts the juridical system of Mainland China. Neither Ying and Peng's parents knew anything about this film. Yet, the police insisted that they "cooperate" by divulging any information they knew. They even asked Peng's parents to visit Ying in Hong Kong under police surveillance. After harassing Ying's parents on a few consecutive days, two officers from the "Shanghai Representative Office" (non-existent) in Hong Kong met Ying on April 20. They told Ying that the film (even though they had only read the screenplay) is not an accurate representation of the case and it damages the ganqing (feelings) and quanyi (rights and privileges) of the mother. They demanded Ying to withdraw the film in perpetuity or to reedit it (Ying 2012).

Ying's lawyer pointed out that these accusations had no legal ground. For the lawyer, in order to prove that Ying's film is an inaccurate representation of the case, the court would need to make public the records of Yang's trial. And if Yang's mother finds herself emotionally damaged by the film, she should be the one filing a civil lawsuit, not the government. Yet. the "Shanghai Representative Office" continued to harass Ying. But eventually, the film was screened in Jeonju on April 28 with an audience of 1100 members. On that day, programmer Ji-Hoon Jo told Ying that a man who claimed himself to be a representative of a Chinese film company would like to buy the film so that the festival could stop screening it. Then, on May 5, Ying's parents forwarded two emails from the "authorities," which threatened to arrest Ying upon his return to the Mainland. These emails implied that Ying should consider staying in Hong Kong in exile. Since then, Ying's parents were no longer harassed (Ying 2012).

I Have Nothing to Say is a fictional representation of what Ying's and Peng's mothers must have gone through during this period. It is a short film financed by the City of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and was shot primarily there. Ying finished the feature version of the same film in the summer of 2018. The short film is shot entirely in black-and-white photography and is roughly divided into three segments. The first segment represents the police officers' visit to the protagonist's mother. Chen Xiaolin. The film begins with a "long shot" (though all the characters are shown from knees up) of Xiaolin's living room (see Figure 1). There are four people in the room, who sit around a circle. The two police officers roughly face the camera and Xiaolin's colleague from the university where she teaches sits on the left of frame. Meanwhile, Xiaolin's back is against the camera. The room is elegantly furnished, but is darkly lit. The major source of light comes from the windows in the background, thus drawing the spectators' attention to the laundry that sways gently outside the windows. Xiaolin's colleague persuades her to collaborate with the police for the sake of national safety and the officers say more or less the same things Ying's own parents heard from the Shanghai police.

This opening shot, which draws the spectators' attention to the tactility of the gentle wind and the sunlight outside the room, generates three interrelated effects: (1) a reverie quality that makes tangible the incongruence between the elegant quotidian comfort, sense of safety, and tranquillity within Xiaolin's living room and the invasion of the party-state in the name of the safety of the nation --to which Xiaolin does not seem to belong anymore; (2) hope to escaping from a home that is made unhomely by a party-state that claims to safeguard the homeliness of its ordinary citizens, in order to find comfort in physis (nature, or a realm where the law of the land no longer applies); (3) a denial of the spectators' immediate identification--and hence, subjectivization--with Xiaolin. In this case, Xiaolin occupies the abject position that is abandoned by the party-state, yet it is yet to become a subject for the spectator.

As the police officers begin to complain that Xiaolin's daughter (the filmmaker) is making a film that advocates Hong Kong independence (Ying's gesture is to relate himself to Hong Kong's own abject position during and after the Umbrella Movement), the camera cuts to Xiaolin's vanity, where we see pictures of herself and her children from the past. On the mirror, we see her neatly made bed. Meanwhile, the police officer reminds Xiaolin in his offscreen voice that she comes from a revolutionary family, that she has the responsibility to protect the nation.

After cutting to a close-up of her bookshelves full of classical poetry, a close-up of an officer's cap, and a close-up of the other officer's hand jotting notes to her journal, the film cuts to a medium close-up of Xiaolin over the officer's shoulder (see Figure 2). In this medium close-up, Xiaolin insists that she has nothing to say and she knows nothing about her daughter's work. She confesses that she visited Taiwan in order to receive medical treatment and she is about to have a surgery to remove a tumour from her body. In this medium close-up, Xiaolin, lit gently by the sunlight outside, looks ill, listless, yet exceptionally calm and resigned. In the light, she assumes an otherworldly appearance, which renders the threat and the power exercised by the police purposeless.

In a way, this opening sequence illustrates how someone who is ostracized and desubjectivized by the party-state resigns herself to her abject position. Yet, such resignation is not an end in itself. Rather, by retreating from the assemblage of the party-state and its power of interpellation. Xiaolin assumes the role of a bare life that is already dead (with her illness and with the potential threat on her life by the party-state). What we witness in the rest of the film is the time it takes for her biopolitical life to end (Agamben 2000, 59-87). In other words, Xiaolin is not interested in regaining subjectivity. Rather, her resignation to her abject position enables her to resist against and persist within the juridical authority, which the party-state claims to instantiate. Yet, such authority is never visible, and is in fact based on the active abjection of people like Xiaolin, her daughter, or director Ying Liang himself.

Nonetheless. Ying does not stop here. In the second segment, we see a flashback of Xiaolin visiting Taiwan. When she arrives at her hotel, her daughter and son-in-law (a Hong Konger) greet her. However, during the check-in process, the guide separates Xiaolin and her daughter from the rest of the tour group and escorts them to Xiaolin's room. She then asks Xiaolin and her daughter not to disturb their cohorts and alerts them that they are being watched. The tour guide tries to convey to Xiaolin and her daughter that she is only doing her job. When the daughter is about to raise her voice, Xiaolin pays the guide a tip so that she would leave them alone. In the narrow passageway between beds, Xiaolin asks if the daughter would consider not making the kind of film she makes. Meanwhile, the daughter is visibly annoyed and she excuses herself from the room.

In this scene within the hotel room, Xiaolin assumes the role of a subject. In this sense, Xiaolin is subjectivized within the framework of the family unit, which the party-state actively destroys and puts under surveillance. The irony is that under neo-Confucianism, which the CPC transforms into the principles of the socialist harmonious society, the jia (family) is considered a basic building block of the guo (nation), as the nation state is technically called guojia (state-family). The rationale behind visiting a filmmaker's family, both within the film and in Ying's case, is that an individual subject is nothing but a component within a family unit and the family unit, as a whole, is nothing but a component within the nation-sate. Hence, the family unit as whole is responsible for the action of an individual life, and the individual life is supposed to be responsible for the family unit and the nation-state. Yet, such tactics merely put pressure on the family unit when the party-state seeks to arrest, persecute, and punish a biopolitical life that has already been desubjectivized, one that has already been ostracized by the nation-state--and by extension, must be denounced and condemned by (and sometimes, with) the family unit. Yet, occupying the abject position, Xiaolin seeks refuge in her interdependent relationship with her daughter, not as a neo-Confucian family unit, but as a form of kinship extraterritorial to the party-state.

In the final segment, the spectators see the confirmation of such extraterritorial kinship. One day, Xiaolin faints during sightseeing. She is then sent to a hospital. It is in the hospital where her daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, and herself come together, free of the surveillance of the party-state. Yet, ironically, it is at this moment of togetherness that Xiaolin suggests to huaqing jiexian (draw a clear line) between her and her daughter's family. The term huaqing jiexian was a common phrase used during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), during which family members declared their separation from each other in order to clarify to their production unit (political unit) their loyalty to the party. Later on, Xiaolin sunbathes in the hospital's garden with her granddaughter. Xiaolin then seizes the opportunity to take a picture with her granddaughter, suggesting that this would be the only material trace of her granddaughter she would ever keep until the end of her life.

This final segment in the hospital is a highly sentimental one and one may accuse Ying of being borderline melodramatic. However, what Xiaolin does is to defy the basic principle of politics: the reduction of individual human beings to bare lives. It is clear from the beginning of the film that Xiaolin and her daughter are desubjectivized, deindividuated, and dehumanized. Yet. what Xiaolin resists is precisely to abide by these terms. In the time it takes for her biopolitical life to end. she insists on being human. In this sense, abjection by the party-state is not entirely the same as dehumanization, and the solution is to establish kinship outside the mode of kinship (family) prescribed and instrumentalized by the party-state as a unit of political surveillance.


There is no doubt that the party-state threatens the individuality, subjectivity, and humanity of independent filmmakers and many other lives who may find themselves at odds with the rest of the community. Yet, their state of abjection can be appropriated, owned, and reconfigured as a site of resistance where an alternative mode of kinship, life, and humanity can be fostered. In other words, the party-state's active deprivation of their agency compels these abject lives to turn the absence of their agency into a form of agency. Chinese independent cinema has always been in a state of abjection. Yet. it has flourished, developed, and transformed precisely at such a position. With the increasing control over ordinary biopolitical lives and filmmakers themselves, creating in exile is indeed one way to negotiate with this abject position. Of course, filmmakers including Wen Hai and Ying Liang are physically in exile. However, what Zeng Jinyan suggests is that creating in exile means an effort to speak from a position in exile so that the established order can be put into question. But the way to challenge it, as Ying Liang's film illustrates, is not any kind of revolutionary violence. Rather, it is humanity--not in a way understood by neo-Confucianism or European Enlightenment--but as an effort to be human when politics actively dehumanizes every biopolitical life. But perhaps humanity, seen in the eyes of any political authority, is the ultimate revolutionary violence.


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(1) I discussed this issue with Chen Yifan at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, January 24-February 4, 2018: with Li Hongqi at the Singapore International Film Festival, November 23-December 3, 2017; and with Zhang Xianmin at "The Future of Chinese Independent Cinema." an academic workshop hosted jointly by King's College London and Chinese Visual Festival (CVF), May 4, 2017.

(2) At IFFR, I discussed this issue with Chen Yifan, producer Xie Meng, and artist Zhou Tao.

(3) Zhou Hao was the guest of CVF in 2013.

(4) Zhang Xianmin shared his experience in CVF 2014.

(5) This account was given by James Mudge, Director of CVF, during his visit to BIFF that year.

(6) Both Zhang Xianmin and the CEO of Heavenly Pictures visited CVF in 2017. This issue was also the subject of Zhang's presentation in "The Future of Chinese Independent Cinema" workshop.

(7) This is a topic discussed at "The Anthropocene and Contemporary Chinese Culture: An International Workshop," at Hong Kong Baptist University, January 5, 2018.

(8) Here, I want to stay away from the term institution, as an assemblage better describes a formation that has its own internal crises and inconsistencies, whose interiority and exteriority are perpetually in the process of becoming. The term assemblage is borrowed from the works of Deleuze and Guattari. See, for example, Deleuze and Guattari (1980 | 1987|).
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Title Annotation:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency
Author:Fan, Victor
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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