Docbox Books

Wu Wenguang, ed. Document: Xianchang (“Document: The Scene”)

Tianjin: Tianjin Institute of Social Sciences, 2001. ISBN: 7-80563-855-1
Wong Ain-ling

A friend who is now working in Beijing brought me a new book by Wu Wenguang when he came back to Hong Kong recently. It is the first in a series entitled Document, published in 1999 by the Tianjin Institute of Social Sciences. The Chinese title is Xianchang (meaning “the scene”). As an important figure in independent filmmaking in China, this book reflects the gradual changes of Wu Wenguang’s concept of documentary filmmaking.

The book is comprised of seven chapters, each documenting the lives and works of artists and non-artists, who, if anything, all share the common trait of choosing a non-mainstream means of expression. For each artist chosen, Wu includes the written text of the work in focus (complimented by photos) as well as an in-depth interview of the artist conducted by Wu himself. For example, the chapter on documentary film Yinyang (1997) includes an abridged version of the script based on the finished film and an interview with its director Kang Jianning. Likewise, the chapter on the film Xiao Wu (1997) includes a version of the script bearing notes on modifications made during shooting as well as interviews with both its writer/director Jia Zhangke and Gu Zheng, a member of Jia’s creative team. I saw Kang Jianning’s earlier documentary Sand and Sea (“Sha yu hai”) some five or six years ago. The images are so beautiful that they are close to obscene. The vastness, emptiness and desolation of the landscape remind one of the early works of Chen Kaige. Here in this interview on Yinyang, his method of filming comes through with a clarity that is almost obvious. Unlike most documentary filmmakers who like to adhere to handheld cameras, Kang sticks to his tripod. Apart from a few exceptional occasions, he fixed his camera to the tripod and filmed with great stability. This stability (or immobility), he explains, is inherent to the lifestyle of the people living in the mountain villages of Ningxia. Nothing much ever happens there. Like all farmers, they are at the mercy of nature, perhaps all the more there as it rarely rains and hailstorms strike at the most unwelcome moments. Moments like harvest time. They can only sit and wait. As Kang puts it, “If you are there, you’ll feel that nothing moves, there are no cars, leaves don’t sway, even domestic animals just lie on their stomachs.” Their notion of time is thus very different from that of city folks and Kang’s documentary tries to abide by their rhythm.

The chapter on Jia Zhangke and his first feature Xiao Wu, on the other hand, is particularly enlightening in the sense that his films manifest an urgent desire to relate to the immediate reality, so much so that he chooses to bypass the norms of academic filmmaking so predominant in the Beijing Film Academy at the time. Most fifth-generation filmmakers who initially set out to rebel against the kind of academicism of post-1949 Chinese cinema have ultimately fallen within the confines of academism themselves. It is thus this urgency that links Jia more to the crudity of independent documentary filmmaking as represented by Wu Wenguang and his peers rather than “elitist revolutionary” families, are more concerned with big issues like History with a capital “H” and the essence of Chinese culture, Jia, Wu and their generation (not in terms of age but of sensitivity) obviously find greater affinity with the lives of ordinary folks today.

In Jia’s interview, he mentioned his passion for breakdancing and his urge “to see the world” during his teenage years. At the age of eighteen, he joined a vagrant troupe touring around the country performing breakdancing on the road. His second feature film Platform (1999) is in fact based on this very unique experience of his. At this point, it is interesting to note that Wu’s latest documentary, Jianghu (1999), is also about the lives of vagrant performers. In fact, the last chapter of this book is the documentation of the story of five members of the Dapeng Troupe as told by themselves, all of whom have been filmed by Wu’s new toy—a DV camera. This brings us back, to the original conception of this book, Document. In the postscript, Wu divides his documentary filmmaking into two distinct stages: the pre-1995 period when documentary filmmaking involves a whole team of people and a well defined subject matter; the post-1997 period when he acquired his first DV camera and discovered a newfound liberty. The camera is now the equivalent of a pen; he can now “jot” down anything anytime, as in a diary. This book is the fruit of some of his “notes,” his encounters with artists and ordinary folks. Instead of editing the materials into a film or films, he transcribes them into written texts. But why written texts instead of images? Is it the abundance and randomness of images in the new age which eventually renders them inaccessible? From documentary filmmaking to editing a book with a documentary filmmaking approach, Wu has evoked more questions than ever. If we want to take a closer look at contemporary Chinese cinema, this is perhaps the scene where things happen.


Wong Ain-ling
A former programmer for the Hong Kong Arts Centre and Hong Kong International Film Festival. Writes regularly articles on film for Hong Kong Economic Journal and is now research officer at the Hong Kong Film Archive. Editor of Fei Mu, Poet Director and author of Xiyuan.

Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall with Brigitte Berg, ed.
Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé
Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, co-published with Brico Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-262-52318-3
Hanna Rose Shell

Judging from the recent proliferation of bland nature documentaries, natural history, filmmaking, anarchism and the avant-garde might seem to have little in common. But look back into the history of surrealist science film and you will be pleasantly surprised. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1980s, Jean Painlevé shocked audiences with his subversive natural historical, medical and astronomical films. This transgressive science and nature filmmaker produced films featuring subjects such as the erotic life of octopi, male birthing among seahorses and plastic surgery procedures. Juxtaposing bizarre flora and fauna against peculiarly human mannerisms, Painlevé’s version of the “nature doc” captivated audiences by blending documentary and fiction, horror and sentimentality, science and entertainment.

The son of a French mathematician and Prime Minister, Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) was a man of myriad talents. Though often overlooked by film historians, he directed over two hundred science and nature films over the course of a career (as actor, curator producer and writer, as well as director) that spanned the twentieth century. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Painlevé was active in the Surrealist and avant-garde movements, part of a community that included Jean Vigo, Antonin Artaud, Rene Clair, Luis Bunuel and Sergei Eisenstein. In Painlevé’s films, celluloid visions of nature merge with curious scientific practices and inventive musical scores. In films that are alternately fierce, funny and sexy, natural wonders of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms dance across the screen.

Science is Fiction, edited by Marina McDougall and Andy Masaki Bellows, is an engrossing first retrospective of this innovative filmmaker. Combining biographical and critical essays, primary documents, film stills and photographs, the volume is a cabinet of historically resonant curiosities. At the same time as Science is Fiction is a much-needed introduction to Painlevé’s oeuvre, it also unveils strange natural worlds, providing a window into the history of nature and science filmmaking.

After an astute introduction by editor Marina McDougall, Brigitte Berg’s biographical essay delineates Painlevé’s life story e itself a tale of the convergence of scientific and artistic practice. In fact, Painlevé turned to filmmaking after receiving years of Sorbonne training in medicine, biology and zoology. Seven years before completing his first film, Stickleback Egg: From Fertilization to Hatching in 1928, he had become the youngest person ever to give a paper to the Academie des Sciences, at age twenty-one. Throughout her account, Berg successfully places Painlevé’s developing career in a larger cultural, political and cinematic context.

Ralph Rugoff’s “Fluid Mechanics,” a critical analysis of Painlevé’s filmmaking practices, nicely complements Berg’s biographical piece. Rugoff analyzes Painlevé’s filmmaking in terms of notions of hybridity, sublimity and the uncanny. In his films, Painlevé presents natural subjects as animal-human or male-female hybrids. For example, in a brief essay accompanying his film The Sea Horse, Painlevé described the animal as “a victim of contradictory forces centering around a surprising fact: giving birth is the male’s act” (p.xiii). In “Fluid Mechanics,” Rugoff argues that such hybrid animal forms induce in viewers experiences of the uncanny. At its core, Rugoff contends, Painlevé’s cinema involves a subversive anthropomorphism radically different from the banal and sentimental Disney anthropomorphism prevalent today. Through juxtapositions of the subversive and the banal, films “proceed according to an alternating rhythm of seduction and repulsion, as we are invited to identify with a particular aspect of a creature, only to have it revealed a moment later just how monstrously different this other life form actually is” (p.51).

In addition to critical and biographical essays, documents written by Painlevé and his more-celebrated admirers provide a glimpse into Painlevé’s world beneath the sea and at the cinema. André Bazin’s “Science Film: Accidental Beauty,” along with Leo Sauvage’s “Institute in the Cellar,” describe Painlevé’s Institut des Films Scientifiques (Institute of Scientific Cinema), which he founded in 1930 to promote the distribution of science films. In his 1947 review essay, Bazin lauds science film as providing “the secret key to this universe where supreme beauty is identified at once with nature and chance” (p.146). Bazin also highlights film’s ability to both popularize scientific knowledge and perpetuate scientific practice.

Painlevé’s own writings—a variety of which are included in the volume—describe the rewards and hazards of being a science filmmaker. In “Mysteries and Miracles of Nature,” he questions the motivations of the science filmmaker, as well as of the artist and scientist. In “The Castration of the Documentary,” Painlevé laments the demise of the pure documentary. “Scientific Film” concerns the emergence of science and nature documentary practice. Meanwhile, his witty advice to aspiring filmmakers in “The Ten Commandments” includes the still resonant “You will not show monotonous sequences without perfect justification” (p.159).

Of course, a collection on such a prolific filmmaker would not be complete without copious visual aides. And in this regard, the reader will not be disappointed. Science is Fiction presents a splendid visual exhibition, as well as verbal exposition. The volume includes a plethora of excellently reproduced photographs drawn from various archival sources. In addition, since many readers will not have had the opportunity to view Painlevé’s cinematic oeuvre, the editors have included a set of photograms—chronologically arranged stills and intertitles from eleven of his most celebrated films. These photogram sequences exhibit Painlevé’s aesthetic and narrative sensibility, enabling the reader to imaginatively occupy the position of film viewer.

In sum, Science is Fiction is a welcome edition for those obsessed by natural and cinematic wonders of all kinds. The well-produced collection provides an eclectic entrance into the life and work of one of film’s forgotten stars. At the same time, the volume exposes a surrealistically rendered world of animated gems. As is fitting for a work put together by exemplary curators and scholars, Science is Fiction serves as a veritable museum and a portable treasure trove that, once opened, reveals science as art and art as science, while challenging entrenched notions of both humanity and film history.


Hanna Rose Shell
A doctoral candidate at Yale University in American Studies, focusing on visual culture and science studies. Her articles on natural history, photography and filmmaking can be found in recent issues of Smithsonian Magazine.