I've been taking advantage of the London Film Festival to keep up my research on what's going on in contemporary Chinese culture. I saw two films at the ICA on Tuesday. The first, The Search, is from Tibet, and is interesting in a slightly academic way, as it deals with traditional theatre forms. It's about a director who is casting a film of the traditional opera Prince Drime Kunden. This is a fascinating legend, about a prince who gives away all sorts of things to the poor, including his own eyes. There's a lovely Jesus of Montreal-type moment when this is paralleled with modern medical donations (of which more anon) - but overall I found the film a bit underpowered, considering the depth of the culture and the magnificence of the landscape.
Feast of Villains, on the other hand, is an amazing piece of work. This is a very contemporary, urban film, about a young working-class man who is trying to get money to help his sick father be treated. He sells a kidney, illegally, and is ripped off by the dealer. What I found extraordinary was the degree of frankness with which this film, directed by the edgy indie Pan Jianlin, deals with some of the nastier aspects of contemporary Chinese society. The amorality on show is palpable - with criminal gangs and corruption in the system at every turn. It shows bribery, it shows insane bureaucracy, and even the "positive" aspects like increased wealth and glamorous bars are exposed as fronts for crime and prostitution. I had been worried that our productions might be felt to be showing too much of this - now I am far less concerned. If this film got past the censor, then our work, which is actually very positive about Chinese culture, shouldn't have any problem (in theory at least)! There's one moment when a criminal mastermind explains to his Japanese client that the government's human rights policy is making it much harder to get organs from executed criminals - and this is the only sign that the film comes from the supposedly repressive PRC. As so often, the Western view is proved wrong - or at least too simple.
But just because the film is edgy and honest didn't make it popular in China. I get talking to a Chinese film buff, who tells me "He got panned" (I don't think the pun was intended). Maybe it's not so much what the censor says, as what people want to believe about their society that counts. All the more reason why I need to make sure the Chinese characters are very sympathetic and recognisable, before we take them on complex journeys.
Oddly, the film which has so far reminded me most of our own work is actually from Palestine. Called Ajami, it's a brilliant interweaving of stories from Palestinian and Jewish families, full of surprising coincidences and moments of shock which make you realise how everybody in that society is locked in to a web of violence - whether they like it or not.