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Karin Chien on "What American Indies Can Learn From Their Chinese Counterparts"

by Ted Hope
August 17, 2011 12:30 PM
7 Comments
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I am dismayed at times how sometimes our local indie scene feels so repetitive and lacking creative ambition. We remake successful formulas, and only rarely break new ground. I know I am guilty of this too. I wonder how we can break out of this cycle, and what are the forces that contribute to this sad phenomenon?

It was such pondering that led me to profess on twitter that I wanted to learn more of the global microbudget film scene, to see what others are doing, and what we all could learn from each other. Producer/distributor Karin Chien was among those that reached out to me, to share her knowledge and experience -- and it does start to show us a real alternative.


Let me start by making a provocative statement – in my three years of distributing and working with Chinese independent filmmakers, I’ve experienced greater creative freedom than in ten years of producing independent film in the US.

For most of us, Chinese independent cinema is an unknown. A film like Zhang Yimou’s HERO, financed with Chinese state backing, about Chinese empire, and made by a party-line director, is sold here as arthouse fare, distributed by Miramax. Subtitles are enough to qualify a film as “independent cinema” in America.

So let’s begin with a redefinition. The films I work with are made outside the state studio system and without official government authorization. These are films that do not submit scripts or finished products to censorship committees. These are also films that cannot obtain official distribution or official funding in China. These films are often referred to in the West as unauthorized, underground filmmaking. The Chinese filmmakers call it independent cinema.

So how do you make films outside the system in China? You fly under the radar or work on the margins. Films are made on microbudgets, with cast and crews consisting of friends and family, shot with digital cameras, edited on laptops, and fueled by passion and a singular vision. In their domestic market, most of these films will only be shown at independent film festivals, where filmmakers sometimes hawk DVDs after screenings. Some filmmakers experiment with uploading films onto YouTube, some count on European sales to recoup their budgets, some rely on grants to finance their next films, and some even find angel investors. A tiny percentage will pierce the mainstream consciousness, but all of them will strive to make another film.

Sound familiar?

But here’s where American and Chinese micro-budget cinema diverge. Because we still believe in a one-in-a-Blair-Witch chance, most American indie films willingly play the Hollywood system. The carrot of theatrical distribution and financing motivates even micro-budget films to favor rising stars when casting, adjust scripts for wider audience appeal/product placement/cameos, or tell stories in genres that American and international audiences watch in droves. (As a producer, I’m fully guilty.) In short, commercial considerations influence nearly every aspect of American independent filmmaking, even at the $25,000 budget level. There are those who escape these burdens and make uncompromising films, but they are the exceptions.

In Chinese independent cinema, our exception becomes their rule. When you take the domestic marketplace out of the equation, what becomes the impetus for filmmaking? Not only trained filmmakers but poets, painters, and journalists are turning to digital video as an aesthetic, social, political, or personal tool. Painters like Xu Xin (KARAMAY) and Hu Jie (THOUGH I AM GONE) wield video cameras like a well-honed brush: within the digital image, they are preserving and observing China’s recent history, showing us events that cannot be taught in schools or spoken about on the news. Artists like Huang Weikai (DISORDER) and Zhao Dayong (GHOST TOWN) are making groundbreaking films that rewrite the rules of cinema because they weren’t taught those rules in the first place.

By choosing to work outside the system, Chinese independent filmmakers are shut out of monetized domestic distribution. No theatrical, no TV broadcast, no home video (pirated anyways), no Internet VOD. Here’s a thought: if there was absolutely no chance your film would receive commercial distribution in the US, would you still make your film? What would it look like, and would you cast/write/shoot/edit differently? And if that freed you to take creative risks, would that be irresponsible filmmaking or would it be truly free filmmaking?

I don’t mean to dismiss the very real and very diffuse oppression that Chinese independent filmmakers can face. The temptations of wider audience, greater financing and theatrical distribution are as strong in China as anywhere - they have lured many a filmmaker away from independent filmmaking and into the state studio system. But for those who choose to create independent cinema in China, they have chosen to operate on the margins of a large state apparatus, without guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of movement, or freedom of production. Yet they have also generated a space that allows for maximum creative freedom. Somehow, in the midst of all this repressive state authority, independent filmmakers are producing the only free media in China. It’s a startling realization.

Given the production parallels to our own micro-budget filmmaking, it’s hard not to extrapolate the comparison. In the US, where capitalism long ago co-opted the language of independent film (see Warner Independent Pictures), it’s a small miracle that any film is made outside the Hollywood system. Anyone who’s ever tried to cast a film with professional actors can attest to this. Perhaps in China, because the machinery is so clearly labeled STATE, it’s a more visible force. Here, the multi-national corporate apparatus is omnipresent.

For the last three years, my dGenerate Films partners and I have been distributing Chinese independent cinema around the world, mainly in the US. We send revenue to independent filmmakers in China every fiscal quarter, and that feels good.

But our revenue is small compared to what filmmakers receive from European distributors. The greater international film community has set up shop in Beijing so they can catch these films first. American industry and audiences would do well to pay as much attention. We will not only learn something about China, but perhaps also about creative freedom in independent filmmaking.

-- Karin Chien

Ted's Note: The New York Times got in on this discussion with a great article on how local Chinese filmmakers navigate the system over there. Kim Voynar at MovieCityNews took the conversation in another direction looking at how some of Karin's questions have resonated here in the US in filmmakers work.


Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, the recipient of the 2010 Independent Spirit Producers Award, and producer of eight feature-length films, including CIRCUMSTANCE (2011), THE EXPLODING GIRL (2009), THE MOTEL (2005), and ROBOT STORIES (2002) which have won over 100 festival awards and received international distribution. Karin is also the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema to North America and beyond.

7 Comments

  • William Wright | August 21, 2011 5:59 AMReply

    To take another bite of this apple: much as one may admire the films in the dGenerate catalog, as well as some dramatic features which aren't currently available in the U.S., the question of global interest is a thorny one. You have to wonder to what extent these Chinese films have attracted interest for their anthropological value alone. In a world-wide glut of film production, novelty and exoticism may be the last frontier.

    It must also unkindly be said that Chinese underground cinema already shows signs of succumbing to convention. The aimlessness and anomie of the characters, and the plotlessness of the scenarios, is becoming as familiar as the drug-addicted Mom, the movie-of-the week grief and the coming of age parable is in American independent film. And the few filmmakers who have attracted European financing seem to be working within standard Western narrative conventions.

    None of this is offered as an excuse for the insufferable navel-gazing of American indie film, to use Ms. Chien's term. We certainly need a blast of something or other, though navel-gazing is probably inevitable when the personality, experiences or prior fame of the director is deemed sufficient to make a movie, as distinct from actual writing ability, the kind which takes years of work and a peculiar mind. This lack could also bring down Chinese independent cinema, eventually.

    And watching something like "Disorder", you may wonder whether it's a stupendous inconceivable work of art or a haphazard documentation of social collapse, but at least there are no damn "plot points" or "dramatic arcs". So brava, dGenerate. Keep them coming.

  • Karin Chien | August 21, 2011 4:44 AMReply

    Thanks all for reading and commenting. I wish I could have gone into better nuance about the Chinese indie film scene - the international pressures that Shelly brings up, for example - but perhaps another post.

    Shelly, your question takes the piece to the next stage. To me, it's partly about combating American navel-gazing. Indie film needs to be a global conversation. The more we engage with indie film in the rest of the world, the more we can leave or be freed of the dominance of the Hollywood system, the more freedom, creative experimentation, and revitalization we will find.

    William, yes there are narrative filmmakers in the US making films without regard to marketplace realities and without expectation of profit. But as I wrote, and you confirm, that's the exception here. In Chinese indie cinema, it's a whole movement... your question about Chinese audience interest is hard to answer because indie films cannot really be distributed and cannot be publicized in China. However, the indie film festival screenings I've been to in China are crowded and always followed by heated discussion. And the English-language press is especially interested in watching and writing about these films.

  • William Wright | August 20, 2011 7:43 AMReply

    Picking up on Shelly Silver's post, the approach Karin Chien describes is not new in the U.S. It's what the non-narrative avant-garde has been doing since at least the 1930s, and in the feature realm, filmmakers like Jon Jost have been making films in the realist tradition without regard to marketplace realities and without expectation of profit for at least 30 years. But, as might have been predicted, the indie world has never had much interest in these films. They're not theatrical or glamorous enough. They don't offer the kind of satisfactions which commercial cinema instills in audiences and which festival audiences expect.

    It's also interesting to note that a long-time star of the official indie world who has never written, directed, shot or edited a film can end up as the Chair of a distinguished film program, but that Jost has to seek out employment in South Korea.

    That aside, it would interesting to know if Chinese audiences have any more interest in the dGenerate catalog than American audiences do in truly non-commercial American cinema.

  • Shelly Silver | August 20, 2011 5:09 AMReply

    Dear Karin:
    You raise so many interesting issues above. I can see any number of reasons for the differences in filmmaking practices (differences in governments, industry histories, who is doing the financing, where the censorship is coming from). I agree that most American films are short on creative ambition, to put it mildly. Where there’s a large market and obvious success path (Hollywood) people tend to identify/aspire/cater to this market. China is in a very different phase than the US at this moment, although both are going through moments of extreme changes that need to be documented/questioned/filmed.

    I am (as you know) one of those micro-budget, non-Hollywood aspiring American filmmakers that you talk about above. As you point out, one difference between China and the US has to do with external distribution. Chinese independent filmmakers at this point do have several aspirational career paths, having to do with international distribution and financing. There is a real interest in these films internationally (which often pays off later w/in China). I doubt that the American equivalent of a film like Oxhide would have achieved a fraction of the same success. It’s yet to be seen if Chinese independent filmmakers will get co-opted by this international support, churning out a certain kind of film because that’s what the international community expects/wants to see.

    I’m pretty cynical about American ‘independent’ filmmaking at the moment. That said, if you make a film you do want it to be seen and you do want to be able to muster at least a small budget for the next one. For scrappy American experimental/independent filmmakers who are set on innovating, regardless of market desires, this is very difficult.

    A case in point, indieWIRE (which does have ‘indie’ in its title after all) doesn’t focus on supporting these kinds of American films. They largely report on the films that get market share, box office, distribution deals, etc. They’re also supporting the ‘indie’ wannabe Hollywood success trajectory is contributing to an American filmmaking that is largely beside the point.

    What can be done to promote the conditions needed to revitalize the American film scene?

  • Rashidah | August 18, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    Good issues!

  • ekim namwen | August 18, 2011 4:14 AMReply

    great post! this is how i've worked my entire "career". living in a land where dreams go to die [ohio] has been both a blessing and a burden, but when put in perspective i feel really lucky to have the freedom to make whatever i want without big brother looking over my shoulder.

    it's hard to throw all the rules out the window when you want an audience, but i believe it's the most liberating thing any filmmaker can do.

  • Mark Savage | August 17, 2011 7:42 AMReply

    This excellent piece underlines what is wrong with most indie films these days; they are not works of pure imagination, they are attempts to suck the dicks of marketers and distributors.

    How many more times must I read that a particular film is a great "calling card" for a director. Fuck that!

    When did cinema become a factory for calling cards?

    Last week, this nineteen-year-old wanted to meet with me to discuss becoming a director. How many films (short or long) had he made? None. Didn't own a camera. Didn't even own an edit suite. And didn't have any scripts.

    That's where we're at.

    Thanks, Karin, for reminding us of what a filmmaker actually is. Filmmakers film because they're dying to tell a story. Most have forgotten that.

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