Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fortissimo Films at MoMA: Beijing Bastards

They are singing about revolution. They are not really doing anything about it, but that was still more than enough for the Communist government. Considered by many the first Chinese indy film, Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards has been censored, banned, and roundly condemned, but thanks to Fortissimo Films, the international independent film production and distribution company, it reached a global audience. Still gritty and subversive after nearly twenty years, Bastards screens this Saturday in New York as part of MoMA’s new retrospective series, In Focus: Fortissimo Films.

Cui Jian is one of China’s most famous underground rockers. In Bastards, he plays himself or a thinly fictionalized version. He has fans but no gigs, because he cannot secure a venue for a prospective concert. He also lost the lease on his rehearsal space for no apparent reason. Though never outright stated, it is clear the powers that be want to close him down.

Karzi owns a venue, but his rock bar is no great shakes. Neither is he. His pregnant girlfriend Maomao disappeared after he insisted she have an abortion. He doggedly hunts for her, subjecting her friends to outright harassment, but more for reasons of ego than love. Morally ambiguous, Karzi is not the image of Chinese youth the government likes to project, but in 1993, he was the shape of go-go me-me things to come.

A contemporary of Jia Zhangke, Zhang is considered one of the godfathers of the Chinese independent film movement and a forefather of the Digital Generation. In fact, Bastards bears a strong aesthetic affinity to the subsequent dGeneration films. Shot guerilla-style with most of the director’s friends serving as the ensemble cast, the film follows its roundabout narrative from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. This is a street level film, unvarnished and unsentimental.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the film is Cui Jian’s music, which is pretty good by the standards of late 1980’s and early 1990’s rock & roll, but clearly not kosher with the authorities. It is a film ripe for reevaluation, foreshadowing the spiritual malaise and mounting popular dissatisfaction so pronounced in the work of dGeneration filmmakers. Unsettlingly raw and historically important, Bastards is well worth seeing during MoMA’s Fortissimo film series, aptly demonstrating the company’s commitment to genuine independent cinema. It screens this Saturday (11/12) and the Monday after next (11/21). For something lighter but no less distinctive, also check out Wisit Sasanatieng’s visually dazzling, wonderfully idiosyncratic Thai western, Tears of the Black Tiger, which screens during MoMA’s Fortissimo series this Friday (11/11) and the following Thursday (11/17).