Chinese Indies in Shibuya: An Incomplete Diary of the Chinese Independent Film Festival in Tokyo 2013

Ma Ran (Graduate School of Letters, Nagoya University)

My hectic two-day trip to Tokyo from November 30th to December 1st 2013 was split between two exciting film festivals: the 14th Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival at Yurakucho (in the neighborhood of Ginza, Yurakucho itself was once known for its clustering cinema theaters in the postwar decades) and the 4th Chinese Independent Film Festival in Tokyo (中国インディペンデント映画祭; or 东京中国独立电影展; held between November 30th and December 13th 2013, short as CIFFT henceforth) in Shibuya’s unique 4-storey cement building known as KINOHAUS—this year’s CIFFT was held at the mini film theater Auditorium on the 2nd floor, while the building also houses two other mini film theaters on the 3rd and 4th floor respectively (Eurospace & Cinevera), with the highly-celebrated training ground for future Japanese filmmakers, the Film School of Tokyo (Eiga Bigakko) located on the underground floor.

CIFFT & Dashu
CIFFT was founded by Nakayama Hiroki (中山大树), who is often endearingly called “Dashu” or “Big Tree” by his Chinese friends (owing to the Chinese characters of his name)—in 2008. Chiba-born Nakayama speaks Northern-China accented Mandarin, and rumor has it that before he wholly devoted himself to Chinese independent cinema-related activities, Nakayama was running some lucrative trading business and had to frequently travel between China and Japan. According to his reminiscences, in 2006 Nakayama became fascinated by Chinese independent films he saw at Tokyo FILMeX (which was founded in 2000, and which highlights independent cinema from Asia and promotes promising Japanese filmmakers) and some Yunfest documentary movies screened at Tokyo, as part of Yamagata Documentary Film Festival’s touring events. Then he decided to fly to China, trying to reaching out to Chinese indie filmmakers, and participating in independent film festivals held at Songzhuang and other locales, where he discovered many more great independent films and started to envision having a Chinese indie-oriented film festival of his own at Tokyo. Since 2008, Nakayama has spent most of his time in China working solely on Chinese indie cinema; after several years working with the Li Xianting Film Fund (I can still remember working together with him at Songzhuang in the summer of 2010, when the International Film Festival Rotterdam launched its “Raiding China” programme, bringing some African indie filmmakers to Beijing to shoot films, where I worked as their interpreter), currently Nakayama also coordinates and organizes exhibition events for Japanese independent films within China, touring around cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Chengdu and Guangzhou. He told me that audiences show great interest in these Japanese indies as well.

CIFFT was originally launched as an annual event which also toured Osaka (collaborating with a locally-based independent film production-distribution entity, Planet Plus One), Kobe (western Japan) and Nagoya (central Japan). However, under huge financial pressure after its first two years, Nakayama decided to convert the festival into a biennale event, with the third festival taking place in 2011 and the Osaka screenings terminated (according to Nakayama, the box office of these nationwide touring screenings might not have been successful as expected). Financially speaking, CIFFT is largely funded by Nakayama himself, with occasional donation and rental fees from individuals and social entities such as universities. But box office revenues recoup only half of the festival’s running costs. At the same time, despite the support from volunteers, Nakayama points out that essentially he has to work single-handedly in coordinating and contacting filmmakers, distribution companies, venue providers and so forth.

Screening Contemporary China

Against all odds, CIFFT’s programme has gradually expanded. For its initial edition eight Chinese independent films were screened in total, with two indie filmmakers Ying Liang (Taking Father Home, 2005; The Other Half, 2006) and Zhao Ye (Mawujia, 2006) present to meet the audience at Tokyo. For the 4th edition, however, 14 films were screened during its two week span, while most filmmakers willingly showed up at the Shibuya theater (I personally met Yang Jin, Zhang Lu and Qiu Jiongjiong). The 4th CIFFT has four major categories: a “Fiction” programme screening features from Yang Jin (Don’t Expect Praise, 2012), Li Ruijun (Fly with the Crane, 2012), Yang Lina (Longing for the Rain, 2012), Liu Shu (Lotus, 2012), Huang Ji (Egg and Stone, 2012) and Peng Tao (The Cremator, 2012); a “Documentary” section showcasing documentaries by Qiu Jiongjiong (Madame, 2010), Wu Wenguang (Treatment, 2010) and Xu Tong (Shattered, 2011); a Zhang Lu retrospective (3 films); and various special screenings (Wu Wenguang’s Fuck Cinema and Xu Tong’s Fortune Teller).

Understandably, subtitling Chinese films has been a major challenge for this under-resourced festival. It is said that the subtitling, as the most time-consuming task to accomplish for Nakayama and his team of volunteers, often takes three months to be finalized. Working with experienced volunteer translators who could work independently with subtitle editing software, Nakayama also hires professional translators to proof read. He himself will finish the final steps to guarantee the quality of the subtitles, linguistically and visually, given that Japanese subtitles usually have a different layout.

Nakayama tells me that his criteria for film selection is based on whether a film reflects contemporary Chinese society; he wants his Japanese audience to see a China which they have not yet “witnessed” or “experienced”. For him, although China and Japan have been intricately entwined both as two nations and cultural bodies, mutual understanding between ordinary Chinese and Japanese is inadequate. Then the festival itself is motivated by the desire to establish Sino-Japan connections at a grassroots level, where communication is greatly valued and prioritized. Hence throughout the years, CIFFT has alternated routine Q&A sessions with Chinese independent cinema-themed discussion roundtables or events of similar nature in its programme (sometimes collaborating with universities), where Japanese film professionals (independent filmmakers, translators, scholars and festival programmers) and Chinese filmmakers can honestly dialogue and exchange ideas with each other. This year’s CIFFT, for instance, arranged talk sessions between Beijing-based indie filmmaker Otsuka Ryuji (who collaborated with his Chinese wife Huang Ji in the latter’s debut film, the Rotterdam Tiger Award winner in 2012, Egg and Stone) and Japanese filmmaker Suzuki Takuji (A Band Rabbit and a Boy, 2013), while in another session film scholar/ Tokyo International Film Festival’s programmer Ishizaka Kenji and film translator Akiyama Tamako took up the topic of Wu Wenguang’s independent documentary filmmaking.

As regards the audience, based on their reactions during the Q&As, both the Chinese guests and I have that impression that they were quite familiar with the Chinese language and current Chinese sociocultural issues: Nakayama suggested one third of them understood Chinese, some of whom had been following the CIFFT for years. Of the some 2000 people visiting the festival this year, the majority were middle-aged or senior citizens; younger audience members were noticeably fewer in number, a phenomenon not peculiar to CIFFT (the director of FILMeX, Hayashi Kaneko, also shared his concern that youth audience size has is decreased in recent years). That said, however, I myself got to know two fervent young supporters of Chinese independent cinema via CIFFT, Noriko and Anna. Though neither girls was from a film studies or filmmaking background, both quit their jobs and started to work with cinema. Noriko joined a new Japanese film magazine called Neoneo [] that is dedicated to documentary film, while Anna, after studying at the Film School of Tokyo, started her job at the National Film Center at Tokyo. In 2011 Noriko and Anna’s cinéphile group Jogai Cinema (literally, Off-track Cinema) also collaborated with CIFFT, holding their own small discussion event series on Chinese independent cinema called 轟轟烈烈 (Go with a Bang).

My memory of my first (hectic) trip to CIFFT is not solely about films. Independent musician Xiao He (who composed the music for Yang Jin’s Don’t Expect Praise) discovered there was no appropriate power transformer for his live performance as part of the opening for CIFFT hours before the event. Failing to find one anywhere in Shibuya, we then had to hop on the Yamanote line to Akihabara in order to purchase the ultimate right magic box. This heavy box was finally found, but I had to run for my Shikansen back to Nagoya before Xiao He started his gig. I was told afterwards that the transformer was later on signed and presented as a gift to a lucky audience member Of course I knew in my luggage I was also carrying a gift from Nakayama, his freshly-published monograph《現代中国独立電影》 (Contemporary Chinese Independent Cinema, published by Japanese publishing house Kodansha).

The CIFFT site can be found here (Japanese only)

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