Monday, May 26, 2008

The Confused Filmmaker

On Sunday I went to visit a filmmaker friend whom I hadn’t seen since my long leave of absence in 2006. Unsurprisingly he dropped many curious questions about my absence. Our conversation then stayed on politics. I mentioned the recent sentences of several dissidents, including Hu Jia.

He said, “Don’t you think Hu Jia is a little too much? I watched his documentary online. He was…often inviting troubles himself.”

I asked if he meant Hu Jia had acted headstrong in front of those who had followed him. He nodded yes. “There were good things that had happened to this country and under this government. It’s not right for him to ignore the positives and lash out only the negatives.”

I was taken aback by his confident commentary. I had known him before only as a quiet filmmaker who had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and opened a film equipment resell/rental business with several friends to support his filmmaking dreams. We had rarely spoken other than discussing technical details of filmmaking before.

“So you think it’s alright to send him to jail even if he had said something incorrect?” I protested out of reflex.

“He will come out of prison faring much better than before,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Surely he will get a visa and financial support to go to America and stay there for the rest of his life. How much better could it get?”

His confident reduction of human motives to such vulgar calculations sent chills to my body. How could he, an out-of-mainstream filmmaker with the obligatory long hair and pensive smile, be brainwashed to such extent? What’s the hope for China if even the bohemians consent to silencing the dissidents?

I remember a writing seminar I had been to two months ago. Two well-known Chinese writers were asked if their writing had any political intonation. Both answered no. Both said that they only cared for arts, not politics.

I could understand them, my filmmaker friend, and my own silent self. There is an invisible gag in the air. It’s better to get used to its prevailing nonexistence.

There was a lull in our conversation. My lips felt dry. I said you sounded very interested in political matters. He said of course, my partners and I are probably “noted” by the Big Brother as well. He described a meeting with some kind old comrades at a certain authoritative bureau; the comrades did not exactly forbid them from making independent films, but warned them against making political ones.

“Of course we won’t touch politics,” he said. “We just want to make films.”

Yeah yeah yeah, repetitive artsy “Chinese” films about AIDS, or poverty, or migrants, or urban alienation that aim for some big award at some Western film festival.

Then he asked for my opinion on a film he wants to make. He said he was really troubled by the bipolarized reporting and emotions on the Tibet issue and the Olympic torch relay, before the Earthquake took over the headlines. He said he had been a loyal reader of CNN and other Western online media before. Like some of his friends, he didn’t believe the Chinese official media and thus often looked to the West for “truth.” The CNN incident told him that the Western media were equally unreliable.

“Now my friends and I don’t know who to trust anymore,” he exclaimed quietly.

He wanted to make a film, about a Chinese guy confused by the issues of Tibet, of protests over Tibet, of Westerners advocating Tibet’s independence despite having never stepped in Tibet and knowing little of the real-life complexities there, of his Han friends clueless of why some Tibetans hate them so much.

“You know how extreme people could get on these issues?” he looked ahead in the air. “Friends would argue so violently over dinner tables that even long-time friendships are difficult to maintain. Some love the West and would argue for the West despite everything. Others would take to arms to revenge the humiliation over the torch relay. You know the government had to police the university campuses to prevent agitated students from teaming up to smash the Carrefours and the KFCs? You don’t believe me? People are ready for violence, and extremism. The society is getting increasingly unsettled. Something is ready to explode. I wouldn’t be shocked to find Al-Qaeda-like Chinese suicide bombers in the next few years.”

So he would like my more Westernized opinion on what kind of portrayal of this Chinese guy’s confusion would be receptive to an Western audience. The film would be banned in China for sure. But the Western audience… he would like to describe the China and the Tibetan issues as he understood, and he would like to… bridge the massive misunderstanding between China and the West. He expressed him ideas slowly but clearly.

I was even more shocked than before—for a non-political filmmaker, how could he consider such a topic innocuously nonpolitical? I said you are crazy to be even thinking about embarking on this. The West…at least the Western media, likely have little room for your confusions and your efforts to sort them out. They have their minds set already.

The only way I could see your film finding an audience, I suggested, is to focus on the main character’s confusion.

“That’s easy,” he said, “I’m still confused as hell.”

Then he added, “but don’t they, the West, understand the severity of the problem? China is rising, and agitated, and ready to explode on being slighted. I’m not kidding. I talk to my friends, my relatives, and kids still in school I don’t know well. Some of them could seriously go out and hack foreigners in the heat of the moments. The government is having a difficult job holding this huge pool of discordant population together. God knows when… That’s what I want to make—a film about the making of a Chinese suicide bomber attacking foreigners.”

“You are crazy!” I took my turn to exclaim. “You will be arrested by the police the day the film becomes public. Better to show the main character getting addicted to a computer game of suicide bombers in the end.”

He liked my idea. We sipped our tea and shifted the converation to more pleasant topics: the Korean Pentecostal missionaries are converting Beijingers in house churches like wild fire; his business is getting very well; people need religion; people need a reason to believe in something…

We parted promising to get together for dinner and drinks in the near future. And I left feeling optimistic again about everything.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Aftershock

The tremor hit this afternoon at 2:30pm. The floor began to undulate under my feet. Then people started to yell one by one--"It's an earthquake!"

Few ran. We were working on the 24th floor in an office tower in Hangzhou. Perhaps others were as scared as I was, but there's no time to get down to the ground floor anyway. Despite my nausea from the unsteady floor, I also had the vague confidence that if the first shock did not take down the building, the aftershocks would not kill us either.

The minutes felt VERY long.

It was half an hour later when I really got scared shitless--the news arrived that Chengdu, my hometown, was very close to the epicenter. My parents are in Hong Kong but I still had many relatives and friends there. Calls would not go through. Little update on the Internet on the damage. For a while, there's only my imagination concocting the worst possible scenario.

Alas, who the f*** cares for office politics, stock options, career plan, Olympic torch, the controversies around the Torch Relay, Chinese politics, ethnic tensions in China, or the incomprehensibility of blatant patriotism when all one could think of is the safety, the bare minimum of safety, for one's loves ones?

Finally relatives messaged back that they were safe.

Throughout the rest of the day, friends and colleagues messaged and inquired about my family in Chengdu, from Beijing, Shanghai and as far as the US. Everyone in the office was greatly saddened by the rising death toll in the epicenter. Government is organizing disaster relief. Soldiers and armed police, the proud tools of proletarian dictatorship, are moving in to help.

The news reports were genuine. People's concerns and willingness to help were genuine.

Perhaps we should have mild aftershocks everyday to remind us that everything else is kinda stupid, compared to our own vulnerability and the well-being of our loved ones faced with this vulnerability.