China behind the headlines: Lou Ye and the vitality of Chinese independent cinema

Canadians are daily inundated with news reports concerning the “rise of China,” as visions of that country’s latest economic mega-project flood our television screens. Universities and governments have flocked to China, both literally and figuratively, producing mountains of discourse concerning the new “global superpower” and how Canada should interact with it.

Yet how can an average Canadian reach behind the shiny images of soaring skyscrapers and booming assembly lines to gain a sense of everyday life in the country? How have average Chinese men and women experienced the massive economic transformations they have lived through? When people ask these questions, I tell them time and again: watch Chinese independent cinema.

Suzhou River's Lyrical, Gritty Intesnity
2000’s Suzhou River

There is a vast visual archive right in front of us, produced by filmmakers over the last 20 years, which provides an invaluable source for understanding the lived experience that has defined China in these tumultuous times. Beyond the glowing news reports and scholarly monographs, cinema has best captured the textures and quotidian tragedies of life in China since economic reforms began. Enter Lou Ye, one of the most important and controversial directors working in the world today. Lou’s films are electrifying and alive, made with both finely crafted skill and a palpable urgency.  His breakout hit was the internationally acclaimed neo-noir Suzhou River (2000), a tale of obsession and memory set amidst a gritty industrial district in Shanghai. The film centers around the disappearance of Mudan, a young girl whose vanishing haunts two men at the margins of Shanghai’s urban morass.

Suzhou River presents to us a vision of that city that could not be farther away from the regime’s glowing tourist propaganda. Grey, polluted, and crumbling, the river district is a haven for young hoods, desperate bar girls, and lost souls. Lou captures these alienated subjects in roving handheld shots that possess both a gritty realism and an aching, lyrical intensity. Jumping around in time, deftly switching narrative perspectives, and foiling any unified interpretation of the events before us, Lou’s second film remains a revelation.

Desire and Politics in 2006's Summer Palace
2006’s Summer Palace

Lou continued his path-breaking aesthetic explorations through the 2000s, providing us with a smoky re-imagining of the Japanese colonial period in 2003’s Purple Butterfly. His 2006 film Summer Palace got Lou a 5 year ban on filmmaking from the Chinese government. That film, a wildly erotic examination of desire and politics in 1989 Beijing, is one of the very few Mainland films to openly depict the Tiananmen Square protests. Despite the regime’s censorship, a countless number of Chinese viewers have seen the movie in pirated form, increasing their knowledge about the democratic potentials of a crucial moment of history that has been erased by the state’s information machine. Defying censors, Lou has made three more films since the ban and doesn’t appear to be quitting anytime soon. Where Lou goes next in his career is an exciting prospect for international moviegoers. His genre-breaking, dazzlingly sensuous films open a window into a China that is far more real, and far more complex, than the glossy propaganda in which Chinese officials so willingly traffic. For that reason alone, he deserves the grateful attention of moviegoers in every country.

About the author

Mark McConaghy

A doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto, Mark McConaghy researches aesthetics, politics, and the dynamics of cultural change. He is co-editor of The Fourteenth Floor, a collaborative space for cultural and political critique.

By Mark McConaghy